Here’s the thing about period-piece nostalgia films.
They are never about the year they are set in. They are always about the year they are made.
Lucas’s American Graffiti was about the trauma of the Vietnam generation trying to evoke the time of innocence that was 1962. Linklater’s Dazed and Confused was about the uncertain confusion of identity in the early 1990s, not the mid 1970s.
Nostalgia, as Freud taught us, is rooted in melancholia. The inability to move on from the past to the present. We seek in the past the tools to resolve the present. We evoke the phantasms of the constructed origins of our traumas in the hopes that by replaying them, we can heal them.
Freud’s middle name was Schlomo. No, I’m not kidding.
And so it goes with the crappy films, too.
For some reason, I found myself watching 200 Cigarettes on HBO the other night. A large ensemble film about New Year’s Eve, 1981, but made in ’99, the film is supposedly a comedy. Instead it is a confused mish-mash of barely funny character stereotypes wandering around the East Village.
They do nothing. They say nothing.
And then the credits roll.
The ensemble cast is, however, if not impressive then certainly notable. Dave Chappelle. Janeane Garofalo. Paul Rudd. Ben Affleck. The younger Affleck with the high voice. A horrifically drugged Courtney Love (is that redundant?). Bob Sugar from Jerry McGuire. And the Goldie Hawn daughter right before her one-hit-wonder role as Penny Arcade in Almost Famous.
There were about ten other famous or mildly famous actors putzing around. Lost in a maze of New York Locations. Wandering by the camera desperately in search of a punchline.
No script for you.
The smelly putridity of the post-Clerks/Slacker indie walkabout permeates the stench of a lost 1990s malaise/slackerdom that, in the context of the decade that followed, stirs melancholia nonetheless.
Which is what gives the film a metatextual pathos.
Watching a collection of famous or soon-to-be-famous actors and comedians in the do-nothing 1990s desperately trying to invoke the post-punk dust of the Reagan revolution crisis of 1981 creates a doubling. Two layers of cultural reflection. One intentional. One acquired simply by the passage of time.
The title’s self-conscious stinkiness is the cherry on the cocktail of indiefilm New York rich-kids-with-too-much-time Gen-Art pablum.
Those brief years after 1996 are a fog. Like people in the generation before me describe the early 1980s. A time when Sundance became the hot topic, New York the hot city, and all the cool kids wanted in.
Crime dropped. Rents went up. And Ethan Hawke moved in.
It was the time when the authentic New York became smothered in a bum rush of morons who intended to embrace it. Goose, golden eggs, some sort of analogy like that applies.
Narcissistic indie yak spittle like Next Stop, Wonderland and when Lucy Fell became celebrated by a group of post-teen wankers already cashing in on the internet bubble and seeking to prove their DIY bonafides.
And yet, somehow on watching it again, 200 Cigarettes held a certain sort of nostalgic warmth. Like a shitty childhood blanket, now ratty and worn. It never really kept you warm. But the idea of it did.
Even with lines as toxic as the following, I still enjoyed it.
“Did you know that cigarettes are a shield against meaningful interaction with people?”
“In life, sometimes you’ve got to stay still to move forward.”
“Even when you go to a party, you don’t just meet people. You stand around talking to the ones you already know.”
It was awful. And yet strangely reassuring.
Maybe because I was living in NYC at the time it was being filmed. In fact, I walked through the set while they were filming it numerous times. A key scene with Wednesday Addams was shot in front of my apartment. My misanthropic existence hoping to find 80s New York, and receiving 90s New York instead was somehow inscribed in the film.
Maybe I sucked at the time as much as the film did, and that’s what connects us. My whining was insufferable. Bemoaning the shite pile of the Giuliani years and the influx of buttlickery brought about by the online revolution. The Amazons and Yahoos who wandered the East Village like hi-def pixelated ass turds come to life.
Once at a bar in ’98 or ’99 I met a tool who had just been hired at a company called “Razorfish” to be their I.P. chief. He’d taken one HTML course. His starting salary was 250,000.
Cultures get the movies they deserve.
And our bankrupt pre-9/11 slumbing wasteland deserved 200 Cigarettes.