Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

As If History Was Merely a Record: The Pathology of Nostalgia and the Figure of the Recording in Contemporary Popular Cinema

Academic journal article Music, Sound and the Moving Image

As If History Was Merely a Record: The Pathology of Nostalgia and the Figure of the Recording in Contemporary Popular Cinema

Article excerpt

I've started buying music online, one song at time. I wanted to catch up to the present, and to have a chance of reaching the future - in music delivery technology, that is. What I didn't expect was that I'd be traveling back in time, revisiting my memories at a dollar a download.

(Gorman 2004)

If you understand this surprise, then you probably have been, at least once, shocked to find how 'old times' seemingly coexist by the side of a sound system. You may even have an extensive record collection that includes recordings purchased more than once in various formats that gave us a new set of understandings that older objects somehow obscured. Indeed, discovering an old recording you thought you once knew in a form that promises new revelations is an industrial campaign slogan that has motivated numerous listeners to replace their 78s with vinyl LPs, then with CDs, then transferred into MP3s. Each time this happens it comes in the name of greater portability and simplicity as the music industry attempts to expand into new spaces. To explore this compulsory logic of remember-acquire-'sense-the-past' is to explore a particular power of commodity capitalism, an energy that motivates so many quests of the collector. It is the passion for a palpable past, as Benjamin notes, that inflames the collector with a drive bordering 'on the chaos of memories':

More than that: the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accustomed itself to such an extent that it can appear as order? You have all heard of people whom the loss of their books has turned into invalids, or of those who in order to acquire them became criminals.

(1968: 60)

While not everyone will go to these lengths to acquire a collectible, in an age where so many more of us have collections, many of us can relate to the fear of losing an iPod, an album of songs or photos. These items are not simply interesting materials, but instead are among our most cherished pathways into the past. These objects beckon us to linger, forget the contingencies of time and place, and immerse ourselves in their intense pleasures, which reside in our imaginings of these objects as engaging our recollections so completely that we abdicate the present and the future in return for some idealised understanding of the past. Yet as with all intense pleasures, the ability to attain a past pleasure that equals our initial remembrance requires more and more stimulation as our relationships with these objects often make the most debilitating demands.

I want to focus this essay on a set of particular cinematic representations detailing this latter point, this warning about the debilitating effects of nostalgic relationships with recordings. Through an examination of relatively recent depictions of passionate listener/collectors and their utilisation of recordings, the essay focuses on the issues of time and remembrance in order to clarify the nature of this particular warning. Although Velvet Goldmine (Todd Haynes, 1998), High Fidelity (Stephen Frears, 2000), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), The Virgin Suicides (Sofia Coppola, 1999), Ghost World (Terry Zwigoff, 2000) and Crumb (Zwigoff, 1994) represent a variety of genres, at one level or another each film explores the relationship between records and listeners. In particular, each film investigates how recordings comment on 'the past', but in doing so provide a means of communication that possesses a substantial threat to the listener: if played repeatedly they can substantially hinder a character's ability to communicate functionally with the present. In these cases, important characters are often intoxicated by the promises of releasing a past that can temporarily nullify the present, a promise that we often project onto records. As a result these experiential goods are thereby transformed into possibly malicious charms whose abuse makes them into deleterious mnemonic devices that seemingly labour to retard social development. …

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