If asked about the film that has most affected me, then I want to answer with Godard’s Weekend (1967), Straub/Huillet’s Othon (1969), Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959), Pasolini’s Accatone (1960), Stroheim’s Greed (1924), Marker’s Sans soleil (1983), or any number of auteurist classics. That’s how I want to answer. And it’s true that these films have been very important for me, that I think extremely highly of them. But if I were to really be true to myself, then I would have to acknowledge that, when it comes to the effect they have had on my psyche, none of these works, despite having such a significant place in film history, can rival a film that otherwise has left virtually no trace in our cultural memory of the cinema.

I am speaking, namely, of a TV mini-series from the mid-1990s, The Langoliers, adapted from a 1990 Stephen King novella included in the volume Four Past Midnight­. Why did this “film” – which was only ever shown on TV, and never actually on film, in a cinema – leave such an impression on me? It is, assuredly, not because I either thought then or think now that it is a superlative work of cinema – quite the opposite. A more banal product of the audiovisual culture industry can scarcely be imagined. Nor is it some kind of guilty pleasure: I can’t recall even particularly liking the film when I first watched it, and until very recently, I had never even felt the need to offer myself a repeat viewing.

And yet, for whatever strange reason, The Langoliers left its mark on me. Whereas so many other films, watched on television or at the movies, are evacuated from my mind almost as soon as the closing credits roll, this one lingered, burrowing itself into my sub-conscious. Years later, decades even, the film would spontaneously conjure itself in my mind. I developed a tendency to drop mention of it into conversations, often at the flimsiest of pretexts. It was almost never the case that my unfortunate interlocutor had any idea what I was talking about, and so the allusion would inevitably lead to a lengthy, usually bewildering explanation of the film and the strange creatures that gave it its name.

The premise of the film, as I remembered it, was that a handful of passengers on an aeroplane wake up to find the rest of the cabin empty. When they land, the airport is also absent of any human beings, and eerily quiet. The plane, it so happens, has slipped through a time-rip, stranding the passengers in a universe that is frozen in the immediate past. Worse, the fate of this universe is to be devoured by a swarm of round, black, piranha-like creatures with gnashing teeth, who are rapidly making their way towards our heroes. One of the party, a businessman haunted by memories of a tyrannical father, dubs these insatiable beings “Langoliers”, the name his father used to scare him with tales of similar creatures who gobble up misbehaving children. The only chance the party has to avoid being consumed by these Langoliers is to get in the plane and hope to fly it back through the time-rip. Needless to say, my twelve-year-old self was scared senseless.

The Langoliers, I have been able to establish, premiered on ABC (the American one), screening in two parts on May 14-15, 1995. I can find no precise information on its broadcast in Australia, but, if I recall correctly, it aired on Channel 10 on back-to-back nights in the 8:30 movie slot, most likely a few months after its American transmission. TV mini-series adapted from Stephen King novels were, at this point in time, quite a popular phenomenon: The Tommyknockers in 1993 and The Stand in 1994 were already successes, and The Langoliers followed in their wake, winning its timeslot in the US. It’s not hard to see why Stephen King’s writing works so well on television – in effect, when he writes a novel he is already “making” TV. I watched all three of these “television events”, but even the pre-adolescent me was not overly enamoured of them. I simply watched them – and this is what will be increasingly difficult to fathom in our present age of infinite choice in media consumption – because that was what was on TV. At this time, in Australia, there were only five channels to choose from, one of which had notoriously poor reception and showed mostly foreign-language programming. Our choice of viewing was thus extremely limited – but not watching TV was also not an option. So it was that, throughout the 1990s, I absorbed a mind-boggling amount of audiovisual garbage – fragmentary, randomly-selected shards of which have ended up lodged in my brain.

But this, so I assumed for a long time, was the only place where they had any continued existence. The Langoliers was, as far as I know, never repeated on television. Nor did I have the foresight to record it on to a VHS tape. A cheaply produced made-for-TV affair, there was no reason for it to be released on video, nor for me to seek it out if it had been. Outside of my memories, and those one-sided, usually drunken, nostalgic conversations about old TV shows (“Remember that sitcom where you could see into the guy’s brain? What was it called again? Herman’s Brain?”), The Langoliers had basically vanished. At best, it was lying dormant as a master tape in a studio vault somewhere. But I could be confident that it would never again screen in the public domain, and that there were therefore no circumstances in which I would encounter the film again.

