Nostalgia is a tonic to the modern man, one which few can resist.
– Josh Spiegel
In the article The Pixar Perspective on Groundbreaking Nostalgia, Josh Spiegel argues that the success of Pixar appears to come from an unlikely place- nostalgia.
Unlikely, he surmises, because, “… it’s baffling that a company associated with breaking new ground in cinema and art, a massive influence on the financial structure and creativity of movie studios and theme parks, looks backward while moving forward.”
This sentiment rings especially true when considered against the world that appears to be changing at an alarming rate, and what he finds in the Pixar model is an important consideration for how to exist in the midst of all this change.
“Pixar has achieved, over many of its films, a nostalgia delivery system while concurrently making legitimately brilliant pieces of modern art… Where Pixar’s films have, so far, stepped correctly is by not letting the nostalgia drown out an original story.”
In other words, good art, good storytelling, is what reminds us of where we are, how we got here, and what matters (or should matter) for where we are heading.
Considerations for the where, the how, and the what of entering “the Second Half of Life”
Last year my Church offered a study on what it means to enter “the second half of life” and how to navigate it well. There were two important thoughts that I took away from this series:
- Growing up/aging is a difficult process
- Learning how to grieve well might be the most important tool for navigating this difficult process.
And perhaps the most important realization for me was that I am not very good at grieving.
And I don’t necessarily mean grief as in “grieving the loss of a loved one”, although that certainly can be a part of it. Change in life comes in many forms, and I often fail to consider the ways in which these gradual losses, the product of a changing world and growing older, have affected me in some powerful ways. Ways that require me to grieve. And by failing to consider these ways, I also fail to necessarily grieve.
And here is why grieving is so important. When we fail to grieve, we instead end up holding onto the past far too tightly, or we fail to learn, to grow out of our past. We see the whole world as “against” us instead of embracing the ways in which the world can help us to heal.
So with this in mind, here are 3 things that I learned from watching Cars 3 about what it means to grieve well in the midst of a changing world.
1. Grieving well means learning to slow down in a world that moves far too fast
In the opening scene of the original Cars, the first words we hear are “I am speed”. Conversations about speed and the discipline of slowing down are built into the heart of this franchise right from the start.What stands out the most for me when it comes to this conversation in the original Cars is the way they use the idea of speed as a metaphor for the rate of change we are experiencing in the culture at large. A simple google search brings up a slew of articles commenting on this fact as more than just overblown sentimentality (such as “back in my day…”), but a recognized and a realized phenomenon. Things do appear to be changing at a faster rate than at any other point in human history. Dig underneath and we can also notice an acknowledgment that we (as a society) are also struggling to adapt or keep up with this change.
Stewart Brand says as much in an article he wrote for Time magazine.
“The newest technologies–computers, genetic engineering and the emerging field of nanotech–differ from the technologies that preceded them in a fundamental way. The telephone, the automobile, television and jet air travel accelerated for a while, transforming society along the way, but then settled into a manageable rate of change.”
– Stewart Brand
The article goes on to suggest there is potential for culture and society to manage this change naturally, to adapt and reclaim it, but that in our current state this oblique expectation doesn’t negate the fact that managing the current rate of change is a serious problem that is having a measurable effect. A separate study (https://news.am/eng/news/219298.html) goes on to share this same thought in statistical terms, suggesting “researchers (are finding) that people in general (75%) are dissatisfied with how high technology affects their lifestyle, although both admit that they could not already do without electronic devices.”
And here in lies the problem. In our inability to keep up, we find ourselves unable to look back.
In the original Cars, this problem is explored by contrasting its sense of nostalgia for the old Route 66 with the onset of the freeway that eventually paves overtop of the famous route’s rich sense of Americana. And the realization is that, the more of these roads we build the more dependent we become, not just on speed, but on a different way of life.
Cars has been recognized as a passion project, the product of an experimental trip down old Route 66 that was inspired by efforts to try and recapture a sense of what we have lost in our shift towards modernity. And there is a certain sadness that permeates the way the film reminisces about this apparent sense of loss, which thematically includes the art of patience, the importance of slowing down, and the ability to appreciate the journey and our surroundings. Perhaps most recognized though, is the loss of the art of “relating”- or sharing- through our nostalgia.
Nostalgia, in this sense then, is becoming a lost art. And as nostalgia becomes less sacred (the emerging generation appears to even be going so far as to “borrow” the nostalgia of the older generation), our ability to relate to our past becomes less and less a virtue. Less and less necessary. There is simply too much past that comes and goes far too quickly for it to be remembered as something of inherent value, which could very well connect back to the idea that youth are now choosing to grow up far more quickly than they have in years past.
And if Cars 3 has something important to say to this reality, it would be that the greatest loss in all of this is actually the loss of the stories, the “relationships” that we share across generational lines.
The way forward then, the way to reconnect these generational “gaps” in a changing world, is to begin to relearn and re-teach the value of slowing down, of relating in more intentional and more invested ways. To relearn the value of nostalgia is to regain a necessary awareness of the journey and of our surroundings that can give these relationships meaning.
2. Learning to grieve well by addressing the value of multi-generational relationships.
Referring back to the dramatic rate of change we are experiencing in the modern era as “the new norm”, an article for Psychology Today suggests that the rate at which this change happens is directly proportionate to the level of our communication. The two are synonymous, and as communication grows, so does our rate of change.
