We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

One hundred years after the World War I armistice, we continue to remember – and feel – the sacrifice of those who have served in armed conflict. 

By Serena Ypelaar

Trying in dismay to ignore the declining number of poppies I’ve seen on people’s lapels this year (all of theirs probably just fell off, right?), I of course wanted to pay tribute to our fallen soldiers, surviving veterans, and all those affected by war ahead of Remembrance Day.

And what better way to do so on a literary/historical blog than to revisit the famed rondeau poem In Flanders Fields (1915) by Canada’s very own John McCrae?

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Trenches and No-Man’s Land at Flander’s Fields. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

From an interpretive perspective, the strength of the poem lies in its profound ability to foster empathy. Most of us probably haven’t been in the trenches or known what it’s like to fight in a thankless conflict while watching countless friends die. Those of us who haven’t are extremely lucky – yet In Flanders Fields paints such a visceral picture of sacrifice that we get an almost firsthand glimpse of the devastation.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It is hard to believe that McCrae, a physician and Lieutenant-Colonel during World War I, was dissatisfied with his work and discarded it. He had to be convinced to submit the poem for publication. Yet he uses swift imagery to conjure a painstakingly forlorn scene of war and death, having written it after performing the funeral service for a fellow soldier and close friend, Alexis Helmer. No matter where we read this, we’re hit as though standing there in Belgium: poppies blowing in the wind on the burial site; guns booming in the distance; the keen sting of love and life, all extinguished by the horrors of war.

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Physician and poet Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

I will freely admit that it’s almost impossible for me to read the poem without tearing up. What’s more, it has also been set to music, and the sombre melody combined with McCrae’s stark verse is even more emotional. I always cry when they sing it during the Canadian Remembrance Day ceremony in Ottawa, and I probably always will, because McCrae delivers empathy right to our doorstep. That is, of course the best storytelling – that which makes us feel things.

McCrae’s use of caesura in the second stanza, a halt with punctuation in the middle of a line, drives the point home: We are the Dead. Short days ago we lived … The dead speak to us in the poem, and we are accountable to them to live with honour and integrity as they no longer can. Those feelings of sadness are so well-preserved in the poem that they don’t dull down with time. Every reread reopens the wound – but justly so.

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A poppy field in Flanders. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, it’s painful to grieve, but it is necessary. Remembrance Day is an ongoing process of empathy and an enduring resolution to defend honour. That is, after all, why we wear the poppy every year. It’s a symbol of our commitment, gratitude, and respect. Perhaps in remembering the contributions of our fellow citizens, whether by sacrificing their lives or through tireless and laborious efforts, we’ll also be wary of the sorrow that accompanies war and conflict. Lest we forget.

The Pain of Nostalgia

Nostalgia hurts us. Reliving past joys causes us pain, but why? And why does this nostalgia translate to media we enjoyed at a different time in our lives?

By Serena Ypelaar

Have you ever felt inclined to revel in the past but found that it just hurt too much?

Last night, The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV and I felt instinctively drawn to it. Why? Because The Wizard of Oz was my favourite film as a kid, from when I was about three or four. It’ll always have very strong sentimental value and I’ll always feel quite attached to it. It’s also an excellent film for its time, a cinematic masterpiece that makes a big impact even now.

But when I tried to watch the film yesterday (admittedly after a very long and trying day), I almost physically couldn’t handle it. Instantly, I found myself on the verge of tears, regardless of what was happening in the story at any given time. (For the record, it was the part in which the Scarecrow (Ray Bolger), Tin Man (Jack Haley), and Cowardly Lion (Bert Lahr) infiltrate the witch’s fortress trying to rescue Dorothy (Judy Garland). Dorothy was calling for her Auntie Em in the crystal ball as the hourglass trickled down, and I was done for.) I felt that familiar clenching in my chest that strikes when I feel intense nostalgia (or interestingly, when I feel anxious). But this pain seems the most potent when I’m thinking about good days gone by, and how far removed I am from them now.

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The Wizard of Oz (1939). Photo: Flickr

My childhood is a safe haven which in times of difficulty I sometimes crave. While I won’t be short-sighted enough to assume this is the case for everyone, I want to examine nostalgia as a common element of the human experience, whether it’s for one’s childhood or a different time in one’s life.

Why couldn’t I watch the film without experiencing physical and emotional pain? Because nostalgia is so powerful that we feel victim to it, and any past emotions we felt are felt again – this time accompanied by loss. We’re not in that moment anymore and we can never be again. We’ve learned in The Great Gatsby (1925) that “you can’t repeat the past”, and trying to recreate it can cause intense suffering. But nostalgia gives us so much deeply rooted longing that we’re often gripped by it unexpectedly.