But that was until, one day, I casually dropped a reference to The Langoliers into a discussion in which it most likely had very little reason to be mentioned, and, as I attempted to relay my sketchy memories of a film seen two decades earlier, my conversation-partner, rather than nodding politely with eyes glazed over in disinterest, made a portentous suggestion: why didn’t I check to see if it was on YouTube?

Ah yes, YouTube. Since its founding in the mid-2000s, the online video platform has had a twofold role. Its first, and most well-known function, is to disseminate contemporary video production without the intermediaries of film studios or television networks, thereby bypassing the traditional gatekeepers of the audiovisual domain. Occasionally, such clips will go viral – usually when they involve men being hit in the groin with things, women having their bras fall off, or anything with cats – and can, in the most successful of cases, be watched literally billions of times.1 Certainly YouTube is an unrivalled platform for this kind of output.

But it also has a secondary, less-discussed but just as important role. For YouTube has become an archive. Not only that, but, entirely crowd-sourced, it has indisputably become the world’s biggest media archive, dwarfing the efforts of official preservation institutions such as the Cinémathèque française or the Library of Congress, and with the added bonus of absolute accessibility. No need for a trip to a musty viewing room in Paris or Washington, what we want can now be found with a click of the button.

There is a catch, however. YouTube users will post everything imaginable onto the site, even (especially) audiovisual objects that most reputable archives would not have given a second thought to safeguarding. But since these users usually do so without regard for existing copyright regulations, anything that has a clear owner and can in any way be seen as a potential source of profit will quickly be taken down from the site. After all, if money can still be made out of them, then it simply won’t do to have such objects available for free online.

What remains, therefore, is the unwanted refuse. YouTube is the world’s greatest archive, but it is an archive, chiefly, of detritus. It is the digital equivalent of a dumping ground, an ever expanding scrapheap of audiovisual flotsam and jetsam. It is thus the flip side (the dark side, even) of the “real” archives: whereas these organisations preserve what is judged to be worth keeping, YouTube stores precisely what is judged not to be worth keeping. If you want to watch a masterpiece of Italian cinema like Federico Fellini’s Otto e mezzo ( 8 ½, 1962), too bad, but if you want to watch a trashy Italian comedy, say L’insegnante balla con tutta la classe (Giuliano Carnimeo, 1977) starring Lino Banfi and Nadia Cassini, then you’re in luck. If you want to watch the final episode of Cheers, you’ll have a hard time of it, but it you want to watch that ad for Cheetos with the surfing cheetah, nothing could be easier. If you want to watch the major Hollywood blockbusters of 1995, you’ll have to go elsewhere, but if you want to watch an obscure, mostly forgotten telemovie from the same year, then YouTube is the place.

My friend’s hunch was right: The Langoliers was on YouTube, in its entirety (all three hours of running time, which amounted to four hours of broadcast time once commercials are included). The best English version on the site had, indeed, already garnered 85,000 hits, so there is evidently a small groundswell of interest out there for the film, probably among Stephen King aficionados.2 This film that had haunted me for more than two decades, lurking in a recondite corner of my cerebrum, this film that I had assumed I would never under any circumstances see again, that was so intimately bound up with the initial conditions of viewing – a twelve-year-old boy, the family TV set, two consecutive nights of viewing at the 8:30pm movie timeslot – this film was now readily available, on-demand, at the click of a button.

I must say, however, that I did not immediately take advantage of this discovery. What was stopping me from indulging in this nostalgia trip? Was it not precisely the fear of a divergence between what I would watch and what I remembered? How could the actual film possibly compare to the memories I had of it? I was reminded of a parable by Walter Benjamin, about a king who summoned his personal cook to make a mulberry omelette, just like the one an old woman had made for him as child after fleeing from war, only to be told that, while the cook knows the right recipe, he couldn’t possibly recreate the meal: “Despite all my efforts, my omelette would not taste right to you. For how could I spice it with all the tastes you enjoyed in it on that occasion: the dangers of battle, the vigilance of the pursued, the warmth of the hearth and the sweetness of rest, the strange surroundings and the dark future?”3 Was The Langoliers not my very own mulberry omelette?

