Over winter break, I saw Damien Chazelle’s critically acclaimed film La La Land. I do not think the film could have come at a better time, if only because it looks at and draws on the past while being a truly original work, as opposed to biopics or period films whose worth might be disproportionately indebted to the value of a historical person or spirit of an age that has long since passed.
In other words, La La Land properly utilizes the lens of Nostalgia: a perspective that looks at both the past and the present with a healthy amount of critique. Critique, I will argue, is nostalgia’s necessary companion, in order to prevent nostalgia from becoming unproductive or even dangerous.
The lens of nostalgia is most often used in film. In the same nostalgic way La La Land looks at and tries to recapture old Hollywood, Spectre tries to capture old James bond, and The Force Awakens owes much of its success to channeling the spirit of Star Wars regardless of whether or not the movie stands on its own two feet. Yet, La La Land, as much as it indulges in a fantastical spirit, is able to look at the past era, culture, and attributes that it is indebted to with a discerning eye rooted in the present. That said, the film does not cut off the branch it sits on; the past is not so criticized and condemned that it is torn to shreds for faults painted as so severe to outweigh any positive value. This is a precaution that ought to be taken whenever critiquing the past, just as critique itself ought to be present when using the lens of nostalgia.
Critique unfortunately carries with it a negative connotation that is rather undeserved. Perhaps this is because it has become the norm to deconstruct something and simply leave it at that with no aim towards constructing. There is no value in deconstruction without the intention and aim of (re)construction, and though it is certainly more difficult, usually true progress is made by the latter. Perhaps this is why for every ten efforts of deconstruction there is maybe one effort of construction put forth as a solution to the host of problems that deconstruction reveals. Construction and deconstruction alike are both inherent to critique since together, they improve upon the past; in other words, they are part and parcel of progress.
Now, nostalgia is worthless without critique, and critique is not simply deconstructive analysis, but is constructive as well. You might be wondering why one would bother with nostalgia anyway since it seems so meticulous. I should wonder the same thing. It’s too easy to slap on the good feelings of nostalgia, to reminisce of a time that seemed better, separating nostalgia’s therapeutic quality from a critical quality that keeps it in check. As of late, entertainment and society have tended to ascribe only to nostalgia’s therapeutic nature. The most recent season of South Park is based on this phenomenon, where strange, anthropomorphized fruit known as “member berries” force people into a drug-like trance of simply remembering the past. It is not enough to simply remember the past. I said earlier that nostalgia is rooted in the past and the present; you remember the past to reflect in the present.
South Park concluded its season with their Donald Trump-esque caricature being swept into the presidency consequent of the city’s, and presumably the nation’s, addiction to the member berries. South Park is still ultimately a comedy show, and does not seek to provide conclusive evidence that therapeutic nostalgia is responsible for the results of the 2016 election, nor does it seek to necessarily argue that point; rather, it suggests that indulging in purely therapeutic nostalgia without critical reflection in the present can lead to unintended or unwanted consequences. This sort of nostalgia, like a drug, offers nothing but good feelings and inhibits our critical thinking faculties that cause true progress, both in society and within ourselves. Just as the caveats of nostalgia apply on a broader, societal level, so too, they apply to us personally. We are often told to not be ashamed of our past selves—and we shouldn’t be—but we are not so often told to reminisce too much of better selves and better times, remembering “the good ol’ days” if it fails to help us move forward in our lives or delay personal development altogether. There is no harm, however, in being inspired by the past—In fact, I would encourage it, as inspiration is a result of a reflection on present circumstances; there is an essential difference between being inspired by the past and being inspired to recreate the past. Looking to the past for inspiration can often breathe fresh air into us (inspiration literally comes from the Latin in meaning “into” and spirare meaning “to breathe”) to address the challenges we face individually and as a society.
In sum, there is nothing wrong with nostalgia, but it does carry with it a duty to critique and reflect on present circumstances and place them in relation to the past; far more than the therapeutic good feelings that come with it. Nostalgia, not merely a feel-good drug, is a lens of critical thinking just like any other.
Dominic Rottman is a first-year in the College of Arts and Science. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.