For well over a century, films have connected with audiences, indulging escapism and provoking thought. Movies are an obvious reflection of their time. From the superficial, like fashion and hairstyles, to the profound, like class and race, filmmakers’ choices create snapshots of the zeitgeist. The snapshots remain long after the world from which they came has moved on. Some movies come to define entire decades. Looking back, we get a chance to explore what these movies say about the past, as well as how we feel about the past. Some movies become relics of antiquated thinking because attitudes change. Others endure, either because of a timeless appeal or because they remain compatible with modern attitudes. Whether a film is beloved or rejected by history, examining why speaks volumes about the present and the past.
The New York City of Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver is bleak. There’s a sense of decay setting in all around, like society is rotting from the inside-out. Released in 1976, this film shows only flashes of what might be called life in the sunshine. Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) descends deeper into a bizarre malaise at the condition of the world, specifically of New York. Unease about the stability of ‘70s societal foundations is understandable. The Vietnam War opened a schism in the United States that had implications playing out for decades. The Watergate scandal forced the unprecedented resignation of a sitting president. Corruption, crime, and persistent tension as the Cold War dragged on combined to suggest America had lost its way, that the inevitability of American success was a lie.
Through Bickle, Scorsese connected with audience unease about the confusing mess the world had become. The difference, of course, is our reactions. We own our choices, the ways we respond to what the world seems to offer us. Bickle’s downward spiral, made famous in De Niro’s iconic, “You talking to me?” scene, is a path most people cannot imagine following, even those who might share his disgust with a world turned cruel. The path Travis Bickle walks down offers a measure of 1970s life and morality, but 2017 audiences can engage with him, walk his path, and take their own measure. Even in a very different world, audiences can connect with Bickle, picture themselves in his circumstances, and marvel at the deeply troubling choices he makes. Taxi Driver enjoys its status as a classic film because it balances specific and universal concerns, even if our view of the world is much brighter.
Standing in stark contrast to Taxi Driver is 1977’s Saturday Night Fever. This film lives in our memory as a cheesy disco love letter, replete in polyester and inescapably linked to the Bee Gees’ sonic snapshot of that time. Forgotten is the movie’s juxtaposition of disco glory with the struggles of city life—poverty and gangs (of a sort). Even the glory isn’t all that glorious, the film’s climax being a dance contest at a local club in Brooklyn. The film’s protagonist, Tony Manero (John Travolta), doesn’t dream of bumping into clouds in a Manhattan high rise. His dream? Making it to Staten Island. This kind of low-rent aspiration speaks to a decade in which optimism was scarce, yet the thin veneer of disco glamour is what we remember.
In the 40 years since its release, time has not been kind to Saturday Night Fever. Tony Manero, the character that made Travolta a superstar, was violent, more than a little racist, homophobic, and tried to rape a woman in the backseat of a car. Yikes. Sweet dance moves don’t absolve character flaws that deep, at least not by 2017 standards. Indeed, modern mores have shifted so far as to make this movie’s earnest exploration of ‘70s concerns seem quaint. Saturday Night Fever remains useful, if in a diminished capacity, as a milepost against which we can measure our own progress. We can look at this film’s casual racism and see progress, even amid 2017’s turbulent racial climate. We also get the opportunity to ask why we’ve chosen to remember only the feel-good elements of this movie. The uncomfortable and unfortunate answer is that the takeaway is largely defined by a perspective with the (white) luxury of not having to consider race.
By the mid-eighties, decay in the ‘70s had given way to decadence and a yearning for simpler times. As an exploration of attitudes through the decades, Back to the Future is something of a twofer. Through this 1985 Robert Zemeckis classic, we get a glimpse into 1980s ideas about ‘80s, along with its perspective on the ‘50s. By the ‘80s, a gleeful embrace of consumerism and a kind of unification through pop culture had set in. Still, there was a sense that the past was a simpler, idyllic time. This bears out when Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) marvels at low 1950s prices at a diner. This cute contrast ignores racial segregation that enveloped 1950s America. I get it, Back to the Future is a comedy, but the omission is telling. It tells us mainstream ‘80s attitudes about American life were essentially white attitudes. Selective recollection also strips away angst about tensions with the Soviets, the perception that the U.S. was losing the space race, and by extension, the Cold War. Where the ‘70s cast an uncomfortable spotlight on society’s shortcomings, the Pepsi Generation was all too eager to ignore the struggles of decades past.
