Thursday, October 24, 2013

is this what love is for you?

On the other hand, Groundhog Day provides us a superb and basic example of what love looks like. While May focuses on what the future means for a relationship, he also defines love as being "between two particular people in their particularity." I think this steps right past the issue of time and suggests that love is something that exists moment to moment. May, citing a hypothetical third party, suggests that "love is the filling of the present, not a projection into the future. It is now, in a moment that needs no other moments, that I feel the vitality of romantic love." In the initial stages of a relationship especially, I would argue that this existence exclusively in the moment not only exists but is the reason we are so insane as we get into a new relationship. Of course, we may dismiss our friends and our family for our new love--there is no future in our heads at this time, except some imaginary forever that exists entirely inside our heads. In fact, it isn't that we can't see the future; we can imagine a very specific future, and that future is just the two of us entwined together forever. Nothing else matters next to that, no matter how much it might have mattered even yesterday.

And, I would propose that it makes sense on an evolutionary level that nothing would. Torben Grodal delves into the origins of romantic love in "Love and Desire in the Cinema" (Cinema Journal 43:2 (2004)), and he suggests quite simply that our tendency to couple not only for momentary sexual gratification but something more long-term comes from our species' need to raise children. Our offspring take time to develop and they need more than one parent around to survive. But, our urge to couple and our urge to copulate are not fundamentally the same thing. Grodal explains further:

...we see that sexual desire and love are different innate predispositions that developed in different stages of evolution. The basic elements of desire have a reptilian origin that can be traced back hundreds of millions of years. The predisposition to love developed more recently, perhaps some million years ago, probably as an offshoot between the fusion and transformation of the predisposition to care for offspring and the predisposition for sexual desire...

That the evolutionary function of sex is procreation and DNA recombination and that the evolutionary reason for the bond of love is to provide resources for the care of infants do not themselves restrict the manner in which an individual may wish to follow through on his or her innate predisposition to bond.

That last bit is Grodal's way of saying that, while it may be entirely natural for us to form romantic and/or sexual bonds with one another, we don't always do these things exclusively for the purposes we evolved these urges. That is, our urge for sex sometimes... often sidesteps our own evolution in favor of our gratification. Similarly, our urge for a deeper bond often sidesteps any notion of children to raise and simply draws us to another person because on a fundamental genetic level as well as a cultural and societal level, we want to find someone to be with. We call this love.

And, since love is simply a label we put onto this (potentially) misguided relief of our basic urges, it is quite simple to define the attraction between Phil and Rita and then between Rita and Phil as love. But, more than that, I think Groundhog Day, like man a romantic comedy, tells us that love is not a misguided effort even if it is not working toward children. Instead, Groundhog Day tells us that love is a fundamental act that all humans want and maybe even need. Consider the juxtaposition of Phil's shallow pursuit of Nancy Taylor and his much more complicated pursuit of Rita Hanson.

(Also, in between them, we have his date with Laraine, a standalone scene that might simply be a demonstration of Phil's stranger urges given the freedom from consequences or might be something far more symbolic. This date is notable regardless of deeper meaning in that as far as romantic entanglements go, it is not only fairly shallow but is is also costumed. That Phil and Laraine are not even dressed as one might traditionally dress for a date (and that he has essentially tricked her into dressing as such) detaches them both from the identities they might wear otherwise. Or, perhaps, it is something like the opposite that is true--our identities when we are dating is so in flux that these costumes actually anchor them in some altered state of reality. Our self-presentation in the face of a potential lover is not necessarily dishonest, but it is a better version of who we are than who we might be around friends we've known for a long time. We want this person to be more attracted to us than they may already be, so we present the best possible version of ourselves that we can. Effectively, when we date, when we first involve ourselves with a potential lover, we are not ourselves; we are some invention, and whatever we wear on our date is a costume.)

