The Great Stagnation, as seen in movies

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at:


All that is meant by Decadence is ‘falling off.’ . . . . The forms of art as of life seem exhausted, the stages of development have been run through. Institutions function painfully. Repetition and frustration are the intolerable result.

That seems to be our lot today, I suggested, using the prism of the McFly family saga to illustrate the point. “We’re now as far from the Reagan 1980s as the teenage Marty was from his parents’ 1950s,” I wrote, “and yet the gulf of years separating us from 1985 feels far narrower than the distance from the Eisenhower era the original film used to such great effect.” That lack of distance reflects the absence of the kind of change, political and cultural, that reshaped the West between the 1950s and the 1980s:

The power of the first Back to the Future depended not just on an arbitrary 30-year period, that is, but on how radically America had changed across those decades: Marty’s adolescence and his parents’ courtship lay on opposite sides of (among many other things) rock ’n’ roll, civil rights, Vietnam, the sexual revolution, drug culture, the moon landing, feminism, the apocalyptic ’70s, and, finally, the conservative turn that made this magazine’s 30th anniversary a happy one.

Whereas if you remade Back to the Future now, and sent Martina McFly back to ‘85, you would have a lot of jokes about life without the iPhone, some shocking shoulder pads, and some sort of “comic” critique of Reagan-era unenlightenment on same-sex marriage. But you wouldn’t have the sense of visiting a past that’s actually another country.

To illustrate this point I rolled together a raft of arguments about political and cultural repetition, with nods to everything from Tyler Cowen’s “great stagnation” to the resilience of 1970s-era theological debates in the “new” era of Pope Francis to the persistence of fashion, musical and architectural styles. And then, inevitably, I had this nod to Hollywood:

In the original Back to the Future, Marty McFly invaded his father’s sleep dressed as “Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan.” Thirty years later, the biggest blockbuster of 2015 promises to be about . . . Darth Vader’s grandchildren. It will be directed by a filmmaker who’s coming off rebooting . . . Star Trek. And the wider cinematic landscape is defined by . . . the recycling of comic-book properties developed between the 1940s and the 1970s.