Tuesday, 24 May 2011
The Piano (Jane Campion, 1993) – Silence, Thomas Hood – Yes ok I’ve gone and saved the best till last; a personal favourite. Quite possibly the most stunning ending to a movie you could ever wish for as Ada McGrath’s (Holly Hunter) voice speaks to us through the words of Thomas Hood as she disappears for a new life with Harvey Keitel. This moment is made all the more poignant by the fact that Ada McGrath is a mute character who spends the film having to find other ways than words to express her emotions.
There is a silence where hath been no sound,
There is a silence where no sound may be,
In the cold grave–under the deep, deep sea,
Ok, I know what you’re thinking: where’s Rudyard Kipling in Apocalypse Now? W B Yeats in Million Dollar Baby? Or even poems from Blade Runner, The History Boys and of course Invictus. Any thoughts on what I’ve missed out in this series will be gratefully received. With only 10 entries there obviously isn’t room for all of them. The quest for the perfect movie poem continues…
Memphis Belle (William Wyler, 1990) – An Irish Airman Foresees His Death, W B Yeats. When Eric Stoltz and his squadron go off on another bombing raid in World War II they understand they may never return. Who can resist the poignant reciting of Yeats’s famous poem from this hugely popular World War II picture? Yeats’s words perfectly reflect the sense of loss associated with war and raises questions about whether the loss we experience during such times is always necessary.
I balanced all
Brought all to mind
The years to come
Seemed waste of breath
A waste of breath
The years behind
In balance with this life
Seabiscuit (Gary Ross, 2003) – Emily Dickinson, We Never Know. Based on a novel about an underdog of a racehorce Seabiscuit is a film that beautifully documents an against-all-odds yarn during the tail end of The Great Depression. It stars Jeff Bridges and Tobey Maguire who are trying to coax Seabiscuit into fulfilling his true potential and simultaneously solve their financial difficulties. Dickinson’s words deliciously accent the formidable challenge and adversity they face:
We never know how high we are
Till we are called to rise;
And then, if we are true to plan,
Our statures touch the skies.
In Her Shoes (Curtis Hanson, 2005) – One Art, Elizabeth Bishop. Who would have thought that a drama about an old people’s home could have generated so much bittersweet emotion as In Her Shoes did? Cameron Diaz, as the wild-hearted Maggie, attempts to read One Art by Elizabeth Bishop to one of her elderly patients – one who is sympathetic to the difficulties she has with reading. As the plot progresses and unearths itself the words of the poem become increasingly poignant to the characters and to the audience. The poetry in this film beautifully reflects an undercurrent of loss that courses through a splintered family.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Clockwork Mice (Vadim Jean, 1995) – The Song of the Ungirt Runners, C H Sorley. Clockwork Mice is a little-known British gem starring Ian Hart who starts a running club at a challenging school. It is through poetry and physical sporting activities that Hart manages to make a connection with his most difficult students. The film itself deals with extremely raw and sensitive issues and thus the choice of C H Sorley, a poet who died in the first world war, is in many ways a fitting one. The film features a truly stirring poem which provides a calm counter-balance to the difficult environment where the characters work.
The rain is on our lips,
We do not run for prize.
But the storm the water whips
And the wave howls to the skies.
The winds arise and strike it
And scatter it like sand,
And we run because we like it
Through the broad bright land.
The 25th Hour (Spike Lee, 2002) – To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell. Take a film directed by Spike Lee, starring Edward Norton as , convicted New York drug dealer, Monty Brogan living out his final day of freedom before a jail term. Stir in topical post-9/11 references that force the audience to examine the nature of humanity and society. Then add in Philip Seymour Hoffman as a lecturer reciting To His Coy Mistress to his students. The poem simultaneously acts as a metaphor for the day’s events meaning that, as with many of the poems I have featured in this series, the poem becomes inextricably woven into the narrative of the film. A thread that would leave a gaping hole were it ever to be unpicked:
Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Through the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
Must Love Dogs (Gary David Goldberg, 2005) – Brown Penny, W B Yeats. An amazing oasis of calm in a middling and seriously mediocre John Cusack RomCom, but when Christopher Plummer recites this poem to his daughter, you can hear a pin drop.
