Tuesday, August 6, 2013

for the rest of your life

Groundhog Day is about life. Your life. My life. Life.

Except, in one draft of the script, there was a reason for Phil’s plight. It wasn’t just the human condition. It involves a woman named Stephanie who Phil’s dated a few times and a book entitled 101 Curses, Spells and Enchantments You Can Do at Home. But, more on that for another day (after I’ve had a chance to read that “second revision” of the screenplay in more detail). In the version we see on screen, there is no first cause, just a situation out of control. It’s like an atheist's dream, the inherent meaningless of life in the face of a universe we cannot control. But, we do what we can.

If all of this is just happening, then Phil Connors’ escape from the repetition has no logic to it. It’s like the hair dryer in that early episode of Quantum Leap; Ziggy did some calculations but it’s all math that is far beyond any of us. So, the question is, given the way we take the film—put simply, Phil gets out because he learns to better himself—then are we assuming a first cause in place to make all this happen?

A note for those who don’t know what that phrase means, in philosophy, the first cause is, essentially “the self-created being (i.e., God) to which every chain of causes must ultimately go back.” That’s from Brittanica. It’s the idea underlying Judeo-Christian belief in God. Notably, Kant suggested that “causality cannot legitimately be applied beyond the realm of possible experience to a transcendent cause.” That is to say, we cannot assume a first cause because we cannot actually observe it…

“Did I go too fast? I go too fast. I did a fly by” (bonus points if you know what that line’s from). Not even a week into this blog and I’m getting into a philosophical discussion about God. But, doesn’t Groundhog Day beg the question? Maybe not for our world, but for Phil’s, the universe within the film… does it matter if there’s a God in charge of it? Does it matter why Phil’s life has become repetition of the same day over and over again?

Or, if we look at the film as something else, maybe the question should be: Does it matter why Ralph’s life has become repetition of the same day over and over again? Or, does it matter that your life or my life has become repetition of the same day over and over again? Some of us strive to experience new things as often as we can. Some of us can even afford to travel and find those new experiences (Phil manages this in a very limited geography, so what’s stopping us?). But, in an increasingly global society, won’t all of our experiences soon be effectively the same, processing data or something for the conveyor belt of humanity to keep on running…

Phil predicts that there is no way winter “is ever going to end.” He predicts that winter is “gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s going to last you for the rest of your life.”

”Hm, that’s gloomy” (bonus points if you can identify that one).

The bleak view: we take “winter” as life, and Phil’s being stuck is all of us being stuck. Life is what we make of it, but we are limited by circumstance, by location, by what few people come into our lives. The more positive take on that same idea: if life is what we make of it, then we can do whatever we want to do with our lives. Sure, there are limits. For example, at least for now, we’re all stuck on this planet; that doesn’t mean we can’t get work at NASA or in the private sector, designing and building and eventually travelling in spaceships that will take us to Mars or wherever. We may be stuck in dead-end jobs, but we can… well, it might be irresponsible of me to suggest we can just quit and do what we want, but there are options. I think the usual American ideal—that all it takes is hard work to get ahead—may be a bit simplistic and probably wrong, but there’s at least a kernel of truth there. We are capable, in theory, of altering our circumstance. We can go back to school, learn something new, or simply find a new, more fulfilling job. Or, if we really don’t think there are better employment options available just now, or just here (wherever we may be), we can find outside our day jobs something more fulfilling to do. Isn’t that why we have hobbies? We can take up stamp collecting or LEGO building (I go for that one, personally). We can read books or watch television or movies to escape our lives for a while—even Phil sits around drinking and watching Jeopardy at least once. We can take up hiking or hang gliding or automechanics or, well, the list is probably innumerable.

The question then becomes, does it matter if someone else (i.e. God) is overseeing all of this, or do we do these things for ourselves? And, if we do these things for ourselves, does that mean we’re egocentric? Might we be able to argue that Phil Connors wasn’t egocentric back in Pittsburgh but he was just like the rest of us, making of his circumstance what he can…

Of course, then, is there any growth within the context of the story? Is there ever? Does there have to be? I mean, we like our plots to involve growth. But, plot is about the events, the sequence. And, with all the repetition involved in Groundhog Day we need growth. That is the plot. But, is the story something else entirely? If Groundhog Day is about life itself, about the human condition, is growth a necessary element or just a bonus? Or is life just Vonnegut’s “series of random events”?

Jeff Atwood at codinghorror suggests that Groundhog Day “is no comedy.” Lurking just under “a veneer of broad comedy,” he says, there is “a deep, dark existential conundrum.” He goes on to say:

We only see bits and pieces of the full experience in the movie, but this time my mind began filling in the gaps. Repeating the same day for decades plays to our secret collective fear that our lives are irrelevant and ultimately pointless. None of our actions -- even suicide, in endless grisly permutations -- ever change anything. What's the point? Why bother? How many of us are trapped in here, and how can we escape?

This is some dark, scary stuff when you really think about it.

Yes. Yes, it is.

But, it’s also pretty funny.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to have more time to build with LEGO blocks (or whatever hobby you’ve got). And maybe to read some Chekhov.


  1. Hey, I just found you, and reading your blog from the start. I have to say, well done so far :) A lot of your points are spot on. I can say I absolutely love this movie for the very reasons you are speaking of: it's so incredibly deep. I'm excited to see what else you bring to the plate.

  2. Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy what you see. This plate has been very big so far