February 2, 2015

Velveteen Hearts and Groundhog Day: How Movies Become Real

AMC-TV Viewing Schedule [HT: Donald Sensing]

If you're lost you can look and you will find me
Time after time
If you fall I will catch you
I will be waiting
Time after time
-- Cyndi Lauper

You can set out to make “great art,” but that’s almost always the wrong tack. Set out in that direction and it usually won’t happen. You'll often end up having to come about on a lee shore. “Great art,” art that endures and grows over time, is almost always a gift. One of its hallmarks is that the creators really aren’t that aware of what they’re doing when they do it. Greater forces than individuals are at play when great art is made. It’s that kind of thing that sort of dawns on you in the classical sense of light coming up slowly out of the dark.

It’s that way with Groundhog Day. Slowly and yet surely this initially unassuming although initially successful film comedy has been revealing itself to be one of the greatest American films. It’s certain that none of the principles set out to make that happen no matter how much its director, Harold Ramis, might like that to be the case. With this film, unlike a number of others, the greatness of it occurs not only through its creation but from what its hundreds of millions of viewers help anneal to the film itself. It’s through this strange symbiosis between creators and audience that the film has become what it is today. It’s the Velveteen Rabbit effect.

In Margery Williams childrens' classic, The Velveteen Rabbit a toy rabbit becomes real through the love of the boy who owns the toy. With Groundhog Day, the film has become real through the love of the people who've seen it; many over and over again. To take another literary metaphor, the reality of Groundhog Day is like Topsy: "I s'pect I growed. Don't think nobody never made me.” No, nobody did. Everybody did.

There are lots of theories being tossed about concerning Groundhog Day. It seems that many philosophers and most major religions want to make the film their own:

In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup.... Countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. --A Movie for All Time - National Review Online

But that all seems to me to be just much of a muchness. Internet pundits, as well as pontifical human beings of all sorts, are famous for blowing things, simple things, all out of proportion.

To my mind, Groundhog Day is a great film because it is a simple film; because it takes up, once again, “the supreme theme of art and song” as stated clearly by Yeats:

Bodily decrepitude is wisdom; young
We loved each other and were ignorant.

After Long Silence

The film, of course, takes this insight and inverts it. Wisdom enough to love is allowed to come, finally, to Phil Connors after a long time spent in the same day. How long a time? That’s subject to some dispute, but the best estimate for the timespan of Groundhog Day is “eight years, eight months, and 16 days, based on him spending three years learning to play the piano, three years learning to ice sculpt, two years learning French, and six months learning to throw cards into a hat.”

It’s nice we have the Internet to help figure timelines like that out, but to me the "actual" time is also beside the point. The real point of Groundhog Day is that in life you will, sooner or later, have to learn to love, learn to really love, and the lesson on how to love will be repeated until you learn it.

How long is that?

As Groundhog Day shows us, and one of the reasons we continue to love it more, that particular length of time is “As. Long. As. It. Takes.”

Learning, at long, long last, to love is why people everywhere love this film. What makes it great, however, is that in the end we do in fact see Connors, and by extension ourselves, finally learn the lesson. We find that, in the end, after a long time, love arrives. Sometimes in just one day.

Posted by gerardvanderleun at February 2, 2015 11:52 AM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

Great movie. Great song. Great exposition.

I needed this today. Thanks, Gerard.

Posted by: Joan of Argghh at February 2, 2012 3:56 PM

I love that movie. I sum it up in one word: purgatory.

Posted by: Grizzly at February 2, 2012 4:10 PM

Would Purgatory be "learning to love"? Or would it be "learning to embrace and (finally) accept the love which was there for you all along?" (God's love)

Posted by: Guy S at February 2, 2012 6:09 PM

Great commentary on one of my all-time favorite movies. I just re-watched it tonight, and at the end I was struck by the parallels with "A Christmas Carol" -- a story of redemption and change of heart through seeing the pain we cause others and learning to love those we shut out. That immediately made me wonder if Hollywood at some future date will try to remake the film.

