Nostalgia Burn

February 19, 2009
A thought by James Berardinelli

How much of what we enjoy as adults is influenced by what we enjoyed as children? As I have been exploring the 1980s by re-visiting many of the movies of my youth, it has occurred to me that much of what I valued as a teenager doesn't seem as good to me today as it did then (not such a surprise). But there are some things that, even though I recognize they're not "good" from an objective standpoint, I still enjoy.

One irony of life is that girls and boys rush through their teenage years as quickly as possible to achieve adulthood, then spend the rest of their lives trying to re-live those years. It's no coincidence that current culture pauses every decade-or-so to look back about 20 years. In the '70s, it was the '50s. In the '80s, the '60s were popular. Now, in the '00s, '80s fever has come around again. It's the mid-life crisis thing - people who reach 40 like to hearken back to how things were in their late teens and early 20s.

It amazes me how much has changed since I was a teenager. Back then, phones were connected to walls and there were three around the house. If I wanted privacy, I had to go into my parents' bedroom since the other phones were in the kitchen and family room. We had three TVs, so I wasn't required to watch what my parents watched, but no cable and certainly no VCR. My "stereo" had a record player and a cassette deck. We purchased an Atari (2600) game system in 1980 and a PC five years later (an IBM XT clone - around the same time we got a VCR), but that was while I was away at college.

Still, even without all of today's gadgetry and technology, I had no trouble filling the hours, in part because I found a group of people with similar interests and ambitions. Life consisted of reading books (and writing them), watching TV (at least two hours per day), playing Dungeons and Dragons, seeing the occasional movie, and doing homework. During the summer, I spent a lot of time outside. During the winter… not so much.

In an average week, I might have spent as much as 10 hours playing D&D. My first encounter with the funny dice happened on an October evening in 1978, and I ended my final campaign the weekend before I went to college in August 1985. I haven't mapped out a dungeon or run a game since (although I have dabbled in computer RPGs, including the D&D variety), yet I recall those days with amazing fondness. I remember one day in particular - a wintry Friday in February when school was canceled because of snowfall. I packed my DM's materials in a small briefcase and trudged up the block to my friends' house and we spent the whole day - Eight "bonus" hours - playing. As important as those memories are, however, I have no desire to play D&D again. It's a thing of the past and better left there (at least for me).

Everyone who watches a movie has a slightly different experience. The film - what's on the celluloid - is the same, but the framework differs. That's part of the reason why two people can have such radically different opinions about the same picture - because it's not really the same thing. When we see a movie for the first time, we are opening ourselves up to absorbing the experience. The movie, along with everything that is associated with it, imprints itself on our memories. When we see it again, we're no longer just watching a movie; we're re-living the first time we saw it while adding a second layer to that memory bank. Certain smells can take us to very specific times and places. The same is true of movies.

December 1976. My first time inside a movie theater. I had seen movies before, but always on TV. Until now, I hadn't wanted to be in a theater, but this was different. It was big - the Eighth Wonder of the World, in fact. I would eventually learn that there was nothing special about this theater. In fact, it was rather shabby. But, at the time, it seemed to be a grand, marvelous place - bigger than the auditorium at school, empty of teachers, and full of promise. We waited for about ten minutes for the movie to start, but it seemed like an eternity. Now, I cannot watch that version of King Kong without thinking back to what it was like sitting next to my father as the lights dimmed and the "Welcome to the Movies" pre-show announcements started.

Summer 1977. Star Wars and the drive-in. Drive-ins, like so many things, are pretty much relics of the past. I'm too young to remember them in their glory days, when they provided teenagers with temporary motel rooms. For me, they were vast family playgrounds, and all those sights and smells are tied in with Star Wars. It works both ways. I can't drive past the site of that drive-in (it's now a vacant parking lot behind a closed-down multiplex) without thinking of that night in 1977 when I first made the acquaintances of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, and Darth Vader.

Thanksgiving Weekend 1986. I have attended more than 5000 movies but the most memorable occurred the day before Thanksgiving in 1986. The film: Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. I was a sophomore in college and headed home for the long weekend, as were my friends from all over the Northeast. The goal: gather after dinner to see the movie. Before getting the reward, however, I had to do the penance: a heartless EE professor scheduled a major exam for that morning. So I couldn't leave early, but I still got home before anyone else. Then it was a matter of waiting… and waiting… and waiting. Finally, the calls came and we headed to the theater - a sparkling new AMC 8-plex. (Which is still standing today - in fact, it looks exactly the same.) I'll refrain from boring you with a blow-by-blow description of how the evening went. It was a night to remember for no reason other than I had been looking forward to seeing that movie for soooooo very long, and it was the last time this group of friends would be together like this (and I knew at the time this would be the case).

Early March 1987. My first kiss took place in a late season snow squall after a movie: Lethal Weapon. (This was also the first time I took a date to a movie.) The girl is gone and the theater has long since been torn down, but the memory, like the picture, has not faded.

There are bad memories associated with movies as well. On the day it opened, I saw Star Trek III twice, back-to-back in the mid-afternoon and early evening. I was okay for the first show but developed a blinding headache during the second one. To this day, I can't watch that movie without remembering that pain. Then there's Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused. Not a bad movie, but I can summon no enthusiasm for it. I saw it late on a Saturday night in late October 1993, about an hour after Joe Carter's home run ended the World Series. The association is indelible. I cannot watch that film again because of what it represents.

The older a person gets, the more valuable a past becomes. Movies, like music, provide instant touchstones. Memories like this can be shared or deeply personal, but they are never lost because they are tied so unbreakably to something concrete. Now, through the power of home video, we can own a copy of the movie and, by having it on hand, replay the memory at will.