what did you do today?

This Oscar-winning short film is how I imagine Phil Connors’ mind on Day 33. It’s called Tango.

If you’ve got 8 minutes, watch it before you continue reading. It’s an amazing exercise in… well, it’s live action, it’s animation, it’s trick photography, it’s a lot of complicated things. Anyway, if you haven’t the time, it’s one room filled with the actions of 36 characters, starting with a kid coming in the window after a soccer ball, and gradually introducing the other characters until the room is a mass of perfectly orchestrated and choreographed action. For some of the huge amount of work that went into designing this film, have a look here. 16,000 cell-mattes, several hundred thousand exposures on an optical printer. Seven months of work, sixteen hours a day. (I think Phil Connors could relate.)

Particularly, notice the levels of complexity in this single gif:

Or this graph of where each character (or group of characters) comes in:

In his book, Animation Techniques, Roger Noake describes Tango and the achievement of filmmaker Zbigniew Rybczyński like this:

In Tango, Rybczynski exploits this concept of the single [on]screen space by filling it with a plethora of actions. It soon becomes obvious that such a small space, that of a small room, could not possibly contain all the actions taking place. Rybczynski also makes critical use of off-screen space, exposing it for the artifice it is. Off-screen space is the imaginary area beyond the edge of the screen, and in front of or behind the camera. There are a number of ways through to off-screen space in Tango – a window and a door in the back wall, doors on either side of the room, and cupboard which also has its uses. Rybczynski orchestrates his entrances and exits with great precision.

Now, imagining Phil Connors head near the end of his journey. He’s got all this knowledge about the people of Punxsutawney, and he knows where certain people will be at certain times. There’s even more of this in the original screenplay, in fact. For example, he knows there’s a fire at the pizza place every night. When he’s going to get dinner with Rita, he tells her, “Tony’s pizza’s okay, if we get there before the grease fire—that’s about six thirty, but the place stays smoky all night.” In Rubin’s first revision (which I have not seen; I get this info from Ryan Gilbey), Phil has more “good deeds”:

…pumping the stomach of Janey, a lovesick girl who has attempted suicide; removing an old lady from the path of a truck—but the real ingenuity comes when he devises some short cuts to help maximize his limited hours. He places a rock in the road so that the lorry carrying the fish to the restaurant—the fish that Buster will later choke on—will not make its delivery. He tells Janey that the object of her affection has feelings for her. And he puts chewing gum on the pavement to delay the old woman on her way to the road.

(I don’t know how well that Janey thing would work, really. Unless he has fanned the flames of that “object of affection” for her, like he did with Debbie for Fred, then this sounds like lying just to keep this girl from killing herself, which isn’t really a great strategy.)

(And, minor change: Buster chokes on steak in the movie, not fish.)

(Phil has a notable short cut in the original screenplay that I’ve never found time to mention, so I might as well bring it up here. In voiceover, Phil mentions that he “learned every short cut in Punxsutawney” as at the YMCA pool, to clear a lane for himself he swims completely naked.)

The movie doesn’t show us how Phil learns of, say, the old women and their flat tire, but I suppose it could have been anytime (it’s a bit late at night, but it would have been awesome if their car had still been sitting in the street with a flat during the big car chase with Ralph and Gus, or more realistically, sitting out there during the car chase that ends with Phil exploding). Phil has seen (as have we) Felix before he fixes his back offscreen—he’s the armored truck guard who gives Doris a roll of quarters (or tries to at least) and Felix does noticeably groan as he leans over as the quarters spill. And, though many of you probably haven’t noticed it, the kid who falls from the tree is at the hospital when Phil has taken the Old Man in. Discovering Buster has choked, presumably to death, could have come up anytime, as Phil probably visited the Banquet pretty early on in his repetition—curiosity getting the better of his cynicism—and the mood would have been pretty somber, I bet, with the apparent leader of the Inner Circle dead.

(Note: I didn’t call him the mayor. So many people assume he’s the mayor, but the movies never tells us as much. What he is, is part of the Inner Circle, the board of directors for the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club… which is an interesting group. They have titles like Rainmaker and Iceman, Thunder Conductor and Big Chill, Sky Painter, Coal Front, Stump Warden, Shingle Shaker, the Big Windmaker. And, there’s the President and His Protector of course. Buster seems to be the President of the Inner Circle, not (necessarily) the mayor of Punxsutawney, though he could be both.)

Anyway, Phil’s last (and really, his only) Groundhog Day includes all of the following:

  • his report from Gobbler’s Knob (after presumably picking up pastries and coffee again for Rita and Larry)
  • spending some time at the Tip Top Café (remember, it’s Doris who gets him up on stage for the bachelor auction)
  • buying a whole bunch of insurance—“whole life, term, uniflex, fire, theft, auto, dental, health with the optional death and dismemberment plan, water damage”—from Ned
  • a piano lesson with Mary
  • fanning the flames of Debbie’s passion for Fred
  • finding Wrestlemania tickets somewhere in town
  • fixing Felix’s back
  • saving the kid falling out of the tree

    (The editing makes this seem like it’s right after Phil’s report, but the kid is at the hospital… well, maybe it isn’t too late. Sunrise in the fictional Punxsutawney was well before 6 a.m. (around 7:30 in the actual Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day that year), so sunset could be before 6 p.m. so getting the Old Man to the hospital, seeing the kid there, wouldn’t have to be too long after that. Of course, then saving the kid and changing the tire happen before sunset, dealing with Debbie and Felix and Mary—that could be anytime during the day (though my list here I’m trying to put some logical order to events). Is Buster maybe choking at lunch, not dinner? I mean, why would he go out for dinner before the big Groundhog Day banquet? Could we—or I, at least—assume Phil still spends some time with Old Man on that last day? Once it’s dark in Punxsutawney in this film (and keep in mind there is no dusk in movies unless it’s integral to the plot; the light goes from day to night), the streets are never seen crowded, so the Old Man could be dying not long after sunset… maybe, despite the downbeat ending of my recent entry, the Old Man did not end up dying alone while townsfolk danced the night away.) [Edit: he dies at 8:02.]
  • changing the old ladies’ tire
  • saving Buster from choking
  • playing at the banquet
  • sculpting Rita’s face in ice/snow

    And, maybe he took part in the ice sculpting competition again, or maybe he won it that day Larry and Rita saw him sculpting and never went back. Maybe he stopped for pizza at Tony’s (but before 6:30). But I’m not sure he hung out with Ralph and Gus.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: just to say I’d changed a tire, saved a life (or two) and played piano publically all in the same day. Sometimes you just need shallow bragging rights.

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