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The Definition of a Defining Moment

There are certain moments that define generations to come. Certain moments have become fixtures of culture, popular and otherwise. They serve as benchmarks for all our hopes and fears. These moments often are turning points, that instance that everything changed. Why do people want to return to a time before these moments? Where things really that different? Do things just appear better in retrospect? Memory is not truth, especially when wrapped up with nostalgia. History is based on romanticized memory, idyllic days long past before an untimely event changed everything, a time before knowledge was prevalent, before the dark side of the world was revealed.


Popular culture creates its own nostalgic image of a time period that is both fact and fiction. When combined with the shaky foundations of our own memories, who can really tell what happened? What is truth, what is fiction, what shapes who we are? Should nostalgia hold us back with its longing, or should we use those warm feelings to chart us forward?


cover art

11/22/63

Stephen King

(Scribner; US: Nov 2011)

cover art

JFK (Director's Cut)

Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Kevin Costner, Kevin Bacon

(US DVD: 4 Jan 2011)

Movies, television and other popular forms of entertainment have influenced our lives, creating, as historian Robert Sklar puts it, a type of collective memory and social amnesia. Our own memories and nostalgia are fueled and reinterpreted by pop culture. The atmosphere and understanding of the past takes on new, often conflicting shades. For the ‘50s and early ‘60s, retroactive pop media has given the impression of a vibrant, happy-go-lucky America—at least on the outside.


Sources closer to the time period illustrate a different picture. Even the saccharine images of Nicholas Ray (Rebel Without A Cause, Johnny Guitar) and Douglas Sirk’s (Imitation of Life, All that Heaven Allows, numerous other “weepies”) melodramas are simply masking the turmoil roiling beneath suburban American life. However, it’s the shiny images, not the melodrama, which is most remembered. Culture has a way of substituting memory, idealizing the good and neglecting the bad. It took over 40 years for Richard Yates’ 1961 dissection of the utopian American suburb, Revolutionary Road, to be made into a movie. And it took a British director in Sam Mendes to do it. Initially, the film was scheduled to be produced closer to the book’s release, but growing nostalgia for the late-‘50s/early-‘60s did not gel with images Yates conjured up. 


The significant event that much of this nostalgia and distorted memory turns on is the JFK assassination. Again, post-JFK pop culture positions the ‘50s and early ‘60s as an idyllic time in the United States, of relatively carefree days after World War II. Many pop culture sources have, through their characters, expressed a longing or return to this time period. The Sopranos constantly alluded to the JFK era throughout its show run (read Nathan Pensky’s article “J.F.K. Symbolism on ‘The Sopranos’”, PopMatters 25, February, 2011). In Steven King’s 11/22/1963, the protagonist, Jake Epping, returns to a simpler time, without cell phones and 24 hour cable news to prevent Kennedy’s assassination. Over the course of his journey, he falls in love and finds out he prefers this earlier era.


Jake journeys to an early ‘60s America where he suspects every day to be an episode of Happy Days.  Sock hops and after school gatherings at the local malt shop are social norms, but the atrocities we hear of today are just as prevalent. The media (particularly international press and televised news), however, is less prevalent, allowing these events remain buried in the towns in which they occurred. In ‘50s America, Jake tracks a child murderer and runs afoul of a mob boss while gambling. The Cold War is a constant presence and events such as the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile crisis shed a new light on the seemingly idyllic nature of the world.  And when our protagonist finally does succeed in preventing the JFK assassination? Well, things aren’t necessarily better.


What Jake most enjoys about the era is the lack of information. Credit cards are in their infancy and information is hardly tracked or double-checked. He simply creates the identity of George Amberson and attempts to live the life he always wanted. In truth, it’s not Jake Epping that is living in ‘60s America, but Jake Epping’s nostalgic wish of how he would have liked his life to turn out. The idea of potentially returning to a longed for period (think Midnight in Paris) is controlled by a nostalgia-based image of who we wish we were. “If this didn’t happen,” or “If I hadn’t done this,” or “If I grew up here…” 


Is it a realization of our past mistakes? A longing to rectify them or go back to a less confusing, more childlike state? Is it because happier memories override the mundane facets of the everyday? Is it because we were granted knowledge and wish we hadn’t been? For a child living during this time, like the characters in The Sopranos, it would have been their first glimpse of horror, that life wasn’t just games, a part of a national coming of age.