I hope not. ..bruce..

Posted by: bfwebster at February 2, 2012 7:16 PM

You beat me to it, Joan. This day has been tough, and this post was good medicine. Thank you once again, Gerard.


Posted by: jwm at February 2, 2012 8:40 PM

ditto Joan and jwm.

Posted by: Jean at February 3, 2012 10:17 AM

Phil couldn't leave Punxsutawney until he lived the Day right. This meant renouncing his former post modern hipster indulgent self. Halfway through the film, he appears to get it until he veered too far to the saintly side and tried to play God. At that point he got it and began living the day as if it didn't matter whether he would be released or not; because he had learned to love the time and place where he was.

And maybe that's what happened. Punxsutawney itself held onto Phil and wouldn't release him until he loved Punxsutawney, and by extension, the America that was there before the changes of the last 40 years.

Posted by: Callmelennie at February 3, 2012 10:53 AM

Every once in a while, you really get the wood on it.

Posted by: Casca at February 3, 2012 10:54 AM

My favourite film, judging by the number of times I have watched it. The DVD commentary by Harold Ramis is excellent.

Posted by: Brett_McS at February 3, 2012 1:27 PM

No matter how many times we ignore the knock at the door, God will keep pounding until we let him in. If only real life was the movies; then all our days in the wilderness of the soul wouldn't count against our fourscore and ten.

Posted by: raincityjazz at February 4, 2012 8:31 AM

Guy S (comment #3)... The answer to your question is "yes".

Posted by: gunnar the elder at February 4, 2012 1:30 PM

Old knocks can become new knocks if only in passing

Posted by: vanderleun at February 4, 2012 1:35 PM

He learned not to be selfish. That is the great thing the commandments all say obliquely. Do not be selfish - give as much as you can give - and give it voluntarily.

Posted by: Mikey NTH at February 5, 2012 8:04 PM

And on this day, AMC TV plays a huge joke on its viewers.

Posted by: Donald Sensing at February 2, 2015 11:44 AM

Just had this very conversation at work, drawing the parallel to Christmas Carol, to the universal appeal of the second chance and chances to make things right.

But it strikes me that nobody quotes lines from it, like they might Princess Bride. It's a movie of moments...

Posted by: Joan of Argghh! at February 2, 2015 5:45 PM

And then at night when people have time to watch, they put on some awful made for tv bs

Posted by: Mhf at February 2, 2015 6:15 PM

Take another walk on the weird side with Murray's 1984 cult classic "The Razor's Edge" movie.


It's a remake of this 1946 classic.

Posted by: Walker at February 2, 2015 9:28 PM

I kinda like Citizen Kane.

Posted by: chasmatic at February 3, 2015 6:57 AM

Life is too long to be Selfish, and too short for Love.

In the Transcendental Limit Equation of Life, only love does not reduce to '0' when 't' ---> infinite.

As seen in Groundhogs Day, only Love is worth doing forever in this land of the gift (and into eternity and beyond). All the rest is nihilistic (Null) vanity which inevitably turns to dust (zero).

www . youtube . com/watch?v=cf6WH8zYmO0#t=2m30s

Love is eternal.

There are inspired messages, but they are temporary; there are gifts of speaking in strange tongues, but they will cease; there is knowledge, but it will pass. 9 For our gifts of knowledge and of inspired messages are only partial; 10 but when what is perfect comes, then what is partial will disappear.

When I was a child, my speech, feelings, and thinking were all those of a child; now that I am an adult, I have no more use for childish ways. What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-to-face. What I know now is only partial; then it will be complete—as complete as God's knowledge of me.

Meanwhile these three remain: faith, hope, and love;

and the greatest of these is love.
~1Corinthians 13:8-13.

Posted by: cond0011 at February 4, 2015 5:33 PM