The Sheila Variations
The Two Sides of Nostalgia, Part 2: Blast From the Past
Here is part 1 – the discussion of what the movie Pleasantville seems to be saying about nostalgia.
This post will be about the movie Blast from the Past, which takes quite another view of nostalgia – almost completely opposite from Pleasantville (and yet equally valid).
I have always thought it would be interesting to compare and contrast these two theories of nostalgia, these two responses to “oh, those were the good old days, weren’t they?” Pleasantville came out in 1998, and Blast from the Past came out in 1999. To me, it seems like there’s some kind of correspondence between them, although they are very different movies. I think that these two movies should be shown together on a double-bill. I’ve watched them back to back, and it is a fascinating exercise.
Neither movie is “right” about nostalgia, I don’t think. I can see both sides (mainly because both sides express themselves very well – with humor, tenderness, and a great eye for detail.) A balance between the two “sides” of nostalgia would be ideal.
And a few words about Blast from the Past:
It’s one of my cherished movies. I loved it the moment I saw it, and it never fails to delight me, make me laugh. It’s a wonderful little movie, and I highly recommend it, if you haven’t seen it.
So. Now. Here is the plot.
The movie opens in October, 1962. Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek (two very very funny performances – I love it – Sissy Spacek so rarely gets to be funny) play a married couple – Helen and Calvin Webber. They live in a split-level home in the suburbs of Los Angeles, and the movie opens with the two of them throwing a cocktail party. (The soundtrack to this film is phenomenal.) Helen Webber, in her cute little cocktail dress, wearing oven mits, and largely pregnant, fusses over the hors d’ouevres. Calvin Webber holds court at the bar, making martinis for his guests, telling awful jokes, and whispering in a conspiratorial way about the commies. (Walken is so funny in this movie. Okay. I’ll stop saying that, but one last time: I love his performance). Calvin Webber is obsessed with the Communist threat (you get this immediately) and obsessed with the fact that at any moment they could all be incinerated in a fiery nuclear maelstrom. You hear, as the camera pans through the party, certain guests gossiping quietly about Calvin’s eccentricities – and that he had built a highly secret bomb shelter beneath his house, in the event of a nuclear war, and he had been working on it for years. Nobody had ever been down there though. Calvin is way too paranoid.
And then … someone flips on the television … and you see President Kennedy addressing the nation, very somberly. The guests, one by one, all turn to look at the TV screen, sensing that something important is happening.
Then: the screen cuts to a pilot flying over Los Angeles. He starts to have engine trouble. He radios back to the base wiht a Mayday. He decides that he’s going to try to make it to the ocean before bailing out … he doesn’t want the plane to crash in the residential area below. But then things become more urgent, and he has no choice. He bails out, and the plane begins to descend on its own, zooming towards the suburbs below.
Then: cut back to the cocktail party. We hear President Kennedy talking about the missiles discovered in Cuba. All of the guests listen to the news, and yes, they are concerned, maybe worried … but Calvin goes into Defcon One mode. It is the moment he has been waiting for all his life. The Commies have arrived. And he alone is prepared. He throws everybody out of the house. “Please, just go – now – you must go – go home, go into your basements, lock yourselves in … but go. Now.” Sissy Spacek (she plays absolutely the most proper little woman you could ever want to meet … although she also enjoys a little nip from the flask on occasion) is horrified at how rude he is, but there is no stopping Calvin at this point. He hustles his pregnant wife into an industrial-sized elevator, and they descend, until they emerge in the fallout shelter which is an exact replica of their home aboveground, only it’s way down in the earth. It also has fish tanks, a grocery-market sized supply of canned goods, it is enormous. He locks the doors. He knows the attack is coming. The locks are on a timer – they will unlock themselves in 35 years, when the contamination of the nuclear fallout will be lessened. So that’s that.
And at that moment, the abandoned plane crashes right into their house. They are safe, below ground, but they feel the explosion up there… and of course they think that it was the impact of a nuclear bomb.
So they settle in to wait. For 35 years. Until the doors can open again.
Time passes. Her baby is born. He is a little boy, and they name him, appropriately, Adam, after the first man. 35 years go by, and they never leave the fallout shelter.
On his 35th birthday (the same day that the locks are set to open), we see that that baby has grown up to be Brendan Fraser!
