Poem from Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day has long been one of my very favorite movies. On one level it is a very funny movie; on another, it is a particular take on Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence. It is definitely a film that rewards rewatching. In fact, the legendary film critic Roger Ebert reviewed it twice and included it in his list of great movies. In his 2005 review he says:

“Groundhog Day” is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is.

The film is about a jerk who slowly becomes a good man. Listen to Ebert again:

His journey has become a parable for our materialistic age; it embodies a view of human growth that, at its heart, reflects the same spiritual view of existence Murray explored in his very personal project “The Razor’s Edge.” [Another of my favorite movies.] He is bound to the wheel of time, and destined to revolve until he earns his promotion to the next level. A long article in the British newspaper the Independent says “Groundhog Day” is “hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time.”

The movie is about a guy named Phil, played by Bill Murray, who is living the same day over and over again. He is essentially immortal. In the scene below, Phil’s co-worker Rita, played by Andie McDowell, recites a few lines of poetry. Here are the lines that precede the ones she recites:

High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,

And here is the scene in which she recites the poem’s next lines:

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored , and unsung.

(from “Breathes There The Man,” an excerpt from “The Lay of the Last Minstrel,”
~ Sir Walter Scott.)

Scott is saying that no matter how famous or wealthy, narcissists are among the worst of humankind, and they will be remembered as such.

Brief reflection – How these lines apply to so many Republican politicians, their wealthy owners, and the sycophants that surround them both. We can only hope that the long arc of justice does move forward. But I have my doubts.

2 thoughts on “Poem from Groundhog Day

  1. This essay took me by surprise. “Garsh” sez I, scratching my head. “I never thought about the reasons for my choice of my favorite movies.” So I spent the last 24 hours mulling it over as I went about my other activities.

    It’s easy to identify my two favorite movies: Koyaanisqatsi and Excalibur. I know that they are my favorites because they are the only movies that I like to watch over and over.

    Koyaanisqatsi is truly a weird movie: no actors and no dialog. But it is a profound statement on modern civilization. It’s all tied together by the opening and closing scenes, showing a mighty rocket blasting off, and later exploding and falling, falling slowly. That shattered shred of the rocket slowly descending back to earth is a magnificent image of our future.

    Excalibur is a poetic version of the Arthurian legends. I studied these legends in their many instantiations over history, and only Excalibur captures their deeper essence. Again, the opening and closing scenes are the most powerful. The narrative leaps can be breathtaking. The Merlin character is easily the most striking version of that character I have ever encountered, and he is given some magnificent lines:

    “I have walked my way since the beginning of time. Sometimes I give, sometimes I take. It is mine to now which and when.”
    “When a man lies, he murders a part of the world.”
    “For it is the doom of men that they forget.”

    But I will add that there are also some scenes from some movies, scenes that have always been close to my heart. They are powerful vignettes. The first, surprisingly enough, is from the much-reviled Star Wars Episode I movie. It is the first half of the fight between Darth Maul and the two Jedi, far and away the best sword fight scene from any movie I’ve ever seen — even the legendary sword fight in The Princess Bride. Darth Maul moves with astounding fluidity and grace. Yes, I know that much of it was accomplished using wires, but the actor is himself immensely agile and he moves with elegance.

    Another scene that I cherish is from a little-known movie: Stage Beauty. It takes place fifty years after Shakespeare. Women are forbidden to act on the stage; men play female roles. The protagonist is one of the best of these. His performance of Desdemona in Othello is a saccharine romanticization of femininity, and is adored by audiences. Apparently this is standard practice at the time.

    Then King Charles II, urged on by his mistress, declares that, in the future, gender identity must be preserved on the stage. Only men can play men, and only women can play women. Our protagonist is suddenly deprived of his career. He simply cannot play as a man; his stage instincts are all feminine. But his dresser, a young woman who secretly loves him, has longed to act on the stage, and she takes up the role of Desdemona with relish. But her performances are mere replications of the protagonist’s style. Nevertheless, her beauty and raw talent propel her to the heights of London society.

    They end up spending time together in the country, making romance and teaching each other. He rebuilds his stage persona based on a new understanding of his own masculinity. She insists that a genuine Desdemona would never passively acquiesce to her murder; she would fight. They return to London and agree to act in a new performance of Othello, but now he plays Othello and she plays Desdemona. In the crisis scene in which Othello murders Desdemona, their performance is shockingly real: she screams and fights back. He violently overpowers her, throws her to the floor, and smothers her with a pillow. Then he stumbles away and shrinks to the floor, horrified by his crime. The audience is aghast; it appears for all the world that he has actually murdered the actress, who lies unmoving on the floor. That moment is charged with intense dramatic power. They have both found their true acting souls, as well as their true gender identities. The violence of their acting purged them of their past artificialities and catapulted them into a higher level of understanding.

    Ironically, there is no common element to any of these movies or scenes. Koyaanisqati is a condemnation of modern civilization; Excalibur is a poetic statement of the failure of human aspiration for perfection. Darth Maul’s sword fighting is a simple statement of the beauty of the human form in action, in the same league as the statue of the discus thrower by the ancient Greek sculptor Myron. The murder scene from Stage Beauty telescopes the entire process of transformation from despair to self-realization into a few seconds.

    The only common element I can imagine here is the excellence of expression. Each of these expresses one idea, big or small, better than anything else. On a related note, I’ll mention Tom Lehrer’s vocal performances in his songs. It’s not that he’s a good singer; his strength lies in the way he pronounces words. When he describes a Gilbert and Sullivan song as “full of words and music, and signifying NOTHING”, his vocalization of the final word elevates that simple phrase into something astounding.

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