Thursday, August 29, 2013

there's nothing i can do about it

We see the clock turn from 5:59 to 6:00 numerous times in Groundhog Day, but if you believe a complaint—I’m having trouble figuring out if they ever actually sued or just threatened to—from back in 1993, the film owes a great deal to the time 12:01.

“12:01 P.M.” was a short story by Richard Lupoff, published in 1973. Then, in 1990 there was an Oscar-nominated short film made from it, and in 1993—the same year as Groundhog Day--there was a TV film made from it as well. At the time, I think, this was my first time noticing how TV films seemed so conveniently timed with similar theatrical releases, something that happens all the time now; for example, when Battle Los Angeles from Columbia Pictures was coming out a couple years back, we got Battle of Los Angeles from The Asylum premiering on television. Call them knockoffs or knockbusters or mockbusters or what have you, they capitalize on similarity in name recognition and at least a vague similarity (generally) in plot. The Los Angeles Times cited the term “drafting opportunity” for what these films do, piggybacking (to mix metaphors a bit) on the success of bigger films. There isn’t necessarily anything wrong with it—though there are certainly cases of specific and unique ideas (or expression of ideas) being stolen and used without permission. The thing is, it can be hard to prove. And, it’s not like we don’t value opportunism. The LA Times piece quotes “Sam Toles, vice president of content and acquisitions for Gaiam Entertainment, distributor of the ‘Happy Feet’ knockoff ‘Tappy Toes.’ ‘We're not trying to confuse people. We're trying to take advantage of a level of interest in a concept that exists thanks to the major studio release.’ In an era when so many big budget movies are remakes and sequels, one can hardly fault the idea of taking advantage of audience interest to make money. Hell, arguably, even an entirely original idea is trying to do just that.

Anyway, Lupoff’s original short story, “12:01 P.M.” is about Myron Castleman, the kind of guy who’s office job (at the inappropriately Tolkien-referencing Glamdring and Glamdring) means his days are always the same already. He’s the kind of guy who would hear Ralph say, “That about sums it up for me”—which he just did, as I’m watching Groundhog Day today—and nod in agreement and maybe wish he was there at that bowling alley bar so he could have a drink and maybe experience something new for a change. Myron Castleman, like Phil Connors, is stuck in a time loop—though Lupoff’s term is a “time bounce.” This bounce has been predicted by some scientists—

(I haven’t read the short story yet, but I watched the short film and the TV film last night, so I won’t get into the science fiction nitty gritty. Long story short, there is a specific explanation for the bounce, but it isn’t supposed to matter because no one is supposed to be able to realize it’s happening… and let’s get out of the parenthesis for this next part.)

Myron Castleman is the only person who is consciously experiencing this bounce. In the short film, 12:01 P.M., Castleman, played by Kurtwood Smith, is a dour character, put upon by years at a job he says outright, he doesn’t know why he works there. There’s a bit more of the satirical angle here, everyday life in the modern urban landscape being the same thing. Hell, the only intrusion from nature here—and one of the only details played for a laugh in the short—is a bird pooping on a guy in the park. 12:01 P.M. is not a “fun” film, it doesn’t have time to be playful with its subject except for a second or two here and there. The most fun Smith’s Castleman has is probably in the opening scene when he finally (after 40 tries getting up the nerve) talks to a woman in the park. Absent the premise we know is coming, this scene already shows a guy who’s used to life being the same thing day in, day out, and this conversation is a welcome exception. But, then he tells her what’s going on, that he’s stuck in the same hour—yes, he’s only repeating a single hour, which is part of why there’s no room for much fun—and then the bounce happens and he’s just leaving for the park on his lunch break. There are some nice repetitions, and brief attempts to change things (like warning a guy his grocery bag is about to rip) but the film is only 27 minutes long and it’s almost singlehandedly determined to maintain a bleak tone.

Anyway, find a copy of the film if you like—or find me sometime since I’ve got a copy—or read on for the horrible SPOILERS: the even more bleak implication is that the time bounce will happen forever (which makes the film even more depressing if you think about too much, because the rest of the world has essentially ceased to go on). And, for Castleman, he finally makes his way to the scientist who knows what’s going on and convinces the guy that he’s consciously experiencing the bounce because “consciousness is an independent variable” and learns the horrible truth—there is nothing he can do to stop it.

The TV film, 12:01 is far less bleak and far less limited in its scope. Rather than covering the hour after noon, the TV film alters the frame to midnight to midnight. And, the film, running around 1 hour 35 minutes, only covers about six repetitions—

(As I said on “TV time loop day” this is the Groundhog Day Project and, in this case, not the 12:01 Project so I didn’t make an effort to log exactly how many repetitions were covered… in fact, now that I think about it, there were a couple quick deaths in the film that probably make it 8 or 9 days involved, but the film spends so much time exploring the one day (especially the first time) that it doesn’t have much time for a lot of repetition. One of the amusing bits in the movie, in fact, is that this version’s protagonist, Barry Thomas, played by Jonathan Silverman, doesn’t even realize it’s the same day for a while, because all of his days are virtually the same anyway.)

