On May 21, 1980, the eagerly awaited follow-up to the smash hit phenomenon, “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” premiered nationwide across America. 40 years later, Nick and Alex look into one of the all-time greatest sequels and discuss why it holds up for so many.
History is often complicated by nostalgia. The prevalence of meme culture within online discourse accentuates the inextricable relationship between the two, particularly when enough time has passed for a media text to resurge in popularity. Take, as two examples, a double bill of films released at the dawn of the millennium: The Emperor’s New Groove and The Road to El Dorado. Celebrating their twentieth anniversaries, these films from Disney and DreamWorks, respectively, emerged in a landscape where mainstream American animated films faced a crisis of identity following the end of the Disney Renaissance era. Informed by South and Latin American aesthetics, both films heralded the future more clearly than their box office performances might indicate by capturing a past rooted less in Mesoamerican or Incan mythology than the comedy of Looney Tunes and the Hope/Crosby Road To… movies. Indeed, it is the eschewing of both cultural and historical verisimilitude which makes the transfiguration of these films into reaction gifs seem like a foregone conclusion.
For a film about sadomasochism, Dogs Don’t Wear Pants (Koirat eivät käytä housuja) isn’t really about sex. That isn’t to say the Finnish director J-P Valkeapää ignores the eroticism of his subject matter. But this isn’t a love story so much as it’s one about pain, control, and release. It seeks to tap into a primal element of our animal nature from its opening shot of a fish sucking air in the hull of a boat. Before the opening credits even begin, Valkeapää’s protagonist will liken himself as much to that fish as he will to a canine. Mammalian or piscine, our basic need for life is counteracted only by the unnatural impulse to reject it, to wade in a stupor like a melancholic zombie.
If to dance is to live, as equated in the famous exchange from The Red Shoes, then to live is to affirm one’s existence. The political tenets underlying this postulation frequently manifest in the gendered, often queer, connotation of dance as a vocation and an interpersonal exchange between partners. So prevalent is this subtext in cinema that by the time Stephen Daldry’s Billy Elliot leapt onto screens, the typical entry within the subgenre diluted the political provocation performance posed toward rigid hegemonic attitudes in favor of individualistic underdog stories. And Then We Danced attempts to rectify this depoliticization by directly addressing a generation emerging from a complex national history, one which has greeted this often tender love story with controversy and outright hostility in its own nation.
There has never been a greater time to be a cinephile. That’s certainly my belief in this peculiar era we’re living in. When compiling a list for the best films of the 2010s, the titles submitted by my colleagues only served to underscore the prevalence of global cinema within the cultural consciousness. We began this list before Bong Joon-ho made history by sweeping the Oscars, yet the Parasite phenomenon can be seen as a fitting end to a decade which saw a plethora of filmmakers contend with nationalist rhetoric, environmental crises, and a growing disillusionment with capitalism. Many of these films found exposure through unconventional means of distribution, with one particular title controversially upending what can even be properly called a film in the age of binge-watching. Regardless of how these works have been seen, all of them reinforce the vitality of an evolving medium whose malleability is a necessity in an increasingly fractured global society. The theaters may no longer be the dominant institutions they once were, but the cinema can still help us dream, especially now when we need to most.