Arts·Cut to the Feeling

Nostalgia was my first love and greatest comfort — until reality became too painful to escape

After an incredibly challenging year, Anne T. Donahue wants to cut to the feeling in her new CBC Arts column.

After an incredibly challenging year, Anne T. Donahue wants to cut to the feeling in her new CBC Arts column

Anne T. Donahue (right) with her mother Dee and father Rick circa 1994. (Anne T. Donahue)

Cut to the Feeling is a monthly column by Anne T. Donahue about the art and pop culture that sparks joy, grief, nostalgia, and everything in between. This is its inaugural edition. Read her previous column Anne-iversaries here.

There's a scene in Mad Men where Don Draper pitches a project wheel campaign to Kodak, fresh off the realization that he may have just imploded his family. He fills it with photos of his favourite memories and delivers a monologue that leaves one of his colleagues in tears.

"Nostalgia," he begins. "It's delicate, but potent. It's a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.... to a place where we know we are loved."

I've had a long-running and passionate affair with nostalgia. I watch and re-watch the movies that defined my adolescence. I dress like a fourth grade teacher in 1996. I pore over old photos, drenching myself in the memories of being a little kid who'd yet to grow wise to the complications of adult dynamics and tension among family members. I lay claim to eras that didn't even belong to me, wrapping myself up in the lore of old, secondhand furniture and tales of great-aunts and uncles I'd never met.

In this way, nostalgia has been a safe, warm constant in a life that often feels the opposite. Nostalgia has always served to soothe the wounds that accompany age.

And then I lost a parent, a grandparent, and an uncle in a matter of seven months. And suddenly, looking back was less a quick route to happiness and more a reminder that everything ends. The twinge in my heart was still powerful, but this time it was the sort that made me need to sit down or cry or pine for the years I had been too immature to appreciate. I'd dulled so many bad feelings with the escape of looking backward that I wasn't ready for when my favourite coping mechanism only reminded me of what I no longer had.

A tribute piece for Anne T. Donahue's father and the iconic Simpsons scene on which it's based. (Anne T. Donahue)

For the last few years, I was lucky enough to write a regular column for CBC Arts called Anne-iversaries. There, I celebrated the milestone birthdays of movies and TV shows while trying to figure out what they taught us and where they fit in now. And I loved it: I finally had a platform to go deep into juggernauts like Twister and Crossroads (don't fight me on this) and the unparalleled legacy of Nicolas Cage. My job was to dive into nostalgia and splash around in the joys of once-upon-a-time. I was allowed to seek comfort for a living. And then it didn't feel comforting anymore. 

By the start of 2022, every movie, TV show, or pop culture moment I cared about felt empty — like the pure feelings I once held had morphed into a trapdoor of sadness or anxiety or anger. I didn't know how to keep out the belief that nostalgia, my first love, had betrayed me. I didn't know how to stop my grief from tainting what I saw as an analytical lens. I didn't know how to separate myself and my work from the onslaught of feelings that came with delving into parts of the past. I didn't know how to get that now-gone sense of comfort back.

I'd dulled so many bad feelings with the escape of looking backward that I wasn't ready for when my favourite coping mechanism only reminded me of what I no longer had.

It doesn't help that lately, pop culture's forays into yesteryear feel so clinical. Massive marketing campaigns, endless press campaigns, and at least one newsworthy soundbite highlight the inner workings (and pitfalls) of the Hollywood machine. Despite the return of Queen Laura Dern to Jurassic Park: Dominion, nothing about a Chris Pratt lead in a dinosaur film feels as exciting or comfortable as the 1993 predecessor that set the bar so high for dino content. Lightyear — while charming, I'm sure — can't possibly capture the magic of watching a computer-animated feature for the first time in 1995, awe-struck by how "real" it all looked. And Top Gun? No matter how many volleyball scenes take place, we still can't actually go home again.

My friend Elamin Abdelmahmoud summed it up best in his recent piece for BuzzFeed News about Hollywood's zest for playing it safe: "We are living through the age of peak intellectual property," he writes. "Hollywood has learned the safe route, found a reliable pattern. Every time studios push this button, $13 comes out. Why wouldn't they keep pushing it? But at what cost to originality?"

It's almost like the industry knows we're all dead inside and are hoping to stoke our dying embers (bank accounts) by using the past as an escape hatch. Does anyone remember laughter? Friend, I rarely do, but I especially don't upon watching Chris Pratt brand himself as the dino-whisperer. I can't feign enthusiasm for a million reboots trying to reignite the passion any of us felt before the last few years came along and destroyed us. And that's because nostalgia isn't supposed to be about watching a lacklustre rehash. It's about the memory — or at least the illusion — of safety. It's the reminder that once upon a time, you felt joy and hope and happiness. It leads you to the core of who you are and who you used to be.

Old favourites. (Anne T. Donahue)

Nostalgia may seem like a marketing tool, but its core is fuelled by emotion. Our relationships with the past — and the culture we remember from those times — are completely defined by our feelings. And while it might be fun to think about a new Jurassic Park movie, we can't actually be transported back to the versions of ourselves we were when we were coveting a classmate's JP lunchbox in third grade. Even as someone who takes comfort in nostalgia, there's still something soul-sucking about having sold my childhood back to me. As if I could ever go back. 

So now, I'd like my column to be a place where we can use pop culture — from then, now, and even the future — to dive into the feelings that may seem too big or too insignificant or even simply inconvenient for further discussion. I'll still be getting nostalgic as I always do, but in addition to dissecting Poison Ivy or celebrating Bill Paxton as The Extreme, I want to make room for new homes while visiting my old one. I'd like to be less afraid of what happens when something I watch or listen to strikes a chord and induces a tidal wave of feelings. (Or even just a little wave. A splash would be fine.)

Most of all, I'd like us to take the versions of ourselves we loved most and bring them with us as we grow. I'd like to, as Carly Rae said best, cut to the feeling. Which, despite the sadness of the last year or so of my life, I've learned isn't as scary as I once thought.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Anne T. Donahue is a writer and person from Cambridge, Ontario. You can buy her first book, Nobody Cares, right now and wherever you typically buy them. She just asks that you read this piece first.

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