I seem to be embarking on a reading kick about the Spanish Civil War. Right now I’m reading Antony Beevor’s history of the war; then I’m going to reread For Whom the Bell Tolls, and then I’m probably going to read Homage to Catalonia.
I’ve always been fascinated by the Spanish Civil War, ever since I first came to it by learning about the Condor Legion during my Red Baron phase as a teenager. (The Condor Legion was commanded by Red Baron von Richthofen’s cousin, Wolfram.) I got more fascinated when I got interested in the Peninsular War in high school. I’ve always thought there was a strong parallel between the Peninsular War as part of the Napoleonic era and the Spanish Civil War as the supposed “dress rehearsal for World War II”. On one level, both wars were vicious, vindictive fratricidal conflicts between Spaniards for the future of their country, but on another, the mightier European powers who were allied with both sides used the wars as a proxy in which to conduct their struggle for the ideological control of the continent.
One thing I’ve always found striking is the apparent invisibility of the war, at least to my demographic group (which I’m defining, here, as North Americans under the age of forty); as one friend said when I talked to her about this, “I’m honestly not sure I knew there was a Spanish civil war.” (Or as Lisa said when I said I was reading about the Spanish Civil War, “Ooh, was that during Isabella and Ferdinand?”)
Not necessarily that we should all know the Spanish Civil War because of its geopolitical signficance, because, after all, while it’s a significant event in the leadup to the Second World War, it’s not actually the Second World War itself. There have been lots of wars and, unless they have an interest in history, most people aren’t going to know very much about very many of them. Though I do find it odd that most people apparently haven’t even heard of the name of the war, this war in which, after all, twenty-five hundred Americans, twenty-five hundred Britons and between one and two thousand Canadians travelled to Spain so they could fight on the republican side.
No, what surprises me is that the war is so apparently invisible despite the fact that it does have a clearly visible cultural significance to us. The Spanish Civil War gave us Hemingway’s most famous novel (possibly except for The Old Man and the Sea) and Picasso’s most famous painting, which just got namechecked in last week’s episode of Mad Men. It gave us the phrase “fifth columnist“. Of course, Homage to Catalonia doesn’t have the iconic status of 1984 or Animal Farm, but I do think it’s Orwell’s best-known work after those two, and the first new thing that people who get interested in Orwell enough to look up his other work encounter. The people at Saturday Night Live still consider “Generalissimo Francisco Franco is still dead” an iconic enough catchphrase that it got trotted out during SNL’s fortieth-anniversary special a few weeks ago. Federico García Lorca and Pablo Neruda might not exactly be household names in the English speaking world (well, actually, Neruda might come very close to being a household name), but they’re not exactly people nobody’s ever heard of, either.
And I don’t know. Maybe I’m wrong, and maybe everyone has heard of the Spanish Civil War, and has some idea of who the two sides were, and what it’s importance was to the culture wars that were going on in the 1930s between Nazism/fascism on the right wing and communism on the left. But that’s not the feeling I get, and I just find it odd.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t start off a post by pausing to define a term like postmodernism. When I do something like that, I feel rather condescending–I’m assuming that I know something you don’t. But a conversation last night convinced me that in this case, it might be a good idea.
Modernism is the use in art of processes that actually make the art less realistic, but which manipulate the spectator into perceiving the art as being more realistic. The use of lines of perspective in drawing is the best example I can think of to illustrate this. In the house pictured in the top right, most of the lines should actually be horizontal–which, by definition, would mean that the horizontal lines at the top of the house and the horizontal lines at the bottom should be parallel to each other.
But of course, the “horizontal” lines in this drawing aren’t parallel (or horizontal). They angle toward an invisible point off to the right of the house, so that the lines draw closer together as our eye moves from left to right across the image. And yet I think we’d all agree that the image looks more realistic than one in which the horizontal lines are drawn horizontally, and a house simply looks like a rectangle.
