Sunday, March 16, 2014

maybe it's not a curse

Von Franz (1980) states that redemption in fairy tales should not be viewed as having "religious" connotations, but has to do with becoming "restored" after having been cursed" (p. 7). Such fairy tales do not dwell on the problem, but on the redemption process, making them relevant in therapy and healing (p. 8). The process is reminiscent of Phil Connors' situation, which is never overtly explained, his story focusing on his process of recovering his humanness and fellow-feeling which appears to lead his "curse" being lifted. (Benesh, 2011, p. 33)

This is why I put a pink tab labeled "self-cursed"--just in case you're paying attention, I think I said the tab was on page 34, so I'll explain: I printed Benesh's dissertation two pages per sheet. I mean, the things 131 pages long. If I could cut the paper count in half, I would. Similarly, the second revision of the screenplay is printed two pages per sheet... I mention this now because that is behind the next divider tab in Groundhog Day Project binder #2.

And, I digress. Except, in that second revision, Phil is not self-cursed, he is specifically cursed by Stephanie Decastro. And, that would have made better narrative sense if she had--I don't know--been in the film after the time loop was in place rather than her two scenes early on and then no mention whatsoever later. But, neither Rubin nor Ramis wanted to explain the time loop, anyway--Stephanie only existed to prove to the studio they could explain the time loop. Ramis has stated--I've seen it a few places but don't have a specific source handy--they never even intended to film it.

And, it's good, because the scene is, well, silly. The scene between Phil and Stephanie is only somewhat silly, but the curse scene... it's just bad.

First of all, the screenplay describes Stephanie like this: "There is something vaguely off-center about this woman, not quite FATAL ATTRACTION but still a little scary." She interrupts Phil's phone conversation with a guy from CBS, acting like a shrill stereotype more than a character.

STEPHANIE
(bitterly)
I just want to know one thing: did I do something wrong or are you just tired of me or what? I have to know. (Ramis, 1992, January 7, p. 6)

After getting off the phone, Phil responds.

PHIL
(kindly)
You didn't do anything wrong, Stephanie, and I'm not tired of you. It's just that I don't have time for a real relationship right now. I told you that the first time we went out.

Thing is, if Phil is actually talking to someone from CBS in this draft--and the parenthetical there said he was speaking kindly--he's actually not to blame here... at all. And, that is problematic for the representation of Stephanie in feminist terms, in characterization terms, not to mention in terms of her role in the plot.

STEPHANIE
(getting close)
Everybody says that at the beginning of a relationship.

PHIL
(gently pushing her away)
I'm different. I really mean it it. Things are really starting to move for me now. I'm not going to be doing the weather for the rest of my life. I was just talking to the CBS guy about a network job. I want that. This is just the beginning for me. I can't waste any more time.

STEPHANIE
Are you saying our relationship was a waste of time?

PHIL
Our relationship? We went out a total of four times! And only twice did anything happen. It was fun but I don't see that as a big commitment.

STEPHANIE
(closing in again)
I had our charts done. My astrologer says we're extremely compatible. There may even be some past lives involvement here.

So, Stephanie's a flake, and a crazy flake. Keep in mind, this is here introduction and she will only get one more scene. Phil's next line is pretty funny, though.

PHIL
See? So we've already done this. Let's move on. Next case.

STEPHANIE
You know what's wrong with you, Phil? You're selfish. You don't have time for anyone but yourself. (Ramis, 1992, January 7, p. 7)

Which he told her up front, apparently. I could certainly make a case for blaming Phil as well here, but I think this scene is problematic because it lessens his blame; it makes him less of a jerk and more potentially a victim. The film version works better because we can easily assume it is all his fault; God or the universe or whatever has cursed him because he's a selfish jerk who really does have time (because he likely doesn't have a possible job lined up at CBS) but chooses to waste it on shallow encounters and rude remarks.

Phil responds again:

PHIL
That's what I'm trying to tell you. You don't want to be with me. You can do better. Look, Stephanie, if I ever said or did anything to mislead you I'm sorry for that, but right now I have to do this groundhog thing and I don't have a handle on it yet.

He throws some papers and his datebook into a briefcase and puts on his jacket.

PHIL (CONT.)
I'll tell you what. I'm going to do some serious thinking while I'm in Punxsutawney, okay?

