Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Groundhog Day (review)

Groundhog Day is one of my all time favorite movies. Everyone and their mother has seen it and has their own theory about the movie and why Bill Murray is stuck repeating February 2nd. The most popular one, I believe, is that Bill Murray isn't ready for a romantic relationship and cannot make it to February 3rd until he changes that. While this fits the genre the movie is given by most DVD distribution companies (rom com) it is uninteresting, only loosely supported by the text, and probably at least a little bit sexist (Andie MacDowell only exists in order for Bill Murray to develop his romantic capabilities). Others argue that the movie simply stages through Bill Murray the classic "five stages of grief" introduced by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. If this is the case I believe the anger stage is slightly misinterpreted and the bargaining stage is slightly missing, but even so I don't think this is the most convincing reading available (although I find Lacan convincing so can you really trust me?).

My personal favorite theory about the film (not one that I came up with myself but one to which I am adding my own personal flair) is that it depicts essentially the process of psychoanalysis, or perhaps more specifically, what to do about the fact that your life is a boring, repetitive waste of time. But instead of writing a deeply psychoanalytic scholarly article on the film which would interest few other than myself and my close friends (but which I may still write later), I've decided to do something that I've wanted to do for a long time: explain why, in each instance, Bill Murray is not allowed to continue to February 3rd; why his solution to spending eternity repeating the same day is insufficient. I'm going to categorize Bill Murray's solutions in stages, so just keep in mind that, as much as it seems like I'm falling for the "five stages of grief" interpretation, this is my own work and I'm not copying off the kid next to me (I swear).

The first stage Bill Murray goes through is the obvious but necessary stage of confusion. While for theoretical purposes this could easily be left out, it's necessary for the audience to identify with Bill. If the movie jumped past this step we would be confused, and recognizing him as the protagonist would be difficult. During this stage Bill asks Rita what's going on and performs his own tests (breaking a pencil to see if it is broken the next day), and towards the end, while conversing with some drunken locals, he realizes the initial implications of having no consequences to your actions and moves on to the next stage.

Resisting the temptation to give it a more profane title, I've called this next stage the "butthead stage". When Bill Murray realizes he can do anything he proceeds to run from the cops, punch Ned (an old classmate) in the face, steal money from an armored car, and engineer a one night stand with a woman he finds attractive (which coincidentally foreshadows the next stage). While it may seem obvious why this isn't the correct response to the repetitiveness of life (no one likes a butthead), I think it's worth taking a look at since, after all, being a butthead can be very fun. I believe this stage involves a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that desire works. Since our desire is always the desire of the Other (grass is always greener), the answer is not to punch the Other in the face since this is effectively the same as punching yourself in the face (which is fine, and even commendable, but only if you realize that you're doing it). But we'll get to the actual answer later.

The next stage you could probably lump in with the previous one, but since it's a little more specific I'm going to talk about it separately. After losing his enjoyment in being a butthead, Bill's next course of action is to seduce Rita. Love is fine (I even consider myself to be in love now and it's pretty okay), but there are two problems. First is the stupid, obvious one: he attempts to seduce Rita by learning what she likes and then pretending that he likes the same things. Having been a chameleon boyfriend myself, I know that this is not only problematic for your partner (you're basically lying to them constantly), it is also problematic for yourself (since it's not going to last forever, when you leave the relationship your reaction is always something like "what have I been doing with my life?"). The second and probably more important problem (which I will discuss again below) is that, since he is living through the Other, he has no enjoyment of his own. Living through the Other is always necessarily a desiring position: since you have no enjoyment of your own you displace your enjoyment to some point in the future (for Bill Murray he thinks it will be having sex with Rita, something which conveniently for him never happens).

The lack of satisfaction from this stage leads right into the next: straight-up depression and anger. First we see Bill Murray drinking whiskey in front of Jeopardy!; then he captures and attempts to kill Phil the groundhog; and finally he attempts to simply kill himself. Suicide for Lacan always falls into the trap of being a cry for help, or (in his terms) an appeal to the (Big) Other. While for some victims of suicide there is a specific Other in mind (for example Sarah Borden's suicide in The Prestige is an appeal to Alfred Borden who has been ruining her life), in this case Bill Murray is simply appealing to the Big Other. For those of you who do not have the pleasure of understanding Lacanian terminology, you could pretty accurately say that Bill Murray's multiple suicides are an appeal to God to release him from his repetition of Groundhog Day. This however is a very touchy subject for some so I will move on before I make a bigger fool of myself.

The penultimate stage fits closely the contours of "acceptance" from the "five stages of grief", but since this is not in fact the last stage bears witness to the way the film doesn't follow the five stages to the letter. Here Bill Murray accepts that he's doomed to repeat Goundhog Day for the rest of his life and adopts what I like to refer to as the Amelie worldview: he begins to find pleasure in giving other people pleasure (not like that, get your mind out of the gutter). This however is a world with only pleasure and no enjoyment (a distinction which is very important for Lacan and which I can perhaps go into detail about in a later post) since it falls into the same trap I described above of living through the Other. Since desire always has the grass is always greener problem, this is like spending your life trying to keep your neighbor's lawn green since your own grass will always be less-green: your neighbor will probably appreciate it but you will never really be "happy" (despite what Amelie might have to say about it).

Unfortunately for my attempted clean cut analysis of the film, the final stage overlaps with this previous stage and involves adopting (progressively) the position that interests me most in psychoanalysis: the drive. Bill Murray starts to take piano lessons (after being inspired by the music playing in a restaurant), which presumably approximates Bill's enjoyment (piano and music in general is a great representation of the drive since you can always be better at playing your instrument—there is no clear "goal" and you are instead caught up in the "aim" of playing more music—but this, as with everything psychoanalytic, relies on your own relation to your work). Accepting the position of the subject of drive is the end goal of psychoanalysis, a position which Bill Murray enunciates towards the end of the film when he says, "No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I'm happy now

"Because I love you." This is how Bill ends this quotation, and is the only real flaw I can find with the film. If Bill was happy because he loved Rita the movie could have ended after the third stage where he seduces her. Indeed we can easily imagine a (much worse) movie where Bill realizes that he's being a chameleon, starts loving Rita as himself, and is released from the repetition of Groundhog Day. But this isn't the point! The point is that he has to be suicidal, he has to attempt to live through the Other, he even has to be a butthead, before he can accept his drive as his own. Whoever added these four words to the end of this line should be shot or at least banned from the world of film.

Taking all this into consideration, I may as well give Groundhog Day a rating even though it's probably rather obvious what I think about it. Bill Murray's presence in a movie is approximately a 90% guarantee of earning at least a 4 beer rating, and Groundhog Day is one of many films where he truly shines, so I give Groundhog Day a solid 5 beers. As for its theoretical value, I would give it 4.9 Slavojs simply for those 4 words that ruin the climax of the film, but since I'm too lazy to cut a tenth off of my little Zizek thumbnail I'm (regrettably) giving it a solid 5 Slavojs.


  1. Made you something!

    Your Zizek is 35 pixels wide. Couldn't decide on chopping 3 or 4 pixels. Went with 4.

  2. haha that's awesome thank you