When One Window Closes . . .
A friend of mine has stated – many times – that he won’t date anyone who doesn’t love The Princess Bride, or Rioja wine. It’s the former that’s important to me at the moment, even though I love a good Rioja myself. Actually, my friend thinks that Princess Bride is the best movie of all time, and I think he’s absolutely right. Except that he’s also absolutely wrong.
We’ve all had the experience of sharing some beloved book, or film, or piece of music with someone, and being disappointed by their tepid reaction. You know. They’re like, polite. What’s more, we’ve all disappointed others in the same way. Like it or not, when this occurs, we do feel differently about each other. And neither side is wrong, but neither side is right, either.
Welcome to my Window Theory of Emotional Response. Otherwise known as the Princess Bride Paradox, the Star Wars Syndrome, the Heinlein Hypothesis, or – dare I say it? – the Frodo Phenomenon. In a nutshell, here it is: for you to have a deep emotional response to something cultural, your exposure to it has to have come at the right time for you.
My theory builds from the phrase many of us have used in other contexts, “that window’s closed.” AKA “that ship has sailed.” Both phrases imply that there was a period of time when something was possible, that the window was “open,” and then, it wasn’t. The opportunity is lost. For a piece of culture to move you, to change the way you think about yourself and the world around you, you have to encounter it at precisely the right age, or the right level of emotional maturity or development or – call it what you will.
Or you haven’t, and that window’s closed for you.
You read Heinlein at the right time, and he’s an inspiration. At the wrong time? He’s a jingoistic, fascist, at worst, and boring and out-of-date at best. Harlan Ellison? Either a revelatory call-to-arms, or a lot of self-aggrandizing cynicism. I’ve had people tell me The Princess Bride was “pretty funny,” people who say “I just don’t get it ” about Firefly, or people who – and perhaps this is the most disconcerting – feel that LOTR is “derivative.”
Here’s the explanation for that last one: if you come to an origin work only after having read all the things which it inspired, it’s going to seem tired and overfamiliar. That happened to me with Raymond Chandler. I did realize that the problem wasn’t with Chandler, but with the fact that I’d read McDonald and Parker and even Hammett first. But that, however, was just an intellectual recognition, it didn’t do anything for my emotional response. Raymond Chandler was no longer able to blow me away; no longer able to change the way I looked at literature and the world. That window had closed.
So that might be it. Sometimes it’s just that we’ve just read/seen/watched too many other books/movies/TV shows like the one our friends are mad for. Sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes we can see how great it is, and we see how much it would have moved us, and how important it would have been for us, if only the window had still been open.
When I run into people now who haven’t seen the original Star Wars, I leave them alone. I say “Gee, that’s too bad.” But I’ve stopped suggesting that they drop everything and see it.
At this time of year, you tend to see a lot of lists along the lines of “The Ten Most Important Books,” or, “The 100 Movies Everyone Should See.” If there are gaps in my lists, I don’t let it worry me anymore.
You know something? I haven’t seen Avatar yet. I have a horrible feeling that window’s closed.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno series of sword and sorcery adventures, as well as the Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As VM Escalada, she writes the soon-to-be released Halls of Law series. Visit her website www.violettemalan.com
Oh, my. This is brilliant! And explains so much about why I like what I like, why I don’t like what I don’t, and why I disagree on how “great” some things are with people who share similar tastes to mine.
Btw, you most likely already have seen Avatar. Just under different names. Still, it’s worth a watch for the special effects.
I used to love Star Wars. Now I think it’s unwatchable tripe. How does that fit into the window analogy?
A very spot-on observation–great post! On your AVATAR comment–if you didn’t see it on the BIG SCREEN in 3D, then yes it’s probably too late to “get” what made it so great. It was a major leap in 3D, so visually enjoyable that it completely overpowered the completely familiar and rather simple storyline. The power of AVATAR was in seeing all these fantasy motifs and tropes (pterodactyl-riding warriors, floating islands, fantastic forests of alien fauna) brought to life in such eye-popping 3D that it was more the EXPERIENCE of the movie than the movie itself. I don’t know if that’s even POSSIBLE on a small screen (even if it’s a big-screen TV, it’s still not big enough).
Your overall point is well made: The things that hit us the hardest and stay with us are usually the things we discovered during that “Age of Wonder”–about 10-12 years old. Before we’ve really developed a knowledge of the world around us, and before we’ve become so critical of what we watch, comparing it almost obsessively to that real world.
Sometimes, you go back to those movies/books, and they hold up. Other times (more often than not), they really don’t. But that makes us cherish all the more those things that DO hold up over twenty, thirty, or more years after we first discovered them during the Age of Wonder.
