Groundhog Day (1993) is almost a quarter of a century old, continuing to make critics’ top ten lists of the ’90s and beguiling new audiences with its curious, magisterial melange of comedy, drama, and allegory, its unsolved puzzles still fuelling intense debate amongst filmgoers.
The broad consensus is that Phil spends just shy of 35 years in Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania, and in this time becomes a master of all before him, a clairvoyant, and dare I say it, a god. Such speculation makes me wonder how long it would conceivably take to get into that zone of total spiritual dedication on multiple fronts, of achieving exceptionalism. It is very seldom that the polymath within us comes to the fore, and a person is very rarely a master of multiple spheres.
The widely held view, first propagated by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers: The Story of Success (2008), is that it takes 10,000 hours of work to master something, to reach peak performance as a disciplined ‘expert’. Gladwell, building upon earlier research by K. Anders Ericsson, uses The Beatles’ extensive time spent in Hamburg (1960-1964) as his example, arguing that their more than 1,200 performances and 10,000 hours of playing time indelibly, crucially, enabled greatness. This ‘deliberate practice’ is a key determiner to achieving esoteric outcomes, but not the only component.
“No one – not rock stars, not professional athletes, not software billionaires, and not even geniuses – ever makes it alone.” – Gladwell.
Here Gladwell emphasises the fundamental importance of environment and upbringing in the realisation of potential, contrasting the fortunes of ‘underachiever’ yet ‘Smartest Man in the World’ Christopher Langan (IQ 210) and Albert Einstein (reputed IQ 150). Social and family connections and the mobility afforded the individual are conducive to ‘making it’.
David Epstein, author of the The Sports Gene (2013), separates innate ability – the hardware – from the software which refines, expands upon that talent, the software being many hours of downloaded practice and learning.
Phil’s software would be his evident intelligence and ability to ‘rote-learn’ circumstances, his hardware the seeming infinity he can utilise to perfect whatever he wishes to perfect – time is his kinship, the ultimate software.
A recent Princeton study, this a grand analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, concluded that practice resulted in only a 12% difference in performance. And if we look at Frans Johansson’s book The Click Moment (2012), he convincingly argues that only areas with ‘super stable structures’ afford a significant improvement in performance from deliberate practice, these stable structures in rules-based fields such as chess and classical music. This would explain Phil’s excelling at piano, at ice sculpting, and as a medical practitioner (illustrated by his expert Heimlich manoeuvre).
The dark core of the movie for me is this eternal conundrum – what happens in the (widely accepted) years and chapters that the viewer doesn’t see? It takes us to deeper, more foreboding possibilities, that it is more than a simple appropriation of the 10,000-hour rule that enables Phil’s eventual success and spiritual exaltation. We certainly see Phil at his lowest ebb – after Rita’s many rejections he ends his life in numerous ways, clearly unwilling to reside in his own personal hell anymore.
Would he not succumb to carnal temptation that the viewer hasn’t seen but is given glimpses of? We see him rob, seduce a local woman with lies, kill the Groundhog, assault an insurance salesman. Would he not go one further and murder, torture, … rape? This is something that some film reviewers have alluded to, and I must confess the topic has occupied many a conversation amongst friends.
The selfess acts Phil performs, all which seamlessly collide to set him free of Groundhog Day, may even be a meticulously prepared plan to go forth anew with a ‘free’ lifetime’s worth of skills and knowledge, and with Rita’s love attained.
That such a family-friendly, PG-rated movie is open to these disconcerting interpretations is testament to its longevity. Phil’s eventual mastery is the product of calculation, dark impulses, sheer hard work, and yes, an inherent goodness; not for nothing has the picture been labelled ‘Capraesque’.
Ideas for a ‘Day after Groundhog Day’ movie are welcomed.