He only knows his parents. His mother gave him jitterbug and swing-dance lessons every day. His father taught him about baseball, and taught him math and chemistry. He learns languages. He is sheltered, but not an idiot. His parents give him, for his birthday, a pair of homemade rollerskates, and a blazer made out of hideous green silky material. He is thrilled beyond belief about his presents. He’s open-faced, sweet, not like a grown man. The scene is set up perfectly, so we can see where the film is going: They start to eat the cake, and Sissy Spacek says to him, in a tone of shock, “Adam! Elbows off the table! Please!” Adam smiles goofily, removes his elbows, and says, “Gosh, Mom, I’m sorry – I don’t know what I was thinking!!”
Mkay, you got that one?
That night, there is a huge booming sound, a creaking of gears, and then … voila … the elevator door slowly swings open. They are terrified to go back up. What will they find? What kind of devastation will await them?
Christopher Walken does a reconnaissance mission. He goes up, filled with fear, it’s a rainy night in Los Angeles – the nice orange-groved suburbs are no more. He is confronted with concrete, barbed wire fences around used car lots, a crossdressing hooker who solicits sex from him, and a guy lurching out of a bar and vomiting on the sidewalk. Walken is so upset by this obvious nuclear devastation that he immediately goes back down in the elevator and announces that there is now a race of mutants living on planet earth, and it is not at ALL safe for them to go up. They must lock the doors for another 35 years, and wait it out. Sissy Spacek is crushed by this. She’s crushed because she is stir-crazy, but she is also crushed because she is almost out of liquor. The parents send the son up top to see if he can find a grocery store, and get a ton of supplies. They are fearful for his health amongst the mutants, they tell him to be careful, they tell him what to look for (grocery store, hotel if he needs one, and, says his mother, “This is very important, son. There used to be something called … a liquor store …”) Adam is the most easy-going agreeable character. He tells them he will be brave, he will do exactly what they ask, and to not worry about him. He will be all right.
So he goes up the elevator, with the huge grocery list in his hand, and walks out into the outside world for the first time. It is now morning. A beautiful sunny day. He stands and just gapes up at the sky. He can’t get over it. Finally, he tears his eyes away, starts walking down the street, and sees a black woman coming towards him. He stops in his tracks, and exclaims, “Oh my word!! A Negro!” She looks at him like he’s an escaped lunatic. “What did you just say to me?” He holds out his hand, friendly, open, “Ma’am, it is very nice to meet you.”
So obviously Adam is going to have a steep learning curve out here in the world. His good manners are engrained in him. He treats every single person he meets (with one exception) with respect and tolerance. That’s what real good manners are about: making other people feel comfortable and okay. He SO can do that. But the responses he get from the modern-day 1998 citizens of Los Angeles are: “Are you cracked, dude? Why you bein’ so nice?”
Good manners have gone out of style.
But Adam keeps going on his merry way, being nice to people, polite, attentive, etc. His parents have taught him well.
And of course: he meets a jaded young woman (her name is Eve, naturally) played so adorably by Alicia Silverstone. She is tough, kind of bitter, not into sentiment at all, and only dates guys because she likes their “butts and hair”. She’s shallow, she’s a product of divorce, and she is totally cynical about love.
Adam falls head over heels in love with her instantly.
He needs help finding a grocery store, and renting a van to bring back all the groceries, etc., and he enlists her help. He is nothing but a gentleman to her, and she CANNOT DEAL WITH IT. She thinks he’s trying to pull a fast one on her, she thinks he’s messing with her mind. She wears a hard shell over her emotions, and won’t let him come near her. She doesn’t know what to make of him.
There are some wonderful bits throughout here. She takes him home to her apartment that she shares with her gay roommate Troy (played so funnily by Dave Foley, from Kids in the Hall). Somehow, Adam asks Troy if he has a girlfriend, and Troy replies, blithely, putting a plate of snacks on the table, “I’m gay.” Adam of course has no idea what this means, but you can see him pondering it, pondering the meaning of the actual words, and then he says emphatically and supportively, “Good for you.” It’s so funny. Troy is pretty much stunned into silence by that one.
