Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Once More Into the Fray: The Remediation of Poetry in Liam Neeson's The Grey

Anyone notice that—like G.I. Jane (1997) and The Expendables (2010)—the 2011 Liam Neeson flick The Grey ends with a poem? Yup: it's a four line verse titled "The Fray" that main character Ottway (played by Neeson, a trained hunter hired to protect oil workers from wolves in Alaska) remembers hanging in a frame over the desk in his father's den and that runs through his head (and in flashback on the screen) as he prepares to make a last stand against a wolf pack that has been pursuing him and systematically offing the other survivors of a plane crash in Alaska. (Check out the movie's last scene in the first video clip at the end of this posting; for some reason, btw, the scene has been transposed on the youtube clip so that the poem appears as a mirror image of the original and reads backwards [it reads forward in the original]; you'll get the idea nonetheless).

The Grey does G.I. Jane and The Expend- ables one better, though, as the poem (pictured here) doesn't just end the movie but provides the frame mechanism for the entire narrative itself (it's even quoted on the movie poster). Indeed, at the beginning of the film—during a heavy-handed montage that shows Ottway killing wolves, lying in bed with his wife whom we eventually learn has died, writing a final letter to her about how miserable his life has become, flashing back to what we eventually learn is his childhood, and making preparations to commit suicide—the poem's words run through his head as part of a voice-over, presumably a section of what he's writing in his final letter. At this point, though, we don't even know it's a poem. In fact, the clash of discursive registers between it and what he's thinking is a little confusing: "I want to see your face, feel your hands in mine, feel you against me. And I know that will never be. You left me. And I can’t get you back … I don’t know why I’m writing this. I don’t know what can come of it. I know I can’t get you back … I don’t know why this has happened to us. I feel like it’s me. Bad luck. Poison … And I’ve stopped doing this world any real good...," he writes. Ottway pauses, then adds the poem's first two lines, "Once more into the fray—into the last good fight I'll ever know." The camera shows Ottway putting a rifle muzzle into his mouth, and then we hear the poem's final lines, "Live and die on this day...  Live and die on this day..."

What we don't know at the beginning of the movie— that he's remem- bering a poem, that his father wrote it, that it hung above his father's desk in the den—gets cleared up partway through the film, after the plane crash, after lots of competition for the Alpha position among the crash survivors, and after the men seek shelter in the woods. There, around a campfire, as the wolves surround them in the darkness, and as one of their group is hallucinating in the process of dying from hypoxia, the men start sharing their stories—about sex, faith, family, and whatever source of inspiration keeps them fighting. Ottway, by this point established as the group's Alpha, tells part of his story and, in an extended scene, flashes back to his childhood. Here's what he says:
My dad, uh, my dad was not without love. But a clich├ęd Irish motherfucker when he wanted to be—drinker, brawler, all that stuff. Never shed a tear. Saw weakness everywhere. But he had this thing for poems—poetry. Readin' 'em, quotin' em. Probably thought it rounded him off. His way of apologizing, I guess. There was one that hung over his desk in the den. It was only when I was a lot older did I realize that he'd written it. It was untitled—four lines. I read it at his funeral: "Once more into the fray / Into the last good fight I'll ever know / Live and die on this day / Live and die on this day."
A clap of thunder sounds. Ottway concludes, "Storm clouds." And the men turn their attention back to the present.

So, by the last scene of the movie, then, we've heard the poem twice, and we've seen it—or at least the paper it's written on—several other times as Ottway has stored the letter in which it's written in his wallet and saved it from the plane's burning wreckage. Ottway is the only one left alive, and he's somehow managed to stumble into the wolves' den, metaphor that it is for all of his unresolved issues. Surrounded by bones, standing in the falling snow, and ringed by the wolf pack, he kneels down, makes a pile of all the wallets that he's been collecting from everyone who's died, and adds his own to the stack. He flashes back to the woman we saw him thinking about and writing to in the film's opening montage, and we realize now, for the first time, that she she didn't leave him but died, perhaps of cancer. Then he tapes a dagger to one hand, breaks a bunch of airplane liquor bottles against a rock so that they become weapons, and tapes them to his other hand. Thus armed for his final stand, he flashes back again to his dad's den where the poem hangs on the wall. (You get get it, don't you? Wolf den=dad's den?) He says, "Once more into the fray."

