1998: Time, Context, Saving Private Ryan & Shania

I’ve mentioned before that my sister and I have an agreement to watch a show neither of us are particularly fond of anymore called The Strain. There is a character in the show that appears to be in his early 70s. In Season 1 it is revealed he is a Holocaust survivor and I didn’t think too much of it. My sister and I were watching some of Season 2 together and he reveals that he is defying aging and is actually 94 years old.

Both my sister and I needed a minute to think it through and, yeah, we probably should’ve realized a guy who was maybe 20 during WW2 would be damn near 100 now. It was such a common thing when we were kids for some of our friends to have grandparents that were Holocaust survivors that the idea one would be very much alive and kicking today felt so normal. Really though, kids today will go their whole lives more than likely never meeting someone who experienced the Holocaust or was a WW2 vet because most of them will have passed on.

So once again, I refer to difference between Millenials and Xennials and which way those Xennials lean. Many of my friends had close relationships with grandparents or other relatives who still had a couple of decades of good years in them. While we were not around to experience what happened during WW2, we got to hear firsthand about what happened on and off the battlefield. Meanwhile those just a few years younger than us had grandparents who were kids during the war and couldn’t tell us about why we fought and just how horrifying some of those important battles could be.

When Saving Private Ryan first came out in theaters, many veterans from that war walked out about 45 minutes into the film. It wasn’t because it was bad or the depiction of the storming of Omaha Beach was outrageously incorrect. They walked out because it was too real, bringing back memories of their own experiences in the service that they weren’t prepared to relive. I was a teenager at the time, but watching this movie in the theaters brought me to tears several times over. Watching the movie certainly didn’t make me understand the experiences of my relatives, but it did help me to understand some of the burden they bore by not only fighting for our country, but suffering the memories of the horrific experiences alone, unwilling to burden others with it.

They are called The Greatest Generation by many, including myself. These principled people put others before self, learned to live with what they had, and appreciated everything that was given to them. I admire them greatly and my heart holds a special place for their era. I don’t know if it is nostalgia when you long for a time you didn’t experience, but as someone who thinks the early 1950s are the greatest time for movies ever, I don’t know what else to call my infatuation with the era.

I was genuinely infatuated with Saving Private Ryan. To this day it ranks in my all-time top five. Every time I watch it, even now, I get a little misty-eyed, especially during the scene in which the group’s medic dies. After being shot, he is trying to instruct the guys how to help him. As they tell him where the wounds are, he realizes what no one else does, that his liver has been hit and he is going to die. Like WW2 vets, it is a horror my brain can comprehend, but I can only imagine how it would’ve felt.

I had that personal connection, but people younger than me who watch this movie now will not have such an experience. I imagine it’ll be more like when I watched The Passion of the Christ. It puts a historical event in context in a very visceral way, but you still feel somewhat disconnected since there is no one in your real life to anchor the feelings you’ve experienced in the movies. Movies are great to watch just to watch, but when you can use them to connect with someone in a way you couldn’t before, it is a surprisingly fulfilling experience.

Like my sister and The Strain, I tend to watch some oddball shows in an effort to connect with my mom. Lately when I am home, she will call out to me during the part in Columbo episodes where he smarmily reveals who the killer is so I can watch with her. My mom has no interest in serial television and she isn’t a fan of gruesome murder and crime, so she skips the procedurals like Law & Order or CSI.

It is no wonder then that when ABC launched a quirky little show that amounted to a procedural about dating and falling in love that both my mom and I fell head over heels for it. Before he was Ari on Entourage, Jeremy Piven played Cupid. Not metaphorical cupid like a matchmaker, Cupid cupid. The general premise is that Cupid pissed off Zeus or someone up there and they sent him down to Earth without his powers and told him he can’t get them back until he gets 100 couples together. His psychologist thinks he is insane and the audience never quite knows for sure he is who he says he is, which is its own amount of fun, but the weekly romances were exactly the kind of procedural our life as missing.

The show, which was kind of destined to fail when it was condemned to a Friday night time slot, never quite got the critical acclaim I think it deserved, though it did develop a cult following. Nowadays, shows like Say Yes to the Dress, The Millionaire Matchmaker, and other reality shows have somewhat filled the void of the relationship procedural, but none have that quirk and charm of this short-lived show. I like to think much like I was a few decades late for a time I think I would’ve thrived in, this show was about five years too early, as the proliferation of scripted TV shows recently discussed on NPR’s pop culture blog probably would’ve resulted in this show ending up on a niche cable network.

A show like Cupid was too high concept to really be timeless. Much of contemporary pop culture ties itself a little too closely to the time period. Many shows aren’t built to last anymore. Reality shows sum this up the best. If you don’t catch them on their initial run, you’re hardly ever going to see any reality competition show in syndication because once people knew who won, the interest dried up immediately.

Many songs are suffering the same fate, especially in the top 40 world where lyrics name drop other artists, TV shows, and current events. In the late 90s, punk and boy bands were dominating the charts tying themselves to the era with their sound, but there was an artist who paved the way for Taylor Swift by crossing over from country to pop who hit the charts doing very much her own thing. Shania Twain’s Still the One is a timeless kind of ballad that is just as compelling today as it was 17 years ago.

That is, so long as you keep the song out of context. When she wrote it, Shania was deeply in love with her producer, Mutt Lange. In 2010, he would leave her for her best friend. Ouch.

When Shania started her show at Caesars, I went with some friends. While not a die-hard Shania supporter, I like a lot of her songs, especially Still the One. However, knowing the story behind the song, I couldn’t help but get a little sad when we reached that portion of the performance. There are a lot of inadvertently hilarious moments in the show, like when she performs some songs on what appears to be a post-nuclear fallout cheetah planet.

For Still the One, she comes in on a white horse, fog rolls in. She gets off the horse and proceeds to sing the song to the animal, as it magically follows her around the stage. (Begging the question of logistically how this is accomplished. Do they spray her down with carrot juice or something?)

It’s intended to be beautiful, but my mind went to her failed relationship thinking to myself, “You had a husband to sing this song to forever, but now the only one to serenade is your horse. That’s pretty depressing, Ms. Twain.” This song, which is so lovely and doesn’t need any context to resonate with anyone who has ever been in love has been tainted by context.

That is what happens the more you know and the more something gets connected to a place, a person, or an era. A movie like Saving Private Ryan or a simple love song can make you feel so much more than taking in things sight unseen. For the movies, something that resonates in your head can be felt in your heart, while a song that always stirred up feelings will get you thinking about the who or why and get the song stuck in your head with more than just the melody.


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