Thursday, February 6, 2014

turn to this tiny hamlet

Over at Oy!Chicago yesterday, Steven Chaitman describes heading out to Woodstock this past weekend as "a movie nerd's dream." Walking around Woodstock, he says--and I'd agree--"was like being in the world of the movie."

His best line: "There is definitely something spiritual about being 'on the set' of one of your favorite films." He continues: "Forgive the lofty comparison, but it was a lot like setting foot at the Western Wall for the first time, the recognition that the place where you stand once played host to something awesome, something bigger than yourself, something you treasure." Steven gets it, and I wish I'd talked to him while he was there. From his photo (included in his article) I do recognize him, but he wasn't one of the ones I had a conversation with, which is too bad.

"A complete outsider," Chaitman says, "might laugh at the town of Woodstock for milking its one (and likely only ever) claim to fame..." And, he's right. But, so what? He continues:

...but seeing the townspeople and the tourists who flocked there, many of who say they have seen the film at least 40 times, the Groundhog Day celebration is clearly about more than perpetuating a city’s 101 minutes of fame. Attending the sold-out breakfast with polka musicians and a Woodstock Willie mascot as entertainment, you quickly understand that it’s about the community and togetherness that something as simple as a movie can create.

Had I been invited on stage at the breakfast to do more than just start of the trivia contest, I was going to repeat Phil's Chekhov speech (with the obvious substitution, of course):

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 [Woodstock] and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From [Woodstock], it’s [Robert Black]. So long.

It that context, it would be a little cheesy, of course. But, I was thinking about it beforehand--after Krandel announced I was there, but before he introduced me on stage--and it occurred to me that while I don't subscribe to what Phil purports to in Anderson's Fudge Shoppe: "small town people are more real, more down-to-earth." But, honestly, in Woodstock, on this weekend that they are celebrating and being celebrated, I met no one that wasn't friendly and forthcoming.

Just yesterday a friend of mine--a member of our speech team, actually--who has never seen Groundhog Day (didn't even know what it was about), asked me what the point of the movie was. At the symposium on Saturday with Danny Rubin as special guest, someone asked about what made a movie a classic. I think the answers to these two questions are fairly close in this case. Groundhog Day is a classic because it's main idea is a very simple one that we can all understand--we all want to be better than we are. The theme is universal, and the film is well put together, so it holds up time and time again, even now 21 years after it was released, 22 years after it was filmed there in Woodstock.

Chaitman tells us that Rubin never could have imagined, "that this little idea for a story in his head would ever become an entire town in northern Illinois’ pride and joy. That’s testament to the power of movies." It is. But, also, the town itself is like a character in the film, so it deserves to take pride in what we all can see, what I watch every day. At the breakfast on Sunday, Rubin called Groundhog Day "a gift that keeps on giving." He meant for him, of course. As Chaitman points out, we don't often celebrate screenwriters. But, it's a gift that keeps on giving for all of us. I mean, I watch it every day and will keep doing so for a while longer, and I still find new things in it, I still connect to the story. And, Chaitman's choice of wording--that there was something "spiritual" about being in Woodstock this past weekend--it's not the phrasing I would choose, but I get it. The story of Groundhog Day is bigger than it should be. It isn't contained within the film or within the town of Woodstock, or even in any of us who watch and enjoy it. Like I said a while back--

(In one of my favorite entries, I must say--taking the cowboy costume scene as something more than just Phil being absurd.)

--Phil doesn't just represent each of us but all of us (read that entry if you want to understand the distinction). We can all relate to Phil's plight even when we can't. At the symposium, Rubin said that the reason Groundhog Day works as a "redemption story" because he didn't set out to write one. I've written before about Phil's journey as not only one of redemption but atonement, particularly in relation to Phil being a cinematic Christ-Figure. The story is at once a link to ongoing religious mythologies and something far more universal.

This is why it is a classic.

This is why Woodstock should be proud.

This is why Danny Rubin should expect to be recognized for his contribution for a while longer.

And, this is why when someone asked me what other movie might work for this sort of daily blog exploration, I really couldn't think of one. As the tagline for this blog says:

watching a movie over and over again, a movie about living a day over and over again, because that is what life is all about

Groundhog Day is about life, your life, my life, anyone's and everyone's life. Woodstock should be proud for having been such a vital part of something so great.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to invent a story that works just as well. Previously, I wouldn't have listed Groundhog Day as my favorite film. That spot, depending on my mood, would go to Zero Effect, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, or Adaptation. Groundhog Day was always high on my list (though like Steven Chaitman, I am not wont to label my favorite things often). Lately, I find it hard not to list Groundhog Day as my favorite film. It just seems wrong to list anything else.

P.S. The Groundhog Day Project has a Twitter and a Facebook page. Follow and like them respectively and help spread the word.

(My personal twitter: @robertegblack and email: robertegblack@hotmail.com)

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