Respondent: Chris Cagle (Temple University)
In the 1980s, nostalgia for the fifties became an enormously lucrative and politically resonant trope in American popular culture. The text most often identified as the founding document of this "nostalgia wave" in America is American Graffiti (1973). The film was received warmly by critics and audiences, establishing its young director George Lucas in Hollywood. In retrospect, however, critics and theorists have largely condemned American Graffiti. Popular critics have aligned the film with the emergence of Reaganism, while theorists have isolated the film as a symptom of the postmodernist commodification of history.
Discourses that surrounded the film's release, however, reveal that the political function of fifties nostalgia was radically different in 1973 than it was in ensuing decades. In fact, as I'll show, the repeated re-releases of the film in various theatrical and video formats continually reposition it within new cultural contexts and reconfigure its ideological function. Taking note of the historical emergence of nostalgia and recent work by Richard Dyer on the self-reflexive nature of pastiche, I'll argue that re-reading American Graffiti affords us the opportunity to acknowledge the diverse aesthetic, political, and cultural uses of nostalgia.