Wednesday, December 4, 2013

i thought we were going back

In "Gender, ethnicity and cultural crisis in Falling Down and Groundhog Day" (Screen 36:3 (Autumn 1995), Jude Davies suggests a symbolic importance to the news piece that follows Phil's weather report in the opening scene of the film. The line we get from Nan, AKA Hairdo, is "up next, entertainment reporter Diane Kingman looks at sex and violence in the movies."

(If I wanted to look for extra meaning that probably isn't there, I would suggest that the juxtaposition of Diane and Kingman bears further exploration. Diane is a variation of Diana--

--Jude Davies, by the way, published Diana, A Cultural History about Princess Diana--

--perhaps a reference to the goddess of the hunt (surely a feminist icon). The name Diane means "divine," with Kingman, King (masculine) Man (masculine). Perhaps the sex and violence are both male on female, and what the line is really setting up is the battle of the sexes, Phil vs. Rita, no holds barred--

Jude Davies is also the author of Gender, Ethnicity and Sexuality in Contemporary American Cinema, so I'm sure he knows about gender conflict in film--

--Or, it's just a name.)

Davies also points out that Phil mentions gang wars in his forecast for California, and he calls "these cursory references to crises that are constructed both as endemic and media-saturated, if not media-produced." I'm not entirely convinced that gang wars are "media"-produced, but think I understand the point Davies is trying to make--that these are (or were, in 1993) topics the media would have been covering regularly. And, Davies would have us believe that these references to modern, urban crises are deliberately included to contrast the idyllic small-town setting we get for most of the film. In fact, Davies suggests that Phil's transformation works as "some sort of resolution of these social and cultural problems." Specifically, it is important to note that Davies deals with the film Falling Down in this same piece and he suggests that Groundhog Day is "a comedic alternative" to that film because while the protagonist of Falling Down, D-FENS, turns to violence in response to "a recalcitrant universe," Phil Connors chooses instead "to clean up his act and to take the path of honest and virtue." Both films, Davies tells us, "engage with anxiety on the part of white males who feel powerless [and] their prescriptions are complementary."

My problem with Davies' argument--and there's always some problem, isn't there?--is that he points out himself why he may be entirely wrong. Specifically, he tells us that Groundhog Day "sidestep[s] cultural and social flashpoints... and take[s] refuge in fantasy... contemporary urban realities are not allowed to puncture the fantasy resolutions of Groundhog Day." I would actually argue that this detachment from the urban environment is one of the great strengths of the film, one of the reasons it is a timeless classic. At the same time, I, myself, have called Groundhog Day "male melodrama as comedy" so it is safe to say that I buy a lot of what Davies is saying in terms of theme if not deliberate framing. That is to say, I think it's very well possible that Diane Kingman is going to be covering "sex and violence" in the movies because that is a generic topic that journalists have been covering since movies have existed. And, Phil references gang wars because, well, it's funny. Well, gang wars aren't funny, but his forecasts for California and the Pacific Northwest are funny because they absurdly avoid having anything to do with weather.

For the record, this is what Phil says:

Out in California, they'll have warm weather tomorrow… gang wars and some very overpriced real estate. Up in the Pacific Northwest, as you can see, they'll have some very, very tall trees.

If we assume the reference to gang wars is deliberate and meaningful, then are we not obligated to see the same deliberation and meaning in the other references? Is the mention of overpriced real estate deliberate, linking to Phil's extravagant spending early in the loop? The problem with an affirmative answer there is that Phil still spends extravagantly later in the loop--paying Mary $1000 for a piano lesson--though arguably, at that point he is spending so much because money has no more meaning for him, while his earlier spending was specifically about excess... Then again, maybe that is the point. Pre-loop Phil is, as Davies points out, "washed up in career terms," but he is also still ambitious enough to claim a major network is interested in him--and I've pointed out before, in Ramis' second revision of the screenplay, there actually is a major network interested in Phil. This Phil wants something better than Channel 9 Pittsburgh, for fame, for money, or maybe just to fill the emptiness inside that he has been unable to fill otherwise. He is the modern capitalist who would buy that overpriced real estate out in California if he could, I'm sure. And, what does he do when he figures out what the time loop means? He robs a bank and buys a fancy car. In the universe within the loop, money has no real meaning, but Phil still goes for excess and extravagance.