The ascendance of hyper-capitalism had its critics. Oliver Stone’s 1987 movie Wall Street stands as a condemnation of that decade’s preoccupation with the pursuit of material wealth. Wall Street’s capitalist boogeyman, Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas) gives us the oft-repeated quote, though usually in this corrupted form, “Greed is good.” Time has a way of shaving off the nuance that drives a compelling exploration of ideas. Geeko’s creed is one that’s easy to vilify, predictably, so is Gekko. The missing nuance is deciding whether in resisting economic predators like Gekko, employing similar tactics yields the moral high ground. Asking if it’s okay to act immorally to further a noble cause is a complicated question with no easy answers.
In critiquing the excesses of financial gain untethered to laws or ethics, Stone ends up paradoxically exalting this pursuit. There’s nuance, of course, that paints wealth for its own sake as hollow and corrupting, but time isn’t friendly to nuance. The lasting impression of Wall Street isn’t so skewed that the modern takeaway lauds financial excesses; Wall Street is still remembered as a critique. The nuance we lose places Gekko as the villain, scrubbed of any hint of societal complicity. There are rules, Gekko broke them and gets caught, end of story. But that’s not the end of the story. Gekko no more created the world than any other individual did. Yet we each bear a broader responsibility to society. It is when good people recognize en masse the ways in which the weak are easy prey, and it’s allowed to happen, that we share complicity.
As fretting about ‘80s consumer excesses faded in the ‘90s, a new worry set in. The rapid pace of technological advance became the preoccupation du jour. The rise of computers, particularly as the Internet became widely accessible, and mobile phones disrupted familiar patterns of daily life. There were hints that technology was of concern even in the ‘80s. The wistful simplicity of the ‘50s in Back to the Future implies the complexity of the ‘80s was already a kind of burden. By the ‘90s, humanity had achieved sophistication sufficient to spur concerns that our abilities had exceeded prudence or justification. Throughout the ‘90s, movies like The Lawnmower Man (1992), Jurassic Park (1993), and The Matrix (1999) suggested that just because we can do something, doesn’t mean we should.
The million reasons why a dino-theme park could never really happen doesn’t render Jurassic Park’s central question moot. Here, the ‘90s expresses its fear that we might have exceeded our ability to control forces we had learned to harness. Just because we can clone dinosaurs, doesn’t mean we should. Looking back, these movies feel like a cinematic analog to the moments just before and just after a motorcycle rider realizes they’ve lost control. There’s exhilaration at pushing ability to the edge, partly because total calamity is always a possibility, though never expected. Then there’s the realization that something has gone very wrong, followed by the recognition that disaster is inevitable. Finally, what’s left is whether misfortune is only partial or tragically complete.
As enduring as this theme was in the ‘90s, the nature of its exploration shifted as the millennium neared. By the 1999 release of The Matrix, whether humanity was inviting ruin upon itself had been decided, and the answer was yes. In The Matrix, there’s no weighing of benefits against potential risks. Downfall by our own hand is a fait accompli, with the entire human race on Duracell duty. In this movie, we see the maturation of this idea, the sense in which it settled into our collective consciousness and affixed itself to our basic assumptions about life. We take for granted that we might cause our extinction, despite our obvious desire to avoid doing so. We take this for granted, but perhaps only in so much as we accept it as a premise for movies. The popularity and unconcerned adoption of AI home assistants from Google and Amazon suggest The Matrix isn’t remembered as a cautionary tale.
Why does any of this matter? It matters because the past is a kind of story we tell about ourselves. More than what we did, how we feel about what we and those who came before us did matters because it reveals the extent to which we’ve learned from our mistakes. We can choose to remember Tony Manero’s white polyester suit. Or, we can remember the nuance, acknowledging the protagonist’s deep moral failings. What we remember about these movies is a choice. These choices reflect who we are now, just as these movies reflect the eras from which they came. Maybe by ‘70s standards, Tony wasn’t explicitly racist or misogynistic. If that’s the case, American society in the ‘70s has to have been so, at least to a greater extent than we care to remember. This sort of exploration bears meaningful fruit by laying bare the bullshit we choose to see and gives us direction. We might not always know what to do, but at least we can look back and say, “I’m definitely not doing that.”