Paul Thomas Anderson’s ‘Liquorice Pizza’ (2021) and the Retro Trend in Today’s Popular Culture
By Emily Hill
*this piece contains spoilers*
The phrase “back in my day…” is seemingly losing its meaning in each and every addition to our modern-day plethora of popular culture. Originally, it was a comment used by those out of touch or stuck in the past, who appeared to ‘know it all’ about their golden age of arts and culture. It has since transcended into a satirical nod, in a well-known tone everyone understands. But now we have Licorice Pizza, the newest addition of works added to a growing canon of vintage ‘oldies but goldies’ in popular culture. These types of films are countering the dismissive idea that it was better “back in my day”. The idea of a supposed golden era, that makes teenagers to roll their eyes, is dissipating every day.
Licorice Pizza is undoubtedly warmly nostalgic. It soaks up the saturated hazy glow of the 1970’s, the way younger generations have been conditioned to imagine it. It fills every element of the nostalgia quota: the reflective glaze of colourful pops of fun and freedom in arcades; the wind streaming through loose hair, running through green daisy fields in the middle of nowhere; the suburban white picket fence of the pastel house on the corner. It emulates a nostalgic feeling in tone and style for those under a certain age who can only gaze in awe at the way things were.
Paul Thomas Anderson is no stranger to 70’s-esque filmmaking. Just look at the dazzling Boogie Nights (1997) set in 1977, or the slickness of Inherent Vice (2014) set in 1970. Now, Licorice Pizza directs its audience to a rediscovery of the decade in 2021’s mainstream cinema. And it’s worked. For all their vintage tropes and ’70’s textbook visuals, BoogieNights, InherentVice and Licorice Pizza excel in one category over anything else: the reason why I’m writing this article; the reason why you watched the films. They offer us a ‘simpler time’, an energetic glimpse into a spinning world of neon patterns and bright lights. Inherent Vice is even coined as having the makings of a ‘cult classic’, a craze of emulating the unpopular-then-popular fiction film, which doesn’t quite hold up to its definition if it’s forced in an unnatural, curated sphere, with an awareness to contributing to the cult phenomena.
At one point, Valentine asks Kane if she ‘goes to the movies’, to which she responds, ‘of course I go to the movies’. This is a beautiful nod to those watching in cinemas. It says we refute the ‘death of the movie goer’, a product of a pandemic which not only prohibited it, but fast-tracked alternative means of watching. This is film as it is meant to be watched. Wyou tell your sibling to stop playing that music out loud because you’re watching a film, the movie keeps going without you seeing it at all, and the small screen wins again.
Beneath its beauty, Licorice Pizza showcases a simple story, evading any gaps of sense as well as time: it remains ageless, yet appears inescapably fixed within the world of the 1970’s. The well trotted path of ‘will they won’t they’, in which they obviously will, is a rom-com classic. It is both of of our time and theirs’. It glorifies the 70’s and indulges in the reminiscence of personal memory, shown through its incongruous title, a record store in California but also a mixture and blend of sensory illusions, the muscle memory of a time comprised of pizza and liquorice for Anderson. Although, it’s this fun and playfulness which compromises the film’s approach to be a thought-provoking, unpredictable show of talented artists. It is a shame that what did show up was too much of the simple – beautiful as it may be – showing too little of the intelligent originality which could have played upon the same tropes sewn into earlier films which gave it is raw emotion as a genre. However, what Licorice Pizza does capture, is telling you to just go with it: to not think about the ending (because we already know it). For what it is, it is great: a sunshine filled blossoming of two energetic personalities dodging trouble and propelling the narrative forward with their stories. Slowly turning the pages one after the next, the scenes are bound together by a retelling of youth, even if some were evidently there in order to drop the protagonists in compromising situations (such as when Gary is arrested for no apparent reason, apart from to hug Alana who begins to develop conflicting feelings). The collated feel of the scrapbook movie, stitched together with masking tape and developed pictures lying in Valentine’s teenager boy bedroom, is as endearing as Alana’s slow and steady realisations of her love for him. After all, they have time, in the ways of Gary’s age, the film’s pacing, and the slow-burn, laidback, endless summers of the ‘70’s.
But what is it about the retro style of Licorice Pizza that has become so appealing? Mainstream pop culture has seen The Weeknd revive the shimmery groove of the 80’s music trend. It welcomes vintage thrifting, conscious consumerism and charity shop fashion finds. It encourages cinema to revisit in the aesthetic glory of previous years; to adapt with the times but not let go of that Saturday morning, bike into town, trip to the cinema with your sixteen-year-old friends feel. Because now our economic and technological focusses are at odds with our artistic integrity. Indie movies pay extortionate amounts to look cheap. Reboots are more common than original screenplays. Where are the risktakers in a major conglomerate company producing a film that doesn’t have a star studded cast? Even truly independent cinema is riding the wave of the retro trend – just look at A24 films and its vintage-inspired merchadise. To sell a vision, a dream, a world that once was, is what our cultural identities are in tune with: we are living as though it was better “back in their day”. Maybe it was better back then. If it’s not, cinema isn’t putting up much of a fight to prove it.
