Monday, February 2, 2015

will you be checking out today, mr. connors?

Let us begin with an update. Long-time readers, you should know, the piece by Michael Schulman, the reporter I met a year ago—Day 184 - it’s so beautiful—in Woodstock, has been published over at The Believer. I’m in there a bit alongside Danny Rubin. And, it’s quite good. For those of you finding this blog anew because of a) Schulman’s piece—called “That Accidental Swami” by the way—or b) it being Groundhog Day today, first of all, welcome. Second of all, the basics you should know:

(Long-time readers, skip down past the image.)

Yes, I watched Groundhog Day every day for a year and wrote blog entries related to and/or inspired by the film each of those days. Yes, I even went so far as to go on a pilgrimage to Woodstock, Illinois, where they filmed Groundhog Day last Groundhog Day. And, it all started because I had little going on in the summer before grad school got underway. Schulman quotes me—which is weird, quoting myself by way of an interviewer, but hey, it’s not the weirdest thing by far that has been in the blog—saying, “I needed something structured and regular in my life.” My wife and I had separated for the second time, I was living alone, seeing my kids occasionally, and a whimsical notion—watching the same movie over and over and writing about it—seemed like a thing worth doing. And, honestly, it was something worth doing. And, I would do it again. I have written about many topics related to Groundhog Day—you can check Day 363 – and you’d be an expert for the final recap post (with links to previous recap posts; they happened approximately every 60 days)—and I have, for the most part, moved on.

(You should be made aware, if you cannot tell already, that I have an occasionally confusing style of writing, interrupting my own sentences for asides, disrupting the flow of text for, well, whatever happens to come to mind... but not always. Sometimes, the writing flows nice and neat and makes perfect sense.)

On Day 366 - seven days, I moved onto what I call Phase Two. That was the first of seven days watching The Ring. The new format was just that—I would watch the same movie for a week, writing about it like I used to write about Groundhog Day, and after four weeks and four movies, I would revisit Groundhog Day one more time. Then, there were four more movies (romantic comedies that second month) and another viewing, and blogging about, Groundhog Day. Then, with the new format barely established, I broke with it, watching a different slasher film each day leading up to Halloween. Then, Groundhog Day again. Four Thanksgiving movies, then Groundhog Day again. Four Christmas movies, then Groundhog Day. The past month was slightly altered. Instead of four action movies from the 1980s, I watched a 5th film (but only for 6 days) so that this—Day 550 - will you be checking out today, mr. connors?—would fall on the holiday.

And, starting tomorrow, I will be... Well, I was going to be watching recommended movies. actually, my initial plan for February, since February is all about Oscar-nominated movies for me, was to get as far from award-worthy fare as possible, instead watching bad movies. But, watching bad movies seven times each seemed a daunting task. So, I asked for recommendations, and they were some intriguing movies, some good, some bad. And, I will get to them. Next month, maybe. Given that you, new reader, would be here, I did not want to scare you off with the likes of, say, The Room. So this next month will instead involve four of my favorite films... or four musicals. I’ve got to look at some of my intended sets of films and see which one works best on short notice. I’ll probably figure it out in the morning.

Then, I will watch Groundhog Day again.

But, first I should watch it, today. Yes, I’ve written this much and I haven’t even pushed play on the DVD just yet. But, it is time.

As the movie begins, another story:

Today, in my two classes and substituting a third, I included 5 clips from Groundhog Day—Phil’s news report from the studio, his Day 1 report, his Day 2 report, his “Groundhog Day use to mean something in this town” report, and his Final report. We were discussing delivery mostly—for new readers, I teach oral communication and also coach forensics—and my students, most of which haven’t even seen the film, sad as that sort of life must be, could guess some of the trajectory of Phil’s story just by his change in tone and demeanor in those five clips. It was awesome.

