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Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Does He Have to Use the Word ‘Poopy’?” Whirled Without End on “Groundhog Day”

"Okay campers, rise and shine! And don't forget your booties because it's cold out there!"
  • Groundhog Day

God making the weather.
It's early February, and with it the blankness of existence achieves its deepest saturated feeling in the endless raw white of compacted snow and streets imprisoned by ice. With it comes the cyclical regularity of the weather, the burdens of seasonal angst, a bad case of shivering blues with limited sunshine, stinging cold, and grievances at twilight. When the sun goes down at this time of year, it's not a poetically nocturnal interlude. The February night feels endless, regurgitating a notion that it's bad now and it can't get better. This dark night of the winter might as well be the eve to the end of the world. Things are heightened in this lowly plateau: the sun on the snow is annoyingly blinding, the dark is darker, the cold is colder, loneliness is more lonely, and time is more wasted. This time of year sucks.

Maybe it's the long slough of Winter at this point, where Spring is still months away, and the two holidays of relief are arguably only legitimately enjoyed if one isn't single or if one is Irish. Cynicism is the last safety valve. People become bitter. It's a pain in the ass to join in the revelry of others, because it means going outside, driving in the crap weather, finding some place to place your coat, and park securely from the trolls of big city snow emergency towing. To reiterate the suck of February, why don't I add that this time of year best exhibits the meaningless sum of our existence, the existential heebie-jeebies. Even if Spring is coming, so what? You're going to be older, with less hair, more time wasted, bigger love handles, and more miles on your weather-beaten vehicle.

Which brings me to Groundhog Day.

When Harold Ramis' comedy of the Fantastic was released at this time of year in 1993, it was a modest critical and commercial hit, the first successful movie of its year. People were pleased with it. It was a genuinely satisfying Bill Murray romantic comedy playing up the great comic actor's talents to perfection. It soon faded away as the spring thaw came and Jurassic Park took over the world in the summer. But as the decade moved forth, something was happening. The story of weatherman Phil Connors and his inexplicable trap in a perpetual time loop of February 2, was recognized by religious thinkers all over the world as being syncretic with their beliefs. It began quite unassumingly when Hasidic Jews were spotted outside theaters, presumably picketing. But they weren't protesting the picture. Rather, they loved it. Their signs read things like, "Do you feel like you're living the same day over and over?" Like a mustard seed, this idea began growing beyond control, this small and intelligent secular mainstream Hollywood movie being an intense, however subtle, meditation on the Meaning of Life. The trend moved onto Buddhists, Hindus, and Christians, each of whom felt that whomever made the picture must have the same beliefs as they did.

Whenever this time of the year hits, I find myself turning back to Groundhog Day, and not just playing it once. At home while doing my day-to-day chores, the DVD is on its own loop, replaying over and over, which works for a film that doesn't need a beginning or end. You can pick up Groundhog Day at any point and never tire of it. Time is not linear, it is a circle. There is no beginning or end, just the journey of movement which may lead to enlightenment. And like with James Joyce, it's also very, very funny.

The movie asks a very simple question. What would you do if there were no consequences for your actions? If you had access to a nearly omnipotent supply of knowledge? What would be the moral outcome? How would one relate to other beings? How would one relate to their own self-exploration?
Phil Connors comes to exhibit many characteristics of gods, from the narcissistic Trickster to the benevolent savior to the god who understands that his deity-hood is, regardless of his powers, still insignificant when compared to the Infinite. He is Yahweh, Indra, the Buddha, Christ, Ulysses, and Hamlet (not to mention Clint Eastwood). Phil is, after all, a weatherman, and when we see Phil playfully standing in front of a blue-screen explaining the forecast, huffing and puffing as he blows the cool air East on the Doppler radar map, he assumes his placement as God and Creator. "I make the weather!" he angrily tells a highway patrolman closing the roads. He has the pride of Indra (a deity associated with storms), who in his privileged state is about to be humbled by Vishnu: his forecasts are only part of an even grander design.

The agency for movement – shakti – is feminine in this mythological framework, and Phil's producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) fulfills this function in his story. We first see her as Phil sees her. He's a little off-guard when he tries to keep his cynical snarky demeanor lit, gazing at her in front of the Doppler map, her image submerged with the map as if she were a goddess. It's through Phil's quest to get Rita in bed that his spirit will be moved to growth and change and eventually take him out of the circle of Time, moving from hedonism to transcendent selflessness and sacrifice. He dismisses her at first. "She's fun, but not my kind of fun." Phil's kind of fun is a much easier kind of female prey, not as precocious.

Rita, Phil, and their cameraman Larry (Chris Elliot) head from Pittsburgh to Punxsutawney on February 1st to cover the annual Groundhog Day story. Punxsutawney is the Groundhog Day capital of America with a town-wide day-long gala celebration centering on the day's mythology. The ritual centers on the town's mayor knocking on the groundhog's tree-stump home – the groundhog being named Punxsutawney Phil, and thus making him a double for the weatherman Phil – and receiving the day's anticipated information: did he see his shadow or no? Will there be six more weeks of Winter, or will there be an early Spring?

