Groundhog Day: Comedy meets Philosophy

The following is a critique for Groundhog Day, as submitted for a Cinema class at Regent University.

The 1990s classic Groundhog Day is a surprisingly philosophical and yet charming science-fiction film disguised as a romantic comedy, complete with a fantastical premise and unique narrative structure. The film has generated countless discussions and academic works in relation to its deeper meanings that have earned it status as a modern-day parable. However, Groundhog Day would not be so celebrated or controversial had it not first been genuinely funny, as the director and co-writer Harold Ramis insisted it be just that.

For most of the movie, the colors and lighting of the film seem somewhat muted and bleak. This is probably because of Phil’s predicament of being trapped in an endless winter. Being on the eve of a blizzard, the day that Phil is trapped in is very overcast, and the colors seem to reflect the hopeless feeling that begins to dominate Phil in the second act. Phil often refers to his predicament as a “long winter,” and the radio host starts his broadcast by saying “It’s cold out there, folks!” Phil’s sarcastic, cold demeanor towards the other characters also reflects this frigid theme, and the colors help set the mood for Phil’s outlook on his seemingly meaningless life. Lighting is used very strongly in a few scenes in particular. In the scene in which he has taken a woman to his bedroom, the room is lit with reds, reflecting the passion and lust of the moment. In the romantic scenes between Phil and Rita, particularly towards the end, the scenes contain soft colors that accentuate the romance. In the club scene, a myriad of lights reflect the crazy atmosphere of the town in party mode. Most notably, in the final scene wherein Phil has escaped Groundhog Day, the sun is radiant and reflecting off the fresh snowfall, creating a very bright, welcoming, Heaven-like feeling; this change reflects a sharp contrast to the rest of the movie. Interestingly enough, both the opening credits, as well as the end of the movie, frame a bright, partly cloudy sky.

The soundtrack of the film largely ties in to the film quite smoothly. Some of the first lyrics we hear are “I’m your weatherman,” obviously alluding to the main character’s profession. The lyrics that Phil wakes up to on each Groundhog Day are “I got you, babe”; this seems to imply that Groundhog Day literally has “got,” or trapped, Phil. The song which the town’s citizens are singing as Phil shows up to the park for the main Groundhog Day event has a strangely goofy sound to it, reflecting the unique nature of the citizens that Phil meets. During one of the “first dates” between Phil and Rita, the song “You Don’t Know Me” plays while they dance, echoed by Rita’s rejection of Phil’s early declarations of love; “You don’t even know me,” she says. “This is love,” Phil insists, but Rita stands her ground: “You don’t know what love is,” Rita says. She’s right; Phil may know facts about Rita, but he doesn’t really know the noble qualities that makes her tick, particularly the inherent kindness and true love that he lacks.

The fact that Phil chooses a piano as the instrument he learns to play, as well as the style he plays during the club scene (Jazz), both maximize the possibilities for musical variation and creativity—Jazz, by its very nature is versatile, while the piano has a plethora of keys. Phil echoes this theme when he says, “I’m versatile,” a term that Rita used earlier to describe his inspiring speech at the latest Groundhog Day. The director also uses the sound of a piano and a simple shot to tell the story of one scene in particular: While keeping the exterior of a house framed as a piano plays in the background, the music suddenly stops, a girl is shoved outside, and the piano begins to play again with much simpler notes, indicating that Phil has begun his first lesson.

Camera movement is fairly limited in the movie, mostly consisting of pans. A notable exception is a repeated shot which starts on the alarm clock on the night stand as the radio turns on, then pulling out and panning over to a close-up of Phil’s face as he awakes. The following shot is also repeated in which it starts as a long shot of Phil getting out of bed, pas as he walks to the bathroom to splash water in his face, and then pans back across the room as he re-enters the bedroom. Another more complex shot that is repeated is a crane shot when Phil first enters the Groundhog Day festival: at first, this shot pans with Phil, but as he passes the camera the crane rises to reveal the large crowd that is forming. Another crane shot starts with a slowly rotating angle from above the club scene as dancers spin beneath, then the camera descends and levels off at eye level; this shot ties into the perspective of the very next shot which is a dolly backwards, framed at eye level, as three characters walk forward. Another interesting shot was an extreme close-up and slow motion shot of the clock’s digits epically turning from 5:59 to 6:00, complete with loud sounds indicating that this is indeed the moment that time jumps back twenty-four hours.