He pats her on the shoulder and brushes past her, leaving her standing there with a malevolent look on her face. (Ramis, 1992, January 7, p. 8)

The problems: a) Phil apologizes, which lessens the argument that he is at fault here, b) this means Stephanie is a crazy person so c) the entire time loop arises because a crazy, bitchy stereotype (who it turns out is not only into astrology but witchcraft, just to make the stereotyping even more problematic) couldn't accept an apology... or d) Phil is a lying ass who is not self-centered in as casual a way as we know him from the film but actively taking advantage of the women at work--note that he specifically mentions how they only had sex on two of their four dates--and e) if played the right way, his patting Stephanie on the shoulder and brushing past her could make him even more of a jerk, almost the villain deserving of not just comeuppance but serious revenge, but then f) Stephanie has that "malevolent" look so we're supposed to see her as unhinged. If she were sad, then this would play a little better, but she's not sad, she's angry. That puts the onus on her.

Before I get to Stephanie's second (and final) scene, I should mention a brief bit of what happens between Phil and Rita in the meantime. Outside the Quality Inn--in the scene we see outside the Pennsylvanian Hotel--sure Phil hits on Rita; he asks her to "be my love slave" instead of the "help me with my pelvic tilt" line. But, when Rita invites him to "have dinner with Larry and me" his response is a little different than the film version.

PHIL
No thanks. I've seen Larry eat. Why don't you ditch Larry and let me take you someplace nice?

He's still hitting on her.

RITA
You mean like a date?

PHIL
Yeah.

RITA
Oh, no.

Here's where it gets interesting.

PHIL
Okay. I get it. You're a little intimidated by me, you're all excited about the shoot tomorrow, you want everything to go just perfect. I understand. You just get some sleep. Tomorrow will be great. (Ramis, 1992, January 7, p. 10)

This bit of dialogue could probably be played sarcastically by the likes of Bill Murray. But, it could also be played sincerely. It's written sincerely; there's no parenthetical about his tone, so I read it and I think he's actually being not only helpful but supportive. This is not a guy who deserves to be cursed. He may have problems, but he is also capable of a) apologizing and b) being supportive.

But...

Then, Phil comes across a little worse as he lies to pick up Nancy on Day One at the Hotel Bar. He claims to be "the White House correspondent for NBC news." Nancy doesn't buy it. And, he takes things too far. At the bottom of page 23, he asks Nancy,

So what do you say> You want to play doggie obedience school with me?

NANCY
Thanks. I'll pass.

She gets up to leave.

PHIL
Sit! Stay!

He watches her go, then tosses a tip on the bar and exits somewhat unsteadily

His uncouth behavior there comes from being drunk. That unsteadiness, I would say, subtracts from his badness. Not to mention the fact that he left a tip when no one was looking; compare that to Larry at the end of the film, dropping a tip when he thinks Nancy can see, then taking it away when she turns.

Next scene is Stephanie's.

INSERT - A THICK BOOK

The cover reads "101 Curses, Spells and Enchantments You Can Do at Home." A well-manicured feminine hand opens the book to a marked page.

INT. CHERRY STREET INN - NIGHT - SAME TIME

Phil enters his room and drunkenly tosses his overcoat, scarf, and gloves on the floor in a heap.

INT. STEPHANIE'S BEDROOM - NIGHT

Stephanie Decastro, Phil's disaffected ex-lover, is sitting cross-legged on the floor with the book of curses open in front of her. Her hair is down, she's wearing a caftan with a Zodiac print, there are candles everywhere and other vaguely occult decorating touches.

This reads like a scene from a bad 80s comedy, one in which maybe nerds and jocks will go to war with each other, or with the dean of some college, and at this point, trying to read the screenplay as someone who doesn't know where the story is going, I expect Stephanie to come back into the film later, and maybe Phil will have to discover he really loves her to get out of whatever curse she puts on him. I mean, if she curses him and the point is anything else, then Phil cannot be the protagonist. Well, as long as this is a lighthearted comedy, anyway. It could turn into a serious occult film with comedic undertones, for all I know at this point. Either way, Stephanie cannot just disappear after this scene.

INSERT

Phil's business card is dropped into a dish. Then the Tarot card of the Hanged Man, a chicken bone, and a feather are placed on top of it.

