We were walking in the drizzle. Not far off the road bristled with traffic. We’d been talking about the turn of the Millenium, about how those years feel so utterly innocent, so free from anxiety from today’s vantage point. You can see it in the films, we said. Then we paused and thought again. Sure, the cinema of the 1990s and early ’00s may have been richer in teen comedies and light-hearted romps than it was in dystopian dramas, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t equally riddled with a sense of disillusionment.
It’s all there in three classic films: Groundhog Day (1993), The Truman Show (1998) and Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind (2004). Despite their tonal and stylistic difference, each of these films centres on a character attempting to find meaning in a world out of their control; all feature individuals attempting to come to terms with the unbearable monotony of freedom, and all lead us to question how we should live in a world where everything is handed to us.
1993’s Groundhog Day is the epitome of an instant classic. On release, it was immediately compared to It’s A Wonderful Life but with a message more relevant to contemporary times. The film features a delightfully curmudgeonly Bill Murray as Phil, a successful but miserable news reporter whose dreams of upward mobility are crushed when he realises he will be spending eternity reliving the same day over and over in the same backwater town.
Initially, Phil is overcome with the joy of possibility. With no tomorrow, he can do whatever he wants and sets about bending society’s boundaries to his will. He gets beautiful women to sleep with him, punches old rivals, and revels in the hedonism afforded by a life in which actions are devoid of consequences. As it gradually dawns on him that he is trapped inside a false reality, he grows increasingly desperate. In an effort to escape the time loop, he attempts all manner of suicide techniques, jumping from a building, electrocuting himself in the bath and driving off a cliff, killing a blissfully ignorant groundhog in the process. Tired of life, he comes to ask: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?”
Fortuitously released during Bill Clinton’s first year of office, Groundhog Day was perfectly matched to the new mood pulsing through America, one that said kindness, generosity and community were more important than the “greed is good” mantra of the 1980s. The artificiality of Phil’s freedom inside the loop echoes the hollowness of a life lived in the pursuit of wealth and power. It’s no surprise that the only way Phil escapes his nightmare is by learning to put aside his selfish desires in favour of a more loving and collective attitude. While his actions have no harmful consequences, they also have no beneficial ones. They serve only to keep Phil locked inside a circle of perfect equilibrium in which everything is known and nothing has value. American society in the 1990s also found itself locked inside this kind of existence. Strong economic growth coupled with steady job creation, low inflation, rising productivity and a surging stock market gave the impression that life was better than it had ever been. Groundhog Day seems to criticise the supposed infallibility of late capitalist economics, suggesting not only that it leaves one’s spirit empty but that it might just be some elaborate magic trick, a system of repeating habitual rhythms designed to fool us into feeling content. With the financial crash of 2007, which was itself caused by trigger-happy banks handing out mortgages to anyone and everyone, that illusion was finally laid bare.
This distrust of power is also an essential feature of 1998’s The Truman Show starring Jim Carrey. The film tells the story of a man named Truman Burbank, who has been born and raised – unbeknownst to him – in a gigantic television studio designed to resemble the real world. Truman grows up completely unaware that his life and his entire reality are a fabrication; that is until light falls from the sky, the first of many ruptures to this all-consuming illusion. Indeed, everything in Burbank’s life gradually turns out to be a feature of the TV show that is his life. Teachers, friends, strangers: even the words of his family members have been scripted. Conversations are never just conversations but opportunities for the TV network to sell a certain product to the viewing public or else to keep Burbank locked inside his fake reality.
Much like Phil in Groundhog Day, the more Truman questions the nature of his reality, the more he realises just how ridiculous it is, setting him on a spiral towards madness. “Why don’t you let me fix you some of this new Moccocoa drink,” says Truman’s wife, Meryl, turning to face the studio cameras. “What the hell are you talking about?” Truman replies as his wife’s pearly smile begins to wither. “What the hell does this have to do with anything!” he yells, echoing a discontent not only with the consumer-addled modern world but with the artificiality and emptiness it engenders.
It’s no accident that Truman’s home town has been designed to resemble a 1950s suburban idyll. White picket fences, homemade apple pies, besuited businessmen with wide smiles: the town of Seaside, Florida, is riddled with the iconography of the American dream. Truman’s gradual realisation that this iconography has, in fact, been put in place by a set dresser reflects growing disillusionment with America’s founding myth and a disdain for those who continued to espouse its benefits. The Truman Show shows us how the way we perceive reality is governed not by our own will but by the dominant ideology of the time. Truman’s world is much like our own in that the messaging of that ideology is embedded in every corner of society. From education to the media and government, everything ends up being a mouthpiece for the system.
According to a study conducted by John Zogby, the Millenium coincided with a redefinition of the American Dream. He discovered that while one-third of Americans still believe the American Dream meant being financially secure and having access to consumer products, an equal proportion rejected the ideal’s emphasis on materialism. These “Secular Spiritualists” (descendants of the counterculture movement) believed that life was about being genuine, about achieving a legacy larger than one’s self.” And yet, they continued to submit to consumer capitalism. Why? Well according to Michel Gondry, the director of 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, because submitting to the dominant ideology is so damn appealing. Gondry’s film is set in a world in which individuals are able to have their memories removed for a fixed price. It is a world in which people are so familiar with having their emotions manipulated by third parties that they happily give up their memories to avoid pain, grief and heartache.
Rewatching Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, I’m reminded of Slavoj Žižek’s observation that our familiarity with being given a product without that product’s harmful aspects is beginning to affect our understanding of romance. In the same way we want sugar without the calories and beer without the alcohol, we also want intimacy without the fatal attachment that follows falling in love. This is precisely the mistake Joel and Clementine make, Gondry argues.
The pair are flawed individuals who lack objective judgment because they have been taught to live according to their own individualistic desires. Their decision to erase one another from their lives is determinantal because it cuts them off from suffering. In the same way that Phil and Truman’s lives are empty because they are devoid of pain the world of ESSM is nightmarish precisely because everything is so readily available. By the end of the film, however, the director has proposed that the very suffering these characters have been seeking to avoid is what makes their love worthwhile and meaningful.
Groundhog Day, The Truman Show, and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind all betray a deep fear about our relationship with society at large. They each paint a picture of a world entirely like our own: worlds in which people rarely want or need anything. We don’t need to hunt for food. Nor are we in danger of having our village burnt to the ground by some marauding raiding party. Each of these films seems to suggest that what we should fear is the very comfort we have dedicated thousands of years securing. After all, what is life without a little rain?