Wednesday, September 4, 2013

you're not a god. you can take my word for it

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn't make any sense.

That’s Mawlānā Jalāl ad-Dīn Muḥammad Balkhī also known as Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī , or just Rumi. He was a 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic. Someone much closer to me once wrote the following:

Being an atheist is the easiest thing to be. You don't have to believe in anything so you can create your own moral standards, or lack thereof.

Needless to say, at some point in watching Groundhog Day I thought of moral relativism. The film doesn’t deal with God much. I mean, sure, there’s the scene I call the “god” scene, but the theological debate on screen is not very great in detail or in depth. Rita’s best argument is, “You're not a god. You can take my word for it; this is 12 years of Catholic school talking.” She doesn’t present much evidence. If this were a debate I was judging at a forensics tournament, Phil would win simply because, well, Rita does not deny his having died and come back, so that stays on my flowsheet as de facto evidence. Phil’s argument that he’s a god is stronger than Rita’s that he isn’t. We can’t just take her word for it. And, really, unless someone presents some evidence in real life, I don’t take anyone just at their word.

Still, I like the feeling of those lines from Rumi above. I don’t believe in the existence of the soul but it’s a nice idea, and the idea of this field out beyond “ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing” is a pleasant one, a place where the world—or really, the universe—is so full we can simply bathe in it and not hope to take it all in… Yes, I’m comforted by the idea of a world so big I can’t comprehend it all.

(Still, I don’t consider myself an agnostic because while I personally may not be able to comprehend all of the universe at any given time, I do think that everything in the universe is observable or conceivable in some way that we can comprehend it. It’s like a hologram; just because you can only see one piece of it at a time doesn’t mean the rest of it isn’t out there if you just change your perspective a bit.)

And, sure, sometimes, being an atheist is easy. And, for a while, being Phil Connors was pretty easy, as well. Once he realizes what the lack of consequences means, he is free of theology, no matter how much he may have believed in God or religion before—and, I don’t get the idea that Phil Connors, weatherman, was much of a religious or spiritual man before his stay in Punxsutawney. Does that mean he doesn’t have moral standards? Is the only reason we don’t see him gunning down townspeople at some point because even Danny Rubin didn’t want the screenplay to be that dark because no one would buy it?

Hell, let’s not even get that deep into it yet. How about a simpler question—was what Phil did with Nancy immoral? Now, I’ve heard good arguments that, say, the “sex spray” in Torchwood equates to the use of Rohypnol, so Owen was basically committing a form of date rape at best when he tricked those women into sex. But, is Phil’s “seduction” of Nancy the same thing? Devil’s advocate here—the spray in Torchwood could be said to be just a more advanced bit of the alcohol Owen and the women in question would have been drinking otherwise to let their inhibitions down enough to get together. And, Phil’s use of key information is just an advanced form of what he’d be doing on a normal night to pick up women. Use who he is and what he can figure out of who they are to get them into bed. Morality on a slippery slope.

I’ve got one for you: what if Phil trained in cold reading and that’s how he knew who Nancy was, and that’s how he seduced her? Where is the cutoff? The lies? The drugs (in the case of Torchwood)? Ideally, we should all be honest and upfront and, with billions of people on the planet, I’m sure we’d eventually find one to be with. But, even then, wouldn’t we present our best side? Wouldn’t we avoid certain conversations so we come across a little better? Is getting dressed up just a lesser lie?

Maybe it’s simpler, like the old descriptor for pornography—you know it when you see it. We know when something’s wrong. Even if it’s our protagonist (or ourself), we recognize what’s “wrong” even if we may do it anyway. The common take on villains in a movie—

(And, I haven’t even gotten into the lack of a “villain” in Groundhog Day)

—is no one believes himself evil. Call it moral relativism if you like, but an action that is wrong in one context may be the only option in another. And, coming back to Groundhog Day specifically (and avoiding the larger political discussion that would probably offend quite a few people), perhaps the reason we are amused by Phil’s cheating his circumstance to seduce Nancy is that, well, no one really gets all that hurt (Nancy won’t remember, and we see Phil become a better person later), and we are, in theory, objective witnesses to his circumstance. We can see that Phil is free to do this kind of thing and maybe we fantasize about doing it also.

