The rodent Punxsutawney Phil has once again cast his beady glance, and the shadows have forewarned: six more weeks of winter before Spring 2012 bursts forth in earnest!
I just completed my annual viewing of Groundhog Day (1993), directed by Harold Ramis and starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell–a classic for a handful of reasons. It’s truly funny and heartwarming as a winter movie. It’s tightly written and a perfect romance (not too saccharin-infused). For me, it’s classic because it so closely follows one of my favorite archetypal stories–The Flying Dutchman, the 1843 opera penned by Richard Wagner.
Many contemporary films follow the outlines of classic stories. The Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) loosely updated the story of Homer’s The Odyssey. Roxanne (1987), the comedy with Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah, was written around the story of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac (1897). Wagner’s opera focused on redemption, a theme that has served many movie scripts, novels and stories for years and years. Groundhog Day is a story of redemption.
In The Flying Dutchman, the heroine, Senta, tells the story of the Dutchman: In raging wind and violent storm / he once sought to round a cape; / he cursed, and in a fit of madness swore, / “In all eternity I’ll not give up!” / Whee! And Satan heard! Yohohe! / Whee! And took him at his word! Yohohe! / Whee! And now, accursed, he roams / the seas without end, without rest! / Yet, so that poor man still could find redemption on earth, / God’s angel showed him the path to salvation! / . . . At anchor every seventh year, / he goes ashore to seek a wife. / Every seventh year he’s wooed, / but never found a faithful wife. / . . . Off to sea, without end, without rest!
At the thunderous finale of this Wagnerian opera, the Dutchman believes that Senta has shown unfaithfulness, so he boards his ship and drops the sails to set off for another seven lonely years. Senta runs to the edge of a Norwegian fjord (Sandvika on Boroy Island, near Tvedestrand, Norway). Here I am, true to you till death!, she shouts, then falls to her demise. The Dutchman’s ghostly ship sinks. He and Senta rise as purified spirits from the wreck of the ship and ascend into heaven. He is redeemed by her love, and they both rise to a new life together.
I’ve never seen the opera, and the music is, well, operatic. It’s the story that’s always fascinated me, so I easily recognized it in Groundhog Day: the “captain of a ship” without a port of destination, cursed for his arrogance to sail for eternity without the relief of death until a woman “dies” for him, achieves redemption through love. A more faithful movie version of the story is Pandora And The Flying Dutchman (1951), with James Mason and Ava Gardner, a beautiful film (and recently restored) in its own right.
In Groundhog Day, the theme of love begins early with the angelically pop voices of Sonny and Cher. Then put your little hand in mine / There ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb / Babe / I got you Babe. Bill Murray’s character would rather die than hear the song one more time. Throughout the movie, he does try to kill himself, but death won’t allow him passage. At one point, he tells Andie MacDowell’s character “I’m a god! I’m immortal!” He’s a captain of his existence (not so good at predicting weather), learning to sculpt ice, play piano, date whoever he wants, perform medical services (although he can’t stop death from taking an old man) and become a full-blown celebrity on what has become his ship–the “town of Punxsutawney.”
In any good story the characters mature, and Murray comes to terms with his arrogance. Like the Flying Dutchman, his arrogance led to his curse, and he begins to seek the love of the one woman who might redeem him, Andie MacDowell. She has to “fall” for him, as Senta ultimately did (off of a cliff) for the Dutch captain. She has to die, in a sense, and in Groundhog Day, she dies to her single life and rises to a new life with Murray. She even empties the entire balance of her checkbook account to purchase him at the Groundhog Day fundraiser, “spending herself” for him, in a sense. Redemption occurs, and Sonny and Cher sink like a wrecked ship.
As a final note, there’s another great film about someone stuck in a town who can’t escape no matter how hard he tries: Red Rock West (1993), with Nicolas Cage, Dennis Hopper and Lara Flynn Boyle. It’s more on the raunchy side of the storyline and less obvious regarding Cage’s redemption, but very funny and full of intrigue right to the end. Groundhog Day and Red Rock West would make a good pairing. –SB