Thursday, September 19, 2013

it's groundhog time

Subtitle: notes on the original (and mostly I’ll probably just harp on the voiceover), because I never really did that yet.

I can’t tell you when it began, other than to say “on groundhog day.” And I can’t tell you why it happened to me, other than to say I deserved a break in my career, and this was certainly it.

So begins Phil’s forgotten voiceover. The time loop is already in effect, he’s already been mouthing the DJ dialogue and answering Mrs. Lancaster’s questions before she’s quite asked them. And, here you also see a bit of how Phil was different in the original, i.e. before they cast Bill Murray; Phil was young. While that “break in my career” becomes a break from his career in the time loop, what Phil is getting at is this is his first time in the field, not Rita’s. Though Rita is “about Phil’s age,” she’s a much more seasoned producer than he is a reporter in this version.

The voiceover continues:

How do I know these things before they happen? You may call it cheating, but that’s because you don’t understand. I’m playing by an entirely different set of rules. Suffice it to say, it’s a handy skill for a weatherman.

This falls between him avoiding the puddle and punching Ned (who we wouldn’t get to know until later). There’s a lot of exposition going on in the original. And, I’m a fan of some good, clever voiceover—see Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for example—but sometimes, the changes that come in later drafts make for a much better experience. Rubin explains:

From my first meeting with Harold and his crew, we talked about cutting back on the voiceover and also giving the story a little bit more of a setup. My first revision did both of these things, but it was a half-measure. Harold’s revision of that draft committed wholeheartedly to a first act setup, and no narration was necessary.

Oddly, at least one bit of voiceover was still present, though (which I mentioned before):

And so began my final lifetime, and ended the longest winter on record. I would find myself no longer able to affect the chain of events in this town, but I did learn something about time. You can waste time, you can kill time, you can do time, but if you use it wisely, there's never enough of it. So you'd better make the most of the time you've got.

Still too much telling, especially at the end of the movie, when the showing has already happened.

Anyway, another bit of Phil explaining—deliberately without explaining—what’s going on:

When you understand the situation in its entirety, you will not judge me so harshly. I am a rational person just like you, living in an extraordinary circumstance.

Now, Phil’s not wrong. But, he’s also not telling us much that’s useful. Aside from the fact we never understand his situation “in its entirety” because neither does he, sure, obviously, we wouldn’t judge him as harshly once we know why he does what he does. It’s so obvious you almost… no, it’s so obvious, you don’t even have to say it.

There’s a line I like when Phil’s getting information from Nancy. He’s just committed to memory, “Nancy. Lincoln. Walsh.” Nancy asks, “Is this some kind of come-one?” (She’s maybe a bit sharper here than in the movie.) And, Phil responds: “More sophisticated than you will ever know.” I do like that Phil doesn’t often explain what’s going on—to the audience or to other characters—in the film, but in the early drafts, Phil would volunteer the truth to people who don’t believe him just about any chance he’d get.

Maybe the problem I have with the voiceover is it takes too much time getting to the point. I know that’s on purpose—which is why it was so easily replaced by a setup sequence that introduces the audience to the time loop alongside Phil—but looking at the highlighted voiceover in the script now it seems to just come in out of nowhere; there’s not really a rhyme or reason to just where Phil tells a little more. Still, he keeps doing it. This next bit comes after his “first” report at Gobbler’s Knob:

Let me tell you right off—I have a secret. If I could just tell you right out, I would. But, believe me, you wouldn’t understand. And by tomorrow, you wouldn’t remember my secret. You wouldn’t even remember my name.

I love the idea that the audience would also forget this day, but of course that isn’t actually possible so the line makes no real sense. And, it also doesn’t make sense to say something “right off” when we’re already several minutes and several voiceover bits into the film.

So then, time loops around and we get to see what Phil’s been hinting at. And, Phil gives his explicit explanation finally:

When every day starts out just like the last one, you kind of lose track. Everything’s where the world left it on February first…

And every day is February second…

I keep living the same day, over and over again. Technically, I’m immortal. That’s been a big adjustment.

The adjustment line is nice, but as Phil just told Rita he’s living the same day over and over again in my viewing of the film for today, I realize something else that’s wrong with the voiceover. Phil—at least Murray’s Phil—works best when he’s playing off other people. The voiceover doesn’t play off anyone. It just sits there.

And, then (well, a few pages later, after he’s taken the time to seduce Nancy) Phil tries to explain how he might have gotten into the time loop:

How does a person come to live one day over and over and over? Perhaps I was the curious lab assistant who tinkered with his master’s time machine…

[(One could almost accuse 12:01 (the TV movie, not the short film or the short story) of ripping off Groundhog Day here, though it’s not a “time machine” per se, but this specificity (even if not the actual explanation) is already pushing this story out of “12:01 P.M.” territory.)]

Or it could be that Punxsutawney is the magnetic black hole of time, my bed at the Inn—the cosmic vortex…

I’ve tried to clear my head, think it through logically…

Maybe it’s all just a dream…

If it is a dream, I can assure you it is of a recurring nature.

