Behind the Cover Art
Featured: Samantha Chinomona
“For almost a year now, I’ve had the same tab open on my phone. I’m not sure what led me to the article in the first place, but in it, there was a wonderful line about waiting being the ultimate trial that I didn’t want to forget. There’s something that rings true about that statement. We’re all waiting for something, aren’t we? We’re waiting for the pandemic to end, to feel better, to find love, or to land a new job. We’re waiting to travel again, to see friends we miss, or maybe just to go home, wherever that may be. I find myself waiting for a return to normalcy, for one normal year of the university experience before I graduate.” - Kailee Parsons
I haven’t come across a caption for a post that resonated with me as much as this one in a really long time. When I go to Instagram to create a mood board of inspiration for my next shoot it doesn’t usually end with introspection.
When I joined St Andrews’s Class of 2021 in September of 2017, bright-eyed, fresh-faced, and *way* too eager, I couldn’t have predicted, well, no one could have predicted that my time at university would end this way. I’m familiar with the feeling of senioritis, the colloquial term mainly used to describe lowered motivation displayed by students nearing the end of a chapter in their academic careers, but the senioritis I’m experiencing now is a particular brand of torture. I feel like I’m waiting, waiting for so many things, but waiting for nothing at all at the exact same time. I remember starting my last year of university hoping beyond hope that the graduation I pictured would actually happen. I pictured the ceremony with my friends and fellow classmates, my dad’s inevitably ridiculous cheering as I walked across the stage, my camera permanently fused to my hand for the week as I photographed everything and anything. I imagined my friends and I laughing at old jokes and embarrassing mistakes as we celebrated the last four years, buying overpriced drinks as we attempted to make the most out of our last nights together. But for now, the weather in St Andrews matches my mood. The wind rages, the rain pours, and I sit in silence.
The post’s caption goes on to say (using Waiting for Godot and the story of Sisyphus) that even though the future is uncertain and the waiting is torture, waiting is what gives meaning to existence, because there is always hope in the waiting, and that the glory of things hoped for outweighs the pain. I’m still waiting for that glory, but one thing I do know is that the feeling of peace and contentment that drew me to St Andrews in the first place never left. The pandemic may have taken away most of the second half of my university experience but it will never take away the memories I made (and photographed), the friends I gained, or the badass college experience I had all-in-all. Once all this is over, and the world is back to normal, I’ll be back out there making more memories and dancing like no one’s watching... even if everyone is.
Nerves Of Steel With A Heart Of Glass: We’re Not Portraying Strong Women In The Arts
Sarah Johnston explores harmful stereotypes that define a “strong” woman, and how these are reflected in popular culture
You know the scene: the daring secret agent, who is probably Russian and probably blonde, walks into a bar. A man with a little too much alcohol in his system and much too little regard for his life sidles up and hits on her. She tries to bat him away with a few cordial words and turns away. He tries to convince her she is wrong and makes the mistake of laying a single fingertip on her and BAM. Some quick cut scenes with a violent overuse of groin movements and leg shots and the man is flat on his back, as the woman finishes her drink calmly.
It pains me that I can think of so many movies with a narrative like this – and that for so long I believed that I was not a strong woman until I was a strong woman. We as a society have an issue of portrayals in the media. We like to stick to stereotypes – not because they are actually accurate, but because they are easy. The famous quote says “empowered women empower women” and we seem to think that an empowered woman is one who literally has power. Our own toxic portrayal of strong women in the media is setting feminism back and it’s time we took a stand for all our girls out there to show them there is more than one way to be strong.
If you search for ‘strong women’ online, one of the first results you will always find is the classic ‘We Can Do It’ World War 2 poster designed to encourage women to join the production lines. Now I cannot bash ‘Rosie the Riveter’, for it was revolutionary in its time and is a highly iconic piece of artwork to this day, but I want to take a moment to clear up why I believe this kind of propaganda may have set us off on an incorrect path to representing strong women. For anyone who may not have seen it, Rosie is wearing a lovely blue shirt and red polka dot headband, flexing her arm while she proudly says “We Can Do It!”. It is a common mistake that people think this artwork was a recruitment effort from the US government and that it’s picturing a buff woman filled with confidence to take on her work was a calling card to other women to join the war effort. In actual fact, Rosie never made it outside the factories themselves. Her image adorned the walls to encourage already-recruited female staff to work longer and harder, challenging them to live up to the fictitious ideal that Rosie set. This guilt-tripping started a trend of encouraging women by showing them stronger and better versions of themselves, to pressure them into devoting themselves to self-improvement. The famous poster is used in many places – feminist rallies, political campaigns, and motivational books – and for some, it is the ultimate encouragement with its uplifting attitude, but I believe we didn’t consider the consequences in the long term.