Despite this apprehension, I finally resolved to spend three hours of my life re-watching a film which, even at the age of twelve, I found quite hokey. What would the experience be of watching The Langoliers now, in my adulthood, with a much vaster corpus of film knowledge to lean on? The first thing to say is that The Langoliers was not an entirely anonymous, industrially-produced telemovie. Its director, Tom Holland, had made a number of horror/thrillers in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the first Child’s Play (1988), Fright Night (1985), The Temp (1993) as well as the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Fatal Beauty (1987), and he lends The Langoliers an aesthetic that borrows liberally from the horror film canon. Notably, the opening credits, with a camera floating over clouds and landscapes, as if from the cockpit of an aeroplane, while eerie electronic music plays over the top, strongly recall the credit sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – the Ur-text of Stephen King film adaptations. It is in the opening credits, too, that by far the most pleasant surprise of my re-watching of The Langoliers was to be had: as the film runs through the cast, mostly unknown names, the credits conclude with the most unexpected of climaxes: “and Bronson Pinchot as Craig Toomey”.

A pleasant surprise…

Yes, Balki from Perfect Strangers has a starring role in The Langoliers. For those unfamiliar with the show, Perfect Strangers was a 1980s sitcom in which Pinchot plays an immigrant from a fictitious south-east European nation (Mypos) who moves into the Chicago apartment of his distant cousin Larry (Mark-Linn Baker), whence hilarity ensues. With all of its humour revolving around Balki’s naïveté and strange foreign quirks, Perfect Strangers is a programme that could definitely not be made today.4 At the time, however, it lasted for eight seasons, and was the epitome of a TV show that was watched because that was what was on TV. Now, despite its many shortcomings, it can not fail to muster a fond regard from viewers of a certain age for a more innocent past, when TV was unabashedly cheesy and casual xenophobia was deemed acceptable sitcom fodder.

That Pinchot should also turn up in The Langoliers thus produces a powerful vortex of nostalgia in the viewer (i.e. me), from whose swirling winds of culture-industry intertextuality it is near impossible to escape. Having had his break playing the effete, English-mangling gallery owner Serge in Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest, 1984), and parlayed the opportunity into a lengthy career as sitcom lead, Pinchot was evidently struggling to free himself from being typecast, Andy Kaufman-style, as a foreign-sounding comic foil: here he is not only playing an ostensibly serious role, but he also speaks with his own, perfectly American, accent.

“Scaring the little girl?”

And yet, one can not help but feel that he is having more than a little fun with the material, treating it with the hammy excess that it deserves. His character, Toomey, is both an extremely odious figure (a “hate sink” for the audience), but also the psychological hinge for the entire film. A self-entitled corporate executive flying from LA to Boston for an important business meeting (where, in fact, he intends to reveal that he has consciously sabotaged the company’s investment portfolio), Toomey is teetering on the verge of a fully-fledged nervous breakdown, his mind poisoned by his history of paternal abuse (a recurring feature of Stephen King novels). The character gives Pinchot, who Holland frequently shows in a low-angled, off-kilter close-up, ample opportunities to outrageously over-act, a proclivity which reaches a histrionic high-point with his iconic, voice-popping line “Scaring the little girl?”

The other recognisable face in the cast is that of Dean Stockwell, known principally for his role alongside Scott Bakula in the time travel drama Quantum Leap, but who also played in films by Wim Wenders (Paris, Texas, 1984), David Lynch (Blue Velvet, 1986) and Robert Altman (The Player, 1992). Here, Stockwell channels William Shatner in his role as Bob Jenkins, a mystery novel writer who is essentially included in the film to provide long-winded exposition, in lieu of the novel’s third-person narrator. Who else but a novelist, after all, could figure out that the reason there are no other passengers on board is that they have slipped through a time-rip, into a past universe that will soon cease to exist? As Stockwell states early in the film: “I’m a mystery writer, deduction is my bread and butter.”

