Sunday, April 08, 2007
GROUNDHOG DAY (1993, USA, Harold Ramis, wr Danny Rubin & Ramis)
What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?
Sometimes once in an artist's life, lightning strikes. Some creative lives are lit by regular lightning storms that go on for weeks or months at a time. Rarely, there are half a dozen whole years of lightning, like with the Beatles, say. In utterly rare instances it lasts a lifetime – Mozart, Shakespeare, maybe there's another name or two you'd add, but it's a very short list indeed.
For many of us it never strikes, not really, not the pure bolt-from-heaven indisputable electrifying probability-defying blast of unadulterated every-last-detail-is-exactly-right inspiration. Entire and entirely worthy lives are lived, artistic and creative lives are lived, by the light of distant lightning, or by electrical storms mere blocks away, or by painstakingly contructed bonfires or cleverly devised illumination systems. But lightning from on high? For many, never.
For Harold Ramis, one time. Oh, he's had his moments in the sun or spotlight, he's even himself been brilliant on occasion. But there was only one GROUNDHOG DAY. Only one perfect idea, perfectly played out. He tried to repeat the formula, or a variation on the formula, in MULTIPLICITY. But there's no bottling lightning. It's no GROUNDHOG DAY.
At this point you're thinking, Is he talking about the movie I think he's talking about? With that obnoxious weatherman, and he keeps waking up and it's the same day over and over again. With that actress everybody thought was so great but she really wasn't, pretty cute in an early nineties sort of way, had a guy's name? Andy something? Bill Murray movie, wasn't there a giant gopher driving this truck or something? Yeah it was funny, but.... C'mon.
Only the thing is, put this movie on with a few friends, watch it through to the end, and just see if you don't have plenty to talk about. Not just, "I liked the part where he kept stepping in the ice water." Just see if it doesn't pretty quick zero in on all kinds of stuff, like "What would you do if you knew there wasn't going to be any tomorrow," and "No, really," and what's your definition of hell, and why do people fall in love, and why do we do the jobs we do, and what really matters anyhow, what makes people happy, truly happy, and what makes people do something good instead of something bad, how much is it about getting caught or getting noticed or getting rewarded, and what happens anyhow when there are no consequences, oh but there are consequences, and what's eternity, and what's it all about anyway, and why did Bill Murray's character change the way he did, and then change again, and again?
Not bad for a Bill Murray movie, eh?
First time I saw it, the credits rolled and I thought, "I wish I could make a movie like that." This time I thought, "I wish I could live my life like that."
Not bad for a movie about a giant gopher.
If you think I'm leaning a little hard on what is after all just a romantic comedy with a gimmick, I suppose maybe you're right. But I'm not the only one leaning. When the ever-so-cultured Museum of Modern Art launched a major three-month film series on "The Hidden God: Film and Faith," featuring such heavyweights as ORDET, ANDREI ROUBLEV and AU HASARD BALTHAZAR, they led off with the rodent flick. Soliciting essays from critics, scholars and film makers for the companion volume to the series, "more people wished to write about GROUNDHOG DAY (and UNFORGIVEN) than any other film."
Harold Ramis, speaking to the New York Times: "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief. Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years."
In a fabulous piece for The Independent, Andrew Buncombe wonders (with his tongue in his cheek) whether this is in fact "The greatest story ever told," and cites Buddhists (both traditional and Mahayana), Jewish scholars, gaelic mystics, Wiccans and even Baptists who find unexpected spiritual significance in the movie. There are strong connections to Gurdjieff and his pal P.D. Ouspensky, but also links to orthodox Christianity through Joyce Kilmer a high Anglican convert to Catholicism. (Okay, that's a stretch, but still...)
Now, all of this may be quite enough to scare any sensible person away from this unpretentious movie, and that would be a shame. Don't get the idea GROUNDHOG DAY is some sort of earnest celebration of the idea that all religions are one, there are many paths up the mystical mountain, any of that. It's just a movie about a guy coping with the realization that his life is going to be an endless series of days, each one pretty much like the one before. But there's something about that idea, and about the way it's played out in this charming, funny "theme and variations" of a film that strikes a chord in some deepl place in human beings.
I don't believe that ll religions are essentially the same. At their cores, there are profound and important differences, and to minimize those is to turn these faiths into what they are not. But there are things they do tend to have in common, deep truths that wise people pretty much every spiritual tradition have all come around to, realizations people tend to come to given time and perhaps a divine nudge.