While Rosie’s purpose was to boost morale among the exhausted workers, it was also one of the first times a physically strong woman was used as a representation of female empowerment, and all too quickly our media fell into a trap where physical strength became personal power. We carry a toxic line of representation in female heroines and villains alike. I am a huge fan of the Marvel movies and am unabashedly nerdy enough to also have read many of the comic books. While I adore superheroes, I recognize that the most common portrayal of female superheroes is inherently toxic. Take Natasha Romanoff, the Black Widow, from the Avengers franchise. Natasha’s character’s backstory is incredibly intricate and intimate; she was raised in an assassin training programme where she was mentally and physically tortured until she was perfect and killed for hire until she was brought in by the secret services and recruited to become a hero. However, by far the most noticeable aspect of her character is her ability to fight. For a heroine who is fluent in 10 languages, an expert in hacking, a strategic specialist, a master of disguise, and a fully trained acrobat, she spends an awful lot of time choking men to death (usually with her thighs). You may argue that many superheroes are portrayed predominantly as fighters, but every male counterpart has had a fully developed emotional arc on screen, which delves into personality as well as ability. Captain America struggles to adjust to his new time and deals with the trauma of his past returning, Iron Man develops from difficult personal relationships, anxiety disorders, and substance abuse, Thor navigates his difficult family relationships and finding his self-worth, Hulk battles the literal monster inside of him – heck even Hawkeye (aka the other one you probably forgot about) gets to have a family with whom his emotional vulnerability lies. With each of these arcs the story serves to show how these situations make the male characters stronger, whereas when Black Widow’s past is raised, it is in a way that is shown to physically and emotionally weaken her, rather than grant her empowerment.
While Marvel is a specific example, the trope exists across media. When you picture a strong female character in the arts, you probably picture a physically strong, confident, badass lady – but we keep doing this not just to our fictional friends, but to real women. We are taught to admire women who fight, who riot, who get angry and speak out – we are taught that a violent woman is a strong woman. Michelle Obama got the most praise for her words when speaking out angrily against issues rather than in the tireless charity work she participates in, Beyonce is praised for her sassy fight songs, and Greta Thunberg is only shown when she rants angrily, rather than when she leads important discussions. We have become so embroiled in the idea that a strong woman must be a rock, that we have trained our women to repress their emotions to gain strength. We need to dispel the myth that a lack of emotions makes you stronger.
As a woman, it can feel impossible to rise to the insane standards of the modern day. The fight for accurate representations of the body has been going on for years, but we never stopped to think about accurate representations of the mind. We label women who cry as ‘drama queens’, and those who get stressed as ‘princesses’, and those who simply feel lost as ‘uninteresting’. No human functions properly without their full range of emotions, and we need to show that there is strength in expressing our emotions as well as concealing something. So what if our heroine is scared? She’s about to jump a tank full of live sharks, she probably should be. Having an emotionally vulnerable character doesn’t mean they need saving, but it means there is a chance to explore the incredibly important personal growth that can come from identifying, expressing, and trying to deal with your emotions. I’m not against the female characters throwing the baddies off a bridge, but they equally deserve a chance to be anxious about their missions, or regretful about their past decisions without it taking away from their validity as a character.
For years I deluded myself that I could not possibly be a strong woman until I hit the gym, or led a protest, or started a rebellion. I was so sure that I had to portray myself this way to be perceived as strong that I would get angry and attempt to ‘stick it to the man’ by being rude about the simplest thing. In reality, I hate conflict, I never want to be involved in a standoff, and I cry when I’m yelled at; but I can still be, and hope that I am, a strong woman. The thing I really could have used growing up was to see those kinds of women represented: not just heroines who don’t need no man, not just the girls who can outdo the guys, I needed a woman who was emotionally articulate and well respected. We need to show women as strong throughout, that they are equally as worthy and inspirational when they are winning as when they are losing.
They say art reflects life, but life can definitely also reflect art. In a world as powered by media as our current day one, our entertainment, writing, music, and creations need to reflect a diverse range of strong characters. While so far I’ve focused particularly on women, the same rules hold for all genders, and all races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, backgrounds, abilities, and every other thing that makes us human. Sometimes we want the arts to take us away from reality, but we need to make sure its influence doesn't reshape our own views.
So I’ll flex my arm like dear old Rosie, and say ‘We can do it! But it’s okay if we can’t too!” because I think we deserve a generation of women seeing the value of emotional vulnerability. We do not have to kick or punch our way through lives just because they say so, we don’t have to scream and yell if we don’t want to. Your quiet perseverance to get back up when the world kicks you down is enough. Your tears are as valuable as your sweat. Your pain is valid and worthy and can bring you power. You are more than enough for the world as you are. And the world deserves to start showing women that.
“What is important in a dress is the woman who is wearing it” – Or What Makes Fashion Iconic
Marilena Papalamprou breaks down the ingredients that give a piece of fashion lasting impact
Image(s): Alicia Silverstone in "Clueless"
Why do we care about fashion? Many answers have been given to this question. It represents the culture of a nation or a race, it can be used to communicate socio-political messages, it allows people to bond over similar tastes, it can be elevated to the level of art, and it can also become a means to express our ideology, state of mind, and emotions. Appearance is a powerful tool in navigating our way in society. What others see first, whether we like it or not, is our looks, and we are all judged based on them. Every piece of clothing has different associations. A person walking down the street wearing a classic three-piece suit will likely be considered to be employed, economically independent, and probably educated, even if in reality they are just a garage band member with a rented suit on their way to their first job interview after months of rejections. Fashion can fool, and that is why it can be used to one’s advantage. But all these reasons focus on why we enjoy dressing up and place meaning on why we engage with fashion in a practical sense. But fashion is also enjoyed from a voyeuristic point. Why do we take so much pleasure in contemplating it?
Image(s): Marlon Brando in “The Wild One”
The simplest answer is because fashion can be beautiful. Of course, beauty is never simple. If it were, art critics and aesthetic scholars would be out of work. What each age, culture, or individual perceives as beautiful is perhaps arbitrary. It is this cloud of uncertainty surrounding the very concept of beauty, which makes its contemplation so fascinating. I do not dare to propose here an analysis of the subject; there are so many intelligent writers who have engaged with the subject, that my humble attempt to scratch the surface of what beauty actually is would, in truth, be kind of chucklesome. From Plato to Kant and Burke to Pater, the theories about aesthetics are numerous and are all equally seducing. To be sure, we also have Oscar Wilde’s, the “father’s” of British Aestheticism, various witty observations, which tend to express a more romantic outlook: “But beauty, real beauty, ends where an intellectual expression begins”, he has written in his masterful novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, implying that beauty is supposed to be felt, not thought of. But I want to believe that he would allow me some brief, modest analysis.
