Tuesday, October 22, 2013

i've always loved you

Todd May, in "Love and Death" writes about Phil's love for Rita. May says, "One would not want to deny that Connors comes to love Rita during the period of the eternal Groundhog Day." I would. I have. Sort of. I suppose I don't deny that Phil loves Rita--I just question a) the extent of that love

(By the time he loves her, I might argue that his attempt at "romantic" involvement with Rita has already come to an end. Of course, at the time he was pursuing a "romantic" relationship with Rita, I don't think Phil even knew what that entailed. For him it was all about getting Rita back to his room, into his bed. Any failure to do that was a failure as, well, who and what he believed himself to be.

So then, it becomes a question of what sort of love Phil feels for Rita, because on some level, I think we could assume that Phil has learned to love everyone by the end of the film. This would include Rita. But, Hollywood convention and that speech Phil gives when Rita is asleep beside him tell us that his interest in her is still something approximating a romantic one, if not a romantic interest outright. There's evidence to suggest Phil is still interested in Rita, but then there is also evidence that his interest is quite readily sidelined for his pursuit of, well, himself. May suggests that it is only with an actual future ahead at the end of the film that Phil is able to display "passion" and "abandon" as life beyond February 2nd provides him with "new avenues for the intensity of his feelings for her. Without a future for growth and development, romantic love can extend only so far. Its distinction from, say, a friendship with benefits begins to become effaced."

Phil and Rita are clearly not friends with benefits. We know from date night that Phil wants to get Rita into bed, and we can see on the morning of February 3rd that Rita expected and even wanted to do more than just sleep with Phil in that room at the bed and breakfast the night before.

(But, then, we have a new question: does mutual attraction and sexual interest equate to love? In Hollywood shorthand, it qualifies often, but in reality, I would argue that the two things are very far from one another.)

May goes on to imagine

a limitless future would allow for even more intensity to love than a limited one. Romantic love among immortals would open itself to an intensity that eludes our mortal race. After all, immortality opens an infinite future. And this would seem to be to the benefit of love’s passion. I think, however, that matters are quite the opposite, and that “Groundhog Day” gives us the clue as to why this is. What the film displays, if we follow this interpretive thread past the film’s plot, is not merely the necessity of time itself for love’s intensity but the necessity of a specific kind of time: time for development. The eternal return of “Groundhog Day” offered plenty of time. It promised an eternity of it. But it was the wrong kind of time. There was no time to develop a coexistence. There was instead just more of the same. The intensity we associate with romantic love requires a future that can allow its elaboration. That intensity is of the moment, to be sure, but is also bound to the unfolding of a trajectory that it sees as its fate. If we were stuck in the same moment, the same day, day after day, the love might still remain, but its animating passion would begin to diminish.

What this suggests to me is the best argument against the idea that, at the least, Rita is in love with Phil. Or, rather than put the strawman right into the camp of being in love, I think this bit from May implies that Rita couldn't love Phil or perhaps even feel a particularly strong romantic interest in him after that one day. Her experience with Phil amounts to the drive from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney (something like 90 minutes), the handful of minutes they were together at Gobbler's Knob for the groundhog ceremony, and what she saw of him at the party, which would have created such cognitive dissonance as to make her more confused than enamored. What May tells us is--and what I think rings quite true--is that love requires coexistence, and Phil and Rita have not really had any of that. Phil, in his way, has coexisted with Rita; he knows more about her from date night than she might admit even after having slept beside him, and he certainly knows her better (assuming his views are accurate) than we the audience do. But, knowledge is not love. Aside from "god" day, Phil has no genuine interactions with Rita that could constitute the beginnings of love...

Unless we operate under the assumption that love at first sight a) exists and b) is what Phil experienced when he first saw Rita. Still, even if that was what happened (and in Hollywood, we must consider it a possibility), Phil is simply too immature to act upon it in any meaningful fashion in the first two acts and is preoccupied with other things in the third act, so I must argue now that Phil is not in love with Rita either. Claire S. Bacha (who I often disagree with on this topic) suggests,

There is both an attraction to, and a horror of, this first moment of a relationship between Phil and Rita. The attraction is that it is familiar as an accepted version of love, being in love. It is the state to which both men and women generally aspire in their search for a partner and in their struggles to stay in their chosen relationships. It is generally accepted that relationships can work on this basis.

The horror of this version of love, as is expressed so well in the film, is two-fold. First, it seems to be totally all right and totally impossible at the same time. Surely, although it feels familiar and right and attractive, there is no authentic way of being yourself with another and, at the same time, of carrying the ideal (and thus denigrated) parts of this person. This model of relationship precludes any authenticity or equality. It makes sense only as a son might experience his ambitious and frustrated mother.

