We are infinite. It’s the tagline used for the 2012 film The Perks of Being a Wallflower. On the movie posters, the trailers, everything. It plays an integral part in the film's plot, too. It's a catchy line, and it's a good film. It's also a very smart film, though for somewhat different reasons.
The movie is smart in the same way that Ke$ha's song “Die Young” is smart, that fun.'s song “We Are Young” is smart, that HBO's Girls is smart. These reasons are also only tangentially related to the things that make The Perks of Being a Wallflower an enjoyable movie—which it is. But it's smart because it makes the seemingly trivial moments of our lives feel like the exact opposite.
I've written before about nostalgia and my interest in how that particular emotion and sentiment impacts our lives. And while I clearly give this topic a decent amount of consideration, I don't actually regard myself as a nostalgic person—or more accurately, someone fixated on my own personal nostalgia. I'm much more interested in how nostalgia is used as a trope in our culture today, and how my coming-of-age generation is currently fixated on it. In the December rundown of my favorite albums of 2012, I wrote that the best way to appease my generation is to sympathize, rationalize, hyperbolize, and cement the profundity of every trivial and arbitrary moment of our lives. This is probably true of every era, though I'm certainly not of an age where I feel qualified enough to make this claim. But it is definitely obvious to me at this moment, a theory that can be seen through the popularity of the Ke$ha song or the fun. song or Lena Dunham's television show, an idea at the heart of this novel-turned-film starring the cute British chick from Harry Potter. Whether these pieces of pop culture are celebrating the random/wild/drunken nights we spent with friends, or giving voice to the struggles and vulnerabilities we all faced while growing up, they force us to think back on those times, assigning an importance to these moments, highlighting it in a manner we always assumed was there while in the midst of experiencing them.
The moments portrayed in these songs and films and books may not be perfectly representative of our own youth and maturation, but they do serve to remind us. One of the basic purposes of any art form is for the audience to internalize and personalize it; that's why art so often evokes emotion, or at the very least strives to. And that's what nostalgia is: an emotion, compelling you to think back on the ostensibly seminal moments of your past. These instances are generally happy, but can oscillate to any range of emotion, the only prerequisite being that they are memorable in some way. And if we remember it, then it must be important.
Yet this is what I find most fascinating. The things that we are so often nostalgic for and about—the moments and events that we place such value on, that we watch, read about, and sing along to—are, more often than not, somewhat trivial in retrospect (if not very trivial). There are exceptions, of course, but truly life-altering occurrences are not exclusively “nostalgic” ones. Quite the contrary. You're nostalgic for your first kiss more than your first anniversary, your high school prom more than the first day at your first professional job, a night out with college roommates more than your college graduation, teaching your kid to shoot a basketball more than the day they were born, driving the streets of your hometown in your first car more than purchasing your first house. You remember all of those things, sure, but a longing and reminiscing sense of importance isn't necessarily bestowed on those that read most important on paper.
Perhaps that's the point. Maybe we are not nostalgic for the most important moments, but rather the most defining. And we aren't defined by the anniversary or the graduation or the job; we're defined by the kiss or the parties or the experiences that led to those moments, the emotions we felt along the way, the people we spent those moments with. That's what fun. is singing about. That's what Lena Dunham’s Girls is showing us on screen. That's what The Perks of Being a Wallflower is telling us. We aren’t nostalgic for the big, important climaxes; we’re nostalgic for the times when we could place importance on trivial, arbitrary things.
We are not infinite. But we are often defined by the moments when we thought we were.
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