Forget Me Not December 7th, 2007

I’ve heard it said that all writing is autobiographical.  This is interesting because it suggests that, no matter what I write, no matter how far I go in creativity or fantasy, I cannot escape myself.  It also suggests that anything I write can teach me something about myself, perhaps something that I didn’t know to begin with.

Assuming that all of this is true, I just had to ask: is Groundhog Day autobiographical?  

If so it gives me a new answer to the commonly asked question: how did you come up with the idea?  I could go into my usual explanation, which is kind of interesting and has many parts.  Or I could simply answer, “It really happened to me. I am Phil Connors!  I am Sparta!” 

I could say it literally happened to me – which it didn’t – or I could say I was fictionalizing a real experience I had, one of feeling stuck in a repetitive situation, which I didn’t, either.  No, if this story is autobiographical, it is subtly so.  It is resonant with my real life, just as it is with yours.  It is an invented fantasy which can reveal to me its connections if I look for them. 

But I didn’t have to look very far.

Phil’s journey only makes sense if one thing is true about Phil: he has to remember.  

It’s not enough that he has the experience of re-living the same day.  If you think about it, everyone in Punxsutawney – in fact, everyone in the universe – is repeating the day along with Phil.  What makes Phil stand apart is his awareness of the repeating day, and that awareness only exists because he remembers. 

One of the great lessons to me of this story is about how everything that was available to Phil on his first horrible day in Punxsutawney is also available to him on the final, wonderful day.  It was there, but he didn’t see it.  He wasn’t paying attention.  He was paying attention to different things.   In the early days he was paying attention to the ignomy of having to work this low-rent news story.  He was paying attention to the unsophistication of the people he encountered and the idiocy of the holiday and ceremony.  He noticed the cold weather, the unambitious nature of his co-workers, the small and pointless qualities of the town. 

On the final day he was looking at things differently.   You could even say that he became the person who would see a different set of things.

The entire shift in focus happened as a result of his repeated experiences, and the repetition itself was the mechanism that moved him forward.  But he was only aware of the repetition because he remembered. 

What if Phil had a poor memory?

What if he never remembered anything that happened 24 hours in the past?  In that case, he would be in exactly the same boat as the rest of us – from his point of view, every February 2nd was the same February 2nd.  He had never been here before. 

We the audience could know differently, but the movie would have been as tedious as hell.  In fact, when I was writing the screenplay and people would ask me what I was working on, I’d say, “It’s a story about a guy who repeats the same day over and over again.”  Their fixed smiles told me they didn’t “get it,” and in fact more than one person suggested that perhaps this might be a very boring movie.   They were imagining the movie as it would have been had Phil only a 24 hour memory.

What if Phil had a two-day memory?  He could remember as far back as the day before.  The first repetition he would remember February 1st and the first February second, and all would be the way it unfolded in the movie:  he would be disoriented, cautious, confused, perhaps convinced that, since it could not be real, perhaps it was a dream.

The second repetition he would remember that yesterday, February 2nd, he had repeated the day and now he was doing it again.  He would remember that, on the previous day, he had woken up to a repeating day.  I’m kind of bending my brain, here, because it seems that it would be impossible to remember only two days back.  By remembering yesterday he is also remembering the significance of yesterday, which implies that he remembers the day before that.  

Regardless, I can make a distinction between somebody with a very long memory and somebody with a short one.  A person who remembers only two or three repetitions of something will not progress in the same way as a person who remembers tens or hundreds of repetitions. 

How many times do you have to step in the same puddle of cold, slushy water before you remember to avoid it? How many times do you have to wake up with a horrible hangover before you decide to stop drinking?  How many times do you have to turn left on La Cienega at five p.m. before you remember that this will strand you in traffic for two additional hours? 

Repetition of unpleasant things can ultimately cause you to change your behavior.  Repetition of pleasant things works this way, too.  But repetition is meaningless unless you are aware of it, and you can’t be aware of it without memory of it.

How is this movie autobiographical for me?   Does it have to do with my own memory of repetitions and learning?

I in fact have a poor memory.  An extraordinarily poor memory.  I’m the 24 hour guy.

My short-term memory is an icy slope upon which my experiences find no purchase.  They teeter precariously on the ice until the slightest breeze sends them sliding down the mountain and far, far away.  Perhaps you have told me your name for the third time and I still don’t have it.  You would think repetition would have drilled it into me, but since the first two iterations have already slid down the mountain, it’s really just like the first time for me, and may fare no better.

I once wrote a comedy sketch about a woman whose son was kidnapped.  The kidnapper has approached her with explicit directions on how to deliver the ransom, but the woman’s memory is so bad that the bad guy keeps having to repeat the instructions, to his growing frustration.  By the end she can’t even remember that she has a son, much less a kidnapped one.  The frustrated kidnapper gives up. When the husband comes home we realize what he sees in the wife – every night is like the first time.  Now THAT was an autobiographical piece!

