By Jonathan Alexandratos
So as I was watching the fifty millionth not-so-good, somewhat-terrible, okay-actually-quite-dismal episode of Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers last night, I found myself asking, “Why?” Why do we, collectively, enjoy putting ourselves through material from our childhoods that we know isn’t good? The answer is probably in the question – because it’s from our childhoods. But then that spins off into the question of what, exactly, makes us hold nostalgia, which drives many a-film viewing/purchasing/enshrining, so dear?
I mean, if I look at my DVD/Blu-Ray collection, there are at least a handful of films I bought not so much because of what they say, but the memories they echo. The Magnificent Seven, Battle of the Bulge, about a bjillion seasons of Power Rangers, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Dracula, 12 Monkeys, The Devil Rides Out. These are all films (well, Power Rangers is a TV show…to put it mildly…) that, sure, I appreciate the content and the relevance of, but had to *own* because of the memory of seeing for the first time. I wanted The Magnificent Seven to take me back to catching that movie on cable at my grandmother’s house when I was in the throes of high school, feeling entirely disconnected with my classmates’ culture. Battle of the Bulge was supposed to take me back to hearing the film in the background at my parents’ friends’ house in Knoxville, Tennessee, while it played, marathon-style, on the ever-beloved History Channel. These are the desired effects, but do they manifest?
Not really, at least. Not as vividly as I think I wanted when I bought the films. Godard said, “I do believe in beginnings, middles, and ends – but not necessarily in that order.” That seems okay, but I wonder if, when the order is set – beginning, middle, end; end, beginning, middle; &c. – how easy is it to shift things around? Highly improbable, in any actual sense, but mentally? God knows we all try.
Nostalgia. As Milan Kundera explains in Ignorance, “The Greek word for ‘return’ is nostos. Algos means ‘suffering.’ So nostalgia is the suffering caused by unappeased return.” And this, the idea that nostalgia causes pain, has been known for quite some time. Take Dante: “There is no greater sorrow/Than to recall a happy time/when miserable.” Going further back, the Devil, in some beliefs, was not cast to hell due to a disobedience of God, but an extreme love for Him – a love such that the Devil would not bow to man, only to God, thereby disobeying God’s request of the angels. In hell, the Devil is taunted by what? The memory of the echo of God saying to the Devil, “Go to Hell.” He is tortured by nostalgia.
And yet I routinely invite the “memory of the echo,” the movies of nostalgia, to a permanent place in my home. Furthermore, I feel confident I’m not the only one. A quick Youtube search will show that volumes of ‘90s commercials posted there garner views with numbers like 541,871, 28,453, 21,270. Why on Earth would we want to invite the torment, time and again, that, according to some texts, is a fate extreme enough to be brought by God unto the Devil?
I’d posit that it stems from another spiritual and mythological act: ritual. Nostalgia creates a ritual of the past, which, like rituals in spirituality, brings us closer to the intangible. The past is not a physical form. I cannot touch it. But, in viewing The Battle of the Bulge, I can, for a moment, be present in a facsimile of it, due to my ritual watching of the film. I put the movie on, I conjure the memories of that Knoxville home, and those memories are slightly enhanced by the ritual of which I am now a part. And that, for the moment, feels good. When the ritual is over, just like in spiritual ritual, I am then awakened to the suffering of being truly alive, which is what Dante refers to in the above. Yet, in Joseph Campbell’s view, being awakened to that suffering is not a bad thing, because it is a component of being truly alive, and thereby an affirmation of the genuine nature of my surroundings.
The difference between my circumstance and the Devil’s (in the aforementioned case) is that I, like all participants, can do the ritual again. The movie can be played and the feelings can be conjured as many times as needed. Hell, it would seem, is the feeling of exiting the ritual of nostalgia, without participation in the actual ritual of nostalgia. Mercifully, life doesn’t work like that.
But then, considering all of this, one might wonder how close religion comes to nostalgia. There’s a song: “Give Me That Old Time Religion.” Why? Because that nostalgia is “good enough for me.” Religion is wrought with the feeling of harkening back, and objects that allow the recreation of an experience through the externalization of memory. And it may be that because of this – this idea that the object is just as important as the experience, that the throne is just as relevant as the person who sits on it (see the thrones and sarcophagi of Ancient Egypt) – that we, today, can feel that something as (perhaps) secular as a film can be the object that opens up the realm of the intangible and, I’d add, the spiritual.
So if you’re thinking that this is all one big excuse for me to watch more Power Rangers, well, yeah you’d be right. With my fetish object-action figures (I always demand my fetish objects come with Kung-Fu Grip) by my side, I’ll happily take the spiritual journey backward, and then whiplash into the pains of being truly alive, all in 20 minutes or less. How can you beat that?