The Future of Nostalgia

The question of what effects the digital revolution will have on memory and nostalgia isn't merely personal. It's historical. It will let children in 2150 see long-dead ancestors' wedding days in perfect HD.
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The delicious new documentary Side by Side is partly a character study in nostalgic and pragmatic temperaments. Written and directed by Chris Kenneally, with Keanu Reeves interviewing the Hollywood talent, the documentary explores the likely end of moviemaking with photochemical film and the ongoing transition to digital. Last year marked an unmistakable milestone, it turns out, as camera makers Aaton, ARRI, and Panavision each stopped production of film cameras.

There's Christopher Nolan, comparing digital manipulation to a "horrible chemical" that produces "hollow" effects. There are George Lucas and James Cameron, completely cold-blooded--a tool is a tool, after all. There's Robert Rodriguez, in his cowboy hat, and Martin Scorsese, charming and funny and insightful.

Celluloid is praised for its character, or as Dick Pope, who worked on the The Illusionist, puts it, its "grit and grain and texture." Film is consistently described as more emotional, and even, by the cinematographer Reed Morano, as a "comforting thing" to hold dear to. "Grains of film," says David Tattersall, of Star Wars Episodes 1-3, are "just constantly moving...the result is a kind of fuzziness." Digital, by contrast, is precise. It's praised for its "immediacy." Producer Jason Kliot, of Coffee and Cigarettes, remarks that video "occupies a space in your mind" where you think "I'm in that room with them, oh my god is this really happening." Digital, at least traditionally, isn't sentimental.

This tension between grainy romance and discomforting immediacy helps drive the documentary's momentum. It also suggests, in the broader context, a subtle question: could the digital revolution actually change the way we think of nostalgia? If nostalgia is triggered by comforting "fuzziness" and "texture," then could the digital age alter the way future generations remember the past?

With digital you see the product immediately. We've lost the magic of opening that pack of photographs after they've been developed, just as cinematographers are losing the magic of viewing "dailies"--or yesterday's efforts--on the day after shooting. ("They are no longer dailies," Reeves tells us, "they are immediatelies.") With digital, the "preciousness" of film is lost. In cinema, you don't hear the sound of "money running through the camera," as Morano says. With photography, you don't have that 24-picture limit anymore. Snap away. And the images don't degrade, either.

Several days ago I stumbled across two old photos of my father on his dresser. The first was black and white. He's four or five, it's the 1950s. His little mouth is open and his eyes are wide in uncertain anticipation of the photo. He's in a cowboy outfit, with hat, ascot, boots, and holsters, pointing two toy guns at the camera with less than stellar accuracy. The white borders are nearly as wide as the image itself, and the edges are decoratively scalloped. In the other photo, he's in his early twenties. It's a Polaroid. His arm is wrapped around my grandmother on a couch. A green hue has dulled all colors. Part of the emotion I get from looking at the photos lies in how they've faded, themselves like memories or dreams. They are more symbolic than literal, suggesting long-gone technologies, the multiple "versions" of him that have existed throughout the years, and the relentless march of time. They do not suggest immediacy. Wouldn't my experience be different if photos never faded, if instead I felt like I was in the room with him?

Nostalgia, or the sentimental longing for the past, is a fascinating emotion, often involving, as the psychologists Xinyue Zhou, Constantine Sedikides, Tim Wildschut, and Ding-Guo Gao wrote in a 2008 study, "the simultaneous expression of happiness and sadness." By reminding subjects of nostalgic events in their past, they found, people felt more socially supported. Nostalgia, they wrote, is a "psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health." It counteracts loneliness by making us feel more connected. It's intensely associated with family and friends, special events, and beautiful scenery. Apparently, according to a 2006 study led by Tim Wildschut, we experience feelings of nostalgia roughly three times a week. Nostalgia softens us. It's humbling and healthy. Vast oceans and sunsets remind us of how small we all are in space, it seems, as nostalgia reminds us how small we all are in time.

The fuzziness of film, the pictures that fade, the preciousness of printed photos, the obsolete technology--these are all "nostalgia triggers." What happens when the digital revolution removes some of them? What happens when instead of reminiscing over the distant bittersweet past, all of the past looks basically the same? What happens when it all looks too immediate, too intimate for comfort?

One solution is to recreate the nostalgic triggers digitally.

The overnight success of Instagram, sold to Facebook in a billion dollar deal earlier this year, is a testament to the current longing for nostalgia in the digital age. It's true product, Ian Crouch recently blogged at the New Yorker, is instant nostalgia. The icon is an old camera, the "gram" echoes telegram, and the filters offer a range of effects that make digital photos look like those in old family photo albums. One of Instrgram's founders, Mike Krieger, majored in an interdisciplinary program that included coding and psychology. Krieger's old professor, the New York Times reported in April, described Instagram as "not a technology triumph" but rather a "design and psychology triumph." Instagram mimics the psychological distance of old photos, or memories themselves, and acts in essence as an instant nostalgia trigger.

The same thing is possible in cinema, certainly. O Brother, Where Art Thou was shot in digital, and employed color manipulation throughout--applying, to make a crude comparison, the equivalent of Instagram's "Nashville" filter on all of the trees, making them less green and more Mississippi mud while keeping the blues blue.

Professional photography and cinema, to be clear, always manipulated reality for emotional effect, and cinema and photography do far more than provoke nostalgia. The immediacy of digital was perfect, for instance, for Michael Mann's film Collateral. And of course digital filmmaking is opening up wild new possibilities, as Avatar made obvious. What's changed in the last several years is that not only are digital cameras capturing more pixels, but they're also getting better at capturing a wider dynamic range between blacks and whites--at allowing cinematographers to mimic the effects of underexposing or overexposing footage that celluloid allows.

As the actor Greta Gerwig puts it in Side by Side, "They've processed digital now to make it look like film, as if film is inherently better."

The question of what effects the digital revolution will have on memory and nostalgia isn't merely personal. It's historical. It will let children in 2150 see long-dead ancestors' wedding days in perfect HD. It will bring other cultures and countries into our living rooms with discomforting clarity, and seems certain to have the same effect across time. Technology will improve, yes, and nostalgia will adapt to other triggers besides worn photos and grainy films. But there can be no doubt that we've reached a tipping point. Unless we choose it to be, the past will never be fuzzy or faded again.

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