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The Past and Nostalgia in Film: authenticity, narrative structure, and style | Baneet Sarai

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

An exploration of representations of the past in Shia LaBeouf & Alma Har’el’s ‘Honey Boy’ and Pedro Almodóvar’s ‘Pain and Glory’.

What is an artist without their past? If we are to look at self-proclaimed autobiographical filmmaking – nothing much. The past, as it is lived and remembered, endows filmmakers with a depository of, at its most detached, subject matter; at its most romanticised; depth of feeling.

Yet, any such feeling does not equate to nostalgia; the sentimental longing for people, places, and events been and done, a tender enchantment with the inaccessible – nostalgia evokes an attraction to feeling itself, to the desire to exist only in those moments you cherish. Such a notion, in all its subjectivity, is equally as intangible in film as in life. Nevertheless, the unique intensities of ardour and torment bound up with a longing for the past are portrayed on screen. The solution to such an intangibility lies at the intersection of subject and style; not solely of what is shown, but how it is shown.

The opening scene of Pedro Aldamóvar's Pain and Glory

"For both LaBeouf and Almodóvar, the past rules their narratives; it is the present, in all its trauma and agony, which is shackled to the vibrant intensity of their youth. Whether filled with the tender longing for an idyllic childhood, or confronting an abusive father, both works are testament to their makers’ nostalgia, to their inability to release their past."

Pedro Almodóvar’s 2019 Dolor y gloria (Pain and Glory), centres on much-ailed fictional filmmaker Salvador, and exhibits undeniable allusions to Almodóvar’s own struggles and relationships. Suffering with severe back pain before his last film Julieta (2016), Salvador’s mental and physical ailments are unquestionably a version of Almodóvar’s past reality. For Otis, the protagonist of 2019’s Honey Boy, an arrest for public intoxication and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) bare an unshakeably public resemblance to those who are familiar with its writer’s descent from stardom. LaBeouf, having written Honey Boy in rehab, centres the piece on his childhood relationship with his father, James, the source of such trauma. Indeed, for Otis, his present suffering is inseparable from his inability to confront past realities; his encounters with the law and spiral into alcoholism are attributed to an unhealthy attachment to his relationship with his father, unveiled in a recognition that “The only thing my father gave me that was of any value is pain...and you want to take that away?” In contrast, for Almodóvar’s Salvador, it is encounters with members of his past which liberate him from “years of depression” and a snowballing heroin habit, inspiring him to film again.

Often mockingly attributed to the stereotypical narcissism and introspection of artists, both writers inherently tie their relationship to their past with their ability to ‘create’, blurring the line between life and art. In a narrative mise en abyme, LaBeouf, in depicting the creation of Honey Boy within the film itself, illustrates how only when Otis confronts his past is he able to artistically progress – the film’s existence itself becoming tangible evidence for the interplay between past and present, evidenced by LaBeouf’s own role as his father. For Almodóvar, references to the past are – almost farcically – direct, within distinct, fictional artworks within the film, which introduce past figures back into Salvador’s life, repeatedly inwardly mimicking Honey Boy’s overall association of the past with the ability to create. Such narratives on artistic creation are only enhanced by each film’s self-consciousness; Otis declares “My whole work’s required – motivated, by trauma reminders,” whilst Salvador’s mother, in a flashback itself, demands – futilely, as the scene’s existence demonstrates – that “I don’t want you putting any of this in your films.” Thus, at once, both works are simultaneously integrated into, and aware of, their intrinsic association with the past; narrating on the nature of their own existence, and yet separated from it through their consciousness.

