Archive for September, 2010

Groundhog Day, again

26 September 2010

I recently watched Groundhog Day again – and before we go any further, please, just insert your own joke here. In case, somehow, you missed it, and my joke has just sailed past you, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, an ambitious and obnoxious Pittsburgh TV weatherman doomed to replay the same day over and over again, in the small town of Punxsutawney. (Punxsutawney, by the way, is a real place which really is famous for its Groundhog Day ceremony.) The film was made in 1993, and was a commercial and critical success. The title has entered the language.

Watching it again, three thoughts come to mind.

  • The first is that the film is a reworking of Beauty and the Beast – but in this version the Beast (Murray) is trapped in time until he discovers his humanity. Only after he has done this can he win the love of the beauty.
  • The second is the large nod in the direction of Frank Capra and the small town America of It’s A Wonderful Life, Just as George Bailey can’t escape from Bedford Falls, so Phil Connorscan’t escape from Punxsutawney. And – spoiler alert – when he is free to leave he decides he wants to stay there forever. There’s even snow.
  • Because of the film’s structure (it’s set almost entirely in an endless sequence of February 2nds) it is, obviously, able to play games with narrative. But Connors’ journey appears to follow Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, as he moves through disbelief to anger, to depression and acceptance.

It’s said that the director, Harold Ramis, wanted more comedy while Bill Murray wanted more philosophy. The tension probably explains the film’s enduring quality. And it’s hard, in hindsight, to watch Groundhog Day and not to think of a later film starring Murray, Sofia Coppola’s Lost In Translation, about a man coming to terms with himself while trapped in a strange location.

The picture comes from an interesting retrospective article about Groundhog Day in The Film Journal, which describes the film as “one of the cinema’s greatest exercises in repetition”

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Taking the pain away

21 September 2010

I’ve just read Slaughterhouse 5, Kurt Vonnegut’s book about the firebombing of Dresden, which he experienced as an American prisoner of war held in the city. It’s written elliptically, perhaps by way of answering the question of how to write about one of the great war crimes of the Second World War.

The story is told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, a man who sees time differently from the rest of us, seeing history as a series of parallel moments rather than a linear progression. The book leaves open the question of whether this is a form of post-traumatic stress disorder. (And in Chapter 1, before we get to Billy’s (deliberately) fragmented narrative, Vonnegut – or at least an authorial voice – says that he has written and thrown away five thousand pages in trying to tell the story. The book was published in 1969: it’s as if he was waiting for sufficient innovation in narrative form to be able to write it. So it goes.)

Anyway, this is a long preamble to a wonderful passage in which Billy, who sees time differently, watches a film of a bombing raid backwards:

“It was a movie about American bombers in the Second World War and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this:

“American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewman. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.

“The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers, and lifted the containers into the bellies of their planes. The containers were neatly stored in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewman and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans, though, and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France, though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.

“When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”

The picture at the top of this post comes from the blog Through A Vintage Lens, and is used with thanks,

Battle of Britain Day

16 September 2010

My father in law, Denis Robinson, was a Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, so its dates have a particular family resonance. I wanted to mark the 70th anniversary of the decisive day – on the 15th September – with Paul Nash’s famous painting, which seems to capture the intensity of the Luftwaffe’s last great assault, a day when, at one time, all of the RAF’s 176 serviceable planes were in the air. In real life, it’s a large canvas, with lots of detail; well worth visiting the Imperial War Museum to see.

Denis is best-known amongst Battle of Britain historians for the photograph he took of his own plane, nose down in a field outside Wareham, after he’d crash-landed it after being hit by a German plane. Given that the great fear of all pilots was that the plane would catch fire, and explode, I’ve always admired his presence of mind in taking the photograph. Afterwards he walked to a local pub where he was given brandy. The BBC recently interviewed him about his experiences in the Battle of Britain (scroll down for the audio).

‘The Battle of Britain’, by Paul Nash’ hangs in the collection of the Imperial War Museum, and I have used their image of it with thanks.

Au revoir, Laurent Fignon

1 September 2010

The death of the racing cyclist Laurent Fignon, from cancer, at 50, wasn’t unexpected, but it is a sad day nonetheless. Cycling fans, at least those of a certain age, can remember where they were when they watched him lose the 1989 Tour de France by 8 seconds on the last day to the American Greg Lemond. (I saw it in a hotel lounge in St Jean de Luz, waiting for a taxi; a friend who was lucky – or unlucky – enough to be yards from the finish on the Champs Elysee says he saw Fignon’s face change as the cyclist realised he was about to lose).

In his own account of that Tour, Fignon puts its this way:

“Ah, I remember you: you’re the guy who lost the Tour de France by eight seconds!”

“No, monsieur, I’m the guy who won the Tour twice.”

And a Giro d’Italia and – twice in succession – one of the hardest of the one-day Classics, Milan-San Remo.

My own memory of that Tour is not of the final stage, but of Stage 18, four days before, in the Alps. Lemond did no work that Tour, following Fignon’s wheel and relying on his better time-trialling to give him the advantage. The previous day, on the climb to Alpe d’Huez, Fignon had shaken Lemond off and regained the yellow jersey. But he reckoned that his lead wasn’t enough to withstand Lemond’s likely gains on the final stage’s time trial. So on the road to Villard de Lans he took off again, riding away from the front of an elite group which included the strongest riders in that year’s Tour. It was one of the most exhilarating attacks I have seen.

It should have been enough. Fignon later blamed his defeat on crippling saddle sores. But it’s also said that had he copied Lemond and worn an aerodynamic helmet for the time trial, or even just cut off his ponytail before the start, he’d have gained the few seconds he needed to win the race. But you know that had you suggested either, he’d have ignored you.

We don’t choose our sporting heroes because they win. As Jorge Valdano memorably observed, we prefer Arrigo Sacchi’s Inter Milan to the more successful team assembled by Capello. We can admire Mourinho’s teams, but it’s hard to enjoy watching them play. It takes something more. One of the tributes to Fignon said that he combined audacity with the talent to back it up. Fignon himself wrote in his autobiography, “Isn’t it better to gamble on victory than settle for comfortable defeat?” Audacity and talent: as mere fans, it is the stuff we dream on.