Image(s): Kiera Knightley in “Atonement”
In order not to digress much, let us look back into fashion. Specifically, the fashion of certain films. Cinema is a wonderful place to turn to when examining fashion, for the simple reason that it offers visual examples that everyone with an internet connection can see. Also, cinematic characters’ styles are frequently a source of inspiration for us, even if we are not aware of it. Maybe we do not like to admit the influence films have on our taste, but it is substantial. That is the reason why blue and white striped shirts (or marinière, if we want to be fancy) are synonymous with France in mainstream media, but mostly for people who live outside of it. When I travelled to Paris, I did not witness a single French person wearing such a shirt, but still, the stereotype prevails. Popular films have had something to do with this.If beauty is not a concrete, universally acknowledged notion, made of some particular rules that we can all follow and then become beautiful in the eyes of everyone, but is, as they say, “in the eyes of the beholder”, it then becomes obvious that the fashion directors working in cinema cannot be certain about what will aesthetically please the public. Then how do some looks become iconic?
Image(s): Audrey Tautou in “Amelie”
Well, the thing is that the looks themselves are not of that much importance. Do not get me wrong, many of the outfits that have remained in cinematic history, and have been admired by both the general public and fashion professionals, are truly magnificent. The amount of skill and imagination needed to create pieces such as Kiera Knightley’s phenomenal green dress in Atonement and Alicia Silverstone’s cult-classic yellow plaid skirt suit in Clueless is exceptional, and the creators deserve our artistic admiration. Yet, there have been numerous films with equally charming clothes that have not managed to gain the title of a “fashion classic”. Why is that?
Image(s): James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause”
I believe the answer is quite simple, so simple actually that writing a whole article about it appears a bit mundane: it is not the outfits that are iconic, but the characters. The more I read about fashion, the more this becomes clear. In cinema, an outfit is designed with the character it is destined to dress in mind. They are supposed to mirror their personality, their backstory, or the significance of the scene for their future development. A dress is never just a dress, it is a small piece of the large film puzzle. Plot, photography, colour-palette, soundtrack, lighting, and fashion, all work together towards the final, hopefully captivating, picture. This is most evident in films that are either artistic or deliberately extravagant, like Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette. Everything in that movie is so impressively beautiful and so well thought of, that the result approaches aesthetic perfection. If even one of the aforementioned features was a bit off, it would have brought all others down, and none of them would eventually be deemed “iconic”. But I wish to draw attention to simpler fashion pieces, to outfits that are not extremely artistic, but nevertheless have left their mark in cinematic fashion history. Examples include, apart from those already stated, Marilyn Monroe’s pink dress in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Audrey Hepburn’s black dress, gloves, pearls and tiara in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Audrey Tautou’s red dress, black chunky shoes and quirky bob haircut in Amelie, Emma Stone’s yellow dress in La La Land, James Dean’s red jacket and white t-shirt in Rebel Without a Cause, Marlon Brando’s black leather jacket and tilted hat in The Wild One, and Christian Bale’s perfectly tailored suit and slicked-back hair in American Psycho.
I could continue the list for many pages, but I think most would stop reading the article. So, I think those few classic examples are enough to get the message across. For those of you who have watched the films, it becomes obvious what I mean when I say that it is rarely the outfit which is actually “iconic”, especially if we consider such simple looks as James Dean’s; yet sometimes perfection lies in simplicity. His outfit corresponds perfectly to the rebellious, confused, provocative, and deep-down innocent character Dean portrays. It would make no sense to have him dressed in something like tweed, and the artfulness of the film as a whole has elevated the simplest of outfits to a fashion ideal. I want to believe that little things like this can be taken as proof that beauty is hidden in everything; we just have to care enough to look for it and nourish it. Then it will shine on its own.
My Introduction to Inverted Detective Stories
Caitlin Kilpatrick discusses an inventive twist on wildly popular crime-solving media
Like many others, I spent the beginning of my lockdown making lofty goals to become well-read. After working my way through the 2020 standouts of Normal People and Where the Crawdads Sing, I was desperate for something a little more gritty. In this quest, I stumbled upon the cult following for Donna Tartt’s Secret History, who regard the book as a modern masterpiece; safe to say I was intrigued. My first impression: the book is dense, it took a long time to get through, but it was well worth it. Tartt’s debut novel tells the story of a wealthy friendship group studying classics at a secluded Vermont university, who come to murder their friend Bunny (not a spoiler - we find out on the first page). Mirroring a classic tragedy, Richard Pappen, our narrator, takes us through the group's journey from inspired students to masochistic murderers under the influence of their enigmatic Professor Julian.
Reading The Secret History as a St Andrews student, on a campus eerily similar to Tartt’s Hampden College, it struck me as so thoroughly relatable that it is easy to forget our narrator has admitted to murdering his friend from the offset. Pappen’s voice is so casual in his description of the deceased Bunny that he evokes a strange fascination, drawing the reader in with every line. Furthermore, the lack of significance and unreliability of the narrator engenders more frustration and fascination at how psychopathic the killers actually are. After all, they are relatable college students who are inspired by their outstanding, quirky professor – something I have experienced all too well. However, it is important to note that I have never been inspired to perform a Bacchanalia that led to murder!
