Nostalgia can be a powerful emotion in film, and a dangerous force. Simply hearing the sound of an old projector or seeing an old-fashioned boxy aspect ratio and a frame with rounded edges is enough to evoke it. With The Artist poised to dominate award season this year, filmmakers and audiences seem more interested than ever in exploring—or perhaps exploiting—the effects of nostalgia. Its detractors have accused The Artist of wielding nostalgia like a weapon, a technique guaranteed to produce an intended affect, but its success proves there is still room for a thoughtful and even humorous examination of how film creates such a strong, romantic connection to its own past.
While The Artist is a rare—though not unprecedented—contemporary silent film, a full 41 directors previously explored the issue of nostalgia in 1995’s Lumière and Company, a collection of shorts produced to celebrate the centennial of the Lumière Brothers’ first ever films. The filmmakers were challenged to use the unmistakable aesthetics of the Lumières’ camera and the constraints of an approximately 50-second running time to do something new, or perhaps old. Some directors in the anthology actively combat the feeling of nostalgia for an older cinema. Patrice Laconte, for example, recreates the famous Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, using the same camera placement and framing to photograph a highly modern train rushing past the station. Merchant and Ivory use the look of the Lumières’ primitive camera to lure the viewer into a feeling of nostalgia, photographing the Eiffel Tower before dollying to reveal a McDonald’s invading the scene. Another batch of filmmakers, however, embraces the effect of nostalgia, exemplified by a charming and creative short from Claude Lelouch.
Lelouch’s film is a tongue-in-cheek gag, a nod to our imagination of the era of cinema that the Lumières’ aesthetic evokes. Two lovers passionately embrace as they swivel on a rotating platform. Behind them, rotating at a different speed, we slowly realize, is a huge line of directors, cameras and lights, all working feverishly to capture the action. Most obviously, his film is a play on the famous rotating kiss in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. In that film, Hitchcock created a surreal effect form the confluence of spinning platforms, heightening, even to an artificial degree, the romanticism of the kiss. Lelouch’s short slyly uses our knowledge of that iconic shot, and places the emphasizes instead on the film making process, its artifice and the ability that film has always had to generate a powerful feeling of romantic and nostalgia out of thin air.
Lelouch also neatly rises to the challenges facing the Lumières, and any filmmaker working under the limitations of such a brief running time, giving his film a beginning, middle and end and constructing a tight visual gag in under 50 seconds. It begins with the lovers alone, spinning absurdly as romantic music swells. Slowly a cameraman comes into view with a demanding director by his side. The platform continues to spin, revealing more and more directors, each making his own film. But the crew evolves, dropping period costume for more contemporary garb as the cameras becoming increasingly modern, ending with Lelouch himself operating a contemporary camera. The film moves, then, from 1895 to 1995, highlighting the changes in cinema since its inception, and, of course, the feeling of nostalgia that remains, ultimately suggesting that cinema’s purest power hasn’t changed at all.