Friday, September 20, 2013

see, i knew you were gonna say that

Subtitle: notes on the original (and I’ll still probably just harp on the voiceover today), because I didn’t finish doing it yesterday.

So, I left off with the original version of the “god” scene, in which Phil ultimately tells Rita, “if tomorrow would ever come, you would fall in love with me.” In voiceover, he adds, “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.”

Then, Phil gets on his god kick. Convinced he must be a god, he decides he has “to act more godly.” Faced with the unnamed guy he’s been punching every time he sees him (i.e. Ned), Phil tells us in voiceover: “One thing I know—a god wouldn’t use violence.” Apparently, he hasn’t read The Bible or the The Quran or, well, any religious text or ancient myth. That’s gods’ shtick—use violence… or trickery. Hell, by not hitting Ned, Phil has just proven he is not a god. Anyway, he explains (and sets up the Ned punchline):

It had been so long. I couldn’t even remember who this guy is. It was like a war that generations have fought for so long, they had forgotten the cause. Gods don’t wage war. At least, I was going to be the kind of god who didn’t.

There at the end he qualifies his godhood, because, again, waging war is what gods do. Rubin, in his note on this bit, says:

In this voiceover about war and memory, I hit upon one of the movie’s many tantalizing connections to humanity—how we eventually forget why we do things, perhaps only remembering that whatever we are doing is how it is always done.

Repetition is a tool we use to commit to things to memory—think practicing an instrument—but enough repetitions can eventually make a process invisible. We don’t even notice repeating things after a time…

In Groundhog Day Phil is able to change because eventually the endless repetitions help him become aware of things that he had been blind to, even though these things surround him. He eventually is able to actually see other people and to see aspects of himself that had been untouched and unexplored.

I think the comparison to the multi-generational war is one of those things that is at once profound and trite, and considering what follows it, I think any depth goes away almost immediately. For—and I think I’ve mentioned this—what happens is the original version of what in the film is Ned’s introduction. Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head, Ned the Bull, pushy insurance agent, old friend (or at least acquaintance), and giant leach. And, the punchline of the scene is that Phil regrets talking to the guy. His benevolent godhood is already done because “god didn’t need insurance. And a god wouldn’t want to kill this guy.” Again, Phil should have paid attention to more of those books at the bed and breakfast or the Punxsutawney library, because gods not only kill people, they often do worse—think Sisyphus or Prometheus.

So, Phil starts exploring knowledge. As he’s found by strangers digging in the ground, it’s left to the voiceover to let us know what he’s doing…

How must I look to them? A ragged, dirty young street person, groveling in the firmament, living in a world they don’t understand. I had, in fact, taken up an interest in bugs. As Charles Darwin once said, “God must’ve loved beetles because he made so many of them.”

First of all, I would think that bugs really aren’t a good thing to get interested in during winter. Second of all, as Rubin himself points out in his notes, Phil’s use of “firmament” is wrong. Rubin thought it was a “nice, meaty word. It felt good here.” Then a friend pointed out, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.” But, Phil goes on, visiting the library:

Insects were only my current obsession. All the great pursuits of science, music, art, and philosophy were on my agenda. All of them. I had decided to make something of my life. You see, I was approaching a landmark of sorts.

Telling the audience what he’s doing just doesn’t have the poetry of seeing Phil with those books on the counter beside him, or him noticing the music playing and heading off to learn piano. Seeing is so much more evocative here. We can relate to it. If he just tells us what he’s doing, it seems more abstract.

And, that “landmark” is an invented one. I’ll allow Phil to overexplain:

No longer would I waste my days on drunken bacchanals, self pity and television. I was determined to become the vessel of all human civilization—one book at a time. And when I was finished—I was going to count all the pages on this bookcase, and celebrate my birthday.

Now, again, leave it to the last line to hint at something good. Phil isn’t just celebrating his “birthday” as one normally would. He’s celebrating being born again… and now, I have overexplained it. It’s contagious. So, back to complaints:

  • The usual, too much telling, not enough showing—this version doesn’t even have the drunken bacchanal that serves as Phil’s bottoming out in Ramis’ revision.
  • Rubin’s Punxsutawney is such a small town, I can’t imagine that Phil could find “all human civilization” there. I’m sure the library would have all the classics, but I’m guessing their collection overall would be quite limited.
  • The bookcase calendar is still a great idea. There just isn’t a good way to really use it. Quantifying the days, giving himself an age to celebrate—that seems like something Phil would do before his transformation, not as an integral part of it.

    So, Phil plans “the best birthday party ever given in the history of the world.” Romans at the height of their Empire would probably disagree. And, the girls features on My Super Sweet 16 would also probably disagree. Phil’s planning is limited, of course, because, as he explains, “I only had one day to make preparations.”

