Groundhog Day, Sisyphus, and What They Mean for Your Manuscript
Jan 21, 2014
At times Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day seems like most despairing movie this side of Ingmar Bergmann (it is surely the only PG film ever made that features a montage of suicide attempts). It's in the twinning of hope and despair that the film works as an allegory for the creative process.1
For instance, about midway through his Sisyphean journey, our hero weatherman, Phil (Bill Murray), attempts to use his temporal predicament to his advantage in an attempt to seduce his producer, Rita (Andie MacDowell). Day by day he corrects his mistakes, learning her likes, dislikes, hopes fears, and weakness for sweet vermouth. When learning that she studied 19th century French poetry in college, he first laughs and says "What a waste of time" and because it's Bill Murray saying it, the withering condescension can't help but seem endearing. A "day" later he corrects his mistake and quotes a romantic sounding French lyric.2
He perfects each moment to her specifications until each time, at the day's end, she rebuffs him, sensing that something is off.
Phil seduces Rita: one of several "drafts"
The scene offers a potent lesson about the folly of attempting to cater too slavishly to the specifications of your critics (and also about the gulf between what people say they want and what people really do want). It's a lesson that should resonate with most writers, particularly those who have been through any kind of workshop process and who've revised a manuscript according to urgings of their peers—turning a brother into a sister, beginning a story on page four, changing the setting from Nashville to outer space—only to be told by those same colleagues "I liked it better the first time."
And like Phil Connors, the futility often leads to despair, though hopefully like not to any toaster-in-the-bathtub moments. Of course, I can't speak for all writers, but the task of writing novel, sitting at the same desk, working with the same set of characters, day after day, and producing on a productive outing perhaps a page of new material, all the while never knowing if the completed project will ever be published or read, has helped me feel a kinship with Phil when he observes early in the film, "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was the same and nothing you did mattered?"
But the film is fundamentally hopeful and Phil's happy ending feels fully earned. The happiness comes when Phil embraces his own powerlessness in the face of the situation and enjoying the process for its own sake. I've come to think that this may be most important lesson for a writer's sanity. His letting go is a crucial but often overlooked point in the film when Phil befriends and tries to assist an elderly homeless man on what turns out to be, in spite of Phil's best efforts, the last day of the old man's life.
Thus Phil learns the limits of his control even within a world where by now he knows everyone better than they know themselves. His redemption comes about because he lets go of what he can't change and, to paraphrase John Wooden, makes each day his masterpiece. He learns to play Rachmaninoff and changes tires for old ladies and saving a kid falling from a tree. Crucially, he does this despite the fact that, day after day, the little bastard never once thanks him. Phil makes the most of the process without any expectation of reward.
Anyone who's written seriously for any length of time knows that so many most aspects of a writer's life are beyond their control—the vagaries of the marketplace, the reactions of writers, the needs of editors. All a writer really controls is the process of writing and it's up to them to make the most of it, submitting work knowing that most will be rejected; giving yourself the freedom to write a bad sentence, knowing that it will be revised dozens of times before you decide to cut the whole paragraph; and catching the falling kid, knowing that most of the time he'll never thank you.
1If I sound like I'm projecting, then so be it. In the two decades since its release, GD has been read as a metaphor for Buddhism, existentialism, the resurrection of Jesus, the Kubler Ross stages of grief, to name just a few of the more grounded takes. Certainly it's not a stretch to see in the journey of Phil Connors a powerful lesson about the creative process. Like The Matrix, it's a cinematic tabula rasa that is whatever its audience wants it to be. Unlike The Matrix, Groundhog Day is a good movie.
2Though oddly its neither French nor from the 19th century nor, technically, a poem, but a lyric by the 20th century Belgian composer Jacques Brel, calling into question whether Rita's authenticity, but that's fodder for another blog entry.
All photos from Groundhog Day, copyright 1993 Columbia Pictures.