Monday, September 30, 2013

that's not true

I wouldn’t say I make a habit of attacking people in this blog. I mean, yeah, I spent a few days on how bad Rubin’s use of voiceover was in the original script. But, mostly, I say positive things. But, I was looking at some of the links I haven’t used yet for this blog, happened upon a couple about the town of Woodstock, Illinois—the filming location for Groundhog Day. And, I just have to say that Maggie Crane of Woodstock is a liar.

Ok, some context: A.V. Club did a piece about Woodstock this past July. At one point, the author points out that “the people of Woodstock are still every bit as excited about their claim to fame, many of them having witnessed firsthand its production—which was, like Punxsutawney, inescapable—and appearing as extras.” One of those people they mention specifically is Maggie Crane, “who missed much of the filming due to her job at the library, fondly recalled fetching the French poetry that Murray’s character quotes to impress Andie MacDowell.” The thing is, as I’ve mentioned before—hell, I did an entry just on the French Phil recites—it’s not French poetry, and certainly not 19th century French poetry, and also, seeing as how it was in the story as far back as Rubin’s revision—

(For the record, I haven’t actually read Rubin’s first revision, but the French is not in the original script. Instead, in the original, Phil invents a line of poetry about Whiskey—“Ah, Whiskey,” he says, “the sliding river queered all, finger and tongue, but no less for wear did I choose that querulous brew…”—to impress Tess Harper of the Jefferson County Poetry Society. By the time of Ramis’ second revision, Phil recites the lines from “La Bourée du Célibataire” to impress Rita. And, in How to Write Groundhog Day, Rubin claims that it’s “a Jacques Brel song I just happened to know.” So, he’s certainly laying claim to the inclusion of these lines, so they must have come in in his first revision. As I pointed out in my entry about the French, Rubin made this scene about Rita and left Tess behind because one of the notes Ramis gave him in their “early meetings was that it’s better to give the best lines and scenes to the main characters.” Of course, Rubin also mentions, “It was great fun to write, and I kept getting better with each new revision. Without Tess, Rita wound up with a penchant for French poetry…” I read this as Rubin intimating that by the time Tess became Rita he had already written numerous drafts. Now, he may have, and just doesn’t consider them “official.” But, in his appendix entitled “Credit: Who Wrote What?” Rubin calls his April 1990 draft (what I call the “original”) his spec script. And, puts his “first rewrite for the studio” in February 1991. Harold’s “first rewrite” as Rubin calls it (and which its own cover and I call the “second revision”) was in July 1991. While Rubin may have written other drafts, the notion that they came somehow between his rewrite for the studio and Ramis getting involved is odd. In his chapter, “A Choice of Suitors,” he explains that there were two offers on his spec script, one from “a small independent producer, IRS Pictures, who promised to make a three million dollar film with a hot up-and-coming director, and to shoot it pretty much the way I had written it.” The second was from Columbia Pictures, “a big studio with big resources” with “a greater chance of the movie actually being shot and distributed, along with a higher likelihood it would be cast with movie stars” and “the director was a known entity—Harold Ramis—who had a great history of successful comedies.” Rubin picked the latter because he “had real grown-up issues to deal with. I ahd house payments, a baby daughter, and a grandmother to take care of.” Plus, he wanted to “launch” himself into Hollywood.

So, to sum up, Rubin wrote the “original” spec script, then the studio got involved and he did a rewrite, apparently based on notes from Ramis. And then Ramis did his revision. And, the French was already in place.

And all that was to reiterate…)

—the poetry did not come from Maggie Crane. So, Maggie Crane is a liar. And, the A.V. Club writer, Sean O’Neal, is not good at factchecking. So, then, I gotta wonder about the other details in his story.

Fortunately, there are others who have visited Woodstock as the Groundhog Day location. Arthur & Amy at went there in 2005. The Movie Tourist blog went there in 2012. And, the A.V. Club bit does include nice video, so there’s that. Personally, if I manage to continue doing this blog, I’d like to maybe visit Woodstock and/or Punxsutawney in the next year, so I won’t just steal the photos from those blogs and post them here. I can get my own picture of the plaques.

(That one’s from Mix 106.5, Baltimore.)

Go. Look. Then, come back here, because they’ve just got those singular entries on Groundhog Day and I’ve got new ones every day.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to find all of my mistakes and fix them… and I suppose I don’t just mean factchecking everything I’ve ever written and catching all of my typos. Those are just the little mistakes, easy to fix.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

maybe he's not omnipotent

Sometimes, it’s the little things that grab your attention—especially when the big things are repeated day after day after day. You start to notice things, like how Rita and Nancy harmonize when they say “hi” to each other, or how there are three volunteers for the bachelor auction before Doris volunteers Phil—so, what happened to them? Were they even worse picks than Larry, considering he’s able to get up on stage after Phil? Or maybe those three guys weren’t volunteering, they were heading out some back exit because they didn’t want to be auctioned off like chattel.

You can see them, here:

But, let’s backtrack to earlier in the film…

For example, Rita is amused by Phil making fun of her in the newsvan, or at least Andie MacDowell’s grinning like she’s amused. She should be offended, but she isn’t. Even when he says the line about the pelvic tilt outside the Pennsylvanian Hotel, she is still amused. She’s totally into him already; I’m not sure why hooking up with her is so difficult. Or she’s really good at handling her “talent.” Her laugh when Larry questions Phil’s calling himself the talent would support the latter.

The set decoration in the bed and breakfast draws my attention sometimes—like the Scottie lamp in Phil’s half bath (or whatever you’d call that nook with a sink)—but I don’t figure any of it really means anything. Still I will admit I spent some time trying to figure out what certain paintings are, like the one framed between Phil and Mrs. Lancaster. But, finding a painting that isn’t particularly famous with just a blurry shot in the background is not easy.

Ned waiting while Phil talks—when Phil says he’s doing “something else” for dinner in particular—is amusing. He’s got a nod that seems out of place—I think this time he doesn’t “get” what Phil’s telling him, unlike later when he “gets” Rita’s “let’s not spoil it.”

Why is there a chain on the groundhog’s stump? I can’t imagine they stick him in there more than an hour before the ceremony and they’ve got military guys around (which I assume is some security thing) in addition to the cops, so is it that the groundhog doesn’t like being in that stump and he just pushes his way out?

Rita is amused by the exchange between Phil and Larry as they drive into the blizzard. She really is an “upbeat lady” so easily amused by just about anything.

This isn’t new, but ever since I listened to Ramis’ commentary, I try not to look at the policeman’s mouth out there on the highway, because the voice and mouth don’t match in my head anymore.

As amused as she seems so many other times, Rita is not at all amused by Phil’s suggestion that he’s going to go back to his room and read Hustler. Even before he gets to the Hustler reference, she seems angry on the wider shot, and her “suit yourself” is cold.

Speaking of decoration, one of the framed images—looks like more of a line drawing than a painting—in Phil’s room seems to be of a seal/sea lion with a lighthouse in the background. Don’t hotels and bed and breakfasteses… bed and breakfast places generally decorate with more local-style visuals?

I’ve mentioned before and I’ll mention again, Chubby Man’s scream/squeal when Phil shoves him into the wall is great.

Not a newly noticed thing, but Ned not blinking is awesome.

Another woman entering Gobbler’s Knob ahead of Phil on Day 2 has the same red bag as Mary—I assume it’s some Groundhog Day souvenir bag, but I’m not sure there’s a clear shot of it anywhere.

Rita’s tongue at the corner of her mouth when Phil’s being difficult before his Day 2 report stands out, mostly because I don’t think she ever does it again. I guess Andie MacDowell doesn’t rely exclusively on one or two facial expressions like some actresses (*coughKirstenStewartcough*).

(That was a cheap shot.)

First time in the Tip Top, Phil flinches at the dropping tray. I read it like he’s flinching because he heard it before, but there’s no reason to believe he was there on Day 1 or 2.

Another note on the Tip Top, Day 3: The table by the one with the old guy in the red hat, has a couple sitting at it—this will be important later.

Gus is holding a lit cigarette (at the bowling alley) but we never see him smoke.

I don’t think I ever noticed, when Rita is staring at Phil eating from his table full of food, he offers her a sausage. Not a pastry like he offers Larry, but a sausage. I won’t proclaim that means anything.

Why is there a t-shirt hanging in the Tip Top, and not hanging like decoration, but like someone stuck it there and forgot it?

I neglected to include Nancy’s little dance when Phil meets her by the gazebo in my blog entry about dancing. So, here it is:

Did Phil take Nancy back to his room at the bed and breakfast? I always assumed that set didn’t have the wall to the left of the couch, but I just realized the curtains are similar… and that would make Phil’s entire room one whole side of the third floor of the bed and breakfast.

The TV monitors in the van are SONY… nowadays, it would be safe to assume product placement, but in 1993, I’m not sure how common that was… Of course, this bit from Wayne’s World was in 1992:

Gobbler’s Knob empties of people very quickly. Phil and Rita at the van can’t be too long after the ceremony and the place is virtually empty. And, somehow, it gets covered in snow before their snowman building time, even though evidence suggests it doesn’t snow in Punxsutawney until after that.

Tip Top Café again, and there’s a couple sitting at the table by the one with the old guy in the red hat, though you can’t see them too well with all the close-ups on Rita.

Phil’s quiet laugh to himself after pulling the distributor cap out of the engine is great. He’s very proud of himself.

I will get to the bartender eventually—you know, when I get to an in depth exploration of the representation of race in Groundhog Day—but I must say the shot of his amusement makes me smile. He’s seen all of this shit before, a thousand times. He is not impressed.

I want some white chocolate. That isn’t an observation about the film. I’m just saying.

Do real people sit at adjacent sides of a table when on a date? Or is that just a movie thing… hell, I think the table is circular, so sitting that close together is kinda awkward.

Weird thing now, paying attention for new things (not just the odd details I’ve already noticed), the foley work on date night stands out as maybe a little too loud. I mean, right before Phil get’s Rita into his room. Their steps in the snow—probably cornflakes, from what I know about foley—are quite distinct.

See, if Nancy was on that same couch as Rita—and the same music is playing—then that paints Phil’s “date” with Rita in a very different light to me. I tend to think he’s actually trying to get together with Rita properly, he just doesn’t know how. I don’t think he’s necessarily trying to trick her like he did Nancy… and, despite my realizing I shouldn’t do it yesterday, I just jumped back 15 minutes or so to check and sure enough that is Phil’s fake fire and Phil’s couch—so, the same music track—“called “Phil Gets the Girl” on the soundtrack—is appropriate.

