Intensities in Ten Suburbs

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Take Five: Brit Lit I in Pop Culture

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on May 12, 2008

Had we but channels enough, and time

So, the day is finally upon us–that of my all-time last final as an undergraduate. I stressed out about it enough that I had to call in sick to my internship this morning, but ultimately I gave it the same ol’ Unterberger college try–good enough to pass, at least. So before I file all the info I spent the last 24 hours forcing into my brain against its will into the deepest recesses of my subconscious, as is standard practice once I put a class to bed for good, I thought I’d give what in all likelihood will be the last class I ever take at NYU a little tribute, IITS-style.

Now, as any decent dilligent pop culture scribe leading a double life as an English major (/ Journalism major) would, I survived the deadliest of my English classes through relating to what few links there were to be had to modern day PC. And British Literature I, while not quite as mind-numbing as American Lit I, was still pretty fucking dry. Nonetheless, a handful of quality touchstones emerged, enough to give me the necessary chuckle to keep me stuffing poems, tragedies and essays into my head for the next two hours.

  • John Milton in The Devil’s Advocate. Skimming through parts of Paradise Lost, I came across the line “Better to reign in hell / than to serve in heaven.” Instantly I was transported to the climactic scene between Keanu Reeves and Al Pacino in The Devil’s Advocate, the all-time apex of Shouty Al Pacino and one of the quintessential basic cable O-Watchers, where His Woahness quotes the line. Then it occured to me–hey, isn’t the name of SAP’s character in that movie John Milton? Taylor Hackford, you sly dog.
  • Sir Walter Raleigh in Elizabeth: The Golden Age. Not exactly the poppiest of PC, but I couldn’t read through Sir Raleigh’s first-person account of “The Discovery of the Large, Rich and Beautiful Empire of Guiana” without thinking of the only watchable scene in Elizabeth: The Golden Age–where Clive Owen, hamming it up as the legendary explorer, presents his recent imports to Elizabeth. “POTATO! You eat it…very nourishing! TOBACCO! You smoke it….very STIMULATING!” Although, according to my book, Raleigh was “known for his violent temper, his dramatic sense of life, his extravagant dress…” so perhaps Owen wasn’t so far off.
  • “Was This the Face That Launched a Thousand Ships..?” in Shakespeare in Love. When Joseph Fiennes (who, by the way,  is almost interchangable with Clive Owen when both are in 16th century English garb) as William Shakespeare hears dozens of auditioners try out for Romeo & Ethel the Pirate’s Daughter with this Marlowe monologue. Watching the movie I always figured it was from some lousy, badly dated comedy that was entirely devoted to Helen of Troy, much to my surprise, it’s actually some near-throwaway speech from the second to last scene in Dr. Faustus. I guess that makes this monologue the 17th century equivalent to “Seasons of Love” from RENT, then.
  • “No Man is an Island” in About a Boy. I can’t believe anyone read through enough of John Donne’s “Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions” to get to the unremarkable section of Meditation 4, in which Donne’s famous quote appears. It was worth it, however, if for no other reason than the opening scene in About a Boy where Hugh Grant’s character watches a question about the speaker of the quote appear on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? (His guess: The joke “D” answer, Jon Bon Jovi). Of course, the quote goes on to be one of the central themes of the movie, as Grant initially believes the quote to be untrue but through the power of paternal affection turns out to need people after all. Hey, the song is “It’s My Life,” not “It’s Me and This Weirdo Kid’s Life,” right?
  • Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in My So-Called Life. Also known as “the one that starts My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun,” the one all about how Shakespeare’s love isn’t particularly beautiful, nice-sounding or sweet-smelling, but he digs her anyway, much like Dave Clark Five’s backwardly complimentary “You Got What it Takes.” The awkward, gay English teacher is leading a discussion on this in the show when both Brian Krakow and Jordan Catelano both immediately understand the poem, relating it to their respective infatuations with Angela. Now c’mon–sure, she looked a lot better in William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet (ironically enough), but Claire Danes was never really that much of a dog, was she? Plus, she looks like she smells just fine.
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3 Responses to “Take Five: Brit Lit I in Pop Culture”

  1. […] time Buffalo started 3-1? 1999. Just to think how long ago that was remember these 1999 fun facts: Shakespeare in Love won Best Picture at the Oscars; Napster debuted; and Rome NY was ablaze from Woodstock patrons. […]

  2. Jason L said

    As a fellow English/Journalism major, I deeply empathized/laughed along with this post. I just took a 19th-century American Lit class, and here were some of my PC comparisons: Frederick Douglass was a lot like Al Sharpton; Emerson and Thoreau were really similar to Paris Hilton and Britney Spears; and if Sylvester Stallone was a bit gayer, he’d be a dead ringer for Walt Whitman (maybe I should explain those comparisons, but it’s kinda fun leaving them up for interpretation). Anyway, congrats on finishing your undergrad classes, and thanks for this post.

  3. Jack H. said

    Yep, same boat here. Same book this semester, too, for Renaissance British Lit. My proudest moments: This semester, I realized that Satan’s conversations to himself/ the audience/ God (and God’s responses to his bullshit rhetoric) sounded a lot like the Elvis Costello song “Lip Service.” My prof is a crazy older woman who had no idea what I was talking about but thought it sounded interesting and asked me for a copy of the song. Pretty sweet, I’d say.

    Also, when I took Old English/ Medieval Brit Lit (this time with a much younger guy), we were asked to compare Langland’s Piers Ploughman with Chaucer on the final exam. I wrote a long, detailed exam where I called Langland the Public Enemy of the Middle English world (since he was all serious all the time and really concerned about stuff) while Chaucer was the Beastie Boys of his day. I’m pretty sure I also got some sort of Seinfeld reference in there as well.

    I got an A (which, coincidentally, bumped my overall grade from D to C+). Maybe it helped that my prof had seen them together in concert like 5 times while he was in college…

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