Thursday, August 12, 2010

Poetry & the Movies: The Hot Tub Rhyme Machine

Regular P&PC readers might have surmised by now that someone in the P&PC office has an abiding interest in Hollywood's ongoing relationship with poetry. Not only are there lots of movies explicitly about poets and poetry, but film after film—ranging from Citizen Kane to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Long Hot Summer, Groundhog Day, and Fight Club (just to name a few)—makes use of poetry as a plot device, as shorthand for one type of character development or another, or (seemingly) as an almost entirely gratuitous detail.

Think back to Woody Allen's 1977 masterpiece Annie Hall, for example. Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) have just met while playing tennis. She gives him a harrowing ride home, weaving in and out of traffic on New York's narrow streets, and ultimately invites him to her place for a glass of wine. There—on what is more or less their first date—Alvy peruses Annie's bookshelves and pulls out a copy of Sylvia Plath's Ariel. Here's that exchange:

Alvy: Sylvia Plath. Interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.

Oh yeah. Right. Well, I don’t know. I mean, some of her poems seem neat.
Alvy: Neat?

Annie: Neat, yeah.

Alvy: I hate to tell you, this is 1975, you know? Neat went out, I would say, at the turn of the century.

Predictable? Maybe in Annie Hall. But what about Steve Pink's 2010 comedy Hot Tub Time Machine in which three unhappy friends—Adam (John Cusack), Lou (Rob Corddry), and Nick (Craig Robinson)—are transported, along with Adam's teenage nephew Jacob (Clark Duke), back to "Winterfest '86" which was a pivotal weekend in all of their lives. Caught between the need to recreate the past exactly (so that the future is unaffected and Jacob still gets born) and an understandable desire to change the events that led to their current unhappiness, the three are forced in hilarious fashion to re-live and/or revise some of their most humiliating moments: Lou gets abandoned by his friends and beaten up by the psychotic head of the ski patrol; Nick gets a second chance to rock the house at what was an otherwise uninspiring concert the first time around; and Adam gets a second shot at finding the woman of his dreams.

Part of Adam's respon- sibility in this process is to recreate his break up with his high school girlfriend Jennie, who stabbed him in the eye for splitting with her the first time around. This time, however, Adam is fraught by second thoughts and delays the break, giving Jennie time to beat him to the punch. (She gives Adam a break-up note but still ends up stabbing him in the eye.) Devastated to have things turn out even worse than they did the first time around (or so he thinks), Adam retreats to his hotel room and gets stoned out of his mind. This is where Jacob finds him: in darkness, wallowing in self-pity while listening to The Cutting Crew's song "(I Just Died) In Your Arms Tonight," and—what else?—writing poetry. Here's that scene:

Jacob: Adam, hey. Thank God you’re back. Awesome. What’s going on here? Where are the guys?

[Cusack hands him the breakup note.]

What’s this?

[Jacob reads] "Dear Adam, you are a super terrific guy, and I love you, which is why this is so hard for me. I cherish our friendship…”

[Jacob laughs]

She broke up with you? And you still fucking got stabbed in the eye?

Adam [while writing]: Leave me alone. Get out of here.

Jacob: What are you doing here? Are you writing poetry?

Adam: Just leave me alone and get out of here. No.

Jacob: You’re writing fucking break-up poetry.

Adam: Alright, I’m writing break-up poetry, ok? … Because my heart hurts.

Jacob [looking around at all the drugs]: What is this shit? You’re wasted!

Adam: I’ve had like two wine kills, Captain Buzzcooler. God!

Jacob: You’re fucked up.

[Jacob picks up Adam's poem and reads]

"Jennie’s eyes,
like a gypsy’s lies,
cut right through the night.
Now those eyes
are another guy’s,
and I’m alone with my pain."

Adam: That was clean!

Jacob: Are you shitting me with this, Adam!?

Adam: Look, you can recite it straight or to the tune of "Sweet Child O’ Mine." It doesn’t matter.

Jacob: Are these mushrooms? Did you eat these mushrooms, Adam?

Adam: I like to eat 'em, you know. A couple of 'em.

Jacob: Holy fuck, man, you gotta stay straight. You’ve got to help me get the guys back.

Adam: You know, it’s not always about my emotional journey. It can be about yours.

Jacob: Put the coke down!

It's a funny, riotous scene in which the grown-up Adam revisits the genre of teenage poetry, and the ridiculousness of the entire endeavor (aside from the Guns N Roses homage, of course) serves to illustrate in miniature why the three adult men can't be entirely held hostage by the past. No matter how much poetry may express longing for a time it can't recover (as in pastoral poetry), or despite poetry's attempt to escape time altogether (as in many conceptions of the lyric), time must move forward and the guys must re-enter and make history. As if suggesting this very thing, the movie interrupts the argument between Adam and Jacob with the arrival of Chevy Chase who plays "the mystical time travel guide guy" come to remind them—as the thunder and lightning of a Romantic poem storm in the background—that the hot tub time portal will be closing soon. To get things done (or to make things happen, as Auden might put it), one needs more than the self-indulgence or reflection that poetry as a genre offers; one needs a plan or a plot to move forward in time (and/or through the pain of a breakup)—the exact thing, or so the movie's logic goes, that Hollywood provides that poetry cannot.

What all these movies have in common— Hot Tub Time Machine, Annie Hall, Citizen Kane, Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Groundhog Day, and Fight Club—is their substantial focus on moving through time in one way or another. In Steve Pink's comedy, that movement is backwards and forwards; in Groundhog Day, Bill Murray is stuck repeating the same day over and over; in Fight Club and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, characters completely lose sense of time when they change into their alter egos. And Annie Hall and Citizen Kane are about sorting through the past, reflecting on what is now unattainable and what might have been. Thus, at some level, all these films must confront the fact that they are treading on poetry's traditional and culturally-sanctioned terrain, and they solve the resulting rivalry in different ways, all of which end up—no surprise here—privileging the technology of film and leaving P&PC, like Adam in Hot Tub Time Machine, alone with our pain.


Brian S said...

Cusack's done that before, though not in an explicitly time travel movie. There's a scene in Grosse Pointe Blank at the high school reunion where the drunken car salesman buttonholes Cusack's hit man character in the hallway with a similar poem. Now I'm tempted to go back though Cusack's career and see how many other times he's done the same thing.

Mike Chasar said...

Thanks Brian! I guess I know what movie is going on the P&PC office Netflix queue next. The fairly recent Cusack/Freeman movie "The Contract" also had poetry in it, but Freeman was the one quoting it, not Cusack.

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