On Bellbottoms and Being Dated

Hollywood has certainly benefited from new technology. I mean, we’ve made it a long way from silents to Technicolor IMAX 3D THX sensations. Every aspect has improved, that is, except screenwriting. The number of nineties movies I’ve seen where the hero whips out a huge cell phone or a milk crate-sized laptop are countless. Not only does it take me out of the movie’s “high-tech reality” it also provides a sort of inappropriate comic relief: “Man, does Arnold look like a loser with that giant Nokia!” That’s the definition of dated for me—some gadget, saying, or set piece that is so old it looks like an anachronism even then.

Sometimes this datedness can serve as camp humor. Austin Powers does this well—I mean, who can forget the secret agent man’s rotating bed? Other times, it just comes off as, well, crap.

Here’s where dated falls flat. I’m invoking show don’t tell here and won’t even comment on the seventies excess of this next video. Sorry, Neil Sedaka. I love the song, not the bell bottoms.

Here’s the hard part: how to avoid being dated. I don’t have a very good answer. Everything we write now will look a little creaky in ten or so years. Writers simply don’t know enough to predict what trends have staying power (let’s just hope it’s not Justin Bieber). The myth that by not including any references to pop culture or appliances will save your story is bunk. Everything is influenced by everything else—even the simplest word choice can reflect a time more correctly than any reference. The best stories do include a historical context—that’s not a bad thing. Commenting on the absurdities of one’s generation could even be considered a writerly rite of passage.

Only when those references become the focus of the story do things fail. So, my advice is to focus on the transcendent stuff—relationships, emotions, people, thoughts, feelings, ideas. The rest, no matter what, is window dressing after all. Sure, the material changes, but the other stuff doesn’t. No matter how we change, we’ll always fall in love, we’ll always fall out of love, we’ll always grapple with death, life, birth, all of those big issues: no matter whether we are doing it via telephone, iPhone, or iPad (hopefully while not listening to Justin Bieber).

So, what are your thoughts? Do you worry about being dated? Is this even a concern?

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5 responses to “On Bellbottoms and Being Dated

  1. Great advice! (Don’t let the references be the focus of the story.)

    I was thinking about some of the movies I watched lately that I enjoyed, and they do a good job of that. I’ll have to think about books too… Like, one I just finished references a lot of music (P.O.D., Michelle Branch, etc.) so that dates it. But then again, it dates it to a time I’m familiar with, so I don’t care, only older or newer readers would.

    I don’t worry about it myself, because I’m not (yet) at a place with my work where I’m trying to write something timeless or transcendent. But someday I might care, and when that day comes, I’ll have to remember this post. 😉

    • Thanks so much for the comment. Yes, agreed, sometimes those references are good–they place us in the time and culture of a story. That written, the story should be more than a collection of pop culture memes.

      Whatever happened to Michele Branch anyway? Not that I ever listened to that, haha.

  2. I never really dug the criticism of concepts being dated. To say, for example, a movie about AIDS is irrelevant because the disease is under control seems like a slap in the face to the areas and people still affected by the disease.

    That being said, I’ll give a bit of leeway to certain things that has a dated, out-of-place fill. For example, cell phones; having no signal in an specific, isolated spot makes sense. However, when four different characters all have no signal (which I saw in a episode of CSI), that’s when I’m rolling my eyes.

    Other than South Park, I’ve yet to see a show or movie really embrace/understand/satirize modern technologies in its stories in some well-meaning way (even the Matrix missed the mark, IMO, and the recent Futurama episodes seem off as well). One writer suggested avoid stories that involve cell phones. Hahaha, no.

  3. @ Kevin–Good points. I may have rephrased this blog to write “Don’t be cliched.” An easy way to be cliched is to have a character put a Maroon 5 poster on her wall, just because that’s current. Not to say she wouldn’t, just let’s get inventive.

    Talking about being dated–when’s your next blog post???

  4. Interesting question(s).

    I think references and technology appear less dated if they stick out for some reason: whether it’s because they’re being made fun of (at the time), deliberately used to establish setting, etc.

    The worst is when it seems incidental or lazy because the writer couldn’t think of anything so he just looked around, saw his bulky cordless phone and thought, “gee, the character should call his friend Bob and make a joke about ABBA.”

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