Tuesday, January 7, 2014

this thing sticks a little bit

I must interrupt my reading of Benesh for something brief, for two reasons:

  1. I haven't had the chance today to read any more of Benesh's dissertation. Today was the first day of winter quarter, not a very busy day, but I also made some dinner, some food for my lunch tomorrow, and went to the mall to get a coat and some gloves (for my upcoming speech team trip to Salt Lake City as well as my Groundhog Day Project trip to Woodstock) and some LEGO minifigures (for my voluminous collection of LEGO blocks). Tomorrow there's a bit of a gap between a couple of my classes so I will have time on campus to not only watch Groundhog Day but read a bit of Benesh, this time from the beginning.
  2. The article I am about to reference was shown to me by Victor, president of the speech team for which I coach. If someone points out a Groundhog Day reference and the article is about something else in which I have interest, I just gotta use it.

So, Anthony Lane over at The New Yorker, 11 November 2013, reviewed About Time. Long story short, he didn't like it. Remember, I liked the movie. I wrote about here on this very blog. In fact, when I first saw the trailer for About Time I wrote about it in this blog and announced that I would be seeing it for The Groundhog Day Project. I saw it alone the first time, saw it with my youngest daughter the second time. Lane seems to find just about everything about the movie a bit... trite. Personally, I object to most of his objection simply because he gets a major point factually wrong if not because I just disagree with him--I get that subjectively one could dislike something I like; I wouldn't recommend it, but I know it's possible. The thing he gets wrong is that he quotes the protagonist's line, "For me, it was always going to be about love" as "his father's advice." His father never suggests he travel in time for love. Hell, his father uses his own ability to time travel in order to read more books. Time, as narrator, tells us that he will use it for love. I also find it odd that Lane says of the films of Richard Curtis, who directed About Time, "love alone may flourish and venalities and longueurs are denied the chance to bloom." Now, the first bit there is somewhat correct; in Curtis' films, love does indeed flourish. His films are also a bit wholesome for venalities, or really just can't be bothered with matters of money, as such. I must admit I didn't actually know the word "longueurs" and had to look it up. Merriam-Webster defines a longueur as "a dull and tedious portion (as of a book)." Why exactly we would want longueurs to bloom, I'm not sure. Lane seems to be complaining that the entire film moves forward (obviously not literally, in a time travel film) along one plotline without tangents. But then, Lane must have missed the subplot involving Tim's sister and her disastrous life choices.

I don't completely disagree with everything Lane says. For example, he comments on the play within the film--for a time, the protagonist lives with a playwright--saying, "We are asked to believe... that audiences in London theatres would rise to applaud a single speech in a patently crummy play, which sounds like something written in 1925." The dialogue in that play scene is not even remotely as brilliant as the audience reaction implies; it's actually quite lame. However, the ellipses in that quotation skips us past something Lane says that I don't like. "We are asked to believe," Lane writes, "that Tim is a successful lawyer, on the evidence of one bewigged appearance in court." First of all, Tim makes a living as a lawyer, and is not necessarily so "successful" as to be rich; in fact, when he and Mary move into their first house, he tells us they can't afford it (or maybe can barely afford it). Plus, two things: 1) this is not a film about Tim's career anymore than Curtis' Notting Hill (which Lane mentions in a positive light) is about Julia Roberts' character's career, so that we see any court scenes at all is just to give us specific examples of how he uses his ability outside of his primary purpose: love, and 2) Tim's lawyer friend, a minor recurring character, specifically mentions at one point how Tim always seems to suddenly win cases they are losing, implying specifically that Tim has been using his ability to win, probably, all of his court cases, so yeah he's a successful lawyer not because of great lawyering that we might see on display in scene after scene of various trials but by cheating, which we only need to see once.

