Planet Literature has 360 degrees, naturally. It’s one of my favorite early-semester lectures. We read the Heart of Darkness, then we read T.S. Eliot, then we watch Apocalypse Now, and there’s a copy of The Golden Bough in the shot of Kurtz’s nightstand. The horror.
Translation: literature and culture are self-referential, sometimes accidentally and most of the time on purpose. Poets quote other poets, and then a critic draws the parallels, and then another poet references the critic, and a playwright uses a line from the poem in the title of her play, and the play itself becomes a cultural touchstone for a movement, or a generation, or an existential reality. As students, we chase through these overlapping circles of influence and reference and sometimes it’s fun and sometimes it’s annoying and sometimes it’s just something the professor wants us to write down to prove that he’s more savvy than we are. I was guilty of that a few weeks ago when I forced seventeen undergrads to admit that they had all read or watched the Hunger Games and not ONE of them had noticed that the citizens had Roman names and that the Games themselves were gladiator battles, the “circuses” of the Bread and Circuses alluded to by the country’s name, “Panem.” I gloated a little; I did.
Nobody plays “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon” anymore except possibly in the wee hours of a SAG-AFTRA conference, where, as I understand, it’s called “I’ve never worked with you, but I know you’ve worked with X, who worked with Y on Z, which I was in but got edited out of.” Whereupon everyone nods solemnly. I am playing my own version of that game right now, but instead of literature or movies it’s my life, through the lens of literature and movies, and at one end of the connecting chain is my Dan, and at the other is, of all people, Steve Coogan.
No, that’s right, that’s not a typo. (Even the WordPress text editor didn’t believe that. The squiggly red line cannot be induced to disappear unless I am willing to add “Coogan” to my dictionary, which given the circumstances might be prudent.)
Of course, there’s also a squiggly red line under “squiggly.” Mercy, there it is again.
1. Philip Seymour Hoffman was supposed to star in the new Showtime series “Happyish.” He’s been gone a year now, and two days ago I saw an article about how his partner “coped” (past tense) with his death and went back to work. I don’t comment on internet news articles, but if I had, it would have been a simple comment: A grammatical correction. She “is coping.” Conjugation and declension: I am coping. You are coping. She (pause) is coping. “Happyish” airs on Sunday nights, starring Steve Coogan.
2. I recently got myself back into the kitchen. My late mother and both grandmothers were exceptional Italian cooks, but since Dan’s death I had not so much as mixed a meatball or sauteed a cutlet or even “made the gravy.” It was too close to all four of them whom I’ve lost, and even certain cooking utensils (the “denty pan,” the schoolabasta [sic] and the double boiler, among others) still have his DNA on them, but college students WILL eat, and the latent Italian mother in me WILL cook. In order to tackle it from a fresh angle, one that does not reek of grief, I’ve started watching the Food Network and picking up on some restaurant and foodie jargon. Enough, anyway, to make sense of the nearly-incomprehensible phrases waiters utter over enormous white plates with splashes of “coloured bird shit.” As you might find in the restaurants in the North of England when you watch the BBC series “The Trip.” Or its follow-up, “The Trip to Italy,” featuring my father’s home, Naples. A series starring Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan.
3. The spring semester is coming to an end this week. In fact, if I were working instead of writing this, it would be over. As it is, it’s all over but the grading. I’ve got a pile of blue books from British Literature II, and nobody chose to write on Dickens and “Hard Times.” Instead, I will spend the rest of today reading about Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, and Shelley. Tintern Abbey, the French Revolution, freaking daffodils, and Xanadu. My lecture notes lay open on the table in front of me. One page shows all of the famous artistic representations of Shelley dead. He never looks bloated. As Rob Brydon noted upon examining those same paintings in “The Trip to Italy.” Co-starring Steve Coogan.