Key to these modern processes is making them blend in, making them invisible to the spectator–when we look at that house above, we see a house with lots of horizontal lines, even though there isn’t a single horizontal line in the image.
Postmodernism, by contrast, is when we start drawing the spectator’s attention to these processes–when the art becomes about the processes. Check out the MC Escher picture to the left–at first glance, it looks very similar to the drawing at the top of the page. Except that if you look closer at those stairs at the top of the building, as we move clockwise, every single flight of stairs is heading upward. Which of course is impossible, and is openly highlighting Escher’s use of perspective.
I really love postmodernism, and one thing that makes me very happy is the trend in the past few years to insert more and more postmodernist tweaks into television programmes and movies. It’s got to the point now that we have series and movies that are entirely postmodern.
(There are spoilers ahead for Hot Tub Time Machine. There’s also discussion of storytelling in 30 Rock, Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes and Farscape, but Hot Tub Time Machine probably gets more specifically spoilt than any of those.)
It’s easiest to do in comedy. Much has been made of the fact that Hot Tub Time Machine should be a really dumb, why-would-you-waste-two-hours-of-your-life-you-can-never-get-back? movie, but it’s not. It’s funny and entertaining. Why? Because it’s openly postmodern.
The filmmakers concluded that the audience know that the movie they’re going to see is about four modernday guys who get sent back in time to the 1980s, and the audience already knows exactly how all the tropes of time travel stories work.
So they made the choice that additional amounts of crude humour and sexual innuendo would be more entertaining than spending an additional ten minutes coming up with a convoluted, more-convincing-sounding-but-still-not-ACTUALLY-real-because-we-don’t-actually-HAVE-time-travel-technology-yo explanation for how these guys get sent back in time; and would be more entertaining than having the characters constantly having to discover for themselves the rules of time travel which the audience already knows.
So instead, all the explanation we get is the four characters standing staring at the hot tub, and one of them says, “Do I really have to be the asshole who says we’ve travelled back through time?” (a postmodern line if ever I heard one), and one of the other characters breathes, “It must be some sort of … hot tub time machine.” And then he turns and stares directly at the camera, daring the audience to scoff at this.
And rather than anyone having to discover time travel tropes anew, the characters simply state them out loud when they become relevant. They immediately grasp that they must not change anything in the past, or they risk changing the future. When they meet a one-armed bellhop in the present day, and then discover him still having both his arms in 1986, they simply know that the bellhop will lose his arm during the few hours they’re spending in 1986, not during the intervening 24 years.
There are lots of other postmodern touches in Hot Tub Time Machine, too. There’s the guy running around in a bear suit, stood amongst the crowd in several scenes at several different locations, who never has any explanation. There’s Chevy Chase’s periodic appearances as the spooky hot tub repairman. His enigmatic advice makes the characters think he represents whatever supernatural power created the hot tub time machine, but he never actually does anything or gives them any advice of use–which the main characters point out every time they meet him.
30 Rock, I think, is probably the most consummately postmodern programme on TV. 30 Rock frequently comments on the storytelling techniques they’re using: “Wow, two great birthday gifts, one from each of the two women you’re trying to choose between! And they sum up your relationships with the two women, too: one something from your past, evoking nostalgic love, reminding you of your hometown. The other representing the future, glamorous, expensive.”
But it doesn’t have to be limited just to comedy–done right, it’s perfectly serviceable in drama. Farscape did it wonderfully, and even managed to do it without breaking the fourth wall at all, by having the character of John Crichton be consummately genre-savvy and aware of how zany his situation was. (“Well, we should be fine now, unless it turns out this alien can absorb radiation.” A pause. “I did not just say that.”) My favourite was the episode when Crichton realised he had to ram his small shuttlecraft into a much larger enemy starship. As he ramped up his speed, he actually started singing along to the dramatic incidental music–“Dah dahdahdah daaah!”
