by Jason Sperb
Rutgers University Press, 2015
Nostalgia—that nondescript longing for the (constructed) past—tends to flourish in moments of transition. Yet, as Jason Sperb reminds us in his new book, Flickers of Film: Nostalgia in the Time of Digital Cinema, nostalgia is less about the past than the uncertain present and future. Indeed, his latest monograph examines the tendency among recent films to romanticize film’s technological and aesthetic past as a means of understanding the alternately liberating and disheartening move from film to digital cinema. Sperb expertly points out the rich ironies that exist within this nostalgia, not the least of which is the fetishization of film as a material object by “films” shot digitally. Through six chapters ranging from explorations of synthespians to digital exhibition to Wreck-It Ralph, Sperb manages to make the case not only for how nostalgia films allow us to historicize the contemporary period in film history but for how these films and the transition itself reflect the inner workings of late capitalism.
Of course, to achieve this goal, Flickers of Film draws upon Fredric Jameson’s work on both nostalgia films and pastiche. While such artistic practices obviously tap into a commercial effort to profit on viewers’ fondness for their own pasts (especially childhood), they often conceal the films’ reductive engagement with history. Accordingly, the material and industrial reality of the films often undercuts the moralizing espoused by the narrative itself. For example, as Sperb notes, Disney’s own corporate behavior obviously flies in the face of Wall-E’s sentimental promotion of sustainable consumption of resources. To analyze paratextual elements, Sperb complements Jameson with the production studies approach developed by John T. Caldwell. Drawing on behind-the-scenes lore disseminated through press materials, DVD fea-turettes, and media interviews, he shows how media producers understand their own efforts and how this understanding either willfully or unknowingly contradicts the messages espoused by their cultural products. In turn, Sperb draws upon industrial, textual, and discourse analyses of [End Page 131] the selected films to illustrate how nostalgia functions within the film, as well as in its marketing, promotion, reception, and consumption. Special attention is given to labor and economics: while digital cinema may praise earlier film practices and technologies, its cost- and time-saving capabilities have ushered in a new era of media production requiring a reduced workforce and novel expertise. As such, he ably illustrates the cultural and economic significance of nostalgia films in our current moment in both film and social history.
An argument such as this one has not only historiographic but also theoretical implications for our understanding of film, digital cinema, and the period that ushered in the movement from the former to the latter. Therefore, Flickers of Film necessarily tackles an impressive range of case studies that show the broad ramifications of this transition and, equally important, how we should approach it and why. The first chapter on virtual performances in films like Looker and Terminator: Salvation sets the stage for how one even talks about periods of change in film history. The new nostalgia movies—Hugo, The Artist, Midnight in Paris—are the focus of the second chapter, which contends that these films’ ro-manticization of film’s past clearly speaks to technological and industrial shifts currently taking place in Hollywood. In the third chapter, Sperb explores film preservation in the digital moment to illustrate film history’s ambivalent tension with its own past, as seen in his fascinating discussion of the restoration of A Trip to the Moon, in which the original was destroyed in order to preserve it digitally. One should rightfully ask, What do we preserve when we preserve a film, and what does that mean for how we write film history?
Earlier books by Jason Sperb include a book-length study of Disney’s controversial film Song of the South, so it comes as no surprise that Disney and its recent films play a large role in Flickers of Film. After all, few corporations have commodified nostalgia as well as Disney has...