Monday, March 3, 2014

It's Cold Out There Every Day

[This post contains spoilers for The Ice Harvest as well as Groundhog Day, but you've all seen the latter anyway]

Shortly after seeing Harold Ramis's The Ice Harvest in 2006, something occurred to me. Before I tell you what that something is, I should note that The Ice Harvest, a somewhat neglected entry in the late Ramis's filmography, is a favorite of mine, and when Ramis died on February 24 it was the first movie I thought to watch in his honor. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend that you take care of this as soon as you possibly can, and once you have perhaps you, too, will find something occurring to you. And that something is that The Ice Harvest in many ways closely resembles, and in fact functions as a sort of inverted restating of, Ramis's beloved 1993 masterpiece Groundhog Day.

In Groundhog Day, to catch you up, Bill Murray plays Phil Connors a cynical and intensely arrogant Pittsburgh weatherman who, as the film begins, is begrudgingly making his annual trip to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the Groundhog Day ceremony, which involves the removing of Punxsutawney Phil, groundhog, from a hole and announcing his prognostication regarding how many more weeks of winter we will or will not have. So with his his cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott) and his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell) in tow, Phil, weatherman, goes there and in general acts like a big-city asshole. However, his prediction that a blizzard will not hit the area turns out to be wrong, and Phil realizes he's snowed in, in Punxsutawney. The next morning, he wakes up to the same sounds and sights and conversations he'd had the morning before. He's freaked out, but just tries to roll with it, until it happens again the next morning. And again and again and again.
So that's the premise. In The Ice Harvest, John Cusack plays Charlie Arglist, a mob lawyer in Wichita, KS who, on Christmas Eve, and during a terrible ice storm, and with Vic Cavanaugh (Bill Bob Thornton), his pornographer colleague -- "friend" seems too strong -- has just robbed Bill Guerrard (Randy Quaid), Wichita's reigning mob boss. The ice storm has made it impossible for the men to skip town as expeditiously as they'd like, so they have no choice but to wait it out. As it happens, though, "waiting it out" ends up involving Charlie nursing the love he has for Renata (Connie Nielsen), who owns the strip club Charlie frequents, and therefore choosing to help her blackmail a local politician. Charlie also spends a lot of time escorting his drunk friend Pete (Oliver Platt), who is unhappily married to Charlie's ex-wife. Charlie also spends a lot of time afraid that Roy Gelles (Mike Starr), one of Guerrard's thugs, is on to the robbery, and communicating (in person, since he slipped on the ice and broke his cell phone) with an aggravated Vic, to see what should be done about this. And so on and so on.

Now, those two summaries may not seem to you to offer up a lot of similarities, but I do hope you'll have noticed on theme joining the two, which is the inability to escape an unhappy situation due to inclement weather -- this is sort of key. A blizzard keeps Phil Connors locked into this fantasy zone of Punxsutawney (let's just say that Punxsutawney is magical and that's why this happened) and so forces him to relive the same day over and over again. One of the many ingenious aspects of Groundhog Day is the logical progression of Phil's attitude towards his situation. First, he's frightened, but soon he sees the potential to take advantage of every selfish, even borderline sociopathic, impulse his natural personality has ever entertained, and without consequence. But when one of those impulses -- to seduce Rita by using what he's learned about her over the course of possibly hundreds of conversations with her that he remembers but which she doesn't -- leads him to fall in love with her, only to start from zero the next morning, an existential despair takes hold and he turns to suicide. Which doesn't work.

The Ice Harvest, meanwhile, begins with Charlie in the grip of existential despair. He's about at the point Phil is after maybe suicide attempt number three, though without the "let's throw this at the wall and see what sticks" attitude Phil is able to bring to his attempts, Charlie is content to simply do something that many people would only consider suicidal, which is, he rips off a violent mob boss. He hopes it will free him from the clutches of his miserable, amoral existence, but while the fear of death is a key motivator of Charlie's actions throughout the film, its not unreasonable to think that somewhere in his subconscious his thinking is "No matter how this ends up, I'm out." What's great about the character of Charlie Arglist is that he's a miserable shit of a human being who knows exactly what he is and hates himself. By the time we meet him, most of the miserable shittiness he's ever done in his life has already been done, but the regret of it all hangs like death over him, and lives in Cusack's face (this is Cusack's best performance, as far as I'm concerned). Now he wants to start from scratch, as Phil does every morning, or barring that, to die.
So, picking up with Groundhog Day, Phil's inability to kill himself flips a switch in his mind and he begins a new phase. He begins to learn things, to not behave selfishly, to help prevent as many of the big and small mishaps that he has by now learned will transpire over the course of one February 2 in Punxsutawney (the fact that he can't prevent the death of an elderly homeless man, no matter how hard he tries, is perhaps one of the many nods by Ramis to his own self-defined "Budd-ish"-ness). In short, he starts to become a better person. I put the bit about Ramis being "Budd-ish" in parentheses, but of course it's more than a parenthetical in Groundhog Day, as each new day is sort of a new life, and as he goes along his wisdom expands, his self-absorption drains away, and he becomes the shining light of Punxsutawney.

Of course, this doesn't quite happen to Charlie Arglist, but some version of it does. As his night wears on, Charlie witnesses, and even takes part in, some horrendous things. He has associated himself, willingly, with murderers. He disposes of corpses. He sees people die. He kills people (he sort of has to, but the Buddhists would frown on it anyway). Pete, who is maybe his best friend, is a drunken lout. In all honesty, the film tries to let Charlie off the hook a little bit regarding his ex-wife by giving evidence that she's no prize, but they don't let him off the hook regarding his kids, who have clearly suffered because of him, and on top of that, when Charlie and Pete blunder into Pete's home in the middle of a Christmas Eve dinner with the in-laws, Pete's father-in-law offers the two of them a pretty strong and utterly fair rebuke. Pete behaves appallingly, drunk and boorish and profane, no matter how unpleasant his wife, Charlie's ex, is, because she ain't the only one sitting down to dinner. Anyway, so this is Charlie's friend. And as this all plays out, the horrors of Charlie's Christmas Eve, Charlie's disgust, with himself and others, continues to boil. Like Phil, he breaks through the awfulness. Phil becomes a wonderful person, and Charlie becomes, at best, an acceptable person. In Groundhog Day, as things get better for Phil, Phil gets better. In The Ice Harvest, Charlie gets better as things get worse for him. By the end of Groundhog Day Phil has helped out pretty much everybody in town. The last thing Charlie does before finally getting out of Wichita is to help the strip club's bartender, who's trying to take his family to Six Flags, siphon some of his gas. It's something, anyway.

Phil's endless loop finally ends, and February 2 turns into February 3. There's no literal time loop in The Ice Harvest, but the film has sort of a motto that implies a metaphorical, or maybe linguistic, or anyway thematically appropriate if somewhat mysterious version. It's first seen written as graffiti above a urinal in the strip club men's room (curiously appropriate) and it says "As Wichita Falls, so falls Wichita Falls." At first glance it almost seems like the phrase is eating its own tail, but of course it isn't -- there's a way out of it. It also implies a sort of crumbling, of big things, everything, crashing down around your ears. But there's still a way out of it. The temperature warms up, the ice thaws, the roads clear, and you and your hungover friend can drive away from the ruins.

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