Mario Sesti's essay from the catalog for The Hidden God: Film and Faith, organized by Mary Lea Bandy and Antonio Monda for the "Museum of Modern Art Film at the Gramercy Theater Program" winter 2003-2004.
I post this because the catalog is almost impossible to buy at any price and is not available in most libraries outside of the MOMA in New York City.
Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day is certainly not the first film to set a fantasy in a small town, nor will it be the last. At least as far back as It's a Wonderful Life (1946), we've known how a quiet little community can turn into a nightmare when messed with by God; Frank Capra's masterpiece revealed once and for all that behind every Bedford Falls may lurk a hidden Pottersville. The critic Robin Wood has well demonstrated the opportunity presented by the small-town film both to identify the projections of ideologies in cinema and to explore a director's particular capabilities, whether the movie is Capra's Wonderful Life or Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943). But the mythology of the small town, so deeply rooted in American culture and cinema, seems to have gained definite new characteristics over the last twenty years.
Starting with the Back to the Future trilogy of 1985-90-Back to the Future II, of 1989, refers more openly than any other recent film to the Bedford Falls/Pottersville dichotomy-and continuing with The Truman Show and Pleasantville (both 1998), the suspicion that behind the calm facade of small-town life hides an invisible presence or god (in both The Truman Show and Pleasantville it's television) that may sooner or later make the place degenerate into horror has become a recurrent idea in American cinema. All of these films offer the vision of a steady, serene, harmonious microcosmic world in which society and the individual are integrated in an unbreakable balance. This immutable realm, Leibnizian in the conception of God as the perfect clockmaker (clocks are visual motifs in both Back to the Future and Groundhog Day), is as perfect as the eighteenth-century idea of the machine; individual ambition never contradicts the dominant order or collective morality. As in any utopia, the passage from dream to nightmare has to come-it is inevitable, almost salutary. The peculiarity of Groundhog Day is that the film underplays this theme until it explodes. The movie's dramatic construction, as we shall see, is more significant than its traditional nature as a small-town comedy, if of the fantasy genre. As in Dickens's Christmas Carol, an eruption of the extraordinary within life's daily reality leads the hero-Phil Connors (Bill Murray), a weatherman for a local TV station-to discover his limits as a human being, the detestable consequences of his selfishness. A hidden god changes the world so that he can become a better person. What strikes us in the film is not so much the impossibility of explaining what happens to Connors as his ability to adapt to it: once he gets over the initial shock of his altered life-he has somehow jumped into a universe in which there is literally no tomorrow, today instead recurring again and again-he first learns to turn the new temporal rules to his advantage-making himself into a local divinity, a genius loci with an unlimited ability to satisfy his own desires-then ultimately becomes a cog in the small- town clockwork, though a cog that can correct and improve the overall performance of the machine. All traces of pain, sickness, or death must be erased from this perfect, harmonious image of the flow of everyday life. Perhaps this is where we see the film's intangible sense of the divine: as in many Catholic parables, such as the story of the prodigal son, the person who is the most selfish, the most indifferent to the needs and desires of other people, is the one who reaches a kind of oblivious sanctity.
The film manages to show us everything that's going on without letting us see what it means. Only in the party scene at the end do we realize that Connors has become sufficiently embedded in the town's social mechanism to be able to merge with the community in a single day. Here Groundhog Day goes over the same ground as It's a Wonderful Life, but in reverse: the Connors of the movie's ending is like Jimmie Stewart's George Bailey at the beginning of Capra's film, a man to whom everybody in town owes something. Bailey charts a dystopian progress: dragged into the Pottersville nightmare, he is forced to experience a world of merciless selfishness and self-interest. This, of course, is the world in which Connors lives at the beginning of Groundhog Day, and which he gradually moves out from toward a better one. Despite their differences, though, Connors and Bailey share a dream: to leave their respective small towns forever.
Ramis, an irreverent satirist who has contributed in different ways to movies ranging from National Lampoon's Animal House (1978) through Ghostbusters (1984) to Analyze This (1999), aspires to neither the ambitious idealism of Capra's cinema nor the kind of funny but biting expose of the small-town myth that we see in Toe Dante's Gremlins (1984). Although his films don't have the weaknesses of his frequent collaborator Ivan Reitman's, they never surpass a certain movie formula-the fast-talking, well-meaning comedy-despite his taste for a visual surreal that can border on the wonderful. Uniquely in Groundhog Day, though, a subtle but pervasive romanticism contaminates the typical slick lightheartedness of Ramis's entertainments, giving the story a touch of melancholy.
Fantastic stories often involve a hypothesis taken literally, a phrase turned into a world of images and things. Words' terrible ability to become real is a frequent feature of fairy tales and myths, dreams and hallucinations, reminding us that poetry and our inner imaginations could transform the organization of things, making an uninterrupted hallucination of our world, if only a hidden god would give us the power to realize them. But why would such a god do this, unless as some cryptic caprice? Groundhog Day is about this riddle-which, however, it never mentions. No divine presence, no special effect, no extraterrestrial invasion intervenes in the movie to explain why, in this small town, the hero lives the same day over and over; there is only the casual sentence, "What if there were no tomorrow?," which seems to have cast an unlooked-for spell.