Then, as you can see for yourself in the backwards video clip below, the camera shows us the poem. But what's remarkable about this scene is that we don't see the typewritten poem clearly at first. Rather, in becoming a metaphor for his life, which has slowly come into focus over the course of the film, the poem is blurry at first and is brought into focus and made readable by the camera, letting the audience experience in miniature Ottway's journey toward clarity. With the poem newly readable, Ottway repeats it a final time:
Once more into the fray...
Into the last good fight I'll ever know...
Live and die on this day...
Live and die on this day...
When the camera takes us away from Ottway's father's den and back to the wolf den, we see Ottway still mouthing the words to the poem. We see him next as a boy sitting on his father's lap. We see the woods. We have a close-up on his eyes. We hear a growl that may come from him or from the wolves. Then Ottway leaps forward toward the viewer, and the camera goes black.

Back when we discussed G.I. Jane, P&PC argued that the last scene of that movie (in which the camera helped us to read and interpret an annotated print version of D.H. Lawrence's poem "Self Pity") positioned the film's director—and, by extension, the medium of film—as a type of literary critic better suited than the pencil, pen, or book to the interpretation of poetry in the age of new media. In the last scene of The Grey we see a similar thing happening all over again, as it's not the emotional content of the poem, per se, or the conclusions we as an audience come to about the significance of the poem via our own reading or someone else's annotations, but, rather, the film's treatment of the poem in its various forms that becomes the most important (or at least the most foregrounded) expressive and interpretive act, heavy handed in its metaphor though it may be.

It is, after all, the camera—a piece of technology whose multimodal capacities add to the emotion, interiority, and clarity of insight typically associated with poetry—that makes the verse readable, literally giving us a focus that we did not have previously. As the external manifestation of Ottway's internal state, the movie thus positions film (not the poem, letter, or typewritten document) as the most complete expression of the human psyche, able to bring together and synthesize Ottway's thinking (the memorized poem), speaking (the recited poem), writing (the letter to his wife), and typewriting (the version of the poem on the wall of Ottway's father's den) as no other medium can. That is, thanks to film, we can see the poem thought, spoken, written, and typewritten all at the same time.

You might be asking yourself, how can poetry compete with this tour-de-force and with all the resources that film has at its disposal? Well, we here at P&PC think that maybe that's the wrong question to be asking. As Henry Jenkins writes in his Introduction to Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, "[O]nce a medium establishes itself as satisfying some core human demand, it continues to function within the larger system of communication options. Once recorded sound becomes a possibility, we have continued to develop new and improved means of recording and playing back sound. Printed words did not kill spoken words. Cinema did not kill theater. Television did not kill radio. Each old medium was forced to coexist with the emerging media....Old media are not being displaced. Rather, their functions and status are shifted by the introduction of new technologies" (14). In other words, maybe The Gray and films like it aren't in the process of disparaging or one-upping poetry (as we've previously argued) so much as they are grounding themselves and their own credibility in poetry and, in the process, opening new possibilities for experiencing poetry. Rather than experiencing the poem solely as a print artifact, for example, The Gray lets us experience it in many media simultaneously.

As a medium, poetry more than just survived the transition from oral culture to written culture (no one today would advocate for going back to a purely oral or spoken poetry). Then it more than just survived the transition from written culture to print culture (no one would advocate for abandoning printed books and going back to only handwritten poetry). Along its long history of remediation, poetry only got more and more complex and more and more aesthetically rich, retaining aspects of its previous media manifestations and mixing those with new ones. As obsessed with the past as Neeson's story in The Gray may be (Ottway's dead father, his dead lover, etc.), the film may nevertheless be pointing us to the future of poetry.