An online collection of home movies sparks nostalgia for a past I never knew.
Through the dancing grain of 1950’s quality home video you can make out a phrase painted on the family’s camper: “The Happy Wanderers”, it says. A young girl and her mother wave at the camera, squinting in the sunlight. I have no idea who these people are, but I’m watching footage of their family road trip that’s been uploaded to the internet archive for all to see.
This video is one of thousands in a collection called the Prelinger Archive, an effort by the New York Public Library to preserve their thousands of anonymously donated home movies from over the years. Watching them one after another fills me with a peculiar nostalgia; one for other people’s memories, not my own. In this short documentary, we investigate that feeling of vicarious nostalgia, where it comes from, and where it leads us.
Past Futures was listed as one of the best video essays of 2017 by Sight & Sound.
I was interviewed for the International Media & Nostalgia Network about the making of this video.
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.
All home movies used are public domain, accessed via the Internet Archive’s impressive collection.
VHS effects were provided by Free Stock Footage Archive and Christopher Huppertz on YouTube, and used under a Creative Commons license. VHS sound effects were recorded by nicStage, and used under a Creative Commons license.
Any copyright material that appears in this video was for purposes of commentary only and is used under a Fair Use license.
If you’re interested in further reading on nostalgia and its place in our culture, there are a few books I can recommend based on my research. First is The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym, which is a contemporary masterpiece on the subject. Additionally, The Past is a Foreign Country by David Lowenthal is more of a textbook overviewing many topics peripheral to and including nostalgia, and makes for a comprehensive overview. Lastly, on the topic particularly of pop culture’s apparent obsession with the past, is Simon Reynolds’ book Retromania.
There are also several shorter reads online that provided useful research for this essay: When Nostalgia Was a Disease, How the Internet Uses Nostalgia, Star Wars: The Nostalgia Awakens, The Forty Year Itch, ‘Retromania’: Why is Pop Culture Addicted to its Own Past?, ‘The 90s Are All That’ and the Ever-Accelerating Nostalgia Machine, Nostalgia and Its Discontents, No, No, Nine-Ettes