Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Infernal nostalgia: I thought my generation would be different. And yet, here comes another Muppets movie.

Merriam Webster online has a rather depressing definition of the word "nostalgia."
1: the state of being homesick : homesickness
2: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia
An overwhelming desire to return to an idealized (non-existent) past. Ugh. You can't go back in time, you can't grow younger, and you can't return to a place that never existed.

A user at the Ursinus Wiki Project's online version of "The Devil's Dictionary" defines "nostalgia" as
The process by which, through advancement of age and dimming of memories, that which was ‘crappy’ becomes ‘cherished.’
That actually feels less editorialized than Merriam Webster's supposedly dispassionate definition.

I might add to that something about nostalgia being the extent to which a person congratulates himself on his previous good taste. Or, the extent to which a person defends his previous bad taste as if it were good. A lot of people have trouble admitting that they've ever made a mistake. Nostalgia is a symptom of that. Today, thanks to websites devoted to various strains of fandom, people have plenty of venues in which they can exercise their nostalgia.

The purveyors of popular entertainment have always made a lot of money pandering to nostalgia. I remember when I was a child, playing with my Star Wars action figures, watching the Muppets on television, reading my Conan the Barbarian and X-Men comic books, listening to my KISS records, and laughing at my parents for attending "rockin' reunion" concerts, listening to "oldies" radio stations, reading old Agatha Christie novels, and watching re-runs of "Leave it to Beaver" and "Star Trek."

You won't catch me trying to relive my past. I'm gonna be different. My whole entire generation is too savvy for that. Especially now with the internet, and our PoMo attitude. Whatever.

And yet, sadly, human beings do the same damn things, over and over again. Human beings, even those of us who came of age during the years of post modernism and self-awareness, are so predictable. We all just want to go home again. To a place that never existed.

I have already written of the importance of Sesame Street in my life. This isn't necessarily something of which I'm proud, nor am I defensive about it. I don't know if watching "Sesame Street" prevented me discovering other shows I would have liked better (I watched a lot of TV), and I don't know if the time I spent watching the show might have been better spent outside, playing at the sports. I was never good at the sports, but maybe I might have been.

I am not nostalgic for "Sesame Street."

Once I'd outgrown that particular show, I moved on to "The Muppet Show," which was another creation of Jim Henson. I really liked that show at the time it aired. I had several merchandised toys and t-shirts, and a lunchbox. I probably had even more than that, but I've forgotten them.

Some of these things I still have. Here's a photo of some the toys I've kept:

That is a large Animal puppet, and some smaller plastic versions of Animal, Rowlf, and Gonzo. Also, a Shogun Warrior sneaked into the picture, because he was angered by the fact that I was taking a photo of some of my Muppets-related childhood toys. (That particular Shogun Warrior, Gaiking, was the subject of a fan-made "teaser trailer" for a proposed film back in 2010 -- more nostalgia!)

I have posted this picture not just to embarrass myself. (But rest assured, I find this photo embarrassing.) I have posted this picture to show you that I once was a big fan of the Muppets. When I was nine. Then I moved on to something else. Probably "The Dark Crystal," Jim Henson's attempt at a more grown up fantasy story. I mention that because I still have a 1982 edition of Brian Froud's book The World of the Dark Crystal, which contains several beautiful illustrations of character and set designs from the film.

Gosh help me, I even watched a few episodes of "Fraggle Rock." Eventually, though, I outgrew the Muppets entirely. A few years ago, a friend started buying "The Muppet Show" DVDs, and I watched a couple of episodes with her. I had fond memories of the show. I was, you might say, nostalgic for the show. We both were.

Oh, how unentertaining were those episodes! Oh, what indefensible taste I had!

I kid myself of course. For a child, I had pretty decent taste, given the circumstances of the location and time in which I came of age. Bearing in mind that children are stupid and have very limited experiences and exposure to art. Their frames of reference are such that they can't know that "The Muppet Show" was a mildly diverting bit of disposable entertainment, not a profound cultural artifact.

Children don't know any better. Adults should. As you age and mature, your tastes change. You evolve. Don't you? Do you like the same things you liked as a child? Hey, childhood Muppets fans -- how many of the Muppets-related films have you seen since you became an adult?

Since "Follow that Bird," there have been at least six Muppets movies. I knew of one of them. Since the "Muppet Babies" animated TV show, there have been 19 other Muppets related television shows. I knew of two of them. I moved on.

