Monday, January 6, 2014

i got your first victim

Yesterday, I started the latest war here at The Groundhog Day Project. I've already had my one-sided arguments with Daughton (1996), Faust (2013), Bacha (1998) and Foley (2004). My latest target is Benesh (2011). Julie Ellen Benesh wrote her doctoral dissertation on Groundhog Day. It's entitled "Becoming Punxsutawney Phil: Symbols and Metaphors of Transformation in Groundhog Day." You can purchase your own copy on Amazon.

(Or buy me a nice bound copy to replace this two pages per sheet printout I've got, though if you've got $62 burning a whole in your pocket with my name on it, I'll take the cash at the end of the month to get some cool stuff in Woodstock.)

For the record, I haven't read "Becoming Punxsutawney Phil" yet, at least not from front to back. I have been avoiding it because I want this project and my master's thesis next year to share a topic (in some way, at least) and I didn't want Benesh's research or evaluation to get in the way of mine. On the other hand, I've decided to go ahead and explore Benesh's angles on Groundhog Day to a) avoid them myself, b) add to them or c) dispute them. So far, it seems like I might be doing a lot of "c" before I get to the other options. Yesterday, I basically just glanced at one section of Benesh's paper and got 1500 words or so out of disagreeing with some of her assessment.

Today, to be different—and to prove I am capable of positivity before I get to a lot more negativity—I thought I'd point out something in that same section (entitled "Lines and Spheres" though I did drift into the "Blue and White" section yesterday as well) that I not only liked but had not noticed myself.

Benesh points out that in the scene in which Ned meets Phil and Rita after the auction, the quilt on the wall (presumably made by local, Pam Hockemeyer) frames Phil Connors' head like a halo, or "mandala, uniting all the opposing Phils: man and groundhog, living and representational, symbolizing wholeness" (p. 83).

Here's the quilt and the positioning in question:

Mandala, from the Sanskrit for circle, is defined by Merriam-Webster as

1 : a Hindu or Buddhist graphic symbol of the universe; specifically : a circle enclosing a square with a deity on each side that is used chiefly as an aid to meditation
2 : a graphic and often symbolic pattern usually in the form of a circle divided into four separate sections or bearing a multiple projection of an image

The Mandala Project elaborates further:

The word "mandala" is from the classical Indian language of Sanskrit. Loosely translated to mean "circle," a mandala is far more than a simple shape. It represents wholeness, and can be seen as a model for the organizational structure of life itself—a cosmic diagram that reminds us of our relation to the infinite, the world that extends both beyond and within our bodies and minds.

Describing both material and non-material realities, the mandala appears in all aspects of life: the celestial circles we call earth, sun, and moon, as well as conceptual circles of friends, family, and community.

Notice that Benesh wasn't necessarily saying that the image in the film symbolizes wholeness but that the the mandala does... thought obviously she is implying it.

Mandalas, interestingly, are often made by monks from sand, Patrick A. George tells us. Like as Ken Sanes describes Phil's choice of ice sculpting as his art form of choice--"the perfect art form for him since everything he does will have melted away when he wakes up anyway"—I like the idea of this link between mandalas, especially the sand versions, and Phil Connors. You make art out of sand, you surrender to the elements and time and the possibility that what you do will never last. And yet it still takes a tremendous amount of precision and effort and it bears great symbolic meaning.

Garfinkel (2009) calls Groundhog Day "an underground Buddhist classic." And, I've made explicit links between the film and Buddhism myself more than once. Garfinkel quotes Wes Nisker, "a longtime vipassana meditation teacher, Buddhist stand-up comedian and author of several books on Buddhism," saying:

The primary rule of Buddhist humor is that you never laugh at someone else’s expense. But, rather, laughter arises when we realize our futile attempts to escape the first noble truth. Pointing to our common bumbling deluded nature—with humor—apparently relieves some of the suffering. Ramis has done that in most of his films, but especially in Groundhog Day, where he seems to be saying, "This is what it’s like. Every day is the same thing; we make the same mistakes over and over." Ramis is always trying to shatter our ordinary take on reality, to reveal hidden dimensions. He is trying to create what Buddhists would call "beginner's mind.”

Try this:

This is what it's like.
Every day is the same thing;
we make the same mistakes over and over.

Like a mantra. Or perhaps this:

You are stuck in the same place,
Every day is exactly the same,
And nothing you do matters.

Garfinkel also quotes Harold Ramis, reciting, "from memory, something he had written when he and his wife helped sponsor a Dalai Lama's visit to Chicago in May, 2008: 'The universe is in a constant state of becoming—an ongoing miraculous creation. Every day we awaken to that miracle with gratitude, respect, and compassion for all who share the gift of being.'" And it isn't all Buddhist; Mills (2009) quotes Paul Hannam, author of The Magic of Groundhog Day

(That book is another piece I've had sitting around for a while now and I haven't gotten around to reading it. Had I read it already, I might quote this passage directly.)

—in dealing with personal reality:

Tomorrow might be very similar to today. You might be unable to change the place or the people, but you are able to change your attitudes, thoughts, emotions, and actions. You have more control over the outcome of your day than you might realize. You decide if today is going to be something to endure or a unique opportunity to be imaginative. Is today a dreaded routine or a chance to open up new possibilities?

When you wake up tomorrow, think of the day ahead as a blank canvas on which you can paint anything you want. As you learn to craft your life, you will discover the ability to create your own masterpiece.

That last bit is a nice thought. Perhaps you—or I—can meditate on that blank canvas idea while looking at Phil Connors in front of that quilt.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to design a sand mandala that tells the story of Groundhog Day in all its glorious detail.

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