I whispered, 'I am too young,'
And then, 'I am old enough';
Wherefore I threw a penny
To find out if I might love.
Sophie’s Choice (Alan J Pakula, 1982) – Ample Make This Bed, Emily Dickinson. Meryl Streep, Peter MacNicol and Kevin Kline star in this book-to-film adaptation. It is a movie of suffering, atonement and redemption and the narrative is sensitively framed by the poem: Ample Make This Bed by Emily Dickinson. Streep reportedly begged for this part and her Oscar-winning performance is very obviously personally poignant (she was a relatively new mother when this film was shot and found the filming of the “choice” scene so emotionally draining she refused to do a re-take). Emily Dickinson’s words complement her hauntingly honest stint as Polish immigrant Sophie:
Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.
Yesterday I began looking at some of the best uses of poetry in the pictures. Below you can find the second instalment. A touching choice, if I do say so myself.
Truly Madly Deeply (Anthony Minghella, 1990) – The Dead Woman, Pablo Neruda. Truly Madly Deeply is a bit of a forgotten gem as it came out the same year as Ghost (1990) and was along very similar lines. Of course, not being a Demi Moore vehicle and being comparatively under-hyped, Truly Madly Deeply was infinitely better. It starred Juliet Stevenson and Alan Rickman and was one of Anthony Minghella’s classic early works about love, loss and the importance of moving on (told you it was along similar lines to Ghost). Pablo Neruda’s poem is used in a pivotal point in the film, translated from the Spanish. Its significance in relation to the situation the characters are facing undoubtedly makes it one of the best poetry picks in the pictures:
if you, my beloved,
my love, have died
All the leaves,
will fall on my breasts.
It will rain on my soul,
All day, all night.
My feet will want to march,
to where you are sleeping.
but I must go on living.
Mention poetry in the movies to most people and they will instantly start ranting about the funeral scene in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994). W H Auden’s Funeral Blues – aka Stop all the Clocks – gave depth to what was, on the surface, a frothy Rom-Com about upper class friends doing not a great deal really except … going to weddings. John Hannah reading this particular poem at this particular moment challenged the audience on a deeper emotional level and afterwards many of us rushed out to buy it; a collector’s version was printed with a movie-tie in cover.
In the unlikely event that Four Weddings doesn’t get a mention in your impromptu discussion on film poetry Dead Poets Society (1989) is bound to come up. That scene where Ethan Hake stands up on the desk and addresses Robin Williams with Walt Whitman’s O Captain My Captain – O, how we sobbed! The fact that both of these scenes have been career-defining, providing a springboard for the careers of both John Hannah and Robin Williams, is a testament to the power of poetry when used sensitively on film.
In Her Shoes (2005) was not a perfect film but Cameron Diaz reading e e cummings’s “i carry your heart” to Toni Collette at her wedding certainly choked me at the time. Maybe it’s a wedding thing, but I wasn’t exactly crying my heart out when Julia Roberts and Richard Gere tied the knot in Runaway Bride (1999) so I’m going to put it down to the poetry. It brings with it an untouchable sense of calm; it heals. In a fast-moving world there’s something almost primal about its reliable rhythm.
But are we really so easy to manipulate? Surely it has to be the right poem to affect us in just the right way? Hollywood tends to favour Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, W B Yeats and e e cummings. In Robert Redford’s Quiz Show (1994) the plot hinged on the presumption that the entirety of the American population knew Hope by Emily Dickinson by heart! Of course just because Hollywood favours something, it doesn’t make it right – look at The Tourist (2010) for goodness sake! There are other poets out there and indeed other ways of using their words than a simple reading. Over the next ten days I’ll be publishing ten excerpts from ten poems from the pictures that, in my opinion, left a truly lasting impression. Starting with this one:
GIRL, INTERRUPTED (JAMES MANGOLD, 1999) – RÉSUMÉ, DOROTHY PARKER:
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
This film starred Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie. Jolie ended up, in the critics’ opinion, stealing the show, winning herself an Oscar for best supporting actress in the process. Her performance was undeniably memorable but she did have a little help with the acerbic poem Résumé by Dorothy Parker.