And then, he changes. Or maybe he doesn't. Arguably, by the time he spends $1000 on a piano lesson, money would hold no practical value for him. Davies would seem to agree with me; he says, "In fact, the mechanism of the repeating day silently distances Phil from the economic considerations that would signify his class position, allowing him to spend as much as he has each day, effectively replenishing any money he spends." But, then again, maybe his spending of such money in act three is a blatant reification of the capitalist spirit. Davies suggests, rightly, that Phil's spending of $1000 on the piano lesson is "the one laugh in the film that is slightly awkward."

(Well, Davies is half right, anyway. There is at least one other laugh that is quite awkward in its position in the film... at least to more modern sensibilities (as if 20 years has created entirely new sensibilities). When Phil hugs Ned a little too long, making Ned uncomfortable, we laugh because Ned has been clingy and pushy and we're glad to see him squirm. But, what we're laughing at is at best mildly offensive and at worst outright homophobic. And, as late in the film as it comes, Phil should be better than that. Hugging Ned like that should be something Phil would try early on, around the same time he punches Ned. See, there's an argument to be made that we shouldn't be laughing at that brief violence either, except there at least the punch makes sense storywise--Phil has just learned he can get away with anything, so he jumps to an extreme. But it bothers me, at least, that Phil resorts to the hug when he's already well on his way to being a good man. It's a cheap laugh that isn't worthy of the rest of the film.)

What matters to me, here, is that the Pittsburgh portion of the film is so very brief. It is 4 minutes 22 seconds into the film that we cut from the aerial shot of the van driving through the city to the van on a more rural highway. And, in those few minutes, what we do not see is the urban decay of modern life. Every bit of modernism in the film is encapsulated in the character of pre-loop Phil. We do not get, for example, a scene of a mugging before they head out of Pittsburgh, just to make sure we know the the big city is a dangerous place. On the one hand, that would be silly and arguably unnecessary--

(I am reminded, though, of the bit in National Lampoon's Vacation in which the Griswalds drive through... is it Detroit? No, that doesn't make sense. They start near Chicago, I believe and are headed for California. Maybe it's St. Louis. Anyway, all is going fine until there's a gunshot and a scream and Clark tells his family to roll up their windows... Here, just watch:

It's a simple enough take on the dangerous city, and it's funny.)

--but on the other hand, it would establish a much clearer juxtaposition in support of Davies' argument than the film, as it exists, does.

Instead, we get passing references that may only be there as jokes, and a film set almost entirely in Punxsutawney, PA. What this does, though, for the film, is gives it a bit of that Capraesque timelessness. Watching the film, we are there in Punxsutawney along with Phil. And, honestly, aside from a few hairdos, the look of Punxsutawney (or Woodstock, IL, technically, but the point still stands) probably hasn't changed significantly from 1993 to the present. The setting is as timeless as the premise (pun obviously intended) and as timeless as the film. By getting quickly out of Pittsburgh, the film grounds itself in a reality that a significant portion of its initial audience did not experience on a regular basis. So, before it even gets to its fantasy elements, the film has already removed us from our usual context. This is why, as much as I love finding meaning in little tiny things throughout the film, I don't side with Davies on this one. I think that, at best, the brief mention of sex and violence in the movies and the brief mention of gang wars serve as reminders not within the film but within the minds of the audience that we are leaving behind the real world for a bit of fantastical fun.

Then again, maybe that's just a matter of me rewording Davies point rather than actually disagreeing with him. It happens.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to figure out what those very, very tall trees represent.

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