Thursday, December 03, 2009

Television, History, Memory

It is always funny what can trigger memories to come rushing back.

For me, one recent incidence was looking for an old, local commercial from Chicago television.

I found it, and saw that the clip seemed to be part of a much larger project. Indeed, it was.

The Museum of Classic Chicago Television is a completely online museum dedicated to preserving television clips from the Chicago area. I think just the premise is great. It is everything that a museum should be: interactive, well-organized and completely open to anyone.

In looking through their "exhibits," I was surprised at the wide array of television clips that they had. It was not just commercials (although this is a large part of what is there). They had newscasts, sports clips and everything else that makes up what a television station does.

As I paged through the clips of ads for Schmerler Ford, Polk Brothers and Linn Burton "For Certain," newscasts with Fahey Flynn, Walter Jacobsen and Joel Daly and all of the WTTW clips for Wild Chicago, Image Union, Doctor Who promos and Marty Robinson, something happened.

A lost world started to remake itself in my mind.

Instantly, I was a kid again, sitting there on Saturday morning, waiting for cartoons to come back on as that guy in the Victory Auto Wreckers commercial pulls the door off the car again. I was also there, in the kitchen with my mom after school, her making dinner, me talking about school, Joel Daly reading the news. I was there, too, on a Saturday night, waiting impatiently for Marty Robinson to announce this week's Doctor Who adventure.

It was a real nostalgia trip. Then, when I came back from that lost world, the academic began to think about what just happened.

Is this what defines my past? Is it disjointed clips of local media and ads for products that can trigger personal memories? Isn't this a bit crass? Shouldn't it be something more profound? Am I just proof that we are an over-commercialized society that watches too much television?

Before I reached peace with this, the historian in my mind reminded that these are artifacts of a lost age of broadcasting, before cable was ubiquitous, when the local affiliate station held a lot more sway in any given media market. I thanked him for the insight, but was still troubled a bit.

Then it hit me. It is not these flashes of Chicago's media past themselves that form my past. They merely serve as triggers.

They are not the lost world. My memories are.

These glimpses into the televised past of my hometown were merely the background noise to everything else that was going on, part of the soundtrack to what really was meaningful - growing up, sharing bonds with family, becoming who I am today.

I thought, furthermore, what does it matter if it was these things going on in the background and not the music of Brahams or Mozart, not the poetry of Keats or Tennyson? Those artifacts of "high culture" are as much a part of my memories as the "low culture" of Celozzi-Ettelson Chevrolet or Carson's Ribs.

To put it another way, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty" is as much a part of my mental landscape and past as, " York and Roosevelt Roads, where you always save more money!"

Does this make me a philistine who has flashes of "real" culture peppered in among the trash? Well, I think the high/low divide in culture is a false divide and has not really been meaningful for almost 200 years. So, no.

Does it bother me that my memories and personal past are made of such disparate elements? Not at all. It what helps make me (and everyone else) the unique and fascinating people that they are.

The whole is, as ever, more than the sum of its parts. So it is with me, I imagine.


Mark S. said...

Well done Will! I couldn't agree with you more.

Sara H. said...

I somehow missed this one before - I couldn't disagree with one thing you said. I find the same thing happens for me with music of all kinds. We are the sum of our parts!
Plus, who doesn't love Victory Auto Wreckers?!?