(I remembered to jump back to where I was, by the way.)

The last slap happens outside the Pennsylvanian. I assume Phil invited himself to Rita’s room.

As the car chase gets going, the other Inner Circle guy has an awesome move:

And, it’s “god” day at the Tip Top. And that couple have their table once again. So, the thing I’m watching for is when do they leave? Phil and Rita do not sit on top of them.

Hm. Don’t see them leaving, but as soon as Phil gets up to show off his knowledge, they’re gone. Ah, but their plates are still there. So, though we don’t see them leave, I can’t really say there’s any mistake in continuity.

By the way, I love that not only does Rita compliment Debbie’s ring after Phil just dropped the bombshell of Debbie having second thoughts about marrying Fred, but Debbie thanks her.

It probably means nothing—I guess I’m not in the mood for meaning today—but one of the two cards in the hat: the Queen of Hearts. Easily taken as symbolic of Rita. Of course, if that card means something, so should the other one. So, Phil is the Seven of Hearts… Hearts isn’t a Tarot suit or I could look up what that card means… nevermind, I have the interwebs at my fingertips. Hearts equates with Cups, apparently. The Seven of Cups, by my notes, is about wishful thinking, creating fantasies, having options, and possibly overindulging. The Rider-Waite deck—which is what I’ve got—has a silhouetted guy facing seven cups, each with something coming out of it, not all good necessarily, but all different. There’s the face of, presumably, a beautiful woman; a shrouded figure, glowing, with arms outstretched; a snake; a castle; jewels; a wreath; and a dragon. Like this:

This actually fits Phil, so maybe the two cards in the hat do make symbolic sense. The Queen of Cups is loving and tenderhearted, and she can never turn away someone in need. Yeah, that sounds like Phil’s understanding of Rita, if not who she actually is.

Rita didn’t actually pay for Phil, yet took him from the stage. Sure, there’s time to pay between then and them leaving the party, but I wouldn’t put it past her to just steal him. She’s not as nice as Phil thinks.

And, that’s as good a note as any to end on.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to have some fun, whether it means anything or not.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

probably be some accumulation

I ended yesterday’s comments on Danny Rubin’s script notes with a simple justification: “…it’s appropriate that Rubin overthought it even before he wrote it because now, more than 20 years later, I’m overthinking it all over again.”

Rubin’s got additional benefits to repeating the same day over—in addition to the generic “no consequences” and the “no hangovers” bit we get from Gus (and which is in Rubin’s notes): “No fear of V.D. No fear of what other people think.” Two very different benefits there. And, there’s more:

Don’t have to wash clothes or dishes.
Don’t have to go to bed.
Always know where you left things.

And, there’s a point in Rubin’s notes where he takes it farther than the script would ever go. First, there’s a note about deer hunting, noting cleverly, “All the sport could’ve gone out of that. He knows where all the deer are.” Then, there’s more killing:

Macabre Twist:
Since death had no consequence, (and he had grown bored with killing deer)), it’s [sic] couldn’t be immoral to kill people. After all, they always resurect [sic] the following day with not so much as a scratch.
He makes it a game to see how many people in town he can kill in one day. (THIS is TOO DARK for TV). He perhaps plots this out, but can’t bring himself to do it. He realizes that everybody is already dead, so he no longer has any respect for them.
Maybe he decides that the only way to stop this nonsense is to kill Punxsutawne [sic] Phil.

The interesting thing there is how Rubin goes from the darker idea almost immediately into backing down from it with Phil only plotting this but not doing it. Then, there’s that odd bit about realizing “everybody is already dead” which suggests some philosophical angles that neither Rubin nor Ramis nor the film take. But, even that is diminished within the very same sentence, into a matter of respect. But, then, all of this comes around to the one killing bit that does get into Rubin’s original script and stays (though in a lesser form) all the way to the final film.

I’ve said before, and will probably say again, that killing other people would be a logical extension of not only the “adolescent” phase but also the “depression” phase of Phil’s situation, if we took it completely seriously. However, just like Rubin’s seven-act structure, the reality of being stuck in the repeating day gets in the way of telling a good story here. If Groundhog Day were reality, Phil would at some point turn on other people; he wouldn’t just punch Ned that one time (or every morning in Rubin’s original), he would kill him. And, when the stalking of Punxsutawney Phil in the library fails (again in Rubin’s original), Phil wouldn’t try to just take out the groundhog with a “big kitchen knife” at Gobbler’s Knob (as in Ramis’ revision), he would find himself a better gun and take out everyone on the stage, the Inner Circle along with the Seer of Seers.

(Sidenote: I just jumped back several minutes in the film to check on a line of dialogue and neglected to jump forward to where I had been. And, I didn’t even realize it for a few minutes. This stuff repeats so much for me, I guess I shouldn’t ever rewind or I’ll be here forever.)

Anyway, Phil would turn to homicide at some point, I’m sure. Probably sooner than later. And, he could do far worse things than just trick women like Nancy into bed. But, then the story gets so dark that the audience not only won’t believe Phil can redeem himself but probably won’t want him to. This kind of story, with the depths to be found within, is far more palatable as a comedy anyway. So real darkness is verboten.

Not to imply that Phil’s suicide sequence isn’t dark. But, it’s just the right amount of dark, presented briefly and timed perfectly so it makes sense.

Several pages into the notes, Rubin has a “to do” list, and on it are some big details he’s skipped, notably his #1:

Learn about Punxsutawne [sic]. What does Phil do for a living? How old is he? Where does he live?

(Missed the note on Phil being the main character’s name between yesterday and today. It was simple: “His name is Phil – just like the groundhog.”)

After the “to do” list, there’s a note I am hesitant to include because it could fuel the Bacha/Faust camp—and if you don’t know what that means, you should read this blog more regularly—and it’s got three checkmarks by it. Most notes have one, some have two. Some have question marks. Anyway, the note: “After he falls in love, he could vow to try to get out of this loop.” Rubin’s own planned structure contradicts this, though, since he’s put falling in love into Act Two and the discovery about the clock being the key to getting out of the loop in Act Six. Of course, Rubin still hadn’t written any of the script at this point; in fact, #7 on that “to do” list was “Write the sucker.”

So, then Rubin’s got notes on Punxsutawney. He spoke with Sally at the Chamber of Commerce and typed up some notes on the town (for example, “On Feb 2nd, there are about 3,000 tourists for groundhog day to see Punxsutane [sic] Phil”), and in the process figured out that Phil could be “a low-level reporter sent from Pittsburgh to cover the groundhog.” While that changes slightly once they cast Murray, this is what Phil is in the original script. Amusingly, though Rubin has already put Ned (unnamed) as an insurance agent, here he suggests, “The guy he socks every day could be some other reporter who sorta knows him and keeps teasing him about how ‘important’ this job is -- a real jerk who each day would increasingly remind him about what a nowhere guy he is in a nowhere world.”

You know, I take back all the horrible things I’ve said about Phil’s voiceover. I think I’d actually like to see a film—though probably not Groundhog Day—with a Rubin-penned voiceover. I’m not sure I’d enjoy is as much as, say, a Shane Black voiceover, but it could be fun, if for no other reason because he describes Phil’s soon-to-be-written journey as a “whimsical descent into madness and return back.”

A couple notes on Phil as a character:

We will feel his loneliness, and we don’t want him to be lonely. We will also see him grow up. Even his narration will become more sophisticated.


We will understand why he’s not making it as a reporter. He’s very unsophisticated. Very self centered. More interested in his career than in the world or his responsibility.

That changed a little, obviously, when Murray was cast and Phil was an older, more experienced newsman. But, mostly, that’s Phil. Rubin did figure out his character before he got to writing.

There are a few handwritten notes after all the typed ones. The first, with an arrow pointing to it and a box around it, implies a love story Rubin was not trying to write—he didn’t really want it to be a romantic comedy. That note: This is about a mature pursuit of love, which he finds is impossible until he stops only living for today.” And the next note, “the ‘high school’ line doesn’t work on his love. She went to some obscure int’l school in Switzerland Paris. None of his gambits work.” There’s an arrow directing to the last note: “He learns French. Tries again. She doesn’t speak French.” That last detail is one I think might’ve actually been funny in the film. Rita studied French poetry and Phil learns some to impress her, but she doesn’t even speak it. Or maybe that’s just silly, but, hey, so is Phil quoting a song from the 1950s when Rita studied 19th-century poetry.

The last notes are all about Phil and Rita (though she not only doesn’t have a name yet, but also would likely be Tess and not Phil’s producer, since that’s how it goes in the original script). One note perplexes me. It is:

The day he winds up pursuing is the only one where he failed miserably. That’s the only one with [illegible] potential.

This note perplexes me because Rubin has spent pages and pages of notes getting into little details of where the story might go, and seems to understand, even before he writes page one of the script that little changes will affect the day. But, here, it’s like there are only a handful of versions of Phil’s day, and he figures out which one he likes and goes for it again. On the one hand, that is basically the point of the date sequence in the film. On the other hand, it would impossible for Phil to pursue a day in the past, and how would he deliberately fail miserably in repeating it? I actually reread this note a few times, thinking maybe I misread Rubin’s handwriting and “day” was actually “dame” or “girl” or something, because that would make more sense. But, I’m pretty sure it’s day.

And, the last note, a line of dialogue and a followup: “‘The truth is, I’ve been waiting my entire life to meet you.’ She goes for it.” This reads like a line from their date more than something Phil would say later. Film Phil, that is; original script Phil, on the morning of February 3rd, tells Rita:

I feel like I’ve waited for you every day for an eternity. And here you are. It’s incredible! I have dreamed of you every night of my life. You’ve been my constant against total despair, and just knowing you exist has kept me alive.

So, Rubin’s Phil is still throwing out sappy stuff like that in the end. From film Phil, we get something bordering on but not quite sappy: “Whatever happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now, because I love you.”

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: I’ll embrace the sappiness and say I’d like the extra time to find “my constant against total despair” because that would be a nice thing to have.

