Monday, 5 June 2017

Film Reviews 2017 - #8 Groundhog Day


1.

We’ve reached number eight in the 2017 series: Groundhog Day.  This is a film, obviously, that we have all already seen.  (And, perhaps, this is a review that you have already read.) Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again.

I have, obviously, already seen the film Groundhog Day over and over and over again, so the clever thing to do – again, obviously - would be to review the film without actually watching it again.

Such was my thinking as I drove to the Hay festival on the weekend that should have been the occasion (according to the self-imposed schedule set back in January) when I watched Groundhog Day.  Again.

2.

The notion of endlessly repeating something is not new, of course.  In fact, endless repetition is one of the most basic notions that we have.  Go back as far as you like into recorded human culture and you encounter fundamental conceptualisations of circularity and repetition: think yin and yang in the east, or the wheel at the heart of the tao, or the ouroboros in ancient Egypt and ancient Greece.

(It’s probably to do with the stars.  Throughout pre-history our forebears encountered endless turbulence at ground level, while forever unchanging above were the ceaselessly rotating lights in the sky.  We watched and we measured (well, the priests and their ilk did the measuring) (and invented magic and belief, then mathematics and science) and we discovered that everything changes, yet everything remains the same; everything goes around in a circle and comes back to the beginning again.)

Circularity and repetition continue to attract intense philosophical attention.  The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk has achieved cult status (in certain continental philosophical circles, at least) with a philosophy (considered utterly at odds with the entire prevailing western canon) in which everything (and I mean everything - space, time, mind, maths, society, words) consists of some sort of sphere (or, if there are lots together, foam).  Douglas Hofstadter (he of Godel, Escher and Bach) proposes that consciousness itself is astrange loopthat holds itself up as an inherent feature of its being and, in so holding itself, comprises consciousness.

Roberto Calasso, meanwhile, explores the connections between ancient and modern conceptualisations by building from ancient Greek mythology and alighting on the notion of the ring, the bracelet or the clasp as a fundamental metaphor that connects our sense of self (I am that which is held together as me) with our sense of society (that group or set of groups that is held together) with our sense of thought (stories and theories all comprise sets of ideas that hold together).

3.

The best Greek myth about all this concerns Sisyphus Sisyphus was a king of Ephyra who was, by all accounts, a very naughty boy and who was eventually caught and punished by top god Zeus.  Zeus condemned him to push a big rock up a steep hill – but when the rock gets to the top of the hill it rolls all the way back down again.  Sisyphus has to push it up again; and it rolls down again; and he has to push it back up again; and it rolls back again; and again and again and again and again forever and ever.

(In case the unbearable, incomprehensible agony of this situation doesn’t grab you with sufficient immediacy, recall instead the moment when you realised the plight of the AI inside the wee gizmo at the end of the Christmas episode of Black Mirror when the man sets the dial to 1,000 years per minute…)

To understand this properly it’s important to realise that Sisyphus is not merely a king – he is a human being.  He is not a god.   There are other people (for example Prometheus) who get punished for all eternity by Zeus, but they are gods or in some other way mythological.  As a human, Sisyphus represents humans generally.  He was greedy and deceitful and murderous and generally unpleasant – but he was also cunning, resourceful, clever, crafty.  These latter attributes are the very skills upon which humanity’s success over the past few millennia has depended – and the former are the baggage we seem to bring with us.

So the story serves to remind us – as Albert Camus, arch nihilist and general miserable bastard, points out in his wonderful The Myth of Sisyphus - of our bleak condition: no matter how much work we put in, no matter how clever we are, we end up getting nowhere.  We end up exactly where we started.

So what’s the point?

4.

Which gets us back to Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… except that – for one thing – it’s not actually the same day (since, whilst it is always 2nd February, the Murray character behaves differently every day, so the day’s events are always different) and – for another, and more importantly – (spoiler alert, ho ho) at the end and eventually he wakes up in the next day.

How does that happen?

Actually – how does anything happen?  Isn’t that a question that lies behind even the fundamental metaphors from ancient eastern and western cosmologies I mentioned a moment ago?

Well, there are only two possibilities really: either things change because it’s an inherent feature of existence, or of the things that exist, that things are as they are and it is mere necessity that things change; or it’s because it’s just random, just a nothing and a something, things change at random, by pure chance.

(In case this blunt assertion is insufficient to persuade you, try Democritus, who said this first and who, some two and a half thousand years before it was confirmed by others, formulated the atomic theory of the universe.)

So is it chance or necessity that there is a book called ‘Chance and Necessity’ by the Nobel-prize winning biologist Jacques Monod, a book about the way biological evolution occurs within the framework of a conceptual [and mathematically tractable] space based on the interaction of chance and necessity) and a book that has been on my wish list for simply donkeys’ years?  Is it chance or necessity that a first edition of the book ‘Chance and Necessity’ (a first edition! for just £6!) presented itself to me on the very day I had been wondering how I would conduct a review of the film Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) without watching it again?

Is it chance or necessity that the opening quotation in the Foreword to ‘Chance and Necessity’ reads:

“At that subtle moment when man glances backward over his life, Sisyphus returning towards his rock, in that slight pivoting, he contemplates that series of unrelated actions which became his fate, created by him, combined under his memory’s eye and soon sealed by his death.  Thus, convinced of the wholly human origin of all that is human, a blind man eager to see, who knows that the night has no end, is still on the go.  The rock is still rolling.

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again.  But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks.  He, too, concludes that all is well.  This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile.  Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself forms a world.  The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.  One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”

These are the closing paragraphs from The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus.

8.

Hang on a minute.  Albert Camus, being optimistic?  What’s that about?  I thought he was the arch nihilist, the miserable bastard?  What’s he doing finding hope in Sisyphus’s awful torment?

And isn’t this the same optimism that we encounter – experience – at the end of Groundhog Day?  At the end of Groundhog Day – a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… – our hero achieves redemption.

This is – I think – why the film has endured, why it has achieved the cultural status of ‘classic’: it is an updated, ancient myth.  In the ancient myth - and the ancient mind – there was no prospect of redemption, there was simply fate; in the modern mind, we have autonomy and we can be saved, and we need myths to tell us so.

This is emphatically not a Christian myth (though Christianity has made an exceptionally good fist of appropriating the notion of redemption to itself).  The redemption offered by Christianity remains an externally authorised redemption; it is God who saves.

But in Camus’s image it is Sisyphus who finds his own salvation, who figures out an accommodation with his plight; and in Groundhog Day (a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again…) our hero figures something out – learns something – and makes progress as a result.

And here we reach the kernel.  The myth-update in Groundhog Day is the Enlightenment It is the idea that we can learn.  And by learning we can progress.  The universe is not an endlessly repeated cycle, empty of meaning, because we can learn, and the learning is a process of climbing what Iain M Banks calls (in Matter) a cliff-face: there is a ridge up there, not a single peak; and there are many ways up, not just one (or even two).  The physical universe may proceed in a way remarkably like the endless cycle imagined by the ancients; but the mind is somehow at right angles to the physical universe and there are opportunities aplenty to climb.

Groundhog Day is a 1993 film about a disgruntled weatherman, played by Bill Murray, who finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, repeatedly living through the same day over and over and over again… It is a film about a man who, like all of us, wants to be better than he is.  Groundhog Day is a great film because, in its humorous and well-crafted way, it tells the story of a man who achieves this ambition.  Groundhog Day is a truly classic film because it provides a truly modern myth - and, as a result, gives us hope.


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