The first thing that pops into our heads when we hear the word ‘nostalgia’ is a sepia-tinted landscape with pleasant, soothing music playing in the background. How many of us are aware that when nostalgia was identified as a condition for the first time it was labeled as a disease? It was in the 17th century that Swiss doctors discovered what they called a ‘pathological homesickness that turned those afflicted with it indifferent to their surroundings and aching for the past.’ Nostalgics were treated with opium, leeches and warm emulsions and it was considered as a paralysing disease.
Fast-forward to the current times, and nostalgia isn’t viewed as dangerous. In fact, with the rapid pace, modern technological developments and rate of change, the “good ol’ days” are yearned for; nostalgia is considered as cute, even kitschy and most definitely in vogue. Nostalgia doesn’t even have to be about your own personal past, it can simply be a longing for a bygone era you have never personally experienced but feel like you might have fitted in better with than your present time. But this is still a temptation that might cause more harm than good if indulged for the wrong reasons; if we get so engrossed in it that we actually start living it. Spinning possible scenarios of “what could have been … if only”, projecting all the frustrations and inabilities of your current life onto these possibilities or even wondering why you were not born in a certain age instead of your own may make you feel a sense of temporary satisfaction. But none of it will change your present or alter your future for the better.
This past year we’ve indulged in more ‘looking back’ as a collective society through one of our most nostalgia friendly mediums. The cinema. Much of it has been in the form of celebrating the history of movies, movie-making and times when things were simpler. Martin Scorcese pays tribute to the founding father of French cinema (George Méliès) through
, Woody Allen delicately and artistically recreates the Paris of the 1920s (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein and Pablo Picasso etc) with his own brand of sly, intellectual humour in
Midnight In Paris
goes all the way back to the silent black and white era and there is a JJ Abrams dedication by Steven Spielberg in
to name a few. (Even Bollywood’s
is shot in muted sepia colours and reminiscent of the silent movies and Charlie Chaplin) And it’s not just about recreating and paying homage to past eras, many of these narratives have been about nostalgia itself, about the beauty and the pitfalls of indulging in it. There has been a growing dissatisfaction about the decreasing quality of the regular Hollywood fare and the advent of an unfettered use of 3D and similar technologies which has been responsible for a fear that we are letting an illustrious history fade away. These films can be argued to be an attempt to reclaim this past before it completely disappears.
This is not just evident in the celluloid arena, with a rampant 90s fashion revival (complete with hypercolor T-shirts, denim, Keds, the Doc Martin, the platform trainers, printed tees and vests) and the steep rise in popularity of Instagram. For those of you not in the know, it’s a photo application (available on all Apple and Android platforms and devices) that allows users the options of several ‘filters’ to put their photos and images through. Not only are the users able to create a sepia, retro inspired effect (subtle shades of yellow and orange, muted colours, faded tones and the blacks and whites), but a feature also fits the image into a square shape (with edges if you so desire) which harks back to the days of Kodak’s Instamatic and Polaroid images. Such was its popularity that Facebook officially purchased Instagram (and its 13 employees) in its largest acquisition deal to date.
But all these indications also point towards a current trend of wanting to be (or at least make it look like) in the past than living in the present. No offence to anyone or anything but everything looks better with a soft faded focus, just as the past always looks better through misty, rose-tinted glasses. It is a very tricky and complicated area of analysis and discussion. You have people getting nostalgic about their childhoods, their younger years, better times according to them. But at the same time, there are many who were born much after that associate themselves with a certain time because they feel a sense of belonging that they don’t experience with their present. Do we change because the time changes or is it vice-versa? I suspect it’s a combination of both; we influence the surroundings and times we live in and as we grow and change so do these elements. At the same time, who we are and who we become is equally influenced by where we come from and the times and societies that have shaped us.
The past always looks better through misty, rose-tinted glasses.
