Wednesday, October 16, 2013

only god can make a tree

Not too long ago I wrote about Groundhog Day as a religious film. That is to say, I discussed how folks of different religions see the film as exemplifying their specific belief systems. And, notably, when I cited Michael P. Foley's "Phil's Shadow", I dismissed almost out of hand his suggestion that when Phil looks up after O'Reilly dies in the alley, he is looking to God. Specifically, what Foley says is this:

But Phil’s conviction evaporates once he is forced to acknowledge the inevitable death of an old beggar whose life he repeatedly tries to save. In the final scene of this subplot, he is kneeling down, vainly administering CPR to the man, when he stops and plaintively looks heavenward. And in an unrelated moment, he indirectly acknowledges God as Creator by reciting the verse, “Only God can make a tree.” God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.

Now, I think it's presumptuous to link the mention of Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" is deliberate. But, then again, I find meaning in plenty of things within the film that it's probably safe to assume were not intended. For example, the Phil sign girl who loses her friend--I've explored possible in-story reasons for her friend's disappearance even though that particular extra (the friend) probably just couldn't be there that entire day they were filming the Ned scenes (in that particular weather, but no need to get into that distinction again) and no one noticed in editing or no one cared because they didn't think anyone in the audience would care... All that is to say, it's not unreasonable for Foley to suggest that Phil has chosen to read Kilmer's "Trees" for a reason even if the filmmakers chose it because it's famous, or because it happens to be in that actual book... a little digging and I found the following image which, while a little blurry, does not include Kilmer in the list of authors, so until I've got a copy of the book for myself (which I have been tempted to acquire), I think I can assume that Joyce Kilmer's "Trees" is not in Poems for Every Mood.

Another possibility is that Bill Murray just threw that line out like many an ad lib of his. But, for now, I will say it doesn't matter outside the film, why that line is there. What matters is this: does it mean anything within the film that the line is there? Given what I've just discovered about the book, I've got to wonder why Phil is bringing up a poem he couldn't possibly have just read. And, if I want to play Foley's advocate here, I must wonder if there isn't something meaningful to Phil mentioning God... The thing is, if he were going to mention God, were going to cite a line of poetry about God, why that one? I'm no expert on poetry about God, but I've got to assume there are better lines than Kilmer's.

Let's see...


I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

My impulse: this poem is simplistic, and seems, aside from maybe lines 4, 9 and 10, like the kind of poetry one gets from amateurs. The self-deprecation in those last two lines is nice--and Phil Connors would appreciate that sort of thing, I suppose. As I look for commentary on the poem from others--expecting praise--I'm actually glad to find this bit from The New York Times:

Of course, “Trees” is a notoriously awful poem. It is singsongy and saccharine. Its imagery is preposterous. As Robert Penn Warren and Cleanth Brooks pointed out in their book, “Understanding Poetry,” any anthropomorphic flora “whose hungry mouth is prest / Against the earth’s sweet flowing breast” as it “looks at God all day, / And lifts her leafy arms to pray” would be “strangely deformed” indeed.

(I am also amused that I only just learned that Joyce Kilmer is a man. Or, was a man; he's long dead.)

Thomas Vinciguerra, the author of "A Tree Grows, and Grows" (that New York Times piece), goes on to explain about Kilmer:

Central to both Kilmer’s work and the prevailing disdain of it is his deep Catholicism, to which he converted after his daughter Rose contracted infantile paralysis. Most of his efforts fairly drip with piety, even when the subject is as mundane as New Jersey mass transit. The train in “The Twelve-Forty-Five” is an instrument of the Devil (“I ride, I blasphemously ride / Through all the silent countryside”), disturbing the peaceful faith of the Garden State (“Why, even strident Paterson / Rests quietly as any nun”). In the end, though, the wicked locomotive receives absolution (“My cottage lamp shines white and clear. / God bless the train that brought me here”).

And, there's this:

Yet in his heyday, Kilmer was a rising literary star. He made it into Who’s Who at 25, around the time he joined the staff of The New York Times Magazine. The corresponding secretary of the Poetry Society of America, he was published in Town & Country, The Smart Set and The Nation. He ran the poetry departments of Current Literature and The Literary Digest; the latter eulogized him as “a very gallant gentleman who never wrote a line that was not pure, and sweet, and clean.” Reviewing his posthumous two-volume “Poems, Essays, and Letters” here, Charles Willis Thompson, an editorial writer for The Times, declared: “The German bullet that slew Joyce Kilmer at the Ourcq slew a brilliant promise. It could not slay a brilliant partial fulfillment.”

