Nostalgia, as a concept, has not changed much since its definition in the mid-17th Century. It was originally a study in scientific longing; an acute and overwhelming physiological pang for home, from wherever the sufferer happened to be. Homesickness under these conditions was diagnosable and treatable by returning home, assuming that the homesick soul had one to which to return, or one from which she came. This phenomenon took hold in Central Europe and, according to the prevailing science of its time, caused more than a few soldiers’ deaths. Nostalgia – a mash-up Greek nostos and algos for return and sickness, respectively – was not an effect of one’s environment or circumstances, but rather its cause. The cure has remained the same over time – to return home would “cure” the affliction (modern psychologists might argue that the change in environs provided the needed therapy to alter a state of mind, and uncover the “root” issue). Moreover, modern circumstances have shifted “nostalgia” to a more domestic affliction from one borne from war. Adults will watch a film they had seen as a child and recall an environment – one of safety or comfort in the known perhaps – and long for a seat on the Past’s Couch. Forty-eight years after its original run, nostalgia must be the reason the public remembers Oliver! so fondly.
When one watches Oliver! it is dishonest to expect its tone to reflect Charles Dickens’ original serial from the mid-1800s. First, it is a musical, and even darker musical theatre tends to be comedic in some respect, if not for the tonal similarities between a joke and a song. Second, it is a different medium: it is actually quite a few steps away from the original, and with each transformation, some level of story shifts to meet its new medium. A book has, for example, hundreds of pages for the author to create local nostalgia; an emotional outburst so acute that the reader longs for a different emotional state pure of the book’s horrors or new memories. Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun is eerily reminiscent of this idea: is it a new emotional state that our mind must develop to cope with the horrors of war-fiction or does the mind have a process to repress these memories? Is it nostalgia that drives the mind – or is it the endless forward movement of time that forces the mind to remake itself constantly?
No part of Oliver! screams “Best Picture Winner,” however, despite its ability to rewrite a serial/novel/stage play/screenplay that connected (at the time) with audiences. The acting is passable-to-good, the music catchy and somewhat overly lighthearted, and the story is more or less the same as the book: young orphan starts and continues a journey through a series of unlikely but inevitable events that sees him improve his station, without much having been learned. Oliver! is a lesson in capitalism, first, it seems. Those who never saw the original musical on West End in London got their chance when an apt production team seized an opportunity to satisfy some level of demand. It, in effect, created a nostalgic moment for an audience with no home to remember. Its reference point was to a time and place that this audience had not experienced. Now, forty-eight years later and counting, audiences have a chance to experience, maddeningly, two levels of this bizarre, pseudo-science.
The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows defines this term: anemoia. Like most of this site’s work, this word is completely invented to serve its purpose (but really, all words are, so this is not relevant), but the point perhaps defines the entirety of generational longing and experience. As a species, we learn from the spectrum of the past – from the beginning to as recently as we’ve read this word; but learning from the past is not the same concept of nostalgia. Just because Oliver! tells the same story, does not mean it echoes how each original chapter impressed upon each reader at that time, or how each audience member pressed against London’s Fourth Wall, or how our parents saw the film in 1968, or how the modern audience, borne of the 1980s, longs to remember each as if it had experienced it firsthand.
The late 1960s in film brought with it a reflection of a shift in attitude – introducing nudity and human sexuality, new language, and new insights into human behavior first to shock and awe an audience, showcasing Black talent without exploiting it, and curating a film nuance only available with contemporary technology – yet Oliver! is profoundly none of the above. Perhaps the Academy saw it as the last bastion of hope, as a nostalgic tribute to the films of the 1930s and 40s, that perhaps even its members did not experience firsthand. Oliver! is a bizarre entry into the annals of Best Picture probably more suited to The Lion In Winter, whose legacy time slowly forgets. Perhaps it is because no one then was alive in AD 1183.