And, I deliberately refer to Phil's pursuit on the collective days I call "date night" as his pursuit of Rita. As Todd May points out, there is good reason to deal with this romantic pursuit as a separate entity from Phil and Rita stepping into the future together at the end of the film. And, I think it's fair to assume these things are separate not just because they fall in separate parts of Phil's experience in the time loop, but because they represent, respectively, Phil's courting of Rita, and Phil's winning of Rita. That he has taken the time to court her--even if she cannot actually remember it happening--separates out his relationship with Rita as something far more special than his relationship with Nancy. With Nancy, it was about seduction and sexual gratification, and he lied deliberately to fool her--the process Suzanne M. Daughton calls "perfecting the art of psychological date rape" but which I less critically refer to as Phil Connoring. On the other hand, while Phil also deliberately lies to seduce Rita, I think it's fair to suggest that he is not doing it to fool her, per se. Instead, he is practicing mirroring and matching in order to actually win her over. Though the film only gives us Nancy and Laraine before Phil gets to Rita, it is worth noting that Rubin's original, as I've noted before, has Phil getting to Tess (to be replaced by Rita in this subplot) only after he has found 49 of the 63 available women in Punxsutawney "accessible." In the final film, we could assume that many of the days we see are representative of many days we do not see, so it is reasonable to suspect that Phil has similarly exhausted and even perfected the Phil Connoring process on numerous women before he gets to Rita.

On the one hand, this could imply that Rita is just one more woman in a long line of them, and Phil is still not capable of love. However, the film's focus on "date night" as a sequence worthy of being shown--not to mention the direct link to Phil and Rita coupling at the end of the film in tandem if not directly as a result of his release from the time loop--implies it has more depth to it. So, then it comes to us to decide what that depth is. I have argued before that Phil's systematic pursuit of Rita on date night is the climax of his shallower pursuits, that he hadn't really figured out how to love Rita yet. But, not knowing how to love does not automatically mean that one is incapable of love. It simply means that one does not know how to act on it. So, then, the question becomes, what evidence do we have that Phil loves Rita?

Grodal, dealing specifically with the cinematic portrayal of love, tells us that "love stories are concerned with personalized bonding" and that "love establishes an exclusive and individual bond between two people." That Phil and Rita form a bond in Groundhog Day goes almost without question--even by me. And, that he pursues no other love after date night implies that exclusivity Grodal describes. Additionally, that Phil and Rita never manage to consummate their relationship puts their bond explicitly in the camp of romantic attachment as opposed to sexual attachment (in evolutionary terms).

As I said above (in the parenthetical about Laraine), when we date we present ourselves deliberately. When we see Phil Phil Connoring Rita night after night, we are simply seeing the very same process that happens on every date. The difference is in the repetition, not necessarily the checklist of white lies. Pretending to speak French--even if Rita has called him out on it by responding to those lyrics that Phil quotes--could still come across as endearing and cute, regardless of the manipulation we know is behind it. We might rehearse a conversation with a date in front of the mirror before we go out. Phil has the benefit of much better, far more thorough system. This doesn't really make him any more dishonest than you or I might be on a first date. Instead, it suggests that Phil is actually trying to form something more meaningful with Rita. If he wanted something shallow, more sexual gratification perhaps, he could return to Nancy or Laraine or any of the many women in town. Instead, as the film shows it, he tries and he tries and he tries to perfect the date with Rita. This implies, again, romantic over sexual interest...

Not, of course, to imply Phil didn't want to get Rita into bed. But, his feelings for her--what drives him to want her in his bed--are far deeper than a simple physical attraction like that he must have felt for Nancy when he spotted her at the Tip Top Cafe. Phil doesn't court Nancy, but he does court Rita. Flirting, courting, seducing--Grodal calls these "terms that express social signals and skills used to persuade another to establish a relationship." Grodal is specifically talking about love, yet he says we must "persuade" another person to love us (as such). This might seem cynical but I would say it is also quite realistic; it is the reason we present only a selection of traits to our potential lover on a first meeting or first date--we are crafting an argument as to why they should choose to involve themselves with us. Romantic pursuit, at its core, is a persuasive tactic to create a bonded coupling. That Phil fails as this persuasion at first does not mean we have to assume his motivation was not genuine, or even that his tactics were inappropriate, but rather that a) he was still not as good a person as he probably hoped he was presenting to Rita and b) that even feeling genuine love for this person he admires, Phil just didn't know what to do about it.

In fact, one of the messages, then, of Groundhog Day is that simplistic mirroring and matching is not worthy of returned affection. Neither, also, is the usual selective presentation we all practice when pursuing love. Instead, Groundhog Day tells us that we are only worthy of love from another person when we work to actually be our best selves rather than simply wear our best selves like a costume.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to strip away all costuming and still find someone who will return my affections, honestly and openly. Even as cheesy as that sounds.

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