Turning Memory Into Place
Six documentaries you should watch in May
Hey! Welcome to the sixth issue of Microfascination. Half a year, what the heck.
Untranslatable words have long been an obsession of mine. This month I’ve been thinking a lot about saudade, the Portuguese word for an emotional state that is something like nostalgia but more complex than simple longing.
The scholar Aubrey F. G. Bell describes saudade as a “vague and constant desire for something that does not and probably cannot exist, for something other than the present, a turning towards the past or the future.” A Poet’s Glossary states that saudade is “not just a nostalgia for something that was lost; it can also be yearning for something that might have been.” The writer Manuel de Melo calls it “a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy.”
I’m drawn to feelings and ideas that exist beyond the boundaries of easy definition. Maybe art is the tool we use to gesture toward meaning in the cases where the dictionary alone doesn’t quite cut it. As Kazuo Ishiguro said in his Nobel Prize speech: “Stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”
I watched the documentary Jasper Mall on a whim earlier this month and I’m so glad I did. The marketing alone got me on this one, its poster displaying the vacant parking lot of a fading shopping mall under a cloudy sky. The film is a tender portrait of a declining Alabama mall’s fragile ecosystem in the midst of our contemporary post–department store Amazon era. Over the course of just 84 minutes, we come to know the distinctive characters who gather in this place — whether it’s two teens embarking on a tentative relationship, a group of old pals with a standing domino rivalry, or the dedicated employees who keep everything running. Hanging over every scene is the question of where these people will go if the mall — clearly far past its heyday — were to close. By the time the credits rolled, I felt a distinct sense of loss wound up in a nostalgic yearning for an era that’s now squarely situated in the past.
Turns out this particular sentiment is something of a hallmark for documentary filmmaking team Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb, who describe their catalog as “archive-rich nostalgic portraits of pop culture, compelling stories of female empowerment, and observational snapshots of under-explored cultures.” You’re probably laughing if you know me personally, because that’s literally just a list of my interests. Needless to say, a new rabbit hole was born.
My next watch was The Rock-afire Explosion, a deep-dive into the niche fan community that sprouted up around ShowBiz Pizza’s animatronic rock band (the precursor to that of Chuck E. Cheese). There’s something delightful about tracking the ways fanbases celebrated and connected over what they loved before the internet era, although it sometimes feels as if our enduring passion for our childhood faves might be tangled up in the desire to retreat to simpler times. As the writer Ander Monson says in his memoir about the film Predator, “I believe that if you look long and hard enough at what you loved best at fourteen and how you lived then and what you saw in the world, it will reveal both the world and you.” I came away from Rock-afire knowing quite a lot about one animatronic rock band and just as much about the people who loved it.
There’s often a distinct sense of melancholy laced through the nostalgia that Thomason and Whitcomb present — GLOW, their chronicle of The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (and yes, inspiration for the Netflix show!), is another great example. On the one hand, the collected reflections of a team of female wrestlers make for a great story of feminist empowerment. But it was admittedly hard to learn that some of these women had been chasing that same all-encompassing feeling of community ever since. There’s an inescapable bittersweetness to the experience of total joy when you have to live with the knowledge that you can’t return to it.
The story of electronic musician Suzanne Ciani offers hope in A Life in Waves, which is Thomason and Whitcomb’s fascinating account of her life as a pioneer in her field. (You know that iconic pop-and-pour sound from the Coke commercials? That was her.) Though Ciani has loved and lost, there’s comfort to take in her incredible legacy — the countless people she’s touched through the music she’s made over decades, and the inspiration she continues to offer to other female artists trying to make their own way. County Fair, Texas struck me as an equally tender portrait on the earlier end of that spectrum — the year-long journey of four kids raising animals for the county fair and trying to figure out who they want to be. There’s an undeniable sense of longing bound up in those questions of childhood and the thrill of imagining your future self.
I finished with the short film Lost Weekend, in which two middle-aged men look back on the forty-eight hours they spent partying with Van Halen after winning an MTV contest in 1984. Ever since then I’ve been thinking differently about the entire small universes that are other people’s passions and memories. These documentaries feel like a series of portals into worlds that exist all around us, if we only take the time to look.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the sheer gravity of nonfiction, the magnitude of holding a true story in your hands. I can feel the difference between an essay and a story when I write; it means something when the name you commit to paper belongs to someone else. You’re digging out a narrative arc from the life of another human being.
So it’s no small thing to find a documentary team with such obvious care and compassion for their subjects. Bradford Thomason and Brett Whitcomb succeed every time in turning memory into place — one the subject can revisit, and one the viewer can discover for the first time.
I cannot WAIT to see Butterfly in the Sky, their forthcoming tribute to LeVar Burton and Reading Rainbow. In the meantime, I’ll be working my way through the top 250 documentaries according to Letterboxd.
In publication news, my interview with Claire Dederer for her new book, Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma, is out in Electric Lit. I’m also really excited to share that a piece I wrote about creative persistence and Tom Cruise’s iconic sprint will be published in a print anthology forthcoming from Autofocus this summer — more info on that in the coming months. (What better way to celebrate the new Mission Impossible?)
BIG shoutout to those of you who reached out about watching Elizabethtown after last month’s issue! Warmed my heart to hear that others took a second look at a film I love so much.
Thanks, as always, for reading — see you again in May!