Sunday, October 20, 2013

i have an alcoholic now

This isn't really part two to yesterday's bit about therapy. But, it does follow in its way, and I just had to use the rest of the psychiatrist's line as a title.

Having dealt with Daughton and Bacha again yesterday, I wanted to get back to gender. In particular, I'd reference the following from Daughton:

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.

I don't know about the dark goddess bit--I'll get to more on that in a moment--but I appreciate that, in this instance at least, Daughton calls it "traditionally feminine" instead of simply "feminine." I've said before, dividing the quest into two based on gender seems, in the present, inappropriate. But, looking backward, it makes sense to look at stories in terms of gender-divided cultures. It's like when I was in film class at USC and we talked about male melodrama as a subgenre of film emerging after World War II. Men, returning from the horrors of war, were a little more free than usual to explore their feelings, so Hollywood provided a mirror of that--films that focused, like Groundhog Day only as drama, on men exploring something more like that traditionally feminine quest. To think that we could only construct fiction that deals with men on external quests and women on internal quests--it's tragic and limiting. Myself--I've written stories about women on external quests, men on internal quests, and plenty in between. Often the two (internal and external, not really men and women) are one and the same. But, when we get academic about stuff, we love to break it down and label it. Internal exploration--that's a feminine quest. External quest--that's a masculine one. We've got the transmission view and the ritual view for communication. We've got stuff like the big man view or the Whiggish view of history. Even in film, we label genres and subgenres, and we act like mixing genres is the height of cleverness when life mixes genres all the time.

But, I was talking about gender, and something about a dark goddess. Daughton cites Janice Hocker Rushing in describing "the myths of the goddess, who has been divided by patriarchal influence into light/dark, good/evil, upperworld/netherworld, and eventually, virgin/whore aspects." So, I suppose Phil's benign object is not a singular thing, then. Instead, Rita represents all of these various aspects in some way... I've seen the film so many times, you'd think I could point out the way these labels work without even thinking about it. I've pointed out how Rita isn't that nice early on. She's patronizing and seems to put up with Phil only because she has to. He's her means to a better end as far as producing goes. And, when they get to "date night" she lies readily enough, and her quoting Sir Walter Scott is so deliberately critical that she's certainly got her dark and her evil aspects. And, the light, good bit--that's what most of us probably see when we see Rita. She's playful and innocent in front of the bluescreen, she not only puts up with but seems amused by Phil's antics, and when Phil is depressed, she seems genuinely concerned for him.

I suppose I could make a case for Rita's upperworld/netherworld aspects, like Plato's chariot in Phaedrus, pulling Phil to both better and worse versions of himself. Early on, she's not a draw for Phil--he's concerned with exterior things, his hedonistic impulses. And, when he turns that toward Rita, she certainly could be his draw toward the netherworld, the object not of his affection but of his lust. Still, in her unknowingness, she remains benign. Later, though, she serves as a draw to better things, the upperworld of good deeds and personal betterment. Jump into Bacha's camp and say it's Phil's love for Rita that makes him change, or Almond's camp and say it's Phil's idealization of Rita that makes him change, it's still Rita that makes him change.

(I think there's a clear third alternative, but I think that may have to wait for another day.)

Similarly, Rita as lust object embodies the whore aspect of the goddess--not as literally as she could, but Phil certainly is acting to get her into bed. But, Rita remains quite deliberately virginal; even when the tables have turned and she has purchased Phil from the auction block, they do not consummate their relationship. They merely sleep together. In the end, Phil doesn't need to conquer Rita any longer. There's perhaps an argument to be made that the turning of the tables in the end--Rita buying Phil like property, Phil offering to serve her the next morning--is countering one bad version of things with another, but it's fantastical enough to be rather quaint instead. And, it is so very far removed from where the film was just over an hour before. Daughton says:

In fact, the rhetorical point of Groundhog Day has more to do with its protagonist coming to appreciate the stereotypically feminine focus on connection with others, than with reinscribing the stereotypically masculine individuation and domination glorified in films...