Now, the movie... well, an agenda of sorts. Over the past month, I have argued that popular 1980s American action movies—I watched Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Commando, Rambo: First Blood Part II and Top Gun—served as a response to our loss in Vietnam and the decline of American hegemony. Simple metaphor for what I just said—after losing a big game, we had ourselves a bit of a pep rally to remind ourselves we were awesome.

After my month of romantic comedies, I wrote about how Groundhog Day was—or was not—a romantic comedy. After the Thanksgiving movies, I linked Groundhog Day to the major themes of those movies. I did not link Groundhog Day to Christmas movies because I was too busy recapping 4 months of this blog. But, the agenda for today is to link this movie to that same decline in American hegemony that fueled big budget rah-rah action movies in the 1980s.

Really, though, Groundhog Day links more directly to the soulless consumption that came along with all of that. Phil Connors may be a weatherman, because Danny Rubin chose Groundhog Day as the setting and it made sense for a weatherman to travel to Punxsutawney for the occasion. And, Rubin chose Groundhog Day as the occasion because he happened to start browsing his calendar on January 29th (my birthday, so really, this movie was essentially Danny Rubin’s gift to me... yes, I have the audacity to say things like that from time to time, new reader) and that was the first holiday he found. Anyway, Phil Connors is a weatherman, not exactly the most extravagant of occupations, not stereotypically lavish or capitalist. But, consider some detail from Harold Ramis’ second draft of the script:

1. Phil Connors is a bit of a womanizer. Rita tells him,

You know, Phil, you can charm all the little P.A.’s at the station, all the secretaries, and even some of the weekend anchors, but not me—not in a thousand years...

Not if I was dying and your breath was the only cure; not if having your child was the only way to preserve the human race. Just get it out of your head because it is NOT GOING TO HAPPEN. (Ramis, 1992, p. 40-41)

And, in case you didn’t know, in this draft, there’s a reason for the time loop and it’s Stephanie, Phil’s recent fling at the station who feels slighted and puts a curse on him, in cheesy 1980s fashion, from 101 Curses, Spells and Enchantments You Can Do at Home. The curse didn’t last to the film, but nothing about Phil in the movie really counters this side of his personality. Hell, his cheap pursuit of Nancy Taylor, his costumed date with Laraine—check Day 69 – i don’t even have to floss for an interesting take on that scene—and his random kissing of Mrs. Lancaster—these are quite befitting a lech like the Phil Connors that second draft Rita describes above.

2. Phil drives a Lexus... and drive sit to Punxsutawney rather than ride in the van with Rita and Larry. And, he’s got a carphone. Those things were still pretty expensive at the time. He may not be an investment banker like Patrick Bateman (and certainly not as homicidal) or a corporate raider like Gordon Gekko, but one can imagine he would be at home spending the lion’s share of his paycheck on nice furniture for his condo, or getting a new suit, or a new car, or taking a new girl he’s just met (on the carphone, despite the recent thing with Stephanie, he’s calling Sabrina) out on the town. I do not imagine that his adolescent phase in act one of the film is really much of a stretch for him. For the general audience, the lack of consequences is a big deal, but I don’t imagine that Phil had that many consequences before. The one big consequence, the one big horror, in his life was that he was stuck in Pittsburgh rather than New York or Los Angeles, where he could be on a real network.

Put those two points together and you can see the Phil on display—in the scene on my TV right now—outside the Alpine Theater, dressed like Clint Eastwood with a French Maid at his side. Freed of any consequence, he goes straight to some deadly sins—gluttony, lust, greed, a bit of pride. He won’t get to sloth until the time loop stops being fun in the second act. This one scene, though—Phil and Laraine outside the Alpine theater—represents exactly the connection to both the decline of American hegemony and the rise of consumer capitalism that I’m trying to get at today. Phil chooses a costume that at once represents American masculinity (which is easily equatable with hegemony—take Day 238 – the mind is the best weapon, for example) and also represents a failure of American hegemony in that that costume is from a spaghetti western, i.e. not American-made. Hollywood can outsource its product and Phil can—whatever the opposite of outsource is—insource consumer capitalism and American masculinity and rugged individualism into the small town. And, just to round out the image, he’s got a stereotypically diminutive, submissive French Maid. And, he makes her call him “Bronco.”

