The 3:30 Project is a collaborative blog by three lifelong friends: Maggie, Mary Margaret and Jillian. We drew inspiration this week from the iconic film ‘Groundhog Day,’ where Bill Murray lives and re-lives the same day over and over again. This week we pick a movie that we’ve watched again and again, returning to the same sights and sounds, songs, characters, lines of dialogue; repeat movie watching can be a deliberately chosen deja vu…so why that film?
If you know me personally, then chances are I’ve begged you – or forced you – to watch the 1985 cult classic, Clue.
If you don’t know me personally, chances are fairly good that you haven’t seen it. It was a bit of a flop when it premiered, and critics found it disappointing. Why, I’ll never understand.
For those unfamiliar, yes, it is indeed based on the old board game. The colorful names are the characters’ aliases for a mysterious dinner party at a mysterious mansion where the dirty secrets that connect them will slowly get untangled while all the secondary characters drop like [murdered] flies. If you’re not already intrigued then I have two words for you: Tim Curry.
Still not sold? Then I’ll give you a little spoiler: for the first five minutes you’ll watch all the fancy dinner guests try to discreetly check their shoes for dog poop.
I’ve loved this movie since I was very young, because of all the physical comedy and silly lines like, “I’m the butler, sir. I butle.”
I love the awkward silences…
…the way the last three murders are met with exasperated resignation…
And long before the internet gave us “I can’t even,” my go-to saying was…
But what’s most remarkable to me now as I think back on it, is how much this outrageous comedy taught me about a very dark chapter in the history of American government: the era of McCarthyism.
When I first fell in love with the movie, I was really too young to understand the details of the plot and its 1954 setting. I didn’t know what communism was. (I didn’t know what a red herring was either.) I didn’t understand why a gay man would be afraid of losing his job. I didn’t understand how a person could be blackmailed for belonging to a fringe political party.
But as my sister and I watched it over and over again, my parents explained to us how, at that time, a person could be persecuted by our own government simply because of their political associations. They explained to us that yes, the director of the FBI had illegally spied on thousands of American citizens. That in addition to leading witch-hunts against communists, J. Edgar Hoover and Senator Joseph McCarthy had persecuted gay people to the point that President Eisenhower banned homosexuals from holding any job with the federal government.
The movie treats the entire era with the absurdity it deserves, with lines like my husband’s favorite:
“Why is J. Edgar Hoover on your phone?!”
“I don’t know. He’s on everyone else’s, why shouldn’t he be on mine?”
But the serious context of the film stuck with me as much as the jokes did, because before Clue, I didn’t know the FBI could be the good guy and the bad guy. I didn’t know that even our great American democracy – the greatest in the world – still had the potential to turn on its own.
My teen years saw the advent of the War on Terror, and I watched that most damning of labels – Unpatriotic! – get thrown down like a hammer on liberals and pacifists. It’s partly thanks to Clue that I knew exactly what that meant.
Here’s the thing, though: communism is always just a red herring.
To explain my connection to the film Little Women, derived from the American classic by Louisa May Alcott, clearly the most appropriate format is the classic three-paragraph, three-pronged essay. English teachers rejoice! **One starting caveat: there are different film adaptations, and people have surprisingly strong opinions! I’m loyal to the 1994 version, but I’m not here to split hairs or make converts; if you hate Winona Ryder, turn back now! Go read a different insightful 3:30 Project post!** Alright, now a thesis statement (underlined so you don’t miss it!) I return and will continue returning to the world of Little Women for family, for costumes, for catharsis.
I saw the film first in the theatre with my whole family. It was one of those Christmas releases that isn’t actually a Christmas movie per se, but with two (TWO!) garland-festooned Christmas scenes feels completely seasonal. How often our connection to a film is imbued with memory, frequently the moment we met the film. In this case my memory of togetherness, experiencing the March sisters with my sisters, is indelibly tied to its re-watching. In my looping, interweaving thought-threads, my dear grandmother also comes into view as the benefactress of my well-worn copy of the novel, where I first loved these characters.
Later we bought the VHS, making the film a companion of my grade school self. A decade before I knew I wanted a career in costuming, the fabrics, cuts, shapes, textures, and hairstyles of the film captivated me! I never tired of Meg’s hoopskirts, Jo’s quaint pantaloons, Beth’s calico prints, and Amy’s rag curls! I attempted to recreate what I saw on paper and on myself using our collection of dress-up clothes. Fourth Grade Halloween saw me happily dressed as Jo March in yellow cotton shift, white apron, and hair in a snood. In retrospect I probably looked more like an Amish person, but I was 9 and working with what I had! In more important retrospect, Little Women and similar period dramas were actually fostering my future career. I unwittingly absorbed the truth that clothes tell stories— acting as functional and symbolic art to reveal sociology, psychology, and create worlds, histories, atmospheres.
I upgraded to DVD during college (VCRS= dinosaurs), entering my long-term relationship with the film. Now, a confession—the third prong. Little Women continually draws me back with a scene that accomplishes a beautiful and rare feat for me: cinematic catharsis. Beth’s death, Jo at her side, has always, always allowed me to cry. It’s a strange gift the movie offers, since as the ancient Greeks knew so well, amid the teeming, overwhelming nature of life, humans require a release-valve. Or simply put in Mom-wisdom: sometimes you just need a good cry in order to move on. So thanks Winona and Claire. Thanks, Little Women, for sometimes helping when I feel overwhelmed.
**Concluding paragraph eschewed while Mary Margaret went to check if the film streams on Netflix.
Happy Groundhog Day!
I think that I may have seen this movie as many times as Phil Connors’ re-lives that fateful Groundhog Day. Each time, I see something different.
The characters in this movie are like old friends that I love for their loveable and eccentric quirks. There’s “Ned the Head Ryerson” the insurance salesman who is annoying and endearing at the same time. I love how at the beginning of the movie, Larry, the camera guy, seems like a great guy in comparison to the rude and arrogant Phil, but by the end of the movie, he seems a little slimy and shallow. I love the manager of the bed and breakfast where Phil finds himself morning after morning. Doris the waitress at the diner. And of course, Rita, the smart, ambitious, compassionate, no-nonsense producer.
I am prone to second guessing myself. “What if I had said this to that person instead of that” “What if I had done this job instead of that job?” “What if I lived here instead of there?” In this movie, Phil Collins has chance to try every possibility of how he could live a single day. He can blow it off. He can see if he can get the prettiest woman in town to go to bed with him. He can rob a bank. He can drive on the train tracks. He can punch Ned Ryerson in the face.
What I ultimately love about this movie, is that Phil tries so many ways to escape his trial – he tries to beat the storm out of town, he has his head examined, he hides, he drinks away his sorrows, he tries to buy his way out, he tries to bargain his way out, he tries to earn his way out, he breaks all the rules, he takes advantage of others, he even tries to end his own life. But ultimately, the only way out is in.
Phil’s transformation begins when he stops thinking of himself as cursed, but comes to think of his day as a gift. He learns to speak French, play the piano and create ice sculptures. He finds that there are problems in Punxsutawney that he can’t solve in one day, but there are problems that he can help with. He saves a young couple’s marriage when the bride gets cold feet. He changes a tire for an elderly lady. He catches a child falling out of a tree. He performs the Heimlich maneuver on a man choking in a restaurant. He brings beauty, music and joy to the day. He becomes a person who gives for the sake of giving.
This story warms my heart because I’d like to believe that given enough time, we will all come to the conclusion that we should live lives of generosity. I’d like to believe that deep down beneath the cynicism, sarcasm, and crust that we all carry with us in our lives that there is a goodness in all of us waiting to get out.