Nostalgia, NPR and NORTH BY NORTHWEST!
Linda Holmes blog “Monkey See” has an interesting post today about classic films and nostalgia. The piece was inspired by a screening of North by Northwest and what happened afterwards while she exited the theater:
On the way out, I heard this, sighed contentedly by someone near me who sounded like he would have been quite a few years away from being born when the movie was released in 1959: “That’s the way films were back then.”
That is most certainly not the way films were back then. That is the way this film was. And this film was one of the greatest movies made by one of the greatest directors of all time starring someone who would be on any list of contenders for the title of Most Flawless Movie Star In Hollywood History. So, yeah. It’s pretty good.
She goes on to add:
Not only does this kind of misdirected nostalgia overestimate the degree to which Everything Is Terrible These Days — an attitude that tends to make people incurious and lazy and less likely to discover what is new and good — but it tremendously undervalues the artistry that goes into a classic film.
So is Ms. Holmes right? Is this all nostalgia is? The misguided love for the best of the past? And the belief that it represents all of the past?
The word “nostalgia” comes from the Greek “notros” meaning “homecoming” and “aglos” which means “ache, pain or grief”. So it literally means the pain of going home. And that seems as true a definition now as it was when the word was first used in the 18th century. Our fond remembrance of the past comes with a bit of pain. And it’s that bit of pain that makes the feeling special and unique.
And the pain exists for a real reason. It’s there because we know we cannot return to that past. It’s an impossible journey. And that “impossible journey feeling” can be just as strong for a past we never experienced. Like the moviegoer’s Ms. Holmes’ describes obvious love for films of the fifties. But does that love exist because people only know the best of a bygone era? Hardly.
Many of the most loved films of the past were from genres that weren’t especially heralded for quality then or now. Creaky old detective yarns. B-movies. Serials. Or look at the undying love for old TV sitcoms? Hardly great examples of the filmmaking art. And yet they provoke wan looks of nostalgia even among those not alive for their initial release or airing.
So we think Ms. Holmes only got hold of the tiniest corner of the issue. Because we feel she could easily have heard much the same sighed comment after a screening of an old Charlie Chan movie. Or at a TV nostalgia convention.
We are humans. We want what we cannot have. And one thing we cannot have, not matter how much we may want it, is the past.