“Deduction is my bread and butter.”

Stockwell is aided in his expository function by a blind girl with psychic powers (more shades of The Shining), who is not only able to see into Balki’s deranged mind, but also divines that the Langoliers are on their way to the airport well before the creatures become visible, comparing the sound of their gnashing teeth to that of “rice krispies after you pour in the milk” (a strange, and not exactly spine-chilling, analogy).5 Her psychic powers notwithstanding, Dinah is often tasked, in the film, with stating the obvious, uttering lines of dialogue like “It’s really wrong here” when the group arrives in the deserted airport.6

Although all the characters are given convenient opportunities to inform us of their back stories, the other seven people trapped in the past have less of a presence in the narrative: there are two blossoming hetereosexual romances (one of which involves a character who is a British special-ops assassin wracked with remorse for his past deeds), a pilot who was dead-heading to Boston after learning that his ex-wife had died (a fortuitous circumstance for the narrative, as he was the only one capable of landing the plane), an older man more concerned with eating than getting back to the present-day, and a black man who – in one of the worst of all “TV tropes” – is the first character to be killed off in the film, at the hands of the raging Toomey.7

Voracious creatures.

Evidently, however, it was not for the psychological depth of its characters that I so vividly remembered The Langoliers – indeed, most of them had fused into a homogeneous stew of faded impressions before my recent re-watching of the film. No, it was the voracious creatures of the film’s title that had caused it to be so seared into my memory, even though, as I now ascertained, they appear for no more than ten minutes of screen time. Strictly speaking, the Langoliers have no name, and are merely calqued onto Toomey’s deranged memories of his father threatening him with “little creatures that live in closets and sewers and other dark places” who were nothing but “hair and teeth and fast little legs, so that they could catch up with all the bad little boys no matter how quickly they scamper.” All the same, their incursion more than two hours into the film is a spectacular one. At the time, I found them genuinely terrifying: a swarm of meatball-shaped, flying bugs with metallic teeth, insatiably gobbling up the entire universe until all that is left is a void.

Something like avant-garde video art.

Now, of course, the dominant response to their appearance is one of mocking derision at the cheap, mid-1990s special effects used to visually render the Langoliers. Popular opinion may have it otherwise, but for me the first wave of computer-generated imagery in the 1990s was, at its best, actually more convincing than its equivalents today: one only has to compare Terminator 2 (James Cameron, 1992) or Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) to a modern superhero movie to confirm this viewpoint. Although the technology was more primitive, far more effort was made to seamlessly insert digital effects into the diegetic world of the film, with the directors carefully giving digitally-treated objects the same kind of grain and texture that their counterparts filmed in real life would have. Alas, however, ABC’s budget for The Langoliers, despite its “event television” status, was not on par with those that a Cameron or a Spielberg had access to, and it shows. The Langoliers are so confected that they threaten to torpedo the ontological integrity of the entire film. As this rapidly multiplying flock of CGI critters progressively fills up the screen, they momentarily turn a relatively conventional (if supernatural-themed) narrative drama into something like avant-garde video art.

As I remembered it, the Langoliers appeared close to the end of the film. An existential cliffhanger presents itself: our heroes need to get back on the plane and take off, in the hope that they can pop back through the time-rip before the entire universe is consumed by these omnivorous monsters. The latter are briefly detained by the task of eating Balki, who is consigned to a truly grisly fate, but time is of the essence, and just as the runway disappears into the mouths of the Langoliers, the pilot, Brian Engle, manages to ascend into an atmosphere that is now bereft of any ground. As they make their way towards the time-rip, Dean Stockwell’s powers of deduction lead him to realise that they need to be asleep while they do so, otherwise they will vanish like their fellow passengers had at the start of the film. Although the cabin pressure can be turned down to induce drowsiness, one of the group will have to stay awake to turn it up again, and thus be pulverised.8 Nick Hopewell, the secret agent, elects to make the supreme sacrifice. As he hurtles towards his own demise, Nick has a peerless view of the cosmic spectacle provided by the time-rip (in reality, more sub-standard digital animation), crying out “It’s beautiful!” before being vaporised.

“It’s beautiful!”

