In his grand, elegiac and unexpectedly beautiful new novel "11/22/63," Stephen King conjures up a time-travel story that could not be more plugged into the anxieties of right now. A schoolteacher named Jake Epping, living in 2011, journeys through a "bubble" and lands in 1958.
Once there, he becomes convinced that if he can stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating President John F. Kennedy, he can save America from all that sprang forth from the tragic day in Dallas - America's entry into Vietnam, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, perhaps the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
It's a folly of an idea, and Jake knows it. But what animates his quest - and what gives this novel an urgency and poignancy that King has never before achieved - is the anguished fear that something has come unstuck; that, over the past few decades, the mythology of the American Dream has turned into a kind of nightmare. If he can just get back to a calmer, quieter era, maybe he can fix this malaise that has infected us all.
Released last month and firmly lodged atop the bestseller list, "11/22/63" finds arguably our most famous novelist looking longingly at the past to make sense of the present. What's striking, though, is that King is hardly the only popular artist who made nostalgia his central theme in 2011. Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen and even Kermit the Frog were all reckoning with these same questions about how to move forward when we are plagued by the idea that things used to be so much better.
This year's Oscar race, meanwhile, seems to be coming down to two very similar, very nostalgic movies about the history of cinema: the front-runner for the Best Picture prize is "The Artist," created in the style of a silent classic, about a movie star clinging to his own past as technology threatens to render him irrelevant. The potential spoiler is Scorsese's lovely and affecting "Hugo" - set in 1930s Paris, about a preteen boy (Asa Butterfield) who discovers that silent film pioneer Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley) is washed-up and working as a shopkeeper in a train station.
The strong response among audiences to so many of these works, especially Allen's time-travel comedy Midnight in Paris, which turned out to be the biggest hit of the legendary director's career, also speaks volumes. Whether creating the art or consuming it, we all seem to feel a desperation to escape a recessionary squeeze that refuses to relent its grip.
As prices keep rising, as unemployment problems persist, as our bifurcated political system seems broken beyond repair, who among us doesn't want to think back to when we were kids, or perhaps even before we were born, and allow ourselves to get a little bit lost? New era, old woes When it comes to popular culture, of course, we've long been taught that nostalgia is a bad thing. At best, it's a cheap indulgence; at worst, it's a means of remaining comfortably oblivious to the pressing problems of the day. What's most striking about this current spate of nostalgia-suffused work, though, is that these movies and books aren't necessarily letting us off the hook.
Instead, they explore nostalgia with surprising nuance - at once helping to assuage our worries, and making us conscious of the dangers of constantly looking back.
Consider the marvelous example of "Midnight in Paris," which opens with an achingly lovely montage of picture-postcard images of the City of Lights - a montage that Allen has said he deliberately wanted to evoke not the real, present-day Paris, but the romanticized one that we know from the movies. The film's hero is a Hollywood screenwriter named Gil (played by Owen Wilson), successful by traditional standards (for one thing, he can afford a suite at the luxurious Hotel Le Bristol), but plagued by a sense of alienation and disappointment. Like "11/22/63's" Jake Epping, he finds his way through a mysterious rip in the time-space continuum and ends up in an era that he is convinced must be better than his own. In Gil's case, it's the 1920s, where the likes of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway are all running around.
The exquisite joke of "Midnight in Paris," though, is that none of the folks in the 1920s is especially happy, either. They are plagued by the same neuroses and competitive anxieties as Gil, the same sinking fear that they don't have the talent to realize their considerable ambitions. Adriana (Marion Cotillard), a mistress of Pablo Picasso, is crippled by her own daydreams of a romanticized past - and wants to launch herself back to the Belle Epoque era, where she would be surrounded by the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Gauguin.
The story isn't so much a cautionary tale as a wry, tender attempt to place Gil's (and the audience's) contemporary worries in a larger, existential context. In other words, don't fret too much: It's an eternal part of the human condition to feel as if you are a little bit stuck.
Certainly there's a case to be made against "Midnight in Paris," a slight fantasy that ultimately lets Gil have his cake and eat it, too.
By the same measure, both "The Artist" and "Hugo" could easily be knocked for being "minor" - they are elaborately designed movies about movies that have nothing to say about the way we live now. And when so many works that bravely engage with our 21st-century traumas struggle to find an audience - say, Steve McQueen's bruising study of sexual addiction, "Shame," or John Wells' somber drama about corporate downsizing, "Company Men" - you can't help but wonder if we have become too timid as cultural consumers, if we really are just burying our heads in the sand.
But that also denies the warmth and sincerity on display in these works, how they use a trip down memory lane to reaffirm classical values: the importance of pursuing your passions ("Midnight in Paris"); the strength and sustenance that can be derived from work and community (11/22/63); the dangers of hubris and ego ("The Artist"); the virtues of loyalty and friendship ("Hugo"). Indeed, here is a collection of works generous enough to cut viewers a bit of slack, at a time when we need it most.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the triumphant and joyful "The Muppets," a kind of epic of nostalgia that (like "Midnight in Paris") simultaneously indulges and satirizes its audiences' obsession with the past, and (like "Hugo" and "The Artist") sends us spinning through a show business hall of mirrors. The movie finds Kermit the Frog holed up in a cobweb-covered house in Beverly Hills, surrounded by vestiges of his former glory. The plot hinges on whether the old gang can be reunited and raise enough money to buy the derelict studios back and refurbish them.
The wonder of the movie is that it launches 30- and 40-something viewers back to the late 1970s, when they first discovered "The Muppet Show," even as it introduces a new generation to the daffy pleasures of these oddball creatures. And it pays tribute to the days when the theater marquee shone brightly and the mainstream wasn't fractured into a million different niches, even as it learns to make do with a beaten-up old performance space and a slightly smaller audience.
No, you can't go back and change the past, as Jake Epping learns the hard way in "11/22/63." And when it comes to the future, you are altogether defenseless, as George Valentin in "The Artist" and Georges Melies in "Hugo" discover - time marches on, and sometimes it marches over us. But there's hardly any crime in holding in your heart the memories of a brighter past as you try to navigate an especially treacherous present. And there's certainly much to be said for facing whatever hard knocks 2012 has in store for us by following the lesson of Kermit, Piggy, Fozzie, et al., who face each new day with a humble sense of humor and the optimistic belief that things can only get better.
Far from wallowing in the past and drowning in self-pity, these works remind us that sometimes nostalgia can also be our saving grace.