One of the mollifying aspects of nostalgia, which has taken a strong grip on American culture of late, especially as we all cope with exponential advancements of technology and the constant bombardment of media from streaming services, is that it provides a recess from the fast-paced media-driven craze of today’s world. It allows us to dive back into a time when everything just seemed quieter. It’s rather ironic then that Ready Player One is so high-octane and exhausting. The movie is a pop-culture junkie’s version of snorting three lines of cocaine. For some, that’s a high. For others, it’s another instantly gratifying entertainment that provides no lasting value. I feel somewhere in between these two extremes.
The film’s most interesting aspect is in its mythologization of James Halliday, the OASIS’s creator. His character essentially mirrors the way nostalgia has evolved in internet culture. It starts off as a fond personal memory of cultural markers which shaped us, especially those “nerds” such as Halliday, as adults. But once internet culture got a grip of nostalgia it turned into something weird and malformed. Its personal weight started to lessen. It flattened into a 2D stream of a million different “references” whizzing by your eyes with each click. Halliday’s OASIS is filled with his favorite media references when he was a kid, but they’re so vast and they exist in such quantity and velocity within the game that they don’t register as anything other tokens of remembrance. The OASIS, as a virtual reality program, is the physical written and produced manifestation of an “Only 80’s/90’s Kids Will Remember This!” meme that you see re-posted on Twitter every day.
The underlying darkness of the film’s social commentary occurs as we, along with the central characters, discover the clues that tie together Halliday’s life. His obsession with his own past, the pop culture remnants of his childhood as well as the devastating regrets he had as a person, descends into unhealthy levels as more is revealed. At the end of the film, after Wade wins the game, Wade Watts is transported to Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where he speaks with him. It’s not enough that the film suggests Halliday was so possessed by a long-gone past that he downloaded his own conscience into his video game (Wade asks, “you’re not a hologram are you?”), but that Halliday also keeps a younger version of himself alongside for company.
The lack of fulfillment in Halliday’s life forced him to retreat to an era where he felt he was his best self, his happiest self, so much so that he kept that version of himself near him at all times. In small doses, these moments of escape provide mental balance and a harmonious re-connection to where we came from. But the further we are dedicated to constantly holding onto what used to be, in pop culture, politics, social ideas, anything, the less we find ourselves dedicated to progress. In the end of the film, Wade decides to change the way the OASIS works. His final statement declares that people need to spend time outside and in the “real world”. This is as deep a cut as Spielberg has possibly ever made on American society. Spielberg’s ability to elevate the shallow and lazy self-satisfied geekdom of the novel into an actual discussion of nostalgia’s effect on human memory and its toll on us, is what makes him one of America’s greatest filmmakers.
Over the course of several years, and certainly since I’ve discovered new avenues for seeing lesser-known cinema be it through festivals, independent theaters, and the explosion of various streaming media platforms, I’ve almost always come across the most unexpected movie gems away from your regular AMC multiplex.
Dave McCary’s Brigsby Bear is the best Hollywood movie made in the first half of this year… and you probably don’t even know that it exists. It’s a small independent production, distributed by Sony Pictures and produced by the Lonely Island trio, who have been churning out underrated comedy genius for a while now (seriously, if you haven’t seen Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, I don’t know how you can consider yourself a fan of comedy). The fact that this movie hasn’t seen the light of day in regular mainstream theaters is insane because it probably speaks to the pop-culture cultism, and charming nostalgia embraced 90’s millennial kids more than any film in recent memory, and it does so without being too obvious or self-obsessed about it.
The central character, James, is a man-child who’s entire existence since his birth has been inside of an enclosed igloo with his mother and father in the middle of the desert and his only exposure to any form of other human connection is a TV show called Brigsby Bear about a giant stuffed bear and his two identical twin assistants who save the town-people from various evil villains including a Sun God. To call Brigsby an obsession for James is to undersell it. James’s life is consumed by it, to the point that he spends every day watching episodes, breaking them apart, creating mythologies around their characters, and posting his fan theories on the internet.
Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.
What sets it apart is its consciousness for generational gaps, and that it is, unabashedly, a film for millennials. In the internet age in which my generation has made it a symbol of pride to be a “90’s Kid”, most of us would predictably sympathetic towards James’ militant conviction for his childhood art. For older generations, the film may be a bit difficult to get through. However, McCary never allows his characters to devolve into being one-not. All of them are frustrating and agreeable at different points, and they make mistakes and redeem themselves multiple times throughout the film. This makes Brigsby Bear incredibly enjoyable because unlike many films which pit generation vs. generation or artistic types vs. practical types against each other, this movie understands that they’re all heterogenous entities, with different ideas and views of life, all of which are malleable in the real world.
I try not to send out direct recommendations of movies to people, but I loved this movie. I think you will too.
As my generation trudges ever forward year by year, there is a creeping and growing sense of nostalgia that overcomes us with each passing birthday. The never-ending “90’s kid” retrospectives on the internet filled with pictures of old video game consoles, Toys R Us toys, commercials, movies, celebrities, and sports events don’t make reconciling with the fact that our childhood and innocence is gone for eternity and will never come back any easier. Is that too dark?
