Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Punxsutawney Poetry

It's a blustery, cold and icy day here in Iowa City, the sort of day that leaves "Poetry & Popular Culture" wishing for either the end of winter or a swanky winter home in Boca Raton—or both. But finding neither, we turn for solace to one of our favorite movies about the end of winter, the 1993 Harold Ramis film Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a cranky, self-centered misanthrope doomed to repeat the same day over and over until he finally learns to love humanity and thereby earns the affections of his producer Rita, played by Andie MacDowell.

In 1996, Groundhog Day earned a spot on the United States Film Registry as a "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant" film. Could it have been for all of the poetry in the movie? "Poetry & Popular Culture" thinks maybe so. Over the course of the story, after all, Connor learns to love humanity by learning to properly love poetry as well. In an early attempt to land Rita in the sack, for example, he quotes a verse from the French poet Jacques Brel. Later, he quotes a Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem. And toward the end of the movie, as Rita dozes by his side, he is shown holding Harriet Monroe's Poems for Every Mood and reading aloud to her (Rita, not Harriet) from Joyce Kilmer's "Trees." Far be it from "Poetry & Popular Culture" to underestimate the kismetic qualities of Kilmer; when Connor wakes up the next morning, Rita is still by his side, the curse is broken, and Connor begins the rest of his life as a new man.

Our favorite scene here at "Poetry & Popular Culture," however, comes early in the movie before Phil begins the self-improvement program that sets himself on the road to existential recovery. In that scene, Rita and Phil are sitting at a table at the Tip Top Cafe where Rita watches Phil hedonistically embrace his newfound immortality by stuffing himself with rich, calorie-laden foods. A buffet of flapjacks, donuts, and frosted cakes stretches between them, and Rita stares in disbelief as Phil drinks straight from a pitcher of coffee. Here's part of their exchange.

Rita: Don’t you worry about cholesterol, lung cancer, love handles...?

Phil [lighting a cigarette]: I don’t worry about anything ... anymore.

Rita: What makes you so special? Everybody worries about something

Phil: That’s exactly what makes me so special. I don’t even have to floss.

[Here, much to Rita's obvious disgust, Phil stuffs an entire piece of frosted cake in his mouth. A dab of frosting sticks to his cheek where it remains for the rest of this exchange.]

Rita: Uh!

Phil: What?

Rita: The wretch concentered all in self,
living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And doubly dying shall go down
to the vile dust from whence he sprung
unwept, unhonor'd, and unsung .... Sir Walter Scott.

[Murray laughs]

Rita: What, you don’t like poetry?

Murray: I love poetry. I just thought that was Willard Scott. I was confused.

For those of you who are curious, Rita is quoting from the sixth canto of Scott's The Lay of the Last Minstrel. Apparently, those French poetry majors—not to mention Ramis and his Hollywood collaborators—know their British poetry pretty well too.