Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Crazy Little Thing Called Nostalgia

After reading these posts by Sister Stephanie and my friend Suze last week, I started pondering about a couple of things:
  1. Does our perception of a novel or film change throughout the years? (and if so, what are the variables that cause this phenomenon?) 
  2. How much does sentimentality and nostalgia skew our vision of a piece?
My theory is that nostalgia plays an essential role in our perception of a book or movie. If you were hitting puberty or were a full-fledged teenager when you read or saw Love Story by Erich Segal, your experience would have been MUCH different than if you saw it as a thirty-something mom. The same goes for cult films such as Sixteen Candles or Before Sunrise, to name a few. My question for you today is this: if you loved a film in your formative years, do you love it now? Do you overlook its flaws based on your fondness for the particular period of your life the film evokes?

How old were you when you watched these two fall in love?
(Before Sunrise, 1995)
And what about the thorny subject of remakes? Do you hate every film that is not the original* version you saw as a child/teen/college kid? Can you see past those tears of anger and give an objective opinion about the latest version of The Planet of the Apes or do you think anyone who dare step on Charlton Heston’s toes should be assaulted with a downpour of ripe tomatoes?

Turns out objectivity in fiction (and any other artform, for that matter) is an impossibility. It’s almost like deciding, without the shadow of a doubt, that cake is better than ice-cream. Sure, most of the time there is a consensus of whether a film/novel is good or bad, but the quality standards can be as variable as the pieces themselves. Not only do we have to consider the personal taste of the critic (be it a reader/viewer or a professional in the field) but also the fact that our overall appreciation of a creative endeavor changes from one generation to another.

Take silent films, for example. For most people, they seem boring or silly, but can you imagine how innovative and cool they were for viewers in the early 20th century? Just think about how much acting technique has evolved. Back then, both theater and film actors emphasized the use of body language and facial expressions into what we would consider now a melodramatic performance. Likewise, literature has evolved. To use an omniscient narrator is now considered a sign of an amateur and head-hopping is among the top commandments any novice novelist must learn—or use at his own risk.

So what is the best measure of quality: the opinion of professionals/critics, sales numbers, ratings, the number of remakes a film has? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these elements in addition to taste. I would add the elements of personal experience and nostalgia. Only these subjective variables can explain why an obscure film or piece of literature can find a loyal cult following. Try as you may to throw those low-sale numbers and bad reviews to their faithful fans and you still won’t be able to convince them that their beloved flick is less than brilliant.

But what about the cases where your perception does change? How many of us have experienced disappointment after rereading a childhood book or found a once-overlooked-flaw in our favorite movie? (Usually when an objective and over-analytical party points it out!)

As I’ve aged, my opinion of some of my favorite films and books has changed, but most of them still hold a special place in my heart. The fact that I’m a writer hasn’t helped me. Becoming a writer is like having a veil removed from your eyes. As you learn all the techniques of storytelling, you’re never able to watch a movie or read a book with the same abandon you once did (unless the writer is so brilliant he makes you forget it’s fiction). I suppose it’s comparable to learning a magic trick. You can never be awed by an illusionist’s performance anymore after you understand the mechanics. Likewise, if a writer is not skilled enough and you can see the seams of a story, you may lose the emotion factor. Sadly, this has happened to me with beloved novels or films from the past. (The good news is non-writers may be more forgiving!) But that’s when nostalgia kicks in. I forgive the transgression because I love this film. It’s like forgiving a friend for not calling you or saying something that bugs you. You don’t have to forgive a stranger, but you have to forgive a loved one.

Another factor that affects your perception of a story is your overexposure to a particular theme or plot. Surely you remember the first love story you read or saw in film, or at the very least, the one that impacted you the most. Subsequent films of this type are most likely not going to have the same effect on you as they did back when you were a pre-teen wondering if a French kiss meant you had to travel to Europe to experience one.

Personal experience, then, plays an important role on how you are going to receive a story.

With all this subjectivity, it’s amazing books get published! It also means a couple of things for writers. First, be cautious about the critique you take. Are the comments exclusively taste-based or there is some sort of objectivity to them? Has more than one person said the same thing about your work? Second, subjectivity can work to your advantage. Just like “there’s someone for everybody,” the novel you’re now writing or trying to sell might find love somewhere. We glaze over those rejection letters that claim  “fiction is subjective and another agent may feel differently” but the fact is that this is true. What better proof that how variable your own taste is? If fiction was as objective as science, then only the novels which fit a specific and an invariable formula would get published. Fortunately, this is not the case. People are always on the look out for something new, something different, and you may be just the one to offer that.

