the (almost) daily appreciator

Sunday, February 04, 2007

shades of truth: Groundhog Day


"Groundhog Day" is an existentialist drama in the guise of a romantic comedy.
At the very least, it´s existential.
And Christian.
And Buddhist.
And Jewish.
And [insert religious or philosophical denomination here].
Many a rabbi or priest have claimed it as a very spiritual movie in accord with their belief system, and who knows how many people that aren´t very philosophically or spiritually inclined, have had some deep thoughts after a repeated viewing.
There are many "redemption comedies" around: It´s a wonderful life, Scrooged (and of course Dicken´s original), Liar Liar, Grosse Point Blank, As good as it gets, to a certain extent The Game or Pulp Fiction, Multiplicity, Bedazzled, the Clinton presidency and the biblical story of Job. And there have been other time-loop-movies: 12:01, Retroactive, Run Lola Run (somehow). But why is this particular movie in a kind of time loop in many a memory bank? What makes it the apotheosis of redemption comedy? What does it do right beside the a great premise, a better cast, great laughs and a not to sappy happy ending? What happens behind the image, between the frames and in front of the screen?
I think what it does right has more to do with what it doesn´t do: there is no explanation why this happens to Phil, and why him. There is no big revelatory scene, where some kind of oracle or something tells him howe he can get out of his predicament. The Groundhog Day isn´t exactly the biggest spiritual festivity in the universe - there´s no redemption on Christmas or something similar. And what is most important: no time frame. In an early draft Phil stayed in his purgatory for 10000 cycles - in the actual movie there is no clue whatsoever how long he stays there. No telling, not even showing - just hints, allusions. The viewer is left to fill in gaps in every scene. And just stopping for a moment to contemplate the time he must spend on that Groundhog Day in Punxutawney, can boggle the mind, even if one doesn´t tend to interpret a lot into movies.
When explaining how to "be the hat", he says it took him 6 months.
When he thinks he might as well be god - even such an arrogant narcissist as he is, wouldn´t actually think he´s god after spending a few months there - he must have been there for years to that point.
When he tries to get in her pants, and learns things about her one step at a time, he learns that she studied French - so when he recites a poem to her, we should consider him smart enough not just to memorize a few poems and leave it at that - he probably took his time to learn the language a bit.
When he tells his audience (us?) that the winter will be cold and gray "and it will last you for the rest of your lives" - that kind of desperate resignation you don´t achieve after a few weeks.
When he hears classical music on the radio, and decides he wants to learn how to play the piano (that´s as close as we get to a revelatory scene), and when we see him jam on a level of a seasoned pianist, we can assume that one can´t play on that level, even with the innate ability of a Beethoven, after a few weeks of practice.
The list could go on, actually there´s not one scene that doesn´t direct the attention at something that doesn´t happen onscreen. Other timeloop-movies don´t contain as much information beyond the surface of the movie - this might be the one movie that doesn´t fit into McLuhan´s categorization of movies as hot - this is a cool movie.
Seldom do movies manage to contain the entirety of life in them, not one biopic gives us such a full impression of a living, breathing person - not a character, a personality - no: a human being. And it all happens rather effortlessly.
The script, the editing and especially the performances invoke multitudes in simple throwaway gags (Phil´s wooing) and in effect also tell one of the great love stories: one in which Phil doesn´t fall in love at the beginning and just doesn´t know it - no: he falls in love after getting to know her better, her personality traits, her quirks, everything - and he falls in love with her not knowing that that will bring him salvation. But for her the stakes are as high: after getting to know him (on their ride to Punxutawney) as a meanspirited, misanthropic, cynical bastard, who has nothing but contempt for his audience, his fellow human beings, his job and probably himself, she has to suspend her disbelief (religiously speaking: leap of faith) in what she gets to see the from good Phil in action, and rather sceptically spend the evening with him, and probably a whole life (after he has tried out so many lives) - after just one day.
Although the other actors are good as well, the star of the show is of course Bill Murray - and his performance isn´t just minimalist, or sublime - it´s subliminal. His facial expressions, tone of voice and gestures prime the viewer in to things that don´t happen onscreen. Throughout his career he seems to have improvised on camera, and spontaneously added little flourishes to his performances, that on the surface seem little more than sketches with broad strokes.
His little jig of joy in Ghostbusters, his "cameos" in Tootsie and Ed Wood, tsliding down the firefighters pole with chinese food in hand in Ghostbusters again (he continues to eat in one fluid motion after touching ground), the lonely desperation of smoking two cigarettes and drinking all at once on Rushmore, his face when nodding off the perfect-guy-list in Groundhog Day, throwing away the book he just read after his outcast-speech in Stripes (truly a throwaway-gag, somehow cracks me up every time), his "cold and gray"-face, and giving his audience the finger on camera after counting down for his Groundhog Day report.
In a perfect world Bill Murray would have gotten that Oscar, actually it´s not even to late - considering that his performances in Rushmore, Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers don´t even add anything to his Phil (not even age, really) and that these movies and his characters in them were probably written after multiple viewings of Groundhog Day, he should actually get a Lifetime Achievement Award - just for this one movie...


Blogger andyhorbal said...

Ahoy! You touch on many of the reasons I respond to this movie so strongly. To name a few:

I think what it does right has more to do with what it doesn´t do: there is no explanation why this happens to Phil, and why him.

Absolutely! The great promise of Hollywood style is an invisible technique. An invisible technique that allows us to see... what, exactly? Usually how shallow the film's conceit is.

Here, though, the film's style moves us along so briskly, so efficiently that we rarely stop to reflect on just how little we've been told. Groundhog Day doesn't sacrifice the mystery of Phil's predicament. This is, maybe, where I feel Children of Men succeeded this year, when it left the mystery of mankind's infertility to our imaginations. Like Groundhog Day that film succeeds because it does so much more so right...

This is also why the film supports so many re-views (I've seen it about 41 times, I think) and why its appeal grows with the more you know about it. I love seeing the vestiges of those early drafts: the 10,000 lifetimes, the gypsy curse that doomed Phil, the last bits of motifs that ended up on the cutting floor.

Seldom do movies manage to contain the entirety of life in them, not one biopic gives us such a full impression of a living, breathing person - not a character, a personality - no: a human being. And it all happens rather effortlessly.

Well said. This is the impression that I've been trying to articulate for a long time now...

This is a fine post! Hopefully one day I'll write something of my own and then we can talk further...

11:04 AM  
Blogger tomdwayne said...

ah yes, the classic school of filmmaking - i wonder if billy wilder would consider this movie having the lubitsch touch - as far as i know the definition was something like: let the audience add 2 plus 2. this movie does that in spades. but i´m not sure if the lubitsch touch has more to do with the eroticism of lubitsch and indeed wilder (in times of the hays code and all).
and if this isn´t the right movie to kick you out of a slump to write something on it, then i don´t know which one is: it´s basically also about kicking yourself in the ass and doing something - the perfect movie for the diy-12step-selfhelp decade that was the 90s.

6:11 PM  

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