Thursday, September 26, 2013

keep your fingers crossed

Recently, I made the argument that a) there is no inherent meaning in things and b) we make meaning by finding/manufacturing it. And, obviously, I’ve found plenty of (and presumably manufactured some) meaning in Groundhog Day or this project would have already been done and lamentably forgotten. And, plenty of people have found not only meaning but personal meaning in the film. And, by personal meaning, I mean they don’t see it as some obvious screed with its own message but a message befitting of their own personal beliefs. In fact, the film was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s film series “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” back in 2003.

Alex Kuczynski wrote in The New York Times:

…the film “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in “Groundhog Day” a reflection of their own spiritual messages. Curators of the series, polling some 35 critics in the literary, religious and film worlds to suggest films with religious interpretations, found that “Groundhog Day” came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective’s catalog.

(There are two copies of that catalog currently available on ebay if anyone wants to buy a copy for The Groundhog Day Project: this one and this one.)

Kuczynski goes on to describe how Angelo Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University said that Groundhog Day “perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that Buddhists regard as suffering that humans must try to escape” and how Dr. Niles Goldstein, rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich village said “he finds Jewish resonance in the fact that Mr. Murray’s character is rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more mitzvahs—good deeds—rather than gaining a place in heaven, which is the Christian reward, or achieving nirvana, the Buddhist reward” and how Michael Bronski, “a film critic for The Forward who teaches a course in Jewish film history at Dartmouth, said he sees strong elements of not only Jewish but also Christian theology. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays… And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.” Kuczynski also cites a Jesuit priest and mentions a branch of Falun Gong using the movie “to instruct members in its belief that the spiritual self is not allowed to move to higher levels until it learns from past mistakes.” Wiccans have also got to love the film because, as Kuczynski points out, Groundhog Day (or rather Imbolc, but I suppose he didn’t want to complicate his article further) is “one of the four ‘greater sabbats’ that divide the year at the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes.”

William D. Romanowski mentions the film series in his book Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, adding to Kuczynski’s list a Catholic scholar who argued that Groundhog Day was “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Michael P. Foley, at Touchstone Magazine expands on this notion, calling Phil Connors “the typical product of modernity, the bourgeois man who lives for himself in the midst of others.” Foley further argues: “All of the Enlightenment’s societal buttresses—technology, natural science, and social science—collapse under the weight of a problem outside the parameters of space and time.”

Foley goes on to argue, after suggesting that Phil pursues “excellence… not for any ulterior motive but because he enjoys it,” that part of Phil’s “conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it.” Sure, when the Old Man, O’Reilly dies in the alley, Phil does look up into the sky, perhaps to God. But—and this will be an insane argument from me after this many days picking apart the minutiae of Groundhog Day—reading into a single look an interpretation of the entire film might be a bit much. But, then again, my point just a few days ago and at the top of today’s entry was that we find or manufacture meaning even where there is none. Hell, especially where there is none, because the idea of meaninglessness is probably one of the more scary concepts out there if you take the time to really think about it. I may be an atheist, but I also used to have that “I Want to Believe” poster from The X-Files on my wall. I have no particular problem with people believing in things. I just wish some people would get past belief to something more concrete. My particular favorite line in Kuczynski’s article comes from Rabbi Goldstein, who says: “The movie tells us… that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected.” If more people operated under that belief, or at least believed they should, the world would be a far better place.

When Phil “plaintively looks heavenward,” as Foley puts it, this doesn’t mean Phil is looking to or for God, though it does suggest Phil is looking for something. But all that is left of the film at this point is the final resumption of Groundhog Day and Phil’s release from his “curse.” Nowhere in this final sequence does Phil reference, nor does the film reference, God or even gods. What I call “god” day is long past at this point. In Rubin’s original, Phil has tried on godhood only to realize it is impossible as long as he is human, as long as he is capable of pettiness and jealousy. To put Phil’s transformation for the final resumption on God diminishes a much more important message, I think—that we can, indeed, change ourselves for the better—and dismisses the changes Phil has already made; he has already taken up the piano, has already spent time studying literature and biographies and poetry—

(Among the books Phil has had (seen on the counter beside him) are Johann Strauss - Father and Son - A Century of Light Music by H. E. Jacob and Treasury of the Theatre: From Agamemnon to A Month in the Country by John Gassner, and the book he had when Rita came over at the end of “god” day was Poems for Every Mood by Harriet Monroe.)

