Fall brings with it nostalgia, they say. Perhaps because the world slows down a bit, and we pull out the memories we haven’t spun in a while, for fear of them growing fainter while unattended. We humans don’t like seeing the past vanish, and we don’t like the thought that the world of our youth must by necessity be replaced with another world, and another, and another. This puts us in a strange position, in a reality where progression is unstoppable, where things have been set in motion to run forward to infinity, away from youth, away from simplicity.
Some people, largely of my generation, eye all nostalgia with suspicion, certain that all nostalgia is whitewash, and that every Norman Rockwell painting is an insidious image of a secretly unjust world that we have shaken off totally. Others tend to the opposite, to a noxious belief that everything was better in “the old days” and that ever step towards the future is a step away from where we need to be.
I land somewhere in the middle: it is clear to me, by looking at a Billboard top 40 singles chart from 1965 and another one from 2009, that something has been lost in the culture that we haven’t regained. On the other hand, from a societal standpoint, you would have to be nuts to want to live in 1965 unless you were a white male.
And then there’s personal nostalgia, for which none of us need offer apology. As I get closer to 40, I can feel those memories hardening into bronze, losing the feeling or reality, taking on the texture of some kind of massive déjà vu event. I can remember like yesterday the very first time I noticed girls in 5th grade – it feels like yesterday, like it’s still happening. And yet I know it was not yesterday, it has never been longer ago than it is today, and the fact that my mind’s mind can’t quite reconcile our memories with the actual geometry of time only serves to confuse me more about the nature of the truth of anyone’s life.
Since I tend to use movies to explain myself, here are five that I think get human nostalgia and its nuances right.
5) Stand By Me – It pours on the exaggerated period detail a little much, but this beloved portrait of the friendships young boys have with each other rings true, especially when considering the way those friendships must naturally disintegrate, like stitches that vanish with time.
4) The Wedding Singer – Not a particularly great picture, I’ll grant you, but it was among the first movies I can remember that recalled the 80s as halcyon days of yore. The movie’s 80s is an era that only exists as a series of pop-culture references, simplified and reduced to the kind of memory we feel comfortable with – “Yeah, those fashions sure were lame, thankfully we could never be susceptible to lame fashion again now that we’re modern people.”
3) Annie Hall – Woody Allen’s most famous movie is kind of like the grown-up ‘500 Days of Summer’ in its bittersweet appraisal of a flawed but treasured relationship. (‘Midnight in Paris’, Allen’s current hit, is about a different kind of nostalgia entirely.)
2) American Graffiti – My personal favorite movie ever is responsible for the nostalgia craze that followed, in large part. George Lucas’ loving, shaded recreation of his teenage life is all the more startling when you realize that the world it remembers so clearly (1962) had utterly vanished by the time the film was released 10 years later.
1) Peggy Sue Got Married – For some reason, Kathleen Turner did not win an Oscar for one of my favorite screen performances ever, playing herself in her thirties pretending to be herself as a teenager, after a bit of metaphysical time travel. There is no better movie about how the past feels to us on a personal level.
The question is this: What purpose does nostalgia serve? I think it’s an invisible antenna of sorts, a secret sense that clues us in to what time really is: Not something that’s racing past us, but something that envelops us in a restrictive kind of embrace – and like a baby or the one we love, time holds us fast no matter how strong the draw of yesterday. It has other plans for us.