Friday, September 27, 2013

mix together at high altitudes

I had trouble reading the Script Notes bit in the eBook of How to Write Groundhog Day before—it’s not Rubin’s notes typed up but scans of the original typed pages. Full page images are not the easiest thing to navigate (and text in them is hard to read) in the nook app. Then, I forgot about the section until recently, and finally read through it yesterday.

Most of the Script Notes seem to have been written before Rubin even completed a draft of the screenplay. Then, there are some check marks next to each of them. Not sure if he was checking them off as he put them into the screenplay or what… not even sure all of these things went into the screenplay. But, it’s interesting to see even more of the process not just in Rubin’s head but what he put to paper before he even sat down to write.

The first note kinda gets the movie totally, so really, I could just cover it and call it a day. But, of course, I won’t do that. Anyway, the first note: “If there are no consequences for actions, then what gives life a thrill?” As an example of what he’s getting at—Rubin’s notes, like Phil’s voiceover, overexplain a bit, especially considering these were presumably only written for himself—Rubin’s next note expands further:

At first robbing a bank is a thrill, just as a game, to see if you can pull it off. But once you’ve done it a thousand times, and all the scenarios have been played out over and over, is there any thrill to it?

(Note: the underline is handwritten.)

There’s a couple nice bits that would have only fit in voiceover (though, then they would have been lost later anyway): regarding traveling, “If you’ve only got one day to live, how much of it do you want to spend on a bus?” and a line that would have gone straight into voiceover: “I’ve tried going west to pick up a couple hours a day, but apparently it doesn’t work that way. I only get 24 hours. I live by the clock on my bureau. That’s the only one that matters.” I love the idea of heading west to try to extend the day—though that would actually have Phil headed directly into the blizzard. But, then, in a note here and a couple notes later, Rubin obsesses a bit about that clock at the bed and breakfast. He considers the idea of that clock being the key to everything; if Phil destroys it, he’s free, but “It’s a huge responsibility. So huge, maybe he won’t break the clock. Maybe I need some time to figure it out.” It’s interesting here that Rubin’s notes switch from first-person (arguably Phil (though he doesn’t have a name until later in the notes) but also, in this particular case for example, maybe Rubin dealing with his own ideas) and third-person. I can understand another reason beside the personal story that Rubin would have used a lot of voiceover. It came straight out of his notes.

Rubin listed his themes explicitly (though, keep in mind, this is before he wrote a page of the screenplay):

-Immortality, death and dying
No challenge to death
Fear of death

-Morality and accountability
Only immediate consequences
No responsibility

-Relationships, lonliness [sic]
Only fleeting. Nothing longer than a day.


-Altruism, selfishness

At one point in the notes, Rubin implies that the narrator won’t be Phil. In one of his notes about how Phil picks up new skills (including “to get chics [sic]”), Phil (still just “he”) offers $500 to a guy at a piano store to let him sit there and play. “The [sic] the narrators says, ‘Buying a piano and having it delivered took up too much time.” It’s interesting how Rubin is figuring out his character as he goes, he doesn’t even have a name yet, but he’s already getting into his motivations and specific acts he might undertake. I have the opposite happen to me a lot. I have a character in mind, I know what he or she does, what he or she likes, what kinds of hobbies he might have, what kind of people she spends time with, and then I insert them into a story and let them have the reins. When one of my characters—who I really wanted to use again in another story because he amused me—sacrificed himself at the end of one of my novels, I was actually a little surprised. Not because it didn’t make sense, but because at that point, it did make sense for that character. I think that might be an issue I have with Rubin’s attempt to structure the story in seven acts—which I’ll get into below, as far as what he’s got in his notes—he’s got a structure and themes before he’s got his main character, so that’s why so much of it just seems like meandering, filling time.

In a single note—much like the first one—Rubin gets the idea of what he hasn’t yet created, which is remarkable. That note:

Maybe this guy carries with him the goals from his former life. It takes some kind of breakthrough to ralize [sic] that he doesn’t need the same goals. Maybe those goals weren’t even worthwhile. So, whjat [sic] kind of goals are worthwhile?

That right there has been the topic of numerous entries in this blog and gets at all the interest in the film from religious groups (as I mentioned yesterday) as well; it’s why we can all relate with Phil Connors; none of us really know (all the time, anyway) which goals are really worthwhile.

So, about the seven-act structure, Rubin’s first note is this: “Think of it as seven acts. Maybe even begin each with “Act 4 In Which I Kill Myself.” I’m not sure yet what I think of the titlecard idea. It makes for a very different film than the one that exists, and is also quite different from Rubin’s screenplay, given the voiceover playing things like a mystery then explaining everything anyway; titlecards like the example would spoil events before they happen, which alters our experience of the structure and our experience of the film. And, for some reason it reminds me of Clerks and I imagine Phil (film Phil, not Rubin’s original Phil) saying at least once a day as he gets used to the resumptions, “I’m not even supposed to be here today.” Not that there would be anything wrong with that. The more I look at Rubin’s original again, the more I’m amused by Phil constantly dealing with people asking, “Phil? Like the groundhog, Phil?” It only happens once in the film, but it’s in the original script several times.

The next note on the seven-act structure seems to imply that structure fits a TV movie. I don’t know if that’s true. I know hour-long dramas have six acts. I don’t think I’ve actually watched a TV movie with commercials in a long time. Anyway, the note:

ACT ONE 21 (21) 20
ACT TWO 36 (15) 14
ACT THREE 50 (14) 14
ACT FOUR 62 (12) 14
ACT FIVE 78 (16) 14
ACT SIX 90 (12) 14
ACT SEVEN 109 (19) 20

(Note: the third number in each line is handwritten)

He hasn’t written a page of script yet at this point and he’s not only breaking down his structure but trying to formulate specific lengths of time for each act. While I don’t often outline prose stories or screenplays before I write them, I have had reason to do so at least a few times. But, never so specifically with lengths. I mean, with my first attempt at a novel, I knew I wanted each chapter to have a minimum length, but other than meeting that minimum, I didn’t care if some went longer. One of my later novels had a specific 25-chapter structure, each with its own theme, built around Norse runes, but the individual chapters varied from 10 to 40 pages. Sure, Rubin is specifically trying to write a screenplay (and considering one note that comes later, maybe he was specifically wanting it to be a TV move at this point) so there is time to factor in. But, that seems like something to work on in a rewrite more than something to shove a first draft into. But, maybe that’s just me.

Rubin breaks down the “progression” of Phil’s journey, this time with only five parts, then another five he labels “try again.” I won’t bore you with this entire list (mostly because I am going to paste his second seven-act breakdown below). And, in at least one of his notes, Rubin considers what so many people take as the throughline of the film, Phil’s pursuit of Rita (though neither one has a name yet):

Maybe he falls in love, and spends the entire movie wooing this woman, until at the end he gets it right. He will never forget the day that they met. Or she will never forget the day that they met.

Rubin isn’t suggesting it as a driving force, or even the main story. But, it’s in there already.

Rubin’s got notes on “adolescent” things Phil could do when he’s playing with his circumstance. Then, he’s got another breakdown of his intended seven-acts (and I should keep this breakdown out sometime and reread the screenplay to see if it fits it or really just meanders):

He behaves irrationally.
He only has one day to live.
Every day is the same one day.

He falls in love.

Plays with his “powers.”
He becomes totally anti-social.

Act Four: “IN WHICH I DIE”
Acquires skills.
Plays piano.
Very fast at sculpting.
Experiences death.

Act Five: “IN WHICH I TURN 200”
Looks for others of his kind.
Develops fascination for minutiae.
Tries to discover religion.

Tries altruism.
He visits his Mother.
He realizes that he can continue with his life by smashing the clock. He almost does it.

He falls into state of non-action.
He sorts out his goals.
He chooses a day and breaks the clock.
He finds his love, and remembers why he slugged that guy.

I’ve already complained about the meandering nature of Rubin’s original script, and here it becomes clear that he meant for it to be. He doesn’t include here the idea of Phil trying to escape town, a plot point that would have to come early in the story (and does in Rubin’s script), but does include as late as Act Six Phil visiting his mother. Death gets a titlecard but seems like an afterthought to an act about learning new things. Sorting out goals somehow comes at the end of the story and inaction begins the final act, both of which need to come far earlier. Storywise, inaction is death, which is why the film’s three-act structure works much better. The “adolescent” phase culminates in Phil manipulating his date with Rita, this ends badly and we get depression, inaction and death. It works because it follows smoothly. Then, just as the “adolescent” stuff got old, so does death. And Phil moves on, “sorts out his goals” and acts on them. Rubin’s plan might be realistic as far as how Phil’s journey might go, but it just doesn’t work as a story. At least not as well. I must reiterate, I liked Rubin’s script when I read it. And, it’s appropriate that Rubin overthought it even before he wrote it because now, more than 20 years later, I’m overthinking it all over again.

And, like my previous dealings with screenplays, this one will not be in just one part.

So, today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to see what I could write in 24 hours, then perfect it day after day until I can recite it by heart and have it with me when I get out of the cycle.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

keep your fingers crossed

Recently, I made the argument that a) there is no inherent meaning in things and b) we make meaning by finding/manufacturing it. And, obviously, I’ve found plenty of (and presumably manufactured some) meaning in Groundhog Day or this project would have already been done and lamentably forgotten. And, plenty of people have found not only meaning but personal meaning in the film. And, by personal meaning, I mean they don’t see it as some obvious screed with its own message but a message befitting of their own personal beliefs. In fact, the film was featured in the Museum of Modern Art’s film series “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” back in 2003.

Alex Kuczynski wrote in The New York Times:

…the film “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in “Groundhog Day” a reflection of their own spiritual messages. Curators of the series, polling some 35 critics in the literary, religious and film worlds to suggest films with religious interpretations, found that “Groundhog Day” came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective’s catalog.

(There are two copies of that catalog currently available on ebay if anyone wants to buy a copy for The Groundhog Day Project: this one and this one.)

Kuczynski goes on to describe how Angelo Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University said that Groundhog Day “perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that Buddhists regard as suffering that humans must try to escape” and how Dr. Niles Goldstein, rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich village said “he finds Jewish resonance in the fact that Mr. Murray’s character is rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more mitzvahs—good deeds—rather than gaining a place in heaven, which is the Christian reward, or achieving nirvana, the Buddhist reward” and how Michael Bronski, “a film critic for The Forward who teaches a course in Jewish film history at Dartmouth, said he sees strong elements of not only Jewish but also Christian theology. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays… And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.” Kuczynski also cites a Jesuit priest and mentions a branch of Falun Gong using the movie “to instruct members in its belief that the spiritual self is not allowed to move to higher levels until it learns from past mistakes.” Wiccans have also got to love the film because, as Kuczynski points out, Groundhog Day (or rather Imbolc, but I suppose he didn’t want to complicate his article further) is “one of the four ‘greater sabbats’ that divide the year at the midpoints between the solstices and equinoxes.”

