Monday, August 18, 2014

Robin Williams and the Nostalgia Effect

I’d like to start by saying this is not a eulogy for Robin Williams, I won’t be sharing my fondest memories of his work, or summarizing his career in film.  What I want to talk about is a psychological phenomenon called the Nostalgia Effect. 

Ever find yourself missing an ex, even if you know they’re psychotic/abusive/mean/listen to Nickelback, etc.?  You quickly come to your senses, remember why you’re no longer together, and wonder what the hell you were thinking for a second.  This is one example of the nostalgia effect.  The human brain has a tendency to remember things fondly, even bad memories.

We’ve all heard some stories, sometimes by now famous artists about the times when they stole napkins from restaurants because they couldn’t afford toilet paper, or ate nothing but ramen noodles for months on end.  Rather than recalling the horror of these times they almost sound like they miss that sort of poverty.  Perhaps it’s a “life was simpler then” mentality where little problems didn’t matter so much because basic questions of food, shelter, and survival were much more pressing issues.  The tendency to sugarcoat even tough times is another example of the NE. 

How does this apply to movies?  Well it should seem pretty obvious to a certain extent.  Film criticism and study is filled with hundreds of examples.  A personal favorite you grew up watching, a film panned upon it’s release that was rediscovered and reevaluated by a new generation with a fresh take on it.  Sometimes it was an example of a film being buried amidst bad marketing, or the cliché “ahead of it’s time” moniker.  In other situations it’s simply one very persuasive critic or historian pointing out that some slightly stupid movie they grew up with isn’t as bad as other people made it out to be.

I know I’m guilty of this on a number of occasions, and browsing through my list(s) of favorite movies you’ll see evidence all over the place of films I love that artistically speaking were train wrecks.  This isn’t pointing out the “so bad it’s great” syndrome where even someone watching a film like Can’t Stop the Music for the first time in 2014 would still recognize how amazingly bad it is.  This is more of a by-product of your particular childhood.

Say you were one of those people who grew up with maybe 20 VHS tapes at home.  Those long lazy summer days you might spend watching those same 20 movies every damn week.  For years I thought Indian Jones and the Temple of Doom was the best movie in the series simply because it was the only one we owned.  Watching it now I can’t help but shake my head at how awful parts of it are, and how infinitely superior Raiders and Last Crusade are.  Although a certain part of me still appreciates the movie for that same nostalgic reason all Indy films are just dumb fun.

This can be true of other films.  Sometimes there is a beloved classic of a generation that doesn’t mean anything to you because you didn’t grow up with it.  I saw the Wizard of Oz once when I was 6 and then again when I was about 16.  I thought it was decent, and understood the fascination people had, but I didn’t have that unquestioned love of the film the way so very many people do.  This wasn’t an annual tradition for me, there was no nostalgic love of the film that brought back memories of my seemingly happier youth. 

Another friend who shall remain nameless swears that Rocky IV is the worst movie in the series.  Having never seen the Rocky movies as a kid, sure a giant robot, and Rocky seemingly punching America to a Cold War victory might seem horribly dated and corny.  Growing up with that movie I can see the exact same thing on screen and cheer like an enthusiastic 8 year old.  Any friends who’ve seen me watch Rocky IV know that I will get drunk and yell at the screen like I bet money on the final fight.  The nostalgia effect is strong for me with that film.  I don’t just watch Rocky IV, or even in the context of the overall Rocky saga, I watch my memories, that “where was I in my life when I saw this first” nostalgia. 

Pictured above: My Childhood

Sure sometimes we grow out of stupid movies from our childhood.  I found myself getting into tons of arguments/debates with co-workers because often times we have different nostalgic feelings towards 80s and 90s movies.  I’m sure I’ll catch hell from many of my millennial readers, but I don’t like The Goonies.  It’s a stupid movie, with a bunch of plot holes and I stand by that. I had the same opinion of Hook, which was a movie even 8 year old me thought was too long and stupid when I saw it in the theater.  Quite a few professional critics would back me up but you tell a 28 year old that you don’t care for The Goonies, never liked Mrs. Doubtfire, or thought Space Jam was forgettable and suddenly you’re Hitler.  I’m shitting on your childhood and everything you hold dear. 

Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up loving those movies.  I grew up obsessed with Big Trouble in Little China, I’m Gonna Git You Sucka, Predator, Golden Child, and Flash Gordon.  You may think those movies are dumb too, and sometimes I’m inclined to agree, but they’re each bumped up a star or two simply because of my childhood.  Except for Predator, if you don’t like that movie, you suck and shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies ever again. 

So this brings me to Robin Williams.  A great many people in my age group took his death pretty hard.  For some it was like losing a great childhood friend, some part of their youth that they held sacred.  This makes sense, because during the peak of his box office power, Robin Williams made a bunch of movies aimed at kids.  Whether it was Aladdin, Mrs. Doubtfire, Hook, Toys, or Jumanji, his target audience was definitely the under-13 crowd.  So if those five movies I just mentioned were part of your childhood, and movies you have a nostalgic affection for, then my condolences.

Without sounding too horrible, I will point out that I was never a fan of his.  Even as a kid I thought he was annoying and exhausting.  The man made some great movies, and delivered a few amazing performances, but the films targeted at me in my youth were lost on me.  I thought of him in the same annoying conversation as Pauly Shore.  That might sound extremely harsh, but some of those same people obsessed with Jumanji, Hook, and Mrs. Doubtfire also defend movies like Encino Man or Bio-Dome. 

Before you start typing up death threats let me backtrack a bit.  Looking at Williams’ filmography, there are a number of really good movies and performances.  Most of his best work was dramatic, the guy could act.  Whether it be Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Awakenings, Good Will Hunting, etc. there are certainly some gems on there.  The reason I didn’t feel that personal loss the way so many others is that those are all films I saw as an adult.  I don’t reminisce about the first time I saw Good Will Hunting, and I didn’t grow up with a VHS of Good Morning, Vietnam on constant rotation.  To me Robin Williams was a damn good actor who made some damn good movies.  I think of him as an actor first, comedian second because that’s the Williams I prefer.  He wasn’t a part of my childhood like so many of you.  

Perhaps my point in all this is to recognize the nostalgic effect and how it relates to you personally.  This is the wonderful part about film.  We remember different things about movies and experience them all in our own unique way.  Maybe you spent an entire summer watching all five Planet of the Apes movies (I’m not counting reboots/remakes) over and over again like I did.  Perhaps you rewatched Tim Burton’s Batman so many times you memorized every sound effect like my brother.  You could have been one of the many who insisted on renting Mrs. Doubtfire or Aladdin every single time you went to the video store, prompting your parents to finally buy the thing and admit defeat.  Whatever the movie is, half of what makes it great is what you contribute to it.

This is why certain movies will probably never achieve that status of beloved.  On an episode of the League, a recently divorced married couple wanted to retrieve a home made porno.  Where did they hide it?  In a DVD case of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Even someone else comments on what a good movie it is, but let’s face it, that DVD case is probably never going to be opened.  Few critics would put a movie like Jumanji or Toys above that Fincher film, but the legacy of Robin Williams is such that he could elevate an otherwise bland movie into a cherished childhood memory. 

Rest easy good sir, you will be missed.

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