This is where, in my memory, the film concludes. Upon re-watching it, I was surprised to discovered there were still another forty minutes left after this climax, a prolonged coda which I had mentally purged. The survivors land safely in LAX, only to discover to their despair that it, too, is deserted. Fortunately, Dean Stockwell surmises that, since sounds make deeply resonant echoes and food is really tasty, they must have been transported into the near future. So all they have to do is wait, as it were, for the present to catch up to them – and suddenly the airport is filled with life (strangely, only a couple of children remark upon the sudden appearance of “new people”). Now that they are back in the present universe, our heroes are elated, and despite the fact that four of the ten main characters have died (including, somewhat shockingly, the blind girl Dinah, who succumbed to a stab wound from Balki), not to mention several hundred passengers on the original flight, the film concludes with a triumphant freeze-frame of the survivors joyously leaping into the air.

A triumphant freeze-frame.

And so my three-hour nostalgia trip with The Langoliers came to an end. I admit it has not been my only one, and not even the most involved one. That status goes to my recent, weeks-long endeavour to re-watch the entire series of The Mysterious Cities of Gold. For people of a certain age (namely, my age), even uttering the title of this cartoon is akin to casting a powerful spell of wistfulness for a lost past. A Franco-Japanese co-production made in 1982-1983, it took a few years for the English dub to reach our screens. I would have watched it on the ABC (the Australian one), most likely in 1986 or 1987, at a preciously young age. In fact, it was most likely the first TV series I watched as a series, that is, as a narrative that continued from one episode to the next. I would even hazard to say that it was the first long-form story of any kind that I was able to comprehend.9 For me, then, The Mysterious Cities of Gold was a kind of foundational narrative text, one against which all other stories, whether in literature, film or television, were to be judged. Unfortunately, being exposed to it at such a young age meant that there was very little of the show that has actually lingered in my memory, with the exception of a handful of disconnected, flash-like images that remained in my mind. Even its title was, for a long time, a little hazy: was it called The Mysterious Cities of Gold or The Seven Cities of Gold? Or was it Children of the Sun? Despite my father’s assurances to the contrary, the ABC elected never to repeat the show, and so it remained an enigma: a recollection that the series was good, but beyond that, only the wispiest of memories, a vague idea that it involved a young Spanish boy at the time of the Conquistadors, searching the Americas for El Dorado. In my social circles, whenever discussions would turn to fondly recalled old TV shows, the “winner” would be the first person to bring up The Mysterious Cities of Gold, but we were all afflicted with an inability to speak very concretely about the series itself. The Mysterious of Cities of Gold was thus our own El Dorado: a lost, semi-mythical city, passionately spoken about, but which was forever tantalisingly beyond our grasp.

El Dorado.

As our culture’s audiovisual patrimony gradually migrated onto online portals in the 2000s, it was inevitable that, with its cult following, The Mysterious Cities of Gold would surface there. Beyond perusing a few short clips here and there, however, there was always something blocking me from diving back into the program. More so than The Langoliers, which I had strong memories of in spite of being fully lucid to its aesthetic limitations, I was palpably sensitive to the possibility that The Mysterious Cities of Gold would truly be my mulberry omelette – that, if I watched it again at the age of 35, it would fail to live up to the image I had from viewing it at the age of five. How could it not?

The impasse was resolved for me one afternoon, while I was in the middle of a post-dissertation submission daze. Nonchalantly flicking around different TV channels, I discovered to my great surprise that NITV, a little-known station dedicated to aboriginal programming, whose ratings usually struggle to break the 0.1% barrier, was screening The Mysterious Cities of Gold at 4pm – with the show’s depiction of pre-Columbian American culture presumably enough to give it indigenous-themed status. I sat down to watch the show, mid-way through its run, not knowing what to expect… But it was every bit as marvellous as I remembered it being. I was immediately hooked: The Mysterious Cities of Gold is not only, I would claim, the greatest cartoon of all time, it is also one of the great epic tales, perfectly entitled to take its place next to Gilgamesh, Beowulf, The Nibelungen or Homer (is it a coincidence that the same production company was also responsible for Ulysses 31, a re-telling of the Odyssey set in space?). A monumental project, it has thankfully lost nothing in the intervening three decades since its initial production.10

Esteban, Zia and Tao: the “Children of the Sun”.