William D. Romanowski mentions the film series in his book Eyes Wide Open: Looking for God in Popular Culture, adding to Kuczynski’s list a Catholic scholar who argued that Groundhog Day was “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Michael P. Foley, at Touchstone Magazine expands on this notion, calling Phil Connors “the typical product of modernity, the bourgeois man who lives for himself in the midst of others.” Foley further argues: “All of the Enlightenment’s societal buttresses—technology, natural science, and social science—collapse under the weight of a problem outside the parameters of space and time.”

Foley goes on to argue, after suggesting that Phil pursues “excellence… not for any ulterior motive but because he enjoys it,” that part of Phil’s “conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it.” Sure, when the Old Man, O’Reilly dies in the alley, Phil does look up into the sky, perhaps to God. But—and this will be an insane argument from me after this many days picking apart the minutiae of Groundhog Day—reading into a single look an interpretation of the entire film might be a bit much. But, then again, my point just a few days ago and at the top of today’s entry was that we find or manufacture meaning even where there is none. Hell, especially where there is none, because the idea of meaninglessness is probably one of the more scary concepts out there if you take the time to really think about it. I may be an atheist, but I also used to have that “I Want to Believe” poster from The X-Files on my wall. I have no particular problem with people believing in things. I just wish some people would get past belief to something more concrete. My particular favorite line in Kuczynski’s article comes from Rabbi Goldstein, who says: “The movie tells us… that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected.” If more people operated under that belief, or at least believed they should, the world would be a far better place.

When Phil “plaintively looks heavenward,” as Foley puts it, this doesn’t mean Phil is looking to or for God, though it does suggest Phil is looking for something. But all that is left of the film at this point is the final resumption of Groundhog Day and Phil’s release from his “curse.” Nowhere in this final sequence does Phil reference, nor does the film reference, God or even gods. What I call “god” day is long past at this point. In Rubin’s original, Phil has tried on godhood only to realize it is impossible as long as he is human, as long as he is capable of pettiness and jealousy. To put Phil’s transformation for the final resumption on God diminishes a much more important message, I think—that we can, indeed, change ourselves for the better—and dismisses the changes Phil has already made; he has already taken up the piano, has already spent time studying literature and biographies and poetry—

(Among the books Phil has had (seen on the counter beside him) are Johann Strauss - Father and Son - A Century of Light Music by H. E. Jacob and Treasury of the Theatre: From Agamemnon to A Month in the Country by John Gassner, and the book he had when Rita came over at the end of “god” day was Poems for Every Mood by Harriet Monroe.)

—and maybe he’s studied the French language (though, I really think that there is no evidence for this after “god” day so it’s questionable. He’s taken up ice sculpting, which means he is capable of patience. Even if you want to believe in God, even if you want to attribute one’s drive to improve to God, to suggest that simply “recognizing that there is a God” is what converts Phil diminishes human agency. And, we need people to believe in more personal agency, not less, if we want the state of things in the world to improve.

Foley also suggests that Phil “indirectly acknowledges God as creator by reciting the verse, ‘Only God Can Make a Tree.’” Foley argues: “God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.” I don’t mean to harp on this one particular take on the film, especially when, as I’ve already pointed out above, so many different religious groups find ways to identify with Phil and his plight—but a) I must nitpick the fact that Phil does not recite said verse but merely mentions the title, and b) I always assumed the inclusion of said title came from either Rubin or Murray was meant in a cynical, ironic fashion. Personally, I don’t care for Kilmer’s poem because it’s simplistic and trite, so maybe I am presuming intent—but I’m allowed to do that just as much as Foley is. The replacement line—the line in Ramis’ second revision is”I was saying that the cow was eventually returned to it’s [sic] rightful owner” so they hadn’t even chosen the poetry book yet—sounds more like a quip Murray would ad lib, because, well, like Rita’s take on the whole groundhog ceremony, “it’s nice. People like it.”

But, then again, I believe I suggested the old man in the red hat at the Tip Top Cafe was the devil because his hat is one of the few notable instances of red in the film (and he keeps invading my screen right when one of the more thoughtful moments comes along). Though I did so with tongue securely in cheek, I probably shouldn’t get so worked up by Foley. Now, if he also suggested that Phil’s love for Rita was the driving force behind Phil’s transformation, those would be fighting words.

Well, I also have a problem with this parenthetical point in Foley’s article:

Because the cycle is broken by the consummation of love and desire rather than the abandonment of it, the story cannot be seen as an allegory for Eastern religious thought. And because this “eternal” recurrence is terminated by love and classical virtue, it is a refutation rather than an endorsement of Nietzsche.

I think the film, while it may imply it, does not tell us that the consummation of love breaks the cycle—in fact, I think there are two distinctly separate things going on here. One Groundhog Day is about Phil learning to be better, and the other—necessitated by Hollywood—involves Phil earning, or at least being worthy of (and those are two very different things) Rita’s love by having become better. And, it is more strongly implied that the former is what has broken the cycle, and the latter just happens to come along with it, a bonus, a reward perhaps, but not a cause.

And, as for Nietzsche, I’ve spent my time on eternal recurrence (here and here and here), and no, Groundhog Day does not strictly uphold Nietzsche’s idea. But, there is room for middle ground between endorsement and refutation. In fact, I have endorsed eternal recurrence as a lens through which we can usefully look at our own lives, at Phil Connors’, at all of human history really. Groundhog Day does not refute eternal recurrence anymore than it promotes God. But, again, my meaning is my meaning. Your meaning is your meaning. Foley’s meaning is Foley’s meaning.

(Of course, Foley also calls Rita’s purchase of Phil in the bachelor auction “literally a redemption or buying back from the slave block” so he’s got worse points than the one about God.)

Still, what I like about Foley’s article is his take on “Phil’s Shadow” which happens to be the title of the piece. He suggests, somewhat appropriately, that it is Phil Connors’ shadow and not Punxsutawney Phil’s that is getting in the way of time moving on. Foley describes Phil’s “shadow” as “his vices, his bad habits and sinful ways that detract from and diminish his God-given goodness.” While I take issue, obviously, with the “God-given” detail, I like this particular way of describing something we all can agree on about the film—Phil Connors is not a particularly good guy at the beginning of the story and he learns to get past that. Aside from Rita citing her time in Catholic school, which Foley points out is “the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned,” the film avoids really ever telling us much of anything about how or why things are happening. And, this leaves it all open to whatever interpretation we choose to put on it at any given time. In fact, my own take on parental roles in the film, if I ever get to it, was going to hinge on some serious deist notions.

And, before I go, I should mention that Foley does conclude that “despite promising hints, Phil’s turn to God is underdeveloped and falls short of a full religious conversion.”

Anyway, today’s reason to repeat a day forever: just for this project, to take the time to explore Groundhog Day from every perspective in detail… or am I already doing that?

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

something is different

How I Met Your Mother just began its final season this week. While some have complained about the implication that the show will once again revisit Ted and Robin and their potential as a couple, even as the entire season takes place during the weekend of her wedding to Barney, Donna Bowman at A.V. Club, has a great take on not only why it makes sense for the show to return to this before the end but also how this fits with storytelling in general:

This show started with Ted and Robin. It’s not going to reach its titular moment, much less its final season endgame, without returning to Ted and Robin. Not only do I not mind this fact, but I’m happy to see it. Ted’s search for true love has become especially poignant this year. Robin’s engagement and impending marriage have raised for him an unavoidable question: Was she here all along? … This story, like all good stories, isn’t about getting to the ending. Good stories are about the hero becoming the person that the ending can happen to.

I especially like that last line—it’s like this is a bit of Phil Connors voiceover—because it is entirely true and also potentially, well, damaging to storytelling. It’s true because, yes, a character-driven story will inevitably have to tie its ending into its main character(s). Groundhog Day for example—I’ve argued that Phil is not driven by his love for Rita, nor is his release necessarily driven by the romantic comedy angle of him finally being with her. But, we all accept the ending because, as Bowman suggests, Phil Connors has become someone that this ending can happen to. He’s worthy of Rita’s attention (even if she might not be worth it), and worthy of the admiration of the townspeople. And, even if we didn’t particularly like him at the start of the film, we the audience have come to love him and we can accept his release. As Ryan Gilbey puts it, “It’s hard to scoff, even if you think you should. If ever a film (and a hero) had earned its payoff through sheer concentrated donkeywork, it is this one.”

But, it’s also not the best way to think of telling a story if you are the storyteller. Bowman uses the phrase in reviewing a story she isn’t creating. If she were creating the story, I would say, having created many stories and many more characters, that working the way she implies—having an ending in mind and working the character toward it—is bad storytelling if you’re too strict about it. It stunts character growth (which is arguably one of the problems with the character of Ted in How I Met Your Mother) and manipulates a story to maybe go in directions that are not organic to what’s come before.

Oddly enough, that’s one of the things I especially like about Rubin’s original script for Groundhog Day. Though I’ve openly complained about his structure being a bit too rambling, that rambling demonstrates that he was not trying to manipulate Phil into an ending. Phil’s journey in the film is neatly structured, with the adolescent phase, the pursuit and depression middle, then the good deeds phase. Rubin’s original has a lot more ups and downs. Too many for a good film, unfortunately, but it’s certainly more honest. In reality, if Phil Connors were really trapped as long as it’s implied in original, or if he was even trapped for, say, ten years, there would be attempts at good deeds long before he had really grown into being someone who would do good for good’s sake. I mean, you think Phil wouldn’t consider this was all some divine test and try to do good just to manipulate his way out? A TV series, like How I Met Your Mother for the given example, has more time on its hands, and the episodic structure allows for more rambling, more attempts at growth that backslide into old habits. A film that’s barely more than an hour and a half just doesn’t have the space for that.