Phil assesses the ritual as stupid. "People like blood sausage. People are morons," he says of the viewers interested in this news story. He makes his future plans clear. He needs to move on and up, away from his current status as a successful weatherman. Phil requires more success, more growth, more experiences. "Someday, somebody's going to see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don't have a future." It's all about linear movement for Phil. This relates to his disdain for Punxsutawney's rural charm and his ambitions to be snagged by a "big network." He hates chit chat because it's pointless drivel that can only waste his time. He is already a celebrity, probably well off financially, but he's also chronically dissatisfied. He seems to get pleasure, in his wonderful Bill Murray way, in demeaning the people surrounding him and snidely acting as an ironic chorus to the provincial charade of modern life.

February 2nd begins at 6:00 a.m. with Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You, Babe" on Phil's Bed and Breakfast alarm clock radio. He tolerates the greetings of other guests and the kindly B and B owner, drinks some coffee while irritated that no one probably knows how to spell "espresso" or has a cappuccino, is annoyed by an accosting high school classmate (Stephen Tobolowsky) who tries to sell him insurance, and holds his nose while doing the news report, where Punxsutawney Phil makes it clear to the residents that there will be six more weeks of winter. Phil is glad to be done and rushes to get out of town.

But the gods have other plans for him. A blizzard that he never anticipated closes the roads. He and Rita must go back to Punxsutawney and spend another night in a small town with no hot water in their bathrooms and no alcohol in their rail drinks. Phil wakes up the next day and February 2nd happens again. The same Sonny and Cher, the same morning radio hosts, the same hotel guests, and all evidence of a blizzard has been eradicated. Phil confusedly has breakfast downstairs and admits that chances of his departure this day have gone from 100% to 75-80%. Rita asks if he's drunk when the weirdness of the day affects his news report. "Drunk's more fun," he says. Rita dismisses him, and he undergoes examinations from a medical doctor (played by director Ramis) and a psychologist. There is no scientific explanation. The time loop won't stop, and Phil comes to understand that he's trapped on this cold day in this small town he hates.

At first, this is like Purgatory. "I was once with a girl vacationing on the Virgin Islands," he tells some barflies at a bowling alley. "We ate lobster. We drank pina coladas. At sunset, we made love like sea otters. That was a pretty good day." He then asks the barflies, however rhetorically, "What if you were stuck in the same place, and nothing that you did mattered?" One of the barflies drunkenly answers, "That about sums it up for me." It also probably sums it up for many members of Groundhog Day's audience. But Phil realizes something: If the day repeats itself endlessly, then anything he does will have ramifications. He experiments by taking a joyride on some railroad tracks, playing Chicken with the oncoming train with police cars pursuing him. There are no tomorrows, no consequences, no hangovers. You don't have to stand up straight, you don't have to be nice to your sister, you don't have to resist mixing beer and wine, and you don't have to avoid driving the wrong way on the railroad tracks. He embraces this liberation. Though the police stick him behind bars, he wakes up the next day, safe and secure in his Bed and Breakfast room with Sonny and Cher. He's free. This isn't a trap; it's the most amazing sense of freedom.

He punches his insurance salesman classmate in the face, greets everyone with eccentric giddiness, and embraces gluttony. In one of the film's most uproarious shots, Phil plucks slowly away at a starch and grease feast comprising donuts, Danish, rolls, pancakes, bacon, eggs, coffee sipped from the pot, milkshakes, sausage links, and cigarettes. Rita is disgusted. "I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It's inspiring in a way." Phil isn't worried about cholesterol, cancer, or love handles. And, as Rita gets up to leave, he's "going to stay here and finish." He becomes a lecherous glutton, as his infinite access to Time affords him the ability to hone in on unsuspecting women, posing as someone he's not. While making love, he says the wrong woman's name twice (Rita's, specifically). Why? Because he can. He goes to a movie (Heidi II) dressed as Clint Eastwood, his date dressed as a French maid. Why? Because he can. He robs an armored car. Why? Because he can. He's the fearless Trickster having fun with the poor and unsuspecting souls struggling around him trapped in linear time. It doesn't matter that he's a "wretch," as Rita calls him, who will go "unwept, unhonored, and unsung." He doesn't have any worries. The words and wisdom of Sir Walter Scott are no different to him than the words of Willard Scott (another weatherman).

