Nostalgionic Misfitry and Midnight in Paris

Dear CF,

I just got back from watching Midnight in Paris and found this lovely sad piece of yours. “The media wasn’t trying to pluck them in the same soft spot,” you say (of people in the past). Has our generation lost all its feathers to Kodak moments? Is it nostalgia for a time when we didn’t know we were being marketed to?

Midnight in Paris is a neat test case for this, partly because it totally eschews the technology you see taking over. (Re: nostalgic internetspeak, isn’t it already here? FIRST! LOL. You’ve Got Mail.) There isn’t an iPhone or any other mobile device anywhere in the entire film. In a modern world where cameras dominate all landscapes, Paris doesn’t seem to have any. We’re to believe that it just never occurs to our time-traveller, product of a culture that documents everything, to take a picture when he’s in 1920s Paris. The nostalgia Gil and Adriana share is for a world that specifically isn’t theirs, that doesn’t speak to them personally and therefore offers a good and gently-lit life. A life where Hemingway is HEMINGWAY (truth and grace!). Dali is dahlEEEEEE RHINOCEROS. Zelda Fitzgerald is Zaylda, writ large. The past is nothing but charm and triumphant swagger. Ironically, the main character of the film isn’t just a Hollywood screenwriter and a nostalgia junkie; he also writes about a purveyor of nostalgic memorabilia.

When it comes to the kind of nostalgia you’re talking about—the kind that’s rooted in one’s past, I feel like my attachments are, oh, transcendently selfish. They’re still consumerist, but they revolve around the desire a commercial sparked or the psychic investment I put into specific objects. Somehow, though, that doesn’t translate very easily into the generational soul-candy you’re talking about. Mine is a very me-centered WANT that felt grabby and sticky and faintly out of sync with my time, partly because I was sort of an odd duck that didn’t fit in too well.

Objects I remember:

That Hello Kitty pencil (I had a pencil collection).

The scratch-n-sniff stickers (I had a sticker collection).

The hamburger eraser with different layers that came off. Also the ladybug lipstick eraser (I had an eraser collection).

The Halloween candle of a black kitten with an orange ribbon. I never even dreamed of burning it, since it would melt the cat. For that matter, I never sharpened a single pencil, used a single sticker or a single eraser.

The Wile E. Coyote doll my brother gave me that stared at me at night with its evil plastic eyes that glowed from the streetlights outside. The full-sized Sylvester stuffed animal I danced with, then slapped around because it was taller than me.

A “preemie” Cabbage Patch doll.

Maybe I was so busy hoarding and being preemptively nostalgic that I used it all up. That might still be true. I still keep busy guarding against future nostalgia (the fact that I just typed that phrase speaks volumes). When I moved into my current apartment, my subconscious warned me not to enjoy the lake because one day, when I left, it would hurt too much to remember how beautiful it had been. Do Not Enjoy This Lake, it said. Which is stupid since I have a truly terrible memory, but for some reason my brain sees fit to inoculate me against nostalgia.

Anyway, after reading your post I started thinking back, trying to call up nostalgia, remember those old fixations. I remember toy commercials: the SkipIt ads. Pogoball. Slip ‘N’ Slide. Speak ‘N’ Spell. As far other TV: Commander Mark’s alien colonies. Bugs Bunny. Judge Wapner. Darkwing Duck. Reading Rainbow. Sesame Street. The dangerous flirtation between Rainbow Brite and Red Butler. The original Nintendo–Zelda and Mario 3.

The TV-speak is there, which is probably why we spend so much time on it! Golden Girls, the Cosby Show, Family Matters, Full House, Saved by the Bell, 90210. (I just now realized that two of those shows were pretty much all-black—that would never happen today.) But the nostalgia has no content: I remember loving them, but I have no idea what happened in any TV episode or in any of the Three Stooges movies. All I know is that the self I once was LOVED the Three Stooges and probably had her reasons. Same with Care Bears and My Little Ponies. If ’80s nostalgia means having an informed and fluent love for the ’80s things, I have the love, but when it comes to trivia, names, plotlines, it’s an empty category.

It occurs to me that all those shows had one thing in common: they made it easy to be good. Whatever nostalgia I have might come ultimately from the way those things confirmed that good was good and bad was bad. The distinctions were clear and uncomplicated (thanks, Cold War!).

For a kid, the danger was negligible. The safety was what counted.

I guess I’m trying to say that my nostalgia—if we’re talking things that pluck the heartstrings—might be closer to the Midnight in Paris variety (if you turn Paris into London and Hemingway into Agatha Christie).  I still want to go into a “drawing room” and drink from Lucy’s cordial, but I’ve never wanted to go back to my youth in pop culture terms. And I don’t really rejoice in it that much now—I usually just get nervous that the new remake is going to overwrite the original in my head, because my memory sucks. Again, I was a little bit of a weirdo (in the safest, most boring way). Weirdos were everywhere in the ’80s, which made me feel okay, even though I was a much duller kind of weirdo. My mother wasn’t from here and the sense of difference at home went away if I just liked what she liked. So I did. We watched The People’s Court and the Cosby Show together. Having a mom from somewhere else meant I didn’t crimp my hair. No bedazzler. I finally got to keep my Masters of the Universe plastic cup from Burger King after a long fight, but there’s no denying that I wore Osh Kosh B’Gosh’s way longer than anyone should. And a “Hello, My Name is” nametag on my first day to junior high.

Let’s just say the social cues between home and the world didn’t match up, and I tended to side with home. I was an only child with a smart and commanding mother.

Anyway, I guess I’d say that Midnight in Paris is a experiment in exactly the kinds of crutches you’re talking about (crazy Zelda=crutch. Nutty Dali: crutch. Arrogant Picasso–crutch crutch crutch). It’s all about the nostalgic image with no real anchor to the referent (no non-whites in America, as you say! No poverty in Paris!).

But that has its charm, I think?

I don’t know if Woody Allen can redeem the category for us. I asked my students what the definitive texts of their generation would be—who they’d want someone to read fifty years from now to see what it was like to live now. “Facebook,” one said, and laughed, sounding all kinds of bitter.




One Response to Nostalgionic Misfitry and Midnight in Paris

  1. friendn says:

    Inoculating oneself against nostalgia by not fully engaging in something that will be potentially heartwrenching later…that’s profound. After I read that, I instantly thought back to the feeling I had when I moved to my little cabin in the mountains, knowing that I could only stay there two years. It was a mix of exhilaration, to be in such a magical place, and sadness to know that it wasn’t going to last as long as I wanted. And now when I look back I wish I had allowed myself to be more in the moment, to soak up the peace and piney woodsmokey goodness. That’s a tough lesson to learn, and I love how you articulated it.

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