Exit from Eden
What follows are some thoughts on nostalgia and how it blurs critical assessment — prompted by, of all things, yesterday's post on this year's Oscars show.
I'd like to preface them with a line from one of my favorite interviews — which just so happens to be one that my pal Stefan Blitz (now founder/editor-in-chief of Forces of Geek) and I conducted with comics writer Brian Michael Bendis back in 2001 for my magazine Comicology.
After stopping myself literally in the middle of referring to Stefan as a DVD "connoisseur" Stefan made my point for me by admitting that he owned the 1983 movie Krull.
"You know what's funny about that movie? I remember seeing that movie [at 15] with my mom and my brother, and sitting in the movie theater having my first realization that movies could suck."
Lately I've found myself in a variation of the same conversation with several friends, both online and in person, across the breadth of my pop-culture interests. The conversation is about how, at once perfectly naturally and quite strangely, we tend to hold material (I wish I had a better catch-all word here) that dates to our youths in an untouchable regard, yet once the chain is broken — a property gets relaunched or just revisited by us in its current version after we've taken time away — we're free to criticize with abandon.
Part of this, of course, is nostalgia's rose-colored lens. Stuff that tickled us as a kid, and reminds us — often viscerally — not only of that experience but of the generally carefree days in which the experience took place, gets a free pass from objective evaluation. Stuff in the same mold but of more recent vintage, particularly if it attempts to evoke such reverie and comes up short, most certainly does not.
My reading tastes are varied, but at heart, all things being equal and especially when in need of a pick-me-up, I prefer comic books — specifically, comic books from the 1970s; more specifically, superhero comic books from the 1970s; more specifically still, DC superhero comic books from the 1970s.
And I love comic books from that era for the total package: the newsprint, the trade dress, even the advertising. Yes, they were pulpy and garish, but that's a large part of the appeal in context. I have little affection for most comic books released by the big publishers today, however, finding the ads intrusive and the entire package unflatteringly disposable. When it comes to modern comics I tend to prefer "graphic novels" (be they original long-form works or bound collections of serialized stories) on slick paper, smartly designed, in a lasting package that provides more bang for my buck than single-issue comic books (or, as they were once called more aptly, comic magazines).
The package isn't everything, though. In fact, I'm mostly talking about content. The creators of the stuff I read in my youth were laying down gospel. Now I'm aware that the writers and artists and editors are, to unintentionally continue and somewhat mix my ecclesiastic metaphor, far from infallible — and not just because I've met enough to have had the spell broken, to know that they're real people struggling with various creative and/or business constraints.
Maybe there was a bum plot turn or a cover illustration that I didn't care for as a kid, but my perspective was far more that of acolyte than critic. This holds for TV and movies as well as comic books. If I didn't like something, I could stop buying it or watching it, true, yet while my engagement with the material might have been deeply held the acceptance or rejection was rather superficial in its binary quality. Do you remember the first time you felt in your bones that a favorite series got something "wrong"? It actually sort-of blows the mind. How can the inventors or even designated custodians of a fictional world not by definition always do right by their own property?
"It's just not Superman."
"Picard wouldn't act that way."
"You can stick your midichlorians and Gungans where Tattooine's suns don't shine."
How are we entitled to say such things as readers and viewers? There's a weird tipping point when a concept coalesces. Rarely is an ongoing mythology its definitive self from the very beginning — the early chapters often look odd (and to the more continuity-minded they necessitate some explaining away or are deemed apocryphal) in hindsight: Batman carries a gun, The Hulk is gray and transforms at sunrise/sunset, Kirk's Enterprise belongs to the United Earth Space Probe Agency. Soon enough, however, an aggregate ideal is formed from scripts and the artists who interpret them (be they pencilers, inkers, etc. or actors, directors, and production designers) such that both those involved and we, the audience, can argue when the concept has been violated.
If the concept's nothing special to begin with and never becomes something special, none of this matters. Moreover, if we encounter a comic book, a TV show, a movie (perhaps especially a movie, since films stand alone to a greater extent) on its own terms as something "new" that's unfamiliar to us — even if (or, again, perhaps especially if) it's actually rather derivative — we have a greater chance of being struck by a realization that, as with Bendis and Krull, such an effort can, well, suck.
Isn't not even liking an example of the kind of thing we heretofore only know loving just crazy talk? Kids are in for a rude awakening once that unthinkable option is made manifest.
We accept contradictions when we're younger more readily, I think, as either part of the mystery or evidence of a pattern beyond our ken — and maybe my religious motif wasn't so out-of-bounds after all. Questioning authority, challenging the status quo, demanding the highest quality for our investment (time or money) is entirely righteous but also rather exhausting — and the need to do it is often plain disappointing. Every now and then, at least, it's nice to be coddled.
I've had this discussion, like I said, in slightly different form on different topics — and not exactly this profoundly — from baseball to James Bond. When if ever is it "okay" to switch allegiances from one's hometown team as rosters turn over completely? How does once reconcile the reflexive acceptance one has of the paradigm of a fictional property or "universe" when one first encounters it with an emerging belief of what the paradigm "should" be once a variety of interpretations has been sampled?
These questions never end — although the extent to which they're so consciously articulated to yourself or to others probably depends on how much you live in your head and what kind of geek circles you frequent.
Every one of us, we discover as we get older, is perfectly, imperfectly human, a fact reassuring in some ways and constantly deflating in others. This realization naturally has broad and intense existential ramifications, but I don't want to discount how it impacts our appraisal of frivolous yet eminently stimulating entertainment.
Just recently I've seen fascinating debates spring up around what if any beliefs, or actions undertaken on behalf of those beliefs, might preclude someone from being able or allowed to write a hero. I've had ongoing discussions with people whose childhoods were a decade earlier or later than mine clinching how determinant age is in preferring, accepting, or even caring at all about a comic book, TV show, or movie and what incarnation of a series is the "right" one. And belatedly, as of this past Sunday night — to return to the rubicon that sparked this rumination — I've finally realized that the producers and host of the Oscars telecast aren't unerring simply by dint of the power vested in them by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The Oscars aren't fiction, it's true; actually, this threshold I've crossed with them falls somewhere between the sort of thing I've focused on above and the shaking of foundations in one's personal life through the awareness that parents and teachers and politicians are, or at least can be, as errant as anyone else.
It's eating from the Tree of Knowledge. It's opening Pandora's Box. It's understanding how the sausage is made. It's knowing better, essentially, and losing that state of grace.
We all have to grow up sometime, and it just might happen watching Krull.