Wednesday, September 18, 2013

gosh, you're an upbeat lady

Michael Faust, in Philosophy Now, is one of those who put Phil’s transformation as something driven by his love for Rita. He says it is this love that

…proves decisive. By immersing himself in ‘otherness’—by learning everything that makes MacDowell’s character tick—he is transformed. He sheds his old sexist, masculine carapace, and emerges as a far more rounded human being, in touch with his feminine side (his ‘inner other’).

Claire S. Bacha, in Psychodynamic Counseling, suggests (though she sides more explicitly with Faust’s take later) instead that “Rita becomes a goal for Phil, a test.” She further adds:

The film does not explain why this happens, but the feeling is that Rita becomes the object of Phil’s desire exactly because she seems so much his opposite. She possesses all the qualities that he lacks and thus becomes a challenge. Phil no longer wants himself. He wants the other.

Now, both of these authors put Phil’s transformation solely in his ability to connect to “the other.” Whether driven by love or by a natural sense of growth, it is hard to argue with Phil’s connection to what Suzanne M. Daughton calls, in Critical Studies in Mass Communication, “people he once treated with contempt.” He has now found things to admire in those “hicks” he dismissed on Day 1. On their “date” Phil tells Rita, “Small town people are more real, more down-to-earth.” But, we know he doesn’t believe that. At least until later.

Daughton makes an interesting link to Ralph and Gus as Phil’s first contact with “the working class Other.” She also compares Phil’s situation, “trapped in the time loop,” to “that of the economically disenfranchised.” While, I’m not sure the film is making any class arguments necessarily, I think there’s a useful perspective there in separating out pre-time loop Phil from time loop Phil. Before the loop, Phil has money—he drives a Lexus and has a car phone in Ramis’ second revision—has a secure job (even if he discounts it), and has his pick of women with which to spend any given night—Rita (in Ramis’ second revision) says he “can charm all the little P.A.’s at the station, all the secretaries, and even some of the weekend anchors, but not me.” Once he’s in the loop, he still has some money—

(It’s hard to guess if he only steals from the armored truck the one time to be extravagant or if he’s still doing that later to afford $1000 for a piano lesson. I think that maybe he stole the money more than once but the safe assumption is that he’s spending his own money by the time he’s splurging on that piano lesson. And, probably, he figures out a lower price to get Mary to teach him to play or finds a better time of day to arrive at her house, rather than continually spending $1000… except, what’s $1000 to time loop Phil anyway? Money has no real value to him. He has a bed and a roof over his head. He doesn’t need food, but there’s food at the bed and breakfast for free even if he doesn’t want to spend any at the Tip Top Café or Toni’s or the restaurant where he eats with Rita. Phil has been released not just from social mores but from economic necessity. In fact, thinking about it now, I think Daughton’s comparison to the economically disenfranchised might actually be entirely, oppositely wrong. The economically disenfranchised struggle to survive, working paycheck to paycheck—if they’ve even got a paycheck—and worry constantly about having a place to live, having food to eat. Phil is quite explicitly above such worries.

(To be fair, Daughton does later cite Jude Davies’ essay, “Gender, ethnicity and cultural crisis in Falling Down and Groundhog Day,” in pointing out that Phil is “removed from the realities of working class life by his total lack of worldly concern for survival.”)

Ryan Gilbey, in his critique of the film, compares Phil to Leonard Shelby in Memento or Vladimir Estragon in Waiting for Godot, “scrambling to find evidence that they existed yesterday. All these characters want only to look over their shoulder and find the footprints that will testify to their time on earth.” I think Gilbey has this right in the sense that Phil, like any of us, wants to know he’s left a mark in the world, that he’s made a difference—and how much harder must that be for Phil when his actions are wiped out the next day—and that someone cared that he existed in the first place. In a screenplay of mine, there’s a heartbreaking scene in which the male lead has an emotional breakdown—dealing with grief over his murdered daughter and the potential devastation of his marriage as a result, he realizes he can no longer remember his life before, what his job was, anything. I think Phil Connors is in that same place. If his repeated day was February 3rd, I think he’d probably forget his job as a weatherman entirely. He’d forget what it involves and why he does it…

And we don’t even know why he does it, do we? We rarely do in film. Characters have jobs and unless that job is integral to the plot, we probably won’t have any inkling as to why they picked that direction in life. Phil is a weatherman because, well, that made sense for an outsider in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day. See, Rubin, in trying to figure out what day would be repeating in his Time Machine script, considered some obvious ones, Christmas, New Year’s Day, then started thumbing through his calendar. And, “I didn’t have to thumb far,” he explains. “The day I began working on all of this was January 29”—my birthday, so I will now choose to assume that Groundhog Day was a birthday gift to me—and “the first day of interest that I encountered?

”February 2, Groundhog Day.”

He further explains:

I felt that the protagonist should be a person in unfamiliar territory—he should be an out-of-towner, far from friends and family and favored activities. So who would travel to Punxsutawney on this day? I had a vague perception that this was a place where weathermen would go to “report” on the groundhog ceremony. So my character could be a weatherman.

A weatherman is somebody who is supposed to know what’s going to happen before the rest of us do. Wouldn’t that be just the right person to get his comeuppance?

We don’t know, inside the story, why Phil ever got into meteorology. But, we do know he is egocentric, which explains his job in front of a camera, and he likes to control and manipulate things… so, perhaps he’s a weatherman simply so he can, on a daily basis, tell people what to do. For example, “Bundle up warm, of course, but leave your galoshes at home.”)

