guardians of our parents’ frail nostalgias

Do you remember the cornfield chase scene, early on in Interstellar? It’s the first time you hear the arpeggio, if that helps you remember:

If you recall, the family careens off the road into a cornfield, chasing a decommissioned drone that just flies pointlessly around the world — a relic of more militarized times gone by.

But it’s not just that. The drone is also a relic from a time when such engineering wasn’t only possible but commonplace. It was the time Cooper, played by Matthew Mcconaughey, was raised in, and during which he was happiest, capable of rising to the calling he had honed his brain and body to answer. That is what kills me about that scene. He, as we know quite well from later in the movie, takes his family utterly seriously and would never purposefully endanger them. But that ghost of his past life, of the dead world in which he held such prowess, in which he had a place, leads him to slam his kids pell-mell through a cornfield and almost off a cliff, all in search of that glimpse of the past and who he used to be. How the world used to be.

His daughter, a character built to know him better and deeper than her brother ever will, sees this in him, I think. Even though she’s only twelve. She’s not meek; she would call him out on the craziness of this venture, if she didn’t see something in him that stopped her. You don’t have to be a precocious kid to see it; you just have to give a damn. And she does. Very much so.

That scene…that is what you do, as a kid, managing your parents’ nostalgia. Asking enough questions to evoke the past — what did that kind of ship do? and that acronym, what does it mean? will this happen? will that? can you tell? — without pushing too far, too deep, and causing pain to well up. Pain about who they aren’t anymore; about how the world no longer is. The way they existed in the world often isn’t even an option any longer. And if they go past their anecdotes and bump up against that reality again, it will hurt. And you, their child, will see it, and will regret saying anything, and will despair of ever saying the right thing; of knowing the balance.

But there isn’t anyone else. No one else who can ask these questions and get answers from a place not primed and polished for boardroom- or elevator-quality responses; canned and cleaned of any affection. So you keep trying.

Murphy never gets that chance, with her dad. He is gone before he needs her protecting. Or at least, before she can give it. He probably always needed it. That wrecks me about that movie. The person she could have been to him. The person she never got the chance to be, and how he loved her for it anyway.




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