Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Groundhog Day: Learning what one can do with a day

The movie Groundhog Day (1993) was our second discussion on faith, religion, and ethics in film.

Groundhog Day is the engaging story of an egotistical, self-centered weatherman from Pittsburg named Phil who experiences one of the worst days of his life: the assignment to cover Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA. Shockingly, he wakes up the next morning at 6AM to find that it's still Groundhog Day: he is living out the same day: over and over again!

I believe that it is Phil's progression that is so fascinating and informing to the viewer.

First, he has to figure out what is going on. He starts in denial of the situation: this can’t be...he remembers Groundhog Day happening...is this an elaborate hoax? Could he just be dreaming?

At the end of this first repeated day, he seeks proof: breaking a pencil in two and leaving it on the nightstand. He wakes up at 6AM to fine the pencil whole where it originally was: it’s Groundhog Day again!

Next, it’s on to “fixing” his problem. Rita, his producer, is supposed to solve problems (she can’t). He goes to an MD: nothing’s medically wrong. He goes to a psychologist: he’s never heard of anything like this. He’s willing to explore it more in their next session: tomorrow, which of course will not come...

Defeated, Phil moves on to depression, hanging out with the town drunks in the bowling alley: bemoaning the fact that nothing he does seems to make a difference. He drives the drunks home:

Phil: Let me ask you guys a question. What if there were no tomorrow? 
Gus: No tomorrow? That would mean there’d be no consequences...no hangovers...we could do whatever we wanted! 
Phil: That’s true. We could do...what ever we want!
(runs over the mailbox) 
Gus: Hey Phil, if we wanted to hit mailboxes we could
let Ralph drive... 
(police cars are now chasing them) 
Phil: It's the same thing your whole life: 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. Oh yeah: Don't drive on the railroad track! (which he does) 
Gus: Well, Phil, that's one I happen to agree with. 
Phil: I don’t know Gus...sometimes I think you just have to take the big chances...I’m not going to live by their rules anymore!!! 
Ralph: I noticed that. 
Phil: You make choices and you live with them...

Phil is thrown in jail: but wakes up in bed at 6AM on Groundhog Day. No consequences! He can do whatever he wants.

And so begins a long period...years perhaps...of Phil exploiting his situation to the fullest. By learning what will happen on this one day, he is able to acquire through manipulation: money, sex, and so on. He learns what people will do or say, and then through trial and error is able to do what is necessary to convince them of doing what he wants. He lives the life of fantasy.

Phil finally decides to focus on acquiring Rita, his producer. He starts learning her likes and dislikes, figuring out what to say and not say, each “day” moving forward. The date progresses: they slowly move from a first drink...to dinner...to walking in the moonlight as the snow comes into town. Finally, after many attempts, they have what Rita describes as “a perfect day.”

When they are making a snowman together in the town square, Phil pulls out materials to make the snowman’s face: it is my belief that Rita must have mentioned during the last attempt that it would be fun to make a snowman, so Phil was ready. What happens next seems to me to be real. What I mean is that, as they finish making the snowman, a group of kids come and throw a snowball at them. What follows is a joyous snowball fight, where Rita falls on the ground and spontaneously pulls Phil towards her. He falls next to her: they look into each others eyes...and they kiss for the first time. I believe that this is “real” in so much as that Phil has not experienced this before. They continue with a waltz in the newly falling snow, leading to Rita’s words: “a perfect day.”

Phil, however, pushes forward: he wants the perfect night as well. He moves to fast, expresses that he loves her, and she...furiously...realizes she has been manipulated. After all: how do you fall in love with someone in a single day!

Phil, however, cannot repeat this magical moment! Each consecutive day now falls short of Rita's "perfect day." He can not orchestrate the spontaneity of the joy in the snowball fight, or falling next to each other leading to the perfect first kiss. Not only is there no way to repeat the “perfect day”, but the truth dawns on him that all of his manipulations cannot lead to something real!

This leads him to a major depression:

(The clock, in slow motion, turns from 5:59 to 6:00. Phil is lying in bed...) 
Phil: Okay campers...rise and shine...and don’t forget your booties cause it’s cold out there today. It’s cold out there every day...

He gives up. He goes to a bewildered Rita, telling her that the one good thing he was able to do was to give her a perfect day, even if she cannot remember it. And he steals the groundhog and drives off a cliff in a dramatic explosion of fire...only to again wake up at 6AM on Groundhog Day. 

Time passes: and we arrive in the local diner with Phil and Rita:

Phil: I'm a god. 
Rita: You're God... 
Phil: I'm a god. I'm not *the* God... I don't think......... 
Phil: I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. 
Rita: Oh, really? 
Phil: ...and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender... I am an immortal.... 
[Phil sets out to prove this to Rita, describing details of several people in the diner] 
Rita: What about me, Phil? Do you know me too? 
Phil: You like boats, but not the ocean. You go to a lake in the summer with your family up in the mountains. There's a long wooden dock and a boathouse with boards missing from the roof, and a place you used to crawl underneath to be alone. You're a sucker for French poetry and rhinestones. You're very generous. You're kind to strangers and children, and when you stand in the snow you look like an angel. 
Rita: [in wonder] How are you doing this? 
Phil: I told you. I wake up every day, right here, right in Punxsutawney, and it's always February 2nd, and there's nothing I can do about it.

Rita commits to spending the day with Phil to "witness". In the wee hours of the night, as Rita is falling asleep, Phil quietly speaks to her:

Phil: What I wanted to say was...I think you're the kindest, sweetest, prettiest person I've ever met in my life. I've never seen anyone that's nicer to people than you are. The first time I saw you something happened to me. I never told you, but I knew that I wanted to hold you as hard as I could. I don't deserve someone like you. But If I ever could, I swear I would love you for the rest of my life.

Phil wakes up the next morning at 6AM: Rita is gone...it's Groundhog Day. Phil, however, has learned something. He approaches this day differently. He starts doing some thoughtful things. He gives a old beggar money. He shows up to work with coffee for Rita and his cameraman Larry, suggesting a different angle to do the broadcast better and asking Larry what he thinks. These are thoughtful gestures, and he starts to really learn about people: seeing value in the lives of individuals, rather than simply learning facts to manipulate. 

He then decides to better himself. One day, while reading a book in the diner, he hears classical piano on the radio. He decides to learn how to play the piano: each day a single lesson until he can improvise jazz.

There is one more moment of transformation. He sees the old beggar struggling in a dark alley. He compassionately brings him to the hospital, and waits until the nurse returns. The old man has died. Stunned, Phil demands to see the chart:

Nurse: Sometimes, people just die. 
Phil: Not today.

Phil makes it his mission to save the old man: giving him nonstop attention the next day: hot food and encouragement. It is not enough: the man collapses that evening, and nothing Phil can do will change it. Phil is not a god: he cannot stop death.

This is the final transformation. The next day, his on air conclusion is very different.

Phil: When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter. From Punxsutawney, it's Phil Connors.

We see that Phil is now dedicating each Groundhog Day to do what he can do for others. Even though the single day will likely repeat itself, life is too precious to do anything less than what he can. By dedicating himself to the service of others, Phil saves himself in the process. And, ironically, it is in this selfless living where Phil and Rita learn that you actually can fall in love with someone on a single day....

1 comment:

LKT said...

Such a great movie. Thanks for this.