Saturday, February 12, 2011

G.I. Jane & D.H. Lawrence

A couple of weeks ago, P&PC noticed that The Expen- dables—Sylvester Stallone's 2010 testos- terone-filled vehicle for a fraternity house of fading action heroes— unexpectedly ends with a poem. Well, wouldn't you know it: right after that post went up, the P&PC Office interns were having their annual Demi Moore film festival, and they came back to report that Moore's 1997 flick G.I. Jane ends with a poem too. Early in the movie (see clip #1 below) Navy SEAL Master Chief John Urgayle recites D.H. Lawrence's "Self-Pity" while inspecting his recruits:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

Then, sort of like a Chekhovian gun, Lawrence's poem reappears in the film's final scene—after Moore has shaved her head, after she's endured brutal hazing and abuse during training, and after she's distinguished herself in action in part by saving Urgayle's life—where it becomes part of a gift that, along with the Navy Cross, Urgayle gives to Moore as an expression of gratitude and apology (clip #2 below).

We're proud of the interns for noticing this, of course, but we're even more proud for what they had to say about it. The gift, they argued, is obviously meant to signal the transformation that's taken place in Urgayle—he's accepted a woman into the masculine world of the SEALS, is now a bigger and better person, and is apologizing for the abuse Moore suffered at his hands—but that transformation is expressed not simply because Lawrence's poem is present but because Urgayle interprets it differently than he did earlier in the film. That is, his transformation is visible not only because he acts (and promises to act) differently than before, but because he reads (and promises to read) differently as well.

Early in the film, Urgayle uses "Self-Pity" to model soldier comportment by comparing human activity to that of the animal kingdom; soldiers, he suggests—drawing a one to one correspondence between humans and the poem's wild things—should be like animals and not feel sorry for themselves. But as the camerawork in the final scene indicates, however, Urgayle's changed self reads the poem in reverse—that human beings are capable of emotional and communicative heights that the animal kingdom of "Self-Pity" is not. We see this especially when the camera, under Ridley Scott's direction, focuses in on Urgayle's marked-up copy of "Self-Pity" and especially on the repeated word "sorry." While the camera doesn't quite cut off the poem's final two words ("for itself"), it certainly comes close, centering our attention instead on the apology Urgayle is using the poem to express. Wild things, the camera helps us understand, don't feel sorry, but human beings like Urgayle do. In the process of becoming a different human being, the movie suggests, Urgayle's become a different reader too.

The P&PC interns liked the look of Urgayle's heavily-marked paperback; both the ballpoint underlining of "The Mosquito Knows" and the red pencil circling of "Self-Pity" suggest he's read and thought about the poems many times. What stood out for them, therefore, was how his final reading of the poem went unmarked by pen. He could, they argued, have very easily circled the word "sorry" in order to make his new interpretation clear. What ultimately "underlines" the text, however, is the camera, so that if this final scene is in fact an act of literary interpretation, that activity is not conducted on the page by Urgayle himself, but, instead, by the filmmaker for the benefit of the viewer. (Could we therefore read G.I. Jane not as a movie about women in the military but as an English Department lecture about how to read Lawrence's poem?) In the process, the pencil markings on the page (and the act of handwriting marginalia) become remnants of Urgayle's earlier and reprehensible self, while the acts of seeing and filming are linked to his later, more sophisticated and certainly more human self. So, while the end of G.I. Jane is designed to demonstrate Urgayle's transformation, the movie uses that narrative cover to wage a sort of smear campaign against the page and the power of the pen, casting them as remedial and less human technologies when compared to the more sophisticated interpretive and emotional technology of film. At the end of the day, it's Hollywood—not Urgayle, not Moore, and not even your English teacher—who is the most credible literary critic.

See what you think about this by watching the two clips here. Sorry about the low quality of the second one, but it's the only version of the film's final scene we could find.


tjpfau said...

Hat's off to your interns.

That movie's been stuck in my head as an unfinished item and I wasn't quite sure why. They went a long way to clearing it up.

It is about how to read D.H. Lawrence, exactly right, and I believe I'll spend the rest of the day doing that again.


Unknown said...

Hello. I'm trying to find out the author/poem of another poem the Master Chief cites in GI JANE:
It's my favorite 'line' ever and I must know where it's from. Please Help!!!! Something to the effect of :


Please help...would love to know if that's another Dh Lawrence or someone else?
or home phone 206-402-3879

Lyssa Barber said...

It's from Pablo Neruda's Book of Questions.