But the Muppets are trying to draw me back. They're trying to draw us all back, by appealing to that weak, venal part of ourselves: Nostalgia. Forget fast food. Forget pornography. Forget heroin. Forget alcohol. Forget our addiction to oil. I submit that nostalgia is our worst, and most destructive vice.

What makes nostalgia all the more insidious is that there is no organized movement to combat it. There are millions of people who will hector you over your consumption of cigarettes and fast food oil and pornography and etc. But nostalgia? It's coddled, if not encouraged. Awww, ain't that sweet that the Muppets are back?

On yahoo's main page, we learn that the web is "delighted" by the trailer for the new Muppets film. Screen Rant goes even further, declaring that "'The Muppets' Teaser Trailer is Welcome Nostalgia."

Remember how Merriam Webster defines "nostalgia." I only just pasted it into the top of this post, and already I'm feeling a wistful sentimental yearning to read it again, so here it is:
1: the state of being homesick : homesickness
2: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition; also : something that evokes nostalgia
Only a masochist would "welcome" nostalgia.

Speaking of masochism, here is the aforementioned "The Muppets" teaser trailer:

It starts out as an uninteresting, and uninviting generic romantic comedy, and then becomes -- a movie with Muppets! Doesn't that look great?

Here's a description of the film from the YouTube page:
On vacation in Los Angeles, Walter, the world's biggest Muppet fan, and his friends Gary (Jason Segel) and Mary (Amy Adams) from Smalltown, US, discover the nefarious plan of oilman Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to raze the Muppet Theater and drill for the oil recently discovered beneath the Muppets' former stomping grounds. To stage The Greatest Muppet Telethon Ever and raise the $10-million needed to save the theater, Walter, Mary and Gary help Kermit the Frog reunite the Muppets, who have all gone their separate ways: Fozzie now performs with a Reno casino tribute band called the Moopets, Miss Piggy is a plus-size fashion editor at Vogue Paris, Animal is in a Santa Barbara clinic for anger management, and Gonzo is a high-powered plumbing magnate. With secret, signature, celebrity cameos, "The Muppets" hits the big screen November 23, 2011.
Look at that description carefully. The Muppets have moved on. The Muppet Theater is described as "the Muppets' former stomping grounds." It's the human fan of the Muppets -- a grown man -- who wants to prevent a part of his childhood being destroyed... an oilman? Do you know how difficult it is to get a permit to drill for oil anywhere in the United States, let alone in Los Angeles? And, even assuming this oilman (whose name is "Tex Richman," get it?) could get the permits, would $10 million really be enough to prevent the drilling taking place?

This is nostalgia with an extra layer of aggrandizement for those of us who drive hybrids. It flatters our childhood taste, and our conscientiousness as adults.

It also rather cynically exploits our weakness in an attempt to make money for a major corporation. You'll note that the teaser trailer opens with a shot of the famous Disney logo. The Muppets are a wholly owned subsidiary of the Walt Disney corporation. In other words, a big, evil corporation is exploiting your yearning to return to an idealized past in order to get money from you.

But at least they're not drilling for oil, am I right? Wocka wocka wocka!

I am picking on the Muppets because their new teaser trailer is supposedly delighting the web. But of course the weakness of nostalgia isn't unique to the felt puppets. It probably explains much of the success of modern superhero movies -- it definitely explains the early anticipation and "buzz" that surrounds those films. It's largely people who read the comics as children debating about some minutiae of continuity, and wondering just how "faithful" this iteration will be. Remember those people who stood in line waiting to see the fourth "Star Wars" movie (I can't remember the title and I won't look it up)? What motivated them?

Nostalgia. Infernal, nasty nostalgia.

I will admit that when I first saw the Muppet characters in the new "The Muppets" teaser trailer, I got a strange and sad stirring somewhere between my perineum and my soul. This was a purely involuntary reaction. Illogical. I couldn't help it.

But I have recovered. When I was a child, the Muppets were terrific. I appreciate the fact that they entertained me way back when. And I'm sure they appreciate all the money I spent on Muppets paraphernalia. But I'm a grown up now. Like Miss Piggy and Gonzo, I've moved on.

We need to build on our past, not plunder it for the purpose of generating more marketing revenue.

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