On finishing the novel, I was met with overwhelming fascination at how a story in which I knew what was going to happen had kept me so captivated for 400 pages. I thought about the story over and over until I realised that this is exactly how you are supposed to feel. Tartt uses the novel to highlight that it is not the act of murder that fascinates us but the murderers. She allows us to get inside the friend’s psyche, and understand what drives a person to commit such an act. ‘Howcatchems’ are the medium that allows the author to do this. They facilitate themes of morality and human nature by asking how we can be led to commit crimes in the pursuit of our goals.
Thus, the Secret History was my introduction to the ‘howcatchem’, an increasingly popular narrative trope in which the murdered and murderer are revealed in the opening pages of the novel and the story proceeds to unravel how the murder took place. Whether referred to as howcatchems, open mystery, inverted detective stories or howdunnits, they are undoubtedly captivating. To understand why howcatchems have become so popular we have to first understand their counterpart - whodunnits.
Arthur Conan Doyle stands at the forefront of detective writing. His distinct style, depicted within the Sherlock Holmes novels, created the format for mysteries that inspired many subsequent works. Doyle crafted the story around the quirky detective discovering a murder and using a string of clues to find out who the murderer is. Both structures follow the basic detective story principle that the reader is to the detective as the writer is to the villain. However, ‘howcatchems’ alternatively focus on the development of the villain in the time between committing the crime and eventually being caught. Think of it as less of a who’s responsible and more of a will they get caught. Ultimately the key is that they situate the villain close to the reader, allowing us a glimpse into the mind of a murderer.
The howcatchem dates back earlier than you may think, with the first recorded story being R. Austin Freeman’s The Case of Oskar Brodski, a short story published in 1912. Freeman preferred to tell the reader within the first minute every single detail of the murder, relying on the fact that some evidence would be overlooked and so readers would maintain interest for the remainder of the story. For most people, their first encounter with a howcatchem came from the rise of detective shows in the late 70s and early 80s. The infamous Lieutenant Columbo nowadays is associated with grandparents and daytime television, but in its day it pioneered the format of TV crime dramas. In each episode, the murderer was always shown within the first 10 minutes, with the remainder of the show focused on how Columbo figured out the crime.
The influence of formats like Columbo can be seen today in the hit Netflix crime drama The Sinner. It exploded onto our screens and received critical acclaim for its exploration of the psychology behind crime. Their howcatchem format saw Detective Harry Ambrose investigate one specific criminal, season one being Cora Tanetti played by Jessical Biel, who unexpectedly and rather brutally stabs a man to death. The gift of The Sinner is that it brings us wholly into the minds and motives of the murderer and allows us to see Tanetti’s inevitable decline.
World-renowned musical Hamilton can also be considered a howcatchem as the very first song sees Aaron Burr’s declaration that he is the person who shot the eponymous Alexander Hamilton. Prior to Hamilton, the idea of revealing the significant plot point of the musical would’ve been met with laughter, but as Leslie Odom Junior explained it is what makes Burr interesting. Audiences are captivated by the representation of someone who is immediately identified as both a friend and killer of Alexander Hamilton. In the end, knowing that Hamilton will die at Burr’s hands only adds to watching the slow decline of their friendship.
A recently discovered favourite has been The devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino is a Japanese thriller, in which a mother and daughter kill their abuser and plot an elaborate cover-up with the help of their neighbour. Higashino takes the inverted detective story to a new level by using it to implicate societal norms around abuse, particularly in early 2000s Japanese culture. The novel ultimately is a commentary on femininity and what it means to be a victim and a perpetrator.
Reading an inverted detective novel feels like driving through fog with the headlights on, aware of your destination but unsure of the journey. Yet, in the end, Howcatchems allow us to explore the dark and different psychologies we hear about in true crime cases in a way that will always keep us fascinated and wanting more.
The Madness of the Scientist Archetype
Erica Ostlander delves into one of the most famous but least appreciated character archetypes in art
If someone was granted the ability to bend universal laws to fulfil their passing whims and greatest desires--would this be seen as a blessing or a curse? This hypothetical person would be aware of the innate limitations caused by their own humanity, making them desperate to shed their mortality for a god-like status. This desperation is what sparked society’s fascination with science and the need to go beyond what can be seen with the naked eye. The industrial revolution changed the common understanding of human capabilities, pushing writers to explore technology in their work as means of further utilising their imagination in an almost realistic manner. This has inspired a discussion of mortality and progressivism in literature, which continues to evolve with the turn of each century. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focuses on a scientist who is arguably well-meaning, a case study of how curiosity killed the cat and a perfect reflection of society’s obsession with the possibilities brought forth by science. The novel predicted the battle between science and humanity in World War II, as the undertaking of human experimentation and the creation of lethal weapons caused an influx of morally ambiguous scientist characters in literature. I have always believed that the only thing fictional in any given story is its surface level, as all examples of literature serve as reflections of reality to varying degrees. This is why examining the popularity of character tropes will help show truths about people, like humanity’s fear of their own power which has stretched across countless lifetimes.