The narrative, written by Jean Chalopin and Bernard Deyriès, and based very loosely on Scott O’Dell’s novel The King’s Fifth, is complex, even labyrinthine. The heroic Esteban, the Spanish boy at the centre of the story who has gained renown for being a “child of the sun”, is joined on his quest to find the Seven Cities of Gold by Zia, an Incan girl with whom he shares a distinctive medallion, and Tao, an Indian boy who has a knack for technological inventiveness. As they venture forth throughout the new world, encountering American civilisations such as the Incas, Aztecs and Mayans, the trio has to contend with various antagonists, including real-life figures such as Francisco Pizarro and La Malinche, as well as the Olmecs, who here are depicted, with flagrant historical inaccuracy, as innately evil simian-like creatures from a near-extinct race, led by the ageing king Menator. Between these figures of good (the children) and evil (the Spanish colonisers and their Olmec allies), stands the explorer Mendoza and his two bumbling cronies. Truly there has been no more ambiguous a character in children’s television than Mendoza: believing that Esteban is the key to finding the cities of gold, he is initially motivated by selfish avarice, but over the course of the series comes to ally himself more and more closely with the children, until he ends up becoming something of a father-figure to our hero. In their search for the cities of gold, Esteban and company learn that they were relics of an ancient civilisation called Hiva, which had been locked in an internecine war with the Empire of Atlantis, leading to their mutual destruction after the discovery of the “weapon of the Sun”. The Mysterious Cities of Gold, I now realised, was in fact an elaborate allegory warning viewers against the dangers of nuclear warfare (an urgent political goal in the early 1980s).

Mendoza and his two sidekicks.

If Mysterious Cities of Gold is distinguished by the epic swoop of its narrative, with its echoes of Walter Scott or Miguel Cervantes (is it a coincidence that Mendoza has a sidekick called Sancho?), its animation is also of an ambition that goes well beyond the normal constraints of cartoons made for pre-teen audiences, with an aesthetic that draws noticeably on the influence of Miyazaki.11 The first episode, set in Barcelona in 1532, evocatively renders the Mediterranean city, while the series’ subsequent depiction of the wonders of the Americas, taking real archaeological sites and artefacts for its models, has an authenticity that rivals Hergé’s efforts in the Tintin comics. This is not to mention the show’s numerous psychedelia-tinged fantasy sequences, or the baroque details of its battle scenes. What is most notable, however, and what is most at odds with prevailing norms in children’s animation (today, at any rate), is the propensity for pronounced passages of what is essentially dead time – with the “camera” languorously panning over empty landscapes or ancient ruins. At times, it almost feels like watching a film by Theo Angelopoulos or Andrey Tarkovsky (is it a coincidence that a solar-powered ship used in the film is called the Solaris?). Alongside its animation, The Mysterious Cities of Gold also boasts a distinctive soundtrack. Its opening theme has become iconic, while its score, which integrates Latin American folk motifs into a synthetic new-age repertoire that seems inspired by the likes of Jean-Michel Jarre and Popol Vuh, also stands out.12

Barcelona, 1532.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of the series, however, is the fact that the end of every episode featured a five-minute documentary short centring on various aspects of Latin American culture.13 Filmed on 16mm, with a voiceover in English by Howard Ryshpan (who also provides the voice for Mendoza), these short films are both documents of the continent’s history, but also documents of the time of filming – showing us the cities, landscapes and peoples of Peru, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico and elsewhere as they were in the early 1980s. Watching them as a child, they were no doubt my first real exposure to this region, and the fascination they exerted on my impressionable mind was no doubt a major contributor to my enduring regard for the show, not to mention Latin America in general. That said, my memories of these documentaries were so elusive that, not having found any evidence of them online, I began to question whether they actually existed at all: perhaps I was merely suffering from a false memory, or merging two entirely different programmes in my mind. Imagine my joy, then, when I found out that the NITV broadcasts also included these chronicles, allowing me to conclusively verify their existence, a sentiment that was only matched by my astonishment at some of the subject-matter these shorts documented: human sacrifices, mating rituals, mummified corpses, even the live decapitation of a chicken. Heady stuff for children’s television.

