Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 June 2011


I have been posting so frequently about history and nostalgia, you probably think, dear reader, that I am becoming obsessed with the past. But au contraire; that is only partly true. What I am becoming interested in more and more is the way that we see the past. Why we need it. Let me offer a question:

Of what is the past productive for us? What does it give us?

These days I am reading Raymond Williams's wonderful book Marxism and Literature and
A) wishing I had read it when I was a first-year graduate student,
B) remembering how one needs to write the history of things before one begins to speak about them, and
C) feeling better about my own hesitation to actually write. There is so much to know before the writing starts.

But back to nostalgia.

One of the awesome things Williams says is that we think that tradition is some kind of fixed entity, a real thing. But to be more accurate, "tradition is in practice the most evident expression of the dominant and hegemonic pressures and limits. ... What we have to see is not just 'a tradition' but a selective tradition: an intentionally selective version of a shaping past and a pre-shaped present, which is then powerfully operative in the process of social and cultural definition and identification." The past, in other words, is always being put to work in order to influence the present.

And that for which we are nostalgic is also a kind of produced feeling that another era or period was better than our own.

This is all preface to the two movies I've seen so far in 2011, both of which are actively about nostalgia: J.J. Abrams' Super 8 and Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris.

I liked Super 8, and I really appreciated its brand of nostalgia - more a nostalgia for childhood than for a specific time period (like, say, American Graffiti or Avalon). The movie is cool, too - like the last Abrams movie - a great cast and lots of fun ideas.

People are saying the movie is derivative, and it is, but that's sort of okay for this sort of thing, I think. Super 8 has a lot of generic themes about being a kid, and it's hard not to be derivative in that department. I think this is mostly because we tend to re-imagine our childhoods so that they actively fit these images and tropes that movies give us. Many white people probably have re-imagined their childhoods so that they match the childhoods of the children in E.T.: the Extra-terrestrial and, oh, I don't know, American Beauty, if that makes sense.

My favorite part of Super 8 was seeing a lot of good actors - the film just kept surprising the audience with new ones: David Gallagher was a total trip and I loved seeing Dale Dickey, and especially Glynn Turman. Also: loved Michael Giacchino's score.

And I loved Woody Allen's new movie. LOVED. It's a total delight with even more wonderful cameos. The plot is totally nonsensical, of course, but the movie is just really really smart about nostalgia and the ways in which we pretend other time periods are better time periods. In Midnight in Paris, Owen Wilson is obsessed with Paris in the 1920s, and then, somehow, finds himself there, visiting with Picasso and Cole Porter and Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, and Hemingway and Gertrude Stein (and even Djuna Barnes!). It is hilarious from start to finish and also filled with wisdom and wit.

In Allen's film, the performances of these famous people don't match what we know from history about these people; instead, Allen has his actors play the characters like the fantasies they are. Zelda and Scott are exactly how you'd expect them to be: constantly drunk, attending parties every night, dancing until dawn. And Hemingway is as intense and self-important as you imagine. Salvador Dalí is an absolute lunatic. The actors in these parts are absolutely great; Adrien Brody as Dalí is giving a particularly inspired performance that might actually border on genius. I could not stop laughing.

In typical Allen philosophy, too, one must learn to live in the world one inhabits. (Think Purple Rose of Cairo.) Nostalgia is only good if it helps us to make the present better - not by going back, never by going back - by going forward. Allen, as usual, I think, encourages us to live with the world we have and stop trying to make it into something it used to be - especially because it was never really "what it used to be" in the first place.