Of course, the script is by far the most fascinating aspect of the film. In fact, “Groundhog Day is a cultural text that serves as a parable and rhetorically exhorts viewers to learn moral and spiritual lessons and behave in new ways” (Daughton 139). By violating natural laws of space and time, Groundhog Day is able to illustrate poignant and somewhat radical ideas about life. It is no coincidence that Phil’s name is also the groundhog’s name, and the film is itself philosophical. The writers feature Phil demonstrating various versions of humanity’s philosophies through the course of the movie. Phil is at times a Nietzche (seeing no meaning, he repeatedly commits suicide), at times a hedonist (“We could do whatever we want”), at times a polytheist (“I’m a god, not the God”), at times a charitable savior (the boy in the tree, the Mayor), not to mention his daily “reincarnation,” which is an allusion to Hinduism. On his final Groundhog Day, he becomes a part of the town and reaches a sort of Nirvana, evoking Buddhist themes. The idea of living in service for others is also a theme in Christianity. In the final scene, it is clear that Phil’s happiness is no longer found in pleasing himself, but in pleasing others. He asks Rita, as soon as he discovers he is no longer trapped in Groundhog Day, “Is there anything I can do for you?” His transformation from selfishness to selflessness is complete.

The first few scenes in the movie introduce weatherman Phil as an arrogant man who cares only for himself; he feels that covering Groundhog Day is beneath him and cannot wait to flee the town. However, the blizzard traps him in town, a foreshadowing of being trapped in Groundhog Day for what is likely years, though the exact length of time is never revealed. Interestingly enough, the only forecast we see Phil make as a weatherman turns out to be incorrect; he turns out to be wrong about the blizzard missing the Pittsburgh area. His professional prediction is unreliable. However, once he begins to re-live Groundhog Day, he is obviously able to accurately predict events, to a degree; when he sets out to manipulate outcomes, he is not always successful, despite countless attempts. “Groundhog Day presents one man’s metaphorical journey away from the stereotypically masculine pursuit of Power and agency, the drive to control his life and the people and events in it” (Daughton 143). The irony that Phil can only control events up to a certain point is true of the human condition in that we can expert certain things to happen due to prior experiences, but we cannot accurately predict everything that people will do; every person is a unique agent, and when two or more agents interact, outcomes will vary.

As stated previously, “when (Phil) first realizes he’s not crazy and that he can, in effect, live forever without consequences-if there’s no tomorrow, how can you be punished? He indulges his adolescent self” (Goldberg 36). This hedonistic lifestyle is ultimately unfulfilling, and his attempts at winning the affections of his true love, Rita, fall flat time and again. In fact, the film could be looked at as a rebuttal of post-modern and hedonistic philosophies: “Connors’s metamorphosis contradicts almost everything postmodernity teaches. He doesn’t find paradise or liberation by becoming more ‘authentic,’ by acting on his whims and urges and listening to his inner voices. That behavior is soul-killing” (Goldberg 37). Though he is not aging, Phil seems to be maturing before our eyes. He realizes that he is “stuck in the same place,” and wondering what if “nothing you ever did mattered,” to which another character replies: “That sums it up for me.” This literal repetition of events with some variation is therefore strikingly similar to each person’s individual life in which certain elements of one’s life are continually repeating; everyone can fall into a monotonous routine of going to work everyday and seemingly living a meaningless life, as Phil finds himself doing. Phil is always seeing “the glass half empty,” as one character says. He can never satisfy his desires, particularly his one deep desire: winning Rita’s heart, even after years of attempts.

Is it any coincidence, then, that the ice on his bedroom window seems to have formed the shape of an eye through which Phil can see the world? One day it looks bleak, the next bright and magical, complete with a fresh snowfall. His worldview, his very way of living, has completely changed. “Connors eventually achieves spiritual growth by completely revising his estimate of what ‘getting it right’ means. Phil Connors learns the hard way, one concentrated day at a time, how to live his life” (Daughton 144). By forgoing his own desires for the desires of others, Phil finally learns to truly love. He is no longer consumed by his own wants; instead, he immerses himself in the town that he once hated, completely content in making the quirky town his home.

