Thursday, June 19, 2014

The Rite of Summer: finding it at the movies

Hiroshi Sugimoto, from Theaters (1978)
Not every movie I see in a summer brings to mind the ones I watched in those summer vacations from high school; nor is it necessarily a mark of quality when a movie does. But I feel a thrill of recognition when I come across them—the movies that, for one reason or another, drag to the surface of my memory not just the movies I watched in those summers, but the entire experience that went along with them: the drives up to the theater in Kalamazoo in the cars of friends; the dark blue glow of twilight at show time; the sense of the sticky Midwestern air growing cooler between when you entered and left. And more often than not, at least the notion of milkshakes and burgers at diners afterward—food rarely wanted, or rather, wanted mainly because it was food shared, part of the whole ceremony that was teenage moviegoing the way I was inducted into it.

Those days are only five or six years gone for me, but are far enough away now that I can miss them. And I am grateful when the best of them comes flooding back and I suddenly have a flicker of what it was all like, a sense that this emotion—an elated and deliberate youthfulness—has not yet vanished from my life altogether. There is no telling what movies will resurrect it. The most forthright attempts at nostalgia-mongering can come off as manipulative and maudlin—so I felt at the end of the night about The Way Way Back—and yet Super 8’s self-conscious evocations of youth and carelessness expertly pulled my every emotional lever. Superhero blockbusters are not guaranteed to summon the feeling: going to see Frances Ha somehow succeeded where the new X-Men movie failed. And yet the last Star Trek movie riddled me giddy with memories of adolescence. So did seeing Lawrence of Arabia on a big screen—alone, no less, with popcorn and wine in a little art-house place in Amherst—so it’s neither novelty nor company that matters, though both those things may help. 

The memory I’m in love with might seem mawkish to many, and even I know I’ve idealized it into a thing sentimentalized and faded prematurely, an emotional Instagram. (Thither go I and my generation together, I suppose.) These are images etched deeply in the American cultural imagination, the stuff of Rebel Without a Cause and American Graffiti: movies, diners, driving around the suburbs of the heartland on endless summer nights. To insist that you lived them out is to insist that you lived a cliché. Either your life was molded by a received template in the living, or you retrofitted it out of—what, exactly? A lack of imagination? A fear of originality? A susceptibility to the messages of media and convention? Bovary-ism?

All those things, and also, I think, one of their cousins: a desire for normality—a desire that is so often and unfairly scorned as an adolescent weakness that must be overcome. One doesn’t want to be a slave to the impulse, of course. However, taken not as a status, but as an experience, normality turns out to be a great source of strength, and the bedrock of our capacity for sympathy. Allied with humility and kindness, it comes with the ability to acknowledge that you are nothing more than anyone else is, that you are susceptible to the same dumb range of ordinary joys and pleasures, and that others’ lives are no less dramatic or intensely experienced than your own. To be an exception, always and in every regard, would make us something other than human. For all of us who take our work to dwell on the enduring questions of human nature—the artists, the humanists, the social scientists—we are only as good as our quotient of normality. And we find it where we can, treasuring it as the lodestone that guides our sense of reality.

We need myths of normalcy so that we can have ceremonies of normalcy, and that is part of what modern culture allows us to do—to say, “Yes, that is me; I have felt like that.” A poetry of normalcy stabilizes us against the powerful tug of the poetry of martyrdom and genius: a Middlemarch against a Zarathustra, a Rabbit, Run against a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. And a body of stories about what is normal gives us a repertory of gestures out of which to feel this experience. Some are better than others. The impulse in modern life that would romanticize having an iPhone into a human urge is deplorable. But then there is the romanticized normality of working in cafés; of buying groceries in markets; of going to the movies late as a teenager. And we romanticize—rightly and nobly—into something exceptional the utterly ordinary human experience of falling in love, the great synthesis of the unique with the universal, the human with the animal and the divine.

We cannot live our lives from day to day at this aesthetic extreme, nor would we want to—it is part of the phenomenology of pleasure that it must be highly local, and that we attempt to prolong it artificially at great danger to ourselves, as Keats so rightly pointed out. But we can go through life drawing connections between the emotional points that stand out to us most keenly, when we felt most deeply human—Proust’s addendum, in a sense, to Keats. There is no reason why funerals or weddings should necessarily mean more than the random afternoon of exultation when you scattered all your spare change along a sunny sidewalk; the ritual inflection points are often carved less deeply on our minds than the commonest moments. We save them up for the days when we need their memories the most, and we look forward to stitching those that have yet to occur in with the ones we have already known.

Where prudence is a sense of concern or respect for our potential future selves, nostalgia is our way of expressing affection for whom we used to be. But nostalgia is not just a feeling of kindness, warmth or bemusement toward the selves we were; it is also a form of gratitude for our continuity of identity over time—that metaphysical marvel in our psychologies that governs all our lives, so hard to explain and so easy to take for granted, without which life would dissolve into chaos. That is why I bother to go to the movies, especially in the summer, even alone. It takes me back to my moment of happiest plainness: just another kid, at just another movie, with the summer sailing by like a boat on a windless lake. 

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