Podcast

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

Rulebook Casefile: Psychological Arcs in Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is a classic example of a movie that follows the general 14-point structure of most stories that are about the solving of a large problem…and it’s also an example of how to incorporate specific pre-described psychological arcs into that structure. Phil’s journey mirrors not one but two psychological models. The story as a whole follows Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief…
  • Denial: Phil thinks it’s all a dream
  • Anger: Punches out Ned Ryerson, blows off his broadcast.
  • Bargaining: Tries to take advantage of situation.
  • Depression: Attempts suicide many times
  • Acceptance: Tries to make use of this gift.
…but those last two steps can also be broken down further, because they mirror the “twelve steps” of Alcoholic’s Anonymous as described by that group’s founder “Bill W.”. We talked before about how Phil doesn’t have much chance to think about his past or make amends for past wrongs that pre-date what we see, but even within the movie’s narrowly-proscribed world, he pretty much manages to cover all 12:
  1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol -- that our lives had become unmanageable: In this case, it’s not alcohol, it’s just selfishness. He hits rock bottom when he ends eight days in a row by getting slapped by Rita, then commits suicide for several days in a row, saying, “I’ve come to the end of me, Rita. There’s no way out now. I just want you to remember that we had a beautiful day together once.”
  2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity: Finally, he decides to just be honest with Rita and tells her that he suspects he might be a god, “Well, not the god, I don’t think, but a god.” After proving that he’s now almost omniscient, she agrees to spend the day with him. At the end of the day, she falls asleep on his bed as he reads poetry, and the only line we hear is “Only god can make a tree.” He realizes that he’s not god after all, because god is a greater power than him.
  3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him: He pauses after reading that line and thinks.
  4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves, and...
  5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs: He says to her. “The worst part is that tomorrow you’ll have forgotten all about this. And you’ll treat me like a jerk again. It’s alright. I am a jerk.”
  6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character, and...
  7. Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings, and...
  8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all: The next morning, he brings Rita and Larry coffee and muffins and does a much better job with his broadcast..
  9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others, and...
  10. Continued to take personal inventory, and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it: He tries to save the homeless man who he refused to give money to before, but he finds that the man will die no matter what.
  11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out: When the homeless person dies again, he gives up on saving him and looks up to the sky with a questioning look.
  12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these Steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs: He helps as many people as he can in the town, doing good all day long, until the whole town is moved by his example, which finally allows him to break out of his spiral.
Of course, it could well be that neither of these arcs was conscious on the part of the screenwriters, and that’s the beauty of it.  These thinkers were describing the nature of problem solving, and any well-written story about solving a similar problem will make the same discoveries on its own.  Ultimately, self-help gurus and writers are doing the same job: identifying the universal human nature underlying our problems.

5 comments:

j.s. said...

Another good case made for your view that story structure is discovered not imposed. Which reminds me to once again recommend Jonathan Gottschall's THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL.

Though I tend to agree with this idea -- in general and specifically with regard to this post -- I do wonder if the underlying "discovered/uncovered" structures tend to change much throughout human history, in different times and places. You could graph the GROUNDHOG DAY arc onto SCROOGED or even Dickens' original story, but neither Bill W's nor Kubler-Ross' insights would have played with Ancient Sumerians or cavemen, right? In part because they were likely preoccupied with different needs in their hierarchy. But also, perhaps, because their stories derived from fundamentally different concerns and cosmologies?

Matt Bird said...

Ah, but the Sumerian epic "Gilgamesh" follows the Kubler-Ross arc more perfectly than maybe any other story ever!

j.s. said...

I should have said Etruscan instead! Seriously, though, aren't there epochal limits to the universality of human experience? Would the Ancient Greeks, so adept at the separate forms of tragedy and comedy recognize themselves in a Woody Allen dramady? And what about the relatively recent Western notion of romantic love -- could anyone born before a certain date in history really relate to a contemporary Romcom?

Matt Bird said...

I think that this is why some psychological models endure more than others. The better the model is, the more applicable it'll be, throughout space and time. In the movie we'll be looking at next week, I'll discussing what can "date" a movie (as in "this movie makes assumptions that we don't make any more"), as opposed to merely making that movie a portrait of its time.

j.s. said...

I'll be interested to see what's coming. Though I do think that the larger the timespan, the more difficult it is to predict what assumptions we won't be making anymore. Or more difficult still, what new assumptions we might all share in the future (the Singularity probably won't be needing stories as we understand them now). This is why, I suppose, many of the most ancient and primitive tales still resonate. Lizard brain survival stuff -- like chasing or running from animals/monsters, defending one's turf or the comedy equivalent, the pratfall. But you wouldn't do very well trying to foist detective stories (rise of the cities, "civilizing" of the war of all against all into more limited interpersonal crime) or science fiction (the Industrial Revolution, the alienation of humans by our machines) on ancient agrarian nomads.