Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Art of Repetition

Perhaps the greatest compliment that can be paid to the movie "Groundhog Day," which was released 20 years ago today, is the fact that the movie's title has become a cliche.

Today, when someone mentions Groundhog Day, the thought that comes to mind is the sensation of deja vu, of repeatedly re–living the same experience. It is not what it once was, a rather superstitious ritual used to predict the duration of winter based on whether a groundhog sees his shadow.

Yogi Berra summed it up decades ago when he said something was "like deja vu all over again."

In some ways that sounds good — or, at least, it would be if one could select the experience that is being re–lived or, if you had no choice, if it was a good experience.

At one point in the movie, Bill Murray recalled an idyllic day he spent on a beach with a beautiful companion and he said wistfully, "That was a pretty good day. Why couldn't I get that day over and over and over?"

But Murray was forced instead to re–live a cold, snowy Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, Penn. And nothing could alter that fact. At first, it was an advantage. Then it became a burden. He threw caution to the wind, taking every foolhardy risk he could, and it seemed he had succeeded, but the next morning, he awoke in the same bed. February 3 never came.

The viewer could feel his frustration as he awoke to the same day every day. Heck, just having to listen to Sonny and Cher singing "I Got You, Babe" when Murray's alarm clock went off every morning was enough to drive a man insane, and Murray seemed to be dangerously close to that on occasion.

One of my favorite lines in the movie is near the end when Murray looks outside and discovers he has escaped the clutches of Groundhog Day.

"Today is tomorrow," he says with a sense of relief that can only be compared to a child's reaction to the arrival of Christmas morning. "It happened."

Its arrival is preceded by a sometimes grueling journey of personal discovery for Murray's character. Once self–centered, he develops a real empathy for others that is at once charming and redeeming for the viewer.

As a general rule, I am not a fan of Andie MacDowell, but I thought she did a reasonably good job of playing Rita, Murray's colleague who is at first skeptical of his story but comes to believe him — in spite of the rather ham–handed way Murray's character tried to use his new reality to seduce her in much the way he earlier seduced an unsuspecting female in the Groundhog Day festivities.

(Actually, 1993 was a pretty good year for MacDowell. She also appeared in "Short Cuts," one of my favorite movies of the '90s, later in the year.)

Nor, for that matter, have I ever been much of a fan of Chris Elliott, who was passable but mostly forgettable in the role of Larry the cameraman.

Even so, he was made better by the quality of the material — as was everyone else.

I've watched the movie several times, and I take something new from it every time.

Each time, though, it is a great lesson that never hurts to be repeated.

That is appropriate, is it not? Repetition is, after all, at the heart of "Groundhog Day."