Suddenly, for no given reason, Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, begins each new day identically, so that a single today repeats itself infinitely like a jingle. Over the course of that day, we see the same banal pattern of gestures again and again, as if fixed in an immutable score: the tune blasting from the clock radio at exactly six every morning (Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe"), the saucer that slips from a waiter's hands at a certain moment, the ceremony in the park. As in Emidio Greco's film Morel's Invention (1974), based on a story by Adolfo BioyCasares, repetition makes every second immortal. This is a carillon world, a universe in miniature, perfect and crazy, happy and diabolical-as if infinite repetition were the only form of eternity that our imagination knew how to represent.
To be the victim of one's own words made real-this is the miraculous predicament outlined in Ramis's cloning comedy Multiplicity (1996), which bears many similarities to Groundhog Day. Here too the film's hero, Doug Kinney (Michael Keaton), goes through a magical change, takes advantage of it, and then becomes its victim; here too an experience of the marvelous is edifying and educational-through coming to grief as he does, Kinney discovers which parts of his personality he should suppress or change, and becomes a better person. Yet .beyond the adept visual effects, and Keaton's performance as Kinney, Multiplicty has no real impact. Groundhog Day, on the other hand is more than its story: what happens to Murray's media Scrooge when he becomes the prisoner of a single never-ending day, a single hotel, a single song, is disturbing and memorable, like one of those mischievous, fascinating recurring dreams that we are afraid of not having anymore. There's something softly persuasive in the easy way Murray's cynicism gives way to generosity, something rich in the way the humor in the film protects us and it from sentimentality without denying sentiment.
Groundhog Day is the story of a man whose problem is not coming to himself again in a crisis but changing himself enough to get a woman into bed. The question is no longer "What if there were no tomorrow?," it is "How do I seduce a woman I desperately want in only twenty-four hours?" There is a certain moral credibility in this reversal, but even so, if nothing more were at stake, the film might be no more than a slick, juvenile comedy, despite the quality of the writing. Other divinities, however, clandestine and evasive, seem to hide here.
The music of the film is repetition-the same day, the same town, the same gestures, the same scenes. By living through these scenes again and again, Connors becomes their secret expert. Planning the robbery of a bank truck, for example, he knows the smallest detail of every second: a breeze, distant sounds, a clumsy slip-knowing when these things will happen, he can grab a money bag without anyone even noticing. Connors can describe every moment of his day in Punxsutawney the way a poet can describe minute changes in the landscape or the heart. He knows every aspect of large passages of time throughout the town as though he had mapped them-the order of their events, activities, conversations.
For the cocktails and dinners (perhaps the film's funniest sequences) in which, day by repeated day, Connors amends his words, tastes, and one-liners in order to become the ideal partner for Rita (Andie MacDowell), the woman he desires, Ramis had the good insight to edit the scenes together, one after the other, without any transitions, explanations, or dissolves, as though they were all variant takes of the same shot-dailies for the filmmakers to view at the end of their day's work. He has the eye of someone who can manipulate, steer, and direct a scene indefinitely, again and again, until he gets what he wants. Does this ring a bell? In the sequence in which Connors tries to convince Rita that he has seen this day go by so many times that he can predict everything that will happen while they are eating their breakfast, and can describe the life story and character of everyone around them, we moght feel that only the person who had invented and written the scene could boast that knowledge. Phil becomes the author of this world, the playwright who knows everyone so well because it is he, after all, who has worked out their fictional natures. He knows the story so well that he can write it and rewrite it as he pleases--we might be seeing a daily revision of the same script.
How many times have we heard or read, in interviews, on panels, the banality about the writers or directors who feel obligated to know much more about their characters and stories than what they will end up putting in the film? Groundhog Day represents this little, or large, aesthetic fantasy in the form of a fable. As the movie goes on, Connors becomes increasingly less the hostage of his small-town world and more its creator. There are films that speak explicitly of cinema, staging a work in progress, describing the movie-making machinery, the technique, the conflicts of the production, the adventure of the creation. Other films do the same thing involuntarily, obliquely, and abstractly, and these have a mysterious sort of joy, for they are unaware of their own motivation. Today, when cinephilia often seems nostalgic and slightly decadent, we should not be surprised, much less sorry, to find the old amazement at cinema taking unpredictable forms.
For the film theorist Andre Bazin, the most inexplicable miracle of the movies was the way the viewer accepts without reservation the idea that the world within the frame extends beyond the boundaries of the screen. There is an extraordinary similarity between Ramis's Punxsutawney and this illusion of the film set as universe: Connors somehow lives out that dream as reality, collaborating with it actively, constantly rerolling the same scenes and exploring all their cinematic possibilities. Could it be possible to film absolutely everything that could happen in the same place at the same time? If so, would it be possible to put them all in the same film? If so, who or what could do it? Only the being who knows a world's every moment, every gesture, every character, the disembodied subject who makes the decision to excerpt this piece of the world as opposed to that one for every shot, the consciousness that decides what is visible onscreen without ever being visible itself-the hidden god. (Whom, nowadays, a popular superstition identifies with the author, the director, the producer, the screenwriter, and other minor deities of choice.)
(Mario Sesti has worked as a film critic for Italian newsmagazines and newspapers, as a film programmer for a television network, and as a film restorer specializing in Italian postwar cinema. He has published essays on Fritz Lang, Jane Campion and the detective movie.)