I'm just back from seeing The World's End, the third and final part of Edgar Wright and Simon Pegg's "Blood and Ice-Cream" trilogy. I enjoyed it, though I didn't think it was nearly as good as the previous film, Hot Fuzz, which is one of my all-time favourites.
The theme of The World's End was a fairly common cinematic theme-- men entering middle age seeking to reconnect with their youth. (Oh, and some stuff about a town's population being replaced by robots.) I find this theme-- recapturing lost youth, not robots posing as humans-- a little too poignant, since I am now half-way through my thirties (midway through life's journey, according to Dante). Sometimes I feel grateful that my childhood and adolescence was pretty uneventful and I don't have very much to get maudlin about-- although nostalgia will always find something.
But I also found myself (after the film) thinking about popular culture, social amnesia, and the sad condition of people who have been uprooted from their heritage, when they hit middle age. The film (like most films and works of entertainment these days, but even more so than most) is chock-full of pop culture references-- mostly marking the way the world has changed since the central characters were young.
It strikes me that ageing is particularly sad, particulaly lonely and desolate, when you have nothing but popular culture to draw on. It's like trying to cling onto a clump of grass. When you mark the passage of historic time by pop songs and TV shows and movies and technology, how can you help feeling ancient by the age of thirty?
Whereas somebody who is rooted in a tradition-- be that a national tradition, a cultural tradition, or (best of all, I think) a religious tradition-- doesn't feel so terribly antiquated, since traditions tend to extend across many generations. A man who is absorbed in some political cause-- trade unionism, for instance-- feels himself to be part of a story that began long before his birth and will continue (he hopes) well after his death. His own biography is only a moment in that story. He is part of something bigger and more enduring. Similarly, a man who feels himself to be part of a cultural tradition-- a man who reads old books, who feels a living connection with previous generations-- need not feel so unmoored when all the rock heroes of his youth start dying off.
I make no apologies for repeatedly quoting Edmund Burke's marvellous phase, "the flies of a summer's day", to describe people cut off from history and tradition. I think one of the worst things that a reliance on pop culture does to us is to make us flies of a summer's day-- but flies who are conscious of their own tragically short moment in the sun.