Watching an episode of either series, you can almost hear the conversation that created the idea:
“I’d really love to do an old-fashioned seventies cop show, where the cops drink beer and beat the crap out of the bad guys, but it’s okay, because the cops are the good guys and the guys getting beaten up are always the bad guys. But that wouldn’t work nowadays, because the audience is too cynical and self-aware and narratively experienced.”
“Well then, just put somebody into the show who’s cynical and self-aware and narratively experienced.”
“Yeah, but you couldn’t have someone like that be a believable seventies character. They’d have to be from the twenty-first century.”
And again, they’re a pair of high concept shows–the very first time the audience sees a commercial for them, they know within the first five seconds what the core premise is. (“I was a cop in 2005. But now I’m trapped–in 1973!”) So the producers acknowledge this, and instead of spending a giant chunk of the first episode trying to make it plausible that a twenty-first century individual would suddenly find themselves inserted into a 1970s or 80s police force, they simply get it over with in five minutes.
Protagonist gets hit by a car (or shot, in Ashes to Ashes), goes into a coma, and suddenly finds themselves trapped several decades in the past. And the story begins! It’s essentially just the same as having our characters wake up in 1986 because they passed out in a hot tub after spilling illegal Russian beer into its electrics, except that instead of launching them into a comedy story, it launches our protagonist into an old-fashioned cop show.
So. What are everyone else’s feelings? Like postmodern storytelling? Hate it? Have favourite examples? I’m sure there are other shows and movies that I’m missing. I didn’t mention Glee, for instance, though it’s had some wonderful postmodern touches of its own. (“Madonna. Just the name has power. I love saying it, even in voiceover.”)
Words last two days: 1041
Words total: 30,749
Time spent writing: 1pm-6pm
Reason for stopping: End of chapter
Darling: The mounted officer’s horse reared up, shrieking in pain, then collapsed into the mud, its rider tumbling lifelessly from it.
Words that boggled Word: Chinaman
Tyop: The soldiers scatted in all directions.
New words today: conurbation, trampled
Note to Facebook readers: apparently the Facebook feed no longer imports images. If you’re reading this and there’s no portrait at the top of the post, head on over to the original post to see the portrait in question.
I used this portrait on today’s Music Monday Alphabet Game post, and I wanted to take a moment to look at it. It’s probably my favourite portrait.
It’s known as the Vienna portrait, after the city where it’s currently located, of Michael Sittow, a Flemish-Swedish artist from Estonia who worked as a court painter for Isabella of Castille and the Spanish Habsburgs in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It’s commonly accepted to be of Catherine of Aragon, painted during Sittow’s visit to London in 1503-05. As such, it depicts Catherine as a young widow, aged seventeen to nineteen, following the death of her husband Arthur, Prince of Wales, in 1502.
I know a little bit about art, but generally not enough to dissect it analytically and frame a discussion about what I like as if I know what I’m talking about.
So I can tell you, for instance, that one thing I really do appreciate a lot is good use of chiaroscuro, which I’m sure is one of the reasons I like this portrait so much. But the main thing that so captivates me is the face of the young woman we see here.
She’s very pretty–certainly pretty enough that she’d catch my eye if I walked past on the street–but not so classically beautiful that her face loses personality: the upturn at the tip of her nose, her round face and the slight paunch on her chin guarantee that. This is also, incidentally, one of the very few portraits of Catherine of Aragon that show us her hair.
Those downcast eyes are the eyes of a girl, not yet twenty, who at the age of fifteen was taken away from the only surroundings she’d ever known, to a country where she didn’t speak the language, and married to a fifteen-year-old boy with whom, they discovered upon first meeting, she could not converse because they had been taught different pronunciations of their only shared language, Latin. And then within two years she found herself a widow, effectively imprisoned in an underfunded household in London by her father-in-law as he schemed to not have to relinquish her dowry.
The face we see here is a young girl who has to bear all these cares, but who still undeniably has an almost preternatural calmness and equanimity to her–a sense of faith, perhaps.