"Reminiscence Therapy": John Powell, Alexander Chee, and Memory in Fiction

There’s a showpiece in John Powell’s score for Solo: A Star Wars Story that samples a smorgasbord of the original films’ John Williams themes, cramming as many cues and motifs as it can into just over six minutes. The track is called “Reminiscence Therapy,” named for the process of reaching a dementia patient through exposure to familiar images, objects, or archival sound. It’s a titling choice I can’t stop thinking about, as someone who delighted in Solo with my whole id—and went in knowing I would, whatever its quality, because my heartstrings were tuned to thrum to it no matter what. “Reminiscence Therapy” is at the core of that; listening to it is positively Pavlovian. As a title it also feels gently mocking, an acknowledgement of the fact that reboots, prequels, sequels, in-between-quels, and all manner of trope-driven nostalgia-fueled fare are a kind of pandering that looks back rather than forward, that lets us pamper or distract ourselves, as though the audience is a kind of invalid. But that title also gets at something else true, and not unkindly expressed—that there’s a therapeutic function to the nostalgic and archetypical, consumed in controlled doses and with conscious intent. I’m not talking here about actual RT, or about narratives that set out to tell new stories with these themes—I just watched Coco, which couldn’t hit that nail more squarely on the head—just franchises that explicitly, with fanfare and ritual, go back to the original wellspring. Whatever else they do, these pop-cyclical narratives bring us back to ourselves, put us in contact with the people we were when we first responded to them. They let us think about how we and the world have changed since those first encounters—which tropes still resonate; which we’ve jettisoned—and how we’d like that to continue changing.

“Reminiscence Therapy”—the musical track as well as the title itself—has me thinking about narrative nostalgia as both an affliction and a treatment, in literature no less (well, maybe a tad less) than in the summer blockbuster. Fingerprints of the tropes and archetypes we grew up reading are everywhere in what we’re reading (and writing) today, whether embraced, frustrated, winked at, or aggressively jettisoned. It’s maybe most directly grappled with in creative nonfiction—I’ve been pondering this while reading Alexander Chee’s excellent essay collection How To Write an Autobiographical Novel. Chee writes about modeling plots from great myths and operas, about queering and bending familiar texts until they ring with a new resonance stronger for being both new and old at once. One recurring theme of the collection has Chee moving from one self to another to another, as a writer and as a person, receiving messages and memories and missions from past and future versions of himself—or from the universe writ large. These essays look inward, as all personal essays do, but their scope feels absolutely galactic—they are always looking forward and back, dipping a toe into the supernatural. Such is the depth of Chee's respect for the ways of the world, of writing, of the human mind.

Chee touches often on the difficulty of seeing our own lives clearly enough to analyze them. In life, in art, in writing, at the movies, we can’t have what Chee calls a clean “detachment and appraisal” of our own experiences. But maybe we can keep trying, at work and at play. And maybe we can glean something heart-swelling, something thoughtful and feeling, something therapeutic from the act of reminiscing.