There are at least three truths you can infer about pretty much every person with an Internet connection.
- They regularly creep on other people’s profiles.
- They have lowered their standards as to what “good journalism” is.
- They wouldn’t want you (or anyone for that matter) rummaging through their Google search history.
I for one like to think of my search history as a sort of “curiosity archive” — a place where growing obsessions, secret interests, and blatant ignorance all come face-to-face. Such a place harbours tremendous potential for uncovering someone’s identity; and maybe that’s why we tend to be so scared of what it might say about us. GIYF, but only until someone else catches a glimpse of what you’ve been so busy researching.
Honestly, I wish I had a record of all the searches I’ve ever done, so that I could generate one of those word clouds with them where the size of the word depends on how frequently it was used. Too bad I clear my history so often (and by “so often” I mean “once a decade”).
One of the things that entered my curiosity archive yesterday is “films about death”. (What can I say? I was in that kind of mood.) The first site I stumbled upon was a listicle aptly titled “10 Movies about Death You Need to See Before You Die”. By that point I had actually already made up my mind about watching Stand By Me by Rob Reiner, a film that had been rotting away on my to-watch list for ages. So when the very first recommendation on that list turned out to be this exact film, I didn’t just want to watch it; I felt like I ought to, somehow.
If I’d been prompted to think about death as a theme in film before watching this one, I might have cited Robin Williams’s portrayal of murderer Walter Finch in Insomnia. Obviously, I’d already watched an abundance of films dealing with the grief, trauma, regret, etc. connected with death by the time I came across Insomnia about two years back; but the reason this one stuck out is a moment when Walter Finch says to Will Dormer, the detective he’s been chased by,
Life is so important. How could it be so fucking fragile?
In hindsight I’d say I was attracted to this sentiment because the idea that death can happen so quickly resonated with me and I’d observed that people always place the most value on things that are easily lost. But maybe another reason was that I’d always unconsciously assumed a person couldn’t possibly have the slightest regard for human life if they’d ever wittingly taken one.
Stand By Me does contain one or two quite powerful statements about the fragility of life as well, but at its core, it’s still a coming-of-age story. What is so coming-of-age about a bunch of preteen boys running off into the woods in search of a dead body, you may ask? Well, I couldn’t quite fathom that right away, either. But let’s talk about it.
I don’t want to get into detail about the characters, except for the protagonist (Gordie, far left), who tells the story of this childhood journey as an adult, shortly after his best friend Chris Chambers, here featured as the second kid from the left, has been stabbed to death trying to break up a fight in a restaurant.
Building on the realization that I’m a total sucker for high school dramas, I’ve discovered that I’m quite easily swayed by nostalgic tones in general. And I absolutely adore the subtlety with which the film’s opening sequence introduces the surfacing of childhood memories that guides the whole plot.
I’m talking about the two boys passing Gordie’s car on a bike before he delves right into a time when he, too, was eager to venture forth into the unknown, explore everything and anything that lay ahead. At present he is stagnant, isolated, although given the mobility that a car provides, he should be much more connected to his surroundings — even to the farthest stretches of land Oregon has to offer. But here’s the thing: if he and his friends had had someone to drive them to the corpse they were scavenging for back then, there literally wouldn’t have been a story to tell. It’s a nice reminder that the distance you’ve covered is always more accurately measured in steps than kilometres, and that a map can never reveal much about where you wound up in the end.
But why is death in particular such a powerful vehicle for a coming-of-age story? It’s actually quite simple: death is the ultimate loss of innocence. So long as you have no means to comprehend it, how are you supposed to grieve? How can you be expected to cry at your brother’s funeral? You can miss him, sure, and that feeling will likely take on more weight over time, but it takes quite a while to sink in that this kind of longing is vastly different from missing a friend who moved halfway across the country. Even though most of the time friends who are separated while still at school don’t reconnect, the slim chance that it could happen, that your pal is out there somewhere, undergoing similar trials and tribulations as you, is enough to get by. (Kind of gives you an idea for why we had to invent an afterlife…)
In the end, I’m not sure if the four boys in Stand By Me got any closer to accepting the fragility of life and inevitability of death. All we know is that upon returning, they could feel that their world had been altered, tweaked to a more mature angle. And I felt it too.
When I was a child, I used to have a very acute sense of when something important and treasurable had come to an end. I remember being at one of those summer-camp type things where your parents had to pick you up every evening only to deliver you back into the counsellors’ trustworthy hands the next morning. I had made a friend there, a boy a few years older than me, and on my last drive home I damn near cried my eyeballs out because I knew I would never see him again. And I was right.
As painful as they can sometimes be, death and friendship are the best teachers when you need to figure out the worth of a human life. Yes, there’s a risk of romanticizing the past. A risk of putting someone on a pedestal and labelling each of the “quests” the two of you embarked on together an Epic Adventure, a search not for maturity, but for the absolute truths beneath it all.
We have to acknowledge the treachery of nostalgia. But still, allowing yourself a little trip down memory lane once in a while, if only to explore the big questions you used to be so insatiably curious about, is a lot more wholesome an experience than deleting that curiosity archive altogether.