17 December 2020

Comment: Groundhog Day becomes a reality in lockdown

Professor Vanessa Toulmin discusses the similarities of the 2020 lockdown to one of her favourite films Groundhog Day.

The outside of a French cinema

My go to films when I am in need of a lift are usually, in no particular order, Groundhog Day, Calamity Jane, The Sound of Music and Cinema Paradiso. They connect childhood memories of watching musicals with my sisters and brothers to shared experiences in student digs with our own version of singalong A Sound of Music with my friends Lulu and Lesley.

All of them, with the exception of one title, conjure up communal experiences with Cinema Paradiso a celluloid poem to a love of the silver screen. Groundhog Day is different and the one that has become more pertinent and therefore more difficult to watch as the days of lockdown merge into weeks and months.

The initial fear and worry of the few weeks of lockdown became somehow lessened by the glorious sunshine, the clean air and the novelty of being in one place for more than a week. Then the expectation that the restrictions would be lifted lessened and life would return not as we knew it, but somehow better, kinder and more humane. Then the reality of cancellations, rapid reactive changes to long-term events and the transition to the new digital hammered home as suddenly choices had to be made between cancellation or transformation.

With the onset of the new lockdown and the enhanced Tier 3 restrictions, the glass that was always half full suddenly seemed to precipitate as the city that had looked so lush with wildlife taking over the empty streets, now looking shabby, careworn and deserted.

The team I lead for the University of Sheffield rose to the challenge and defiantly put on events in Covid secure venues playing to small but dedicated audiences. Worries about jobs, finance and future planning vanished to the back of one’s mind as the adrenalin kicked in as twenty-five years’ experience in events was pushed to the very limit.

Vanessa Toulmin, Director of City and Culture, University of Sheffield

By November as the nights got darker and the days shorter the energy levels sank as a dementor like coldness appeared to descend on the streets of Walkley. Every day seemed a repetition of the previous one with endless hours of Zoom, Meet, Google hangouts, Blackboard or whatever digital meetings your preference or licence warranted you.

People you met in the street did the new twostep shuffle to ensure social distancing was maintained, face-masks were more common as were accusations and confrontations with those not perceived to be following the rules. Pubs, theatres, all venues were closed and the magic of live experience, be it listening to a band, eating out with friends or a casual interaction by the water cooler, was suddenly a dreamlike moment long vanished. So then Groundhog Day became the film I turned to as I watched Phil Connors trapped in the same day for no apparent reason other than he was a total egomaniac with no empathy for the plight of those around him. I must have watched this film a dozen times or more over the years, mostly to try and spot the continuity mistakes (very few) or to wallow in the charms of Bill Murray. Suddenly I saw it with a different lens, as the feelings I had experienced over the last few months played out in the film.

Act 1. Disbelief, it is just a mistake, this too shall pass.

Act 2. Decadence, a feeling of freedom from conformity and expectation of dress as, according to one online shopping survey, there was an 82% reduction in personal hygiene goods!

Act 3. Despair, anger and frustration at being trapped in the same routine, the same existence daily.

So to Act 4. If you have never seen the film apologies for the spoiler and there are many interpretations of this part. One reading is that Bill Murray realises he has to become a better person and use the time that he has (lots of it) for the greater good. So we are now approaching our own Act 4 of Groundhog Day as a city and as a community when we have to try and think of the bigger picture.

 I am not planning to learn French or play the piano as Bill Murray does nor will I use eternity in endless pursuit of an unattainable object of desire.  Nor do I have the time to suddenly change tyres for elderly people or rescue children falling from trees!  For myself, the fundamental lesson of the film is that compassion and feeling empathy through random acts of kindness or choosing to make sacrifices for the greater good can make a difference for both the giver and the receiver.  In the case of Bill Murray, it eventually led to his escape from the purgatory of his own selfishness but have you ever asked how long did this realisation take him? By repeating the same offences, refusing to accept the reality, framing them as as a comic interlude, the film obscured the dark reality of how many days it actually took.   Phil Connors spent eight years, 8 months and 16 days before he figured it out.  We have only a few months before the pattern can be broken and the vaccine can take effect.