I was asked to add my own final reading, so here it is.
The one-hour run of The Burying Party (2018) contains the ghosts of several films. A gritty war film depicting the real life poet Wilfred Owen’s first exposures to the trenches; a film that dives deep into the literary world he occupies, giving greater detail and focus to its cast and their interpersonal relationships. A deep dive into the development of Owen’s writing voice; a condemnation of war-hungry empire. Potentially, even, two or more hours that try tries to combine some or all of these features.
The Burying Party itself is is not any of these films, but I think it accomplishes an unusual sense of completeness in its fragmented brevity. As it moves across time and space, through disparate visual and auditory worlds, it interweaves snapshots of Owen’s life at the front and on leave. In other words, the film can roughly be split into his witnessing first-hand “the pity of war,” and the interpersonal, artistic journey that enabled him to capture it, in such a way that we’re reading and remembering him now, over a hundred years later.
The film’s contrasting settings are conveyed with care and detail. We open on Owen (Matthew Staite) at war, surrounded with what I’ve come to think of universally as gray-green “World War One color grading,” and accompanied by the haunting, discordant sounds of a piercing yet irresolute soundtrack, which punctuated by the sounds of the war itself. When the next scene finds him back home, in his mother’s house, seeing him clean and indoors is as jarring to the viewer as it clearly feels to the character.
As he and the rest of the cast navigate indoor spaces, as well as the breathtaking English pastoral scenes that our friend-from-two-weeks-ago Sigfried Sassoon (Sid Phoenix) critiques Owen for lauding in his early poetry, the contradictions at play within these poets’ emotional lives surface with these alterations in visual worlds. These are mirrored by the soundtrack, which alternates between the harshly modern instrumentals of the war scenes, the stately pianos and violins of indoor social spaces, the birdsong and seaside of the English outdoors, and – at certain times, like the first meeting between Owen and Sassoon – the perfect silence that backgrounds dialogue.
Owen and Sassoon’s dynamic fruitfully evades explicit melodrama or overstatement but nonetheless read to me as the heart of the film. While I’m unfamiliar with all but the most famous of Owen’s works, and only know the basic outline of his biography, the interplay between the two (and at times others in their circles) surrounding war poetry and its mission felt memorable and specific in a way that literary-biography type movies sometimes fail to achieve. I don’t know how it would play to experts, or to people with less knowledge of early twentieth century English literary circles than I, but to me the exposition surrounding the cast’s relationships and life positions felt effective and economical.
Outside of art, politics, and war, in the world of feeling or affection, more is unsaid between Owen and Sassoon than said for the majority of the movie. The intensity of this oft-mythologized literary mentorship was effectively carried by Staite and Phoenix, both in the realm of independent acting choices and the quietly intense chemistry between the two.
As an admirer and writer of creative nonfiction, watching The Burying Party acts in close parallel to the experience of reading a fragmented lyric essay. We do not get the full story, but the parts we get are vivid and well-chosen enough to form a cohesive whole nonetheless. We might yearn, in fact (or at least I did), for hours of watching Owen and Sassoon discuss poetic form, for Owen, Sassoon, and Graves to get to sing the entirety of The Leaving of Liverpool without breaking off, for Owen to have a full conversation with his mother. But each moment we get to see is beautifully crafted; and when it comes to Wilfred Owen himself, time’s limited run is arguably the entire point.
In the 2 PM section, we always roast Hemingway and his writing. But I wanted to open a blog discussion about him to gauge what all of us think.
Personally, the only other Hemingway book I’ve read was The Sun Also Rises (1926) (which I forgot even was a Hemingway book until I looked it up, so I don’t know what that says about me), and I really enjoyed that one. I’ve come around to A Farewell to Arms lately. It’s weird, but I don’t hate it.
I don’t know much about Hemingway himself (and someone has posted an article about his 4 wives), so along with what I glean from Google, I’d like to hear from everyone in our class: what’s the deal with Ernest Hemingway?
- “Repression of War Experience” is one of now several portrayals we’ve seen of a narrator struggling with mental health in relation to the Great War, but it’s the first we’ve seen in metered poetry, as opposed to Smith and Aldington’s prose. How does the existence of meter as a force that structures the poem interact with the narration of the post-war mind, which is arguably a fundamentally unstructured thing? How might the change in form from prose to poetry impact a reader’s experience of this subject?
- “The Redeemer” and “Christ and the Soldier” both portray men who appear to be Jesus Christ in contact with the war, but the two portrayals are very distinct. Notably, the symbology of the crown of thorns is explicitly divergent between the two. What kinds of differing or parallel images do the two poems paint regarding Christ in relation to soldiers and the Great War? How might this tie into Sassoon’s more overarching views on England, or on religion?
- Sassoon varies the tone of his poetry and the voices imbedded into it a great deal; the dialogue-centered, sardonic “They” and “The General” exist alongside dense, highly-detailed, visually-oriented narration, such as the voice that narrates “Counter-Attack” and “A Night Attack.” What are the differing purposes or effects of these styles, or other poetic styles Sassoon assumes? Is there a particular advantage (or disadvantage) that one of these approaches might hold in writing about the war for a particular audience?
100 years ago, at the start of 1922, much of the world was still trying to process what had come to pass in the prior eight years: the mobilization to war of Europe, North America, some of the Middle East and Central America, and several nations of Asia, as well as many colonized peoples of South Asia and Africa; the harrowing of the European landscape along the war’s two primary fronts, especially the Western Front: the rise, fall, and redefinition of nation states, boundaries, and empires; the development and activation of killing technologies like the machine gun, the tank, the flame thrower, and poison gas; the slaughter and physical or psychological maiming of some 41 million people; the displacement of approximately 10 million people as refugees; in Armenia, the first major genocide of a genocidal century; and, just as combatants moved toward peace, the death of an estimated 50 million people worldwide in the brutal influenza pandemic of 1918-early 1920.
How did the humans of that time experience and record their experiences in this fundamental moment of modernity? How does our own distance both enable and hamper our understanding of that experience, and what do we learn from The War to End All Wars? I hope our semester is the beginning but not the end of your work considering those questions.