Thursday, August 22, 2013

this is gonna seem sudden, but... nancy will you be my wife?

Ultimately, it may seem like the point of Groundhog Day—taken especially as a romantic comedy—is that Phil must learn to love and be loved in return. Held up to scrutiny, there isn’t much evidence that Rita loves Phil in the end… but then again, we’re not bothering to scrutinize, are we? As I’ve mentioned before, we’re in this with Phil and on some level we think he deserves a happy ending so it is his ending that matters. It doesn’t matter necessarily if Rita is, or will be, happy (though she does claim she’s happy out there in the snow, doesn’t she?).

But, there’s something bigger going on here. As a romantic comedy, as a film whose denouement comes with a couple getting together, we get a reification of the idea that we must be in a couple. That is to say, once again, Hollywood is telling us what it takes to be happy—though, to be fair, we’re not making much of an effort to object. In fact, as I already pointed out, we’re not only so invested in Phil that we want him to be happy but we likely don’t take the time to think about anyone else’s happiness. On the one hand, that’s a normal way to respond to a story built around one individual protagonist. On the other hand, part of our investment is putting ourself into the character, and so, of course, we want ourselves to be happy. We want to be, for example, great at the piano; we want to save lives and make others happy; and we want to get the girl… or guy… or, well what have you, but then again, I’ve got a question in the vein of Rob Fleming in Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity who says:

What came first—the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music? Do all these records turn you into a melancholy person?

People worry about kids playing with guns, and teenagers watching violent videos; we are scared that some sort of culture of violence will take them over. Nobody worries about kids listening to thousands—literally thousands—of songs about broken hearts and rejection and pain and misery and loss. The unhappiest people I know, romantically speaking, are the ones who like pop music the most; and I don’t know whether pop music has caused this unhappiness, but I do know that they’ve been listening to the sad songs longer than they’ve been living the unhappy lives.

My version of the question: do we watch Hollywood films and cheer on the inevitable coupling because we think that’s what we all need, or do we actually need that and so Hollywood mirrors what’s inside us already? Even more specifically, if we do feel that we need love and belonging (and Maslow and Glasser, at least, would agree on some level), must it come in the form of a romantic coupling?

Now, sometimes it may seem like I take Groundhog Day too seriously. But, a) I’m not sure that sort of thing is possible; one can take a film (any film) as seriously as one likes. And, b) there are those who have taken it more seriously. Case in point:

Bacha, Claire S. “Groundhog Day: the individual, the couple, the group and the space between.” Psychodynamic Counselling 4.3 (Aug 98), 383-406.

Bacha starts by separating out the three levels of our social existence: the individual, the couple and the group. She explores a few theorists and their notions (this is a peer-reviewed journal, after all), then she gets to the important stuff. She tells us what we all probably know:

[T]he couple, both sexual and platonic… is sometimes idealized as the answer to all problems and [coupling] is the test of whether any one person feels OK about themselves in society. It is the basis of physical and emotional reproduction: parenthood. It is also the basis of friendship.
In terms of the romantic comedy, and Groundhog Day as our primary example for now, Bacha points out another obvious bit: “There is something very special about the ideal of ‘finding’ the right person with whom one can have both intimacy and sexuality.” But, I must wonder, is Rita the “right person” for Phil? Is Phil the “right person” for Rita? And, again, more importantly, do we really care? In the context of this story, Rita is the woman, the conquest once won then lost and then set aside to be earned. Bacha suggests that Groundhog Day “represents a cultural artefact [sic] which both elucidates and frustrates the ideal of love as the agent of change… It looks inside the process which both men and women immediately recognize and with which they identify.” Now, I certainly agree about the idea of Groundhog Day as a cultural artifact—if I didn’t believe that on some level, this blog wouldn’t be possible. But, I think the idea of “love as the agent of change” is possibly simplifying things a little, even if only because we expect that sort of thing in a Hollywood film. Then again, Bacha does say the film both “elucidates” and “frustrates” this ideal, so maybe she’s got a point. The key here is that it is an “ideal” and not necessarily a reality.