And given that the speed of our communication is now at “near zero”, it has become difficult to predict the potential impact this will have on the way we relate. The problem we appear to face today is that the more communication grows, the less investment and time it demands. And so we tend to be less attached to the things that should demand more.
Making sense of a Curious Target Audience
Cars 3 makes some intriguing cinematic choices. I saw it with my 15-year-old son, and as I suggested to him the film felt like it was written more for me than it was for him. Which is strange since, as an animated film, it would appear to be targeted to an audience even younger than him. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it was possible that I was also the target audience of the first film as well.
The first film was all about exploring what it meant for those in my generation to learn how to reinvest in the stories and the lessons of my parent’s generations. In a gradually changing world (at the time), the film reminded me of the value of taking the time to consider where we came from and what was important to those who came before me. Which brings me back to the intriguing cinematic choices of Cars 3. Cars 3 is not a fast moving film. It is more artful dialogue than pure spectacle. It is not the most likely candidate to hold kids attention, and it is definitely not a film that is looking to spoon feed its audience.
It requires investment. Which is interesting to me, because the film is not afraid to suggest that investing in multi-generational relationships is something that takes work, something that requires sacrifice. But it is an investment the film assures us is also entirely worth our investment.
These same cinematic choices were also interesting to me because the message I found in Cars 3 feels directed and squarely aimed at me. It follows the template of the original film, but it flips the premise on its head. This time the shoe that fit my parent’s generation in the first film is now on a different foot- my foot. McQueen is grown up and facing the same emotions and sense of loss that Cars embodied through the character of Doc Hollywood. And McQueen is now able to understand Doc Hollywood’s experience with mentoring McQueen- uncertainty, loneliness, fear, helplessness, irrelevance, the feeling of being forgotten/ignored. He understands why Doc chose to mentor him.
And in a world that feels like it has lost some of its ability to pause and value/remember the past, which we recognize in the onslaught of the new technology that now renders McQueen increasingly outdated and out-modeled and outcast, we find that for as much as things change, the answers remains the same. Capturing the real life loss of Paul Newman (whom voiced Doc Hollywood), the film takes us through a beautifully rendered montage of the MeQueen/Hollywood relationship where McQueen comes to realize how much he valued Doc’s investment into his own life, and what he meant to Doc Hollywood, and this realization is what encourages him to invest in the young Cruz Ramirez in the final moments of the film. It is a surprising and refreshing emotional turn for a franchise that could have easily have found itself tired and outdated.
And here is where I found these final sequences and images in Cars 3 to hold the most power. Investing in Ramirez requires McQueen to accept that he, in fact, does have something to offer in a world that seems to have little need for him and his ideas. Which requires him to be vulnerable. It requires him to see beyond his own circumstances. And in accepting this truth we begin to see that Ramirez had actually craved and desired this relationship all along. And it is by recognizing this fact that McQueen is able to accept that Ramirez also brings immense value to his own life as well.
This is the true power of growing and investing in multi-generational relationships- it is a mutually giving relationship. And as a mutually giving relationship, it helps to close the generational gap.
Learning To Grieve Well By Telling Our Story
As science continues to catch up with the effects of insurmountable rates of change (including epidemic rates of anxiety, depression, growing economic uncertainty, and cultural voids), our ability to connect to the lessons of our past becomes that much more important for beginning to understand who we are, how we got here and where we are going. Returning to the success of Pixar, the reason why Pixar has been so universally embraced is that the films continue to encourage us to connect to this past by telling a good, personal story. And so nostalgia and good storytelling go hand in hand.
This is where the most important moments hit home for me in Cars 3. The montage down memory lane is more than simply superficial sentimentalism. It is the act of becoming vulnerable, of McQueen being willing to share his story with Ramirez. And it is the in the subsequent moments where McQueen is able to hear Ramirez share her own story, and in spite of the misunderstandings he has imagined of her, they both discover that they share much in common.
Which is why Cars 3 is an important film for someone like me, someone who does struggle to make sense of this world in the second half of life, someone who does battle through feelings of being irrelevant and discarded and uncertain. It reminds me I am not alone, and it encourages me to consider the ways in which others feel alone. And it is also an important film for someone from my son’s generation. In seeing Ramirez’s story, there is an opportunity to consider, through her own willingness to be vulnerable and brave, these same human longings- feelings of being irrelevant, discarded and uncertain, and to be reminded that no matter which side of the general gap we sit on, we all share this same struggle. And it certainly helps as well that she happens to be a strong female character, something that not only gives voice to a generation but also gives voice to a generation of young women.
Grieving Well Means Remembering Well
Grieving helps to shed light on what is most important, what life often causes us to forget in its hectic pace. And over and over again when we take the time to look back on what we’ve lost, what it tends to reveal is that what makes things like Route 66 such an important part of our past is the people that we share the road with. This is what it means to slow down. Nostalgia is formed out of the memories we make and the joy it affords in bringing us together. Nostalgia romanticizes the past, but it also gives life to the way we share these memories across generational lines, stories worth telling precisely because of the ways in which they bring us together. When we lose the ability to romanticize the past, to wonder if you will at the life we have lived, we also lose our sense of togetherness, which is what leaves us feeling isolated from one another.
In the original Cars, it might seem like simply a story about an infamous and legendary road. But what makes these films so underrated, in my opinion, is the way they use this road to shed light on the human experience. And the fact that it is able to speak to our human experience across generations is something that makes these films even that much more relevant and important.