Tuesday, November 26, 2013

there wasn't one today

So, 2 out of 3 acts down, 6 out of 8 sequences, 4 out of 5 key moments. The screenplay breakdown of Groundhog Day continues.

Where were we? Phil was changed by the second act. I mean, that thing broke him down, killed him... a few times, and then there was god day. Dyer doesn't break down the third act much. It's all "buildup to resolution" for him. More specifically, the protagonist "should now be so changed by everything that he has gone through that he can no longer be satisfied living the way he did before." I get that. This past summer, living in my tiny apartment alone, there were a lot of quiet, empty moments that demanded change. From an outward perspective, I maybe didn't change too much, either. Change doesn't need to be big to be drastic. I still watch a bit too much television sometimes. I still watch movies when I can--honestly, though, watching this one particular movie every day has put a slight damper on my spare movie time of late--and I still play games on the computer (or lately xbox) from time to time... but, even before I got to teaching my debate class once a week, even before grad school got going a couple months back, my life seemed like a very different animal than it was before. It seemed like time was less wasted. In a way, that's an awful critique of my married life toward the end, but that's still the way it felt. I got out for hikes in the arroyo, walked around town, went to movies occasionally. And, I'd see my kids on the weekends at least.

I missed them. And, though this life was something... cleaner, I am happy for the recent change where I get to be around my kids more. That's why I say I get it, Dyer's line about no longer being satisfied. I feel lately like I've got a clear grasp on where I'm going in life, on what I'm doing. And, I think I can relate to Phil when he wakes on the morning after god day. Act three is just getting started but he's all in. It's a nice thought.

Anyway, enough about me. The Script Lab divides the third act into two parts. The first of these is sequence seven, a "full yet simple, brief establishment of the third act tension... Simpler, faster in nearly all ways, with rapid, short scenes and no real elaborate set-ups." Act three of Groundhog Day gives us brief bits of Phil reading, Phil playing piano, twice, Phil sculpting an angel, Phil inspiring Chubby Man, and ultimately brings us to Phil trying to save O'Reilly. There are no lengthy sequences in sequence seven. And, we get the fifth and final key moment at the end of the sequence: the third act twist. The third act twist, The Script Lab tells us, is "an expected turn of events... Without the twist, the third act can seem too linear and predictable. It can also be a test of the hero..." The third act twist, then, is the culmination of Phil's attempts to save O'Reilly. His stubbornness at the hospital, his "not today"--that's the old Phil rearing his head just a little, trying to control the world a little too much. This is Phil's test. Foley (2004) would argue that Phil passes this test because after O'Reilly's death in the alley at 1 hour 21 minutes 41 seconds in, Phil looks to God. Wherever Phil looks, though, Phil has passed the story's test, because he has realized that he is not God, he cannot save everyone. This is the third act twist, because we the audience are hoping he will save O'Reilly. O'Reilly never says a line, and really only makes one sound (a brief noise that is hard to describe following Phil handing him a handful of cash), and yet we care about him.

It's remarkable in a way that we care for O'Reilly as we do. He's just a homeless guy we don't even know. But, we've seen him more than a few times by the time Phil pays attention to him. And, just like Phil, we see O'Reilly shivering in the alley and we don't like it. Kidd and Castano (2013) recently studied the effect of fiction on empathy and found that specifically reading literary texts increases empathy. I think we can extrapolate outward from literary fiction to most, if not all, fictional texts to get the same idea. They tell us, "The worlds of fiction, though, post fewer risks than the real world, and they present opportunities to consider the experiences of others without facing the potentially threatening consequences of that engagement" (p. 378). That is to say that we can care about O'Reilly much more readily and easily than we can care about real homeless people, whether in abstract statistics or perhaps on the very real streets of the cities in which we live. It probably also helps that he's singular. Watching Groundhog Day over and over, I find that I can care about a lot of these characters; I've mentioned before how Fred and Debbie are having a rather emotional conversation after Phil drops the "second thoughts" bomb on their lunch at the Tip Top. That conversation is unheard and mostly unseen, just there in glimpses in the background as the scene moves on, but once I noticed it I couldn't not notice it. A lot like that old woman young woman image.

Similarly, though I mentioned not too long ago how I wasn't quite feeling O'Reilly's death, I could still recognize the emotional beat of it... which makes me sound like a sociopath or something, doesn't it? And then, I imagine the psychiatrist from Groundhog Day asking, "Is that not good?" But, I swear I'm not hallucinating. While I do quote the film quite often, I do not as of yet dream about it. And, I have been asked this at least three times recently. No, I do not dream about Groundhog Day... yet.