Instead, Phil’s saving lives and changing tires is basically a montage as shorthand for growth. Well, we’ve seen him deal with the Old Man already, so we know he’s learning to care about other people. But, still, the sequence that demonstrates all that Phil has learned, is basically a montage and a party. Gilbey times the last February 2nd at “12 minutes and 12 seconds, the longest single day in terms of screen time.” But, there is so much to cover in those 12 minutes that it still seems rushed, at least going into the party, where the manic energy gives way to something else as we, like Rita, are presented with the people Phil has helped and are effectively asked to weigh Phil’s actions, to weigh Phil’s personal growth. Rita sees it all as one day’s worth of change, so it’s worth $339.88. For us, we’ve already paid our $4 or so (the average ticket price in 1993 was apparently $4.14). Of course, there were a lot of us watching Groundhog Day so Phil’s growth was worth far more to us, collectively, than it was to Rita. Probably because we knew how much time and effort he’d really put into it.

(Which makes absolutely no sense, considering we paid for our tickets before we saw the film, but I don’t get paid to make sense.)

Imagining now Groundhog Day as a TV series instead of a film, I realize it would inevitably take itself too seriously and try to explain things… It’s only been 7 years since Day Break was on the air, and I can’t recall just how specifically they explained the time loop, but I know they had to add a lot of external elements to the main character’s situation, because that show was grounded in the realities of television and stuck not on a story about personal growth but a more plot-driven adventure.

If any producers—and any network—were willing to commit to a series that is ultimately about personal growth and the regular exploration of philosophical notions, then maybe Groundhog Day could work as a series. But, really, we don’t need it. The film is perfect enough as it is. And, with the scholarship around it—including this very blog—it’s clearly already got the depth even if it didn’t take a lot of time.

Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to watch purely episodic television series until I notice, or hallucinate, the personal growth within.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

another reason why today is especially exciting

Yesterday was Time Loop Day Part Deux: This Time I Neglected to Announce it on Twitter. Once again, I watched seven TV episodes dealing in time loops. It’s all genre shows, so if you’re not into that… well, why are you reading a blog about Groundhog Day, one of the great, classic science fiction comedies? Anyway, the episodes were:

  • The Twilight Zone – “Judgment Night”
  • Early Edition – “Run, Gary, Run”
  • Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman – “‘Twas the Night Before Mxymas”
  • Charmed – “Déjà Vu All Over Again”
  • Seven Days – “Come Again”
  • Eureka – “I Do Over”
  • Fringe – “And Those We’ve Left Behind”

    As Groundhog Day begins here on my iPad, I imagine that the time loop has a specific reason—Phil Connors, egocentric user of women is being punished. If that is the case, then The Twilight Zone’s episode “Judgment Night” is structurally much the same. Of course, there’s only one resumption shown, but for a half-hour show, there wasn’t much time to be too creative about the loop… plus, fitting all the little repeating details is something that is more easily played for laughs, and this episode is not going for laughs. Instead—and, beware SPOILERS for a show from 1959—this is about one man’s personal hell, or maybe purgatory if we choose to believe there’s an out somewhere in the future for him. See, Carl Lanser shows up on the S.S. Queen of Glasgow. He has no papers and doesn’t seem to know how or why he’s gotten onto the ship. The ship has lost its convoy and they fear attack from German U-Boats. The thing is, Lanser gradually realizes who he is—he innocently mentions that he’s German perhaps not realizing that these British folk might be suspicious of him and later finds his U-boat captain’s hat in his quarters—and that he knows they will be attacked; he even knows the exact time of the attack: 1:15. Lanser is unable to do anything about it and the freighter is attacked and sunk, though first Lanser spots the captain of the attacking U-boat through binoculars, and he sees himself. Cut to: Lanser on the U-Boat, and he has this exchange with his Lieutenant:

    Lt. Mueller: I just, I just found it difficult to...
    Lanser: To do what?
    Lieutenant: To reconcile the killing of men and women without any warning. Makes me wonder if we're not damned now.
    Lanser: In the eyes of the British admiralty, we most certainly are.
    Lieutenant: I mean, sir, in the eyes of God.
    Lanser: Oh, you're not only a fool, Lieutenant, but also a religious fool, and perhaps a mystic at that. Suppose we are damned. What will happen then?
    Lieutenant: I've had dreams about it. Perhaps there is a special kind of hell for people like us. Perhaps to be damned is to have a fate like the people on that ship, to suffer as they suffer and to die as they die.
    Lanser: You are a mystic, Lieutenant.
    Lieutenant: We'll ride the ghost of that ship every night. Every night, Der Kapitän, for eternity. They could die only once, just once, but we could die a hundred million times. We could ride the ghost of that ship every night. Every night for eternity.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, while it clearly fits with the time loop idea, and while the ending makes it clear that Lanser will be experiencing this over and over again with the narration—

    The S.S. Queen of Glasgow, heading for New York, and the time is 1942. For one man, it is always 1942, and this man will ride the ghost of that ship every night for eternity. This is what is meant by paying the fiddler. This is the comeuppance awaiting every man when the ledger of his life is opened and examined, the tally made, and then the reward or the penalty paid. And in the case of Carl Lanser, former Kapitän Leutnant, Navy of the Third Reich, this is the penalty. This is the justice meted out. This is judgment night - in The Twilight Zone.

    —it takes its time playing up the mystery, never really explaining what’s going on until that exchange with the Lieutenant. As I said above, this is not a time loop played for any laughs, or really any fun. Like many an episode of The Twilight Zone, it’s quite serious, a morality play as mystery.

    As Phil goes into the first resumption, I realize that if one didn’t know the premise of Groundhog Day you might be as confused as Phil is. This first repeat isn’t played for laughs, though some could be had. Chubby Man’s scream as Phil shoves him into the wall, for example, amuses me every time. Early Edition’s “Run, Gary, Run” doesn’t go for any deliberate laughs, either—well, maybe Gary tossing the cinnamon bun to the dog—but recognizing the time loop format, there are definite funny moments. Still, this episode (a nod to Run Lola Run, though I’m not sure how much since it’s been a while since I’ve seen that film—it’s on my list of things to rewatch for this blog) takes itself seriously. SPOILERS for 1999 TV show ahead; it’s probably not waiting on your DVR, so no big worries. Gary has been neglecting his job helping Marissa with the restaurant, and basically God or whoever it is that delivers Gary’s newspaper every morning (I like to think that cat just happened to exist outside time and wanted attention) tests Gary out with a time loop so he’ll see how important Marissa is to him… which is actually a little complicated. I think just having him save her once could have covered it but I guess he was being punished and just had to actually see her die. Anyway, newspaper headline is about the blind pedestrian being killed by a car. It’s about a mile from Gary’s place, but his car’s got a boot on it and he has to run. Along the way, in various resumptions of the loop, he fails to steal a car, he shares a taxi with someone who has a more “legitimate” emergency come up, he steals a bicycle, and eventually, he makes it in time to save Marissa. Thing is, this was 1999, so cell phones existed, and the premise of this show seems like one where regular contact would have been useful. But, I guess since Gary spent so much of his time running around saving people he probably couldn’t afford a good cell phone.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that with hardly any detail to most of the background characters, it paints a nice picture of each one’s little story. There’s the artist who in the initial loop accidentally ate a cinnamon bun with nuts and was hospitalized. There’s the bike rider on his way to the flower shop and the doctor he’s intending to propose to—ultimately, by saving the artist and stealing the bicycle, Gary sets up these two to reach each other just in time to set up their engagement for us to see; it’s a little too cute, but it works. Given the premise of the show and the rush to save Marissa, there isn’t any time to contemplate the time loop; it’s just another thing Gary has to deal with.

    Lois & Clark is a show very much of its time. It’s early 90s but it’s got a bit of a leftover 80s cheese to it. Still, “‘Twas the Night Before Mxymas” actually works quite well, even on its own. The premise of this particular episode is even a bit silly, introducing the imp Mr. Mxyzptlk into a show that—if I remember correctly—tried to ground most of its villains in real, science-driven powers. Mr. Mxyzptlk is magical, but at least he’s not as weird looking as he often is in comics. He just looks like Howie Mandel. Anyway, Mr. Mxyzptlk… and, like the script for the episode I’m now going to call him Mxy because that is so much easier to type. Mxy wants to stay in this 3-dimensional world (he’s from the 5th dimension) and he believes there’s no room for he and Superman to both be here, so he sets out to negate Superman’s greatest power: hope. I suppose he’s seen Man of Steel and knows the S stands for hope. Mxy explains:

    He's the symbol of hope. That's his whole thing. Take away hope, and he's the symbol of nothing. In a world without hope, he's powerless. Simple as that.

    Mxy plans to remove hope by taking away tomorrow. He creates a 4-hour loop that only Superman (at first) experiences. But, the thing that makes this episode stand out is how the time loop changes over time. Though other character cannot (at first) remember the loop itself, they can feel it, so as time repeats, they get less positive, less hopeful. Lois, for example, hands in her latest story early on, claiming it’s worthy of a Pulitzer. A few loops later and she’s dropping it in the trash instead of even turning it in. Jimmy’s new girlfriend, making for a nice visual joke, is introduced as a Rhodes Scholar but as each resumption goes, she’s a little more trashy until she resembles the TV version of a cheap prostitute (and it’s implied she now is a prostitute). The other detail that sets the loop apart from other loops is that Superman, symbol of hope and all, is able to share knowledge of the loop with Lois at one point so that she, too, knows what’s going on. And, then, together (because that was the reason the human names were above Superman in the title) they set a trap for Mxy.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, as cheesy as the basic concept is—a Christmas episode about everyone finding hope—it actually works quite well. And, it’s entertaining and funny. The way it juggles a rather large cast (all the regulars (Lois, Clark, Jimmy, Clark’s parents) plus Lois’ parents, a suicidal rich guy, Mxy, Jimmy’s new girlfriend, and some drunk Daily Planet employee (who is probably at least a recurring character but I haven’t seen this show since it was on the air, so I don’t remember) and the various iterations of their mood changes as their various world views get bleaker and bleaker. And Howie Mandel sells the silliness of Mxy pretty well, also.

    Also of note: a great line the comes straight from there being a time loop: “At four o’clock it’ll be noon again and you won’t remember any of this.”

