Reeling in the Years (and Why)
in which Ashley confronts his pop culture nostalgia
My Edmond O’Brien here was originally commissioned as part of the run I drew for Turner Classic Movies several years back (as arranged by John Miller, with my eternal gratitude), a series of portraits of classic Hollywood stars (in keeping with TCM’s content du jour). My memory of the TCM gig is mostly a blur of manic, deadline-chasing hyperventilation, happening as it was during a series of personal crises I had scheduled prior to the assignment. All that weirdness could fill a book, or perhaps a stirring stage musical, but maybe next season. What I mostly remember now is that, when I told people I was doing this work for TCM, they all responded, “Oh, that’s perfect for you.”
And why? Because they knew I had been deeply engrossed in antique, Hollywood-studio product since childhood. Or else I was reading some out-of-print publication, likely related to ancient show business, written by an author who’d been briefly popular in 1926, now long forgotten. Or because I was listening to the sounds of long-dead musicians, preserved in long-playing, high-fidelity vinyl of the mid-century. Because they knew I was a devoted nostalgist, lost in a world of cultural antiques, staunchly resistant to the autotuned CGI of modernity. I was “one of those TCM people.”
And why? I have no idea. But I suspect a point of origin for my nostalgist condition could be late December, 1979, at the age of eleven, listening to Casey Kasem counting down the biggest pop hits of the Seventies on a special edition of radio’s American Top Forty. Recalling the Convoys and Car Washes that formed my cultural environment up until that time, I became unnerved by the concept of “decade,” of an epoch ending. All those contemporary Osmonds, Gibbs, and Cassidys were being relegated to the Oldies bin right in front of my eyes, and so, by extension, was I.
And, feeling the shadow of an uncertain future stretching across time, I decided right then that nothing that could happen going forward was going to be worth paying attention to. Any cultural event was eventually going to get dumped in a casket called “decade” and buried in the past. Best to just embrace hopelessness now while I was still young enough to enjoy it.
That could have been the moment that made me into an anti-mod. But allow me to examine this problem with another memory, this one from around the second grade. My friend, Troy, and I were sitting in front of the TV one afternoon, eagerly anticipated the debut of a new after-school lineup of kids’ programming on one of the local stations. One of these was a new series called The Three Stooges.
It was, of course, love at first sight for us. We’d never seen anything so glorious. The Stooges were a living Tom and Jerry cartoon, with nonstop head injuries, insults, and collapsing interiors. We were enthralled, overwhelmed by our good fortune to be indulging in such unrestrained beauty. And then my father came home.
You should understand that my father was old. Older than most. He’d been in his thirties by the time he had kids, and ten years older than that when I came along. My father had living memories of the Hoover administration. Old, is what I’m saying. He came from the World of Long Ago.
“What are you watching?” he asked.
“This new show called The Three Stooges. It’s funny!”
He looked at the screen.
“Oh, yeah. The Three Stooges. They’re all dead now.”
He just came home and laid that on us, dumped it right into our tender, seven-year-old souls. All dead now. Here we were, virgins to the splendor of these beautiful slaps and finger pokes, and now death was upon us. Sure, the old man would know, having lived long enough to become an expert on who had died. But I was dumbstruck, thinking, “Hey, man! We just got here!”
Such lessons in the ephemeral nature of Shemp must have made these celluloid artifacts all the more precious to me. Or maybe it was just being raised by a guy who remembered Lum and Abner. Either way, I seem to have concluded that the purpose of indulging in popular culture was not to be entertained by the new and novel, but to keep the classics on life support, to free them from their crypts of crumbling nitrate and revel in what once was. To keep those Stooges alive forever. And of course, this nostalgia sickness is only aggravated by the recent news that Troy, the kid who experienced with me the birth and death of The Three Stooges in one fell swoop, has now died himself. As have many of my other childhood friends, my father, and Casey Kasem, the man who buried the Seventies.
And that could be why I’ve spent so much of my Career™ memorializing the dead in my portraits, as with our friend, Edmond O’Brien, above. As you fellow Old Souls recognize, O’Brien is depicted here in the climax of D.O.A., a film in which his character, Frank Bigelow, has been incurably poisoned and must solve his own murder before his clock runs out. It’s curious that Frank spends his last hours of life furiously playing detective, rather than enjoying a sunset in the park or visiting friends or watching a beloved Hollywood classic. He must solve the case.
And why? Because Frank Bigelow was an accountant and notary public, a man keeping the books. And he wanted the story of his murder on the record, documented for posterity. No live, laugh, or love for this poisoned historian; Frank was driven to be the archivist of his own fleeting existence.
But what he couldn’t know, because the fourth wall was still intact, was that the whole story had been captured on film, and that younger generations would relive the story of Frank Bigelow, and indeed, of Edmond O’Brien, for as long as the sprockets held firm. And that would mean that D.O.A. was no longer just a movie, but an artifact.
Hopefully, no one will do what my father did with The Stooges and ruin the ending.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, firstname.lastname@example.org, where he longs to hear from you.)