Mary Shelley, the sci-fi-horror-tragedy-drama spearhead of the literary world, wrote Frankenstein, otherwise known as The Modern Prometheus, a name fitting of humanity’s fascination with playing the role of a god. Prometheus was a god of fire, a notable trickster in Greek mythology, and recognised as an ally for humankind. He is known for stealing the eternal fire from Mount Olympus and then gifting this fire to the earth, allowing people to cook, defend themselves, and advance society. However as the myth goes, Prometheus was tortured by Zeus for his actions, chained to a rock and forced to watch his own liver be repeatedly pecked out by a bald eagle every night. As gruesome as that is, it shows how attempts to manipulate the natural world, or the use of “fire”, is closely followed by suffering and the expectation of divine punishment. The punishment Prometheus received from the gods speaks to the guilt humanity carried during the rapid progression of scientific discovery, as true believers in science were considered pariahs in a spiritually driven society. This conflict manifested itself in Shelley’s work with repeated scorn of Frankenstein’s creation and the several attempts to burn the supposedly hellish creature at the stake. The trickster archetype used in this story helps paint a picture of an amoral person, explaining why even modern depictions of mad scientists can not be categorised by the binary of good and evil, but more so they are curious about what happens when one stirs the pot. By referring to her story as the “modern” version of this tale, it is easy to see how repetitive society is, as there will always be a modern take on the myth of Prometheus, despite how much further we look into the future, as progress is inevitable just as human existentialism is.
Existentialism emerged due to an intense focus on defining the purpose of existence until people started to reach the conclusion that there may not be one at all. This philosophical movement began mid-to-late 19th century, and where an ideology hinged on the idea of taking control of your own life and acting on your own free will began to take shape. The 1927 science fiction film Metropolis directed by Fritz Lang, showing a world where a select group of people in the higher class were able to experience the finer things in life and all the luxuries available to them by forcing a worker class to operate the technology needed for this. This continues the line of questioning of taking control of life, while showing human’s potential for evil. There was a character also following the mad scientist archetype named Rotwang, who creates a robot in the same likeness of his lost love. Making a long story short, this robot ended up being used for evil and attempted to lead the workers to their own deaths. Again, we see the downfall of a character once they attempt to take control of life, undergoing the process of birth and death at their will. The film was heavy with biblical references, showing characters who lost their way by rejecting religion. Rotwang served as one of the story’s villains, which helped show society’s inner turmoil of whether to pursue the advancement in technology or to remain still with their values. It is commonly said that Lang predicted many aspects of World War II, such as the cruel and unethical human experiments done in Nazi Germany. This line between scientific exploration and obscene examples of cruel manipulation is one that has scared most of humanity, but writers are often fascinated with it, using art as the means of navigating the truly dark side of society.
The burden of knowledge can only be explored through the creation of a character that seems to know everything, a person a mental step above an old and tired society. However, these characters are often seen as evil, forfeiting anything that makes them appear human. This has been seen physically with experiments being conducted on themselves like Dr. Curt Conners in the Spiderman franchise taking the appearance of a lizard hybrid, or Jeff Goldblum’s character in The Fly. Nonetheless, my favorite type of mad scientist character is the one that truly embraces existentialism, a care-free attitude aspiring towards neither good nor evil but just savouring their own freedom, like the infamous Rick Sanchez from Rick and Morty. Character tropes are never repeated by mistake, but are really a piece in a much larger historical puzzle, allowing us to use film and literature to see why humans are pondering the same questions about life and death to this day.
The Artistry of Music Videos: Instruments of Introspection
Sairaa Bains identifies the components that make up memorable music videos, and how they support the songs themselves
Music videos cinematographically present their protagonists entangled in moments of intimacy, violence and serenity. They can also serve as agents of social change which make the audience think twice about what they are seeing. Writing a song becomes much like a journey where allusions to past events or moments in time help solidify certain ideas and perceptions. Instead of alienating the audience, some artists strive to absorb the viewers into their songs before making them question its contents. Some songs are representative of an artist's own idiosyncratic qualities and personal histories. Listening to their music can be compared to reading a page from their personal diaries. Most artists blend pre-existing artwork into their songs allowing them to make subtle references, which in turn, amplify their message. Others connect one historical moment in time with another by transforming these events through their own artistry - crystallizing certain moments and allowing others to maintain some degree of fluidity. Besides the visual spectacle of cinematic videos, music itself is used to redefine and permeate boundaries transcending matters of culture and race.
A song can be placed in an entirely different context through the setting in which it is staged and shot. In their song “Apeshit”, Jay- Z and Beyonce allow the Louvre to partake in the statement they are trying to make - the physical space becomes as meaningful as the lyrics of the song itself. Surrounded by paintings and sculptures that are representative of power, wealth and colonialism, both artists try to establish their own stance by actively highlighting their own race and culture. Mimicking the sculpture of the Greek goddesses of Victory and Aphrodite, Beyonce tries to create a narrative of inclusivity while redefining these artworks through her interaction with them. This is done through her intense dance movements that appear fluently charged and almost disruptive as opposed to stillness of the landscape that she is occupying. This could be understood as her desire to break the mold that defines women of colour.
Similarly, Jacques Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon is a painting that looms large in the background, highlighting a moment of power and prestige. This emphasis on authority is mirrored by Jay-Z and Beyonce's desire to own their cultural narrative and present it in a reflective manner. “Apeshit” becomes a celebration of Black culture and power as Beyonce occupies the center of the frame surrounded by paintings that present people of colour as mere afterthoughts or blemishes. Several moments of silence in the song are punctuated by the presence of paintings that showcase the Virgin and Child amidst other figures. The lyrics of the song use the paintings to elaborate and extend the message that “Apeshit” is trying to convey. The music video ends with the Portrait of a Negress that is one of the few paintings to represent a black woman in the entire museum. Shown as a glimpse at the end of the video, this painting is not reworked or reinterpreted through the movement of the camera or that of the dancers. Juxtaposing this with a majority of white portraits such as the Mona Lisa, Beyonce and Jay-Z hint at a much larger history of black discrimination and racism. This painting is also symbolically used to highlight the white supremacy that museums are guilty of endorsing whilst also reiterating the idea of black liberation and beauty.
