Tuesday, December 17, 2013

you've got to believe me

I like that Gregory Solman, writing for Film Comment in November 1993, agrees with me that Phil Connors merely “memorize[s] French poetry” rather than the usual interpretation people make—that Phil actually learned French. I, of course, also contend that Phil didn’t necessarily master the piano either—we only see him play two songs... but there’s a problem with cynicism on that second bit. See, presuming the Phil doesn’t learn French but merely memorizes enough to impress Rita fits with the flow of the story; at that particular point in the time loop and in the filmic representation of Phil’s journey through the loop, it makes sense that Phil would take the shortcut. But, later, on the final day of the time loop, it doesn’t make as much sense to assume Phil isn’t really making the effort. But, that’s just the obvious take—that Phil improves himself in act three and that’s a bit of the lesson he learns: bettering himself makes him worthy of release from the time loop.

Of course, there’s still room for cynicism.

As I’ve suggested before, and as I’ve now found someone who agrees with me, Phil might not be improving himself because it’s the right, or a good, thing to do, or even because he’s been inspired by Rita (an argument I’ve made), but because he had little else left to do. Jaci Stephen writes in The New Statesman, 7 May 1993:

In fact, Groundhog Day has a more cynical agenda. Sure Phil is improved, but for all the wrong reasons, and in all the wrong ways. He can become the perfect man purely because he has nothing else to do, having exhausted all the day’s other possibilities. Given time, he becomes a god, omniscient and omnipresent, and when that’s driven him mad, maybe then he’ll settle for being a nice guy. But he’s only officially a nice guy when the woman he’s lusted after all along (Andie MacDowell) recognises him as one. And that’s where the film ends up, in a perfect have-your-cake-and-eat-it male fantasy. Yes guys, even a repellent jerk can get off with Andie MacDowell in 24 hours flat.

The probable reasons for Groundhog Day‘s massive US success is that it appeals at once to absolute idealism and to absolute cynicism. It comes packaged as a moral lesson about human perfectability, but its deep structure allows for total amorality. Phil gets to do horrible things to other people with impunity, because the next day it’ll all be undone. That’s the principle behind Tom and Jerry violence, but Groundhog Day is a first in applying that principle to the comedy of manners.

With fewer words, Brian D. Johnson makes a similar point about Phil’s self-improvement. Writing for Maclean’s, 22 February 1993, Johnson says, “But the thrill of instant gratification soon wears thin. To break the tedium, Phil tries self-improvement.”

I like that there are others cynical enough to read the film this way. I also like that there are those optimistic enough to read it the more positive way as well. I not only agree with Stephen’s assessment about Groundhog Day appealing “at once to absolute idealism and to absolute cynicism,” I think it appeals to both of these things at the same time and, for me, in the same person. I mean, the film appeals to my idealism and my cynicism at the same time. I see Phil improving himself because it’s a good idea and he’s seen a better person than himself in Rita and seen a potential better version of himself in her eyes as well. I also see Phil improving himself because everything else was already done; he’d tried hedonism and gluttony, he’d Phil Connored more than just Nancy Taylor. Reading the local library’s entire catalog, learning to play whatever instrument was available nearby from the one teacher who still gave lessons on the town’s biggest day of the year, learning the most transient form of art you could find in midwinter—these are the obvious ways to spend time when you’re caught on Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA. The rest is details.

I can almost appreciate Ramis’ second revision now, with his version of the last day of the loop. See, Rita follows Phil around as he performs his good deeds, so she knows firsthand that he’s been saving the townspeople. She certainly doesn’t understand how he’s doing it, but she can see that he is. This puts the onus for Phil’s release not on him and his good deeds but on Rita happening to be inquisitive enough that particular resumption to follow along.

The film has only just begun for me today, and I see Rita’s amusement at Phil making fun of her in the van and I can suppose that she’s already got a thing for him. And, that isn’t an abrupt change of subject, by the way; I was just about to counter Ramis’ second revision version with the film version, in which we only accept Rita’s acceptance (and even, arguably, pursuit) of Phil on the last resumption because of our own knowledge of how far he’s come and what he has gone through to get there. If we think about it, we should realize that Rita should not be that impressed. As far as she knows, Phil is just playing the good guy for the locals because, well, it amuses him to do so. I can imagine the basic beats of the last day of the loop happening much earlier, Phil saving lives, doing good deeds, if Phil had just started the loop a little differently. A “better” man might have looked to save lives as soon as he understood the situation. A “better” man might have improved the lives of those around him from the start. And, only when that Good Samaritan routine got old (and the inevitable return to the status quo every morning made good deeds seem meaningless) would he turn to Phil Connoring the local women, to robbing the armored car, to dressing up in costume just to watch a cheesy family classic. That Phil’s loop experience went in the order it did, hedonism first, good deeds later, is more a measure of Phil’s personality regardless of the loop than the possibly conscious purpose behind the loop. A different man may have tried something else first, but given enough time, would have come to all of it eventually. Like the proverbial infinite monkeys with infinite typewriters, eventually any man would get to bad deeds and good deeds if he had enough time and not enough consequence.

And, there’s my cynicism and my idealism in a nutshell. I believe that given the right time, the right circumstance, we are all capable of doing horrible things and amazing things—

(And, obviously, I use “amazing” to refer to something positive, even though it isn’t really a value judgment so much as a measure of scale, in and of itself.)

—I think we tend toward the better behavior, the more noble action, but often just because it suits us to do so. I don’t think morality comes first and then we act in accordance with it. I think there are actions we tend to do because evolutionarily it behooves us to do so and we define our morality accordingly. The definition blurs and changes from time to time and from culture to culture but some basics stay the same. No culture that favors murder, for example, would survive as lengthily or as strongly as so many other cultures have, for example. So, of course, the cultures that remain tend to frown on murder. But then, they also make exceptions. Because, like Phil Connors, they understand that there is a time to do just about anything. People do “bad” things sometimes. So, the rules adjust where they can, punish where they can’t, and we all wake up each morning to face another day, to do the same old thing or to try something new...

I propose a question. Ask this before you try anything: What would Phil Connors do?

Then, regardless of your answer, you still might want to try whatever it is, because sometimes that is just what life is about.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to try anything and everything new that comes along until even newness loses its novelty.

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