Bacha gets a little complicated when she gets into the idea of the “space between.” For example, there’s this:

Groundhog Day illustrates the process of love which deals with the pain of the creation of the space by devaluing potentially powerful third persons and collapsing the space between back into a version of the first merged relationship (Moment 1).

(Moment 1, defined earlier in the piece, is “how things (objects and their relationships) are taken into the mind and how they are structured there.”)

What I find interesting is Bacha’s summary of the film itself, which includes the following: “Groundhog Day is a film about relationships. But it is also a film about the internal relationships inside the man.” Bacha actually measures Phil in a manner where even I think his getting together with Rita is a reasonable goal for such a cosmically grand test. The film begins with Phil predicting that the blizzard will be hitting elsewhere, but he is wrong. I think I’ve mentioned before the symbolism of Phil being a weatherman; it is his very job to predict the future, and his failure to do so starts off this journey we are seeing onscreen. In fact, Phil has a rather telling line—though he doesn’t realize how telling—early on. He says in the van on the way to Punxsutawney, “Someday somebody will see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future.” The next morning, Day 1, he will be seen reporting on a groundhog and he will literally have no future, at least for a while. Bacha suggest that Phil, narcissistic as he is, “can only function as long as he can control and predict.” While the usual take in Groundhog Day is that Phil starts out cynical and self-centered, the film is built around him learning to control and predict the future. There may be some outward focus—he is helping others—but Phil Connors remains focused on control and prediction. Ryan Gilbey, in his critique of Groundhog Day quotes a New Statesman article from 1993 that tells us that Groundhog Day “appeals at once to absolute idealism and absolute cynicism.” If we want to believe Phil has not really changed, we can. If we want to believe he has become a better person, we can. And, arguably, we can believe both of those things at the same time.

But, importantly, in the middle of his journey, Phil’s need for control and, well, freedom, “becomes an empty and masturbatory power” according to Bacha. “It keeps the grief away but it needs a mirror, an admirer.” Bacha’s description of the “first turning point of the film” is this: “Phil no longer wants himself. He wants the other… Phil allows Rita to take on a role in his internal world.” I like this take on things. Though Phil suggests that something “changed” in him when he first saw Rita, I think that change came later and, like Bacha suggests, Phil is simply letting Rita fill a role. Since this is a romantic comedy, however, we know that role it there virtually from the start. This is 1993 so we don’t refer to the “meet-cute” yet, but invisible Rita playful before the bluescreen and Phil can’t help but stare, even if he shakes it away—that’s your meet-cute. The opening scene and we already know on some level where this is going. Even if we have somehow escaped knowing the premise of the film—i.e. the timey wimey stuff—we expect that this is a film about Phil becoming a better man either by winning over or to win over Rita.

Bacha cites Heinz Kohut (an Austrian-born American psychoanalyst best known for his development of Self psychology) in describing Phil’s first “seduction” of Rita. Phil’s manipulation to say and do exactly what Rita will most like is “what Kohut calls an idealizing mirroring selfobject relationship… it distances both [Phil and Rita] from their authentic selves…” Bacha makes an important point in why we may be but probably aren’t horrified by Phil’s manipulation to get close to Rita; she says this “state of being in love… is the state to which both men and woman generally aspire in their search for a partner and in their struggles to stay in their chosen relationships.” I think there’s something potentially worse going on, though, in our experience of the this sequence in the film. While Phil may have access to repetition to manipulate the specifics more readily, isn’t the process what we all do on some level anyway? We dress ourselves up, present a side of ourselves that will, we hope, be the most appealing to the object of our affection and attraction. Who wouldn’t order sweet vermouth if we knew ahead of time that would appeal to the person we’re trying to be closer to? Who wouldn’t keep a book of poetry around if we thought it would make us look better? I mean, we aren’t shallow all the time, but this sort of shallowness is not only expected but probably reasonable. Birds spread their colorful tails and dance, we do the same. Bacha says, “there is no authentic way of being yourself with another and, at the same time, of carrying the ideal… parts of this person. The model of relationship precludes any authenticity or equality.” We don’t want to believe this, at least in the long run. We’d like to think we can find someone with whom we can be out authentic selves, that over time we will reveal more and more of who we truly are. But, in that pursuit phase, of course there will be some holding back, some posing.

