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The devil’s in the detail

Why it’s not acceptable for filmmakers to make mistakes about the past

Tom Burke and Honor Swinton Byrne in “The Souvenir” (2019)

You know you’re getting old when young filmmakers make rudimentary mistakes about a past era you not only lived through, but recall more clearly than where you left your reading glasses five minutes ago. “No, no!” you shout as you watch Summer of 84 (2018). Kids back then would never have used the term “serial killer”, which only passed from FBI profile-speak into common vernacular when the media fussed over The Silence of the Lambs in 1991. I know, because I was there! If you’re a young filmmaker reading this, please note I am willing to act as a consultant about the recent past, for a small fee.

What do we think about when we watch films set in vanished decades that many of us experienced at first hand? Your mileage may vary, and obviously it depends on where you lived, and who you hung out with, but for me, rookie errors are an unwanted distraction in the 1979 setting of a film like Super 8 (2011), in which a gas station attendant in small-town Ohio has a Sony Walkman – a device that wasn’t even available in Japan until later that year. Pedantic, moi? Mais oui! And yet each tiny but unforced slip chips away at my suspension of disbelief.

Kyle Chandler, Ron Eldard, Elle Fanning, and Joel Courtney in “Super 8” (2011)

These anachronisms of yore came flooding back because it seems the 1980s are “having a moment” right now, and if there’s one decade I know about, it’s the one when I was living it up as a sentient adult. James Gray’s Armageddon Time (2022), inspired by the filmmaker’s own memories of growing up in the New York borough of Queens, is set at the start of the Reagan administration. To me, the wallpaper and clothes look more redolent of the 1950s. Then again, perhaps this really is authenticity, since most people’s lives are patchworks of old and new, and only wealthy profligates can afford to strip away old decor and replace an entire wardrobe from scratch every time the wind changes.

Movie costume designers often make the mistake of having 1970s and 1980s characters look as though they’ve stepped straight from the pages of a vintage fashion mag (yes, American Hustle and Atomic Blonde, I’m looking at you), forgetting that most civilians of those eras dressed in a hodge-podge of high street chains and Oxfam, and could only afford one party dress. If the thigh-skimming lace mini-dress I wore in the late 1960s hadn’t disintegrated in the wash, I’d probably still be wearing it, albeit repurposed as a blouse. Which reminds me, Rose Byrne and January Jones’ skirts in X-Men: First Class (2011) are anachronistically micro for the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.

Meanwhile, Luca Guadagnino’s latest, Bones and All, is a road movie set on the margins of 1980s society, a Young Adult variation on the bloodsucking drifters of Near Dark (1987), or a sexed-up Twilight, with cannibals instead of vampires. My Spidey senses tingled as soon as I glimpsed Timothée Chamalet’s upper-ear stud, only for me to remember, mea culpa, the punk movement had popularised helix piercings one decade earlier. As you were, Timothée. Then I forgot about the earrings and whether or not his torn jeans were era-appropriate, and got swept up in the story, which is as it should be.

Amy Adams and Christian Bale in “American Hustle” (2014)

Anachronistic slang will always stick in my craw; no one in the UK would have said “It’s not rocket science!” in 1970, the year in which the women of Misbehaviour (2020) disrupt the Miss World pageant. But the past is more effectively evoked by elements less tangible than skirt lengths or lava lamps. So persuasive was the aura of Civil Service ennui in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2012), it was only afterwards I worked out why it had made me uncomfortable: the 1973 interiors of Smiley’s “Circus” had triggered long-buried memories of a holiday job I once endured as a teenager at an Inland Revenue office in Croydon. Likewise, though I wasn’t familiar with the 1970 Los Angeles of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice (2014), adapted from the Thomas Pynchon novel, the film’s woozy, drugged-up paranoia gave me flashbacks to an LSD trip I took in 1973, during which I hallucinated a giant caterpillar and had dirty sex with an Australian. Or maybe it was the other way round, it was hard to tell at the time.

The two most recent films to have exercised that kind of Proustian madeleine time-travel effect on me are Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical diptych The Souvenir (2019) and The Souvenir: Part II (2021). Unlike Hogg, I went to art college in the 1970s, not film school in the 1980s, and my parents couldn’t afford to put me up in a flat around the corner from Harrods, but these are the first films I’ve ever seen that successfully evoke the naïveté, optimism and romantic delusions of a grievously underserved demographic: young women who, like me, came of age in the 1970s and 1980s. Never mind the skirt-length and period gizmos; it’s attitude and ambience that do all the heavy era-conjuring.

Anne Billson is a film critic, novelist and photographer

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Arts & Culture, November 2022

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