Lately, I’ve found myself wondering if the time spent in lockdown is going to be memorable or if it’s just going to be one long blur of days spent more or less the same way—waking up, staring, trying to work, forgetting to do things, drinking, sleeping. Even the initial flood of pieces about the lockdown experience has mostly dried up, replaced by tweets in which people confess not to know how to get through the sameness of each predictable tomorrow. There’s nothing to say about nothing. Furthermore, no one wants to read about it. No one even wants to write about it (though here I am anyway).
At the same time, however indistinct my memories may be, what’s going on is very much something. It seems likely that before the vaccine has been widely administered we will cross 500,000 American dead. Lockdown life is bad, but for people in my position—employed, childless, and able to work from home—about as good as it can be. I don’t have to risk my health to work. I don’t have children whose online classes I have to manage. I am not in an “at risk” category. From this comparatively sheltered position, lockdown is mostly about living the same day over and over as the background noise of the news grows slowly worse and promises of financial assistance from the government remain confusing and constantly changing.
One of the earlier movies to be released online in lieu of a real theatrical run in 2020 was Palm Springs, a time-loop movie about two people stuck reliving a wedding (not theirs) over and over. By the time Palm Springs went online in July, initial optimism that this state of affairs would last only a month or three was waning. I think it was around this time that the seven o’clock city-wide round of applause in honor of essential workers, which in my neighborhood had become a kind of block party, finally faded away. With no idea of how or when the pandemic would end, the rituals that had been adopted with the idea things were temporary lost their shine.
Palm Springs was a fun, if forgettable, movie that probably would have had greater impact if it had come out the year before. The year 2019 even had its own time-loop hit: Netflix’s TV show Russian Doll (which I wrote about at the time). But by the summer of 2020, people didn’t really need to ask themselves what it would be like to live the same day over and over.
Every time loop-movie or TV show since 1993 has lived in the shadow of Groundhog Day, the Harold Ramis comedy starring Bill Murray as “Phil,” an egocentric weatherman who is forced to live through the same day over and over. Phil is spending this day in a town he dislikes doing a news bit he particularly despises: reporting on the town of Punxsutawney’s annual Groundhog Day festival, in which a groundhog (also named Phil) predicts whether or not there will be six more weeks of winter. (This festival is real, incidentally.)
Since its debut, Groundhog Day has established itself not only as a classic comedy but also as a way of thinking about moral philosophy and life without a future. Although I enjoy a time-loop story, I had never seen Groundhog Day. So toward the end of January I put it on and settled in to see what all the fuss was about.
To me, the genius of Groundhog Day, and the key thing its imitators miss, is that there is no clear reason why Phil ends up in the time loop or why he gets out of it. I’d gone into the movie thinking that it had something to do with the groundhog, but it doesn’t. The moments in which Phil seems to have really changed, let himself be vulnerable, said what he needed to say, or accepted his own powerlessness, don’t grant him freedom. He leaves the time loop a significantly better person than he entered it, but he’s long given up figuring out how to leave. All of Phil’s moral progress occurs in the context of the basic pointlessness of what’s happening to him. And, not to explain the joke, it’s what makes that progress meaningful. He doesn’t become a better person to win a game.
Phil takes advantage of his situation in ways that involve acting impulsively and explosively (running a car off a cliff, for instance) or irresponsibly (eating several breakfasts at once). But it’s curious how little he strays from the pattern of his pre-groundhog days: We see him go to work every day, even though he has no real reason to. Phil could do anything he wants during any given twenty-four hour period, but he broadly follows a daily routine. The closest he comes to acting in a completely different way is in the sequence in which he kills himself in a variety of ways.
In storytelling terms, this makes sense. You convey the reality of the time loop by showing Phil doing the same thing over and over. But his attachment to his routine is one of many bits of the movie that resonate now. People who have kept their jobs keep on waking up and “going” to work. Parents have to shepherd their children through Zoom classes. Award shows and sports events go on even though all the seats are empty. People cope with the disruption of normal life by trying to keep things, institutionally speaking, looking normal. We’re all living in Groundhog Day, except it’s the worst of both worlds: all of the tedious isolation with all of its consequences.
If I remember anything distinctive about this time, I expect it will be the screen: looking at the same screen to work, to see friends, to be entertained, to get the news—all of these screen experiences slowly becoming some version of the worst of all of them. And yet beyond the screen, things continue to happen. People are losing their livelihoods and homes, becoming ill, and dying. Is anyone coming to help them?
* * *
Life under lockdown, for some, is a life of pure consumption: a life without social goods, let alone a social life. Being a good citizen is measured in terms of the conscientiousness of one’s spending: ordering takeout from a local restaurant, paying for a movie from a local theater, having groceries and home goods delivered instead of going out. For people whose immediate work has not placed them on the front line of infection, the message of staying home and consuming for the greater good has led to a form of moral activity that reduces itself to spending money in the right way on the right things, and only that. And, of course, such “virtuous” isolation relies on people who can’t stay at home all day: the cooking staff at the restaurant, the grocery workers packing up your order, the delivery people bringing you what you’ve ordered. Even if staying in is the right thing to do, it is also, in the most basic sense, parasitic.
One early pandemic cliché was complaining about the flood of “pandemic art” we anticipated coming down the pipeline, imagining novels that were about urban middle class subjects lying around and ordering food online. Such novels will likely come, as well as ones about hospital workers and grocery store clerks. We already have movies about being locked down (though I have, so far, avoided them). All the same, it strikes me as unlikely that pandemic art will be primarily about literally transcribing and depicting the lockdown experience. Pandemic art could also look like Groundhog Day or works of paranoid isolation like Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining or John Carpenter’s The Thing: stories about becoming unstuck in time, with stakes and tension that arise precisely because the relationship these stories have with “tomorrow” is tenuous.
As Groundhog Day’s Phil lets go of the possibility of ever reaching tomorrow, he begins to learn to play the piano. Every day across an extended span of days, he shows up to piano lessons as if for the first time, each day progressing a little more. Having exhausted consumption’s possibilities, Phil turns to art. Making art can’t save the world. But it’s better than a life spent in consumption and killing time. And even in a world with no future, one can still make something new.