The scene is on right now, and Nancy is out there dancing alone before Phil speaks to her. And, without him, she ends up spending time with Larry later, so maybe the fantasy on her end, this guy she can’t remember from high school who now is relatively famous in Pittsburgh admits an unbelievable love for her… why wouldn’t she want to believe that? Nancy is a complicated character considering she’s only in a handful of scenes. I mean, we could assume she’s so desperate she would have gone to bed with anyone that night, even Larry. Or we could read into Phil’s manipulation some more of Hollywood’s upholding of “traditional” gender roles—Phil the pursuer, Nancy the willingly subdued. Consider the following scene: Phil on a date, going to the movies in costume with a woman who doesn’t even get a name. On the one hand, it’s funny because we see just how crazy Phil can be. On the other hand, is it wrong that this woman, dressed in the clichéd French maid costume, doesn’t even get a name or a personality?

You know the problem with Phil’s approach to Rita that I’m realizing now? He takes what she says about herself (for the most part) and uses that as his idea of her. But, as I said above, even though Rita isn’t likely thinking she’s on a date with Phil, initially, she still has a public self and a private self. And, she’s probably got more than one public self. There’s the more formal producer, there’s what she’s willing to show one-on-one, and there’s also how she sees herself. These might as well be different people depending on the situation, and yet they’re one and the same.

(And, no, I didn’t break her down into three parts to again suggest there’s some importance to trios (or the trinity) in the film.)

Anyway, where was I? Can we blame the simple brushstrokes of characterization on this being a movie? Or can we read into it and assume some commentary on women?

But, I was trying to talk about something bigger… That line way up top, about how being an atheist is easy, continues on a different track:

You can have a lot of fun in life but know when the party is over the party is over. When you die, you aren't truly dead, only because matter is not created or destroyed. It is only altered. You don't die but change. You become one with mother nature. As long as you are loved by someone you are still living. To live is to be in someone's mind, heart and thoughts.

Perhaps that’s Phil’s problem there at the end. He wasn’t worried about being in, say, Nancy’s mind, heart and thoughts; he just—and pardon the crudeness—wanted in her pants. She wasn’t a person to him. She was a receptacle for his urges.

One of the great things in Rubin’s original that didn’t make it through all the versions to the screen was Phil’s “god” phase. When he decides he must be a god, it isn’t just a flippant response to death. In fact, he has the wherewithal to tell Rita, “I don’t know how to be a god.” He decides that not only is he a god but he must decide what kind of a god he is, and he decides to be a benevolent god. In voiceover, he says, “Still, if I was a god, I had to act more godly.” And, one thing he says he knows: “a god wouldn’t use violence.” He says this as Ned approaches and he decides to stop punching him (he’s been punching him every morning). There’s an interesting take on deities here:

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.

a) Phil clearly hadn’t read any books on Greek or Roman mythology or any old polytheist mythologies for that matter in his book calendar at the bed and breakfast

And, b) I like Phil’s idea of being a god. Like with Spider-Man, with great power comes great responsibility.

But, then again, after being reminded that Ned is annoying and an insurance salesman, Phil says, “Now I knew Rita was right. I wasn’t a god. A god didn’t need insurance. And a god wouldn’t want to kill this guy.”

And, he could have killed him. He didn’t just have to punch him every morning. He could sneak a knife out of the kitchen at the bed and breakfast, perhaps, and do much worse.

For Phil there are no consequence but those in his own head. If he had taken a turn for the dark, the violent, his destruction might have been reversed, but he’d still remember it. Or, if he did believe some god responsible for this curse, maybe he only didn’t go so far because he thought maybe that would be the day the loop ended and he would suffer the consequences. Hell, I still wonder if he’s been robbing that armored truck every day. I mean, is he still paying Mary $1000 dollars on his last day? Did he figure out a lower amount that would work just as well? Did he find a better time to show up at Mary’s house so that she would just take her normal rate? Did he somehow delay her student from ever getting to class so Mary’s desperate for whatever cash he offers? He’s got gloves on, and he only touches that bag he steals, but would there be any way he’d get caught?

I assume he’s not stealing all that cash all the time. But, the movie allows for the possibility.

If you or I were caught in a time loop, would that be enough of a trigger for an atheist to start thinking some higher power is manipulating things? Would it be enough of a trigger for a religious person to believe the whole universe was random and there couldn’t possibly be anyone in charge? Does it even matter if there’s someone in charge or no one in charge as long as we, in the immortal words of Bill and Ted and Rufus, “be excellent to each other”?

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to find that field where the world is too full to talk about, and lay there for a while, alone or with someone else, but quiet and appreciative of all there is around me.

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