But, I was supposed to be talking about Groundhog Day. Lane compares Tim's ability to "fix things" to Phil Connors' similar ability. Lane says:

He can undo a wrong word at a social occasion by rewinding a few minutes and taking a second shot--the "Groundhog Day" option. That great movie, however, relies on Bill Murray's having to suffer the day all over again, for the sake of a single rewind; if you want to study purgatorial ennui, just look at Murray's face. Tim, on the other hand, is able to reverse, make a minor adjustment, and then flip straight to the present again, untested and unbored. No moral agonies attend his gift. His main task is to arrange, and then rearrange, a meeting with his perfect match, in the shape of Mary (Rachel McAdams), an American who lives in London. As we trace their relationship over many years, Tim never fails to follow his father's advice: "For me, it was always going to be about love."

I've already said how that last sentence is inaccurate. Now the others.

Phil Connors may "suffer the day all over again" for each minor change, but Groundhog Day does not force the audience to experience these lag times, nor does it demonstrate that Phil is beleaguered by the repetition when these "minor adjustment[s]" are on display best/most--i.e. on "date night." In fact, Phil seems to have more energy in the buildup to the slapfest that ends "date night" than he has on, say, the last night of the time loop. And, really, in reviewing the films--and not their protagonists, though Lane blurs the line here--both About Time and Groundhog Day show us certain minor adjustments with quick edits--the first time having sex with Mary bit in About Time compares quite well with the sweet vermouth bit in Groundhog Day, for example.

And, the notion that "no moral agonies" come with Tim's gift makes me really think Lane was out getting some popcorn or using the restroom when Tim tried to fix his sister's life and deliberately reversed his help for her to put his own life back as it was. Tim specifically and deliberately--and you better realize I've already SPOILED plenty of the film, but this one's a big one--allows his sister to have had her awful experience with her on again/off again abusive boyfriend and her inability to commit to or keep any jobs because Tim selfishly wants his own life to stay how he knows it, and this when the film implies that new versions of the present come along with the requisite memories (though, to be fair, Tim would also probably have the memories of the first version). This decision is not only a moral agony but one of the more poignant moments in the film. And, Tim's "main task" as Lane describes it is Tim's main task within the first act of the film only. That's actually one of the things I particularly appreciated about About Time; the pursuit of Mary does not last very long and Tim's primary purpose of "love" turns out to be much bigger than simply his love for Mary.

And, this is where I compare About Time in a different way to Groundhog Day. Tim's pursuit of Mary is but one act in a much larger story just as Phil's pursuit of Rita is but one act in a much larger story. Remember that I dispute the likes of Bacha (1998) and Faust (2013) when they suggest that Phil's transformation is driven by his love for Rita. I accept that Phil's attraction to Rita becomes a sort of idolization of Rita on "god day" and one could argue that that is a driving force behind Phil's transformation, but that is not the same thing. Plus, a more cynical viewer could believe that Phil only transforms finally into a better person because he simply ran out of ways to be who he was before (or anything worse). Personally, I don't think that what we see onscreen of Rita is as good as how Phil describes her in the Tip Top or in bed on god day, so the film actually supports the cynical view in a way.

But, back to the moral agonies of Tim in About Time for a moment. Lane tells us there are none then describes Tim's turning away from a "luscious friend" to run home and propose to Mary as "something out of [Christian writer and preacher John] Bunyan--the steadfast soul spurning the demon temptress and regaining the path to righteousness." That sort of thing is the very definition of a moral agony. For that matter, the description is also reminiscent of some elements of Phil Connors' experience in Groundhog Day as well; he spurns the demon temptress (Nancy Taylor) and regains his path to righteousness (Rita). Perhaps Lane shouldn't call Groundhog Day a "great movie" if he isn't into these non-moral agonies of turning from evil and toward righteousness.

And now that I think I am sounding petty--because pointing out the factual error about the father's advice in About Time was certainly not petty--and now that Groundhog Day is winding its way to the end for today--Phil just jazzed up Rachmaninoff and Debbie's dancing crazy--and now that I'm past 1800 words, perhaps I shall be done for today.

(Tomorrow, back to Benesh.)

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to find every movie review that has compared any movie to Groundhog Day and nitpick to my heart's content.

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