Groundhog Day (1993). Film as an Art Form
Groundhog Day (1993). Film as an Art Form
Directed by Harold Ramis. Story: Danny Rubin. Screenplay: Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis. Starring Bill Murray (“Phil Connors”) and Audie McDowell (“Rita Hanson.”)
Each new viewing I stumble on new layers of meaning unnoticed earlier. My first impression was merely romantic comedy: boy gets girl. Next time I noticed that there was another layer on top of that one: a sly lesson in the meaning of romance. Most of the scenes were about wrong moves, but toward the end, Phil begins to wake up.
Rita wanted to be loved for who she was. But in order to do that, Phil had to SEE her first. The scene when they were dancing in the bandstand to the Ray Charles song (You Don’t Know Me) expressed the idea: you can dance beautifully with your partner forever without having a clue to who she is as a person. First he had to take the many, many steps necessary to find out who she was. But that wasn’t enough. Next he had to learn how to stop crowding her so that she could be herself. Perhaps a relationship is romantic to the extent that both partners are equally involved. It took what may have been years of effort but little by little he gave her the space she needed.
Apparently there are many other layers as well. Another one that I hadn’t noticed before concerns living in the present. Toward the end Phil makes a little speech to Rita that no matter what happened yesterday, or what will happen tomorrow, he loves her now, today. This is a huge topic that the film manages to include in a few casual moments. Yet the whole previous part of the film forms a perfect foundation for it. All these layers enable viewers to enjoy the film at their own level, whatever it happens to be. It is an extraordinary and unique mixture of comedy, tragedy, suffering, happiness, surprise, absurdity, hope and despair, and probably many other feelings as well. It even alludes to what may be one of the most difficult of life’s lessons: learning to accept one’s own suffering.
Still another layer was Phil’s attempt to rescue the homeless man that he had been ignoring, to give himself over completely in trying to help with another person’s suffering. This attempt went far beyond his need to change himself into a person that Rita could respect. It was, so to speak, extracurricular, a grasping into the realm of selfless love and compassion.
One of the many scenes of helping the homeless man involved giving him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation as he lay dying. It seemed to me that this event gave the film extraordinary weight. It signaled that Phil had not just changed, but that he had virtually turned himself inside out: he was transformed from the thing he was. For the original Phil, it would have been literally unthinkable. Sheer disgust would have stopped him from ever putting his lips on those of such a dirty and dilapidated old man of the streets. This moment signifies redemption: a man who was a self-righteous fool has become a giant of compassion. The contact of mouths also might have a double meaning, both as an attempt to save a life, but also as a benediction, a kiss of farewell.
This scene has a New Testament ring to it, the time when Jesus touched the leper to heal him. It seems to me that this moment, as well as others, lifts the film out of the world of commercial entertainment and into fine art. It concerns the basic elements of the human condition in a way that wakens our sleeping feelings. In an interview with the New Yorker, Ramis (the director) said that the film brought praise from representatives of a huge number of different religions. Each seemed to think that the meaning of the film was the unique property of their particular religion.
It raises questions for me that I wouldn’t ordinarily think about. What would I have to do to become the kind of person who would go out of his way to kiss a homeless man or touch a leper? There is a poem by Rilke with similar import. In a museum he is looking at a haunting Greek statue, wondering what the message is. At the end, he realizes that like all great art, it says: “Change your life!”
Groundhog Day is a comedy of redemption, but there is a note of warning hidden in it. It took Phil what looks like endless years of labor and suffering to redeem himself. What can we do, us ordinary folk who don’t have that amount of time available?
This film is redemptive of film itself in a way. It would be difficult to imagine it’s meaning conveyed in any other medium. It is far, far beyond the scope of a novel, let alone a painting or any other art form. Proust tried for this degree of detail in his novel Remembrance of Things Past, but the result is that nobody reads the whole thing. Because the film is so packed with detailed instances and with meaning, it might be seen as justifying thousands of commercial films as experiments. Because those films were made, we got to see this one. Hallalujah!
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