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Jean Baudrillard vs. Richard Linklater: When memory and fiction unite

June 25, 2010

“I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.”

James Murphy – LCD Soundsystem

It’s amazing how often I’ll “remember” something that might not have actually happened to me. During my past as a staff member at a group home for kids, I would ask myself, “What was I doing at that age”, or – more importantly – “What activities and/or scenes that meet the standards of coolness decided by the creators of pop-culture was I involved in during that time of my life?” Yeah, that one.

A lifetime of random moments can eventually approximate a coherent narrative. As late-period Gen-Xers hit early adulthood, gone was the Boomer-era nostalgia of The Wonder Years, Happy Days and (what we assumed would be) the “farewell” tours of the rock bands of the Vietnam era. It was time for an examination of the years where campaign workers for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter cranked 8-track stereos as they searched for Aerosmith tickets (“top priority of the summer”), where Star Wars, Jaws and Grease were the talk of Atari Combat battles, where the stamp of Zeppelin or Parliament-Funkadelic (but rarely both) could be found on almost every album actually worth owning. A world where our parents were cool with Quaaludes, smoking in the car, and the deathboxes we called “cribs”, but were frightened of any cuisine remotely considered “spicy”. Because all of this happened…right?

A murderer’s row of talent has attempted to recast their slice of the American coming-of-age experience of the late-’70s/early (and I mean early!) ’80s. Here’s a small sampling:

Boogie Nights – Paul Thomas Anderson

Dazed and Confused – Richard Linklater

Freaks and Geeks – Judd Apatow/Paul Feig

The Last Days of Disco – Whit Stillman

Almost Famous – Cameron Crowe

Summer of Sam – Spike Lee

The Slums of Beverly Hills – Tamara Jenkins

Wet Hot American Summer – David Wain/Michael Showalter

(I’m omitting That ’70s Show because it largely aimed for parody. Besides, how many kids with the tenuous homelife of Hyde would have access to such an awesome array of Rolling Stones t-shirts?)

Over the past fifteen years, I’ve been gradually reestablishing these random moments of “my” youth, thanks to works such as these. While I was way too young to scream along with “Red Barchetta” or “Pigs (Three Different Ones)” with Kevin Pickford or Nick Andopolis, all of the infrastructure of such an existence was present in my early years. While far from an actual suburb, my neighborhood was as “suburban” as it gets, right down to the drive-in movie theatre about 100 yards away. My status as the third child permitted a wide-eyed observation of the worlds traversed by my older sisters and their friends, many of whom could serve as templates for the characters from the films mentioned above. Despite my watching of a ridiculous amount of movies and videos on cable, I spent a massive amount of time wandering the streets with other kids of different ages. Two houses to the left was a pre-keyboards Van Halen-esque garage band, where the drummer (I crap you negative) was named Jimmy Page. Our other neighbors were always in their garage, drinking PBR and blasting ZZ Top records with the door wide open. Yet, outside of exposure to the canon of what we now call classic rock, and a chance to witness what largely seemed like the negative consequences of alcohol consumption (“Why is Teresa talking all weird?”, or “Why does George keep messing up when he tries to put the needle at the beginning of ‘Cheap Sunglasses’?”), nothing transcendent or amazing happened. I knew that I had to be home before dinner, and if it was still light outside, I could return to my crew for more bike-riding and rock n’ roll. French post-modern philosopher Jean Baudrillard spoke of the simulacrum, a constructed reality that may not have actually occurred, except that – in your mind – it did.

“Abstraction today is no longer that of the map, the double, the mirror or the concept. Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal. The territory no longer precedes the map, nor survives it. Henceforth, it is the map that precedes the territory – precession of simulacra – it is the map that engenders the territory and if we were to revive the fable today, it would be the territory whose shreds are slowly rotting across the map. It is the real, and not the map, whose vestiges subsist here and there, in the deserts which are no longer those of the Empire, but our own. The desert of the real itself.”

By filling in the details between the original sketches, exposure to well-crafted nostalgia can make you feel as if you were part of the event, even if you were not. Freaks and Geeks and Dazed and Confused succeed so grandly because of their universality –the need to switch LPs after every song like Lindsay and Sam’s house party, or the no-concern-for-gas-prices midnight drives accompanied by Ted Nugent 8-track tapes, where your Slater-esque friend never gets shotgun. I find myself thinking, “I totally remember when we partied at our equivalent to the Moon Tower”, despite not actually “remembering” anything. Such situations are not merely the realm of film and television – when Alex Chilton passed away a few months ago, a local radio station added “The Ballad of El Goodo” and “Don’t Lie To Me” to their retro-rotation. Without fail, these songs take me “back” to late-night meet-ups at donut shops and pizza joints, where your entire scene would somehow convene without the aid of email, Twitter and 3G coverage. Except I did not consciously hear Big Star until this past decade. So, creators of ultra-vivid Gen-X nostalgia, I salute your ability to build a freaking road atlas where only a snake-path was present. Perhaps I need to read more post-structuralists to get a handle on all of this.

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