For this special guest edition of Ciné Files, three of Paste’s intrepid interns went to see the Grease sing-a-long. What follows is three separate essays, exploring the movie, pop-culture, and the dominant ethos of our age: Nostalgia.
Grease and the Appropriation of Nostalgia Thought Vomit
by Whitney Baker
I’ll admit it: the sugary trappings draped all over Grease are what drew me in. I don’t remember the first time I ever saw it, but I do remember that since that time, I’ve seen it over and over and over and there are some things that never get old. The shortlist: a young John Travolta in those pants, catchy and accessible songs, Rizzo’s sass, and the idea that American high school and the entire decade of the ‘50s is so easy to dress up into a tidy two-hour narrative.
As a member of Generation Y, I’m among the easily-distracted and awash-in-a-sea-of-information group of twenty-somethings that tend to get nostalgic about what we had for breakfast yesterday (oh dried mango and almonds, I miss you so much, remember all the good times we had when I put you in my belly). We build hallowed shrines to the ‘90s and sometimes forget that the here and now has its own perks because we’re so damn busy being nostalgic about everything. While beloved movies have a life of their own and the ability to endure forever, what is it about Grease that sets folks like me off? It’s not connected to any part of my life like some other movies. I have no inherent emotional investment in it. I didn’t live the ‘70s, when the movie was made, or the ‘50s, where the movie was set.
It’s almost like we’re stealing another generation’s nostalgia to get a break from our own. Seriously: what happened to soda shops? Actually dancing at school dances? Morning announcements? What is it that makes this movie so enjoyable that a crowd of all ages will gather in Midtown Atlanta on a weeknight to karaoke along? I’ve got a theory, and it’s that we’ve discovered time travel. It’s a time machine that isn’t shaped like a DeLorean, but it IS a time machine. These things existed—minus the hyperbole. Poodle skirts, letterman’s jackets and drive-in theatres are a thing of the past (or at least an endangered species) but by these movies surviving and adding that community interaction aspect, we’re able to take ourselves away from the constant barrage of information and slip back into something more quaint. And for the younger crowd, it’s the same as any fantasy—just as dragons and Hobbits are foreign, so is high school and the idea of a soda shop where the floats cost a nickel. Escapism tinged with a bit of
There are other movies that do this, and it is always when a generation reaches a certain age. Grease, Dazed and Confused, the rash of ‘80s movie remakes are some examples. It’s not even always limited to movies—take a look at That ‘70s Show, which started in 1998 and was based on, well, the ‘70s. Usually, there seems to be a twenty-year buffer, which explains the aching hole in my heart that used to be filled with pogs and the original 151 pokemon. As soon as we, as young adults, hit that border between child and adult, we ache for escapism. It’s jolting and sudden and full of people asking “What are you going to do with the rest of your life?”
The answer seems to be obvious to me now: I’m going to start writing a screenplay for a movie set in the ‘90s about a group of kids who hang out at the mall, who watch Beavis and Butthead, who have arcades to waste time in, who think Big League chew is the coolest thing in the world and who can recite the entire Stick Stickley jingle from “Nick in the Afternoon.” And there will be shenanigans and common themes and somebody, somewhere will learn a lesson—but mostly, it’ll be an exercise in nostalgia.