The TV film plays more events for amusement if not outright laughs. But, it doesn’t come across as a comedy. Instead, the whole thing is structured more like a thriller or, as the DVD cover says, a “sci-fi adventure.”

Now is as good a time as any to point out this amazing fake trailer for Groundhog Day that plays it like it’s a thriller:

Anyway, back to 12:01 as Phil and Rita dance in the gazebo on my iPad screen. Like Groundhog Day, 12:01 also has a romance at its center. Barry Thomas has just fallen for a scientist at the… well, it’s a weird place he works. There’s a generic office environment but then there are scientists around running a “collider” in the building when the government has shut down that program. So, while Thomas is supposed to be an everyman, put upon office worker, he works for some awesome, possibly government-involved company that deals in experimental science that can bounce time. Anyway, on day 1, he’s just “met” scientist Lisa, but she gets gunned down that afternoon and stuff gets more interesting. By the third day, he’s saved her life and they end up in bed (well, actually, I think they were on the floor) together just in time for him to specifically ask her for her favorite things to shorthand his way into her believing him the next time—Phil should have tried this rather than taking days to A/B test Rita; it is far more efficient. So, day 4 he tells her that she likes oysters and the color green (not that unique) and her favorite number is 37.1 (which is just quirky enough to be cute), and she likes the Carpenters, but he thinks she could do better.

(Why the cheapshot at the Carpenters?)

So, then together they’ve got to figure out who is firing the collider despite the program being shut down and why they killed Lisa for figuring it out, and there’s explanation aplenty and a villain (or two) and, notably, a way out. There isn’t time for bleakness here; the movie is trying hard to be fun. Weirdly, there isn’t much of the “adolescent” phase here—for example, a fellow office worker gets coffee spilled on him every day and Thomas never makes an effort to save him from this (unless I missed it).

The TV film holds up pretty well for a TV film that’s 20 years old, but I wouldn’t call it a great film by far. And, it lacks the hints at deeper philosophical ideas that Groundhog Day gets at, or even the nothingness of being implicit in the short film. Still, the time loop concept was thought unique enough that Lupoff said in 1995:

The story was also adapted—actually plagiarized—into a major theatrical film in 1993. Jonathan Heap and I were outraged and tried very hard to go after the rascals who had robbed us, but alas, the Hollywood establishment closed ranks… After half a year of lawyers' conferences and emotional stress, we agreed to put the matter behind us and get on with our lives.

So, does the concept of the time loop belong to Lupoff? Not really. In fact, Leon Arden, author of The Devil’s Trill (retitled One Fine Day did sue Columbia Pictures for $15 million, saying they plagiarized instead, his book. Arden’s book includes a lot of the obvious details, including figuring out details about a female character to get closer to her, but to win in court, he would have had to prove that more than just a few vague details were the same. Groundhog Day on its surface is a light comedy. “12:01 P.M.”, 12:01 P.M., 12:01, and One Fine Day are not. The Detroit News pointed out, for example, that One Fine Day includes “witchcraft, an encounter with God… and aeroplane explostion that kills 192 people, a rape, and a woman’s suicide.”

When it comes to science fiction premises, like a time loop, a lot of authors tackle the same thing. See my “TV time loop day” entry, for examples. Though Peter Krapp argues in Déjà Vu: Aberrations of Cultural Memory that Groundhog Day “borrows heavily from the Oscar-winning short film 12:01 P.M. and its made-for-tv remake,” I think it’s a difficult argument to win. There are limited “ideas” out there. The uniqueness comes in the details.

An aside before I go: user geoffhart1962 makes an interesting point about fictional characters over at Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine’s website:

On the other hand, it occurred to me that any fictional character is effectively trapped in a rut: no matter how many times you and others read the story they’re living in, it never changes. If you’re the kind of author who always feels a bit guilty abusing your characters for literary ends, and if you’ve read any of the stories in which fictional characters understand that they’re fictional and being forced to endure repeated relivings of their adventures (I’m thinking Jasper Fforde’s books, for instance), one can see “12:02 P.M.” as a metaphor for the lives of these pour [sic] souls stranded in the world of story. In that sense, it’s kind of nice of Lupoff to return to his story world of 37 years ago and finally free Myron.

(Note: Lupoff’s written two sequels in recent years, “12:02 P.M.” and “12:03 P.M.” and I may revisit these stories after I’ve had the chance to read all three.)

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to imprison Phil Connors and Myron Castleman and Barry Thomas and any other fictional character I can get my hands on forever by watching them or reading about them again and again.

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