* I use the term “original” loosely because very often films have had earlier versions that we may not even know about.


  1. I know how much 'Before Sunrise' means to you. :)

    1. Guess what? I just found out they made a third part: "Before Midnight"! It takes place 9 years after the second (Before Sunset) which is also 9 years after the first one. These movies are an interesting phenomenon. The actors have grown with the characters and are so immersed in their story they helped write the scripts. I wish you would have seen it because it doesn't follow the formula of romantic comedies (especially the second part). I'm thinking about writing a post about them. :-)

    2. I've seen "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset" and I like the nontraditional take on a love story. Now I'm gonna have to see "Before Midnight"!

  2. It's in the air! I was just telling my husband yesterday that "nostalgia" is a curse. A little bit of it can impart a pleasant bittersweet feeling, but mostly it's painful: it's a desire to return to a past (largely rose-tinted) that is beyond reach, and wanting something you can't have is pretty much the definition of suffering. People who indulge too often in nostalgia risk becoming curmudgeonly ("why, in my day ..."), but it's not something we have a whole lot of control over.

    But to your specific questions: I try to judge remakes on their own merits, on not compare them to whatever fuzzy-warm feeling the original invoked in me, which may or may not have had a lot to do with the film/book itself. I may have felt fuzzy and warm because I saw it on a romantic date, or read it on the beach. I'm sure I hate some books only because I'm reading them when I'm hormonal. There are so many variables, as you said, to judging a piece of art; your opinion on the same thing may change month to month, how can you possibly judge an entirely different work, created maybe decades earlier, against its "original?"

    I will try to keep that in mind as I go to see "The Great Gatsby" this month. =:0 I hear Jay-Z arranged the soundtrack. That's going to rub a lot of purists the wrong way ...

    1. I have never thought about nostalgia in those terms, but it's true. It can be very painful (especially if you focus too much in the past, which I do!) Your comment has opened my eyes.

      I'm not going to have any nostalgia-problems with "The Great Gatsby" because I've never seen or read the novel! Let me know what you think of it when you watch it.

    2. I'm not a fan of Jay-Z, but I actually enjoyed how the soundtrack accompanies the film. You might like it too. If anything, it adds to the atmosphere of the crazy twenties!

  3. First off, "Planet of the Apes" -- Blech! I just had to get that out of my system!

    I agree 100% that nostalgia plays a big part in how we view a film or read a book. I'm one of those who never reads a book twice and hates seeing a film a second time around unless it's been at least ten years. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that once I've read or seen the plot of one story, there's nothing left there to surprise me. And, no, I'm not one of those who believes that if I watch it again and again I'm going to pick out new little things. It's not the little things I care about, but the big picture. I've always been this way, so it has nothing to do with being a writer now. It's the "Been There, Done That" syndrome for me.

    Can nostalgia work in different ways? I absolutely refuse to watch the original "Psycho" (and any remakes for that matter) because it was the first scary movie I saw as a little girl and to this day it scares the hell out of me. Whenever someone mentions it, it makes me shudder. Like right now. As I'm typing this...

    Ah, but I do have some great memories of eighties movies like "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club". Even when I watch those today I still think they're great!

  4. You're right - nostalgia changes our perception of much loved (or loathed) films and books. There are movies I will adore forever because when watching them they bring me back to a happy time in my life. Equally there are those that do not stand the test of time. I'm currently reading a number of my favourite childhood books to my children and finding that some are still wonderful (Railway Children, The Secret Garden) but others had paled (Harriet the Spy) and in some cases I understand them better now as an adult. Perspective is everything - reading a book as a teen vs the same story as a mother, or grandmother, is a different experience because of your own accumulated life experiences and the changing world around us. That's a good thing, I think.

    1. "There are movies I will adore forever because when watching them they bring me back to a happy time in my life. Equally there are those that do not stand the test of time."

      As a writer, this is disconcerting, don't you think? Not only do we have to worry about someone liking our work *now*, but also whether or not it will stand the test of time. And what makes a piece feel outdated in the eyes of the reader? What was it about Harriet the Spy that you didn't like anymore?

      Thanks for stopping by, Grace. I really like the concept of your blog (and I will stop by to learn new words!)


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