Jay- Z's song, “The Story of OJ”, also uses its visuals to raise questions about black slavery and oppression. Even though this song does not use artistic elements in an explicit manner, it makes references to previous historical events giving it an artistic touch of its own. The music video consists of animated visuals that confront the notion of being a black individual in a world that does not wholly accept them. In one part of the video, the Ku Klux Klan is shown burning crosses alongside images of black slaves working in a cotton plantation. There is great irony in this imagery as the KKK's white hooded clothes are indirectly produced by the sweat and labour of the black community. Throughout the song, the words “my skin is black” are repeated alongside sketches of black individuals from various professions. Jay - Z also uses OJ Simpson's statement "I'm not black, I'm OJ'' to illustrate the problematic viewpoint being propagated here. The idea of running away from one's cultural roots instead of embracing them is frequently addressed throughout the song.
Another example of artworks and their everlasting influence can be seen in Coldplay's song “Viva La Vida”. This is Spanish for 'long live life' and was one of the few paintings made by Frida Kahlo before her death. It's a still life painting of sliced watermelons highlighting the duality and fleeting nature of life - once the fruit is savored, the lifeless remains are left. On the Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos) in Mexico, watermelons were treated as symbols of connection, linking together the dead and the living. Frida Kahlo's famous last words are said to be ‘Viva La Vida’, which she inscribed on one of the watermelons in her painting. The title of Coldplay's song was inspired by this painting even though their album's cover art was influenced by another artwork known as Liberty Leading the People by Eugene Delacroix. This painting serves as the background for Viva La Vida's music video where Chris Martin and his band perform as if they are a part of the painting itself. The aesthetic representation of the video appears much like a canvas with a few cracks on the surface that are supposed to be indicative of the eroding layers of oil paint. In sticking with this kind of realism, Coldplay successfully articulates a story about the French revolution from Louis XVI's perspective. As the story goes, Louis XVI's final speech was left unheard as his head was guillotined before he could utter his last few words. Coldplay tries to recapture and put forth a narrative fueled by Louis XVI's ideology - had he lived a few moments longer, what would his final words have been? Using the medium of music, Louis XVI’s thoughts are brought to light as he’s almost resurrected through this song’s lyrics. In giving a voice to the dead, Coldplay also reaffirms and stands by the title of their song.
The fusion of music and artistry in creating a visual spectacle magnifies the impact being felt by the audience. Connecting two disparate moments in time together, music becomes at once liberating and introspective. Physical spaces become as expressive as song lyrics themselves. Ultimately, blending music with art puts forth an entirely new reflection of society - not only in its lacquered glory but also in its tarnished failures.
Tomorrow Never Knows: Temporality in Film and living in the moment
Greer Valaquenta analyzes the subgenre of time-loop films, and what we can learn from them
Time is one of the human-made constructs that influences our daily lives, no matter who we are, or where we live. Scarcely does a day go by without us making plans for our future or worrying about our past. Everywhere we go, we are surrounded by mechanisms which mark the minutes as they trickle past, whether it’s sand through an hourglass, the clock on our wall, or the smartphone in our pocket. We have become slaves to time, to the dreaded corporate 9-5, wanting an extra ten minutes in bed, feeling the distress of birthdays which mark our own body’s aging. We worry about what may happen, what has happened, what is happening. Wise men and women tell us we must live in the present to achieve complete bliss, yet for the normal human, this is nearly impossible. We may achieve a brief harmony of self during a period of relaxation, but how long does it last until the thought of an upcoming deadline arises? We constantly fear the repercussions of our actions and convince ourselves that our dreams and desires are too risky to be attempted, whether or not this is actually true. Evolution has taught us how to keep ourselves alive and run from danger. Yet too often this causes us to run from ourselves and our deepest wishes. In this article, I want to examine several films that explore the concept of living for today, because there is no such thing as tomorrow, and how we can apply their message to our own lives.
Through film, we have the rare opportunity to delve into the abstraction of time, and to ask ourselves what time means to us, physically and philosophically. The plot of the iconic movie Groundhog Day (1993) investigates exactly this. Should anyone be unfamiliar with the events depicted in the film, it is essentially a story of how one pessimistic weatherman, Phil, is made to repeat a single day over and over. This world-weary man has been sent (or, in his view, sentenced) to cover the action of the annual Groundhog Day celebrations in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. A winter storm forces him to stay there overnight, and he awakes to the rudely cheery radio blasting Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe”. A whole series of events unfolds, with Phil being rude and standoffish to everyone from the innkeeper to his sister’s old boyfriend. We learn that Phil, for some inexplicable and unexplained reason, is stuck in a perpetual time loop with no way out. At first, he is baffled and bewildered, as we all would be. Over the course of the film, we see Phil go from one extreme of living to another, as he struggles to find meaning in his repetitive life. He exploits the loop by seducing women, using personal knowledge he gains over the course of many recurring days, abusing alcohol, getting involved in a police chase, and trying to kill himself. Everything slowly begins to become meaningless to him, as he realises that no matter what, he cannot escape what he views as his living nightmare. It is the romantic subplot between Phil and his colleague that brings us to our topic of discussion, for what is it that pulls Phil out of his downward spiral? Only his pursuit of the lovely Rita. As he begins to spend more time with his co-worker, he realises how much he missed due to his own self-absorbed lifestyle, as he learns about her life instead. It is when Phil begins to actively live in the moment that he escapes his prison of time. What, then, is the spiritual message of “Groundhog Day”, hidden underneath the guise of romantic-comedy? Dr Angela Zito, co-director of NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, said in an interview with the New York Times that the film illustrates the Buddhist concept of samsara, or continuing rebirth. Only when Phil begins to live his life in a positive way is he released from his karmic cycle. Another view of the film, from a Western religious perspective, is that Phil is stuck in purgatory, unable to continue on until he purifies his soul.