While the Kennedy assassination may be a pivotal event in the turning of the nostalgia tide, society and culture was already changing in the early ‘60s. Televisions were common fixtures in American households. Information could be broadcast—in color—and regarded as truth. Video of JFK’s assassination, followed years later by the murder of his brother and Martin Luther King, was shocking. Yet, as television and home cameras grew more ‘hotter’ and the Vietnam War dragged on, the medium became ‘cooler’. It hasn’t, as some state, inoculated audiences against such tragedies. Instead, it’s made them more commonplace, and the advent of 24-hour news, where pundits and broadcasters constantly turn about the same stories, allowing differing theories and conspiracies to develop.


Through the JFK assassination and the events that followed, including the Vietnam War, the public became aware of the dark underbelly of the American system. Before, everyone was better off for not knowing; after, we were worse off for knowing too much. The idea of constantly lurking darkness, a man behind the curtain, had been implanted into the public’s consciousness. The audience is left questioning, if there are all these disparate facts, what is truth, what is being hidden?  What is out there? Again, things were not necessarily better before 11/22/63, but they were better when we didn’t know any better. Collective memory has shaped this as the turning point of American culture for the post-WWII generation that would itself actually shape American’s identity over the next 40 years.


Oliver Stone’s JFK uses media, information to discuss a perceived truth, who was really behind the assassination of Kennedy? Stone’s theory is as skeptical as any others, but the way in which he prevents the information, by using footage from the time, by drawing up dossiers, using courtrooms and the recurring theme of secretive meetings—items that were even ubiquitous when the film was released in 1991—makes a strong case for the same type of truth perpetuated by nostalgia based pop culture.


Stone’s film creates its own historical memory of the events around the era and the assassination, at times both contradicting and confirming parts of the story issued by the government and the media. It contains documentary footage, newsreels, reenactments, reenactments of reenactments and fictional scenes to question and confront what had, in the public’s mind, long been identified as a pure memory. Stone uses the same footage more than once, sometimes blown-up, sometimes black in white, sometimes in color, sometimes on a monitor in one corner of the screen. He asks the audience to question what they see and how they see it.


The film not only destroys nostalgic warmth by hinting that the seedy underbelly has always been a part of American society, but by suggesting that there is no clear cut truth. As Sklar notes in his book Movie Made America, “sensational as they are, the political accusations that JFK makes almost pale in significance alongside the emotions the film expresses: its sense of displacement and unrecoverable loss; its anger at the illegitimacy of power; its myth of transformation contained in a martyred president whom Stone exempts from the ruinous policies and ideologies of his era.” Media influences memory and memory compounds media to the effect that no truth, even caught on film, is certain.


Both Stone and King play with the nostalgic idea that had Kennedy lived, America would have withdrew from Vietnam and continued to prosper. Nostalgia for this era seems to indicate that if the president had not been assassinated, Happy Days may have continued ad infinitum. King’s book suggests the opposite. Stone’s film goes a little deeper, detailing that the war was bad for American morale and identity, but good for the economy. Of course, no one can know, but the disparate opinions suggest that despite the nostalgia fostered by baby boomers and popular culture, everything wasn’t baseball and apple pie.


The particular focus on this particular point in American history, when innocence was lost, when unwilling knowledge was brought out into the forefront, brings to the forefront society’s combative relationship with truth and the distorting powers of nostalgia and memory. Events, good and bad, always existed. Evil had always had a face and voice. With the JFK assassination, with the advent of television news, the discussion went deeper—that we could witness the atrocity, even the perpetrator, but we can still not wrap our heads around the why. There has to be something more. We wish we could turn back the clock.


There have been too many of these tragic events in the past months, years, decades. It’s become an unfortunate fact of life. But if these tales of nostalgia have taught us anything, it’s not that life was better before or that we suffer because of our new knowledge. It’s that the memories we cherish should not just be things we merely hold onto, but should be what propels us forward.  We continue to persevere, to carry on. We find solace, not only in nostalgia or memory, but community. Our collective memory may shift and distort events, but our identity as a society remains.


Note: The author is currently working on his own project that approaches concerns addressed in this article. With the prevalence of such consequential events in our own society, focus on the issue of collective memory and community becomes even more important. For more information, please visit. http://kck.st/15zvm4M .


David Charpentier is perpetually in graduate school, currently earning a MFA in Film Production at Boston University. He also likes to travel, ski, go to concerts and try new foods--if only he could afford to do those things. No kids, one lovely wife, two cats and a whole lot of student loans.


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