I’ve been looking at some media lately—movies, TV shows, plays, music, books—that meant something to me in my upbringing or earlier adult life. It’s always an interesting prospect: has this aged well, or very not? Do the emotional moments still hit (me) in the same way? Do they at times hit me in a new way? Or do I find, as the tragedy of time would have it, that this thing I used to love is objectively garbage?
There’s an emotional risk, of course, on a couple of fronts. For one thing, finding out that, for example, a musical you sang along with a lot as a young teen now seems almost comically racist(almost; we’re a long way from the hipster racism of the Aughts) is always disheartening at best.
For another, showing something I watched over and over when I was 12 to someone I love now that I’m 48 is not unlike handing them a glass filigree Christmas ornament, made by my glassblower great-great-grandfather in 1853 and treasured through the generations of my family since, and watching sweaty-palmed as they turn it over in their hands while standing on a concrete floor. Also they’re drunk. (All details made-up, as producing a real example would be even more emotionally risky.)
But for the most part, I’ve been finding the process edifying. Most of the time, I get at least some insight into why the material was so compelling to me at whatever age I was obsessed with it (Phantom of the Opera: oh, clearly that contributed to my particular sexual awakening…). In other cases, I see things in the piece extremely differently and more richly than I was capable of at the time (I’ll write about this more extensively in a later installment, but I was not prepared for how affecting Dirty Dancing would be after all these years!)
Some things I want to cover
Dirty Dancing and Moonstruck, two movies I loved as a kid that I did not expect to find nearly as affecting as they still are to me
Top Secret, an extraordinarily silly movie by the guys who made Airplane!, which I watched approximately 1,627 times as a young teenager
Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables, and other musicals with which I was hopelessly obsessed as a teenager and which now seem rather ridiculous
And whatever other old media I happen to rehash and want to talk about the impact of on my middle-aged self. I’ve been inspired lately by the podcast You Are Good, née Why Are Dads?, which bills itself as “a feelings podcast about movies” and sees Alex Steed and the magnificent Sarah Marshall watching movies (usually) from the 80s and after and talking about the characterizations, issues, and especially emotions that they invoke.
A brief coda / preview
An old thing I’m rewatching right now is the early 90s space opera Babylon 5, which my favorite article to date about it calls it “the greatest, most terrible sci-fi series.” Thus far, I’m not finding it ages particularly well a lot of the time. But there are still moments of greatness, and a kind of Shakespearean quality to the whole proceedings that I still sort of love.
Then from time to time they’ll do something just so goofy and out of line with the feel of things that I just have to wonder how much the vaunted creator, JMS, truly trusted his own ability to tell this story.
In a Season 3 episode I watched last week, our heroes go in search of beings of antiquity who “walk among the stars” and view us as humans view insects, etc. etc., very Lord of the Rings-type stuff just like so much from this show. And so after jumping through various hoops (including I guess a Space Palantir?), they track down one of these so-called First Ones and it…looks like a holographic Tiki head from a Disney Ride? And…the characters make fun of it? And then when they refuse a lovely invitation to war and seem to be flying away, Commander Ivanova decides to…tell them that other super-powerful aliens they know were trash-talking them? And this…WORKS?!
Anyway, it’s deeply silly, and it’s bizarre to me that, in the same show where the aforementioned super-powerful aliens have been figures of Deep Mystery and Mythological Import for two and a half seasons, the first other First Ones we see are a) kind of ridiculous and b) persuaded to join their cause by playground taunts from an insect. Welcome to the ‘90s, I guess?
So that’s it for now, but I hope to be posting some more articles of this type in the coming weeks, along with my usual more trauma-nerdy fare. Let me know what things you’ve seen recently from years ago that have either been visited by the Suck Fairy or have somehow, miraculously, not!
In the shower the other day, I was thinking of the musical Shenandoah, written in my birth year of 1974. Set during the Civil War in the South (oh yes), it contains the song “Freedom,” sung by a white lady and a slave boy, and includes the lyrics “You can’t get to freedom by riding on a train” (which like, I know it wasn’t a literal train but like the Underground Railroad anyone? Maybe pick a different image?) and “Freedom ain’t a state like Maine or Virginia / Freedom ain’t across some county line,” which like absolutely literally it was, and I’m just like oh, no, oh my god you guys, frickin’ really? Like did you even in benighted 1974 think about this at all?
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Babylon 5 was my go-to show back when it first aired and I was an impressionable teenager.
My memories of it are fonder than the reality when I try to rewatch it these days. Youth + the realities of TV sci-fi at the time made it a bigger deal back then. After the new BSG, SG-1, The Expanse and whatever's on Netflix this week, it looks quaint.
It's hard to remember today, but B5 really did set the trend of the serialized story-arc. Early 90s TV sci-fi was all episode of the week madness, and having a story play out over multiple seasons really was original.
That said, you're right about the un-evenness of it all. The rough parts are rough indeed. But then you hit the the good parts, and many of those score hits on the Best Moments in TV list to this day. The meaty parts of seasons 3 and 4 can still send tingles up the spine.
Watching stuff like this with our daughter puts an additional Gen Z lens on the whole experience that's fascinating. She likes a lot of things that we like(d) but often for what seem to be very different reasons.
We are also watching Bab 5 and yeah, wildly uneven in many ways and yet still kinda great.
Heathers (the original movie) was particularly fascinating for me--the vast changes in sexual mores for teenagers, not to mention the pre-Columbine attitude towards guns and other violence, were a bit shocking, even though I've lived through exactly those changes. The homophobia is probably the most icky thing from today's perspective.
When Harry Met Sally has aged remarkably well and still hits me in the same places (e.g. "I'll have what she's having" is still a fantastic scene and "When he said he didn't want to get married, he meant he didn't want to marry me"...oof!).
Stargate was fun, but the white-savior aspect of it has become vastly more transparent and problematic in the intervening years.
One thing I notice a lot is how incredibly slow the pacing was, compared with today.