Friday, August 9, 2013

i'm just trying to give you your money's worth

I keep meaning to get to more shallow topics, an overview of Bill Murray’s films maybe, or something about “I Got You Babe,” or maybe some notes on Danny Rubin’s first draft of the screenplay—I read a chunk of his book, How to Write Groundhog Day last night, including the entire first draft of the screenplay, and there is definitely some interesting stuff in there, like Phil’s “calendar” of books, Phil stalking Punxsutawney Phil with a rifle, and that twist ending (that one, I won’t say more now because I think it might be worth an entire entry in the future). But, I keep getting stuck on what Groundhog Day means. Whether it’s about the meaning within the film, man’s search for himself or some variation on that, or what the film’s popularity says about us. I mean, I’ve written whole reviews about movies before explicating what they say about the society from which they sprung. Oddly, I think Groundhog Day doesn’t hold up what are probably the actual values of, say, the average American, but something more idealized. It is not really a film about Americans, though it’s set here, obviously. As I’ve said before, Phil Connors, despite his possible fame as the weatherman at Channel 9 Pittsburgh, is an everyman. This is not a film about any particular culture (however much it invokes local Punxsutawney customs)…

Harold Ramis says in a YouTube clip, that the “film is the film. It does not change.” He specifies that we change, and that’s why our perspective on the film might change. We reconsider our lives when we watch a movie like this one. For example, when Phil describes the “pretty good day” he had in the Virgin Islands, I think I think of different days of my life that might be worth repeating for the pure joy or happiness I might have felt… I don’t think I’d want to repeat them over and over and over, but to relive some days just once, or just to have a perfect recall…

But, I digress. Well, I don’t. But, this isn’t necessarily about me, either. It’s about you, all of you who might read this, ever. It’s about all of us. It’s about Phil. There’s an interesting bit in Rubin’s book and in the early version of the screenplay about Phil Connors and Punxsutawney Phil being one and the same, in a way. Phil says to the Groundhog, when he’s got him in the truck (in the screenplay, not in the film):

You know who I am, don’t you? Look in the mirror. It’s me. We’re Phil. I knew you’d understand.

If we trust the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club, the smaller, furrier Phil is immortal. And, we’ve seen evidence that the bigger, less hairy Phil is as well. And, they are both predictors of the weather. And, as Rubin says early in his book, “A weatherman is somebody who is supposed to know what’s going to happen before the rest of us do.” It makes sense, then, that Phil gets to have all the knowledge he does along the way. He’s arguably the best weatherman ever—he even predicts a specific gust of wind in the armored truck scene—even if he wasn’t before he got stuck in Punxsutawney. But, he’s also a womanizer (even more implicit in the screenplay, though only really explicit in his “seduction” of Nancy in the movie version), a guy who sees something he likes and takes it. I’m not so sure Punxsutawney Phil does that—he lives in a library, and I’m fairly sure he lives by himself.

What am I trying to say? Well, I think Phil’s occupation is actually a little ironic as he goes into his new situation, but only as he goes in, because while his job is to predict, there is no way he could have predicted this. But, the film version of Phil is an experienced weatherman (while the early draft version is just starting his on screen experience, it’s Rita who is new in the film version), and, as I’ve argued before, he’s smart, he’s attentive, and he had a good memory. He uses these qualities to not only predict what’s coming every day but to make the weather of each day.

(This “weather” isn’t literal, of course, but I couldn’t help referencing Phil’s line when he’s faced with the blizzard he didn’t predict accurately. It’s interesting, after the bit where he tells Punxsutawney Phil that they are the same, he adds: “This is the winter that’s never gonna end. You predicted it. You called the storm. I didn’t.” If I were one to recontextualized the content of the film (as opposed to the meaning of it) in terms of my own flights of fancy, I might wonder if Punxsutawney Phil is the god that not only predicted the endless winter but created it to teach Phil Connors a lesson. But, I’m not one to do that. That would be silly. I mean, he may be immortal, and he can drive a truck. But, he’s still just a rodent. But, don’t tell the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club that I said that.)

Where was I? Phil Connors has no good reason to be full of himself back in Pittsburgh in the early version. He’s new. But, he is already a womanizer. In Punxsutawney, he even knows just how many eligible women are in town—sixty three. First draft Phil also spent a hell of a lot more time in Punxsutawney; at one point, he flies a plane out of town (another thing that didn’t make it into later drafts or the film) to visit his mother, and in his voice over (yet another thing that didn’t make it into later drafts, and something that deserves its own entry here at some point in the future) Phil says: “Every visit to my mother was an exercise in aggravation. That hadn’t changed in three hundred years.” And, despite his tendency to be opportunistic and/or dishonest in his choice of what to say interacting with others, Phil actually seems like a fairly reliable narrator. By the time this draft begins, Phil is already a good way into his repetition, so he’s not really new anymore, but he’s hardly got fame to use.

Film Phil, on the other hand, is already a weatherman, and at least in part, it’s his job that gets Nancy’s attention, if not all the rest of those sixty-three eligible women. His edges have been softened a little, though, as Rubin mentions Bill Murray can “be mean and charming at the same time.” Phil Connors is not only a weatherman—which means he makes a living out of telling people what’s coming for them—but he’s arrogant, self-centered, and a jerk. As Rubin says, “Wouldn’t that be just the right person to get his comeuppance?”

But, does Phil get his comeuppance? If all of this repetition is just… happening. And, if we take this repetition as a mere representation of what life is anyway, then is there any “comeuppance”? Isn’t what we’re watching just the natural progression of a life lived? We live for ourselves until we realize that what we do does matter. Then, unless we’re doing something wrong or there’s something wrong with us, we live for others.

In the early draft, Phil talks to a priest, and there’s an interesting exchange in which the priest says,

You think nobody understands you. You’re all alone. Nobody has ever felt what you’re feeling. Could be you’re wrong… People come in here all the time, saying just what you’re saying, going through what you’re going through.

Now, this might be literal in this draft, but in terms of what we know from the film and, well, from life, isn’t this just Phil being the everyman… or at least the everyteenager? We’re all unique little snowflakes, and nobody can understand us. Not fully, anyway. Unless we’re all actually the same, of course. Winter is just another step in the cycle of life, and life is just what happens to each of us, however repetitive, however unique we might think it is. There’s a guy who calls himself “Mystery Man” who made an interesting—and, I think, insightful—observation about Phil Connors, in an online blog about subtext; he suggests that Phil was “trapped” in his life before, “a life that made him bitter and insensitive.” I like the idea of that, and I think it’s what I’m trying to get at; Phil Connors wasn’t trapped in Punxsutawney. He was trapped in Pittsburgh.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to not feel trapped ever again. And, to figure out how to get to the shallower topics I’ve got planned.

2 comments:

  1. Your point about being trapped in Pittsburgh makes me think of the Christopher Reeve Superman movie. He always thought that he was Clark Kent pretending to be Superman and the director, I think, told him, that no, he was always Superman. Clark Kent was the made up one. Best entry yet! Please tell me you will have an entry about the best quote from the movie. You must know which one I am talking about.

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  2. in the batman movies, the tim burton ones and the christopher nolan ones in particular, i think it's played more like batman pretending to be bruce wayne more than bruce wayne pretending to be batman

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