That's where this film lives, offering one of those small-T (but profoundly true) truth. Or, in one of those bright little constellations of turths. I don't want to nail them down by explicating them for you here – though there's a certain satisfaction in working through exactly what stages Phil works through on his journey toward a certain sort of enlightenment. More to the point, I'm sure I'd bungle the job by reducing the film's themes to a checklist, since the remarkable fact is that GROUNDHOG DAY is about an amazingly vast array of themes, making a surprising number of personal connections with a remarkable variety of persons. It's a bit of a Rorschach, actually, though that sounds too drearily psychological and introspective. Let's call it a mirror ball, or one of those sideshow mirrors that gets you laughing at the same time it makes you look at yourself different.
I won't lay out the myriad themes and spiritual implications, or tell you the best jokes. I will tell you that this is one of Bill Murray's best performances, with a gradually evolving comic style within the picture that's perfectly modulated to match the unfolding character transitions of the screenplay. And let me also hasten to opine that Andie MacDowell is just fine opposite Murray. This was before the anti-Andie groupthink set in that decided She Can't Act, back when we all still realized she was actually quite lovely, thank you very much.
But mostly what I'll tell you is what this movie had for me, third time through.
Book writing is a long, long obedience in the same direction. I'd been granted almost half a year away from running my theatre company to finish my book, and after a bumpy start I'd found my groove and was rolling. I mean really rolling, having a blast watching movies and pouring words into my computer, sitting on my sunny deck or locked away in my study poring over favourite films. Ah, the life of a writer!
Until I hit about the two month marker, that is. Coping with a sudden onslaught of interruptions, coming up on some serious breaks in the action, time suddenly looking like a commodity to be measured and guarded and rationed. Panic set in, counting days and hours, adding up movies, what had to be in, what I'd never get to, how much the book couldn't be what I wanted it to be, was it time to find an agent, a publisher, should I polish up some sections for submission but that would steal even more precious time from actual writing, and all those movies to be watched, was I going to have to settle fro the diminished thing the book could be by the end of my sabbatical time or strategize how to kedep working on it in and around my other job, in stolen hours, what would have to be moved, cancelled, what expectations managed, who would expect more from me than I could give, what pressures would that exert, where would the money come from, had I wasted all this time in self-indulgence, my family (and family income) paying the price for my movie binge, I was surely a fool and would be better to cut bait and quit fishing right now, quit wasting time, I was sick of movies anyuhow, sic, of my own voice in my head always talkingabout movies, actually no I was still having fun, but I was filled with dread looking ahead at what was to come, three more months of this, and even then (it was becoming clear) the damn thing wouldn't be done, it would never end, it was a certain and specifically personal kind of hell I'd created for myself, forced to ingest the food I most enjoyed until I could hold no more. And all sorts of other problems, they all came bobbing to the surface as I became more and more submerged in my low mood. Who knew there was so much small stuff to sweat?
And then I put in GROUNDHOG DAY. Laughed – which is pretty good medicine in itself, what do you know, Reader's Digest is right. Then sat and talked about the movie with my wife for a surprisingly long time – also tonic for the soul, talking movies. (But a Bill Murray movie?) And then we were talking other things, eternity and spiritual direction and the stages of grieving and I don't know what else, well into the night. (After a Bill Murray movie?) Then I talked out my heart a bit more, all my present fears and disheartedness, and she prayed for me some, and I went to bed. I still didn't see much light, mostly tunnel, and lots of it, stretching off interminably into the darkness ahead of me.
And then I woke up. And started over. It was more like 7:59 than 6:59, no need for an alarm clock, I was on sabbatical, but other than that (and the absence of Sonny and Cher), I could have been Phil Connors waking up to another Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. I flashed on Phil waking up, over and over again, facing an endless line of Groundhog Days and no tomorrows.
And all at once it hit me. No tomorrow. Exactly. That's it.
And I got up from my bed and started in writing like there was no tomorrow. Which of course means writing a lot. With energy, motivation, gusto. For hours on end. How many hours? Hmmm... And if I could keep up this pace, that would be how many hours a day, how many words an hour, how many movies before mid-November? How many days a week, for how long, ending up with what kind of book? Which would justify my time... How?
I dunno. I'm not going to worry about that stuff anymore. Doesn't work, doesn't help anything. For now I'll just write this word, this one right here, and then the one that follows it. One word at a time. Thought by thought, movie by movie, bird by bird.
And I find myself grinning like a kid who just got away with something.
Simple. "Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself." It's a trick I learned from a groundhog.
RUN LOLA RUN
Available at Videomatica