Entrepreneurs of the Animal Kingdom January 28th, 2010

Unique among the plants and animals – or so we believe – humans are able to concern themselves with life’s meaning.  Over the years many (people) have shared with me the meaning they have found in Groundhog Day. 

The most recent example brought to my attention concerns the clock-radio at Phil Connors’ bedside, the radio alarm predictably going off every morning at six a.m. The display shows “6:00”.   A rabbi who enjoys the film saw this number as “600”, representing the age of Noah at the time of the big flood.   This would reflect the great cataclysm flooding through Phil’s life, washing away the sins of his past.  On the final morning of Phil’s movie-life the clock switches to “6:01”, signifying the time after the flood when the rainbow appears and the world begins anew.

I really like that one.  Did I intend it?  Not me.  Did Harold Ramis intend it?  I don’t think so.  Feel free to ask him.  But it doesn’t really matter, does it?  Finding meaning isn’t the same as finding the facts – different people can find different meaning from the same experience, and who is to say that one person’s meaning doesn’t count just because someone else’s is different?

What is clear to me is that with awareness, imagination, and commitment, it is possible to find meaning pretty much anywhere you look.   

Last week I attended a remarkable conference in Monterey called the E.G. (“Entertainment Gathering”).  I understand that Monterey itself is a remarkable place, singular in its awesome beauty.  I never saw it.  I spent the whole time inside at the conference.  Still, I don’t think I missed anything.  That’s how awesome this conference was.  In brief, the E.G. is an informal showcase of great ideas and great lives, what a friend of mine called a “Spa for the mind.” 

One of the presentations included some amazing wildlife cinematography assembled into the Discovery Channel series called “Life.”  The “stories” of various predator/prey relationships were told, such as the “story” of a baby ibex eluding a hungry fox, or the “story” of three cheetahs working together to bring down an ostrich.   I wasn’t looking for meaning in any of this, but the mind wanders.  I’m in the middle of planning new exercises for my screenwriting classes and began to ponder the differences between animal stories and human stories.  I wondered, do all human stories have some basic structure that is drawn from the animal kingdom?   Could imagining a human story that has no animal precedent be a clue to distinguishing what makes us human?

I shared this idea with a typical group of co-conferees – a medical animator, a computer musician, a dot-com creator – and somebody asked for an example of a movie that was uniquely human.  Having an encyclopedic knowledge of all movies ever made (ha) I thought of my movie, Groundhog Day.    

I suppose that all animals face each day as if it is the only one, taking their needs, desires and challenges as they come.  Just like Phil they could on this particular repeating day encounter available food (sponge cake at the diner); a predator to avoid (Ned Ryerson); a potential mate to seduce (Rita).  To whatever extent that this species of animal has memory, it could potentially adapt its behavior to know where the food is and be confident of its location; to know the habits of the predator and learn how to avoid him; and even to try to seduce the mate with repeated efforts.   Certainly some animals in the wild, like us, learn through the experience of repeating days.

What, then, is different about Phil’s experience? 

Beyond his animal needs, Phil has an existential one.  Why even live a life?  What do you choose to do on any given day?  Why choose one thing over another?  What is life’s MEANING?

I think any zoo animal is living in Groundhog Day.  Eventually some of them become lethargic, sedentary, and I think it’s fair to say bored and depressed, just as Phil did.  But can they ever grow beyond that?   My instinct tells me, “no.”  This is perhaps one example of where humans and animals part ways.  Phil’s development and growth seemed in many ways to be a response to his need to understand his own existence, explore its facets and limits, and to discover for himself its meaning.

When looking for examples of human endeavor that are un-paralleled in the wild, each of us in this discussion at the E.G. took a look at our own professions.   My brother, for instance, is particularly good at making connections between people and ideas.  Do animals do that?  Was there a cheetah responsible for introducing the other cheetahs to each other as likely hunting buddies?  “Entrepreneurs of the Animal Kingdom.”  That’s one Discovery Channel documentary I’d like to see.

In the opening scene to Monty Python’s Meaning of Life several goldfish greet each other, then, with nothing left to say, begin to ponder the universe.  “What’s it all about?” they ask.  By showing us what fish wouldn’t do it helps highlight something distinctly human.  Perhaps my writing exercises drawn from the animal kingdom will elicit similar insight from my students on the unique nature of humanity – whether it’s the capacity to search for meaning, or the ability and compulsion to tell stories.


Comment by Mathew
2010-02-16 10:24:58

hi Danny, I continue to enjoy your philosophical musings and esp. how you see the creative process and writing. Have you thought about putting together a book about writing?

Comment by danny
2010-02-16 11:29:08

It’s awfully gratifying that someone out there is reading these things and even asking for more. I really appreciate the feedback, Mathew.
As it so happens I have written a book of sorts that is now out to publishers. It is the original draft of the Groundhog Day screenplay with essays and annotations on the writing and development of the script. I suppose the book is indeed about writing, as you requested, and specifically about how and why writing changes as it encounters Hollywood. Perhaps it will one day be coming to a bookstore or Ebook tablet near you!

Comment by Mathew
2010-02-18 06:21:51

That’s great to hear Groundhog Day (the book) is going to include all of those aspects about the movie. I think the process that a work goes through from writer to the screen is part of the whole story, or world, that the movie inhabits. Also, it’s like the screenwriter is a character interacting with the story that he is bringing to life.

Fun! Fun!

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