Anyway, I was talking about our ability to care about O'Reilly, a character we hardly know. Kidd tells us in The Guardian, "What great writers do is to turn you into the writer." I would expand this to include filmic writers and directors turning us into the same. Kidd continues: "In literary fiction, the incompleteness of the characters turns your mind to trying to understand the minds of others." I like the idea of that because it explains a great deal about how minor characters can seem fully formed on first pass when there is really very little to them when you look closer. Not just O'Reilly, not just characters in Groundhog Day.

And, that was a long way of saying that we probably expect Phil to be able to save O'Reilly. Hence, the third act twist is that Phil fails. His upward trajectory to a better self hits a roadblock. But then, the story jumps ahead. Maybe it's the very next morning, maybe Phil has been in the time loop for years--we don't really know And, what we get next is something Dyer calls "the aftermath." He tells us,

It's usually a good idea to include a scene at the end of the script to show how the protagonist has grown since the beginning of our story. A common way to do this is to repeat a scene from the beginning of the story, which the protagonist didn't handle well, but now he does handle it well because of the things that he has learned since that point.

There's a particular bit in Groundhog Day that we actually see more than just twice, but the first time at 13 minutes 19 seconds in and the last time at 1 hour 22 minutes 1 second in are glaring examples of what Dyer is describing. They are, of course, Phil's reports from Gobbler's Knob. Here is Phil's report, as it would go on the air on Day 1:

Once a year, the eyes of the nation turn to this tiny Pennsylvania hamlet to watch a master at work. The master? Punxsutawney Phil. The world's most famous weatherman, the groundhog who, as legend has it, can predict the coming of an early spring. The question we have to ask ourselves today is, "Does Phil feel lucky?"

The next part might get edited out as they go with shots of the stage, but I'll include it anyway.

Then it's the same old shtick. The guy with the big stick raps on the door. They pull the little rat out. They talk to him. The rat talks back and then they tell us what's gonna happen.

And, Phil concludes his report:

This is one time when television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather. I, for one, am very grateful to have been here. From Punxsutawney, this is Phil Connors. So long.

Compare the sarcasm and disdain that is all over that report with the following from "Day 34":

When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, it's Phil Connors. So long.

You don't even have to hear it to get the difference. The words alone demonstrate the contrast, and prove that Phil has changed a whole lot since Day 1.

So now we find ourselves in sequence eight. All the key moments are passed and there is nothing left but the resolution. The Script Lab tells us, "Clarity is important" in sequence eight. Though sequence seven was all short montage-like segments, and though sequence eight is also a lot of brief moments strung together, I think the clarity comes from it being all one day again--the longest day in the film--and in there being an obvious forward momentum once we figure out what Phil is doing. Of course, that figuring out implies a lack of clarity I suppose, but The Script Lab said clarity was important, not essential. And, ultimately, I think what's going on on "Day 34" is quite clear. Phil is using knowledge he's gained while we weren't looking to save the lives he can save, and to make others easier. He may have learned he wasn't God at the third act twist, but he's still a guy in special circumstances with special knowledge. To not do anything with that would be sacrilegious.

Of the ending, Dyer tells us there are four possibilities. Our protagonist can overcome his internal flaw but not accomplish his external goal. He can accomplish his external goal but fail to overcome his internal flaw. He can fail to accomplish his external goal or to overcome his internal flaw. Or, he can succeed at both. The first option, Dyer says, "is an emotionally satisfying ending because it shows that the protagonist has realized that fixing his internal flaw, rather than achieving his external goal, is the thing that will make him truly happy." Arguably, Phil Connors actually succeeds at both, but I think that in the end his release from the time loop is almost unimportant. That he has proved himself capable of being a better man and that he has earned Rita's love--these are the things that matter to us. In fact, I would argue--and I admit maybe this is just my own personal way of viewing the movie after all this time--that after god day, Phil doesn't even care about the external goal of the time loop anymore. And, I've said many times that he is not driven by the external goal of Rita either, even if Hollywood would conflate her love with his improvement. Ultimately, Phil's improvement, Rita's love and the end of the time loop are all wedged right up against each other as one singular event, so Groundhog Day then has, without a doubt, "a typical Hollywood movie" ending as Dyer puts it. Phil Connors wins on all counts...

Even if he has now started a relationship with a rather rude robot named Rita. And, that was a lot of Rs.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to win at everything.

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