Pandaemonium, a 2000 movie directed by Julien Temple, sounds like it should be about Milton’s hell. It isn’t. It’s actually about the inside of Coleridge’s head—which, according to the film, is pretty much the same thing. Pandaemonium tells the story of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship from the latter’s laudanum-doused perspective, tracking the pair from their imagined first meeting at a rally in 1795 to Coleridge’s implosion at Southey’s Happy Laureate party in 1813. (Byron, for the record, looks on bemusedly). Along the way, it spices things up by adding a romance between Coleridge and a cleavage-bearing Wollstonecraftian Dorothy, prophetic visions of fighter jets and oil spills, and a reading of “Tintern Abbey” as a poetic walk-of-(incestuous!)-shame.
I love terrible Romantic biopics, so for obvious reasons, this film has a special place in my heart—right next to Ken Russell’s Gothic, Ivan Passer’s Haunted Summer, and a recent Movie-That-Shall-Not-Be-Named starring a coughy Ben Whishaw. But does it have a place in the classroom?
Showing movie clips in class, to me, always runs the risk of seeming gimmicky. For all their glee at a mention of Lady Gaga, students dislike feeling pandered to, and in-class movies can sometimes feel like a bone tossed by an exhausted instructor who needs an easy “in” to a resistant text. But in teaching “The Ancient Mariner” this term, I found that Romantic biopics—even crazy ones—can be useful when students are encouraged to critique them as if they were marking one of their own essays. Case in point: Pandaemonium’s very insanity provided a solid jumping-off point for grappling with the problem of anachronistic readings. The movie bluntly argues for Coleridge’s early poems as prophetic ecocriticism. Its long “Ancient Mariner” sequence features multiple shots of birds drowning in oil spills (“slimy things did crawl with legs upon the slimy sea”) and burning oil rigs (“the hell-fires danced at night”).
I asked my students whether they found this a legitimate reading of “Mariner.” Their answers varied: some scoffed that “Exxon didn’t exist in the 1790s”; others leapt to the reader-response extreme of pronouncing the film “totally valid, because it’s their [the filmmakers’] personal interpretation.” We eventually negotiated a middle ground that recognized the oil-choked albatrosses as a contemporary symbolic language for wider issues “Mariner,” in its own way, already examines: humanity’s place in nature; collective guilt; exploration and colonization. Students’ evaluation of the film made them more conscious of their own critical self-positioning—of the baggage we all bring to texts and the extent to which it influences our criticism. This includes authorial baggage; one obvious use of biopics is their privileging of biographical readings in ways that are easy to point to as a specific interpretative approach. Pandaemonium, though anachronistic, certainly falls into this category: Coleridge’s laudanum-fuelled excursions into the “wide, wide sea” of his own imagination are as much metaphors for his increasingly-estranged friendship with Wordsworth as they are warnings about humanity’s responsibility to nature.
More importantly, examining Pandaemonium as jointly biographical and eco-critical heightened students’ awareness of the various “uses” to which literature can be put, in their own work and in published scholarship. Movies can realize the difference between critical positions that might be tricky to introduce in the abstract. Pandaemonium’s filmmakers clearly have bones to pick with both oil companies and Wordsworth (cast as the hovering harpy spoiling Coleridge’s poetic feast). Next time I use the film to teach “Mariner” I will do so alongside an actual piece of ecocriticism/biography to hammer this point home.
I want to end this post by asking those of you out there who have used movies in teaching to share your experiences. What sort of movies do you show, and why? What are the pitfalls you’ve encountered in using them? The successes? I look forward to hearing—and cribbing (with attribution of course!)—from you.
PS: Oh, and do go rent Pandaemonium. The credits feature Coleridge wandering around contemporary London to a techno version of Olivia Newton John and ELO’s “Xanadu.”