Nitpick: no, the dream is not recurring, actually; events within the dream are. But, that’s not the problem here. Logically, in terms of what the voiceover is doing for the audience, there isn’t much reason to speculate, let alone list off a few possibilities, unless this story is going to turn out to be a mystery, with the time loop being a thing to solve. But, even in Rubin’s version, there is no mystery to be solved and there is no explanation to why the time loop ends when it does.

Phil also mentions in voiceover how he “tried to continue my work, my very reason for being here.” But, he explains:

…it soon became clear that my career was going nowhere. There would be no promotions, no weekend anchor spot, no Christmas bonus. What was the point? I was immortal, but I had no future.

Again, I like that last line. There seems to be a nugget here and there in the voiceover that could have been salvageable in dialogue later, but alas, aside from Phil announcing, “I am an immortal,” the content of the voiceover is gone. Of course, Murray’s reading on that line makes it great enough that it makes up for the loss of a few good lines… that maybe wouldn’t have made sense in different context anyway.

Phil stops doing his job and makes “better use” of his “unique vantage point.” Initially, he plays mind reader with the locals and explains that this, “made me very popular.” Then, he gets into the women—the “sixty-three eligible women in Punxsutawney [of which] only forty-nine have so far been—accessible.” He’s already seduced Nancy at this point, and this is when he goes after Tess, the sequence that got morphed into his dates with Rita. But, again, there’s a lack of useful timing with the voiceover. We skip right over his accessing 48 women and then he tells us about making “better use” of his situation? I’ve been toying with editing the days out of order and watching the film jumbled, but it seems the original screenplay already jumbled time a bit. Considering the story is about a time loop, the film actually flows quite well for start to finish; there’s no room for confusion about where we are in the sequence, and by the time Phil does stuff that must have taken offscreen preparation, we already get how makes this “better use” as we’ve seen the simplest form of it in his seduction of Nancy.

And, a long way into the story now, Phil explains how he’s tracking days using the books at the bed and breakfast. Thing is, this system would have been more interesting if he’d been doing it already; I mean, the time loop is already going at the start of the script, so why isn’t Phil already tracking his days—then his stop at the bookcase is another little detail we’ve got to wonder about. Still he explains:

I did finally come up with a way to keep track of time, to tell one day from the next. Ever [sic] morning I go to the library and read—one page…

I begin each book on page one, and continue to the end. After this book, the next to the right, one case at a time…

I began counting my days with a book of short stories, three hundred and fifty-five pages long…

I’ve just begun the second book—a Latin dictionary. I’m on page ten.

[(And then, he already gets it wrong.)]

Three hundred sixty-five pages. That means I’ve been doing this for three hundred and sixty-five days. An entire year.

Well, no, he may have been doing this if this is the book thing, for an entire year, but since he wasn’t tracking his days when he had seduced 49 women, when he’d already had whatever adjustment period he had in his iteration, so he’s probably been doing this for more like 14 or 15 months. It’s weird to, at this point, quantify things and then get it wrong.

Phil steals money by lying to the bank teller about her kidnapped sister—not so innocent as his taking that bag of cash in the film—even though he “didn’t need the money. Not that I had a fortune, but, if you think about it, whatever I had was infinitely recyclable.” Fortunately, we don’t have to think about it, because he just told us.

(Maybe he only had $36.27 in his pocket every morning, and that wouldn’t go far. Not that anyone will get that reference.)

And, Phil’s turning point even gets explained in voiceover. “In fact,” he explains, “I have everything I ever wanted—money, women, and the power to realize my fantasies… And for the first time ever, I have begun to realize that it’s not enough.” He continues:

Even with infinite life, things were beginning to get monotonous. My purpose on this earth was no longer clear…

There was everything to do, but nothing to look forward to…

The emptiness was getting oppressive. The monotony insurmountable.

So, what comes next? Suicide? No, this is where Phil asks Rita out. And, of course he takes the time to explain, “She wasn’t even one of my sixty-three eligible women. Somehow the things most obvious are the things most elusive… And me and Rita—together—was the most obvious thing in the world.” My problems with this bit—and I’m really starting to sound like I didn’t like the original screenplay, when that is not the case—are a few:

  • Rubin’s notion of how many people, and thus how many women, were in Punxsutawney was unrealistically small, and I figure Phil probably missed a lot of women in his count as well, or maybe his idea of “eligible” was narrow and shallow and didn’t just include all single women of legal age in Punxsutawney that day.
  • Considering Rubin’s version is not a romantic comedy, no, Phil and Rita together is not “the most obvious thing in the world,” nor would Phil think so; however, Rubin does give one little detail that gets Phil to notice (and then latch onto) Rita; right after Phil has told us about his existential crisis, he discovers that every morning he doesn’t show up to work, Rita comes looking for him. Now, if her concern is personal, then maybe that’s a good reason to take the time now to get to know her, but—and maybe Phil’s forgotten this—she’s his producer and his not showing up just screwed up her job for the day, so she’s got good reason to go looking for him. But, Phil—who should be past the shallow pursuit at this point, given he’s just explained how he wants more from life—goes straight from “You came looking for me? Do you always do that?” to “Rita—let me take you out to dinner.” Seriously, that’s his very next line. This paints, to me, a picture of Phil that is not only as shallow as he was before but possibly more so. Rita pays one little bit of attention to him and he jumps at the chance to take her out. There’s no big speech in this version about how “something changed” in him when he first saw Rita, this isn’t a love story, so essentially, Phil hasn’t changed, he’s just gotten bored.
  • And, that bit about “the things most obvious” being “the things most elusive” is one of those lines that Mark from Rent would call “poetic” quickly followed by “pathetic.”

