Tag Archives: memory

Inside Out and Mountain Memories

Pixar Post Inside Out 1

I saw Pixar’s Inside Out a few weeks ago at the Pinecrest Amphitheater, an outdoor movie theater on the shore of Pinecrest Lake in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Under the stars, surrounded by family and with the smells of pine and campfires in the air, the setting was beautiful and memorable. Fitting for a movie about the mystery, joy and sadness of memory.

Kira and I saw the movie in the middle of a two week vacation that took us to Northern California and Oregon (and for about an hour, Washington), where we experienced beauty of the first order, both in nature and in culture. We took pictures and bought souvenirs, but the intensity of the beauty we experienced will only live on in our memories, and possibly also in the ways the memories will shape our personalities and those of our children. But the visceral feelings of being there at a certain moment in time–the snowmelt water of the Stanislaus River, the soft sand of Nye Beach at sunset, the taste of a coconut blackberry scone–are forever in the past.

Such is the nature of joy. It pulsates with life and vibrancy because, not in spite of, its dependency on ephemerality. On anticipation, on memory, on the here-and-it’s-gone nature of existing in time. Joy is inescapably bound up with time, and with its accompanying challenges (decay, forgetfulness, loss, death). As Inside Out so colorfully illustrates, joy and sadness are the emotions most necessarily in conversation. They are forever in a dance, tempering and inflaming the other, stirring up a spiral of restlessness that can only find peace in God (but which is so often searched for by attempting to replicate pleasures or past pangs of joy).

A few years ago I wrote a post on joy inspired by Zadie Smith and C.S. Lewis’s thoughts on the subject. Like Inside Out, I focused on memory as the catalyst for the happy/sad dichotomy for joy:

…The longing for those happy experiences and the intense recognition that they will never be replicated in just the same way… that’s what stirs up joy. Sehnsucht. And it’s not just nostalgia for the past. It’s nostalgia for a future that a lifetime full of accumulated pangs and pleasures leads us to believe exists. Somewhere. Joy is the ineffable, the transcendent, the sublime stasis which a million little experiences grasp at but can never fully capture. An ultimate settledness for which our hearts now restlessly pine.

This is why Smith feels that there is something melancholy about joy, that it has such a paradoxical capacity to bring us pain. And perhaps that is why in today’s world–so untrusted and unstable, where we’re all so aware of contingency and fragility–the idea of joy makes a lot more sense when articulated as a groaning for completion rather than a smiling-face present perfection.

As Kira and I drove home from Oregon after our trip ended, we both shed tears. Tears for the impermanence of such intense brushes with beauty. Tears for the life-goes-on nature of reality. Tears for the way the world is. Lacrimae rerum. Glorious and fleeting and fragile. Forever growing, forever groaning. Forever dying. And rising to new life.


Alexander Payne’s Nebraska is road movie. It’s about a father and son (Bruce Dern and Will Forte) who travel to Nebraska from Montana, in hopes of redeeming a “You’ve won $1 million!” mailing that everyone but the old man knows is a scam. The comical plot conceit aside, Nebraska is really a movie about going home, and understanding home. Like Payne’s other movies, which probe the idiosyncrasies of middle class America in places like Omaha (Election), Colorado (About Schmidt), Hawaii (The Descendants) and California’s wine country (Sideways), Nebraska is about small-town life in the Cornhusker State. Its title should indicate as much.

Filmed in black and white (a choice that both heightens the drab blah-ness of flyover country and accentuates its minimalist beauty), Nebraska has been called a minor addition to Alexander’s body of work. I think it may actually be his best film yet.  Perhaps I’m biased as a Midwesterner myself. The suburban Oklahoma and Kansas of my youth are evocatively construed in the tableaus of Payne’s films, particularly Nebraska (Payne grew up in Omaha). Watching Nebraska, I recognize and identify with Payne’s love/hate relationship with the places he is from. On one hand there is a sort of “I’ve moved on” distaste, which dwells on the provincial smallness and embarrassing insulation of the yokel customs. On the other is a profound affection and nostalgia for its simplicity, slow pace and settledness in rhythms and rootedness.

Both of these perspectives are on full display in Nebraska, a film that skewers small-town life and provokes groans and grimaces throughout, yet maintains a respect and even love for its subjects. The film leads the audience to laugh at the small-minded ridiculousness of its characters, but in a way that sympathizes with them too. We almost feel guilty for laughing at them. Payne’s gaze is neither condescending nor reverent. If anything it’s a gaze that sees in others a sort of universal quirkiness; a mirror reflecting back to us the familiar flaws of a people just trying to do the best that they can.

The world of Nebraska is realistically drab, harsh, often bleak. The fictitious small town, Hawthorne, in which most action unfolds is a struggling farm community hit hard by the recession. Almost the whole populace spends their time watching football or drinking together in bars (there’s not much else to do, notes one character), reminiscing about times gone by. There’s a pervasive sense of “the best days are behind us.” Everywhere there are shuttered small businesses, rusted old machinery and dilapidated homesteads of once-great farms.

