Of Our Time

The Role of Nostalgia in the Films of Todd Haynes



In his latest feature film, Wonderstruck, Haynes further explores nostalgia and ideals voiced in postmodernism in this tale of a young boy in 1977 and a young girl in 1927 journeying to New York City to search for one of their parents. The portion in 1977 is dripping in sentimentality and the same green hue that often defined Mildred Pierce and Carol. At times, this child-driven sense of wonder often mirrors the tone of a Steven Spielberg film sans science fiction. Cutting between this half and the half in 1927, Haynes turns the 1927 half of the film into a silent film in full black-and-white with a reliance upon the score from Carter Burwell to communicate emotion as in silent cinema. While the portion in 1927 may be far more in the vein of Haynes’ inclination to style his films after old school films such as Horror in Poison, Far from Heaven or Mildred Pierce, both it and the 1977 half of the film both embody Haynes’ desire to create nostalgia. For the portion in 1927, Haynes celebrates the stars of silent cinema by showing a film starring fictional star Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore) and later giving a glimpse of her rehearsing for a new play on Broadway. As young Rose (Millicent Simmonds) later leaves the theater after the film, Wonderstruck  – almost bittersweetly – shows a sign alerting patrons to the theater’s impending closure to allow for the installation of sound. The style of this portion of the film further communicates this nostalgia, as does the depiction of New York City. Not quite the bustling metropolis it would become, we see a local pharmacist stacking up pills in the window and Model T’s zipping by on the streets. At all times, Wonderstruck does not just embody 1920s New York, rather it becomes 1920s New York. Its small touches, its sounds, and its energy practically recreates the smell and feeling of being in New York in 1927. The same occurs in 1977 with Haynes ditching the quaint streets of New York for the insanity of the 1970s.

Scorching hot outside with men walking around shirtless to avoid the heat, wardrobes, hairstyles, and the design of the buildings, recreates 1970s New York. As in 1927, Haynes captures part of the aesthetic of 1970s cinema in New York as he eschews the romanticism of the city from the Golden Age of Hollywood and goes for the gritty toughness that defined 1970s New York in New Hollywood films such as The French Connection (1971). He depicts not the underbelly of society, but certainly the concrete jungle and grittiness of New York. Though this may not be the tone of the portion of the film – which is more in line with a film such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) – it nonetheless captures the aesthetic style of New York in the 1970s as a wilderness littered with poverty and abandoned buildings. Compared to the dreaminess of the 1920s, the harsh reality of the 1970s is demonstrated in a way that serves to emphasize the haven that is represented by the fantastical world hidden within the walls of the Museum of Natural History.

For both periods depicted, Wonderstruck reveals the misplaced notion of nostalgia for these eras. As Rose is sent running to avoid her strict father who forces her to assert herself and overcome her disability,deafness, and as Ben (Oakes Fegley) – who is also deaf – runs away following the death of his mother, Haynes juxtaposes the warm feelings instilled by memories of the past with hardship and tragedy. Even in arriving in New York and finding her mother, Rose learns that her mother is cruel and self-absorbed. Ben also struggles, unable to find his father, and spends much of his time hiding out in the museum.


Though Haynes loves silent cinema, and other avenues of nostalgia in Wonderstruck, these are all minor pursuits compared to the need for human connection in the eyes of Rose and Ben. Eventually finding people who make their lives more enjoyable, both characters are forced to learn that their love for a world in which they do not live – Rose’s love of film and Ben’s love of museums – are poor replacements for authentic human connection. As such, it is no surprise to see their timelines converge in 1977, reveling in the two finally being brought together and able to stare into the stars – which are, quite literally, representative of the past – from a distance, rather than rubbing shoulders with their stars (Rose meeting her mom and silent film idol Lillian Mayhew) or having to live through the past (Ben running around museums, knowing everything about the exhibits, and still mourning his mother’s death to the point it harms his current friendships) to find joy. In the world of Haynes, he understands the appeal of nostalgia just as he enjoys star-gazing. However, just as one would not wish to live on a star, one should not seek to live in the past or pretend to experience an ideal representation of a relationship or a holiday. To truly live in the past would involve reverting to old societal structures and living through experiences of homophobia, racism, and ignorance towards the disabled. Yet, nostalgia encourages people to long for those days without truly realizing the implications of their time traveling wish. As Haynes shows, it is best to remember the past from afar. Just as Veda Pierce is described in Mildred Pierce as a beautiful snake that people want to buy as a pet only to realize it is a dangerous snake that is best appreciated from a distance, Haynes believes nostalgia to be a similar beast. It is not a feeling that should color one’s appreciation of modern moments or create a lingering desire to travel in the past. The past is best left in the past with all focus and attention focused upon the future in order to rectify the wrongs of yesterday to create a better tomorrow.