The concept of purgatory is explored in Palm Springs (2020), which is (spoiler alert!) a film with a storyline very similar to Groundhog Day in that it is about a man who is stuck in a perpetual time loop. Where it differs is that the day in question is a very special day, a wedding. The main character, Nyles, is seemingly everything Phil is in Groundhog Day - pessimistic and world weary. However, in this film, rather than experiencing the loop alone, Nyles is joined in his suffering by another wedding guest. Sarah becomes trapped with him after following him into a mysterious glowing cave and goes off the rails in her disbelief of her new circumstances. The plot has similar motifs to Groundhog Day, such as Sarah trying to leave the time loop by ending her life, which Nyles tells her will not work, as he has tried everything and now accepts his fate. We are never told exactly how long Nyles has been trapped, how many iterations of this wedding party he has been to. Where this film differs from Groundhog Day most is that it is Sarah, the secondary character, who uses her time wisely, for example, learning physics in order to better understand the time loop. Sarah is the one who gets them both out of it in the end. Throughout the film, both Sarah and Nyles are forced to confront their previous wrongdoings and misdeeds, and curiously, it is after they fix these mistakes that they are freed from their loop. They begin to live for today, after healing the wounds of the past, and the future means endless opportunity to them, rather than something to be feared.
Another film that plays with the concept of a perpetual loop is Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). The plot centres around children with magical talents who are hidden away in a children’s home on a remote Welsh island (sounds reasonable enough). However, as we soon discover, not only are they hidden away in a remote locale, but they are also perpetually repeating a single day, September 3, 1940. Every day, they repeat the same set of events, following a rigidly managed schedule under the watchful eye of their guardian, only to have their loop reset just before the Luftwaffe bombs their home. In contrast to the previous films I have discussed, rather than trying to change the outcome of their day every time it resets, the peculiar children simply accept their fate and the guidance of their guardian, who tells them they must remain in the loop to be safe. The arrival of Jake, a boy with familial ties to the children’s home, upsets the status quo. The children realise the uncomfortable truth that while they have remained in permanent childhood or adolescence, a former friend had chosen to leave, grew up, had children, and Jake is his grandson. This Peter Pan-esque narrative serves a purpose: although we may fear growing older, making mistakes, messing up… this is all a part of personal growth. Without change and growth, we are stunted, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.
Lack of change and growth is also present in the plot of 50 First Dates (2004), about a woman, Lucy, who lost her short-term memory in a car accident on her father’s birthday, leaving her unable to remember events longer than a day. She falls asleep and her memory of the past 24 hours is wiped from her mind, leaving her to repeat the day again in the morning. This plot is like a reversed Groundhog Day, as Lucy is not actually repeating the same day, the world is moving on around her, although her close friends and family pretend nothing has changed so she escapes the heartbreak of the accident and does not realise how much she has lost. She is perfectly happy in her own world, content in her ignorance of her circumstances. She meets Henry, a cynical, womanising veterinarian, at a café she goes to eat breakfast at every day. Henry tries to ask her out, yet when they meet again, she does not remember him. He is told of her disability and it becomes his mission to make her fall in love with him all over again every single day. Unlike the other films, there is no resolution to this infinite loop. Lucy still forgets about her day and, consequently, Henry’s existence, when she falls asleep. In the final scenes, we see Henry loves her so much that he creates home movies of their life together, including their children, so that when she awakes she can relearn all the beautiful memories her brain has erased overnight. Although Lucy’s body is aging, her mind is not. Every day is a chance for her to live in the moment and enjoy her life for that day, to bask in the love of her family and know she is secure in their love. Although Lucy is technically living in the past, we could argue she is more present than most of us.
Through my research for this article, I encountered multiple different beliefs about the meanings of these films, yet I believe that the most important thing we can take away from them is that we must indeed learn to live in the moment. That is what these tropes of temporality in flux are meant to teach us. How often do we stop ourselves from doing something due to our fear that it will fail? “I would have” and “I should have” are phrases we say and hear all too often. We should take more chances in life, perhaps not to the extremes illustrated in “Groundhog Day”, but at least try to live our lives with confidence in ourselves and our abilities. Speak to people you did not have the courage to before, go places you only dreamed of going, learn what you are interested in, if you can. In short, humans have a finite lifespan, so spend it wisely. Worry less about what could happen, focus on how you want to improve your life and yourself. Work hard, play hard. If we fail, it hurts, but we learn from it and move on. Perhaps then, there is no such thing as failure, only growth. Every single morning is a chance for our own samsara, our own rebirth. Make every moment count. I leave you with one of my favourite poems, written by an unknown hand on a wall at Friar Park, George Harrison’s former abode:
“Past is gone, thou canst not that recall
Future is not, may not be at all
Present is, improve the flying hour
Present only is within thy power”
Muse of the Month
Ruby Dunn highlights an underappreciated legend of contemporary poetry
Image(s): Graham Turner/Guardian
My muse is… Wendy Cope, a poet, erstwhile teacher and inhabitant of the only bit of Cambridgeshire worth living in (I’m not in any way biased) - Ely!
