Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Poetry in Motion (Pictures) Part 1

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:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
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.

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