Such self-consciousness allows Almodóvar, LaBeouf, and Har’el to play with notions of reality and authenticity. There are clear allusions to a public past, with Otis’ big budget TV stunt in the first scenes of Honey Boy an obvious reference to LaBeouf’s work on the Transformers franchise, whilst Antonio Banderas’ Salvador, from his haircut to his apartment, are a direct imitation of Almodóvar’s own. In incorporating such public knowledge, both works establish a foundation of ‘truth’, or ‘authenticity’, which can then be manipulated with the introduction of intimate past experience – as Almodóvar acknowledges, a "mix [of] fiction and reality". Indeed, both films actively tempt the audience into questioning what is and is not ‘real’. For Honey Boy, instances of absurdism reflect the mix of fiction and reality in a somewhat identifiable way – we realise that James performing on the motel television with the ‘world’s first daredevil chicken’ is not an attempt at realism. Yet, both LaBeouf and Almodóvar also actively mislead audience perceptions of reality. The composition and transitions within Pain and Glory suggest from the outset that Salvador’s flashbacks to his childhood – evoked by present sensory experiences – are true-to-life; sectioned into convenient short stories, the absence of Honey Boy’s absurdism instils a belief in each memory’s attachment to reality. Only in the closing scene, when Almodóvar’s slow zoom out reveals a sound stick and multiple cameras, do we realise we are witnessing The First Desire, Salvador’s return to filmmaking. Such questions on the nature of past reality are paralleled in Honey Boy. It is revealed that the most vulnerable, and seemingly ‘authentic’ moment for Otis’ father James, in recounting the multiple traumatic moments of his life in Alcoholics Anonymous, is based on “an amalgamation of other AA shares”. One of the most powerful in the film, the scene raises the issue of the artificial divide between ‘reality’ and authenticity in evoking nostalgia; is it more significant that James strays from the ‘truth’, or LaBeouf’s depiction of and ability to portray such emotions from his abusive father?

Monica Lek, behind the scenes of Honey Boy []

Ultimately – as abstract as the trauma the past imposes – it is a depth of feeling, rather than a reflection of objective reality, which conveys nostalgia on screen. Authenticity surrounds how the past is remembered, rather than the presence of a stand-alone narrative devoid of subjective influence. The ability to convey such sentimentality on screen rests in the inherent nature of film as, unsurprisingly, a fundamentally visual medium. For Honey Boy, Natasha Braier’s lighting palette of luminous blues and vivid pinks pervading the motel coalesce to create an ethereal, and at times intrusive, ambience – seemingly outside of all notions of time and space – in the scenes of Otis’ early life with his father. Returning in the final scene, at the point where Otis’ journey to the motel merges the two narratives existing within the film, the lighting signifies a shift into the mind and memory of Otis, the otherworldly neon hues an active attempt to depart from objective reality. Indeed, the illustration of Otis’ early life not only contrasts to the insipid, nondescript aesthetics of Otis’ scenes in rehab, but to the extravagance of the film’s opening. A mixture of film scenes, alcohol, and violence, the opening montage carries a visual extravagance that could be compared to the scenes of Otis’ past. Yet, it is the soft strength, the tender shades – neither too glaring nor too fragile – of blanketed pastels which result in a wholly different intensity to the speed and aggression of the opening scenes; an intensity which carries force of emotion. Such intensity extends to the depictions of Salvador’s memories (or rather, his filming of The First Desire), of childhood village life in Paterna. It is the warmth of such flashbacks that strikes most heavily; a romanticism, intertwined with an immaterial idealism, lovingly crafted by the simplicity of a whitewashed ‘cave’ under the radiance of the midday sun.

A flashback to Salvador’s childhood, with Eduardo, the subject of his later play ‘The First Desire’

For both LaBeouf and Almodóvar, the past rules their narratives; it is the present, in all its trauma and agony, which is shackled to the vibrant intensity of their youth. Whether filled with the tender longing for an idyllic childhood, or confronting an abusive father, both works are testament to their makers’ nostalgia, to their inability to release their past. From the aesthetics, to the rejection of conventional objective ‘reality’, both Honey Boy and Pain and Glory create a sense that the past is the ‘film’ – that only it is worthy of intensity and artistic expression. Existing beyond a ‘sentimental longing’ or ‘affection’, it is the desire to immortalise, to simultaneously preserve and yet liberate themselves from their past, through the experience of film, which depicts the power of nostalgia.

Written by Baneet Sarai

Baneet is a postgraduate student studying MSc History of International Relations, who is not as old as that makes her sound.

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