In an interesting comparison, Bacha describes the viewpoints of female viewers and male viewers regarding this sequence. Women, she says, “seemed to see Phil’s seductions as honest attempts to become whole through a merger with some other parts of himself [and Rita] might want to believe that she can make her lover whole and, further, that she is necessary to his wholeness.” The men “saw Phil’s seductions of Rita as cynical responses to the challenge that Rita represented for him… that once Phil had conquered Rita, he could go on and conquer other hills and mountains for her or because of her.” Personally, I think both points are valid. This deliberate manipulation of the self might not be the way to make one whole, but that doesn’t preclude this being Phil’s motivation. Nor, does that mean he isn’t also trying to conquer Rita just like he conquered Nancy or the French maid date or Tess (or any of the other 49 women he’s found “accessible” in Punxsutawney) in the original screenplay.

Again citing Kahut, Bacha says that the day Rita spends with Phil knowing his situation—what I call “god” day—involves “grandiose mirroring [that] Rita gives to Phil in a way which he can accept [and which] seems to enable him to take the next step.” Importantly, and running contrary to romantic comedy in some ways, that next step is not about Rita. Bacha is a little more cynical than I am here; she suggest that “Phil thinks that he must find a way of making Rita choose him and surrender to him completely. He thus becomes the admired one in the community. He believes that it is not enough to pretend goodness, he must be good.” But, I disagree… not with that last part, though. I think Phil, waking up on Day 29 (post “god” day), he isn’t determined to be with Rita, necessarily. He is simply determined to be, oddly enough, with himself. But, not in a selfish way. Plotwise, yes, he betters himself and earns Rita’s love. That’s the simple version. But—and maybe I just become less jaded along with Phil each time—I think Phil is just doing what makes sense. He had his adolescent stage, he had his conquest and his depression, and most importantly he had acceptance. Arguably, it doesn’t even matter that the acceptance on “god” day came from Rita. That is just the convenience of film plotting. But, having anyone believe him and spend time with him like Rita did—that honesty and intimacy is what matters. It is not sexual or romantic…

Of course, then we have the problem of Phil’s speech to sleeping Rita, which makes it romantic. But, I think that is a necessity of the Hollywood plot, not a necessary piece of Phil’s puzzle at that particular point in his timeline. The equivalent speech in the original screenplay comes closer to the end, and while Phil’s speech is sweet and is romantic, I think the story of Phil becoming a better man can work without it.

Still, Bacha’s take is interesting. The “idealizing mirror” she tells us, “comes thus, not from Rita, but from the community and Phil regains the power to determine who he becomes.” But, Bacha still suggests that Rita is “the one that he must impress with his goodness as mirrored in the others around them.” Siding a little with my side, Bacha does say:

There is obvious real change involved here. Phil learns that it feels good to help people. He learns real humility when the beggar… dies no matter what Phil does to save him.

Ultimately, Bacha concludes that “Ramis has made a deeply cynical but realistic film about romantic love and its pitfalls.” I have no problem with that description. Just as long as we don’t assume that is all the film is. Bacha makes an interesting point about the early lines of the song that comes up over the end credits.

What a day this has been
What a rare mood I’m in
It’s almost like being in love

Bacha’s take: “It feels good but is it really love?” See, if I shift into cynical mode, I can outdo that. Is what we see between Phil and Rita really love? No. But, then again, is anything?

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to be less cynical, less jaded… and less idealistic.

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