The secret of Groundhog Day

9 February 2013

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It turns out that Groundhog Day is twenty years old this month (going by its US release) and The Guardian has an engaging article by Ryan Gilbey, who has just written one of those natty BFI guides to the film. I’m a fan (how can you not be) and I’ve written about Groundhog Day before, but Gilbey has an interesting take on why it has become a classic – and gone into the language.

1. The writer ruthlessly expunged all references to the 1990s.

[Scriptwriter Danny] Rubin urged [Director Harold] Ramis, with whom he shares a writing credit, to expunge any nods to the 1990s: “You’ve gotta take all this out,” he said, “because this movie is really going to go on for years and years.” Compare this with Judd Apatow’s films, which are peppered with gags about early-21st century celebrity culture. … our descendants in 2063 will have no trouble understanding Groundhog Day when they download it on to their frontal lobes.

2. The film refuses to explain how TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) got trapped in Groudhog Day:

There is no magical fairground machine (Big), no mantra (Shallow Hal), no curse (What Women Want). … Rubin was urged to write a Gypsy-curse scene explaining the loop, which Ramis wisely never shot. The mystery has only fortified the film’s magic.

3. Or any explanation of how long he is there:

It could be 10 years or a thousand, however long it takes him to memorise the personal histories of Punxsutawney’s townsfolk, and to become, among other things, a pianist, an ice-sculptor and a doctor (“It’s kind of an honorary title,” he shrugs).

4. The film has a classic redemptive story structure. I’ve written about redemption stories here before, and the article suggests that Groundhog Day borrows here from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol.

There’s more. It’s just plain clever in the way it disregards many of the Hollywood conventions. Terry Jones enthuses, for example, about the way it subverts structure.

“Normally when you’re writing a screenplay you try to avoid repetition. And that’s the whole thing here, it’s built on repetition. That’s so bold. The way they get through it is to short-circuit everything, so just when you think something is going to happen that you’ve seen before, the film gets to it before you and changes or abbreviates it in some way.

And the artist Gillian Wearing compares Groundhog Day to films such as L’Avventura and Last Year in Marienbad. She tells Gilbey:

All those films reinvent structure and create a new conceptual framework that makes you understand them. They share an almost surrealistic vision, and they pose philosophical questions.

In short, Groundhog Day succeeds because it is, says Gilbey, that rare creature: “an art film in mainstream clothing.”

The picture at the top of this post is from What The Movie, and is used with thanks.

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