Monday, August 5, 2013

the wretch, concentred all in self

So, Rita thinks Phil’s defining characteristic is his egocentrism. At the point in the story that she quotes Sir Walter Scott, it’s Day 4 for Phil (See the previous entry for a list of Phil’s days) and I wouldn’t argue that he isn’t egocentric. He’s still a jerk, taking advantage of his situation for fun. He’s manipulated Nancy for sex, has gone out on his costumed date to see Heidi II with the woman in the French maid costume. He’s just figured out the whole lack-of-consequences side of things with the help of Ralph and Gus. And, he’s sitting around loading up on, well, probably every dessert the Tip Top Café offers. His focus at this point is very much himself. But, a closer look at the lines Rita quotes got me to thinking, is Phil the man unsung by minstrels because he’s too self-centered?

What Rita quotes is some lines from Canto VI of Sir Walter Scott’s “The Lay of the Last Minstrel.” The larger poem involves some clans at war with one another, but this particular section involves, well, patriotism maybe, a sense of belonging to one’s place (geographically) for sure. This segment of Canto VI is linked to Edward Everett Hale’s story, “A Man without a Country.” His story is about a guy who renounces his country after being tried for treason along with Aaron Burr. Walter Scott’s lines, though, could be about much more than just patriotism or belonging to a particular nation.

Here’s the lines leading into what Rita quotes:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

What we have here is the description of a man who will not be in minstrel’s songs, regardless of title or position (weatherman for Channel 9 Pittsburgh, for example). He may have some local fame, but what has he done to be renowned? We are watching the movie about Phil, so for us, he’s something relatively special. But, in his world, the world within the film, who is Phil Connors?

He’s a weatherman in Pittsburgh, but he likes to claim there’s a “major network” interested in him. He also confides in Larry that he may be leaving PBH. Phil Connors may be making a comfortable enough living, might be getting women even before he’s stuck in Punxsutawney. But, what does he have going for him that has more depth? As far as we can see, not much. And, in Punxsutawney, he finally finds a place he can belong, even if not initially by choice. The line at the end of the movie—“Let’s live here. We’ll rent to start.”—it’s a joke, sure. It’s funny to think Phil doesn’t want to leave after all these many days he’s been stuck. But, taken more seriously, it makes sense. Not just because we fear change and after anywhere from 34 days to 40 years (again, see the previous entry for a list of Phil’s days) in one place, the impulse would be to stick with what’s familiar. Of course, in this new place, Phil has managed to connect with people, to get to know them… let’s assume for a moment, he actually spent time with all of them instead of simply quizzing them so he could recite facts later to impress Rita. After all, the movie is about Phil growing as a person, learning that he needs to be better. Trapped in Punxsutawney or not, it is still his choice what he does with his time there. The location is secondary. It might as well be Pittsburgh, where, presumably, Phil felt trapped already. He does say, “Someday somebody will see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future.” I think it’s safe to say that Phil already thinks he doesn’t have a future. Is a major network actually interested in him? Maybe. But, with Phil, it’s hard to tell. He’s more likely than not to boast without any real interest just to demonstrate a little bit of his own superiority.

It’s interesting, in terms of the story we are watching, that Phil goes after not only sex but money early on. Pelf, in those lines from Scott above—that’s money, but specifically, it’s more like ill-gotten money, filthy lucre. It’s the money Phil steals from the armored truck.

(I wonder, as an aside, how much did Phil pay for his piano lesson on the final repetition? Did he find some smaller amount that would get that unfortunate (she doesn’t even get in the end credits) piano student pushed out into the cold? Or has he been stealing money every day? Since the movie does not show real opulent spending but for two scenes—one, his costumed date, two, his spending $1000 on his first piano lesson)—can we assume such spending continues? If so, is Phil using his own money? Or, since Groundhog Day is about Phil bettering himself, has he stopped robbing the armored truck long before his day stops repeating, or maybe he only ever did it that one time, just to see if he could)

Despite his money (and perhaps whatever fame he’s got in Pittsburgh), he still remains Phil Connors, relatively unknown in Punxsutawney. It’s interesting that even on the final repetition, after he saves Buster, Buster asks “who was that?” This, after Buster was standing there along with everyone else as Phil gave his final Groundhog Day report; I guess Buster was just standing there because it seemed like the right thing to do, not because he was listening, or you’d think he’d recognize Phil Connors later that day. But, I digress.

While we can assume the “doubly dying” in Scott’s poem refers to literal death plus some larger spiritual/metaphysical death from having not truly lived, Phil literally dies more than once and, arguably, suffers that metaphysical death as well. Phil Connors at the beginning of the film is not the Phil Connors at the end of the film. But, then, he has also learned to live, to connect with other people and belong somewhere…

Now, one could argue that, not knowing the day would not simply repeat again, Phil has saved people because it gives him something new to do. He has, of course, also bought a whole lot of insurance from Ned, and it’s doubtful he was thinking about the future and the actual usefulness of having so much insurance, so did he just buy it because it was entertaining to do so? Similarly, given some of the things I said in the previous entry about Phil’s days, if we assume he didn’t actually learn fully how to play piano or speak French or how to sculpt anything but Rita’s face out of ice, could we make the argument that Phil is still just manipulating everything to his temporary amusement? When snowflakes just happen to fall as he and Rita kiss on that last night, might we cynics think he timed the sculpting just so he could arrange that kind of magical timing for the snowflakes?

Or, must we assume Phil has indeed learned all these things not to still manipulate his circumstance but to manipulate himself? Or, are those two things really just one and the same? Are we all just manipulating the details of our circumstances constantly to amuse and appease our whims and is bettering ourselves just one of those whims that we happen to value more than others?

Or, am I being too cynical?

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to amuse my whims and make my world and my self far better than they are at present.

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