Here I spoil a number of classics, as well as the newly released Inside Out.
In Inside Out, Pixar’s newest, the protagonist-emotions Joy and Sadness spend the film engaging in a strange charade over Riley’s, the 11-year-old girl they inhabit and serve, “core memories”. All of these most important moments from Riley’s early childhood are meant to shape her personality, and to Joy’s pride they are all yellow. They glow in the unmistakable tone of sunshine and daffodils, meaning that they were all Joy’s doing, all moments that have made Riley the “Happy girl” and “Smiley girl” — in her parents’ words — she is when we meet her. The action makes way when her family announces a move from Minnesota to San Fransisco, and Sadness, one of the five emotions controlling Riley, develops a compulsion. She wants to touch the mostly-yellow orbs that represent Riley’s mostly-joyous memories. When she does, to the terror of the others, the memories turn blue, irreversibly. Joy cannot figure out how to turn them back, and relegates Sadness to tasks ranging from trivial (read all of the manuals in “headquarters”) to outright insulting (“keep all the sadness in this circle”).
Even the core memories are not safe, though they seem more resilient until Joy, in a panic, knocks them all loose, leaving Riley without a personality and leaving herself and Sadness lost somewhere in the maze of Riley’s mind. The movie documents their beautifully realized journey back to headquarters, rushing to get the core memories back where they belong while Riley’s life quietly falls apart. Over this time, Joy labors to carry all of the memories, fearing what will happen if she lets Sadness so much as touch one. Riley’s childhood would become blue, tainted by sadness, with no known way to expunge it once it’s there.
Here we see her playing in a play ground, laughing wildly as she goes down a slide. We see her slip on a frozen pond as her first goal slips past her father, happy to pass his love of hockey onto his little girl. There’s her running around in a diaper making goofy faces, or sitting on tree branches with her loving parents. For Riley at the beginning of the movie, these ought to be happy memories; they represent the best of what she has, great friends, great parents, a great attitude, and serious hockey skills. These are — literally, the movie argues — what make Riley, Riley, and she cherishes all of them. Perhaps this is why Sadness started creeping in when she moved away from that playground and from her best friend and her team. Away from the comforts of childhood to a land where you can only get one type of pizza and need to learn a new walk to school, she lost those memories in both the sense that she lost her present connections to them, and that Joy sent them tumbling down into the emptiness of her mind.
They cannot be happy memories anymore, Inside Out seems to say, because they have been relegated to just that: memories. Without a connection and even the faintest promise that she can still be as happy as she was as a little girl, she looks at those cherished moments differently. They are gone. They represent something that is lost and cannot be recovered, and this makes her sad. At the moment when joy becomes sadness, you get nostalgia.
Inside Out is not the first, and is unlikely to be the last, film to explore nostalgia. I’m not talking here of Frederic Jameson’s concept of the nostalgia film, which is essentially a criticism of contemporary movies set in the past for trying to strike an emotional cord with the audience by exposing this helpless vulnerability. No, I’m talking about movies not that use nostalgia, but that are actively about it.
Nostalgia is defined in Mad Men — which qualifies as both postmodern nostalgia evoking and romanticizing the 1960s, and as about nostalgia and Don’s reluctance to leave his comfort zone as society changed — as “the pain from an old wound… It’s delicate, but potent… It’s a twinge in your heart more powerful than memory alone.” This speech, of course, could only come from the suave, intelligent delivery of Don Draper, Madison Avenue ad man extraordinaire. In the season 1 finale, “The Wheel”, Don is tasked to pitch a campaign for a Kodak slide projector. He does so by sitting Kodak’s men down in a smokey room, projecting photos from his own idyllic life, and loosing the aforementioned prose on the room. His own colleague leaves the room in tears.
