1984: Learning to Pretend, to Empathize, and to Love


(If you want to know why I am talking about 1984, I explained myself yesterday)

There is a concept in media studies called monoculture. The name explains the idea to some degree, but this Salon piece offers a more precise definition if you’re interested. TV and music have become highly personalized experiences these days. Unless it is a massive event like the Oscars or the Super Bowl, people just don’t watch things live anymore, so there is no real communal experience.

Movies are the last real holdout of monoculture. Sure, there are more movies now than ever thanks to technology, but studio slates are still relatively small and consist mostly of tent pole pictures, the big budget action movies like Avengers that need to gross a billion dollars in order to recoup costs and fund the studio for the next year.

But every once in a while there is a not so big film that develops a cult following in the rental (I guess now the better term is streaming) space. Such was the case with the 1984 fantasy film The Neverending Story. Yes, it was a hit in the theaters, grossing over $100 million back in a time where that feat was still impressive.

But this existential sci fi film so fantastical and psychologically based it could only come from the minds of the Germans continued its success on home video. A German book that was unique in that it was printed in different colored inks to signify what was the book and what belonged to a book within the book, it was directed by German-born Wolfgang Peterson.

Really, could anything but German Expressionism be responsible for the sequence in the film when the fantasy’s hero of the book within the book Atreyu loses his beloved horse, Artex? If you’re not familiar, let me set the scene. Atreyu and his steed are riding through the Swamps of Sadness, which literally can overcome you with a melancholy so heavy you sink into the sludge. While brave Atreyu managed to fight the negativity, his white horse could not and, despite Atreyu’s best efforts, he dies:

In elementary school, I cited this as the saddest scene in film history, as did most of my peers. It wasn’t specific to Lexington either. I asked my cousin Mollie, who is a year older than me and grew up in Memphis, what part of Neverending Story she most remembered (awesome theme song excluded).

“Oh, when the horse died. So traumatic.”

In retrospect, the proliferation of clinical depression in people my age might help to explain why as kids this scene stuck with us.  As kids, we fear the villain of the movie, The Nothing, the idea that our wildest dreams and imaginations could disintegrate, leaving us living in a vast void all by ourselves. We rely on our imagination and books to fill those empty spots in our everyday lives. We start to develop the sense that the sadness in our life might get so overwhelming we can’t go on, and it is a fear that tends to grows stronger the older you get.

As an adult, I rewatch that scene through an entirely different lens, realizing this movie may have been the first thing that helped me understand what depression was. You watch your friend slowly sinking into the swamp seemingly indifferent to saving themselves while you pull and scream and do anything you can to get them to snap out of it to no avail.

It also helped to instill a sense of empathy, as I cried along with Atreyu at the thought of losing his friend. Yes, it made me sad to see, but I loved the movie for being so powerful as to make me care about someone else’s horse, especially a someone else who didn’t even exist.

I was really big on pretending as kid, so imaginary friends and fictional characters were par for the course, really. I could entertain myself alone in the backyard for hours, turning my swing set into a spaceship racing along with the Hanna Barbera cartoons or My Little Ponies’ castle. I spent a disproportionate amount of my youth in front of a television, but when I look at my nephews, I realize a lot more of my childhood involved playing pretend than theirs does.

If there was a show of my childhood that embodied the power of pretending and imagination the way The Neverending Story did, it would be Muppet Babies. The show premiered in 1984, just two months after Muppets Take Manhattan featured a dream sequence of baby Muppets dancing about a nursery.

In the show, the nursery was rarely the nursery though. Instead, it was a pretend spaceship, a pretend dude ranch, or a pretend newspaper:

The way Muppets pretended was very similar to the way I did. We would take some piece of cultural and basically perform fan fiction, elaborating where the story left off. It is a cultural creation strategy that has grown beyond pretending in the backyard to pretty much how all non-original TV shows and movies are made. In film criticism, the term is “pastiche”, which is taking a lot of elements from other pieces of culture and slapping them together, relying on the appeal of the artifacts to make the new piece interesting (like this). Quentin Tarantino does this, and it is the source of the greatest praise and the greatest criticism of his work.

This is classified in cinema as postmodernism, which is characterized by throwing back to older works, often blending a number of genres together, smashing high art into low art. It is very common in blockbuster movies, but it can apply to other things too, like music.

The Billy Joel concept album An Innocent Man is a great example of postmodernism in music. The album, which includes songs like Uptown Girl and Leave a Tender Moment Alone, is intentionally crafted to sound like songs from the 50s and 60s even though it was released in the 80s. It works because, sure, people are always intrigued by new, interesting sound people also like what they know.

It was the 90s by the time I discovered the Billy Joel song The Longest Time, but I loved it nonetheless. As someone who missed a lot of the 80s because my parents never listened to contemporary music, Billy Joel was off my radar for a long time. But once I started listening to music made after 1970, An Innocent Man was the album I latched onto first. I think of Joel as the bridge between a childhood of growing up on oldies music and an adult life of liking more modern music, preferably performed by a soulful dude with a piano.

It is a beautiful thing to fall in love with a song, which is exactly what happened with The Longest Time. It is an interesting thing to fall out of love with one though. I cited this as my favorite song for several years, until a friend of mine and her husband (who I was always rather critical of) decided it was “their” song. They also walked down the aisle to Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest”, another piano tune I spent much of college completely obsessing over.

There are certain things that, once associated with a song, you just can’t get past. We’ve all had a “song” with a boyfriend or girlfriend that becomes too painful to listen to for a while (it is another story for another time, but there was a year where I couldn’t listen to VeggieTale’s “His Cheeseburger” without crying). That is how I feel about The Longest Time and The Luckiest now. These were two songs I loved to listen to, imagining a life with my husband in which we shared the sentiments of these songs in the grown up version of pretending–daydreaming. While it is not a break up, knowing these songs were tied so closely to a relationship I wasn’t particularly fond of ruined my ability to pretend when listening to them, in turn ruining the songs not for any artistic reason, but because life decided it was time to change the playlist. It was too real, too tied to something I didn’t like much at all. Funny enough, I have since come around on the relationship, but the song continues to be one I just can’t listen to, nor will I be able to for quite a long time.

Scoring My Life Archive

1983: Return of the Jedi, Taxi, Faithfully


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