    And, it’s a page or two later that Phil then explains, in voiceover:

    It was clear that Rita wasn’t just another one night stand. I was in love.

    It’s a good thing Phil is there to tell us he’s in love, because otherwise we wouldn’t know. The reason Phil’s speech to sleeping Rita works in the film is because a) he’s not telling us he’s in love with her, b) we’ve seen his pursuit of her and its toll on him, and c) Murray sells it and the lack of coverage for other angles (which I mentioned a long time ago) lets it just… be. It isn’t forced on us like the voiceover proclamation of love. It’s just there. We get to decide if we believe it or not. We’re not told what it is.

    (I’d like to quote a poem, maybe a Shakespearean sonnet, about how “love” is not a proclamation but an act, but I don’t know one offhand.)

    And so, Phil overexplains his drifting into depression as well, after pointing out that however things went with Rita, it was just lost the next day with everything else:

    With no need of a career, no use for money, and no chance of love, I had lost everything I had ever need of a future. I was just passing the time…

    I became an expert at all things trivial and pointless.

    [Here, he watches Jeopardy!]

    Clearly, life had lost for me its sense of wonder.

    Again, with telling us what supposedly was clear. This bit is nice, though, because it speaks to reality for anyone out there dating, probably, and not just Phil stuck in the same day:

    I’d even lost my interest in dating. I just got so tired of the preliminaries, the same “getting acquainted” rituals, over and over and over. I was ready for something more.

    And then comes the sequence that never made it further, Phil getting out of town. He walks when his car can’t go any farther. He gets his hands on a snowmobile. And, “after months of trial and error” he figures out how to get to the Altoona airport and the only destination he can get to is Washington, but he needs a reservation. So, this entire sequence it just to add another dead end.

    (The bit with Phil actually flying out to visit his mother comes later)

    And, this is the “end of my immortal leash” for Phil. Still, no suicide. Instead, he counts steps across town. Then, he makes the connection between himself and Punxsutawney Phil:

    I am the groundhog, and he is me. I am Punxsutawney Phil, and forever shall my fate be linked to his. Whatever happens to him, happens to me. I finally saw a way out of this cruel existence.

    I need to read this whole script again because I’m not sure what the overall structure is. The film can be pretty readily divided into a three-act structure, but Rubin’s original is more rambling. This turning point has come after he realized his pursuit of Rita was the most obvious thing, which came after his existential crisis, which came after his “adolescent phase” which came after… well, no, the first act doesn’t exist in this version.

    Then, comes the sequence of Phil trying to kill the groundhog—which Phil describes as setting out to “stalk the end to my madness”—a sequence lost when Murray was cast because the similarities to his Caddyshack character’s attacks on the gopher “were too great.”

    Ultimately, the sequence ends with a version of what we get in the film; Phil runs a truck off a cliff, killing himself and the groundhog, only to wake up again. And, then comes probably the best line in all of the voiceover, one of the lines I wish could have been salvaged into dialogue:

    Either I am alive and condemned to an eternal living hell in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania…

    …Or I have successfully died and am condemned to an eternal dead hell in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.

    Phil says, “the distinctions between life and death are apparently irrelevant” for him now. And, then he has another turning point:

    Why didn’t I see it before? There was on [sic] possibility I hadn’t considered.

    And, then we get Phil’s proclamation to Rita that he is a god. The details of “god” day are different, but the scene in the diner is basically the same. At the end of Phil’s “you like boats but not the ocean” speech (here “you prefer mountains to the sea”), he tells Rita, “if tomorrow would ever come, you would fall in love with me.” And, in voiceover, he supports the future writing of Claire Bacha and Michael Faust by jumping back on the Phil’s in love with Rita bandwagon:

    Even as I spoke the words, I knew they were true. And I knew that as sure as tomorrow never comes, Rita would forget them all over again.

    And, now I see why it took me three days to cover my notes on Ramis’ revision. I’m basically only dealing with the voiceover and the structure and this is one of the longer entries, so tomorrow, Day 50, will conclude this exploration of Rubin’s script. And, maybe I can explain how I can have so many complaints about something but still love it.

    (I’d just run today’s extra long but I’ve got stuff to do. I don’t have the freedom of a time loop so I have to run some errands—and no, I’m not saving any lives, I don’t think—and I’ve got a grad school orientation thing later. But, tomorrow is Groundhog Day.)

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to proclaim things (though probably not in voiceover) and have them be true.

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