Nevertheless, nostalgia is arguably the strongest agent of emotion in human beings. What we’ve experienced and lived through is our deepest connection to ourselves. This is especially true for our childhood when we’re still shielded and safeguarded and it seems like life is a cool breeze of care-free afternoons, exciting summer vacations, and instant food anytime anywhere delivered by mom. The longing for the “simpler” or more innocent times is something humans do with social life as well as politics and art. How many times have you heard politicians talking about taking our discourse back “to a simpler time” before everything got all screwed up, or critics saying “they don’t make ’em [movies/tv/literature] like they used to!”. Some of these have more nefarious intentions than others, but in general, we tend to fall into line behind the idea that hindsight is twenty-twenty and the way things used to be was always in many ways ‘better’ than the way things are.
In art, particularly cinema, this emotion of nostalgia is the most potent connection formed between filmmaker and viewer. Our longing for a particular time or place or general memory of an area or event is a human trait that great filmmakers observe and pick at with an incredible precision and good intentions. It is where melodrama, fear, joy, and pain are all extracted from and used to build connections with characters and places. A recent filmmaker who’s sparse but utterly brilliant body of work I recently became acquainted with is Spanish filmmaker Victor Erice. A filmmaker adroit in his ability to evoke a very overwhelming sense of time and place, Erice’s cinema is the ultimate embodiment of nostalgia in art.
Playing along the same wavelengths as Terrence Malick in regards to textures and themes of youth and abandonment, as well as a very personal connection to his home country’s culture, politics, and daily life, Erice’s The Spirit of the Beehive, regarded the world over in cinema circles as a undeniable masterpiece, centers around a small Spanish village in Francoist Spain in which a young girl name Ana becomes disturbed and entranced by her viewing of Universal’s 1931 adaptation of Frankenstein. A particular infamous scene in the 30’s horror classic features the monster and a young girl throw daisies into the river and the monster, fascinated by the idea of using his hands to “throw”, picks the young girl up and throws her into the water as well. She subsequently drowns and dies. The historical symbolism of this scene in the context of The Spirit of the Beehive‘s fascist Spain setting aside, the crux of the film’s power in Ana beholding this sequence comes from our own experience witnessing cinema for the first time. The first time we saw moving images in the form of a story, how were we emotionally altered by its presentation and what did it mean to us? I remember the first movie I ever watched was Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsand it was the first time I truly became terrified and disturbed by a fictional character (the witch with the poisoned apple).
As kids, one of the lessons we always learn is to “face our fears”. It is a necessity of growing up and every adult tells you it prepares you for the horrors of the real world. Many of the fears are actually much more elaborate, real world fears which we manifest in things closer to ourselves. This theme is repeated throughout coming of age tales, many times as symbolism for the turbulent political affairs of the country at the time. In Erice’s film, Ana is haunted by the interaction of the monster and girl, and the movie’s plot, though it’s really more of a loose string of painterly movements, focuses on Ana’s obsession with finally finding and confronting the monster from the film that haunts her dreams. It’s not inconceivable that Ana’s tussle with Frankenstein was meant by Erice to represent the Spanish populace’s ultimate reality of having to confront the fascist takeover by dictator Francisco Franco. Nostalgia often places these circumstances and events in a rose-tinted light. We do it all the time now in our political spheres, framing our upbringing under the Clinton and Bush administrations as times of much less political intervention despite the fact that even they were in perpetual war with foreign nations. The difference is, back then we didn’t have reason to care. Likewise, in The Spirit of the Beehive, the notion of Franco exists only in small clues such as the rationing of food, the opening scroll, the time-period of the film, and the encounter Ana has with a rebel soldier. But Ana is still very much shielded in her village from any notion of a fascist leader wreaking havoc and despair in his own country. Her preoccupation lies within her childhood experiences of make-believe, much like the young Ofelia in Guillermo Del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth.
While Erice’s debut was concerned with the memory of fear, his second film El Sur (English: “The South”), much greater in my estimation and much more pronounced in its ability to evoke the passage of time and its nostalgic effects, focuses on the memories of family, or in particular, father figures. Reflective of his debut, the film centers around yet another young girl, this time named Estrella, in the backdrop of yet another tumultuous time in Spanish history, the Spanish Civil War. Estrella’s father’s disappearance to fight in the war shapes her view of him as she comes of age as a young lady. Her experiences of youth with him are a constant projection in the back of her mind, and her search to finally meet him again shapes the basis of the film. Erice’s ideas of memory are deeply rooted in the characters’ own thoughts and words, but his painterly depictions of Spain play as an additional vehicle of “remembrance” as if the world his characters inhabit is a Spain of a time gone by even for them.
Perhaps the most quintessential sequences in El Sur center around Estrella going to bed and waking up. Many conversations about her father’s past, which she has with her nanny, and conversations of the Spain from before her time are recounted as relics which shapes her present life. The ideas of nostalgia can also be many times cruel, as Estrella comments on the war and the meanness of her grandfather towards her father. Perhaps then, the fondness we feel for our past is revisiting even the less than comforting events with a fresh set of eyes and confronting them with an added confidence. As Estrella’s nanny states, “even the wildest of animals tame with age”. Perhaps it is our nostalgia that does it.