Another great bit is when Troy and Eve take Adam out for a night on the town (Troy takes Adam clothes-shopping, so he can lose the green-silk blazer). They go to a swing-club, with a live band and a huge dance floor (this was at the height of the swing-dance craze in the mid to late 90s). Eve has been treating Adam all along like he’s kind of retarded, a goofy puppy dog, an idiot. But then (in my favorite scene in the movie) – a song starts to play, and somehow – Adam ends up on the dance floor, with two gorgeous blondes – and they do this three-way jitterbug thing and not only does he know the steps, but he is a terrific dancer. (It’s all Brendan Fraser, too – no stunt-double people that I can tell). A crowd gathers, and he cuts up the rug, as Eve watches from afar, stunned. Who is this guy? Where did he learn how to dance like that?
Instead of warming up to him, she is enRAGED. It seems like it’s just another trick he’s playing on her.
Now what does all this have to do with nostalgia?
The film clearly states: “You know what? There’s no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater. Yes, there are things that are better now. The civil rights movement is something to be grateful for. We could list many improvements. BUT. Let us not throw out what was done RIGHT by that generation.”
There is a great scene when Troy talks to Eve about what he learned from Adam, in regards to his philosophy on good manners. Troy says, “You know, I always thought that people who made a big deal about good manners meant that they were stuck up, or trying to act better than you – but Adam says that’s not true. Do you know what Adam said? He said that having good manners is a way to put everyone around you at ease. Isn’t that amazing? And do you know what else he said? He said that he thinks I’m a gentleman and you’re a lady.” Eve’s expression is priceless. “Huh? I’m a lady?” Naturally, she is not used to being treated with respect, with having him open doors, and treat her with kindness, and not play mind-games. She is highly suspicious of him. Men and women have lost the ability to be kind to one another, to court one another, to be open, to have boundaries and yet also to let intimacy grow. In a weird way, the boundaries are what helps the intimacy to blossom. If you leap into something head-first, if you give it all away immediately … then where’s the intimacy in that? Eve has that to learn.
Blast from the Past is not a rigid movie, it is not a “Oh, look at the good old days” theme (which often conceals a hostility towards any progress whatsoever). But it does have a message, a very clear and moving message.
Our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them, knew what they were about. They instilled in their kids the life-skills they would need to be a full and likable adult: You have good manners, you treat people with respect, you put others before yourself, etc.
And while we mustn’t look at the past with rose-colored glasses, we also mustn’t think that we are re-inventing the wheel with each generation.
There is a tradition to our lives. Let us remember what John Adams said once, a mild warning about Tom Paine: “He is only good at tearing things down. We need to have people of talent who can build things up again.”
Blast from the Past seems to me to be about that. Let’s not just tear down our past. Let’s not condescend to the generations before us. Let’s not be so knowing, so over-it, so sure that there is nothing to learn from them. Isn’t it possible that the parents back then, without Oprah, without an entire section in bookstores devoted to childrearing (they had Dr. Spock and that was it!!), were pretty good at their jobs? Honor thy father and mother. That’s the main jist of the film.
It’s not hokey though, somehow. At least I don’t find it hokey. The way the movie presents its message – it seems very straightforward, very commonsensical. Adam doesn’t treat everyone with politeness and respect because he is trying to get something from them. Adam doesn’t obey his mother’s chastisement about elbows on the table with a storm of rebellion or a sulky roll of the eyes. He laughs, and does what she says. He’s a good boy, but he’s not a pussy.
I love this film. And I love its alternative message about nostalgia – pretty much a polar opposite from Pleasantville.
I swing on a pendulum between those two sides of nostalgia, and that’s okay. These two films, in tandem, are perfect reminders of the importance of memory, and the importance of progress. Rose-tinted glasses make everything the same color, you lose subtlety, you lose the differences between people which is what really makes life a grand adventure. Neither film wants that.
There’s a rich world of experience in the here and now, and there’s eons of experience behind us. How do we incorporate the past into our present-day living? How do we take down the lessons from our parents, and their parents … and then turn them into our own?
Blast from the Past suggests that we have done too much cleaning of the slate. And way too much that is precious and beautiful has been lost in the transfer.
I don’t want to make the movie sound ponderous. It’s actually a hoot. But it always makes me think, and deeply. It’s one of my favorites. It has a really good heart.
The Two Sides of Nostalgia, Part 2: Blast From the Past | The Sheila Variations