And there’s nothing wrong with revering those works of art that hit us young and stayed with us our entire lives–as long as we remain open to NEW experiences of art. We are bound to find new works of art that thrill and amaze us because they’re just right for THIS part of our lives. Although those may be few and far between, as adults get harder and harder to please. It’s a balancing act: Staying true to the classics yet remaining open to the Next Great Work. We are blessed to be able to do both.
Why do so few works of fiction make it into the established canon (where they will eventually be shoved down the throats of baffled high schoolers and undergrads)? Because most books don’t stand up to repeated readings over many years. Nor is the phenomenon limited to books. So yes, you’re correct: timing is everything.
Unless you’re a film director. Then it’s “Casting is everything.”
Or a location scout: “Location, location, location.”
Thirty years ago, John Irving was just another writer of popular books. But now look: GARP and OWEN MEANY (at least) are canonical works of 20th century lit.
Things Change. Things Fall Apart.
I love YA novels — still, as an adult — but I know people for whom A WRINKLE IN TIME just doesn’t work. It’s one of the books that had the biggest impact on me as a young reader, but it definitely seems to be a victim of the Window Is Closed syndrome. Which is just too bad.
But in regards to recommending a work — or not — I don’t stop recommending, even if the window may be closed. Because there’s a chance that I just don’t know that person’s window, and what they might see through it. (I have avoided being rabid about it, because I think some people who were turned off of, say Firefly, were frightened away by fans who prosthelytized too enthusiastically. So, “Oh, I loved that movie as a kid” or “Wow, that book changed the way I thought about things” seems a better way to go.
I mean, I loved Casa Blanca when I first saw it as an adult, and so did my husband when I finally convinced him to watch it, too. Despite the fact that so many of its tropes appear elsewhere, it continued to work for me. So… you never know!
Good post Violette, I see what you’re after, and agree on the points, not the practice. I’ll still keep recommending, and with passion, because tastes change, people grow, windows reopen…no different than getting someone to sample a food or wine new to them, I’ll keep suggesting new stories to experience 🙂
As for your canon Mark, GARP is a comedian of some sort as far as I know, and I’d never heard of OWEN MEANY till this movie (if that’s one and the same) kept shoving the name in my face. Sorry 🙂
Then again, I’ve never seen the original STAR WARS trilogy either. Actually, I’ve only seen 1 of the 6 SW movies, the latest one, and that not on purpose. Zero desire to see any of them, I’m glad that’s window’s closed, nailed, and painted shut.
TDOOLan: Thanks so much! It’s lovely when complete strangers tell you something you’ve done is brilliant. From I hear about Avatar, I suspect you may be right.
JEFF5: I have to agree. I can barely bring myself to watch it, and I wince in quite a few places. SW figures very largely and warmly in my nostalgia box, however, so I still have a soft spot for it. I think now, that’s because it once meant so much to me, that I’m not going to be disrespectful of it now, nor disrespectful of my younger self.
As for the window, we can say that’s it’s closed, and the curtain has been drawn.
Thanks JOHN, much appreciated. I think the age of wonder you mention lasts longer for some of us than it might for those in other lines of work — at least I hope so. And isn’t it marvelous when we have that reaction again, even though, or perhaps because we no longer expect it to happen? I’m only saddened by people who disparage now what they once loved.
MARK: I think it may be more “plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose”, but I take your point.
ALANA: You’re right, we shouldn’t give up hope. But I know that I’ve been turned off things because of too much hype, so we absolutely do have to be careful how we go about recommending things. I agree about Casablanca, btw.
JASON: As I said to Alana, I agree that we have to keep recommending things to people. And we do have to be prepared that their window might be closed — and we need to respect that, and be cool with it.
Thanks for all your comments!
I think your “derivative” discussion is spot on. I was in a film studies course on horror movies a few years ago. We weekly watched some “classic” of the genre.
I was surprised, and a bit hurt, that after watching John Carpenter’s Halloween most of the 20-somethings there thought is was tired crap. My conclusion was similar to yours: they had seen various movies that had been inspired by Carpenter’s famous horror flick. So, when they saw the original, it seemed like old hat.
Also, I’ve come to things later in life that I hadn’t seen or read “at the right age”; yet I found that I liked them very much. Very rare experience, but sometimes happens.
JAMES: I’ve also had that experience, as well as rereading or viewing something I didn’t appreciate the first time around because the window hadn’t opened yet, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Lord of Light.
Violette, this is spot on, insightful, and illuminating. Thank you!
[…] Last week I talked about my Window Theory of Emotional Response, and I got some responses from people telling me about some books and films they’d encountered after the window had closed for them – and one or two who talked about works they’d loved once, but no more. Works where the window had once been open, and was now closed. […]
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