Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected


The word nostalgia was originally a medical term used to describe melancholia caused by long absences from home or country. The illness was ‘discovered’ in the eighteenth century and appears to have been directly connected with dislocations in people’s lives brought about by the Industrial Revolution.

Two hundred years later, all our lives have been transformed by that revolution. Compared with our grandparents and great-grandparents, most of us are without roots. (I’ve lived in six different towns in Ontario in the past seventeen years.) Nostalgia has been democratized; it’s become a disease we all suffer from. The word itself has lost its pathological connotations and taken on the more general meaning of “longing for something far away or long ago.”

The extended family is rapidly disintegrating and being replaced by newer, less structured kinds of associations. It’s these ad hoc ‘families,’ each with its own values and rituals, that Molson’s celebrates in its lovely series of television commercials that tell us, “Every year for the past eight years Jack and the boys....” Gilles Carle, who is working on a new TV version of The Plouffe Family, put it this way in a recent interview. “Today we must... recreate the family for ourselves. Like where I live, I gave myself in the neighbourhood a couple of sisters, a grandfather, a grandmother, some brothers.... We help each other.” Although our new family groupings satisfy many of our needs, we continue to feel a certain wistful attachment to, and a vague sense of guilt about, the extended and nuclear families we’ve left behind us. However unsatisfactory our relationships with them, we think of them nostalgically. We wish we could be (or could have been) closer; we know we can’t be.

Trains and planes have separated us from our families physically; our increasingly specialized interests and educations have had the same effect psychologically. But technology, having totally transformed family life during the past two centuries, has also given us the means to pretend that nothing has changed. Photographs and home movies provide us with proof of our continuing connection to people we never see anymore; they permit us a kind of safe and distant intimacy. Photography, as Susan Sontag has written, “becomes a rite of family life just when, in the industrializing countries of Europe and America, the very institution of the family starts undergoing radical surgery. As that claustrophobic unit, the nuclear family, was being carved out of a much larger family aggregate, photography came along to memorialize, to restate symbolically, the imperiled continuity and vanishing extendedness of family life. Those ghostly traces, photographs, supply the token presence of the dispersed relatives. A family’s photograph album is generally about the extended family — and, often, is all that remains of it.”

Television programmes promote similar illusions. Despite what we’ve heard about or know about the Depression, the Korean War, the 1950s, those days were really a lot of fun. At least so The Waltons, M*A*S*H*, and Happy Days tell us. Such programmes encourage our nostagic feelings. When Edith and Archie Bunker sing, “And you knew who you were then/Girls were girls and men were men... those were the days,” we nod in agreement. Part of us believes it. But it’s also appropriate that their singing is terribly off-key.

The telephone allows us another kind of controlled intimacy. My favourite television commercial these days is one in a series sponsored by the Trans-Canada Telephone System: it promotes what is called “The Long Distance Feeling.” The particular commercial I’m talking about juxtaposes the ambiguous lyrics of the 1940s ballad “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” (in a wonderful performance by Lyn McNeill overdubbed to sound like the Andrews Sisters) with eight equally ambiguous, beautifully photographed, soft-focus vignettes from everyday life. I’ve seen this commercial dozens of times and I’m affected by it every time.

We see a small boy holding a toy airplane in his hand. He’s in a large outdoor space. We hear Lyn McNeill asking, “Are you lonesome tonight? Do you miss me tonight?” The film cuts to three little girls skipping rope: the voices ask, “Are you sorry we drifted apart?” Cut to a shot of a well-dressed man — sixty, perhaps — sitting on a park bench. He has a kind, wistful look as he observes the world around him. “Does your memory stray,” sing the voices, “to a bright summer’s day?” Cut to rural scene. A barn with a smiling young farmer and his cow. Voices: “When I kissed you and called you sweetheart.” A bedroom. A young mother is lying on a bed, two children snuggled up to her. She’s reading them a story. “Do the chairs in your parlour seem empty and bare?” We see a plump, not well-dressed woman — she’s in her fifties — sitting on a porch, knitting. An electric fan is blowing. “Do you gaze at your doorstep and picture me there?” A teenage boy leans on the wood-panelled 1940s station wagon of a young friend. The two of them are talking. “Shall I call you again? Shall I come back again?” It’s late at night. A woman knocks at the door of an old wood frame house with a stained glass window above the door. A porchlight comes on. The door opens, tentatively, and we see and elderly man (obviously just wakened) and an elderly woman behind him. As soon as they see who it is, they greet her warmly and usher her into the house as the voices sing, “Tell me dear, are you lonesome tonight?” A soothing male voice comes on urging us to get “The Long Distance Feeling.” End of commercial.

There’s nothing explicit about what we’ve seen. The commercial doesn’t show us a phone or people using one. The word “telephone” is never used. It’s all beautifully understated. The entire focus of the commercial is on the warm feelings long-distance calls can give us. Many of us, after all, still think of long distance calls as something special, a way of letting people know that something serious has happened or is about to happen. The commercial’s primary concern, therefore, is to break down that notion: to make us see long-distance calls as a pleasant, everyday thing.

There’s a poignancy, a bitter-sweetness about this sixty seconds of film that I find quite overwhelming. There’s a Japanese flavour to it, its individual images expand in my head like good haiku; the cumulative effect of the images is reminiscent of the work of the great Japanese filmmaker Yasujiro Ozu. The world of Ozu is the world seen through the eyes of a devout Buddhist kneeling on his or her tatami mat. It’s a world of fleeting human experience, filled with what the Japanese call mono no aware , sympathetic sadness. (Poor old Ozu would turn over in his grave to hear his work compared with a television commercial.)

I know that in the U.S. long-distance calls covering the same distance as calls in Canada cost less than half of what they do here. I know that, nonetheless, the CRTC has just allowed Bell Canada yet another hefty increase in its rates. I know that Erik Barnouw is right when he says in The Sponsor: Notes on a Modern Potentate that “to manufacture a product without at the same time manufacturing a demand has become unthinkable.” (People have to be taught to want “The Long Distance Feeling.”) I know that these commercials have been successful in doing just that — revenue from long-distance calls increased by fifteen per cent last year. I know all these things and they bother me. But they don’t keep me from getting choked up every time that damn “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” commercial comes on TV.

— Saturday Night, November 1978

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