This week, Boing Boing is presenting a series of essays about movies that have had a profound effect on our invited essayists. In my invitation letter, I wrote: "The movie can be a documentary or fiction. It can be short or feature length. It can be live-action or animation. It can be obscure or well-known. It doesn't have to be your favorite film. In fact, you could write about a movie that disturbed you. The only thing that matters is that the movie blew your mind." See all the essays in the Mind Blowing Movies series here. -- Mark
Mind Blowing Movies: Groundhog Day (1993), by Ruben Bolling
[Video Link] When I think of "Mind Blowing Movies," I instantly think of the great science fiction films with twists and tricks that I've loved, like The Matrix, Starship Troopers, and Blade Runner.
But there's a movie that blew my mind with a very different kind of twist.
Groundhog Day is a high-concept movie that, although it's squarely a comedy, could also be considered science fiction or fantasy. In it, Time is playing a cruel and elaborate trick on TV weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray), repeating the same day over and over as a metaphor for the angry rut he's in at the start of the movie.
Murray's performance, as always, is transcendent. And the screenplay is just about perfect, as it continually peels inventive comedic riffs off this premise. Yet these riffs also always work on the other, metaphorical, level for a man stuck in his life.
Phil reacts to his trap in turns with anger, boredom, recreational sex, felonies and desperation. But he keeps on waking up at 6:00 a.m. to the increasingly surreal sound of Sonny and Cher.
Eventually, he turns to the woman for whom he has actual romantic feelings, his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and tries to seduce her, using information he gains from constantly reliving this day. But no matter how he presses these advantages, he can't consummate the new relationship in a single day.
Finally, he levels with Rita, and spends His Day explaining what's happened to him, eventually convincing her it's true.
This is where, when I watched the movie on a chilly day in February of 1993 when it came out, I was sufficiently jaded in the conventions of mainstream movies, to be certain how the movie would end.
Phil would learn that being honest with this wonderful woman was the way out of the rut. He let her into his heart, not in a cynical attempt to bed her, but in order to make a real emotional connection with her. She would finally stay the night with him, and he would find himself out of his literal and metaphorical trap.
She does go to his hotel room, and they have a heart-to-heart while sweetly flipping cards. At this point in the movie, I felt that my contract with the film was more than fulfilled. I'd seen Bill Murray (stop right there: that's usually enough right there) in many funny scenes that fit in perfectly with a comedic premise that worked on multiple levels. Now it was time for the Hollywood ending and the moral that Love Conquers All, and I'd go home satisfied. I reached for my coat.
Phil reads poetry to Rita, then falls asleep, with a genuinely connected Rita right by his side... but then wakes up alone in bed the next (or: same) morning on February 2 again, Sonny and Cher still chirping out of his clock radio.
This couldn't have been a more shocking twist to me than if Phil woke up in a pod next to a naked, bald, slimy Keanu Reeves.
How will this movie end if not with the moral of Redemption Through Romantic Love?
Not necessarily trying to win Rita's love, but trying to become a better person who would deserve her love, he resolves to improve himself and help others. He learns piano and ice sculpture. He does good deeds, saving people he knows are about to suffer mishaps, or worse. He talks to townspeople not out of desperate, aloof boredom, but because he genuinely likes them.
And of course we get the side pleasure of watching Bill Murray in his best Meatballs/Stripes element: good-naturedly kidding around with everyone for the sheer fun of it.
FINALLY, now that he's become a kind, socially engaged person, with the attitude and skills that make him fun, interesting, entertaining and useful to those around him, he truly wins Rita's heart. They spend the night in his room, and they wake up together on February 3. He's broken free.
That a commercial movie like this could somehow flirt with and then explicitly reject the idea that romantic love alone is all you need -- instead using its metaphor to show that a connection to community and service are critical components to a fulfilling life -- was beyond a Twilight-Zone level shock for me.
Defying internal narrative expectations with a surprising plot twist is great fun. But defying meta-expectations of movie conventions with a plot that veers suddenly off to make a great metaphor even more resonant, truthful, and even spiritual -- that's mind blowing.
Ruben Bolling is the author of the award-winning comic strip Tom the Dancing Bug, which premiers every week on BoingBoing.net. Visit his website at tomthedancingbug.com, follow him on Twitter at @RubenBolling, or, best of all, join Tom the Dancing Bug's subscription club, the INNER HIVE.
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