I don't know about the Freudian notions in that last bit, but I think the idea that what we call love--and I'm talking about the Western idealized version, of course--requires both authenticity and equality. That equality, I think, lines right up with May's coexistence and demonstrates a fundamental Truth about love. If for no other reason, it is because Phil, even when he isn't doing it deliberately, is taking advantage of an inherently lopsided situation in which he has unfair knowledge and experience over Rita, that I must conclude that Phil cannot be in love with Rita. He lacks the perspective from which to have such feelings.

But, I do think it's reasonable to suggest that he loves her. And, on some level, that love may be romantic. Which brings me back around to my second question...)

and b) whether or not that love is the driving force behind Phil's transformation. My personal bias makes me want to look to the message of the film--or rather my subjective measure of what is the best message available in the film--to answer this second question, and to look to Phil's interactions with Rita at the party to answer the first.

First, a few questions:

Why does Phil respond so readily to Rita coming into the party? Can we take his response and timing in changing the tempo as evidence of love? of romance? And, if we can, must we? After playing out his variation on Rachmaninoff, Phil goes to Rita and they dance. They are interrupted, and Phil allows his attention to shift naturally to the interruptions. On the one hand, his willingness to turn his attention so often away from Rita implies that dancing with Rita is not some piece of a convoluted plot to impress her. On the other hand, he does immediately return his attention to her after each interruption has departed. And, if all of his good deeds are just part of a convoluted attempt to be worthy of Rita, it makes sense for him to not dismiss the people he has helped in front of her. I don't claim there to be a definitive answer to this, but I tend toward the side that says Phil has improved himself because a) he had exhausted all other options and b) he finally saw the being good was worth it. While he might have been influenced by Rita (through idealizing who she was and wanting to be like her--something like Michael Faust suggests--or through falling in love with her and wanting to be worthy of her), there is, I would wager, some inertia to the process that overtakes the initial inspiration. So, while I cannot definitively rule out Phil's love for Rita as a driving force, I think that by the time Phil has turned down the path to being a better man, the driving force is irrelevant. Phil changes because Phil changes. Being good, doing good--these are states of being that certainly take on a life of their own.

(On the flipside of that coin, being bad and doing bad are also states of being that can take on a life of their own, but that is a discussion for another time)

I don't think Phil's behavior with Rita at the dance proves the issue of love in either direction. Not satisfactorily or definitively anyway. But, the film almost demands we interpret things one way and one way only when it comes to the Phil/Rita relationship. Everything else in the film is open to interpretation, but this one thing, an element not in Rubin's original script, provides the audience with a reasonable if not explicit explanation for Phil's release from the time loop.

And, here I must come back around to the message of the film. Is Groundhog Day simply a romantic comedy with a science fiction twist? If so, then of course we must assume Phil and Rita have found each other, have fallen in love with one another, and our idealized notions about love are upheld by the ending of the film. Love is the one force that can break the curse. Phil is Snow White or Princess Aurora and Rita is his Prince... except she isn't deliberately saving him, is she? Perhaps a different metaphor is in order. Phil is at once the Princess in need of saving, and the Prince who does the saving. He hasn't just made himself worthy of Rita's love but also of his own. As he told Rita quite honestly on date night, "I don't even like myself." But, by the end of the loop, I think it's safe to say that Phil Connors does like himself. But, this approach means that Rita is a superfluous addition (a symbol at best) to a story about a man coming to appreciate himself by learning to appreciate everyone and everything around him.

And, I think I'm okay with that one.

Groundhog Day tells us that it is better to be a part of the world than to position ourselves above it. Groundhog Day tells us that genuine interactions are better than superficial ones. Groundhog Day tells us that selfless acts are worth our time and our effort. Why, though? The film lacks commentary on this, except inasmuch as we can take Phil's ending up with Rita as some reward.

Of course, it is the film's lack of commentary on itself that makes it such a powerful statement about so many things it really tells us nothing about...

And, I'm not sure I know what to make of that. I know what it means. I'm sure you reading this know what I mean. And yet, I'd like to be so much more clear. Let me try again.

The film, in not telling us what it is about, allows us to read into it just about anything we want to read. It doesn't tell us that Phil and Rita are in love. It doesn't tell us that they are not. It doesn't tell us that Phil has genuinely become a better person. It doesn't tell us that he hasn't. It doesn't tell us that Phil has earned his way back into normal life anymore than it demonstrated why Phil specifically deserved to go through this process in the first place. It never tells us what to think, and yet that somehow induces in us an impulse to latch onto whatever we can find within the film to uphold traditions and standards and ideas about love and selflessness that we can at once take as universal and entirely unique to our culture (whatever that culture may be).

I guess, sometimes silence is the most powerful statement one can make.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to love everyone, sure, but to be loved at least by one among them in return. I think the reason I have yet to get further into May's article is because I miss the passion he's talking about.

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