—while he has a “job” he’s supposed to do each morning, there is no real consequence to skipping it; and he’s still got women to pursue, but he has to drastically alter his approach to be with any of them. Still, in Rubin’s original, Phil manages at least 49 of the 63 “eligible women in Punxsutawney.” Given the reality of Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day, which Rubin would only realize after the trip there two years later, there would be a lot more than 63 available women in town, but film Phil is only seen with two of them before he goes after Rita. Nancy and Laraine stand in for all the other women in town, but who are they? Nancy not only goes to bed with but gets engaged to a guy she doesn’t even know because she’s led to believe they knew each other years ago in high school. And, Laraine—well, she doesn’t even get a name in the film, doesn’t get much of a personality except, well, she’s willing to call Phil “Bronco” when it’s only their first date. Note: I won’t say anything of her French Maid costume because she is actually under the impression they’re going to a costume party. So, yes, on the female front, Phil wants something more, even if he probably wouldn’t admit it.

But, I think his pursuit of Rita is not because he is in love with her—as much as I absolutely love (and believe) his speech to her while she sleeps—but because Rita is the logical end to his romantic pursuits. She is, importantly, a tie to the outside world. She is not of Punxsutawney. And, she is going to be involved in his day anyway. Proximity and familiarity—that’s all it takes to build an interest.

Additionally, I don’t think it’s reasonable to assume that Phil’s transformation into a better man is necessarily driven by his love for Rita either, though it may be driven by his idealization of her. Keep in mind what Phil sees in Rita—even if we don’t get to see all of this ourselves; he tells her on “god” day, “You’re very generous. You’re kind to strangers and children.” And, later, as she sleeps, he further describes her as “the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I’ve ever met in my life. I’ve never seen anyone that’s nicer to people than you are.” The Rita that Phil sees—and it is safe to assume he has a great perspective on this given how much time he’s spent with her…

(Unless, of course, this day is an isolated one for Rita as far as her mood or her drive. Might she be in a better mood on this particular day because it’s implied that this is her first job in the field as a producer, because she’s in Punxsutawney where the atmosphere is joyous and celebratory? Maybe Rita on a different day wouldn’t be the same person. Of course, the film is about this one day in this one place, and who Rita is on that day is what matters.)

Rita is the kind of person who could “nurture Spirit and to revel in communion, to pursue goodness for its own sake” which is how Daughton describes Phil fulfilling “his human potential.” Ultimately, Daughton argues,

Connors must embark on what is traditionally a feminine rather than a masculine quest, journeying inward in order to encounter and submit to the power of the dark goddess, rather than outward in order to master and claim some object in the external world.

Daughton supports my notion that at best, Phil is driven by idealizing Rita, not by loving her. But, that isn’t to suggest that he doesn’t love her, either. Rita is his touchstone, the person by which, at least in his new life in the time loop, he measures all others.

There is a way to fit Phil’s speech to sleeping Rita as the truth in a reality in which he is not driven by loving her. He says, “The first time I saw you, something happened… to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could.” The first sentence here easily fits with Rita being an example for him, not necessarily a romantic conquest. The second one is harder… if this were Day 1 Phil saying it. Day 1 Phil—I don’t think he could hold someone like Rita without that hold being a play for more contact, and ultimately for sex. But, this is “god” day Phil. He is not in his “good deed” phase yet but he has already struck bottom in his hedonistic pursuits, he has already failed to manipulate Rita into his bed, and here she is asleep in that very same bed. But, he has already grown as a man at this point. He has yet to externalize that growth, but this speech is the turning point. Phil is recognizing a need to be close not just to Rita but to anyone, to everyone.

Bacha suggests that Rita provides Phil with “real, empathic mothering.” Maybe it’s just because I have issues with psychological labels about what’s feminine or masculine, or what’s mothering or fathering, but I don’t think Phil has “mother issues” that are being fixed by Rita, and I don’t think Phil becomes, as Bacha argues, “the real good father” to everyone in the community” either. I think Phil has a problem connecting with anyone, and I think at least some of the time we can all relate to that. If we need taken care of in a given circumstance, that doesn’t necessarily equate to needing a “mother.” And, if we feel the need to take care of others in a given circumstance, that doesn’t necessarily equate to being a “father.” All any of this means is we’re human, and that means we’re a social animal that thrives on supporting and being supported by others.

Phil Connors, pre-time loop, on the other hand, is probably lonely, desperately seeking connection in shallow interactions because he doesn’t know any better. I’ve said before, Phil was not trapped in Punxsutawney but in Pittsburgh. The time loop, the isolation of Punxsutawney—that was where Phil Connors was set free. Maybe, as Daughton suggests, Phil was set free of ego boundaries or “the rigid distinctions between male and female and accepting qualities traditionally associated with both into his own character.” But, maybe by reifying these labels in weighing Phil’s transformation, we’re simple entrenching ourselves in a world where a man like pre-time loop Phil doesn’t feel free to find himself.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to be free, and as cheesy as it sounds, to find my self.

By the way, since I haven’t mentioned their titles in a while, the essays discussed here were:
  • Bacha, Claire S. “Groundhog Day: the individual, the couple, the group and the space between.” Psychodynamic Counseling 4.3 (Aug 1998), 383-406.
  • Dauhgton, Suzanne M. “The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in Groundhog Day.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13 (1996), 138-154.
  • Faust, Michael. “Groundhog Day.” Philosophy Now Nov/Dec 2012, 45-47.
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