Phil learns and changes because of his repetitions, and of course I do, too – just not as quickly.  (My memory is poor, but not non-existent).   Memory explains how Phil is able to change even though the day never changes.  But there’s another way to slice this movie:

Every day for Phil is a chance to live in the now, to be present on that day, to invent his life anew.  This also has to be true for the film to work, and this part I get to do.   “What if you were stuck in the same day every day?”  That’s me.  That’s my story.  That is what a person with a 24 hour memory is able to do on day one, or on day one thousand.  This phenomenon explains why I’m better at creativity than at research, why as an actor I was poor at repeating written lines but excellent at improvisation.   As a writer I don’t remember great dialogue I’ve overheard or interesting characters I’ve met.  But I can make things up. 

A person doesn’t need a memory to be aware of the now and to recreate things as if from scratch.  It’s a different kind of paying attention than memory, a kind that goes horizontally through time instead of vertically.    Repetition and memory helped Phil grow up, and were necessary to his human progress.  But I think that being present and being creative were necessary to his sustaining a life lived on the same day.  I had to understand this in order to write the thing, whether I knew it at the time or not. 


Comment by Al Long
2007-12-10 06:54:57

Another way to slice this movie is this is a movie about a guy that had his options restricted. Here he can only get 24 hours in before the plug is pulled and another day repeats. Worse still, he’s limited by weather so he cannot get far and has difficulty even communicating with the outside world.

Just because the origin of Phil’s limited circumstances is weird and unexplained doesn’t diminish the value of his experiences for the viewer. Why? Because we can relate.

We deal with constricted options all the time. One might break a leg and have to deal with a more-limited life until it’s healed. Maybe it’s an allergy to something. Or a severe health crisis like a spinal injury. Could be one loses a lot of money. The aging process erodes away our faculties. One could join the military. Incarceration is another reality for some.

What makes this movie so relevant, in spite of the quirky means by which Phil’s limits are imposed on him, is it shows how one can respond to a limited world. In the end, Phil chooses a positive means of coping and he grows. We have to deal with changed circumstances all the time. We can appreciate Phil’s experience.

Comment by Danny
2007-12-10 09:16:35

Nice slice! I’ve long felt that one of the greatest ironies of humanity is how people seem to naturally resist change, yet when forced to change are amazingly adaptable. This includes their (our) ability to adapt and flourish when faced with a seemingly diminishing world.
I’ll go into this more soon because life’s amputations have lots of interesting implications, permutations and complications.

By the way, Al, I love your thoughtful comments and contributions. Where are all of your friends?

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-10 10:22:12

You’re assuming I have friends….

I’m trying to pass the word. And I’m going to keep sending comments. Please keep this blog going until people find it. (Unless your readership is to be almost entirely lurkers. That’s a sad thought. Maybe they’ll get so tired of seeing my comments that they’ll start contributing? That’s a happier thought.)

Comment by Danny
2007-12-12 16:06:19

I welcome your visits, Al, and always look forward to your comments. And I’m sorry you have no friends. Might I recommend a dog, particularly one who visits my blog and also makes thoughtful comments.

Comment by Paul Hannam
2007-12-10 21:32:41

Repetition leads Phil to change, yet why do most people who lead repetitive lives fail to make profound changes? Why is recidivsim so prevalent in our prison system? Why do people stay trapped in routine jobs or relationships?

What was different about Phil? Perhaps it was his belief that he was trapped forever that forced him to try ever more extreme responses to his predicament, and lead him to attempted suicides. Perhaps it was the fact that he had more freedom to experiment in Punxsutawney than a prisoner or a very sick person would enjoy – or even a typical person spending every hour working, commuting and supporting their family.

I wonder if it was only when he had given up on every strategy to escape, even multiple suicide attempts, that his old self died and he was ready for genuine change?

Comment by Danny
2007-12-12 17:35:01

Hi, Paul. Welcome to danny-town.

You seem to me to be answering your own questions by asking them – how articulate and efficient of you! I do have some thoughts:

I have an easy answer to the recidivism line of questions. Perhaps these people simply did not live long enough. There are indeed people who have broken out of their unhappy patterns, be they criminal or otherwise. Lots of them. Those people you are referring to are the ones who for a variety of reasons simply needed more time than was allotted to them.

Other people don’t break out because they are getting what they need out of the behavior. They simply haven’t let go of the idea that they have made a choice and change isn’t in fact what they want. They have to let go of having their cake AND eating it, too.

You pointed out that Phil’s ability to kill himself and still change nothing was a situation unique to him. With that kind of “proof”, Phil lost any hope that anything would ever change. The rest of us have no such proof, and are therefore able to live with hope that something out there will change things for us.

That flicker of hope isn’t necessarily bad. It has kept people alive against all odds and has created great things against all odds; but I think it is that same flicker which can keep us clinging to unwanted repetitive patterns.

In terms of your point about Phil’s freedom to experiment, I also agree with this. Still an awfully large infinity of choices exist within the most confined space. Just look at all of the creative ideas that can come from a blank 81/2 by 11 inch sheet of paper.

Name (required)
E-mail (required - never shown publicly)
Your Comment (smaller size | larger size)
You may use <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong> in your comment.