    Rita’s fighting off Phil’s advances now. If only she had magic to push him away. I say that because there’s a silly line that gets repeated in the Charmed episode “Déjà Vu All Over Again.” Prue’s talking to Andy and she wants him to stay away from their meeting with Rodriguez because Phoebe’s had a premonition of Andy’s death… and my God, out of context, that’s got to be hard to follow. Anyway, Andy says he can’t stay away, and Prue responds: “I mean it. Don’t make me use my magic on you.” It’s cute, it’s sweet, and Andy is doomed. And, I forgot to warn about SPOILERS for this episode from 1999. Anyway, Phoebe, since she can see things that aren’t going on in the present anyway, notices the loop after Rodriguez fails to kill all three sisters and hilarity ensues… well, maybe not hilarity, but there are some laughs, and ultimately, some tragedy to go with that comedy. Maybe it’s because I was watching a season finale out of context, and it’s been 14 years since I had anything invested in the character of Andy, but the tragedy doesn’t play as quite genuine. Still, the episode stands up pretty well.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that the time loop has a very specific explanation—the demon Tempus is giving Rodriguez multiple chances to kill the Halliwell sisters. Except, there’s got to be a better way to do that. I mean, you’re a demon who can manipulate time, so you find a warlock who is not powerful enough to fight the sisters, insist he attacks all three at once, and then when he fails, you figure screw Plan B, let’s just repeat Plan A? You are a stupid demon. Also remarkable, though, is that they play a few of the repetitive details for laughs and even include their own version of Ned Ryerson—Joanne Hertz, who went to school with Piper and now just happens to be the segment producer doing a piece on the restaurant Piper manages. Unlike Ned, who might be successful as an insurance salesman, but is certainly not particularly enviable for as much, Joanne followed her dreams to New York, met her “fabulous husband who had this crazy idea of starting this little cable show and putting me in charge of everything. And here we are, the Food Network's most popular show. Talk about dreams coming true.” Meanwhile, Piper, restaurant manager, dreams of being a chef and having her own restaurant. But, there is a funny exchange when Piper freezes time to have an aside with Phoebe:

    Phoebe: Why'd you do that?
    Piper: What am I suppose to say? That I'm a cash-strapped, single restaurant manager, who still lives in the same house I grew up in with my sisters?
    Phoebe: And the cat, don't forget our cat.
    Piper: Phoebe, this isn't funny.
    Phoebe: Look, I don't know why you're getting so upset. She is a freak. I'm sorry, but no one is that successful at the age 26. Besides, you are successful, you're talented, you're creative, and the Food Network is here to see you. Not me, not her, you. Feel better now?
    Piper: Very little.
    Phoebe: Good. Unfreeze that bitch in heels, you've got a segment to shoot and we've got a demon to find.

    And, now as Phil and Rita have their “science experiment” I get to Seven Days a straight science fiction show. “Come Again” involves the usual “backstep,” in this case to save Dr. Jonathan Axelrad from dying on his way to bring big news—presumed, for no particular reason, to be an advancement in cold fusion. For a show that sometimes took itself a little too seriously, this episode plays much of its drama for laughs. Axelrad is, as our hero Frank describes him, “the most annoying man” and because of a malfunction in the time machine, Frank is repeating this backstep over and over again. Axelrad is the kind of guy who, with a gun pointed at him, told to put down his sandwich, asks why and insists he’s hungry.

    What’s remarkable about this time loop is that solving the problems within it has nothing to do with fixing the loop itself. In fact—SPOILERS for 1998—when one loop ends with Olga dying, Frank makes sure the loop doesn’t get fixed so he can go back one more time. The episode is quite entertaining, and it’s probably good that this time travel show dealt with a time loop so early in its run (this was only the 4th episode). Of course, they have another one later, and I’ll get to that on the third Time Loop Day.

    Eureka often mixed it’s comedy and its drama to great effect. Despite the huge ending to its time loop episode, “I Do Over,” and how big a gamechanger it was for the show, watching it again 5 years later, the actual death scene didn’t have the weight it should have. But, the scene after, in which Carter has to break the news to Allison still works. There’s the usually silly laughs—Carter manages to squirt ketchup on his last clean work shirt every morning—and some great bits with Carter, not usually the most tech savvy, trying to explain what’s going on so the scientists will believe him; at one point, he’s memorized a song and still gets part of “the formula for breaking the light speed barrier” wrong.

    What’s remarkable about this episode is the time loop is really nothing too special for the characters given their usual interactions with insane science. Still, despite much of the episode going for laughs, the time loop (or “time wave”) itself is treated by Fargo and Stark as quite serious. And, there’s a nice touch from loop to loop as Carter actually starts getting physically injured and those injuries go through the loop with him. Hell, on the last resumption, he even still has his clothes from the previous loop (which should have meant he would have a clean shirt in his closet, but maybe I’m overthinking it, or maybe he changed and still got ketchup on the clean one). And, there’s a great bit that fits Groundhog Day as well. Carter takes the time on what may be the last loop and the end of the universe to tell his sister and his daughter he loves them. Zoe (the daughter for those who never watched the show) asks when he became so self-aware. His response—which I could totally imagine Phil Connors saying: “I can learn. It just takes me a few tries.”

    Plus, there’s this:

    Carter: I'm not crazy.
    Fargo: Says the guy with crazy eyes and a gun.

    And, I ended another Time Loop Day with Fringe because that show has some good gravitas to anchor things. “And Those We’ve Left Behind” like “White Tulip” hinges on one man’s love for his wife. In this case, Stephen Root’s Raymond Green is not the conniving scientist that Peter Weller was in that other Fringe time loop episode. Instead, he doesn’t even know what he’s doing. He’s using the time loop to keep his wife of 4 years ago working on the formula he inputs in the machine he’s put together in their basement. With each new bit of the formula, he can make his jump back in time just a little bit longer… except, he’s not really jumping back in time, exactly. Instead, he’s created a bubble of time that springs forward to him. And, the Fringe team is involved because there’s a bit of a time displacement side effect, where these jumps are happening elsewhere. Those jumps are interesting, especially, the one that starts the episode—an entire building flashes back to a time 4 years earlier when it was on fire—but the heart here is with the scientist and his wife (and to a lesser extent, between the newly returned Peter and Walter). See, in the present, Kate Green suffers from early onset Alzheimer’s and she can no longer remember her husband some of the time, let alone produce formulas that can open windows in time. The especially tragic bit in this episode—that I don’t think anyone even mentions in the episode—is that each of Raymond’s windows might be longer but they are also closer to the present. Eventually, even in the time bubbles, Kate will still diminish. But, then again, just one more moment in the happier past would be worth the effort.

    Of special note: Peter mentions Groundhog Day specifically:

    Olivia: Well, it's not just deja vu. Some of them are reporting time loops.
    Peter: I don't really know what that means. What is a time loop? Like Groundhog Day?

    What’s remarkable about this episode is that, as usual, Fringe juggles its cast and its guest starts remarkably well. The emotional core of this episode falls to Stephen Root and Romy Rosemont as Kate. Still, the implication that Peter’s return from nonexistence may have been the only reason Green’s time bubble worked (ultimately endangering many people’s lives) adds some gravity to a welcome return. And, the ending of the time loop (or “time bubble” I suppose) here makes for one of the sadder moments on a show that often ran the gamut of emotions. Kate’s note to her husband is one of the sweetest, saddest things I’ve seen on television, so I’ll end with that for today:

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to live life. Just that, however it may come.

  • Monday, September 23, 2013

    the same thing your whole life

    Not that there’s something wrong with being conservative—and I don’t mean politically, for the record, but just taking things slowly, being careful. Being averse to change. Not trying new things all the damn time.

    It can’t all be the “adolescent phase.” You can’t always live for today. Sometimes you should probably assume that tomorrow will not only get here but people will expect that you had fulfilled your responsibilities in the meantime.

    But, oh how fun it would be if you could. Honestly, I wanted to write today a response to yesterday. Toe the line, follow the rules, clean up your room, stand up straight, pick up your feet, take it like a man, be nice to your sister, don’t mix beer and wine ever, don’t drive on the railroad tracks…

    I keep my room pretty clean, I think I’m pretty nice to my sisters—if you don’t count my snide and sarcastic comments. I don’t mix beer and wine, but that’s just because I don’t like beer—

    (There doesn’t seem to be any good reason for that rule, anyway, and I’ve never heard of it outside Groundhog Day.)

    —I’m probably too old to start working on my posture, but I think I stand straight enough when I need to, when I’m in front of an audience… Wait, no, that’s not true. I lean on the desk, I lean against the wall—if my classroom had a chalkboard, I’m sure I’d have chalkdust all over my back after every class. I also put my hands in my pockets when I know damn well I am not supposed to do that when I’m teaching. Yes, I’m too casual. I’m sure that’s a shocking revelation.

    I don’t pick up my feet, I don’t think. I think I shuffle along at least some of the time. I should probably try driving on the railroad tracks—I have walked on them.

    Yeah, I’m not one to suggest holding back, even as much as I hold myself back far too often. In my mind, I see things I like and I want to grab them. I see a girl I like and I get ahead of myself and make myself too nervous to do anything. Give me time to waste and I’ll waste it. Give me too much time to overthink a decision and I will hold back. Not because I should. Not because I want to, but because I’ve run through so many possibilities, I trap myself. It’s the opposite of the spirit of the stairs—

    (If you don’t know that one, it’s a great phrase to know. The spirit of the stairs, or in French, l’esprit de l’escalier is a nice label for all the things you realize you should have said when you’re already leaving and it’s too late.)

    —I overthink things ahead so there’s even more afterward that I didn’t bother to say. I don’t like anonymous quotations, but this one rings true to me:

    Over-thinking ruins you. Ruins the situation, twists things around, makes you worry and just makes everything much worse than it actually is.

    I imagine Phil Connors will have some trouble getting on with regular life after the time loop. He’ll probably overthink everything. Or maybe, at least at first, he won’t think anything through at all. He’ll just act and hope for the best; hell, he probably won’t even hope for the best, just that the best will become obvious as he goes. Think about it. He’s used to now being able to just do things, no consequences. He has to actually relearn the idea of consequences. He might quit his job. Let’s hope he’s got some money saved up. Or maybe he’ll keep that job and he’ll be the awesomely philosophical weatherman, and a network will notice him, and he’ll leave Pittsburgh for something bigger. And that will come between him and Rita, if they’re even still together. Though the film has a happy ending, I don’t see it as the “happily ever after” of a fairy tale. Phil and Rita will probably be fine for a while, but will it last? Is Rita really the right girl for Phil? Should Phil even be heading into a long-term relationship after the time loop? I mean, adjusting to regular life after that has got to be about as big an adjustment as coming off drug addiction. He shouldn’t be making any big life-changing decisions. But, he’s going to want to.