My first exposure to Latin American culture.

For several weeks, then, I religiously watched the show at 4pm every afternoon on NITV. Indeed, reverting to a mode of viewing that has become virtually obsolete thanks to the advent of streaming was an integral part of reliving the act of watching The Mysterious Cities of Gold. But this was a relatively unique experience. When it comes to nostalgically returning to the audiovisual content of my younger years, YouTube is still very much the platform of choice, and the exhaustiveness of its offerings is truly overawing. But this ability to pluck out, on-demand, (almost) everything that one has been exposed to in the past has a strange side-effect. In earlier times, the vast majority of moving images were not only disposable, they were also quickly disposed of. A few of the most notable films and TV programmes were preserved, but the rest was abandoned, devoured by the Langoliers of media amnesia, existing only as fragmentary recollections that themselves would gradually be erased from our nerve cells. Now, whenever I want, not only can I slake my thirst for nostalgia, but the reliability (or lack thereof) of my memories can be tested against the video evidence of YouTube clips.

But then something strange happens. I start wanting to search YouTube for my own memories – not just of old films and TV shows, but of my life. Ah, what frustration I feel when I realise the impossibility of doing so. The archive of detritus may have preserved our erstwhile viewing habits from the clutches of the visual Langoliers, but, at least for now, our lives still succumb to their ravenous appetite. This is undoubtedly a good thing. As the characters in the Stephen King mini-series learnt, it is possible to visit the past, but it is dangerous to stay there for too long.


  1. At present, the most successful clip on YouTube is the music video for “Despacito” by the Puerto Rican artists Luis Fonte and Daddy Yankee, which has gained a mind-boggling 5.2 billion hits. More than a hundred other clips, most of them also music videos, have surpassed the 1 billion hit mark. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most-viewed_YouTube_videos
  2. Strangely, the German dub has more than 700,000 hits – perhaps it’s a David Hasselhof-type thing.
  3. See Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, vol. 2, part 1, ed. Michael W. Jennings, Howard Eiland and Gary  Smith (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 363.
  4. Although in some ways it seems quite appropriate for the present political moment. Given the ratings success of Roseanne’s new season, perhaps it could be re-launched with Larry as a Trump supporter and Balki threatened with deportation by the ICE.
  5. Later, another character will more vividly compare the sound to “a bunch of coked up termites in a balsawood lighter.”
  6. Indeed, despite the outlandish nature of the film’s premise, information redundancy seems to be its governing narrative principle. When the passengers break into the cockpit and find out that it’s empty, one declares “There’s nobody flying the plane!” When they realise that sounds they make in the past universe don’t have any echo, another retorts, “What do you mean? That’s impossible.” The fact that food and beer have become flat and tasteless is shown multiple times over, just in case we missed it the first time.
  7. I would like to signal here the excellent website tvtropes.org – which, incidentally, has an informative entry on The Langoliers.
  8. That being asleep should make any difference to a human being’s ability to survive passing through a time-rip is never given any explanation, and is just one of the narrative premises we have to accept.
  9. My mother insists she took me to see a screening of The Jungle Book at the movies when I was three, but I have no memory of this. My next trip to the cinema would not be until I was seven, for either Ghostbusters II or Back to the Future II.
  10. I am obviously not the only one to think so: the show has a cult following, especially in France, and two new series have recently been made, in 2012 and 2016, taking Esteban and friends to the Far East.
  11. Indeed, although it was animated by NHK’s in-house studio, there are unconfirmed rumours that Miyazaki had a hand in the early episodes of the series.
  12. Curiously, this music, composed by Haim Shaban and Shuki Levy, was only used for the European versions of the show; its original Japanese airing contained a very different composition by Nobuyoshi Koshibe, which strangely has the English phrase “Try my best” as its main refrain.
  13. Evidently this was to have the flexibility for episodes to be aired with commercials (and thus without the documentary) or to fill the whole half-hour segment by including the documentary.

About The Author

Daniel Fairfax is assistant professor in Film Studies at the Goethe Universität-Frankfurt, and an editor of Senses of Cinema.

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