It’s about time. November 19th, 2007

Is the movie Groundhog Day about time?  Is that a central theme?

I glanced over at the Laboratory section of my website to see how people were answering the question, “What is Groundhog Day about?”  So far the answers have included transformation, getting it right, growing up, change, reincarnation, grace, self-actualization…. even “pastries”, which may have been a joke but I bet is actually an honest answer about perfecting a difficult craft.

But nobody has answered “Time.”  Is the movie about time?

On the surface the answer seems to be “yes.”  If I were to put Groundhog Day into an appropriate movie grouping, one of those would be “Time movies.”  It would include, perhaps, “Back to the Future,” and “Memento.”  In all of these cases the movement of time in the story told by the movie is other than steady and forward, and the plot of the movie is dependent on that change in the movement of time.   Plus, that change in the movement of time is related to the changes that take place in the protagonist – the hero.  All of these things seem to be pointing to “time” as an important theme.

It has been argued to me – by somebody really smart – that Groundhog Day is not about time at all.

I can’t remember or perhaps couldn’t understand what he said, but it’s possible he was thinking in this way: If this is Phil’s story, then the story is about Phil’s struggle, which in this case seems to be against himself and against his own existence.  But it isn’t a struggle against time.  He doesn’t spend the movie trying to undo the curse.  He can’t undo the curse.  He’s accepted it, or at least given up on ever changing it.  If anything, time has been lifted as an obstacle.  For Phil time goes on forever.  A protagonist can certainly struggle against a shortage of time, but can he struggle against an infinite supply?  Is that a struggle?  Can any movie be about a lack of struggle?

Once time is removed as an obstacle – as is Phil’s need to survive (he can get by without eating, for example) – what are the important questions of Phil’s life?

1.    What am I going to do today?
2.    How do I decide what I’m going to do today?

Corollaries to these might include:

1.    “What’s the point?”
2.    “How do I discover the point?”
3.     “Who am I?”
4.     “How do I discover who I am?”
5.    “What is the relationship between who I am, what’s the point, and how I figure these things out?”

A good point can be made that the major theme of this movie is “change.”  It is Phil’s struggle with the world’s inability to change for him that leads Phil to change himself instead.  The fact that the world’s inability to change is caused by the “time loop” is irrelevant, just as is the cause of the time loop itself:  It could have been a “gypsie curse,” as the studio once asked me to write; it could have been playful gods playing a trick; it could have been a celestial event, or an alien visitation or the dream of Phil’s future lover.  Any of these things may have made a very similar movie, and would not have changed Phil’s struggle.

But, come on.  How can this movie not be about time?  What if knowing who you are means knowing what to do at any given time?  It means knowing what time it is, as defined by your actions in a given moment (e.g. “A time to reap, a time to sow…”)   Phil’s daily struggle is against the question, “What time is it?”  That moment of decision, of judgment, of intuition, is the moment of definition for Phil.  At that moment he knows who he is, he knows the point of his own existence.  He is time itself.

And if humanity is time itself, then all stories are about time.

Including this one.


Comment by Al Long
2007-11-22 07:27:26

“A protagonist can certainly struggle against a shortage of time, but can he struggle against an infinite supply?” What a brilliant movie this is….

How can this movie be merely about time? Time applies to everyone–consistently and equally. Yet in “Groundhog Day” the earth makes a rotation but somehow Phil gets stuck in the previous one.

Isn’t this movie more like time traveling? And wouldn’t it be about Phil? (The time traveler.) If it were truly about time then EVERYONE in Punxsutawney should be stuck. (How would that movie play out—if they all were stuck?)

Comment by Joe Goh
2008-08-13 16:54:41

If they were all stuck, then no one is.

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