And, I cut off that line because she cites JFK as her example, and I think there are far better examples of films that, as she says, reinscribe masculine individuation and domination. Most of the most popular films of the 1980s, for example, deal in lone male heroes facing down numerous enemies and demonstrating that all it takes is the right amount of force to win any conflict. These films often involves men traveling the world, maybe heading off to some exotic place (the jungles of Vietnam in Rambo: First Blood Part II, whatever that private island was in Commando, all the many places James Bond would go in each of his films, just to name a few examples), arguably to demonstrate the power of the First World over the Third, the Global North over the Global South, the Core over the Periphery, whatever divisory terms you want to use for it... I've put Phil as representative of exploitative patriarchy before and I think it's worth saying again; in the first section of Groundhog Day Phil very much falls in line with the Hollywood male of the 1980s (keeping in mind this film was released early in 1993 so it's not that far off from being an 80s film)--he's dominating and commanding. He wants what he wants and he hops into bed with Nancy (and maybe Laraine, though we don't get to see that) as readily as James Bond hops into bed with whatever female costar is available...

I'm imagining Julia Nickson's Co and Rae Dawn Chong's Cindy in Rita's stead and, outside of the violence, the role in the overall structure is not that different... Or at least a case could be made that they serve a similar purpose, especially Co. She's there as a foil for Rambo, so he's got someone to talk to--he's not a very talkative guy--so we can get to know him. We get to know Phil Connors in much the same way--his interactions with Rita. Similarly, despite early scenes with his daughter, Schwarzenegger's John Matrix would hardly seem human if not for some of his interactions with Cindy. It's great that Rita, I think, has more depth than either Co or Cindy. Much of her depth comes, though, not from her but from what Phil says about her. We don't experience Rita directly as much as we experience her through Phil. Remember, per Richard Almond, Rita is Phil's benign object, his doorway into the therapeutic journey. She is only as human as Phil allows her to be.

Groundhog Day, by its very nature and structure, only has time for Phil Connors in most of its scenes. Everyone else is a temporary foil for his behavior. Still, so many supporting roles, with only a few brush strokes of characterization and detail, come alive, even if they do not get to occupy their own personal worlds. Structurally, this should happen more as the film goes along, and I suppose that fits, except for maybe characters like Ralph and Gus, bit parts early in Phil's story that fuel him as he launches into the time loop head on. Daughton tells us that Phil learns to "revel in communion" (and I wouldn't argue that is wrong) so, if the film is all Phil's (and there fewer than a handful of scenes without him) experience, shouldn't we get to know these characters better as the story goes? And, don't we? I mean, aside from Ralph and Gus, about which we know just about as much as we're likely to know outside of male melodrama, in a sampling of lines in that one night they spend with Phil Connors.

Groundhog Day is male melodrama as comedy. Phil isn't Rambo or John Matrix or John McClane or James Bond or Rocky Balboa. He doesn't win through feats of strength or daring. He succeeds because he turns down that traditionally feminine path into himself. He is not rugged individualism glorified but something much more interesting. Phil Connors journey came a few years before Hillary Clinton popularized the liberal notion that It Takes a Village to raise a child. Groundhog Day shows us not only that a village can raise a child (metaphorically) to be a good man, but that a good man can repay that village without great acts of glory, without explosions--well, okay, there's one, but it's hardly the visceral kind of explosion you'd get in an action film from the 80s--or acts of violence--discounting his punching of Ned and all those slaps from Rita--and rejecting, while at the same time embracing, a manipulative control of the world to make it better. The key there is that Phil Connors going into the time loop would control things for himself while Phil Connors coming to the end of the time loop would control things for everyone around him. There's still a hint of exploitative patriarchy and control, but it's got a nicer tinge.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to imagine Bill Murray as Rambo, or Sylvester Stallone as Phil Connors, to mash together 80s brawn with Groundhog Day heart and see what results.

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