It is quite possible, even probable, that if that bullet hadn’t cut Kilmer down in his prime and enshrined him as a martyr, he would not have achieved immortality.

The atheist in me wants to dismiss the poem outright because it's silly. The poet in me wants to dismiss it outright because it's trite. But, then, I recognize that the poem does still garner mention from time to time. And, someone like Foley can latch onto a single line of the poem in a film like Groundhog Day and claim it as acknowledgement, even if indirect, of God. So, I must consider the lasting power of Kilmer's poem, at least for certain circles. One of those would be Christians, maybe specifically Catholics--I really don't know. But, then the smartass in me wants to team up with the atheist in me to point out that these religious folks like this simplistic, sappy little poem because their minds are just as simplistic and sappy and small, as clouded as their brains must be by religion. But, that's not nice, is it? And, of all the lessons one might learn from the tale of Phil Connors, one of them would be acceptance of people who are different. So, I've got to, at least for the moment, accept these silly little Christians for who they are and play nice.

Actually, I want to.

See, I've been reading about confirmation bias lately--I hope to do a formal writing about it for grad school, specifically (if I can swing it) in relation to Groundhog Day and the various religion's takes on the film I've written about before and I will include it in this blog at some point as well. Confirmation bias, simply put, describes our tendency to read into things--be it news coverage, political debates, novels, films, or what have you--in such a way as to fit them with the beliefs we already have rather than go out of our way to alter our beliefs. Charles S. Taber and Milton Lodge described it in a little more complicated fashion in "Motivated Skepticism in the Evaluation of Political Beliefs" (published in the American Journal of Political Science 50:3 (Jul 2006), 755-769) which detailed a study they performed in regards to not only confirmation bias but prior attitude effect, disconfirmation bias, attitude polarization, attitude strength effect and sophistication effect... and, all that sounds so very complicated, I can't believe I actually rather enjoyed reading about it. But, anyway, what they described in hypothesizing about the mechanisms in play was this:"...confirmation bias such that when free to choose what information they will expose themselves to people will seek out confirming over disconfirming arguments." Actually, it was their description for disconfirmation bias that's complicated; they describe it "disconfirmation bias [as] such that people will spend more time and cognitive resources denigrating and counterarguing attitudinally incongruent than congruent arguments...." All that, confirmation bias and disconfirmation bias combined, is to say that we seek out arguments that support what we already believe and when faced with arguments that don't support what we already believe, we hold them to more scrutiny than we would arguments that do support our beliefs.

This is why, at least initially, I dismissed the likes of Claire S. Bacha suggesting in "Groundhog Day: the individual, the couple, the group and the space between" (published in Psychodynamic Counseling 4.3 (Aug 1998), 383-406) that Phil bettered himself because of his love for Rita. I still think Bacha is wrong about that, but I've taken more time to think about it rather than just stick to my response because it was my initial reaction.

(And, I plan to explore the subject in more detail when I get around to more seriously writing about what I think of the notions of masculine and feminine quests, which Suzanne M. Daughton writes about in "The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in Groundhog Day" (published in Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13 (1996), 138-154). My initial disagreement with this distinction in quests within stories was a kneejerk reaction to what looked quite sexist. But, it's not Daughton that is being sexist, and I think my response to these terms is not that we need to make the distinction, because obviously the terms do apply to certain stories, but that we don't feel the need to replace "feminine" in this instance with "traditionally feminine" and "masculine" with "traditionally masculine" to distance ourselves from our own history of sexism. Not to imply that sexism is a thing of the past, of course, but that is an argument for a day other than this one and a blog entry other than this one.)

And, it is my own confirmation and disconfirmation biases that had me dismissing Foley outright when he suggests that Phil Connors is looking to God. On the one hand, I must admit, of course Phil Connors is at the very least looking for God when he looks up from O'Reilly's dead body. On the other hand, given the larger context of Foley's assertion, what I cited in my own writing was just a part of what bugged me. Here's the paragraph I quoted above plus the one that precedes it:

One can also argue that there is a theological dimension to Phil’s transformation. Part of his conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it. Like most moderns, Phil thinks of himself as (in Freud’s immortal phrasing) “a prosthetic god,” someone who “makes the weather” through his mastery of science. Later, after his unsuccessful suicides, he tries to convince Rita that he is a god, a claim she rejects on account of her “twelve years of Catholic school” (this is the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned).