In all of the aforementioned films, this creation of nostalgia is intended as a means of revisionism. With the case of Wonderstruck, this remains true as Haynes seeks to provide representation for deaf people in society – including the casting of Millicent Simmonds, who is deaf – via the film and tell their story in a way that does not turn them into a “disabled character” but rather one with different abilities. However, this is not the only pursuit in Wonderstruck. It, in the context of Haynes’ career, serves as the embodiment of what he has sought to do in his work. By taking all of the codes and elements of the eras of filmmaking and of America but putting his own twist on it, Haynes has applied his own creative touch and created own version of a museum. As stated in Wonderstruck, a museum is a cabinet of things put together by a curator who determines them to be significant. In the film, Ben is obsessed with museums and his time in these museums is often filled with great wonder. His own father is even revealed to have worked on exhibits and his grandmother similarly created exhibits for a different museum. In these characters, Haynes sees himself as a man who both puts together what should be in the museum of his filmography, but also serves as the creator of the exhibition. In this, he seeks to capture the spirit of his inspiration but with his own touches. For Haynes’ films, he alters and puts his own fingerprints alongside the creation of this feeling of nostalgia that so often marks his films. He creates a world of familiarity through these codes that elicit positive memories for audiences, but alters them in such a way that it alters one’s previous perceptions. His films transport audiences to a moment in time and allows us to see the people and places as they were in their natural habitat – just as a museum and an exhibit seek to do – while thematically dealing with social issues within that context. As such, for the museum that is the world of Todd Haynes, the exhibits serve as not just utilization of styles of films that he finds inspirational or that influenced his own filmmaking, but as an opportunity for those who were forgotten by nostalgia – the marginalized people of the world – to have their chance in the spotlight. It takes them out of the periphery and plants them firmly in the center.

Over the past few decades, film theorists have taken notice of the rise of nostalgia films. Taking a period setting a step further and opting to elicit some feeling of satisfaction, happiness, and a certain idyllic nature of a time gone-by, these nostalgia films present a world that never existed beyond the world of film and Hallmark postcards. It is a history that, in actuality, was a departure from the dream world presented in these highly commercialized and commodified nostalgia films. However, in the films of Todd Haynes, he only exhibits one world: the world of the under-represented. As a leader of the New Queer Cinema movement and deeply humanist filmmaker, Haynes opts to work within the confines of nostalgia films and classic Hollywood filmmaking styles, but takes the opportunity to revise these styles and techniques with a modern touch. Altering the themes and characters to reject the heteronormativity of the era, discounting the American dream and commercialized view of the American individual, and flashing a light on the dark corners of the past – racism, sexism, and homophobia – as a means to telling a story that brings the forgotten minorities to the forefront, Haynes’ films are ones that merely use nostalgia as a gateway to a Hollywood world before he tears down the facade. Haynes, in essence, rewrites film history by using his own worldview. His films exist as a brilliant juxtaposition of these tragic themes using the images and styles audiences often associate with fond memories. He ultimately forces audiences to confront issues they themselves have overlooked in the past and in the present as his films afford them the opportunity to view the world through a new lens: a lens that does not conform to glamorized misconceptions of nostalgia.

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