Don, television’s greatest salesman, who is able even to convince himself of his own lies, rushes home to be with his family. But when he gets there to join them for a Thanksgiving trip he planned to skip for work, they’ve already left. For all of his sleeping around and workplace heroism, his life is empty to him because it lacks what it once had, or maybe even didn’t have. Mad Men tells us in the same season that the Greeks also had an interesting take on the life of Don’s dreams. See, “utopia” in contemporary use signifies a perfect, magical ideal. But Don has to learn that it comes from two roots in Greek: “‘eu-topos’, meaning the good place, and ‘u-topos’ meaning the place that cannot be.”
He has convinced himself of his own lie — the lie that he is a New York ad man, that he has the perfect family and perfect house in the ‘burbs, that he belongs in a skyscraper boardroom, even that he is Donald Draper — so deeply that he cannot recognize what is the truth and what is the lie. Showing photos of cherished moments, he pines for the days when he and his wife could celebrate together, but chooses not to spend Thanksgiving with her; he doesn’t want to let go of the days when he and his daughter would fall asleep on the couch, but he flees her birthday party and never returns with the cake.
He can do all of that, he can return to the perfect life he had hoped to build. Perhaps he didn’t realize that it was what he wanted while he had it, but now he feels that it is past and gone. Charles Foster Kane, protagonist of American cinema’s most celebrated treasure Citizen Kane, can also do pretty much whatever he wants. He is the walking embodiment of spoiled rotten, turning his various offices and homes into nothing much more than mazes filled with invaluable artifacts and knick-knacks and women. But like Draper and Riley, he pines for something he once had. When he meets his second wife, Susan, he says he was on his way to see some of his mother’s old things in a storage unit, to literally dig through the past. At the time, we don’t know if he’s looking for anything specific or just browsing down memory lane (which Joy and Sadness literally do, by the way). Inside her house, he becomes enamored with a snowglobe of Susan’s depicting an idyllic winter scene with a small cabin. The snow globe appears in other moments, once leading him to ferocious vulnerability and again at the moment of his death. “Rosebud”, he says as he drops it with his last breath, and the quest of the movie is to understand the meaning of the word, the sole motivation he had behind his moves, the last thing on his mind that he took to the death bed.
Those of you who have seen the film know that Rosebud was his childhood sled that he used to rush through the snow in his Colorado childhood home. Like Riley and the emotions, when he looked at the snowglobe on the night he was already thinking about his past, it was through a new lens, the understanding that happy memories of childhood are tainted in adulthood by the fact that they are lost forever. Kane kept Rosebud for his entire life, but it is unclear that in his massive manor and mixed in with his thousands of possessions he even knew it was there. He could afford anything and everything. He wanted his wife to be an opera star, so he built an opera house. But he could never get what he truly yearned for, which is, the chance to go back, to be a kid again in the snow with a sled.
Citizen Kane is told largely through flashback. But it isn’t Kane’s flashbacks, they belong to his friends and family. So, the exact perspective of his nostalgia, the pain from the old wound of the end of his childhood, is missing. Still, one of the close comrades interviewed about Kane is Mr. Bernstein. Bernstein tells a story that drills home the film’s theme in a brilliantly tangential way. He once saw a girl, a beautiful girl in a white dress. He noticed her from afar, was blown away by her beauty and kept going about his day. All these years later, he has forgotten more than many of us will ever know, but he still holds onto the memory of that girl and the remorse of never having spoken to her. The pain of his memory, the delivery of which is so rehearsed it seems to lack any emotion at all, comes from reaching for the unreachable. He wants to talk to her, to savor and appreciate her beauty, but she isn’t there any more. He isn’t even there any more. He has been replaced with an older, worn version of himself. Kane experiences the same trauma. He wishes young Charlie Kane could go play in the snow. But the snow is not there, and young Charlie has been replaced by newspaper mogul Charles Foster Kane.
