Retro Made: The Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things
In Provincetown, MA last Thursday, the street of the quasi-Queer Mecca was lined with many a Madonna, pantless Tom Cruise, and Tina Turner. It was Back to the ’80s for Carnival. But were you to find an Eleven in the parade, donning a hospital gown and little hair, right next to the Gremlin-turned-femme fatale, they would have fit right in with the vibe.
Stranger Things is a property which pleads to be compared to the texts to which it is so invariably indebted to, and yet subtly whisks in its own originality. I believe it was Dave Gonzalez that compared the Duffer Brothers’ Netflix series to Girl Talk: exemplary of the pretty self-consciously postmodern strain of mainstream art making, adding dashes of aged auteur here, retro vernacular there, blending it up and presenting it on a plate so fancy that it looks like a dish on Chopped. The ingredients are all very familiar, but it’s been so repurposed, it ends up saying something about the very audience that feels so inclined to see the references in it.
Nostalgia feels like it’s always been en vogue in art, but the internet has only amplified that. It seems that such a fixation on the products, properties, and events of the past are distractions from the tumultuousness of the present. We’d much rather think fondly of our favorite episode of SpongeBob Squarepants or the quaint futurism of a GameBoy Advanced SP than think about a political climate that spells doom in the sky like the Wicked Witch of the West.
It feels so reductive to just talk about the show via its allusions: it’s Steven Spielberg, it’s John Carpenter, it’s Stephen King, etc. What of it? The Duffer Brothers, however slim their resume may be, aren’t stupid. What those aforementioned artists have in common, besides the obvious, is that they have been very astute in the way they examine familial dynamics in the face of tragedy and trauma. From Close Encounters to Carrie to The Thing, the Reagan era dread wasn’t just one of financial uncertainty, but of changing concepts of family relationships. (Also released in the 1980s: Blue Velvet, The Empire Strikes Back, and Clue.) The paraphernalia of time elapsed is a utility, a tool to build a world in which its characters develop a strained relationship with another world which they at once are ensnared and seduced by and becomes a tool in itself to navigate one’s trauma.
And so, Stranger Things, with its intense, borderline obsessive focus on the past, ephemeral, tangible, intangible, aesthetic, and tonal, becomes a narrative about nostalgia as coping mechanism for trauma. True, within the framework of its story, everything is “present” and “contemporary”, but its characters are equally keyed into artifacts and totems of time and place: Dungeons and Dragons, the sounds of The Clash, etc. For the characters, and the audience, of Stranger Things, nostalgia is a world to escape to, for better and worse.