London: BFI publishing, 2004.
ISBN: 1 84457 032 0
(Review copy supplied by BFI publishing)
On a certain level, one can hardly disagree with the Sunday Times when it declared years ago that the Film Classics series is “one of the best ideas BFI Publishing has had.” These books are irresistible collector’s items designed to inform and enhance readers’ experiences of films. As a general rule, they adhere to a standard mix of production history, textual analysis, and social, cultural and political contextualization. However in the actual execution of each volume, the collection has turned out quite unevenly, especially among the more recent editions – a variation in quality that lies, I suspect, in the irregular abilities of its writers.
Among the series, you will not find a more natural pairing of film and writer than in Stagecoach and Ed Buscombe (BFI 1992, followed by companions to The Searchers, BFI 2000, and Unforgiven, BFI 2004), or in Citizen Kane and Laura Mulvey (BFI 1992). These companions enjoy the benefits of the scholars’ encyclopedic knowledge of films well within their research specialties as well as their thoroughly original insights. Nevertheless, the BFI might have given us too much of a good thing. As the popularity of this series grows and as more contributors latch onto the appeal of this project, BFI Publishing loosened the definition of “classic” and cast its net for writers ever wider.
When the BFI extended the original list of 360 “Film Classics”, which was associated with a project of its national film archive, it initiated a new series for films made after 1980. The resulting “Modern Classics” series is good for business. But even without questioning that inherent contradiction in terms, one has to wonder if more than a few years must pass before anyone can obtain the true measure of a “classic” film. The position of Stagecoach, The Searchers and Citizen Kane within the cinematic canon is certainly far clearer now than they were in the 3-5 years after first release. Furthermore, the series might suffer additionally if the reins of these books are increasingly transferred to the hands of film critics from the popular press. To be clear, I am not arguing that film studies academics like Buscombe and Mulvey hold a monopoly on intuition. Nor am I saying that a variety of critical perspectives is a bad thing; who would not for instance, be curious about Salman Rushdie’s fascination with The Wizard of Oz (BFI, 1992)? The BFI understood this from the beginning, limiting the books’ length to remain inviting to all writers.
But clearly, academics are for the most part better trained in historical methodology, while the contemporary film critic is often given to slapdash intertextual references and also likely to mistake plot summary for something substantive. Walter Benjamin’s prognosis is proving very accurate: the mechanically reproduced and popularly consumed art form has indeed spawned more than its own share of experts.
The weaknesses of Ryan Gilbey’s treatise on Groundog Day overlap significantly with the more unenlightening strains of popular film criticism. Most people these days equate film criticism with the weekly reviews published every weekend in the newspaper – quasi-critical pieces whose ostensible purpose is to guide filmgoers towards the more worthwhile movies opening at their local theaters. It is apparently necessary for these articles to contain, usually near the beginning and borrowing heavily from the press packet, a fairly detailed plot summary. How often is this exposition then followed by a list of film references that are more vague than fully explained? How often does a cast or crew member’s filmography then stand alone as knowledge that feels as though it should have more explanatory power? And how regularly are readers of reviews expected to take evaluative adjectives at face value?
Gilbey’s book falls into every one of these traps. He expends great effort on an unnecessarily detailed description of the film, at times a tedious shot-by-shot report that yields only occasional insight. In fact, the book’s chapter breakdown is essentially a textbook division of the film’s beginning, middle and end. Firstly, a reader of this book is in all likelihood someone who has already viewed the film, perhaps more than once. The need for this meticulous verbal rendering of the movie simply isn’t there. Secondly, a writer who is slave to a film’s chronology to such a degree runs the risk of losing track of his own points.
Among the riper and more interesting claims that Gilbey makes is one that he uses to begin the book: the observation that Groundog Day is remarkably experimental for a Hollywood product, and uncharacteristically bleak for the romantic comedy formula. Gilbey is right to plow the darker reaches of the film for its profundity, but even more correct to scrutinize its ambivalence. With access to early drafts of the script and the advantage of an interview with screenwriter Danny Rubin, one could have expected a more conclusive account of how the industrial nature of Hollywood filmmaking and its business concerns exerted specific influences on the first more “existential” version of the film. Instead, Gilbey mostly attributes script changes to the need for narrative efficiency and to authorial input from director Harold Ramis and star Bill Murray. The studio remains an elephant in the room in Gilbey’s account of the film’s evolution. It is a pity, for it would have been so easy to link his argument regarding Groundog Day’s anomalous quality to the art versus business dichotomy.
Towards such an end, Tad Friend’s recent and surprisingly rich essay on Ramis’s oeuvre in The New Yorker (April 19, 2004) might actually be able to fill in those blanks. It provides a complex portrait of the director and a complicated take on auterism. While Friend argues for Ramis’s considerable creative influence on contemporary Hollywood comedy, he also reveals the director as a pliant filmmaker who has over the years been willing to compromise and adopt Hollywood idealism. For example, far from having purist visions, Ramis readily uses audience testing. He might well be, like Howard Hawks, a strange Hollywood creature: equal parts metteur-en-scene and artist. Likewise, Groundog Day is also such a creature, but Gilbey only points out its strangeness without much follow-through.
The author does make solid work out of analyzing Bill Murray’s screen persona, which is made more difficult by the very multi-layered incredulity that marks it. But these productive moments tend to get lost in the preoccupation with plot summary and scene descriptions. Gilbey skims many surfaces with sentences like these:
Cinemas routinely programme repetitive or derivative movies, but Groundog Day is one of the few films that takes repetition as its subject.(32)
Here, he relates two rather different kinds of repetition, one of a business model, the other more philosophical. To be clear, I am not criticizing the author for not launching into a polysyllabic meditation on Freud and Deleuze, but the pendulum swings completely the other way. The film’s complexity only magnifies the criticism’s thinness. Still, Gilbey is only inches away from a more ambitious statement, that Groundog Day is a film profoundly about cinema, certainly a plausible claim that is unmade. Towards the end and on a completely different note, Gilbey indeed compares the movie’s temporal play to the manipulability that DVDs give us. It is a connection that this reader had to make for him. Elsewhere, he traces the film’s lineage among other films that use temporal loops, flitting from Jacques Rivette to Stanley Kubrick to David Lynch and Chris Marker in the same breath. But again, the book prefers to connect the dots rather than paint the full picture.
If Groundog Day is a film about films, similarly, the shortcomings of this book point to the larger issue concerning the BFI Classics series. In counseling students, I always recommend that they should wherever possible, choose courses on the basis of the instructor rather than the topic. Maybe if we adjusted our reader expectations for these books according to the critic instead of the film, the aforementioned unevenness might dissipate.
University of Iowa.
Created on: Monday, 6 December 2004 | Last Updated: 6-Dec-04