Perhaps the ultimate study in nostalgia through flashback in screen culture is Stand By Me, the cult classic ’80s coming-of-age flick about a group of boys who go out on their own in search of the body of a missing child, and on the way learn about life and about each other and the plights they share growing up in an impoverished factory town. Actually, that’s not quite the plot, exactly. Based loyally on a Stephen King novella The Body, Stand By Me is the story of a grown man sitting at his computer much like I am right now, and typing out the story of one of the adventures he and his friends had when they were 12 years old.
The story, therefore, is told with distance and mature reflection. Time has probably inadvertently revised his memory. His best friend Chris, who was killed in the time between the story and the grown protagonist writing it, is probably inflated and remembered as more heroic than he actually was. Gordie, the writer-protagonist, remembers himself self-consciously with limited embellishment. Still, he has chosen which details to hold on to. He remembers that he would distract his friends and pass the time by telling stories, something the would-be novelist ought to hold dear.
Part of nostalgia, the part that leads me to bring up Stand By Me in the mix of these other much more straight forward examples, is time’s influence on memory. In Inside Out, the emotions seem to forget what they want to forget about Riley’s childhood. That great moment with Mom and Dad on the tree branch before being hoisted by her teammates? It happened because she had just missed the would-be winning goal in a hockey game and was heartbroken and embarrassed. It was a sad memory with a happy ending. They chose to keep it as only happy. Joy probably could not see the problem with that, and it takes her the quest of the film to appreciate the value of holding onto sadness.
Sadness builds in these memories and the added emotion of loss to the original emotion of love render memories larger than life. Gordie, like Kane and his sled or Don and his family, pines for a lost past that he cannot retrieve. Perhaps Chris and the rest of the guys were as great as he says; perhaps they weren’t. What counts is that he remembers them in such a way that his nostalgia has hurt his appreciation of the new; he fights so hard for the joy in those memories that he forgets to have joy in his present. Anyone and everyone can relate to the devastating final line of the film, as adult Gordie has a painful moment of clouded self-reflection about how his life has gone since that memorable summer: “I never had an friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”
It hurts to admit that, and it is something we all feel. When I was twelve, I was at my happiest on the school bus. I’m not joking. That was where I would spend the best quality time I could with the best friends I ever had. We goofed off, acted like ourselves, and nothing else mattered. Were we ever as happy as I remember us being? In Mad Men, the projected slides suggest we were. But they are just projections, selected bits preserved from a sea of others forgotten. The same is true, oddly enough, in Inside Out. Unlike the television period piece, Inside Out had near boundless creative freedom. It could have shown images from Riley’s memory in any way modern computer imagery would allow, but director Pete Doctor and his team decided to show it very much like a movie.
Film is shown by holding images in front of light and changing them 24 times per second. In headquarters, Joy summons memories and then lifts them in front of a stream of light so they can be enlarged and shown on a screen. Perhaps cinema is so obsessed with nostalgia because it is itself nostalgic. Photography cannot capture the present, and it isn’t designed to. It captures a moment for preservation into the future, a future when the depicted moment has become the past and comes with the associated feelings of melancholy and loss. Today, even the medium of film is nostalgic to many, as digital projection has all be eliminated lighted film projectors, and video is the preferred method of image capture. Even the hum of a projector stirs memories of cinemas of not too long ago, and some of us imagine a better world in which inperceptible blackness every 24th of a second enlivens the frame.
We let the movies run in front of us and look up at them helplessly — sometimes we enjoy watching things unfold before us, sometimes this helplessness is binding and why won’t you look behind you! — in the same way Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust look at Riley’s memories. They flicker on the same screen through which they watch her life unfold, and are only changed by a switch from yellow to blue. This switch is natural, something everyone goes through in the growing up process. Most of us don’t have to grow up in one moment like Riley has to with the move, but slowly and steadily it happens. Maybe that’s why so many tears have been shed by the older crowd accompanying children to Inside Out. Nostalgia. The members of the audience went through that change and remember when they had to let childhood go, too.