Saturday, October 19, 2013

most of my work is with couples, families

(Enough about religion... for now.)

Let's talk instead about something light: psychoanalysis.

In the International Journal of Psychoanalysis (87 (2006), 1387-98), Richard Almond tells us that "[i]n the paradigm of the therapeutic narrative, a troubled person plays out his/her typical pattern in relation to an other who is more anonymous, a foil who is depicted in idealized and/or mysterious terms." This "other" is Rita, and Phil is the one undergoing the therapeutic process in Groundhog Day. As I've mentioned before, Claire S. Bacha, in Psychodynamic Counselling (4.3 (Aug 1998), 383-406), claims Rita as "the object of Phil's desire exactly because she seems so much his opposite." Both Bacha and Almond are putting the onus for Phil's transformation, at least in part, on his attachment to Rita, whether it's idealization, attraction, or both. I think I'd side with Almond on this one.

Almond tells us that Groundhog Day is of "particular interest" because "it shows us psychological subjectivity--the process of change from a point of view that is particularly valuable--the 'patient's' side." Phil is the patient, starting the film as "the prototypical narcissist, defending against the depressive emptiness of his life with a bitterness that keeps him in a self-reinforcing, isolated spiral, separating him from others." Rick Wade, at Probe Ministries, would further add, Phil is "self-centered, materialistic, egotistical, and career-driven. He exemplifies what sociologist Craig Gray calls modern man's desire for autonomy and... what might be called the will-to-self-definition." Suzanne M. Daughton, in Critical Studies in Mass Communication (13 (1996), 138-154), would probably add Phil's inability to relate to the Other to the list. As Larry would suggest, "there's a lot of things really wrong with Phil."

So, Phil, with all his problems, begins, as I mentioned way back in my exploration of the color blue in the film, in front of a blank space, the bluescreen. Almond suggests this is Phil "in his own world, and empty one, out of which he creates an endless winter." Phil's therapy, chosen not by chance or by God or by his ex-girlfriend Stephanie, or even that shovel hitting him in the head, is the long winter of February 2nd. And, so it goes. Day 1 happens, then Day 2 comes and things are off kilter. Phil knows something's wrong, knows everything's wrong, but there's not really a way to make sense of that. He hasn't seen Groundhog Day so he's not going to jump to "time loop" as the explanation of choice. Almond misquotes Phil's line to Rita at Gobbler's Knob that morning as "There's something wrong with me." What Phil actually says is, "I'm having a problem. I may be having a problem." But, accurate with the quotations or not, Almond gets on with the therapy explanation for things; "[t]he first step in change," he explains, "is noticing things don't feel right." The first thing you need to do is admit you have a problem. Then you can fix it. Phil knows he's got a problem, though on a literal level, he probably thinks his problem is just that the day repeated itself. But, figuratively, his day has to repeat so he can recognize who he is, even if it takes him innumerable days.

Jump ahead a couple days, getting into the start of Phil's "adolescent" period, what Almond calls his "omnipotent position." Almond points out, Phil "turns to self-indulgent activities--the drinking and defiance of rules we see her, and further oral and sexual gratifications in other scenes." As Wade describes it, Phil "simply takes his hedonistic self-preoccupation to new levels." And, we laugh. We get the urge to seize control of circumstance like that. But, Almond says, "[w]hile amusing in the film, these scenes are also uncomfortable to watch because we are aware that Phil is angry and depressed at his underlying stasis." On some level, we probably are a little resistant to that truth just like Phil is, but yeah, Phil's damage is there from the beginning, hidden beneath his sarcasm and his bitterness. "Aggressively tinged impulsiveness," Almond says, "substitutes for facing himself, his isolation and underlying self-hatred." The possible irony here is that Phil was isolated before he came to Punxsutawney, now thinks he is more isolated than ever, but is actually in the place where he can finally figure out how to belong and relate to other people.

