The thing about Phil Connor’s use of Chekhov is, well, who knows if it’s appropriate… and really, who cares? It sounds good, right? In Rubin’s original, we get even less than we get in the film. We just get Rita telling Phil he “did a really nice job today. Really nice… That was great what you did there with Chekhov and the long winter.”
(That “really nice” sounds more like movie Larry than Rita, but remember, in Rubin’s original, Phil is the young and inexperienced one, Rita the older producer who’s been around for a while.)
What we get in the film is more substantial:
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 Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, it's Phil Connors. So long.
Rubin tells us in his book that he had “seen several productions of Chekhov’s plays” and knew him to be “revered in Russia and the world over.” He adds:
I’m aware that much of the delicious bleakness I attribute to his work is the result of some faulty translations and a long history of productions that reflect this. I’ve heard that in his own language he’s largely thought of as being very funny.
Personally I do not love Chekhov’s plays (I try and I try!) but I’m not above pretending I understand him by throwing out knowing speeches like this one. It worked, of course, to show Phil’s leap in sophistication and empathy to have him referencing Chekhov in this speech, so I didn’t feel too bad about using it.
It works, I think, especially because it stands out from all of Phil’s earlier reporting. Even with his initial report, before the repetition got going, Phil couldn’t help but be a little sarcastic; when he calls Punxsutawney Phil “a master at work” it’s painfully obvious he isn’t impressed by this “master.” But, like his quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “Work without Hope” in the hallway with Chubby Man, we see a different side of Phil. It’s shorthand for his actual change before we see any saving of lives. As far as Chekhov goes… well, I know less than Rubin. Aside from the trope of Chekhov’s gun or putting said gun or another object on the mantelpiece, I don’t know Chekhov. I found an interesting Chekhov quotation that connects thematically with Groundhog Day—“Any idiot can face a crisis, it is this day-to-day living that wears you out”—but then learned (because I like attributing quotations to their specific sources when possible, that this probably did not come from Chekhov but rather from screenwriter “Clifford Odets, America’s chief inheritor of the dramatic tradition of Anton Chekhov.” That link to Chekhov got the line misattributed somewhere along the way. But still, it speaks to Phil Connor’s situation. He learns to handle the “crisis” pretty quickly. But, then he has to live “day-to-day” and that is where it gets difficult.
Now, arguably, we could assume Punxsutawney’s library is limited and Phil has no Chekhov to read but those “faulty translations” to which Rubin refers. So, he isn’t necessarily misusing Chekhov, even if Rubin and Ramis might be. NPR tells us that “Chekhov said, ‘People don't notice whether it's winter or summer when they're happy.’ His stories captured the way people move between their wishes and the cold realities of the world.” That actually sounds a lot less bleak than Phil would have us believe. But, then again, this is (at least in its final form) a romantic comedy out of Hollywood. But, Diana Abu-Jaber at NPR gives us something more interesting perhaps: “‘Even in Siberia there is happiness,’ says the narrator of ‘In Exile.’ Those snowy indoor winters of reading would eventually help me become a writer: Even in the coldest, darkest places, there is comfort and joy.” It’s a comforting thought, a hopeful thought. Like “the Dude abides.”
I finish this incomplete blog entry with a poem recently discovered, “Late Hours” by Lisel Mueller:
On summer nights the world
moves within earshot
on the interstate with its swish
and growl, an occasional siren
that sends chills through us.
Sometimes, on clear, still nights,
voices float into our bedroom,
lunar and fragmented,
as if the sky had let them go
long before our birth.
In winter we close the windows
and read Chekhov,
nearly weeping for his world.
What luxury, to be so happy
that we can grieve
over imaginary lives.
I especially like that last bit, since I love movies and TV and novels and, well fiction in general. And, lately, spending so much time with Phil Connors… well, I don’t know if I grieve— Groundhog Day never really goes for the full emotional negative—but I relate to this imaginary life. And, it’s important to note that I couldn’t do this if my own life were not so privileged. Don’t get me wrong; my life has its problems. But, I live in Southern California, and I know that there are so very many people worse off than I am in this world. When I think about the world too much, I certainly feel that line, “nearly weeping for the world.” And, what luxury, indeed, that we can be in a position to watch movies like Groundhog Day and take the time to appreciate them and what they tell us about ourselves.
Still, I like to bask in those voices the sky let go, to think on the world and my place in it. I’d like to think that given circumstance like Phil Connors, I would also save lives and make lives better. And, in my actual circumstance, I’d like to do the same, though it may be more difficult.
Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to read some Chekhov and grant this particular blog entry an informative sequel.
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