Leigh’s essay on the nostalgia industry can’t help but take us on some nostalgia trips of our own. The grammar of the piece subordinates “nostalgia” (for Leigh, the cynical effort to turn childhood icons into formulae for commercial success) to “tradition” (ironically, tradition is good because new traditions can be formed). Yet, when she conjures up long-forgotten quips from Charlie Brown for us, when she produces poignant insights about the Muppets, evenas she praises the virtues of the Pixar team’s work on Toy Story (16 years later, it too is susceptible to nostalgia), the pleasure in reading the essay is the pleasure of remembering. What we remember are mostly scenes from a different time, when we were surrounded by different people and indeed when we ourselves were different people. But Leigh casts a shadow over these idyllic tableaux with somber cultural criticism. To throw doubt onto the very pleasure she provides us—that is Leigh’s accomplishment in this essay.
Leigh is really not out to attack nostalgia, understood as an earnest and bleary-eyed romance with the ghost of the past. She only wants to end its unfeeling commercialization. I wonder if she has seen the Boondocks episode that references A Charlie Brown Christmas? In terms of pacing, music, plot structure, it provides all the ambivalence and disappointment that Charlie Brown gave us. But the story is from a different context and has a different range of import: Riley undertakes to kill the mall Santa Claus because “Santa didn’t show us no love when we were in the hood”; Huey struggles with racist school bureaucracy to stage his original play The Adventures of Black Jesus. The particular recipe of old and new, dizzying feelings of the irrecoverable and social relevance, might be another example of the alchemy Leigh finds that is neither one nor the other but both.