What recent movies artfully explored philosophical ideas and questions, or complicated political or ethical issues that previously seemed straightforward?
When we are grieving, is it a good idea or a bad idea to engage with art that takes grief to be its subject? Does this help us to cope, or does it rip out whatever stitches we have managed to sew in while we try to bear an unbearable loss?
I recently read Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven, and then watched the HBO mini-series adaptation. Josh and I were planning to talk about the TV version on this year’s “Dionysus Awards,” but there were so many amazing films to talk about that we just didn't have time to fit it in.
Both the novel and the series are about disease, death, and dread, and mourning on a global scale. Exactly what we all want more of right now! So why did I love them so much, even though they offer up situations that are painful to imagine?
Mandel's Station Eleven is about art, and grief, and how the one tries to address the other. The plot involves a pandemic that pretty much ends our contemporary civilization; 20 years later, some people have survived. But there's no more TikTok and no more microwave popcorn and no more penicillin. We follow a group of characters who travel from town to town bringing Shakespeare to the traumatized survivors, and the afterlife of a mysterious graphic novel which many find inspirational, indeed almost mystical.
The novel wrestles with what I would call cultural grief: how do we, how can we, mourn a culture that is gone? By conjuring up a world in which our world has abruptly died, Mandel helps us see what is vital about our world, and what is trivial, what we should hold close and what we should stop valuing. The grief of the survivors provokes us to make decisions about what is truly valuable about the life we are still living, both individually and collectively.
The miniseries does this work, too, impressively. But what's great about the miniseries is its self-reflexivity: it is a work of art that pushes us to reflect on the power of works of art, the power that works of art may have to help us survive the unavoidable losses of being human.
There's a gorgeous scene in Episode 2 where the protagonist performs a monologue from Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 2. The brilliant performance by Mackenzie Davis as Kirsten, as well as the masterful flashbacks to an earlier traumatic moment in Kirsten’s life, offer an image of productive repetition: maybe art can allow us to relive a horror, and the reliving of that horror gives us some reckoning, some loosening of the grip of trauma; a repetition that—although backward-looking, to a younger self, to a play written in 1604—allows us to have the courage to look forward.