The sense of place at the heart of Nebraska is also a sense of loss. It’s a confrontation with the harsh indifference of time: generations passing, buildings crumbling, man’s finest glories fading as decades go by. Payne’s film captures, perhaps better than any I’ve seen, the feeling of returning home after a long absence and observing the hard facts of change.

For me, returning to the home of my childhood (as I am this week for Thanksgiving), is always a strange mix of continuity and discontinuity. So much is the same: the meals, the traditions, some of the neighbors and many of the local businesses. But every time I go back, so much has changed. And perhaps most jarringly: I have changed too.  Nothing can call us to itself more convincingly than the memory of home, even while few things can feel so alien as time goes by.

All things are ephemeral: the places we’re from, the people we were. Nebraska captures this beautifully. It’s about the way the world around us changes, faster — but not by much — than even our own rapid aging. But Payne’s film also offers hope, reminding us that love and care for one another make our struggles more manageable. In the midst of dizzying change, and our own stubborn resistance to the reality of mortality, the small kindnesses of friends and family are what give us ballast.

An Early Summer Arcade Fire Reverie

I always think of memories in terms of seasons. For example, when it’s Christmas, I’m most prone to reflect back on all my favorite Christmas memories. When it’s the first cold day of Autumn, I think about all things Autumnal.

And so it is now, in these first few days of summer. I’ve been thinking back to “early summer” memories like Vacation Bible School, camping trips, mowing the grass twice a week, Memorial Day barbecues, the cold water of early summer pool swimming, seeing Coldplay at Red Rocks in 2003, driving up the Pacific Coast Highway with my parents last June, seeing Jurassic Park one humid afternoon in 1993 after a morning at Bill Self’s basketball camp. And the list goes on.

After reading this amazing post by my friend Laurel, I was pleasantly reminded this week of another early summer memory: seeing Arcade Fire open for David Byrne at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2005.

The concert was amazing. I was with my best friend Ryan, and the two of us had just driven out to California all the way from Chicago for a summer internship in Redlands. We’d also just finished college, and the future was scary and exciting. We were at the Hollywood Bowl listening to Arcade Fire, whose music somehow captured everything about who we were at that moment in time.

We were drinking red wine and some sort of fancy cheese that we’d picked up at Trader Joes. Our friend Tracy was with us—a new friend from work. There were hipsters everywhere. In a month we would be in England.

It was four years ago this month. And so much has happened since then. It’s strange to think I’ve been out of college (undergrad) longer than I was in it. But that night of listening to Arcade Fire at the Bowl remains so clear in my memory, as if it were yesterday.

Here’s a bit of Laurel’s description of the same concert experience:

In the summer after I graduated college, I saw the Arcade Fire perform for the first time… I was full of defiant optimism, at once terrified and yet determined to take this thing called Life and turn it on its head, to beat it into submission. I had yet to work three jobs – three corporate jobs that would eventually leave me for lack of any better term, dazed and utterly confused. I had yet to watch social groups fracture and filigree and form messy veins that skittered across a map of the U.S. and beyond. I had yet to experience loss of any real kind, and I’d certainly yet to sacrifice a third of my paycheck to any government I refused to pledge allegiance to at the time. In other words, I was a real asshat, brimming to the gills with youthful insouciance and I certainly had never been told, “Hey, kid, simmer down. Your self-righteous can-do spirit is on a rampage and it’s headed straight for my patience.”

But that’s the joy of it all! That can-do spirit went and did it and that night at the show, I wanted to jump out of my skin and conquer the world right then and there. And the thing about the Arcade Fire is that you get the sense that Winn Butler & the gang are right there with you, all muscular energy and visceral, blistering pronouncements. In solidarity you spit out the lyrics, fists beating the fevered night air. In revolt you get your body moving, get your hips swaying to that insurgent sound and you really feel like you can take on the world. All the media, the marketing, the agency big-wigs, the monolithic corporate structures – all of it! Piecemeal! Easily bested! “Now here’s the moon, it’s all right (lies! lies!), and every time you close your eyes (lies! lies!)” … (read more)

It was interesting reading this account of the Arcade Fire concert and resonating with so much of it. These were not my memories, but I remember feeling similar things. And I would guess that hundreds of other twentysomethings who were at that show would look back on that event with likeminded thoughts. Funny that four years later, I’m friends with some of those strangers who were in that massive amphitheater that early summer evening. Funny that four years later, Arcade Fire has released only one more album. Funny that I distinctly remember the look of certain hipsters at that concert four years ago, and now I’m writing a book about hipsterdom.

Ah, June. It’s right in the middle of every painful, passing year. But it’s an idealistic month.