    And, that’s normal, I suppose. He’s only just figured out how to be in control of his life. He’s just gotten a handle on who he is. Of course he’s going to be making big decisions, directing his new “life” for the better. There will be missteps. There will be mistakes. But, that’s life.

    And, that’s a cop out. “That’s life”?

    Everything is life. And, I don’t mean that to be profound or anything. It’s just the truth. It isn’t that we need to understand life. It’s that we need to understand life that is good. If we want something—and it’s reasonable to want it—we should go after it. If we love someone, we should tell them. If we need something, we should find a way to get it or a person to give it to us.

    I’m tired today. Trying to readjust to a “normal” sleeping schedule again because school gets going for me in a week. And, there’s already work to do. I’ve got debate cases to work on, assignments and lesson plans to put together. I’ve got a book I want to finish before I’m loaded down with reading assignments. I don’t want to think about my recent attempts at life-changing decisions, my missteps, my mistakes. For a while, my adult life was something that worked for the most part. There are sections of it that do quite well to this day. But, the whole—I’m not even sure there is a whole. Just disparate parts, some of which work, some of which I can handle and some I even enjoy. Some, though, are damaged and broken and in need of replacing. But, life isn’t as neat as that. Can’t just replace what doesn’t work and move on. Hell, if it were that simple, it probably wouldn’t be worth anything.

    It definitely wouldn’t be worth anything.

    By that logic, sometimes, life seems so hard that it must be the most valuable thing around.

    And, I suppose it is.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to get my parts in line.

    Sunday, September 22, 2013

    if you only had one day to live

    I imagine the days where Phil Connors gets contemplative. Maybe it’s before he turns to depression. Maybe it’s after. And, a weird thought occurs to me—he can never fast. I mean, he can go without food for a day, sure. But, that’s it, a day. His digestive system will have food from the day before, so he probably won’t be all that hungry. I mean, yeah, when we’re used to eating regularly, we’ll get hungry after missing a meal. But, that’s not real hunger.

    There’s an interesting bit in Siddhartha in which Kamaswami asks Siddhartha what he has learned that he can give. Siddhartha’s response: “I can think. I can wait. I can fast.”

    Kamaswami asks, what good is fasting? He’s a businessman, a merchant who certainly doesn’t value the contemplative moments of life. Siddhartha explains:

    It is of great value, sir. If a man has nothing to eat, fasting is the most intelligent thing he can do. If, for instance, Siddhartha had not learned how to fast, he would have had to seek some kind of work today, either with you, or elsewhere, for hunger would have driven him. But as it is, Siddhartha can wait calmly. He is not impatient, he is not in need, he can ward off hunger for a long time and laugh at it. Therefore, fasting is useful, sir.

    I think this rings true for fasting from anything. If we can do without, then we can avoid hungering for… well, anything. Experience starvation and food might not hold the sway it once did. Go without companionship and maybe you can sustain loneliness… Or maybe that comparison doesn’t hold up. There’s a distinct difference between the physical urge, be it for food, be it for physical contact, a hug, be it for an adrenaline rush, be it for sex, and the more fundamental emotional urge of needing someone to be close to, not physically necessarily but just as intimately. Phil Connors jokes about how he’s (not) going to touch Rita when she falls asleep, but really, he’s not. He doesn’t need to. The simple fact of her presence is more important and more vital to him, especially then, than any baser urge. His sense of humor still just can’t leave it alone.

    Lately, I’ve had this strange sense about this project. The audience is still relatively small; I can get away with just about anything. But, I don’t need to do anything crazy. I just need to do things that are honest. Things that are “more real” like small town people according to Phil, though maybe he’s just saying that at that point. So, I’ve wondered, just what is this? I mean, obviously, it’s an exploration of a particular film, and I’ve used that to explore bigger ideas, philosophical notions, ideas about our culture, ideas about gender…

    (And, I still might do that piece about race.)

    …and ideas about life in general. What does it mean? That sort of thing. Ultimately, I must admit—and I must readily suggest that it could work no other way—this project is also an exploration of my self. I generally keep details vague but I find ways to twist little details here and there to exorcise my demons, be they long-term or short-term. And, I even make entirely specific (but only understandable to those involved) references to my real life. And, I generalize. The Groundhog Day Project is not just about life but about my life. Like Phil Connors is Phil the groundhog, I am Phil Connors. Hell, so are you, whoever you are, reading this. That’s the point. I don’t mean to overexplain like I’m a Phil Connors voiceover, but sometimes—not all the time—it is necessary to be explicit.

    And, personally, I think I’m beyond the “adolescent” phase of the time loop of my life. I don’t have the wherewithal or the audacity to grab the things I want abruptly and claim them and command them to make them mine. I’ve been hurt enough in my life, often by my own actions more than anyone elses, that I wish I had the infinite loop to get things right today, or tomorrow, or the next day. Or, better yet, yesterday, the day before, the other day. A year ago. Two years ago. Five. Ten. If you sit down and think about your life, you can see the specific turning points where one chapter flipped into the next. Day-to-day, it’s not so obvious. Things just go. And, like Gus so pointedly suggests, it’s all same-ol, same-ol, as the days keep going or repeat or whatever it is that they do… it doesn’t really matter most of the time, because except for when we’ve got something new on our plate, one day blurs into the next. If we’re lucky we get those moments that stick out, the details that will mark the passage of time in our memories.

    If we’re lucky, we have good friends, good family, lovers and confidants that make it all go so much more smoothly.

    If we’re not, we better take Nietzsche to heart and find a way to come to terms with the negative, with the boring, with the everyday madness the blunts our drive and dissolves our dreams. Because it’s all going to happen again, the next day, the next, the next, forever.

    “What if there is no tomorrow,” Phil just asked the guy on the phone. What if there isn’t? Did you do what you wanted to do today? Or, were you putting it off? Did you mean to get to it?

    Me? This summer, knowing I’d probably have a bit of free time, I meant to reedit a few of my novels, maybe get them set up as ebooks I could make available for purchase. I meant to write a new novel, wrote a chapter and got busy auditing a college course and lost the momentum. I had plans for things to build out of LEGO blocks over the summer; one was a Tarot deck of LEGO images. I never even completed the first one, and maybe that meant something. The first card I picked off the deck was Strength.

    The usual image for that card—and the one on the deck I own—involves a woman and a lion. The woman clasps the lion’s jaw, maybe because she has the strength and she’s pulling it open, maybe because she’s only just finding the strength and she’s holding it open as it tries to bite. It’s not a dynamic image. She isn’t struggling with the lion, yet she dominates it. Common interpretations include perseverance, stability, discipline, serenity. But, I get stuck wondering—when I don’t even believe in this kind of thing—if it matters that it’s a lion specifically and I have a tendency to like leos. But, I don’t believe in the horoscope stuff either. I find it interesting, sure, but I don’t believe in it.

    Nietzsche likely didn’t believe in eternal recurrence either, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a useful tool for examining one’s life and, more specifically, one’s experience of one’s life.

    Objectively, I know there is no connection between my soon-to-be ex-wife being a leo and the first card I pull out of the tarot deck having a lion on it—hell, on a oh-my-god-how-silly-can-I-be level, if she’s the lion, then am I the woman? Not that I can’t find myself in a feminine representative…

    The girl with the Phil sign just passed by on the screen, and she’s alone. Her friend was lost, and I could read meaning into that as well. This scene played at this time because I was thinking about how I’m alone and all that. Or, none of it means anything and I’m just making it up. We’re all just making it up.

    Thing is, in truth, while I don’t believe in such things, I think it does mean something when I see the connection, or when others do. Call it projection or what have you, but while I think we seek out meaning because, ultimately, there isn’t any, we create that meaning by seeking it. And, once created, it matters.

    Nancy Taylor went to high school in Pittsburgh. So did my wife once upon a time. Seriously. I could read into any of it. I could. I mean, I did an entire entry on the color blue. Trust me, if I’m in the mood for some meaning, some meaning will show itself.

    And, I’m in the mood for some meaning.

    But, first, if you’ve got a few minutes, watch this:

    Such simple symbology, almost trite. But, the narrator sells the ending pretty well.

    Those jelly beans—28,835 amounts to 79 years (not taking into account leap years, but those don’t really make that big a difference). You may live longer. You may die sooner. I may live longer. I may die sooner…

    And, I warned you I was in the mood for meaning. Did he pick jelly beans because they were cheap and small? Or was it about that first bean—the first day? The bean shape is certainly evocative of maybe not an infant so much but an unborn child, a fetus, an embryo. That shape is us at our most simple. There’s infinite possibility in that bean; hell, what about the possibility inherent in an actual bean, or a seed?

    Then, scrape away a year and then the first 15 just like that? As if those formative years weren’t the essence of what it is to be alive. As if those years didn’t matter… and logically, as if those years didn’t also include some of the stats that come after, or do we not sleep or eat or travel, watch TV or do chores, care for others or groom ourselves, like we aren’t part of the community in those years. I mean, maybe he adjusted the math, or maybe he just considered adults because we need the most “help” figuring out how to live. It’s the great irony of life that we spend so much of those formative years locked away in school, learning things, when that’s the point arguably that we know how to live. Our culture discounts it, but children know what it takes to be happy, to live in the moment. At least, on average.

    We adults—we sometimes suck at it. Maybe we figure we’ve already got it figured out, maybe we’ve given up and are just riding the wave and hoping for the best. And, when we end up a million miles from where we started out in college, like Rita, we like to figure it’s for the best. And, maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Day after day after day, maybe we’ll get lucky, and we will figure things out. As ZeFrank says in that video, while we may sleep away 8,477 days of our lives, “if we’re lucky, some of the time we’ll be sleeping next to someone we love.” If we’re truly lucky, we’ll be eating and drinking next to someone we love as well, or traveling with someone we love, or watching television with someone we love, or performing household chores with someone we love… you get the point. And, “hopefully” our work will involve “doing something satisfying.”

    Come to think of it, will Phil Connors be a weatherman tomorrow? Or, will the new Phil Connors need a new vocation?