—and maybe he’s studied the French language (though, I really think that there is no evidence for this after “god” day so it’s questionable. He’s taken up ice sculpting, which means he is capable of patience. Even if you want to believe in God, even if you want to attribute one’s drive to improve to God, to suggest that simply “recognizing that there is a God” is what converts Phil diminishes human agency. And, we need people to believe in more personal agency, not less, if we want the state of things in the world to improve.

Foley also suggests that Phil “indirectly acknowledges God as creator by reciting the verse, ‘Only God Can Make a Tree.’” Foley argues: “God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.” I don’t mean to harp on this one particular take on the film, especially when, as I’ve already pointed out above, so many different religious groups find ways to identify with Phil and his plight—but a) I must nitpick the fact that Phil does not recite said verse but merely mentions the title, and b) I always assumed the inclusion of said title came from either Rubin or Murray was meant in a cynical, ironic fashion. Personally, I don’t care for Kilmer’s poem because it’s simplistic and trite, so maybe I am presuming intent—but I’m allowed to do that just as much as Foley is. The replacement line—the line in Ramis’ second revision is”I was saying that the cow was eventually returned to it’s [sic] rightful owner” so they hadn’t even chosen the poetry book yet—sounds more like a quip Murray would ad lib, because, well, like Rita’s take on the whole groundhog ceremony, “it’s nice. People like it.”

But, then again, I believe I suggested the old man in the red hat at the Tip Top Cafe was the devil because his hat is one of the few notable instances of red in the film (and he keeps invading my screen right when one of the more thoughtful moments comes along). Though I did so with tongue securely in cheek, I probably shouldn’t get so worked up by Foley. Now, if he also suggested that Phil’s love for Rita was the driving force behind Phil’s transformation, those would be fighting words.

Well, I also have a problem with this parenthetical point in Foley’s article:

Because the cycle is broken by the consummation of love and desire rather than the abandonment of it, the story cannot be seen as an allegory for Eastern religious thought. And because this “eternal” recurrence is terminated by love and classical virtue, it is a refutation rather than an endorsement of Nietzsche.

I think the film, while it may imply it, does not tell us that the consummation of love breaks the cycle—in fact, I think there are two distinctly separate things going on here. One Groundhog Day is about Phil learning to be better, and the other—necessitated by Hollywood—involves Phil earning, or at least being worthy of (and those are two very different things) Rita’s love by having become better. And, it is more strongly implied that the former is what has broken the cycle, and the latter just happens to come along with it, a bonus, a reward perhaps, but not a cause.

And, as for Nietzsche, I’ve spent my time on eternal recurrence (here and here and here), and no, Groundhog Day does not strictly uphold Nietzsche’s idea. But, there is room for middle ground between endorsement and refutation. In fact, I have endorsed eternal recurrence as a lens through which we can usefully look at our own lives, at Phil Connors’, at all of human history really. Groundhog Day does not refute eternal recurrence anymore than it promotes God. But, again, my meaning is my meaning. Your meaning is your meaning. Foley’s meaning is Foley’s meaning.

(Of course, Foley also calls Rita’s purchase of Phil in the bachelor auction “literally a redemption or buying back from the slave block” so he’s got worse points than the one about God.)

Still, what I like about Foley’s article is his take on “Phil’s Shadow” which happens to be the title of the piece. He suggests, somewhat appropriately, that it is Phil Connors’ shadow and not Punxsutawney Phil’s that is getting in the way of time moving on. Foley describes Phil’s “shadow” as “his vices, his bad habits and sinful ways that detract from and diminish his God-given goodness.” While I take issue, obviously, with the “God-given” detail, I like this particular way of describing something we all can agree on about the film—Phil Connors is not a particularly good guy at the beginning of the story and he learns to get past that. Aside from Rita citing her time in Catholic school, which Foley points out is “the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned,” the film avoids really ever telling us much of anything about how or why things are happening. And, this leaves it all open to whatever interpretation we choose to put on it at any given time. In fact, my own take on parental roles in the film, if I ever get to it, was going to hinge on some serious deist notions.

And, before I go, I should mention that Foley does conclude that “despite promising hints, Phil’s turn to God is underdeveloped and falls short of a full religious conversion.”

Anyway, today’s reason to repeat a day forever: just for this project, to take the time to explore Groundhog Day from every perspective in detail… or am I already doing that?

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