Thursday, February 26, 2015

Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis,1993)

Rinse; repeat 

(Warning: film's plot and twists and ending all discussed in close detail!)

Funny how Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day (1993) opened to respectable but not spectacular reviews--Roger Ebert sensed that it was "basically a comedy, but there's an underlying dynamic that is a little more thoughtful;" a critic opined that the film "will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress." Twelve years later Ebert includes it in his list of great movies, saying "few films...burrow into our memories and become reference points," and yes--the Library of Congress has declared it a national treasure, of sorts. It's as if everyone who nodded and dismissed it as a charming but relatively harmless fable went through a Groundhog Day of their own (the film managing to "burrow into our memories") and came out the other end as total converts--it's that kind of film.

Funny how religious groups and theologians (Buddhists especially but not exclusively) have adopted the film and its implications--our hero meteorologist Phil Connors (Bill Murray) descends to Hell, or Purgatory, and has to claw his way out of his self-centeredness (call it a variation on Sartre: hell is yourself, forever and ever). As Ebert rather tritely puts it: "Phil is gradually able to see the error of his ways" (to be fair his second review is considerably more thoughtful). Dr. Kubler-Ross might say he's working through the five stages: anger ("This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat."), denial ("Think it'll be an early spring?" "Didn't we do this yesterday?" "I don't know what you mean." "Don't mess with me, pork chop! What day is this?"), bargaining ("I was in the Virgin Islands once. I met a girl. We ate lobster, drank piña coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over, and over, and over?"),
depression ("I'll give you a winter prediction: It's gonna be cold, it's gonna be grey, and it's gonna last you for the rest of your life"), acceptance ("I'm a god." "You're God?" "I'm a god. I'm not the God... I don't think").*

*("Waitaminute," you might ask, "aren't those the five stages of response to death?" To which I might reply "you usually have to die to go to Hell")

I'm thinking of a more grounded metaphor: that Phil's situation in the film is not like death, not like Hell, not like Purgatory or some struggling ascent towards Heaven or Nirvana but like prison.** Ramis at one point speculated that Phil must have spent ten years reliving Groundhog Day; he later revised that to thirty or forty. I suspect if Phil had been sentenced to a thirty- or forty-year term his reaction behind bars wouldn't be all that different from his reaction onscreen--if anything, they'd be numbingly familiar to anyone who has worked in or experienced the system firsthand.

**(From Hell to prison--aren't we digressing? But I'm reminded of Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle's Inferno, their tongue-in-cheek take on the first third of Dante's allegorical epic. Where Dante wrote of a nightmare land on which God inflicted everlasting revenge on wrongdoers, Niven and Pournelle proposed a more progressive motive behind the suffering: that Hell is really a place of therapy and rehabilitation, the tortures designed to break down sinners' resistance and urge them to move on, to not stay fixated for an eternity...)

Phil's first day's like any first day in any placement: disorientation, disbelief, dismay. Worse, perhaps; Phil isn't assigned a mentor, he has to feel his way around (I'm guessing the process'll take at least a year, easy). Once acquainted with the system he starts setting himself up--the quick grab at money, the sleeping with willing and available (and for all we know unavailable) women, the indulging in every vice in the dictionary (of which only a fraction can be shown or mentioned--this is PG after all), the becoming for all intents and purposes a god (Phil speculates: "maybe He's not omnipotent; maybe He's just been around so long he knows everything"). This might take some fourteen years.

Then dissatisfaction and despair; prison after all is a radical imposition on one's freedom of movement (in this case thirty to forty years in one small town) no matter how comfortable, and Phil has sensed and realized the limits of his incarceration. He wants out; he can't get out. He despairs (another form of wanting out), but nothing changes (x number of escape attempts, x number of suicide attempts). Call this period four or five dark dark years.

Once all thoughts of escape (through flight, through death) have been put aside, once he's accepted his situation, accepted he can change only what he can change--himself--then progress finally begins.

Mind you, he has to do this all himself; there are no counselors, no clinicians, no psychologists, no chaplains; no one who can know his situation for more than a day (remember, at 6 am everything except his memory resets). He struggles at self-improvement: French poetry, piano playing, even ice sculpting with a chainsaw. He grows to love the town and its people. This should take the remainder of his term: ten or twenty years.

More telling he learns to love his beautiful producer Rita (Andie McDowell, complete with thick and rather charming North Carolinian accent), who seems resistant to his omniscience and omnipotence, no matter how many times he tries, no matter how thoroughly he studies her ("No Rocky Road, no fudge" "Are you making some kind of list?").***

***("Hold on," you ask: "Can Rita really tell when Phil's insincere?" To which I offer this slim piece of evidence: neurologist Oliver Sacks in his The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat describes Jimmie G., a patient suffering from Korsakoff's Syndrome, unable to form new memories since World War 2. Jimmie is almost totally helpless; Sacks asks "is he soulless?" The nuns caring for Jimmie ask Dr. Sacks to watch Jimmie sitting in a chapel, receiving Holy Communion. 

So does Rita have a will and sensibility that can survive the Groundhog Effect? Can't say for sure; what Dr. Sacks saw, as he admits, isn't measurable in any scientific manner, but is unquestionably visible to any human observer: "continuity and reality, in the absoluteness of spiritual attention and act.")

Rita is the ultimate test; once Phil passes--once he's proven he can win the love and approval of a fellow human being--he's released from his curse/time-loop/prison term. Happy ending; cue theme music; roll credits. 

Phil's story is an idealized case of reform: what makes the narrative convincing is Ramis' and Murray's (and writer Danny Rubin's) determination to add detail and texture to Phil's agonized progression, in as realistic a manner as possible. What makes the narrative truly convincing is the fantasy element: the suggestion that this is how the prison system should work, given unlimited resources and the ability to bend time and space and reality. 

Meanwhile this is what we have: slow, expensive, horrifyingly crude--like performing brain surgery with flint knives and maggots--but once in a blue moon effective. Until something better comes along, in which case someone should think of doing a sequel. 

First published in Businessworld, 2.19.15 

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