This brings us to the important but often ignored point. A narrative, a text, or any content or incident for that matter is irrelevant without the correct context behind it. The idea of “going back in time” is theoretically wonderful and full of hope and possibility. But if we go back to our childhood, or any other part of our personal past, we will be experiencing it for the second time, making it a completely different experience to the novelty of the first. Similarly if we go back to a time we weren’t born in but are aware of, we may feel happy but inevitably lose that sense of wonder because we are already knowledgeable about the time, about its historical significance. Because for you to feel a sense of belonging to a time you weren’t born in, you need the bigger picture of retrospective context – something that isn’t possible unless you know what has happened in the years after it. But even if we go back in time without any context, we still won’t be able to appreciate the groundbreaking quality of what we’re going through, because we never know history is being made when we are experiencing it for the first time, pure and unblemished by future connections and its significance to and with regards to an as yet unformed future.
Hugo, Midnight in Paris and The Artist, all require a certain amount of context for us to truly appreciate every aspect of the narratives. We can enjoy them irrespective of whether we ‘get’ every bit of them, but the complete movie going experience is obviously only available if we are ‘clued in’ so as to speak. As "Midnight in Paris and the Problem with it" beautifully puts it, ‘you cannot truly appreciate the auteur movement in filmmaking until you’ve seen the way the industry changed after the birth of the blockbuster’.
So why then the upward trend in nostalgia? The popular opinions are that we are living in unstable times filled with economic unrest, an upsurge in terrorist activity, wars, the so-called deterioration of society, morals, societal structures and institutions. It’s not the coziest present time and the future is definitely uncertain and less conducive to predictions at this rate of change. In terms of films, 2011 was the year when major camera manufacturers announced that they would no longer make new motion picture film cameras. With the digital revolution, there were rumours of the end of physical media, the end of physical film prints and the end of cinema as we know it. "Nostalgia For Everything" is a brilliant read on the same and one of my references.) This makes it an ideal time to romanticize the past, to feel safe in a cocoon and be comforted by the fact that in the past things did become better after being worse, that we did get through it. We need to believe that something better is waiting out there for us. It is this same tendency that makes us revert to our childhood comfort food and habits when we’re ill, that makes us cling to familiarity and things that we have known best and longest when things are not going well.
“That's what the present is. It's a little unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying.” (Midnight in Paris)
In this sense, nostalgia is harmless, good even. It’s when we start to believe that it was truly a better time that the line between good and bad starts blurring, just like one of the hazy options available on Instagram. It’s easier to remember things better than they are, omitting the bad parts. Like Gil in Midnight in Paris (played by Owen Wilson) who yearns for the Paris of the 1920s. But it is the intellectual discussions, the musings on art and literature and philosophy, the bohemian life that he wants, not the post-WWI Paris where the basic needs far overshadowed that for culture. Gil wants the Paris found in postcards. Fittingly, it is through this beautifully subtle and magical nostalgic paen to Paris (past and present) that Woody Allen drives home the main message of the film – one person’s ‘la belle epoch’ will be another’s mundane and dreary time. As Gil (SPOILER ALERT) finds out, people of every age are nostalgic for a previous time they think is their golden age and if we live in an age long enough we will yearn for another, another will seem more magical.
That Allen uses nostalgia to talk about its own dangers is a masterstroke. Similarly, Scorcese’s Hugo is about preserving the past, celebrating the original magic of the movies at a time when the more special effects the better, when more films are 3D than not, when it’s more about shock and awe than anything else. Scorcese has always been a vocal fan of film preservation and this is a gorgeously created homage to the magic of the movies and Méliès in the very medium opposite to his content – high technology 3D. He’s embraced both in this beautiful adaption of Brian Selznick’s novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.
It’s the best way to handle nostalgia, embracing the best of the past and present. I think it’s powerful and wonderful under the right conditions. How many times have you travelled to a place and felt the history and heritage soak you the moment you arrive? It is present in every brick, every drop of water, every blade of grass, and you can feel yourself pass through and peel back physical layers to catch a glimpse of the past. You face unavoidable questions of what it must have been back then and what if we had a time machine to witness it. Humans have an innate tendency to romanticize and glorify the past but conveniently omit the not-so-rosy parts of it – the diseases, the wars, the struggles and injustice. But I think that perspective and motive is important. As long as we learn from the past, whether personal or historical, I see no harm in indulging in nostalgia or even being inspired by the good things that have gone. It can be magical.
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