It may have something to do with the fact that I’m getting hitched in under two months, but I’ve recently been thinking a lot about emotions. Specifically, the ways people try to drag out an emotional response in media, like movies or books. Sometimes it’s like they think they’ve got a prize-winning big-mouth bass on the line. As I am male, I tend to resist this sort of coercion. I pull that line with every ounce of bass-strength I have, and if I go down, I’m taking them with me. I find that even when I’m caught off-guard and have to pretend that there’s something in my eye to avoid the awkward glances of fellow movie-goers, I resent the assault of the writers on my emotions and judge them for their crudeness.
My point is mainly this: anyone can have their protagonist’s favorite fuzzy take an errant arrow, or have a doe-eyed little girl meet an untimely grizzly death to drag a tear out of the audience. It’s cheap, easy, and as far as I’m concerned, poor form. Melissa already covered this ground succinctly in Killing Little Suzie, so read her post if you want her take on when and when not to murder children for dramatic effect.
What I would like to explore in this post, however, is what I feel is a much subtler and more artful emotional appeal that I find is not only more difficult to pull off effectively, but widely unrecognized for its power.
Nostalgia – The Subtler Appeal
I recently saw The Lego Movie (yes, I know, I’m a bit late), and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Any film based on a children’s toy is in danger of being hopelessly dumb and devoid of creativity, often purposefully so, because the people involved operate under the assumption that children like dumb, worthless fluff and will go see the movie anyway because TOYS! Clearly, we have many great works of literature and even several great classic films that demonstrate the fallacy of good art having no appeal to children. Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne and Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie are both enduring children’s classics full of wit and humor that delight adults alike. Pixar has given us several films that clearly have tremendous appeal to both children and adults. I don’t specifically seek out movies that were created for children, but I have seen many films fail because they try to dumb their art down to what they think is an appropriately childish level.
I loved Legos growing up. I still refuse to refer to them by the appropriately Dutch plural form “Lego” because I’ve always called them Legos and I’m not a pretentious prat. So when I saw the preview for The Lego Movie, I was sure that it was either going to be exceedingly dumb or incredible. After hearing good things about it from several friends, even those unlikely to make excuses for a “Kids Movie,” I was optimistic.
What I actually got was a beautifully crafted, stop-motion animated monument to my childhood, and I ached to have a young sibling or nephew to share it with. I wanted to go excavate my parent’s attic and dump my old 50-gallon container of Legos on my bedroom floor and build a giant spaceship. The Toy Story series of movies touched my sense of Nostalgia for my childhood imagination in a general, vague way, but this movie was a direct hit on my inner child.
Nostalgia and Kitsch
So, great. I really really liked The Lego Movie. But I started thinking about it more and more, about what I found so powerful. The story was well-written, and the gags were clever and endearing, but I felt that there was something deeper that resonated.
When I use the word nostalgia, I am dangerously close to both clichés and kitsch. Merriam-Webster Online defines nostalgia as 1: the state of being homesick, 2: a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. “Excessively sentimeltal” strikes me as inherently negative, and in a sense, for a writer to attempt to affect the audience with a deep sense of nostalgia, he or she is in danger of relying on kitsch, the post-modern self-aware manufacture of emotional experience for its own sake.
In my recent class on literary criticism, I read an article Roger Scruton called “A Culture of Fake Originality” in which he describes contemporary academia as being driven primarily by kitsch, which he defined as a work of art which is “not a response to the real world, but a fabrication designed to replace it” (1). According to Scruton, this phenomenon relies on a collaboration between faker and victim to replace reality with the idealistic vision represented by kitsch. Kitschy art that wields nostalgia relies on the audience to supply his or her idealistic vision of the past, ignoring conflict and flaws in an unbridled fantasy of what should have been. But the old guard of Tolkien and Lewis would say that the peril in the adventure of childhood is just as important as reflecting on the happiness of more innocent times.
The Lego Movie is not about creating a beautiful and false ideal, nor is it relying on clichés to formulate whatever market-driven image of childhood we should all have stamped on our memories. Without spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, I can safely say that the entire story world of this film reflects a child’s unabashed creativity and imagination, through the medium of a child’s toy that specifically enables it, and to me the combination was a powerful image more akin to The Shire than the sort of merchandise-driven marketing ploys we’ve come to expect.
I’ve gone to somewhat silly lengths to express my admiration for the quality work I saw in this movie, but I hope I’ve at least managed to express the impact the legitimate and effective use of nostalgia can have, if only on one person. You may not have as strong of a reaction as I did to The Lego Movie¸ but I encourage you to look for the more subtle and artful emotional appeals in movies and books and to call it out when you find it. I for one want to see more of this sort of thing rather than the likes of that abomination The Last Airbender or that mind-rendingly horrible Transformers: Dark of the Moon.