One of my favourite TV series, Mad Men, uses the concept of nostalgia to great advantage in the final episode of its first season. When Don Draper makes an advertising pitch for the newly patented Kodak carousel slide projector, he delivers a presentation so moving that one of his colleagues runs from the room in tears.

Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek, “nostalgia” literally means “the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone … it takes us to a place where we ache to go again.

Mad Men 1.13, “The Wheel” (2007)

Knowing that nostalgia is supposed to hurt may not mitigate our tumultuous experience, but it can offer some shared comfort as we all navigate the inevitable passage of time.

The question is, do we choose to brave the pain and relive our wonderful memories, or do we stuff them away to avoid the emotional turmoil? The second option is arguably worse for emotional health in the long run – though it’s admittedly hard to look back on a golden age from a new and learned perspective.

But then again, aren’t our good memories worth it?

The Backbone of a Good Biopic

Biopics offer a glimpse into another person’s life, but if presented poorly, a bad biopic can undermine the truth. So what makes a compelling biopic, then? 

By Serena Ypelaar

Biopics: we see them every year, covering all kinds of notable individuals and their lives. Put simply, a biopic is a film that interprets a person’s life and condenses it into a consumable feature-length story.

The biopic is a tool of remembrance which, done ethically, has the power to record and preserve the achievements of someone’s life.

We’ll be talking about biopics a lot in this column, but what makes a biopic successful? Here are three key elements creative teams highlight to execute a good biopic:

1. Uniqueness/Promising Talent/Struggle

The subject of the biopic usually has some kind of trait, talent, or struggle that sets them apart from others. This can come in the form of disability, a gripping dream or obsession, or a special talent. In The King’s Speech (2010), one of my favourite biopics, Bertie (the future King George VI of England and father of Queen Elizabeth II, played by Colin Firth) has a speech impediment, true to life. His speech impediment causes tension when he’s unexpectedly thrust into the role of monarch and must give speeches to the nation during World War II.

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Colin Firth as King George VI and Helena Bonham Carter as Queen Elizabeth in The King’s Speech (2010) Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In Hidden Figures (2016), we follow Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe), black female mathematicians working at NASA during the Cold War. They were trying to use their talents to serve a society that was prejudiced against them – not unlike Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing, The Imitation Game (2014), who was discriminated against for his homosexuality. By emphasizing their perseverance, filmmakers tell the story of marginalized individuals in a compelling light.

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Janelle Monáe as Mary Jackson, Taraji P.  Henson as Katherine Johnson, and Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan in Hidden Figures (2016). Photo: Flickr

2. Emotional Outlook/Relationship with Society 

Perhaps the most central element of a biopic is raw emotion. Loss, heartbreak, poverty, abuse, and any kind of hardship can shape the subject’s emotional state and outlook on life, and these feelings resonate with us in some way or another, if depicted in a way that’s just abstract enough for us to relate to, but still precise in the plot of the movie (and in the greater scheme of the subject’s life).

People’s experiences influence the way in which they view and interact with the world, and we can connect to those feelings. A good biopic will manage to encapsulate a real-life public figure’s inner emotions accurately, while sometimes bending the narrative to foster emotional reactions.

3. Overcoming (or Failing to Overcome) Adversity or Discrimination

In The Theory of Everything (2014) there’s a scene in which physicist Stephen Hawking (played by Eddie Redmayne) slowly stands up, despite being paralyzed in a wheelchair. It’s a scene of his own wishful imagining, of course, but the image is so powerful that it moved me to tears.

When biopics stress the subject’s determination to overcome adversity or pain, they hit upon a commonality between all people: we all struggle with something in life. The intensity of struggle in biopics can often test limits, in a way that’s so dramatic that we are compelled to react and feel.

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Mohandas Gandhi, played by Ben Kingsley, in the multiple-Oscar-winning film Gandhi (1982). Photo: The Telegraph

Similarly, in Gandhi (1982), Mohandas Gandhi (played by Ben Kingsley, oddly) leads India’s non-violent independence movement after being thrown off a whites-only train car in South Africa in 1893, though he had a first-class ticket. The fight against injustice can carry a biopic and ensure it resonates with human empathy.

How can biopics improve? 

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Benedict Cumberbatch plays Alan Turing, British computer scientist and logician who analyzed the Enigma code during World War II, in The Imitation Game (2014). Photo: Flickr

There are a lot of biopics about white men. If we had even more breadth and diversity in commemorating individuals, we could connect to even more people on a more representative level, and celebrate achievements that may be overlooked due to classism, racism, sexism, or inequality in general.

With the emotional threads I’ve outlined above, many biopics admittedly follow a structural formula – but for a good reason. It helps introduce us to people as human beings and forge connections with them on a personal level.