    There’s a weird thing in Phil’s dialogue with Rita that, like celebrating his birthday, seems out of place for a story in which we’re supposed to think Phil is turning into a better man. He’s invited her to the birthday, though he doesn’t have any details. The one thing he wants:

    What’s important is that everybody says “Happy Birthday” like they really mean it. I want it to be really, really sincere.

    I’m just not sure what the point of that is. Phil goes on to arrange the party and visit the library—he explains, “My two interests continued, side by side, for a period of years.” And, he’s throwing around money to get things going. A thousand dollars to get the cake by tonight, for example. And, for some reason, he walks down the street reciting a scene—doing both parts—Act 2 Scene 2 of Romeo and Juliet. I think we’re supposed to take from this Phil is getting into Shakespeare, but instead I think this scene, if it had made it to later drafts, would have just painted Phil as even more eccentric and crazy and even more egocentric than he was before. The key to Phil’s transformation in the film is that he is connecting with people, becoming a part of the community, as he improves himself. In this version, he’s taking in all this knowledge just to do it. And, acting out Shakespeare “histrionically, dangerously, totally oblivious to those around him, who look on with apprehension and curiosity,” Phil is disconnecting further, not connecting.

    Phil meanwhile is seen at his piano lessons, getting better each time. And, he takes up sculpting—granite then marble, not ice (the latter came after Rubin et al visited Punxsutawney). Tucker, Phil’s sculpting teacher, has a better notion of people than Phil does at this point—which is a problem. Tucker tells Phil:

    You see, son, every piece of marble is different. Smooth veins, rough chinks, hidden flaws. Just like people, son. Don’t be carving her up until you get to know her. You only get one shot at her son.

    Now, I say Phil doesn’t understand this at this point, but the obvious thing is that he should. This is exactly the lesson he supposedly learned in his “adolescent” phase. But, Phil still isn’t getting it, this late in the story. In voiceover, he explains:

    I suppose that was true for most people. I, of course, had the luxury of reworking the same stone over and over and over.

    The luxury, maybe. But, at this point, he shouldn’t be so deliberately taking advantage of it.

    (But, isn’t that what he’s doing, studying those different subjects at the library and taking up piano and sculpting?)

    So, then it’s finally Phil’s “birthday.” Mrs. Lancaster reads him his horoscope: “Something is hanging in the air… Today will bring a resolution to a personal conflict.” What Rubin has in creativity and cleverness, he clearly lacks in subtlety. And, weirdly, Phil has his party at Toni’s—yet there’s no mention of his having helped them avoid the grease fire, so the place can’t be that pleasant. Then, there’s the party…

  • Nancy thinks she went to high school with Phil, so he’s lying to her again.
  • Mrs. Lancaster, says Phil “seems very interest in my books… He even counts the pages.” And she gives Phil a book as a birthday gift. Thing is, she’s seen him looking at maybe one book—the last one was The Brothers Karamazov. Much like the film, it’s like these people know Phil just a little bit better than their one day’s interactions would imply.
  • The grease fire happens, even though Phil told Mrs. Lancaster the party’s at 8 and he’s previously told Rita that the grease fire happened around 6:30. An easily correctable mistake on Rubin’s part, but it still bugs me.
  • Phil claims to be 263. That’s over 96,000 days that he’s been doing this.
  • Rita tells Phil, “That was great what you did there with Chekhov and the long winter.” But, there was no Chekhov speech, and we didn’t even see that Phil did his report that morning. So, as she says it, it seems like she’s referring to something from the party. But, the party has been going for only a few pages and there’s been no speech .
  • Like “god” day in the film, Phil ends this day happy, which of course means some voiceover to let us know:

    I can’t remember a nicer time, or a more perfect day. There is something very satisfying about closure. Friday—the end of the week, seasons, New Years, Birthdays. I didn’t realize how I’d missed the cyclic nature of things.

    Which is ruined by this not being the end. Instead, we cut to Phil meeting Chubby Man in the hall again. And, downstairs, Phil goes to the first book on the bookcase to start again. And, then, we get Phil flying a plane. And, though he’s already hit rockbottom and sought out knowledge and had the big party, the story continues—on some level, Rubin does with the screenplay just what the story does to Phil—he drags it out. And, we get more voiceover:

    Unless you were me, unless you had lived an eternity, you couldn’t possibly understand my feelings. I was beyond frustration, beyond hope, beyond isolation. The word “lonelieness” doesn’t begin to describe how alone I was…

    Still, I could surprise myself with undying human resourcefulness. I lived in a world where time was cheap, where it was no more bother to steal a plane than it was to make a cup of coffee…

    Tedious logistics restricted my choices, but not my resolve. After all, where does a poor boy go when he’s hurt and lonely beyond all comprehension?

