Movies With Specific Time Periods


As I’ve written before, I just re-watched “Fargo,” and on top of the many things occurring to me while watching such an expertly-crafted movie unfold, one that snuck up on me was the setting of the movie. It’s set in 1987.

The movie was released in 1996.

I got to thinking that many of the Coen Brother’s movies are set in “the past.”

“Hudsucker,” “Barton Fink,” “Oh Brother…,” “Miller’s Crossing,” “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and “True Grit” all take place in a very specific (and stylized) past setting. Even “The Big Lebowski” takes place at a very specific time (around the time of the first Gulf War with Iraq).

I got to thinking about why one would do this as a habit. Then I realized the benefit of setting in a specific time: your references never age.

I shouldn’t say “never,” because some things can be re-contextualized. If in 1986 you made a movie set in 1979 about how great of a guy OJ Simpson was, someone might think that’s weird, but here’s my point: the SCRIPT wouldn’t age. It would be set in a certain time period in history and (assuming it’s handled well) would never get detracted as “out of date.” It can’t be out of date; it’s always of another date.

I’ve been thinking about this sort of thing in terms of comparing TV with movies (go with me here). The current belief is that TV is a more vibrant medium because of the immediacy involved. You write a joke on Monday, it gets filmed that week and it’s on the air soon after, so it has less of a chance of going stale and thereby not working. Conversely, the movie making business is a very slow process. A script is written in 2009, revised through 2010, bought (hopefully) in 2011, re-revised for a while and eventually gets shot and released so many years down the road, that I realize I should have set my hypothetical scenario in 1998 instead just to see this imaginary movie get released. Jokes and references written in 2009 or 1998… or even 2012 might not land years down the road, so you’re just setting yourself up for heartache.

This is where the Coens are geniuses. True, they don’t have the problems of not getting their movies made, but they were low-budget filmmakers, and part of that survival instinct may have helped them succeed by considering this joke lifespan that comes with movie making.

Setting a time period also makes sense in movies because, unlike a television show, you’re telling one specific story. So when something begins close to “Once upon a time…” or “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” you’re telling a SPECIFIC story, so specifics are essential. This happened to these people in this way at THIS TIME. So… pick a time.

FURTHERMORE, I went to my list of my favorite movies, and realized that many of them are either set in a specific past or the distant future.

That list includes the following:

“Ed Wood” (1950’s and 1960’s, released in 1994)

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” (Civil War-era, released in the late 1960’s)

“Raiders of the Lost Ark” (WWII-era, released 1981)

The “Star Wars” Trilogy (set in the future-past, released 1977-1983)

“Animal House” (Set in early 1960’s, released in late 1970’s).

“Wet Hot American Summer” (set in early 1980’s, released in early 2000’s)

“The Godfather” (set in post-WWII era, released 1972)

The comedies on my list make things a little weird for my theory. “Back to the Future” is set in 1985, but only for the beginning and the end. The rest is all the past. In the other movies on my list, there are specific efforts to make sure the story either doesn’t rely on timely-references or sets them in another world altogether, (like Wes Anderson’s movies) where they’re so other-worldly that they take place in a kind of parallel present to our own, so it’s not “The Real Present.”

These include “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Hot Fuzz,” and “This is Spinal Tap” (which I grant was made in early 1980’s for early 1980’s, but it spans many decades of the band’s history and is picking on such 1970’s concert movies as “Gimme Shelter” and “The Song Remains the Same” that it almost doesn’t exist in any time period).

Tarantino’s movies fit into this sideways world logic as well, where they’re “set in the present,” but they have both feet squarely in the past (“Kill Bill,” “Pulp Fiction,” “Reservoir Dogs”).

Now think of all the crappy rom-coms of the last 10 years and realize that very few of them are set in the past, so they all have a very short shelf life. I remember specifically my friend Mike Betette commenting on the trailer for “He’s Just Not That Into You” where Drew Barrymore did a joke about checking her MySpace account. It wasn’t even a joke about how passe MySpace had become, because when they filmed it, MySpace was still vibrant. But in the 6 months it took to go from film to release, Facebook was the present, Twitter was the future, and MySpace was gone. Immediately dated.

The one director who seems to buck this trend is Hitchcock, but it’s hard to criticize his movies too much from my perspective, because to me all of his movies take place “in the past” anyway. It’s still specific.

Setting it in the past… I know that’s why I enjoyed “X-Men: First Class” so much. I’m thinking about this.


2 Responses to “Movies With Specific Time Periods”

  1. This is great knowledge. I’m going to do this.

  1. 1 Specific Time Compared to AFI Top 100 « Phillip Mottaz Town

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