Past Futures: Nostalgia in the Age of Escapism

Asher Isbrucker
6 min readNov 21, 2018

This short was listed as one of the best video essays of 2017 by Sight & Sound. The following is a transcript:

I recently came across a collection of old home movies in an obscure corner of the internet. There are thousands in the collection, comprising a digital museum of other people’s memories. They depict mostly family scenes and domestic b-roll from the middle decades of the 20th century, providing a rare and candid glimpse of everyday life in a different time. They mostly show moments of togetherness; families together in living rooms, on front lawns, on sidewalks, at amusement parks, in the family car. Some show their age; like this one, a family gathered around the TV set, watching the moon landings. Others are more timeless, their age only betrayed by the dust and scratches dancing over the frame.

Of all the home movies in the collection, one stands out to me in particular. It’s a fifteen minute travelogue documenting one family’s road trip around America in 1957. A title card at the beginning dubs the film Saga of the Happy Wanderers — a phrase painted on the family’s camper. There isn’t much information about the footage, or the family it depicts. The film is silent — along with most movies in the archive — which leaves the context a question mark, and the characters mostly anonymous.

A little girl and her mother appear most often. Here they stand by their camper at the beginning of the trip. The girl waves at the camera (she does that a lot). They go to the Hoover Dam and the Grand Canyon. They watch Native Americans perform a dance for a crowd. They stop at White Sands National Monument in New Mexico, where the girl runs and plays in the hills of sand. A boy is there, too — he jumps from the top of a sand dune, and the girl follows.

They make many stops along the way. They go to a zoo somewhere and look at the animals; they stand on the banks of the Mississippi River; here they are together in someone’s backyard on a sunny afternoon. A title card tells us her name is Connie, and that it’s her 7th birthday party. She blows out the candles, and they all eat cake.

I wonder where Connie is now, and where she’s been in all the time since. She’d be all grown up, today — in her late sixties. I wonder if she remembers any of these moments, or if these memories have mostly slipped away, eroded by time; deteriorated and forgotten like an old roll of film.

Even though these aren’t my memories, I still feel nostalgic when I see them. It’s vicarious nostalgia, if that’s even possible. I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even alive. In my head there’s this vague concept of before, long ago; a time when everything seemed simpler than today — old home movies are a perfect symbol for such times.

Even though these aren’t my memories, I still feel nostalgic when I see them. It’s vicarious nostalgia, if that’s even possible.

It’s weird, this nostalgia for other people’s memories — but there’s a universality to these home movies, as if the warm tones of old grainy footage compose the language of longing and memory — harking back to a past I don’t remember, and didn’t experience, but still feel drawn to. These home movies — along with other cultural artifacts, like vinyl records or the potent combination of neon and synth — represent collective memories: shared ideas of the past, beyond our personal experiences; another time, another place, before.

This, of course, ignores all the negative aspects of the past, favouring instead a romanticized dream, granting bygone time a manufactured appeal. It’s a cynical sentiment, that the future can only be worse, and that the best is always behind us, receding away as we speed into the abyss of the future. The past has a potential energy to it — the idea of existing in pre-nostalgic times, before everything that’s happened since; past futures, in retrospect, seem bright and sunny and attractive when compared with today — but the grand shame is that we can only see this by looking back. It’s invisible when right in front of us.

In the 17th century nostalgia was a disease; severe homesickness first diagnosed in Swiss mercenaries fighting in France. They longed for their familiar mountain homeland, and sending them back was the only effective “cure”. Since then, nostalgia has evolved from a longing for place to a longing for time — somewhere we can’t go. There is no cure for nostalgia as it exists today, there is only a treatment: escapism; reveling in all that we have of the past; the trinkets and souvenirs; home movies; television shows; and the shared experience of growing up in the unique atmospheres of our respective childhood decades. We’ve surrounded ourselves with the past as a cushion, of sorts — incubating us in a womb that shields from the harshness of reality. As a result, time doesn’t go away anymore; instead, it’s put on the shelf, where it persists in syndication — a perpetual ambience to modern life, a coping mechanism in the face of rapid change.

We’ve surrounded ourselves with the past as a cushion, of sorts — incubating us in a womb that shields from the harshness of reality.

Cultural nostalgia, as we may call it, isn’t new, but our relationship to it is. The internet has provided unhindered access to an exhaustive archive of cultural memory, eliminating the scarcity of the past in a pre-digital age and replacing it with sheer abundance. The 2000s were the first truly digital decade, and the first decade of the public internet, so alongside the spike in innovation and globalization, the naughts were also characterized by intoxication with what came before; simultaneously shoving us into the future and tugging us back into the past. This isn’t bad or good, because nostalgia isn’t necessarily or strictly derivative; it can also be productive and creative, evident through some recent original television series with nostalgic undertones.

Still, this begs the question and consideration of how our own time will be defined and remembered. The archival power of the internet has given rise to a movement of temporal and cultural preservation — now that we have the power to capture time in a bottle and re-examine it whenever we’d like, we don’t really have to let it go. It’ll be interesting to see how the first digital generations relate to nostalgia and the past, given its abundance in today’s culture.

With the modern world changing so fast, we’re thrust into a tomorrow where we’re unwilling immigrants from yesterday, pining for the comfort and familiarity of a homeland we can never revisit.

Nostalgia in moderation may be a healthy indulgence — a comforting lie we tell ourselves, and willingly buy into, in order to adapt to an increasingly globalized, ever-changing world. When we outgrow the shell of childhood innocence and must face the harshness of the world; in times of despair and uncertainty; when we’re overwhelmed with feelings of hopelessness; nostalgia provides a valuable escape; one we should, at times, be glad we have. It’s natural for us to take solace in the past, in its perceived simplicity and relative innocence, and in its certainty. It’s become essential to this digital day and age, and in the shadow of a 24 hour news cycle, that we find a viable means of coping — and that has been, among other things, through nostalgic escapism. So it isn’t good or bad — it can heal when called upon to heal, and it can deceive when too much trust is placed in its warm embrace.

Many of us feel that if we could re-live a memory dear to us, we’d cherish it more. If we could transport ourselves back and live it again, we’d relish its warmth and its brevity — we’d breathe it in before it yet again disappears, as time always does, without much warning, and without much care. The funny thing is, nostalgia requires separation; a distance in time, and an acceptance that what’s gone is unretrievable. Otherwise, the spell doesn’t work. All we can do is examine our memories — a souvenir, a song, a home movie — a comforting glimpse of the way we were through a window; separate, distant, and with a longing that can never be cured; and remind ourselves that we’re an infinite product of where we’ve been; that memories are real, even if they no longer exist — they happened and disappeared, and we kept something from them — some token of their passage through time; and only in that way can we revisit what can’t be retrieved, before the tape runs out, and it goes back on the shelf.

Asher Isbrucker is an independent writer and video producer. See more of his work on his YouTube channel.