Works Cited

Daughton, Suzanne. “The Spiritual Power of Repetitive Form: Steps Toward Transcendence in

Groundhog Day.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. 13. (1996): n. page. Print.

Goldberg, Jonah. “A Movie For All Time.” National Review. 57.2 (2005): n. page. Print.

Advertisements

‘Lincoln’ is Cinema at its Finest

The following is the first draft of a critique of the film Lincoln which I wrote for a cinema class at Regent University. 

Steven Spielberg has fashioned a film of tremendous historical import and timeless, masterful artistry. The film envelopes the viewer in the story with its density of pertinent plot points, meaningful imagery, emotional performances, and incredible attention to detail as a legitimate period piece depicting the final months of the life President Lincoln and his political battle to both end slavery and end the Civil War. 

Lincoln has been well-received by critics, scoring a positive review from 145 critics, a 91 percent rate, according to the website Rotten Tomatoes. Claudia Puig of the USA Today gave it three and a half stars out of four, calling it “an absorbing intellectual look at the political machinations involved in abolishing slavery,” adding that Tony Kushner’s script is “perfectly-calibrated.”

The film begins with the sounds and images of a brutal battle in the American Civil War. Soldiers from the North and South are depicted in hand-to-hand combat on a mud-soaked battlefield. Within seconds, Spielberg has captured the ugliness that is war, particularly a Civil War that pits fellow countrymen against each other. The first image we see of President Abraham Lincoln himself is an over-the-shoulder shot that captures his slumping figure, looking out upon a Union camp. Immediately we see that this man of impressive physical and historical stature has become weary and frail yet still seems to tower above it all like a mythic figure.

Lincoln narrates a dream sequence in which the sixteenth President is upon a ship racing at high speeds to an unknown destination. Mrs. Lincoln suggests that this has something to do with his pursuit of the Thirteenth Amendment, but one wonders if it doesn’t have more to do with Lincoln’s impending death and reaching the shores of Heaven; or, perhaps it is suggesting that Lincoln is leader of a nation that was racing quickly toward the shore of freedom and equality for all.

The lighting in the film seems realistic yet strangely surreal, with dim light in several interior scenes where the only lighting would have been fire-related, like candles and oil lamps. Often, the frame contains smoke imagery from the cigars of politicians and bureaucrats, recalling the smoke-filled battlefields of the Cvil War with its cannons and gunfire.

As Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, Janusz Kaminski, Spielberg’s cinematographer, veils events in such a rarefied and sifted haze that they seem already poised halfway to myth. Just look at the President, haloed and framed against a window, in semi-silhouette, as he sits in a rocking chair reading to his young son Tad . They could be in a picture book themselves.”

Lincoln’s son studies photographs of slaves by flickering orange firelight, recalling images of the Holocaust. Other than the orange glows from candles and fires, muted and cool greens, grays and blues seem to dominate the picture, contributing to the cold atmosphere of nineteenth century winters in Washington. Lincoln is often shown with a blanket wrapped around his shoulders. His top hat aptly becomes a character of its own in the movie, often garnering close-ups.

Equality becomes a central theme in the movie, as it is traditionally understood (equality in terms of personhood). Thaddeus Stevens asserts before Congress that he holds all men be “equal before the law.” The very first scene with Lincoln depicts him speaking with a pair of African-American Union officers, one of which is boiling over with the frustration of slow progress in attaining economic equality in the eyes of white men. The man’s frustration is righteous, but Lincoln could do little about the prejudice in the hearts of men, and he says as much: “I suppose that they will learn to tolerate each other.” Spielberg’s Lincoln acknowledges that with time and limited government action, the nation could be united wherein men of all skin colors could enjoy equal liberties as well as associate with each other without reservation or prejudice.

In another scene, Lincoln tells two men that he used to read a lot as a young man, and he brings up Euclid’s rule that “Things which equal the same thing also equal one another.” Lincoln seems to be saying that if both a black man and a white man are human, then they are equal. Thaddeus Stevens later makes the argument that he may look at another man and think him an idiot or full of corruption, but that does not make him any less human. Lincoln therefore makes both moral and logical arguments for the Thirteenth Amendment and irrationality of slavery built on racial prejudice.

