The Artistic Beauty and Destructive Power of Nostalgia

Arguably the best moment of Mad Men is Don’s pitch of the “carousel” slideshow projector at the end of season one. As the lights dim and images of Don’s family flicker across a wall, Don says that in Greek nostalgia means “the pain of an old wound. A twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone.” This pitch is Don’s entire character arc, a man aching for a love lost, searching for it in the present iterations of ghosts from the past, and detonating his life in the process.

This was Mad Men’s great insight: nostalgia that sits too long curdles and becomes something awful.

I mention this because an anonymous group recently announced they’re raising money to remake The Last Jedi. Sure, TLJ made a billion dollars and has a 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, but to a subset of particularly opinionated and aggrieved fans, the film is an abomination. They hate Luke Skywalker being a grumpy old man. They hate the dismissal of Snoke’s backstory. They hate that Admiral Ackbar, who is only known  wasn’t given a grander exit. Also, they hate Rey, for reasons that totally aren’t misogynistic. They haaaaaaaate this film.

Shortly after TLJ premiered, Benjamin Calmenson wrote in a guest review for The Kansas City Star that “like other young fans, [I] grew up watching the films … so when The Last Jedi proved to be shockingly bad, it was more than a Saturday night misspent. The movie was a stain on my childhood memories.”

Calmenson’s hot take became the anthem of the anti-TLJ fanbase: “it ruined my childhood.” And while I can see not liking the film - it’s overlong, and tosses aside many of The Force Awakens mysteries fans had puzzled over - the idea any film could “ruin your childhood” is the definition of curdled nostalgia. These fans hate TLJ director Rian Johnson because he didn’t soothe the twinge in their heart that is searching for their childhood. They wanted something new, but only to remind them of something old. Instead, TLJ dared to move beyond nostalgia, and Johnson still gets hate tweets on a regular basis.

A healthy nostalgia roots us in the story of what happened before: moments with our family, our first crush, the first time we were praised for being good at something. These moments shape us. If I may Westworld for a second, they’re our core directive. Notice how often in the Bible God’s people are instructed to remember what God has done in the past as a way of navigating their present. In the Christian life, there’s a nostalgia that allows us to feel sad, hopeful, encouraged, and expectant.

The light of a curdled nostalgia, however, is blinding, not illuminating. Curdled nostalgia tells us we can escape our dissatisfaction with the present by retreating to a make-believe moment when we were “truly happy.” We try to turn “now” into “then,” and forget that “then” had its fair share of problems. Politics aside, this is the fatal flaw of the “Make America Great Again” slogan, because which America falls into that “again” category? Was it the time when black people were lynched, that domestic abuse went unreported, and thousands of World War II veterans suffered from PTSD in silence? The America Past depicted in Norman Rockwell paintings are mirages, leading us to a place where there is only more of the same, but with an increasingly dehydrated soul.

This is why we still get excited about a new Jurassic Park movie, even though the last good Jurassic film was made twenty-five years ago. We keep looking for a film that will recapture the awe we felt at thirteen, but nothing ever will. We don’t need a new Jurassic sequel. We need a generation who saw it as teens to go out and make their transcendent film. This is the purpose of nostalgia - it’s a catalyzing agent, a reservoir of deep emotion, a well we dip into in search of pure artistic expression.It’s been said that those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it, but those fixated on the past are doomed to destroy it. Instead, artists should reflect fondly on the past, feel it deeply, and then make art that points to a world beyond it.