People And Their Stuff Examined In 'Nostalgia' NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to Ellen Burstyn and Amber Tamblyn about their film Nostalgia. It's a meditation on the objects we part with and those we can't let go.

People And Their Stuff Examined In 'Nostalgia'

People And Their Stuff Examined In 'Nostalgia'

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NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro speaks to Ellen Burstyn and Amber Tamblyn about their film Nostalgia. It's a meditation on the objects we part with and those we can't let go.


If your house was burning down and you had one minute, what would you take? It's a question that we often ask ourselves to distill what is essential in our lives - what we really value when we look around our homes and see a lifetime of accumulation. In the film "Nostalgia," a widow played by Ellen Burstyn faces just that choice.


ELLEN BURSTYN: (As Helen) We live our lives and ask, what do we leave behind? When we look at the pictures long enough, they reappear. What is the value of anything?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She's joined in the ensemble cast by Amber Tamblyn, who plays a pregnant wife drafted in to deal with her grandfather's belongings. Jon Hamm and Catherine Keener, among many others, are also in the film. And what binds their stories is their relationship to the objects in their lives. To talk about that now, we're joined by Ellen Burstyn and Amber Tamblyn. Thank you so much for being here.

BURSTYN: Pleasure.

AMBER TAMBLYN: Thank you for having us.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'd like to start with you, Ellen. I mentioned your character had to choose what to take from her burning house. What did she choose, and why did she choose it?

BURSTYN: Well, she had some jewelry that she inherited - the family jewelry. And she grabbed that. And then curiously, she grabbed a baseball that her husband had treasured. And her husband had already passed away. And she had no relationship to the baseball. But there it was, and it fit in her pocket. And she just grabbed it and ran. And then it turns out that it's very valuable. You know, it was his attachment and her attachment to him that...


BURSTYN: ...Made her grab it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amber, your character is sort of on the other side of this. The way that you have to deal with this issue is through your grandfather's belongings. You have to decide what is actually valuable. But I guess value can mean many things.

TAMBLYN: Yeah, value means especially our relationship to physical objects. And I think it's such an interesting adage when Mark Pellington, the director of the film, who's a friend of mine and who's just such a wonderful, wonderful visionary - you know, when he first came to me with the film, I said, Mark, I'm really pregnant. And he said, great, it'll make it even more interesting and deeper - the meaning.


TAMBLYN: And he was right. When she had that child, her as a character - what will she pass down to her son or daughter in this idea of legacies?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ellen, what attracted you to this story?

BURSTYN: Well, I found it very well-written, first of all. I love good writing. And it was an interesting idea. You know, it's kind of like an anthology. It goes from one story to the other. And that's a very rare form for a film. You don't see that very often. And the whole idea of what we invest objects with - they don't necessarily have to have any intrinsic monetary value of their own. But if mother owned it and grandmother owned it and great-grandmother owned it, it's a thing (laughter). And it has no real value except in our minds, you know? And so it's our investment in the objects - and that it's a question of whether or not we want to continue that. I know the Buddha talks about nonattachment and letting go. And when I moved from a large house to a smaller house, I practiced letting go. And I could feel how much investment I had in certain objects and how freeing it was to just let go.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, what really struck me watching this is what an American story it is in many ways - the relationship that we have to objects. I mean, we are, I think, a culture driven by accumulation, by gathering things.

TAMBLYN: Yeah, that's very true. And I also - this story is so deeply personal for me. And I can't wait for my mom to see it, frankly, because she's had a lot of loss in her life. Ellen, I don't know if you know this, but she had a house that burned down...


TAMBLYN: ...And in it, she actually lost seven generations' worth of jewelry on our family's side, on our matriarchal side of the family. And it broke my mother. It really devastated her. And it sort of changed her relationships with objects going forward. This happened in her early 30s. But it really made things that didn't matter matter to her. And she's spent a lot of time, you know, working on that part of herself - of stopping the accumulation - and exactly that of sort of studying what the Buddha said in the sense of, like, how do we let things go?

BURSTYN: Well, the Buddha says we all eventually have to face the big letting go.


BURSTYN: So this way, might as well practice...


BURSTYN: ...Until we get there.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I am going to ask you about something because you are two women from two different generations. When you look at what's happening right now with the conversation around sexual harassment and pay - you know, equal pay for women - what do you think? Do you think things are changing from when you used to be having those conversations?

BURSTYN: I think things are changing that have been in place since Egyptian time. (Laughter) We have been living in a cross-cultural patriarchy. And very slowly, in my lifetime, that has started to change.

TAMBLYN: I could not put it any more eloquently than what Ellen just said. And I think what's so important and beautiful about all of these movements right now is that we are facilitating the kind of change not only for women in the workplace and in the entertainment business and changing the power dynamics so that there are more women in positions of power who are actually the ones saying, yes, we're going to make a movie that has a different type of ending - but that we're actually changing, you know, the cliches about how women are perceived onscreen and what our value is to stories that are about us.

And I think it's so much - it's so very important to create stories and films and, even in television and even in theater - in new works that feel different and feel truer to the experience of all women. And that's one of the great things that I see - is just so many women working right now to create more powerful works for ourselves.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I'm going to end by asking both of you, if your house was burning down, what objects would you try and save?

BURSTYN: My dog.

TAMBLYN: I was going to...


TAMBLYN: I was going to say my dog. But those aren't objects.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No, they're not objects...

BURSTYN: No, but...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...But people would want to save their dog.

BURSTYN: But that's what I would be concerned with.

TAMBLYN: I would definitely want to get my Ellen Burstyn shrine out, fully intact.


TAMBLYN: It's heavy. It's a really...


TAMBLYN: ...Really heavy shrine with a lot of, like, naked Buddhas on it.


TAMBLYN: But I'd figure out how to get it out of the house.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ellen? I'm assuming you also have an Amber...

BURSTYN: (Laughter).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Shrine there, too, that you'd want to get.

BURSTYN: Yes, we've become best friends just today.

TAMBLYN: Just today.


TAMBLYN: The magic of NPR.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yes, sometimes it happens just like that, right on-air.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Amber Tamblyn, Ellen Burstyn, thank you so much. Their new movie is "Nostalgia."

BURSTYN: Go see it.


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