It is Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln, though, that truly mesmerizes the viewer. Lou Lumenick of The New York Post explains: “Adopting an odd, high-pitched voice, Day-Lewis thoroughly inhabits the part of a war-weary president who’s fond of telling long and folksy autobiographical stories.” Daniel Day-Lewis is so convincing and riveting as the most beloved political figure in American history, that it is hard not to be completely enraptured by his authentic, layered, and moving portrayal of the often melancholy, introspective, self-deprecating, somewhat peculiar, thoroughly human, yet passionate and attention-commanding figure.

In an interview Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Lincoln’s older son Robert, even remarked that he did not actually meet the actor Day-Lewis until after filming for the movie had wrapped; apparently, the Academy Award-winning actor never broke character during production of the film. Daniel Day-Lewis may have been the only actor on the planet who could have delivered the gravitas to the character of Abraham Lincoln in such a thoroughly engrossing way.

Another accomplished actor receiving Oscar buzz is Tommy Lee Jones, who is witty, cantankerous, and sincere as the passionate abolitionist Representative Thaddeus Stevens. However, there were no weak links in the entire massive cast; every actor seemed to realize the importance of the film, however small his or her role might be.

The subtle parallels drawn between the final months of Abraham Lincoln and the final days of Jesus Christ are striking. The character of General Ulysses S. Grant tells Lincoln that he looks to have aged ten years in the past year. Throughout the film, Lincoln is depicted as a man under incredible stress and suffering, as if he bears the pains of a nation in Civil War; as if he bears the weight of every fallen American and the tortuous life of every black man still in slavery—as if he were carrying a cross. Even his family life is anything but ideal.

Like the story of Job in the Bible, Lincoln’s wife is represented as unsupportive, divisive, and angry, if not mentally unstable as some historians suggest. We learn that the child they lost still weighs heavy on his heart. His older son is portrayed as constantly pestering Lincoln to allow him to join the army, and Lincoln faces the prospect of both losing another child as well as inviting his wife’s further rage. This suffering is similar to the turmoil that was apparently going on with Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, as well as his physical and spiritual torture leading up to and including his crucifixion.

Just as Mrs. Lincoln says, “No one has ever been so loved by the people;” but perhaps no one had ever been so hated by those among the Confederates. This is yet another similarity with Christ, because Jesus was and is to this day loved and worshipped by His followers, yet was hated enough that he was brutally tortured and killed and is still hated to this day.

In the scene directly preceding Lincoln’s assassination, he says, “I guess it’s time to go, though I’d rather stay.” This obvious double meaning is then followed by his discarding of his gloves, which the black butler retrieves. The black butler then watches as Lincoln and his famous hat are framed in silhouette by a window, as he descends down a staircase out of sight. There seems to be a good deal of symbolism going on in this brief sequence. Lincoln is both leaving this life behind, descending into the grave, a mysterious and legendary man. Historically, Lincoln is known for his dislike of wearing gloves, but there seems to be more to the moment, as if Lincoln was passing the torch to black men and women. Perhaps the moment is indicating that Lincoln’s fight is over, and he is leaving those that he freed to now possess the power to continue the fight themselves. Indeed, the film suggests that the fight to come will be difficult for black people, a likely allusion to the persecution leading up until and through the Civil Rights Movement. Again, this seems to be yet another parallel with Christ, recalling His charge to the disciples, that they might further His mission though they would be persecuted for His sake.

The visual image of Lincoln being cloaked in black from head to toe, except for his hands, also seems to be an allusion to Christ in which He took on the sins of the world so that the world might live and be free. Likewise, Lincoln figuratively took on the sins of a nation—the sins of slavery and violence—by giving his life, both literally and figuratively, so that the slaves might live; so that the words of the Declaration of Independence might be fulfilled: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Just as Christ was killed on a cross, the last image of the film is a shot depicting Lincoln’s second inaugural address in which he is holding his arms out, palms outward, for an extended moment, recalling Christ hanging on the cross before a multitude of onlookers.

Lincoln is truly masterful filmmaking, thick with rich imagery and themes that remain relevant even until today and will likely remain relevant for generations to come. Steven Spielberg celebrates and honors a legendary and heroic man who is loved and revered, perhaps more than any other American historical figure. Indeed, the film is worthy of the man it depicts. As the film transitions from Lincoln’s deathbed to his inaugural address, the man is framed in the flame of a candle, perhaps signifying that the words and work of Abraham Lincoln will continue to burn on as an eternal flame, a light that shines for our nation and nations around the world.