    This voiceover seems like it should have happened before when Phil was marching through the snow or riding on that snowmobile. This sequence fits back there. Put here, any progress Phil has made has quite deliberately been lost. Maybe it’s on purpose. But, I think that undermines even what Rubin says he was going for. He wanted a personal journey like Siddhartha, but Siddhartha doesn’t return to Kamaswami to work with him a second time, he doesn’t return to Kamala (though she does return to him). Even when he’s lost, he moves on. He doesn’t backtrack (at least not deliberately).

    And so, we get Phil visiting his mother who he hasn’t seen in 263 years. He should barely remember her, let alone still miss her. But, she does serve a purpose here, to explain something Phil hasn’t yet explained in voiceover:

    What kind of a job is a weatherman, anyway? People want to know the weather, why can’t they look out the window?

    …You are wasting your talents.

    Something Phil already figured out. And, then she explains something else he should have already figured out:

    Mrs. Connors: Your problem is all you think about is yourself.

    Phil: What?

    Mrs. Connors: It’s true.

    Phil: How can you say that? Ma, I just flew four hundred miles in this blizzard thing…

    Mrs. Connors: …Because YOU were lonely. When’s the last time you visited me because I was lonely?

    The scene is… okay. But, it really should have come far earlier, if it was supposed to mean anything. And, in voiceover, Phil tells us the “exercise in aggravation” of visiting his mother “hadn’t changed in three hundred years.” Playing checkers with Gus, Phil continues:

    I’d still visit her every now and then. But my loneliness continued. After all, who could understand the universe which surrounded only me?

    And then, because we needed another turning point in the story, Phil consults “a professional” but not a doctor or psychiatrist like in the film. Rather, he visits a priest. And, the priest tells Phil that “People come in here all the time, saying just what you’re saying, going through what you’re going through.” So, Phil goes looking. My issue with this is Phil seems to think the priest is being literal, and there’s a hint that maybe he is, that there are other people repeating the day. But, then it may just be a bit of what Ralph gets at in the bowling alley in the film. Phil’s literal repetition and these people’s boring lives are not the same, except that they are. So, Phil sits down with with Lady Geezer (after talking to Geezer)—two tourists who stumbled (in the case of one of them, quite literally) upon Phil digging for bugs got names (Jake and Marie) but these people who may or may not be experiencing exactly what Phil is don’t—and she might be old and senile or she might be experiencing a time loop… Rubin writes all this like even he isn’t sure. And, then, as she talks about her experience, Phil learns a new lesson, as he makes sure to explain in voiceover:

    After years of learning how to scheme, how to have fun, how to rebel, how to read, how to think and fix, how to enrich my life, how to revel in despair, I was finally learning how to listen.

    He decides a couple scenes later:

    All of my yesterdays had been about me. Tomorrow was going to be different. I was ready to leave myself and join the human race.

    Then follows his “good deed” phase, in which he “became the invisible hand of Punxsutawney, quietly removing pain wherever I could find it.” And, you know my biggest problem with explaining too much in the voiceover? It leaves me so very little to add. I mean, you give me a sequence like in the film, just Phil doing his good deeds, saving lives and making lives better and I might call him “the invisible hand of Punxsutawney” but I can’t. Damn you, Danny Rubin.

    Phil further explains:

    And I am a groundhog person, scurrying through underground tunnels, only poking my head up one day a year, and only for the pleasure of this town.

    Of course, Phil has to tell us that helping people gives him pleasure as well.

    And, it goes on. After Phil has sculpted for Rita, instead of a nice line about being happy and some good delivery by Murray, we get voiceover:

    I no longer had any desire to capture Rita, to make her love me. There was no need. I was confident of my destiny. The sculpture was only to make her happy.

    This is one bit of voiceover that, I think, captures Phil’s change better than any other. And, it also puts paid to Bacha and Faust and everyone else who thinks Phil is driven explicitly by his love for Rita. Of course, like the rest of the voiceover, it goes away. And, really, we’re better off without it.

    Still, I must say that I like Rubin’s script. Reorder a few sequences (like Phil visiting his mother), and tone down the voiceover a little, and it’s not all the different from what we get in the film. It rambles a bit more, it wanders, but it’s still at least trying to be about one selfish guy learning to be better. There are missteps, sure. And, just about all of the voiceover is poorly done. But, the character of Phil is still an endearing jerk. The voiceover, if nothing else, forces us to be on his side even when he’s at his worst. And, with a different actor, maybe it would have made sense to have it. I think that casting Bill Murray made Phil a much more accessible character, so that he didn’t need to be explained so much. He could just be.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: I don’t know—to never have to explain myself? To be on the outside who am at my best on the inside. To be.

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