Almond suggests that Phil's Freudian slip of calling Nancy "Rita" is his "longing for Rita, for what she represents, break[ing] through." Note the second clause there. Bacha would stop at Phil's longing for Rita. Almond positions Rita wholly in the role of idealized other, that anonymous other set as Phil's foil. And, prior to date night, Rita is certainly anonymous from Phil's perspective. She doesn't know how date night has been going with all of Phil's attempts, so she assumes--somewhat correctly--that Phil doesn't know her. But, he knows something of who she is in contrast to himself. While he has simply been trying to "shortcut around his needs for connection" (Almond's words) in all those date nights with Rita, he does know something about her. He knows what she represents. And, he spells it out in bed after "god" day when he describes her as the "kindest, sweetest, prettiest person" he's ever met. He also thinks he's never seen "anyone that's nicer to people" than Rita is. It doesn't matter if that is literally true--it probably isn't, since Rita really isn't that nice--but it matters that Phil believes it, even if it is because he's never paid enough attention to nice people before to have any basis for accurate comparison. Rita is not someone he deserves. She is someone he idealizes, and the film certainly paints her as a good, mostly genuine person.

Phil's suicides, Almond argues, represent "progress: chronic defensive nastiness and callousness--aggression turned outward has become suicidal depression--aggression turned on the self, or the beginning of masochism. The object [i.e. Rita] is being protected now, because there is a glimmer of hope of obtaining the goodness it possesses." Essentially, Phil turning his anger on himself marks his attempt to protect in particular Rita, and I would suggest that it also fits with his eventual embrace of the Other in that he is effectively protecting everyone else in Punxsutawney from his sarcastic wrath as well. But, Almond says, "[t]here is a limit to the effectiveness of omnipotence and destructive rage." A certain grief is inevitable, Almond says, as Phil desperately needs to cling to the object but literally cannot possess it. Almond calls Phil's recall of the details about all the people at the Tip Top as "a representation of his attachment to his internal, depressive world." Phil's desire for Rita (as love object or as this idealized other) is now a "troubling attachment" according to Almond. And, that makes sense, here. Phil has given up on his adolescent pursuit of her, but he also hasn't quite accepted the possibility of, well, good. It is not until Rita takes the time to be with him not in a constructed date night but an honest situation that her presence as Almond's "object" provides Phil a way out. Almond calls Phil's speech to her the "turning point" of the film, and I've suggested as much, obviously. Phil's good deed days, Almond calls "the active deployment of Phil's new state of mind, self-concept, and capacity for relatedness."

Phil wakes up "transformed: he's happy and feels generous." Good deeds follow and finally Phil is free from the time loop, free from his therapy. But, also, we are free from ours--well, I suppose I'm not, since I'm still watching the film again and again. My therapy goes on. But, the audience in general--it's therapeutic for all of us. Almond suggests:

While we are laughing we are less defended from painful truths. In the strongly drawn character of Phil, we see an aspect of ourselves that we would reject if it were told us straight out--that we use people, feel superior, fear closeness, and that we often may get caught in our own groundhog days of repetitive sameness. But, we can also correct these tendencies. Crucial in such mutative processes is the sense of connection to a benign object who is available and believes in the best part of us.

[I think Groundhog Day might just be my benign object.]

Such an object becomes a foil for working out the bitterness and defensiveness that discourage self-love. Just as Rita's uncritical attitude allows Phil to gradually love himself--because he loves her--so we feel loved by the film's effort to amuse us, and we become willing to hear its message for us.

We let our defenses down and don't even realize we're vulnerable to the message the film has for us (whatever that may be, but that's a separate issue) until it's too late.

Almond says he was "mildly amused" the first time he saw Groundhog Day. He didn't see it in theaters but on TV. Years later, he explains:

I happened to see it again and notice[d] the parallel to the therapeutic process. The film then became a richer experience. As I studied it more carefully, I discovered its music, its poetic references, its insights into the human condition. As a work of art, it began to touch me.

He could have just read my blog.

Anyway, my therapy continues... and I suppose if you're reading along, yours does as well.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to meditate not on the repetitiveness but on the singularity of each day, unique and individual.

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