4. Because it’s spring, and the end of the semester, I (and the undergrads) reached a point of who-gives-a-crap during the penultimate lecture on Islam in PHI 204 Comparative Religion. Instead, I told them Jesus jokes that Dan used to repeat ad infinitum the summer of ’98 when my brother and I did a regional “Superstar.” Nine months on the road with Godspell in 1971 had given him a limited, and predictable, but surefire-laugh routine (“John…I can see your house from here.”) In that production of Superstar, our Jesus was played by a rising rock-musical performer named Constantine Maroulis. We didn’t so much get along; I was much fonder of Judas (Hi, Jim France!) But the rest of the Apostolic Chorus Girls were all over our sexy Jesus. You know, like the one on the indie film “Hamlet 2.” Starring Steve Coogan.
5. The PHI 261 Myth & Culture papers sit at my elbow. One topic choice was to examine Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces” motif, or Ovid, or Homer, through a modern film or book. I have read a couple on Harry Potter, one “Eragon,” two “Matrix,” several video games I can’t actually name and one that I hadn’t seen — a film called “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.” I sensed a Mount Olympus motif; deduced that “Percy” might be Perseus, and went on IMdb to confirm the rest. Look: Zeus is a character. So is Hades. Played by Steve Coogan.
6. Because…(bleep) I can’t even justify this one. (Bleep.) I just watched Around the World in 80 Days. I just (bleeping) watched it. Twice. In a row. Dan didn’t even like Jackie Chan, and Owen Wilson irritated him. But…and this is reaching, I know…one of his favorite attractions in Tomorrowland in Walt Disney World was a now-defunct exhibit called “Timekeeper” in which Robin Williams and Rhea Perleman play time-traveling robots who meet H.G. Welles and Jules Verne. Verne, who wrote “80 Days.” And Robin Williams was, as I noted after his death in August, in another Disney attraction Dan loved. Robin Williams. We lost him too, along with Dan and Philip Seymour Hoffman. He did his last on-screen line in “Night at the Museum.” With Owen Wilson. And Steve Coogan.
7. My favorite rock musician, Roger Meddows-Taylor, has a Facebook page. (I know, I know. Shoot me.) Periodically they post clips of rare performances. He really does not like Rupert Murdoch, and he once tried to save a football team from being bought up by him. He even wrote a song to demonstrate how much he really does not approve of him (“Dear Mr Murdoch”). I watched the video a few days ago when it was re-posted. Actually, many British celebrities really do not like Murdoch. You know, the whole phone-tapping thing and the following Freddie around when he was dying and suchlike. You know who went on BBC to bitch about Murdoch? Steve Coogan.
8. In graduate school, I had to read Sterne’s Tristram Shandy twice (once in a course on Satire and once in The Novel: Defoe to the Victorians.) It was one of those pieces of Planet Literature that Dan never bothered to read but took my word for it. He took my word on a lot of things, and it was only ever truly egregious when he would lecture the entire Data Center on Joyce simply because I had told him it was Bloomsday and he trusted me. (He had of course seen The Producers. He was, after all, Nathan Lane’s first Nicely-Nicely Johnson in Guys and Dolls [dinner theatre circa 1973.] But his Joyce began and ended with Donal Donnelly, Gabriel Byrne and Anjelica Huston in “The Dead.”) Must I? Oh, well. Tristram Shandy, the unfilmable novel, was filmed by Michael Winterbottom. Starred Steve Coogan.
9. Dan passed away during the spring semester 2013, so spring semesters are a little harder for me. Lots of associations. I had a student come chat with me a few days ago, who had been in American Lit II that semester. Asked me how I was doing; thought I seemed better. He did his paper on Henry James. Made an interesting argument on why some film adaptations of James work and why others should not be filmed. We discussed. “Turn of the Screw” and its various incarnations. (Sorry, psychological school of criticism: it’s a ghost story.) We left “The Ambassadors” mooted; both vetoed “The Golden Bowl.” You know what else? “What Maisie Knew.” I would have argued that the characters are just too unsympathetic for a screen. Nevertheless, it was tried. Now, the performances were good. Dan always loved Julianne Moore (especially in Boogie Nights). My friend Liz was at her award dinner this year; I saw some great pictures — damn did she deserve it. But that “Maisie” role is just devastating. So is that of the husband. Played by Steve Coogan.
The universe is trying to send a message to Planet Literature base camp. What the hell. Coogan, call me. Liz has my number. Ken Howard has hers.