When I was in college the first time, I wrote a paper about the representation of voodoo in popular film. I used The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), Angel Heart (1987), The Believers (1987) and Live and Let Die (1973), and it didn't go well for Hollywood. The presentation was mostly simplistic and stereotypical, bordering on offensive. If I remember right--it's been a long time since I wrote that paper and just as long since I've seen any of those four films--the order I just listed those films would go from least offensive representation of voodoo to most offensive. Hell, the Roger Moore James Bond films were all a bit cartoonish and Live and Let Die didn't even try to present its occult elements as anything that anyone might actually believe in or practice. But, anyway, nevermind the way Hollywood had stereotyped voodoo and the occult previously, this description right here in the second revision for Groundhog Day demonstrates the worst of it. I mean, I once suggested the specific playing cards visible in the hat scene on god day in the film held deeper meaning (here with a brief follow-up here--

(and I still would like to take the equivalent Tarot cards to a Tarot reader sometime to see how they look to a professional)

--but I don't think Harold Ramis knew anything about Tarot cards except maybe the briefest of cursory research before he mentioned the Hanged Man here, just for one fault. And, the chicken bone and feather combined with that ridiculously titled book--that's just bad writing (and/or 80s writing).

To be fair, I don't think the Hanged Man is necessarily an inappropriate card for Phil... in the future. Waite (1911) describes the card thus:

The gallows from which he is suspended forms a Tau cross, while the figure--from the position of the legs--forms a fylfot cross. There is a nimbus about the head of the seeming martyr. It should be noted (1) that the tree of sacrifice is living wood, with leaves thereon; (2) that the face expresses deep entrancement, not suffering; (3) that the figure, as a whole, suggests life in suspension, but life and not death. It is a card of profound significance, but all the significance is veiled... It has been called falsely a card of martyrdom [which is strange since I've seen a description from Waite that says one of the card's meanings is sacrifice], a card of prudence, a card of the Great Work, a card of duty; but we may exhaust all published interpretations and find only vanity. I will say very simply on my own part that it expresses the relation, in one of its aspects, between the Divine and the Universe.

He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection.

See, that could apply to Phil and what's coming for him. But, it doesn't--I don't think--apply to what Stephanie would think of him in this scene. I would guess someone like her--she's into the occult but clearly not very knowledgeable (case in point, the simplistic nature of her choice of books)--if she wants to inflict a curse on Phil--

and I will admit I'm using an only slightly more knowledgeable form of the silly comedic logic Ramis must have used in picking the Hanged Man here

--she would have chosen something like the Eight of Swords, representing restriction, confusion, powerlessness. If she were trying to represent Phil as he was, she might have picked the Five of Swords, representing self-interest, or the Knight of Wands, who can represent someone superficial and cocky.

But anyway, the scene continues:

PHIL

He stands at the sink, looking at himself in the mirror, flexing his muscles.

See, he's self-centered.

STEPHANIE

Reading from the book she mutters incantations in a secret language [I imagine she'd say something like "cree crew valgo geba calto cree"--bonus points to me if I got that right and bonus points to you dear reader if you get the reference], then she sprinkles some powder on the plate [a moment ago it was just a dish--that's lazy writing], then a few drops of oil. Then she makes a few passes over it with her hands and, much to her surprise, the contents of the plate spontaneously combust.

My problem here--aside from the simplistic representation of witchcraft--is that Stephanie is surprised by the flames. I would assume she'd expect that; hell, it seems like exactly what she was going for.

PHIL

As he crosses to the bed, he accidentally knocks over the suitcase stand, spilling his clothes onto the floor. (Ramis, 1992, January 7, p. 24)

That his stuff is not all over the floor would be the third loop marker for the audience then, in this version of the story, after the DJs and what he's wearing (see below).

He contemplates picking them up for a moment, decides to leave them there, and flops down on the bed. He lies there looking up at the ceiling until the room starts to spin around, then he closes his eyes and quickly drops off to sleep, still fully clothed.

There's the second loop marker. Also, the spinning room could really be Phil's experience from drunkenness or from the curse activating.

STEPHANIE

To complete the spell, she picks up a broken wristwatch and drips it into the fire.

INSERT

Phil's business card, the Hanged Man and the broken watch [not sure about the chicken bone or the feather] in flames. The watch crystal is cracked and the hands are frozen at 5:59.

Today's reason to repeat a day forever: to write a film that deals with the occult in more realistic, less offensive terms... and, yes, this is coming from an atheist.

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