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The high cost of Hollywood nostalgia

Thirty years after its release, ‘A River Runs Through It’ stands out as a rarity: a film that finds meaning in the past without yearning to restore it.

Craig Sheffer and Brad Pitt as brothers in the 1992 movie "A River Runs Through It."COLUMBIA PICTURES

Thirty years have passed since Robert Redford adapted Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It” for the screen, parlaying fly fishing and flinty masculinity, of all things, into a cinematic touchstone. Part of the film’s appeal was that it cut against the cultural zeitgeist. At that early ’90s moment of frenetic globalization after the fall of the Soviet empire, the film took audiences back to a bygone age: a frontier space of horse-drawn wagons, honky-tonks, brothels, and strapping lumberjacks. Director Redford’s opening scenes even mimicked Ken Burns’s documentary style of pairing the haunting sound of plaintive violins with slow zooms on black-and-white photos, evoking the past with almost piercing poignancy.

But even as a period film, “A River Runs Through It” undermines the Hollywood ritual of romanticizing an Arcadian lost world of rustic innocence. For more than a century, Hollywood has tapped the power of nostalgia to help define our shared sense of history. So when a landmark film sabotages the formula, it’s worth asking why.

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The dark side

Nostalgia, psychologists tell us, is a double-edged sword. It’s an emotion bound up in the longing for an idyllic, simpler time, but freighted, too, with the painful knowledge of its irrevocable loss. Some experts regard nostalgia as an antidote to loneliness and despair: In periods of hardship, nostalgia regrounds us in the familiar and conjures a remembered sense of belonging and camaraderie. But the emotion can also lead to a rut of maladaptive behaviors: hoarding, tracking exes on social media, or chasing youth with faux-rejuvenating surgeries, to mention only a few of the more benign.

Nostalgia was originally regarded as a disorder by the 17th-century Swiss physician Johannes Hofer, who coined the term after observing that war veterans’ debilitating mental ailments seemed rooted in their yearning to return home — nostos in Greek, and the associated pain, algos. Classic Hollywood was shrewdly keyed into the insight that nostalgia flares up as a defense mechanism when life goes off the rails — think of Norman Bates pinning on a wig to resurrect his mother in “Psycho” or Norma Desmond entombed in delusions of her silent-era film success in “Sunset Boulevard.”

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But it’s in the political realm where things get interesting. Here, nostalgia empowers demagogues to conjure an idealized past stripped of complexity and then scapegoat the vulnerable to explain the mess of modernity. Instead of inspiring hope-driven projects of innovation and discovery, nostalgia pushes us toward fantasies of restoration: the Islamic State’s project to restore the caliphate, the deglobalizing Brexit debacle, Russia’s reawakened ambitions for imperial conquest, and, most obviously, Donald Trump’s mantra “Make America Great Again,” which led directly to the imperative, in the former president’s own words, to root out “the sick, sinister, and evil people from within our own country.” Nostalgia, in its backward quest for purity and simplicity, can sharpen antagonisms, gin up fears of invasion, and set off stampedes of retribution.

The power of nostalgia to foment political persecution is visible in the flagrant racism of some of the most iconic American films. The release of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 swelled a moribund Ku Klux Klan to 6 million members. The movie promulgated a myth of white purity under siege by immigrants, Catholics, and, most of all, Black Americans, and the KKK then carried out terrorist campaigns, including cross burnings and lynchings, to realize that ideal of white supremacy.

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Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel “Gone with the Wind,” and the film that appeared three years later, invoked, with dewy sentimentality, the antebellum South as an agrarian, courtly world of cotton, cotillions, and gentility, harmoniously organized in a benevolent caste system. This simple, beautiful world gets crushed before our eyes by Northern aggressors and General Sherman’s army of invaders, who strip and burn plantations to the ground to make way for a further invasion by greedy carpetbaggers. To restore the luster of her plantation home, Scarlett O’Hara has to degrade herself by becoming a scrappy business owner and beating the Northerners at their own game. As she sacrifices her nobility and innocence, audiences are led to mourn a lost Eden — a civilization that is gone with the wind. The film’s nostalgia proved chillingly effective at obscuring the brutality of plantation slavery and at fueling scapegoating and resentment in the segregated era of the late 1930s and for decades after.

Vivien Leigh, left, and Hattie McDaniel in the 1939 film "Gone With the Wind."