This being said, something Licorice Pizza obviously bypasses in favour for its aesthetic values is the leading couple’s ten-year age gap, which is difficult to justify given its presence as a coming-of-age teenage dream. Its synopsis reads, ‘The story of Alana Kane (Alana Haim) and Gary Valentine (Cooper Hoffman) growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973′. But the tone of the film isn’t reflected here, as the audience knows that our protagonist Gary is fifteen (who, yes, does have a lot of growing up to do) and our leading lady (experiencing her first love with a student in High School) is twenty five. The film doesn’t do well to try and mask these holes with its retro, nostalgic, throwback feel. Beneath the façade and beauty of its filmmaking, Licorice Pizza doesn’t offer much beneath its glittery surface. Chasms and empty pits run ruin in the universe of Anderson’s adventurous, treacherous ‘San Fernando Valley’, offering little development to the worldmaking of such a visceral, picturesque collection of photographs.
Unfortunately this is echoed in parts of the film where the star cast take centre stage. They are not without merit; its wacky comedy is charming in places, and Cooper’s performance, is captivating, but not still eclipsing the charm of the sweet and delicate, uncertain and tentative emotions of the two lovers. But depth and substance are lost entirely when Bradley Cooper portrays hairdresser turned film producer Jon Peters, who found fame in the decade for dating Barabra Streisand. This choice illustrates that even here, filmmaking is about the fame and stardom of the awards and gracing the stage with prestigious stature in the shape of a small, but golden statue. This, in turn, is what guarantees more money. With three Academy Award nominations to its abstract name, it hits the mark of the popular film, uplifted by the academies and distributing the already perpetuated values of the Hollywood standard in its directorship, actors and storyline that make up its glossy cover.
In a growing culture of looking back, we like to reminisce and think classic means better. But can we really say that art then was superior to now? And how original were the ‘originals’? Cultures have been formed from things that came before it, since the beginning of ‘culture’ itself. The birth of the teenager in the 1950’s has seen an influence on every age to come, and now we see an amalgamation of decades in style. We have the scrunchie and the mom jeans, the corduroy trousers and the hair claw clip, the flares and the mini skirt: these are not 2022’s fashion failures or faux pas. Instead, they are a colloquial blueprint in fast fashion outfits and Instagram snapshots – taken on your vintage Polaroid camera, of course.
Whilst this retro spin on new technology may appear outdated in our flying-car world, it is in fact a product of our shiny new society. It is a retaliation to the ‘Age of the Internet’, to our clicks and scrolls and our open society of acceptance and a global connectedness, and our psychical isolation, as well as a lack of acceptance, with our endless attacks on opinion. There may not be a quick fix to these issues, but there is an escape. We can only retreat back: to Licorice Pizza, to its music and clothes, to its dated technology that we would probably have hated if it was our only option. Given the ingrained nature of our interconnectedness, the past is a lot more appealing than the future.
Some critics might argue that the culture we have now is different compared to before the dawn of technology, in that the machine pumps of musicians and films are ingrained in our contemporary culture, such as the Marvel franchise offering a rollercoaster of emotions. But none of them quite top the classics. The diamonds of the decades, then, are constantly stolen and reclaimed as our own, or as a nod to the vintage. Everything has become retro. When you buy that ‘90’s cami slip dress, you are buying a piece of Rachel Green from Friends, and what she represented.
The music from Haim is no different. The youngest sister of the band, who is both Alana Kane and Alana Haim in our eyes, transcends filmic boundaries to play songs for us, their music of a similar retro feeling that evokes false memories of baking in sunshine and dewy shades of freckles and auburn, strawberry-blonde highlights seen in dusk. The worldmaking of the film may reveal some flaws in originality, but its drive towards creating a panorama of buyable, shoppable objects delivers a sharply pointed message about our cutthroat industries. They must make a profit, and what better way to cash in on a box office bonanza than to monopolise? Extending the music and authentic soundtrack from the likes of McCartney and Bowie, is to end up with aLicorice Pizza menu, mixtape and pinball machine, unsurprisingly not out of place in our day and age. But the cyclical exchange of money grabbing hands does not end there. A glimpse of myself as a sixteen-year-old, my auburn hair and freckles, three of my friends from teenagerhood – if I were born in 1957 – meets me at the Picturehouse cinema in my home city. It’s stylised in an old-school font, and the iconic red theatre seats act as a method of transportation. It doesn’t just suspend the everyday and offer a look into the idea of the film, but rather the film was there before you arrived and stays after you leave. It then stays with you. The concept of this, in this film, is successful. In many other films it isn’t. The aesthetic has gravity and weight, although the narrative is lacklustre at times. Licorice Pizza undoubtedly shines brighter than other films piggybacking the retro trend.