Daughton (1996) argues, “Phil’s situation, trapped in the time loop, parallels that of the economically disenfranchised, the Other” (p. 146). First of all, Daughton makes a great point. Phil is effectively removed from the normal flow of time and society, and money has no real value any longer. He is not as disenfranchised as the poor of the world, though, because his plight is literally quite temporary and brief (even if his experience of it may not be). He doesn’t need food, doesn’t need a room to return to at night for sleep. He doesn’t need a job. He doesn’t need any of the usual things we need every day. But, that Alpine Theater scene—that is Phil stuck in the idea of money mattering. That is Phil stuck in the idea that having a shiny new car and a beautiful girl on his arm means something. That is Phil who might wish he could hang out with Patrick Bateman and Gordon Gekko or any of their real-life counterparts. That is Phil stuck on capitalism, because he just doesn’t know any better. He lives in a relatively big city, but he just wants bigger. He’s got a good job, but he just wants better.

The time loop frees him of that.

So, no, Groundhog Day does not arise directly from our loss in Vietnam or the decline of American hegemony, but it does come just one step down the line. And, then it moves beyond that step. Pre-loop Phil is stuck in the 1980s, a capitalist at heart who constantly wants more than he has. Because a decade earlier, he lost a fight, and he has to prove over and over and over again that he is the best.

The time loop frees him of that.

Phil is a womanizer because the best way to regain masculinity (read: hegemony, read: patriarchy) is to objectify women, to treat them as if they are mere toys available for his every whim, and when he gets bored, he can leave one behind in Pittsburgh, angry and alone and turning to witchcraft, because what better stereotypically feminine revenge plot is there? She’s a witch because she’s a bitch because she just doesn’t understand that Phil doesn’t see their four dates as “a big commitment” (Ramis, 1992, p. 7). This is misogyny at its best—Phil has to position himself above and beyond the need for women while at the same time using them for sex, because how else to demonstrate his dominance?

The time loop frees him of that.

And, in the time loop, he is free of money, free of masculinity, free of hegemony, free of misogyny, free of patriarchy. It just takes him a little while to figure that out.

Works Cited

Daughton, S.M. (1996). The spiritual power of repetitive form: Steps toward transcendence in Groundhog Day. Critical Studies in Mass Communication 13. 138-154.

Ramis, H. (1992, January 17). Groundhog Day second revision... [I have never really tried citing this draft properly, so this formatting is certainly wrong in some way... least of which being this should still be credited in some way to Danny Rubin, but I like to refer to it as Ramis’ second draft because it’s easier.]

1 comment:

  1. Nice post. My favourite book of the Old Testament is the Book of Ecclesiastes (apparently Tom Wolfe called it the best book ever written), and I do think Phil is a bit like the narrator of Ecclesiastes. He tries everything, he has the opportunity to indulge...not exactly his wildest fantasies, since even with a repeating time loop his opportunities in Punxsatawney are limited, but all his appetites at least. And everything is vanity and vexation of spirit. Although the conclusion he comes to-- that altruism and true love are what really matters-- is not really taken from Ecclesiastes, which never comes to such an uplifting conclusion.

    Your comments about American hegemony are interesting, because one of the things I like about the movie (and this might be entirely subjective) is a curious sense of timelessness, of the eternal in the quotidian. ("My years are not advancing as fast as you might think...") I know that the makers said they took topical references out of it in order that it wouldn't date. And the small town ambience gives it a sense of being outside history. The only reference to politics I can think of is Rita's prayer for world peace, which is itself so generic it just adds to this atmosphere. It feels like a movie that might easily have been set in the nineteen-fifties.

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