Bad Examples: Wayne’s World, Judgment Night
Good Examples: Singles, Clueless, Wayne’s World
Soundtracks offer yet one more way to date your film. Rather than just concern themselves with the timeliness of one medium (film), directors and producers must either play it safe and go with esoteric or instrumental soundtracking that runs the risk of not speaking to audiences, or venture into the abyss of pop music, looking for a white whale of a song that will resonate not only with people at the time of release, but indefinitely thereafter.
The easiest way to avoid getting wrapped up in the caveat of dated music is to pull a Scorsese and just use “Gimme Shelter” in every scene in every movie knowing that song underscoring clip just makes it that much cooler. However, Scorsese has that as his calling card, so that won’t work for anyone else.
Wayne’s World falls in both the good and bad camps here, its most enduring and endearing scene being a “Bohemian Rhapsody” singalong in an AMC Pacer. However, the film as a whole served as the death rattle for the pop-metal of the 1980’s, embracing a whole genre of music that was dated two years later. The aesthetic was pretty ridiculous, and the music itself was just sort of “bad.”
I’m aware that this runs more to subjectivity, but as-my-oh-so-useful caveat in italics above stated, crap in, crap out. Singles essentially mires in the same waters, but offers a real sense of scene. Beyond that, Eddie Vedder sitting around mumbling about Citizen Dick doesn’t feel shoehorned the way Alice Cooper singing “Feed My Frankenstein” does.
That said, when The Mighty Mighty Bosstones pop up in Clueless, the appearance works and is totally believable, but I have absolutely no explanation for that, other than “I still really, really like the Bosstones.”
(Please take a moment to let the integrity of this piece waft over you.)
Bad Examples: Friends with Benefits, Most Every Other Romantic Comedy, The Scary/Date/Not Another Teen Movies, Austin Powers
Good Examples: Se7en, Wes Anderson’s Filmography, Airplane!, Fast Times At Ridgemont High
Most everything that appears in films will one day be rendered obsolete or antiquated, but taking pains to avoid any and all time-sensitive references would make for a very strange film. That’s not to say they would all be bad. In fact, Wes Anderson has made a very critically successful career out of doing just that. Everything from dialogue to production design to wardrobe to soundtrack has been crafted to within an inch of its life so that it will seem, quite literally, timeless.
However, for every The Royal Tenenbaums, there are hundreds of Austin Powers, Sex and the City’s, and Meet the Spartans that seemingly exist to capture as much of what is going on in American culture as humanly possible, narrative be damned. Critiquing films such as these isn’t really germane to this discussion, as these films make little to no attempt to be relevant past their theatrical runs. They’re the Katy Perry’s of the film world. Cinematic bubble gum meant to be slightly enjoyed, spit out, then replaced with no real feelings one way or the other, aside from a vague sense of amusement.
Films age fast enough on their own. You don’t need to put in references to Double Rainbow Guy, flash mobs, MySpace to accelerate the process. Sure, there are jokes to be made, but every one of these memes or modern references puts a date stamp on your work. The mention of voodoo economics in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off registers a “2” on this scale. The flash mob scene in Friends with Benefits ranks a “93.” (I’m truly sorry for continuing to include Friends with Benefits in this discussion, but the tidal wave of ephemera that movie possesses was the impetus for this piece, so it’s a package deal. I’m as upset about it as you are.)
Even when using these references as nostalgic touchpoints or humorous juxtapositions, you’re generally doing the lifespan of your movie a disservice. When Sandra Bullock dances to “Get Low” in The Proposal, it effectively served as a throwaway at the height of the song’s popularity (which was actually about five months before the film was released), so while audiences can still find the humor in the uptight career woman cutting loose to a goofy song, the fact that it’s one that was once popular, but is no longer, seems just…wrong.
To reiterate, the above observations/suggestions certainly won’t make a bad movie good, and probably won’t keep a good movie from becoming bad. Only creative forces that lay outside the pop-cultural universe can do that. However, a good movie can be made more enjoyable through the manufactured belief that the story could be told today. As such, it feels “realer” than the realization that the story definitely took place while The Real World was filming New Orleans, which in turn reminds the audience, “Yup. You’re watching a movie. One that was made in 2000.”
In many instances, you can’t stop people from coming to that realization, but you don’t need to hold their hand to show them, either.