She is…one of England’s longest-standing contemporary poets - and yet relatively unknown within my generation! She debuted onto the literary scene in 1986, with her first poetry collection Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis - the titular poem of which is one of her shortest (‘It was a dream I had last week//And some kind of record seemed vital.//I knew it wouldn't be much of a poem//But I love the title.’) - and has since published four further books of poetry for adults (Serious Concerns, 1992; If I Don’t Know, 2001; Family Values, 2011; Anecdotal Evidence, 2018). Cope’s other work includes two collections of children’s verse, commentary anthologies of her own poems, and edited volumes of wider literature. Cope’s work has always been a blend of the serious and the droll. She often writes in the persona of Jason Strugnell, a struggling (fictional) male poet from Tulse Hill, whose poems are published within her own anthologies - an outworking of her lighter side, never afraid to take a shot at TUMPS (Typically Useless Male Poets). However, her most recent collection, Anecdotal Evidence (2018), published in her 70th year, is her most contemplative anthology to date, containing poems reflecting on the happiness she has found with her husband, her relationship with her father, the process of ageing, and a touching series wondering at Shakespeare’s early life.
I first learned about her when… I was a child. I don’t know if it’s a credit to my parents that when they suggested I learn “Roger Bear’s Football Poems” for a talent show I instantly read the rest of the collection of which they’re a part or a concern that I read beyond those ‘child-friendly pieces. “Three cheers for Spurs!//They beat Stoke,” might have been exceedingly appropriate for 7-year-old football-mad me, but “Ten green bottles//what a lot we drank//ten green bottles//and yesterday’s a blank” might not have been the most PG introduction to her work! My interest in her for most of my younger years was similar to my appreciation of Betjeman (to whom she has been compared) - I knew of her, I might hunt down a particular poem occasionally, but she was someone my mum had introduced me to, and little else. However, when I worked in Ely for half a year, my gran gave me a copy of Anecdotal Evidence, and reading Wendy Cope’s experiences of the city I was beginning to call my own was the dawn of my current, now long-standing, obsession with her.
I am obsessed because...as a contemporary poet, Cope has side-stepped much of the guise of ‘serious’ poetry (despite the title Serious Concerns). Frequently writing in response to critiques of the artistic world, Cope holds no aspect of poetry too sacred to be parodied, and no facet of life too light to be poeticised. She has parodied Wordsworth and T. S. Eliott in limerick-form, and written touchingly about the publishing world, failed relationships and her childhood teddy bear. Her poem ‘The Orange’ is perhaps her most well known - it circulates occasionally on social media to huge accolades, so oozing with that elusive feeling of contentment that we all seem to be hunting for - and is perhaps the clearest demonstration of her signature style: a complex, emotive concept, boiled down to its bare essentials and then made beautiful again, with a joke or two thrown in. Cope was voted in 1998 the people’s choice for Poet Laureate, and has been a popular candidate whenever the position has been made available since then - yet she believes the post ought to be disbanded; such an accolade perhaps too lofty for her liking. I attended one of Cope’s recitations a few years ago, and she reminisced about attending a conference where teachers discussed her poems in order to teach them in an A-Level syllabus - sardonically remarking that none of her poems meant half the things the teachers made them out to mean and suggesting robustly that we should stop reading so much into them. This no-nonsense, unpretentious attitude bleeds through into all her work with hilarious results - from “Pastoral”, in which she ponders how much easier it would be to be a poet in the countryside with “dead sheep and squashed rabbits’ to eulogize, to the elation of new love in “Waterloo” and the football failures of Roger Bear’s favourite teams. Cope’s subject matter is not always so trivial - her signature bluntness is also present, albeit muted, in the theme of mortality that runs through all her work, figured in poems about her school-friends, her grandmother, her father, her mentors and herself all encountering, dreading or embracing death. In all of it, Cope’s magic lies in her complete denial of magic - she always brings the reader back down with a bump to reality, in the most painful, sensitive, funny ways.
My favorite work by her is… “If I Don’t Know”, which describes the feeling of overwhelming gratitude when confronted with a moment of utter beauty. The poem holds in tension that which we know gratitude ought to be: eloquent, unreserved, creative (“our mock orange//...come into its own//like a new star just out of ballet school”), with all that it evokes in us - self-awareness of our inability to appreciate beauty, leading to a desire to destroy it: “Outrageous.//I could crush it to bits.” The final line “It’s nine o’clock and I can still see everything” leaves the reader in the garden with Cope, as she sits "on the swing" crying at the growth around her, without telling us how to respond; will we cry with her? Are we frightened by an impulse to destroy what we hold dear? Or are we revelling in her description of it?
The work by her you have to check out is… ”Spared”. In this sixteen line, four stanza poem, prefaced by a quote by Emily Dickinson that “Love is all there is,// is all we know of love”, Cope addresses the 9/11 tragedy. She questions what it means to love in desperation, what it means to be grateful to go on loving and what it means to be newly aware of momentary, unfair luck in the face of inevitable pain. It’s a touchingly outside perspective that remains intensely bound up in its subject and yet self-awarely speaks to a universal condition of guilt, relief and fear. If you read it in tandem with To My Husband it’s really something very special - once again Cope mingles simplicity with depth, to speak something gut-wrenchingly true in terms that can only lead to hopefulness: magically unmagical.