But Phil’s conviction evaporates once he is forced to acknowledge the inevitable death of an old beggar whose life he repeatedly tries to save. In the final scene of this subplot, he is kneeling down, vainly administering CPR to the man, when he stops and plaintively looks heavenward. And in an unrelated moment, he indirectly acknowledges God as Creator by reciting the verse, “Only God can make a tree.” God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.

I picked out the look and used it to dismiss Foley's larger argument that there is a "theological dimension to Phil's transformation" ...and not just because Foley seems to be misusing the word "theological" as relating to religion as opposed to relating to the study of religion. Interestingly enough, what I was doing in citing Foley and others to discuss religion in relation to Groundhog Day was theological. There is no evidence whatsoever in Groundhog Day that Phil is studying religion, i.e. practicing theology. In Rubin's original script, Phil does sit down with a priest, but then what seems to be an allegorical or metaphorical conversation (and that isn't to say the conversation isn't happening but that the content thereof seems to be figurative) turns out to possibly be literal...

Let me explain: Phil explains what's going on, every day the same and whatnot, and the Priest tells him, "You think nobody understands you. You're all alone. Nobody has ever felt what you're feeling. Could be you're wrong." It's just vague enough, it could fit any existential conversation about life's meaning. The priest goes on to offer the following: "People come in her all the time, saying just what you're saying, going through what you're going through." And, it still fits a conversation about an existential crisis--and it seems like Rubin's going for just that sort of feel, except then it seems that the priest is referring to actual people who have actually claimed to be repeating the day just like Phil. It's a strange sequence because Phil finds these people, who could easily just be the homeless, insane dregs of society, and Rubin never really makes it clear that any of them are a) experiencing a time loop like Phil or b) are just insane. But, Phil's search for them at all undermines the potential existential meaning to be found in his conversation with the priest. Plus, this whole sequence isn't in the final film, anyway.

Still, Foley's assertion that Phil's transformation involves "recognizing that there is a god" is not supported by the film. Foley's biases make the leap from Phil looking skyward to Phil recognizing a deity. If anything, I think Phil's search for a God would have come far earlier, back when he was testing out the time loop, trying to figure it out... except there is no figuring it out stage because that would change what the movie is about. Plus, my biases tell me that Phil's personal growth happened regardless of the involvement of any god in-story, so the presence of a god is irrelevant to Phil, so recognition of the same couldn't possibly be present.

Still, if there were more fuel within the film, I would like to be able to acknowledge that the film is about the search for God. It certainly entails--though that doesn't necessarily mean it is about--the search for meaning. And, as I said, Phil is certainly looking for if not to God there in that alley when he looks up. My bias sees Phil looking for something he won't find when he looks up. And really, I see almost the opposite of what Foley sees in that single shot; I see Phil looking skyward because at that point he couldn't possibly imagine there to be a God, because there is no good reason for God to keep him from saving O'Reilly, even if, as the nurse tells Phil, "sometimes people just die," even if Phil must learn that final bit of humility in being unable to save O'Reilly... but, see the problem there? Even I phrased it as if Phil's learning was driven by some outward force. I mean, it was; but that outward force was Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis, not God.

But, I didn't want to leave it as simply as I did before. Ignoring the possibility that, say, a film (not necessarily this one) could be about the search for God, to dismiss out of hand Foley's assertions puts me in a bad light, entrenching myself within my biases. And, I don't want to do that too automatically. Taber and Lodge have an interesting turn of phrase to describe how these biases work; they say, "manipulating the information stream to avoid any threat to one's priors is no more rational than the proverbial ostrich." I don't want to dismiss things because it's my impulse. I'd rather dismiss them because they're wrong...

Of course, I also think one of the greatest values of Groundhog Day--which I hope to write about later this fall quarter--is that is is entirely open to interpretation like Foley's, like mine, and like so many others'. So, in the end, I dismiss Foley in part because of my own biases, in part because, well, everything I've written in this entry so far, and in part because, hell, it's my blog, not his, so I get the last word.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: the debater in me just wants to have the last word in every argument I can find... but the hippy in me would rather not argue at all. I suppose I'd give each of these parts their own days to enjoy and see what happens.


  1. Yes, the poem is not in that book. In high school, I slowmo'd the movie to find the title. After ordering, I found the poem to not be included. There's a printed out copy of the poem now added by me. Love your write-up, but I love the inclusion of the mention of this poem in the movie even more.Through all the layers, the spiritual elements are the coolest... because they're vague and not forceful. Life should be like that.

    1. the best films do things do casually sometimes you don't even notice until later, if you consciously notice at all. i love that