The Problem with Movie Nostalgia

The Problem with Movie Nostalgia

Feb 28, 2013

We are completely, hopelessly and entirely addicted to nostalgia. Like a bunch of addicts, we reminisce fondly about our years in high school and college, building up a narrative that either those were the best years of our life, or held some difficult lessons but we learned from them all the same. As moviegoers, scared to see anything challenging or truly interesting most of the time, we plunk down our hard-earned dollars year in and year out to see dumb movies that claim to celebrate the past, holding up generic college experiences and demanding that we see our own history in the flickering picture show.

And we fall for it, every time, like a bunch of morons.

In Noah Baumbach's excellent film Kicking and Screaming, a character four months out of college hits the nail on the head when he says, "I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now. I can't go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory... and I didn't have a good time." (That this film was made in 1995 and we still feel this way is enraging.)

The problem with memory is that it's very difficult to remember things accurately since we tend to either remember things worse or better than they really were. The problem with nostalgia is that we gloss over the bad parts, picking out only the good and instantly forgiving the rest, filled with bittersweet longing for a better time that probably never existed. We all know older people who decry modern life and grandly talk about "the good old days" as if the racist, sexist-laden heyday of the 1950s and beyond was anything to be particularly proud of. But we’re just as bad! As we get older it's hard to shake that fear that perhaps the best days are behind us, and that we're never going to have it better than we did in high school or college. Which is probably true for a vast majority of the popular kids. (Or so we tell ourselves, as bitterly as we can manage.)

For many of us, the high school experience is long gone, we own relatively few photographs or other tangible artifacts of our time there, and we're left with only our faulty, hazy memories. One could argue this is a kind of necessary self-protection: think about your dumbest outfit, the stupidest thing you said out loud. It's almost impossible to remember events in high school as they really were, too horrible! Too painful! But mostly, too much happens to us in everyday life to remember anything but the highlights of events that happened a decade ago or more.

That's what makes movies so powerful, we can instantly be transported by the sights and sounds of a high school experience that has remained relatively the same for the past 50 years. The cool kids, the losers, the wide swath of mostly normal people who imagined themselves to be in either group but weren’t, really. Thanks to movies, we get to experience, in almost every decade, an example of what high school or college was, from Animal House to Ferris Bueller's Day Off to Clueless to Mean Girls and beyond. Of course, we were never this wild, this cool, this funny, but we all wish we were.

The poor, sad teens growing up now don’t get to blessedly forget the way the rest of us can. They have access to far more tangible, physical memories, especially in our media-saturated culture, where we can now see every photo through an Instagram filter, every exchange can be preplanned, texted, screen-shotted and savored endlessly. Facebook acts as our own public archivist, storing every artifact it can, so that we can look back on our experiences as often as we'd like, just like Beyonce. (Another person we will never be as cool as, but somehow have convinced ourselves is possible.) Going to high school or college now is an entirely different affair, but at least it might be the end of nostalgia. With hard evidence of the everyday activities of daily life, we may be able to escape romanticizing the past and judge it and our dumb selves honestly.

Nostalgia also does us no favors as filmgoers. It clouds our judgment, making us as useless as drunks slurping down glass after glass of a glorified past, and asks us to excuse far too much. There's more to a great coming-of-age film than simply setting it in college and piling on the antics. Films that have stood the test of time had a great script, amazing performances and the heft of generations of fans behind them. We live in a rich time of storytelling, with new and unheard voices making their way into the mainstream media, and yes, there are some experiences that hold true across generations: falling in love with someone that you shouldn't, embarrassing ourselves, feeling like an outsider and so on. But all too often, we forgive shoddy filmmaking, forgettable scripts and bad performances because we want to believe that our own experiences were similar, part of a unified whole.

The movie theater is a great place to sit back, relax, unwind and lose ourselves in a different world for a couple hours, but do we really need another Project X, Superbad or 21 and Over telling us how wild and great things were, celebrating alcohol and drug abuse along with casual sexism, racism and misogyny? There comes a certain breaking point as an audience member, a moment when you realize you are being sold the same movie and over, and that it bears little resemblance to the real-life events that shaped you, one way or another. 

Wanting to be known is a normal part of life, and sometimes it seems that books, movies and music can reach across the void and explain our experiences better than we can (which is totally a harrowing realization in and of itself). Seriously, our experiences are so basic that when we hear the latest Katy Perry song, we sing along and think about how much it’s like our lives? This should horrify us, deeply, but is somehow sickly comforting. 

It's time to put away childish things and stop excusing poor workmanship, terrible writing and bad acting as Hollywood mines our collective, imaginary past for material. Movies set up expectations for us throughout our childhood: the experience of falling in love, what we can expect of the adult world, and even what high school and college will be like. This is all a bunch of BS. They play on both totally generic and very specific experiences, and just as we grow up and realize that real life is often nothing like the movies, we need to wake up and realize that once we're past those experiences, the movies aren't particularly like our real lives. Get over it and move on.

Categories: Features, Editorials
Tags: 21 and Over
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