I see cinema as a historical archive more than anything. Film exists in a vacuum of the time period it was made whether it is truthful or not of that era. However, there are also pictures that are more indicative of the era that they were created in than others. For example, you could really make something like Silence of the Lambs (Demme, 1991) in any time period as I don’t believe it to be culturally synonymous with the 90s, other than the sense that it was released in that decade. However, something like Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1984) could not be made today. I hear that phrase tossed around quite liberally these days. Along the lines of, “you couldn’t make Blazing Saddles (Brooks, 1974)today.” Which yes, surly comedy and culture are malleable and changes with time but you most definitely could still make Blazing Saddles for the most part intact. Fast Times, however, exists in its own world. A world where a kid who has “been stoned since third grade, where “DISCO SUCKS” is written on the wall of a baseball dugout, and where three girls at the same school have “cultivated the Pat Benatar look”. The pop-culture references, while contemporary at the time have aged like fine wine, and it makes for excellent insight into the growing up in middle-class America in the early 1980s.
Now I, a person born at the turn of the millennium am for one not an authority on the topic of an era that was fifteen times my senior. However, I can say that anecdotally talking to people about Fast Times, whether it be parents or former teachers they usually go, “I knew a Mike Damone growing up” or “I was more of a Brett Ratner”. The music especially is a big part of why this is an important time capsule of the era. Opening with “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Gos setting the scene at the mall, the social epicenter for the students of Ridgemont High. The Cars, Oingo Boingo, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers span across the multiple vignettes of growing up at this time. The effectiveness of Fast Times also functions so well because director Amy Heckerling and writer Cameron Crowe know exactly what type of movie it is. At the time, it was just a film about being in high school, not much else. When John Hughes made The Breakfast Club a year later, it came with a type of self-importance about what it wanted to say. Making a voice-over about the five archetypal characters the focal point of the message of the film. Fast Times has aspects of those five characters of course, but it makes it known that these are real people and not just caricatures. I think a lot of that authenticity comes from the source material as well. Based on Cameron Crowe’s novel Fast Times at Ridgemont High: A True Story (1981) (where he went undercover at Claremont High School in San Diego for a year) gives it that fidelity.
Another great example of what “Time Capsule Cinema” is would be the films of Hal Needham, such as Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and more specifically The Cannonball Run (1981). When watching The Cannonball Run in 2020 the film teleports you back to the era of the racing-obsessed subculture with a cast of stars to boot. The Ray Stevens’ song “Cannonball” played in the opening credits is a lovely country and synth-infused ballad that is only emboldened in its significance as Farrah Fawcett gets out of a sports car and spray paints a red X over the speed limit sign. The cast, packed with large stars such as: Burt Reynolds, Roger Moore, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., and Jackie Chan definitely feel almost as if we are focusing on too many characters making for a bloated and uneven product. However, in hindsight, this makes the film a more excellent piece of Time Capsule Cinema. As the huge cast of characters are all drawn on Drew Struzan’s hand-drawn poster where the characters all surround a speed limit sign. The Cannonball Run poses an important question, however: does Time Capsule Cinema have to be good? Well of course it doesn’t. Something like Cameron Crowe’s gen-x/Seattle grunge-era film Singles (1992) would not be something I would consider “good” (or for that matter entertaining) cinema. But nonetheless, it can provide a catharsis for people who either experienced that subculture first-hand or wanted to experience it first-hand.
It may be suggested by some that documentaries would be a better way to experience an event through a historical lens and while that may be true with cultural “watershed” moments like The Monterey Pop Festival, the 1960 Democratic primary between John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, or Agnès Varda interviewing The Black Panthers in 1960s Oakland. As shown in my examples, I believe that D.A. Pennebaker is probably the best documentary filmmaker at least when it comes to somewhat-recent cultural events. However, why I tend to disagree with the notion that documentaries are “better” examples of Time Capsule Cinema because in many ways, cultural relevance can be measured by the popular commercial films of the time than what a handful of people were doing at a specific time. Many more people are able to go see movies than say, go to Woodstock and narrative features are much more popular (the only documentary that has made over $100 million is Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)). The box office receipts surrounding a film like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (Charles, 2006). Borat made about $262 million at the box office (on a $18 million budget) and its popularity provides utility to the shared sentiments of people during post- 9/11 Bush-era America. Reflective on how the various catchphrases of the titular Sacha-Baron Cohen character permeated through the popular zeitgeist (“my wife” and ”very nice!” specifically). And while the humor in Borat has not aged specifically well, Time Capsule Cinema allows the viewer to appreciate it as a historical document. Which is what I would recommend people to view something with that perspective more often.
In conclusion, there may be some variance of quality in the films discussed in this piece and there can even be a debate over what qualifies as Time Capsule Cinema to different people. The only criteria for Time Capsule Cinema are that the film must take place in the era it was produced. A film can take us to a certain period with the contemporary design choices of the time and that is what makes it so magical (a recent example for me was my viewing of Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966)). Using this information will help develop an extra critical lense when viewing a film can aid in a higher understanding of not just the film but also history and time itself. So now, go forth and experience the past!