    In the end, in that video, there are 2,740 jelly beans left, approximately 7 ½ years worth. “Time for laughing, swimming, making art, going on hikes, text messages, reading, checking Facebook, playing softball, maybe even teaching yourself how to play the guitar.” I don’t subscribe to any belief in it, obviously, but sometimes the Bible makes some good points in extraordinarily simple ways, like this, for example, from Ecclesiastes:

    To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven:
    A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted;
    A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;
    A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
    A time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
    A time to get, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
    A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
    A time to love, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time of peace.

    Nietzsche and Phil Connors would probably agree wholeheartedly with all that.

    And, so do I.

    Our time is limited. “What are you going to do with this time,” ZeFrank asks. “How much of it do you think you’ve already used up?” I would add, how much of it do you think you’ve wasted?

    What if you knew you were dying? And, maybe someone reading this is. What should you change about your life? More importantly. Why haven’t you already changed it? Why are you not doing the most important things already? Why waste another moment when life is out there waiting for you to burn?

    “How much time have you already spent worrying instead of doing something that you love?”

    That’s the kind of thing you should not be waiting until the end of your life to ask. Ask it now. Answer it now. And, fix the problem. I wish every day for the fortitude to do so. For that strength.

    Maybe that’s why I got stuck on that one card. Because I haven’t moved past it yet. I can’t.

    Today was a pretty good day. Yesterday was better. I don’t know what tomorrow will be like.

    You know why Groundhog Day is a comedy? Because life is a comedy. Siddhartha calls it a “strange and stupid thing, this repetition, this course of events in a fateful circle.”

    You know what to do when life’s a comedy? Laugh. Enjoy it. Live and live some more.

    When Phil asks Rita, “if you only had one day to live, what would you do with it,” her response is as cynical as his once would have been (or maybe still would have been at that point in the loop). “I don't know, Phil,” she says. “What are you dying of?”

    He turns it practical—“I mean, the whole world is about to explode, what do you do?”—and she gets pragmatic—“I want to know where to put the camera”—then suspicious—“Are you looking for a date for the weekend?”

    Maybe we shouldn’t be so pragmatic, so cynical, so suspicious. Maybe we shouldn’t overthink every move and we should just move already.

    What if you just had one more day? What would want to do with it? Who would you want to spend the time with?

    What are you going to do today?

    And, why not something else? Something better. Something you really want to do.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: to have strength, to trust myself to make moves without overthinking them, to be better, to be happy.

    Saturday, September 21, 2013

    i really feel weird

    Subtitle: one lingering detail that wasn’t all in voiceover.

    Just after Phil was “learning how to listen” in Rubin’s original, there’s a scene at a Basketball Court. Phil plays one-on-one with “some TEENAGER.” In the direction, “Phil steals the ball and does a good lay-up. The Teenager calls it a “[p]retty good move for an old guy.” Phil says he practices a lot.

    (Six months, four to five hours a day, and you’d be an expert.)

    So, the Teenager says he’s going to practice a lot, too. And, Phil asks him, “Aren’t you supposed to be in classes now?”

    (Nevermind that in Punxsutawney, they probably get the day off school… despite the frog prince scene as well.)

    The Teenager responds: “You wanna be my daddy or you wanna play b-ball?”

    (There’s already some things going on on Groundhog Day regarding parenting and parental roles, but they’re worthy of a separate entry.)

    Then, it’s the Teenager’s turn to do some exposition, while dribbling:

    Everybody worrying about my future. I say, “Hey! Don’t worry about my future. I’m gonna buy a big car and wreck it. I’m gonna date every pretty girl in Pennsylvania. I’m gonna make lots of money. And I’m gonna live forever.

    I’d point out the deliberate similarity to Phil’s “adolescent” phase, but the voiceover has it covered:

    How far I had come. To see myself in this boy, and that old lady [i.e. Lady Geezer], and the other people of this town, I could leave my loneliness behind. We were of a species.

    Regarding this scene, Rubin told Ryan Gilbey in an interview:

    I don’t know why it didn’t make it… I like how you could see in this 14-year old kid pretty much the same person Phil was at the beginning of the movie. And through that encounter he understands how far he has come. I thought it was an important realisation [British sic] that really wasn’t made in any other way in the movie, but what can you do?

    Maybe Rubin’s just too close to the material, because this, like most of the voiceover, is entirely unnecessary because it is too on-the-nose. But, we must keep in mind that Rubin was not a practiced screenplay writer. He just happened to be “writing local TV, stage plays, industrial films, and sketch comedy” in Chicago when “[t]he head of the Illinois Film Commission and the founder of the The Second City comedy club had just joined forces to form a film production company, with the intention of introducing Chicago talent to Hollywood.” And so, he decided to write a screenplay. As he explains in How to Write Groundhog Day, Rubin brainstormed ten ideas, of which Time Machine would later become Groundhog Day. He pitched all ten to the Chicago producers and go nothing but “a smile and a cup of coffee.” Still, Rubin explains, “this had somehow put me into the mind of pursuing screenwriting.” His lack of knowledge on the format, he admits:

    I didn’t know how to write a feature film but figured I had seen enough of them to have the general idea. All I needed was someone to show me what to capitalize and where to put the margins. There may be a little more to screenwriting than that, but this was my thinking.

    One of his notes after the screenplay is that he learned from Harold Ramis that “you don’t need to put a character’s name in caps all the way though a script—only the first time the character is introduced.” He explains:

    In the version of this draft that I sent around Hollywood, the character’s names are in all caps throughout the script, but I changed them here so that I don’t spread any bad habits.

    So don’t do it in your own script—they’ll know you don’t know what you’re doing.

    Rubin notes that he had gotten his hands on a copy of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. In the chapter on “Screenplay Form” Field does point out, “New characters are always capitalized.” But, to Rubin’s credit—especially considering how much he clearly enjoys having everything spelled out—Field does not specify that you shouldn’t capitalize characters when they’re not new.

    Rubin wrote screenplays for two other ideas on his list before he got to Time Machine. The first one “was basically a children’s story that was way too gross and strange for kids.” The second one, Silencer went on to be adapted into the film Hear No Evil released in March of 1993. Groundhog Day in February 1993, Hear No Evil in March, then S.F.W. (not from one of the brainstorm ideas) the next year. And, those are all of Rubin’s feature film writing credits… unless you count Stork Day aka È già ieri, the Italian-language remake of Groundhog Day a decade later.

    There one idea on Rubin’s brainstorm list that intrigues me. See one of my favorite films is Adaptation. and one of Rubin’s ideas made me think of that. Number 6 on his list:

    How To Write A Movie. Students at a city college get lessons in screenwriting, as their lives gradually become the movie they are learning how to write.

    Like a lot of Rubin’s brainstorm ideas, there’s a distinct incompleteness here. There’s no notion of what the film is about. And, Rubin probably would have included far too much voiceover even as—I hope—the students learn they should not use voiceover so much. It could be pretty clever if done right. But, we’ve got Adaptation. so we don’t need this one.

    Rubin, smartly, realized that Time Machine just “wasn’t about anything. Not yet.” He continues:

    The premise was fun, and it clearly had comedic and even some character growth potential, but at this point it was only a gimmick. In fact it was less than a gimmick; it was a situation without any idea which gimmick had produced it! If I had committed to the idea, perhaps I would have come up with an approach that meant something to me, but at the time those other ideas just felt more clear and inviting.

    Like many a Phil Connors voiceover block, there is a great nugget in there. Calling it “a situation without any idea which gimmick had produced it!” is a great line. By the way, Rubin’s original brainstorm for Time Machine was this:

    A guy is stuck in a time warp that commits him to living the same day over and over and over again. But each day he can behave differently and the world and people will be different accordingly. (How do you enjoy yourself? How do you get laid? What are the different ways you can spend the same day? Will he become wiser? Sadder? Cynical? Adventurous?)

    Rubin’s thoughts turned to immortality later when he was going to read Anne Rice’s The Vampire Lestat. He explains:

    I tried to put myself into the situation. It felt to me that a life that long would proceed in stages. A person might long for companionship and activity for a while, but eventually tire of it and live in isolation and simplicity. There would be periods of self-improvement and periods of destruction, all according to some natural psychological progression.

    I’ve mentioned before how Rubin wanted to deal with immortality without “the complications of eternity”—researching historical events and maybe creating “some future civilization” seemed “unfocused and like endless work” to Rubin—and that’s how his thoughts on immortality looped him back around to his old Time Machine concept. And, thus Groundhog Day was born.

    Much of Rubin’s meandering in the screenplay was probably fixed by Harold Ramis, but I wouldn’t say—despite the last few days of complaining—that Rubin is a bad writer. The voiceover, of example, might have been the wrong choice and easily removable, but he chose it for a reason; he wanted the story to be personal, “a young man’s journey though life, like Siddhartha.” And, it makes sense for a young writer to invest in a personal story. A writer just starting out (at least in a new format, anyway) probably only has two options: tell an entirely impersonal story or a wholly personal one. I imagine the impersonal version of Groundhog Day and I imagine a story without heart, without soul. While so much of Rubin’s original had been altered or removed by the time they had the shooting script, I think the heart and soul of the piece were still the same.

    Rubin just needed to be reined in just enough that he wasn’t constantly tearing open the chest of the piece to show off that heart. I think maybe Rubin understood one fundamental human trait and ignored another. He realized that someone like Phil, stuck in that situation, would want to explain it, would want to share it. But, he didn’t realize that the audience, also human, didn’t need it all explained. We know heart when we see it. We know when a story rings true. We recognize change. Often we long for it. So, we certainly recognize it.

    There is a time and place for overt displays, for tearing open one’s chest and letting everyone see your heart and your soul. But, mostly, you don’t need to go big as long as you can go true.

    As I write this, Phil just started his speech to Rita while she’s sleeping. It isn’t big. It’s quiet, it’s still—though it’s only still because they hadn’t shot any other angles. And, it rings true because the scene is not explaining anything to us. Phil might be explaining a little, but not to us. Instead, it plays like we are witnessing a truly private moment. It’s intimate and maybe we’re not even supposed to be there. If Phil had jumped in with voiceover, or if the speech had existed only in voiceover, then it would have felt wrong.

    If the basketball scene had simply ended with Phil eyeing the kid, Phil noting the similarities, but not telling us all about it, it would also have rung more true.

    Today’s reason to repeat a day forever: despite a bit of what I just said, to go big, because I don’t do that often enough.