Children. War. Wednesday.

Watching The Handmaid’s Tale, I almost forgot the story had been told in another medium first. I felt the same way with Harry Potter and with Memento, where the source material has a distinctly different character to the films that have now permeated and overtaken the images of the textual worlds. One can’t see Hagrid as anyone but a behemoth Robbie Coltrane and Guy Pearce will always be Leonard (but never Lenny).

Now, thanks to the quality of the retelling and the atmosphere with which this story is imbued, Elisabeth Moss will be Offred, even as watchers become first-time readers of Atwood’s Booker prize winning tale of oppression, domination and hereditary ownership of other people’s bodies.

But when I think of these concepts, I don’t think of Atwood’s work, or of the reworked series. I think of the phenomenal film Children Of Men.

To those unfamiliar with Children of Men, the connection to Handmaid’s Tale may seem overly overt; they both tell the story of a world without children, and both show the quiet but desperate lives of people trying to continue on with this species-ending timer running throughout every day. Yet the focus rarely lingers on this part of the narrative, for either story. Since it is a fact of life for both works, it’s only foregrounded when necessary and realistic for the protagonists to interact with it, to the degree to which they can, or are forced to.

Whereas Handmaid’s Tale describes a world where a select fertile few are forced into sexual slavery for the purpose of repopulation after what was apparently a fertility-oriented global rapture, Children of Men has no fertility to speak of. Children are gone altogether, and the film opens on a news channel reporting the murder of the world’s youngest person, who was 18 at his death. Our main character here is Theo, played by the inimitable Clive Owen (watch him in The Knick, please. Please.) who is forced to confront all manner of travails as his life and Life are thrown together, leading him down marble floors in the final bastion of fine art, as well as piss-soaked pathways in detention centers holding immigrants and dissidents for the duration.

Children of Men faces less of the personal horror that comes with a fundamental breakdown of society and more turns our heads to stare at the scale of those horrors. we see cities facing terror attacks, with dozens dead, then move to the street where hundreds of detainees are being held in literal cages on the sidewalk. moving through this space we pass thousands of Londoners, typically downtrodden but soldiering on past billboards advertising the newly legal, newly government-funded suicide pills, before boarding public transport with TVs vomiting propaganda showing the billions of people worldwide who have succumbed to the despair that inevitably comes after the realisation that this, now, is the endtimes. The casual, pedestrian pace of the escalation in scale is what makes Children of Men the better peri-apocalypse story for me (though the fact the protagonist is a bloke and the focus is less on the ownership of female bodies and more about *one man’s struggle to save the world* is probably also a part of it, unfortunately).

So if you are enjoying The Handmaid’s Tale and haven’t experienced Children of Men, it’s here and comes with my hearty recommendation. once you’ve seen it, come back to watch Evan Puschak’s awesome dissection of the cinematography, then watch it again:

 

As you should have seen in your two watchings of the film by now, there is a huge emphasis on art, pulled from multiple times and places in history. What struck me the most was the deployment of Guernica, life-sized, in the dining room scene. You know the one but here’s the specific clip anyway:

Picasso is one of those artists that scared me as an aspirant intellectual (read: prick) in my teen years. I had no tools with which to tackle his work, and nobody seemed to want to talk about what his pieces ‘were’. So i presumed it was pretentious trash that conveyed no ‘real truth’ in an attempt to protect my ego and moved on to Real Art, like Rembrandt and Velázquez and others that depicted Things instead of… whatever Pablo was trying to do with those shapes.

But now I’m a sodden 23-year old, steeped in my own ignorance and scarcely comforted by my ability to outmaneuver elderly pub patrons in debates, and I’ve come to see Picasso as an artist whose work I need to wrap my melon around in order to better grasp art as a whole. Rewatching Children of Men, I saw immediately where I should start:

 

  • Guernica and the Philosophy of Art

guernica

Handily enough, Puschek also has a video on Picasso and watching that gave me a great headstart into working through ideas pertaining to the styles Picasso moved through. Here’s the piece (with one of the best introductions Evan’s ever produced)

Working through the process as described by Evan is extremely rewarding but it wasn’t really what I wanted. As an English Major first and foremost I want to know why, as much as what, a thing is. Questions like “why is the piece in black and white, yet no antagonist group is depicted in a piece ‘about’ war?” and “why is the piece the size it is? Why not bigger/smaller?” are questions that are at once pretty hard to answer (Picasso’s dead) and pretty rewarding to think about.

Douglas N. Morgan said,

…[T]he people [Picasso] makes – while surely people and not mere symbols – are pictorial people, people to be seen and not sympathized with. as pictorial, they are not really distorted at all. They are exactly the kind of people they are created to be.

which raises further questions on a piece with clearly deformed and hurt bodies. If this piece is anti-war, but these bodies are ‘meant’ to look this way, are we to infer that some bodies are meant to be mangled by war? Would a more realist style, showing wounds or catastrophic injury, make the point better, or at least more clearly? Or is Picasso saying that these people are forever injured, battered, killed in wartime and will forever be so seen, as they are in his work? Is the damage of war to be seen as eternal in the bodies of its victims?

Aside from this, the question inevitably arises (as it arose in my nascent, yet still ignant analyses in high school) that if we spelunk this deeply into the wherefores of art’s formation, do we run the risk of breaching the level at which the artist themselves worked? When I was fifteen I asked, stupidly, whether Shakespeare really knew what he was doing when he composed the metre of his poetry, or whether it was a happy accident. In that case i was rightly dunked on, being told ‘if it were accidental, it may well be proof positive of the existence of miracles’. But in other cases the case is less clear-cut. in Guernica, the presentation of the horse and the bull has been strung out over decades to symbolize Spain, protest, integrity and unity respectively, and a myriad other concepts. Yet Picasso himself said:

…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting.

Which, to my mind, is an oblique way of saying ‘if you come up with a smart interpretation, it’s right. if you come up with a silly one, I didn’t mean that.’

I think I like Picasso now.

  • Anyway, speaking of hidden meanings, wartime and unanswerable questions, I’ve been reading Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E Frankl, Holocaust survivor and noted neurologist. His book has been recommended by everyone from multimillionaire motivational speaker Tony Robbins to Amazon’s Father’s Day gift suggestions. here’s a segment:

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest that the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone.

Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide
what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevsky said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.”

These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behaviour in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost.

I’m still reading this book and it delves into Dr Frankl’s Logotherapy fairly extensively which is far drier than the earnest and harrowing Auschwitz account, but the knowledge imparted in both sections has lived up to its recommendation. find it here. 

Since these last few topics have been fairly long I’ll hold off on spinning your scroll wheel further; next time I’ll be splashing through some stagnant philosophy (Kant, mostly, though maybe Aquinas too) in order to discuss the ethics of skillfulness, or the moral opposition to laziness, whichever sounds more ivory-towerlike.

Until then.

Jozef

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