Movies that romanticize the past also tend to malign the hard-fought struggles that extended political equality. “Forrest Gump” is a revealing example. Here, morality is reducible to the homespun folk wisdom that life is like a box of chocolates, while the narrative stigmatizes forces pushing for political reform. The civil rights movement gets epitomized by a Black Panther member’s outburst of domestic battery. Hippies are drug-snorting hedonists nihilistically teetering on the edge of suicide. The sexual revolution produces the scourge of AIDS. The message appears to be that there was a beloved past underpinned by basic decency and familial love, values that were polluted by the decadent era of sex, drugs, and political agitation.

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Matthew Leggatt, a senior lecturer in literature at the University of Winchester in the UK, says that part of the allure of nostalgia is that it allows us to revert to childhood, with the freedom of feeling unburdened by moral responsibility — or by the obligation to build a more decent future. “Cultural nostalgia,” he says, “doesn’t let us look ahead with an eye toward innovation and utopian aspirations.”

“A River Runs Through It” offers evidence that a more honest reckoning is possible.

Confronting the past

Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical novella was rejected by a string of New York publishing houses — one editor complained tartly, “It has trees in it” — before being picked up as the first work of fiction ever published by the University of Chicago Press. Redford’s film adaptation arranges Maclean’s reminiscences into a bildungsroman energized by brotherly rivalry. Studious Norman, played by Craig Sheffer, and enigmatic, golden-child Paul, portrayed by a luminescent Brad Pitt, test each other’s mettle and absorb lessons in godliness and fly casting from their stern Presbyterian father on the Big Blackfoot River in Montana.

And though it does have trees in it, the movie deftly illuminates the historical backdrop, too. When the Great War empties Missoula of lumberjacks, 16-year-old Norman joins the US Forest Service, toiling alongside men “as tough as their ax handles,” and then two years later travels 3,000 miles east for an education at Dartmouth in Romantic poetry. Returning to Montana still in search of a vocation, Norman falls for Jessie, a Jazz Age flapper rebelling against the repression of Prohibition. Meanwhile, the impending financial calamity of the Great Depression creates an undercurrent of foreboding.

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What sets “A River Runs Through It” apart from other films energized by nostalgia is that its driving ambition is not a fantasy of restoration but a project of reckoning. Norman isn’t seeking idyllic relief in the past. He wants to find answers in it, as though he were running his fingers over a scar and brooding over its mystery. The inscrutable event he is driven to understand is the murder of his brother. Norman knows only that Paul, caught up in gambling debts and mob reprisal, was beaten to death with the butt of a gun in a back alley. It’s the pointlessness of his fate that haunts Norman.

On a deeper level, though, the circumstances of Paul’s murder are beside the point. Norman’s exploration of his memories is actually a searching inquiry into his own failures: why he neglected to help his brother and — even more urgent — why he failed to truly know and understand his own kin. He comes to realize the limitations of that flinty masculinity they absorbed from their father. Norman, we see, is grasping after truths that have persistently eluded him. By facing up to his failures, he seeks to gain genuine self-knowledge.

His retrospective self-criticism also unlocks Norman’s ability to perceive the systemic abuses he witnessed. Paul’s girlfriend, a formidable Cheyenne woman named Mable, gets stonily ignored, gawked at, turned away from bars, and verbally harassed by the white folk of Missoula. They treat her — an Indigenous person — as an intruder and doubly resent Paul for cavorting across racial lines. Norman could easily have clutched onto the easy answer (which would have been typical for a Hollywood movie) that her influence defiled and undid Paul. His choice to instead face up to his own cowardice marks the difference between historical accountability and historical whitewashing.

Now, 30 years on from “A River Runs Through It,” today’s entertainment culture is awash in nostalgia. The franchise deluge has drowned the cineplex and streaming services with torrential iterations of “Star Wars,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the DC Extended Universe, live-action Disney rehashes, and scores of other reboots — each replete with meta-references, Easter eggs, and hooks into crossover material. No property is too threadbare to be trotted out for another go.

“A River Runs Through It” reminds us, however, that quaint worlds structured by simple myths and familiar comforts are no substitute for the precious gift of self-knowledge.

Tom Joudrey is a Pennsylvania-based writer who covers politics and culture. Follow him on Twitter @TomJoudrey.