Phil's hedonism deserves a challenge. He focuses on getting Rita into bed. First, he has to figure out what she's looking for in a man: A man who is "humble, intelligent, supportive, funny, romantic, courageous, with a good body but not narcissistic, kind, gentle, sensitive, not afraid to cry, who likes babies and isn't afraid to change poopy diapers." "Does he have to use the word 'poopy'?" Phil asks sardonically, adding that he fulfills just about all of Rita's qualifications. The film catches a wonderful rhythm as Phil revises each scene with each day, beginning with asking to buy Rita a drink, finding out what is best to toast (world peace), and assuming a completely inauthentic personality whose singular devotion is to accomplishing his lustful ends. This is the seducer's scripted existence, the playground for the carefree hedonist.

But Rita, the goddess, is able to call Phil's set-up. Though he gets her in his bedroom, with each succeeding night he gets further from accomplishing his task. He's too desperate, and his devotion to the script obliterates his style, with expectation and desire having killed any kind of potent simulation of authenticity.  He admits, "I don't even like myself" when Rita accuses him of only loving himself. Phil is a blind – though consciously plotting – organism without introspection. Rita's eternal rejection of him does not lead him to be a better person or any alteration. Rather, it leads him to a depression. He's lost in Purgatory again, or maybe it's Hell. He knows everything about this day, about this town, to the point of absolute boredom. He exhibits a disillusion with everything and scorns those around him with ire. Groundhog Day was once a religious ritual, where they used to "pull the hog out and they used to eat it" (like any number of sacrificial gods, e.g. Christ). This is all about the "worship of a rat."

Existential nihilism prompts Phil to commit suicide. He takes Punxsutawney Phil hostage and drives over a cliff, hoping to end the burden of existence and consciousness. But again, he wakes up to Sonny and Cher. He jumps off buildings, stands in front of oncoming traffic, throws a toaster in the bathtub, and has himself shot and stabbed. But he finds himself back in the eternal web of Life and Consciousness. There is no point to existence, but there is also no way out, even in annihilation.

"I'm a God," he tells Rita depressively at the local café. He clarifies, "I'm a god, I'm not the God." He's immortal and omnipotent, and despite Rita's Catholic school protests, Phil admits that the God probably isn't omnipotent, he's just been around for so long that he knows everything and everyone. Phil demonstrates for Rita his command of knowledge, pointing out the townfolk's secrets and the happenstance of every incident in the café. His realization becomes an opening of consciousness that allows him for the first time to recognize another being as having will, agency, and depth. He communicates earnestly to Rita and comes to connect with her, and not yearn for her sexually as he longs for her genuine companionship. As they lay down together he admits, "The worst part is tomorrow you will have forgotten all about this." This Rita will go on into the Future without him, just as the endless array of other Ritas have.

Phil is now a bodhisattva on the path to enlightenment. He will live on this time loop again and again, and will do what he can for others here. He is God as an Administrator, watching over others and helping them out. He understands that he does not deserve Rita, so his hero quest of God-hood becomes an adventure of endeavoring to deserve her. He helps a hungry hobo, is a more productive weatherman, saves the choking mayor, fixes flat tires, and catches a boy falling out of a tree (a boy who also always, every day, neglects to thank him – such is the case with most deities). Phil also learns piano, literature, and ice sculpting. The only set-back he has is being unable to save the dying homeless man, whose time, given whatever available variable, "has come." Even as a god, Phil cannot prevent the inevitable, and there is still much out of his hands.

It's here, in this enlightened state where he has a kind of perfect and meaningful respect and love for Rita, that Phil has reconciled himself with the Eternal. He returns to Time, and wakes up the next day on February 3rd, reborn, renewed, changed, and beatific. God has reconciled himself to Man, and so dwells as Man in his understanding of the nature of time and existence. The myth is fulfilled. Or at least until the viewer decides to start the movie over again, where it never misses a beat in its cycle of nihilism leading to acceptance and meaning. Phil has died, Phil has risen, Phil will come again. And again, and again, and again, whirled without end, amen.

Groundhog Day is then the unassuming hero quest as the mythic hero descends into the Underworld of pleasure, depression, death, sex, parody, personae, and trickery, then ascends as the human god hand-in-hand with the goddess, the Earth mother and hidden key to moving (shakti) himself to self-realization. The weather god is humbled, understanding that in spite of his powers he's only one more reincarnated former Indra in a parade of ants. He is a Hindu deity and energy undergoing change and changing the world with the emergence of consciousness (if Phil were not conscious of his relationship to Time, would Groundhog Day also simply repeat itself in the dimension of its own infinity?). He is like the Hasidic philosopher Martin Buber's understanding of I and Thou, where the materialist man with an I-It relationship to his surroundings is at last able to see a Thou. He is the Christ god sacrificed and reborn. He is the trickster god, and also the benevolent one. He is Hamlet finally able to say "Let be." He is Ulysses undergoing incessant challenges estranged from Ithaca, and finding his way back. And he is all of us. In watching Groundhog Day, maybe we come closer to seeing and recognizing our own Shadow selves, and so making Meaning out of Un-Meaning we are able to wait out this godforsaken, sucky weather and be at One with the Universe.

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