Early in Natasha Kermani’s surreal and sharply sardonic horror movie Lucky (which I saw at this year’s online-only Fantasia Film Festival), Brea Grant’s sovereign May awakens in the night to find a man outside her window, staring back at her. Petrified, May hisses at her husband Ted (Dhruv Uday Singh) to wake up, telling him there’s a man outside, to which he casually replies, “Honey, that’s the man”. Bewildered, May demands to know what he’s talking about. “The man who comes every night and tries to kill us”. Beside herself, May stares mouth agape at her partner, who coolly rises from the bed, grabs a golf club, and heads for the bedroom door. “May come on, get up, we have to fight for our lives now”.
To her surprise, Ted was right. In a Twilight Zone-esque turn of events, the same masked man arrives every night at her door like a traveling salesman, peddling pretty blades and squabbles in the kitchen, disappearing just as quickly as he appeared, seemingly invincible. This déjà vu repeats often enough that May grows weary, unable to break her loop. She stabs and kicks and punches and shoves, but no matter how much blood she spills, the man reappears every night, ready to tussle. An apparition in the gloom, quiet like a fight.
It may come across like a peculiar plot device, or a melodramatic metaphor about the indifferent stars above. Yet, this is not the only recent film to portray a young person caught within the confines of a time loop. It was only a few months back in July when Max Barbakow released his film Palm Springs on Hulu. Beguiling, heady and hilarious, the romantic comedy starring Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti as two single people stuck at the same wedding forever doubles as an eerie reminder of the repeating dystopia we find ourselves in while quarantined at home in the middle of a pandemic.
Individualism is the belief that personal needs are more important than society, and the needs of society. Whereas members of collectivist cultures – typically eastern cultures – tend to be more interdependent, placing social and familial obligations above all else, individualistic cultures – typically westerners – place a greater emphasis on the self. Just as psychology professor Boaz Keysar points out, those who grow up in individualistic cultures more often “strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.” In other words, Americans are more likely to begin sentences with the word “I”, they are more prone to place selfie connoisseurs on a pedestal, and they are more inclined to leave their loved ones behind in order embark on a journey to ‘find themselves.’ Americans are also more likely to give their babies unique names like ‘North’ or ‘Apple.’ It’s all a part of the rapidly growing momentum that’s been pushing the country more in the direction of the individual ever since the baby boomer era following the end of World War II.
Conformity was big in the 1950s, but it wasn’t meant to last. The Great War had men volunteering left and right to defend their country, but by the time World War II rolled around, being a model citizen didn’t quite carry the same charm. Why should young men die to fight old men’s wars? In particular, why should men of color have to die for a country that treats them like animals? The draft forced naysayers to comply, adding to the already hesitant attitude that was gathering steam around the youth of the nation. By the time Vietnam called upon its people to leave their homes and fly overseas to engage in a questionable skirmish, nearly everyone had had enough.
Even if you somehow knew next to nothing about politics, America’s first broadcasted war showed families footage of the men in the jungle on their television sets. The war was brought right into their homes. Flower children bloomed into existence, rock and roll shook up gender norms, and the typical Cadillac-driving, chain-smoking, Stetson hat wearing gent all but disappeared. Conformity had lost its edge. Society’s idea of ‘normal’ took a backseat to free love and self-actualization, while simultaneously a profitable wartime drove the economy to greater financial success, thereby incidentally adding to the progression of the inevitable. Socioeconomic development only further drove the rise in individualism.
Of course, it’s not all bad news. In fact, there’s a lot of positive here. To a certain extent, individualism is a necessary part of growing up. Learning to love yourself for who you are requires finding out who you are; finding your place in the world. Benito Mussolini did his best to suppress individualism in pre World War I Rome by building the EUR, AKA the Esposizione Universale Roma in 1930. A residential district, the area was meant to serve as the site for the 1942 World’s Fair, where he planned to celebrate the triumph of fascism. The buildings were constructed as an intimidation tactic, to remind the people that the state reigned supreme, designed to make the individual below feel small, meaningless, and disposable.
Increases in individualism are linked to increases in education, household income, and white collar jobs, as reported by Santos & Grossman in Science Daily. Wanting to stand out from the crowd, sticking up for your beliefs, discovering what makes you happy – these are all undoubtedly good things. However, with increased individualism comes decreased empathy. Narcissism. Celebrity idol worship. A lack of perspective shared with one’s neighbor, increased self-involvement, fear of those perceived as ‘different,’ xenophobia, hatred, bigotry, sexism, racism, homophobia, classism – until eventually we land a TV show host who casually condones white supremacy as the President of the United States.
Using Groundhog Day type tropes as a vehicle to challenge repeated societal patterns is a cinematic tactic that has long intrigued filmmakers throughout history. In 2019 President Trump was in the midst of trying to implement his policy to limit Central American migrants’ ability to seek asylum at the U.S. border. Writer/director Gigi Saul Guerrero released her debut feature Culture Shock for Blumhouse’s Into the Dark series, a gritty portrayal of marginalized communities trying to cross the border into America, but somehow winding up in a Stepford Wives style utopia where every day is the same. Guerrero plays at the idea of a new beginning, a fresh start in a new land, but ultimately this Fourth of July-set scenario provides a commentary on the border crisis, illustrating the way imperialistic nations use outsiders as indentured servants in order to further their capitalist agenda.
In 2019 Happy Death Day 2U, Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds herself caught within an endless loop, living the same day over and over again, only to die every night at the hands of a baby-faced killer.
Just a few weeks prior to Blumhouse’s sequel to their hit comedic thriller, Netflix released a limited series called Russian Doll, wherein Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) is a New York City game developer who keeps randomly dying on the eve of her thirty-sixth birthday party, only to reset at the start of the night, staring back at herself in front of her best friend’s bathroom mirror, time and time again. Worried she might be losing her mind, Natasha begins to investigate the reason behind her mysterious deaths and her even stranger sudden and unnoticed resurrections.
By living the same day over and over, each time altering the events ever so slightly in the hopes of cracking the case and breaking the loop, both Tree and Nadia are forced to come to terms with their own shameful behavior. As Tree remarks in the first Happy Death Day film, “You know what’s funny? You live the same day over and over again; you start to see who you are”.
In 2017 director Sun-ho Cho released his film simply titled A Day, a story about a man cursed to repeat the same day over and over again until he finds a way to save his daughter from a tragic fate. 2019’s Sundance Film Festival featured Johannes Nyholm’s Koko-di, Koko-da, a Swedish drama about a couple that goes on a trip to find their way back to each other, but winds up repeating the events of the day over and over as a shady entourage terrorizes them in the woods.
What’s important about these time traveling films isn’t just what they have in common, it’s when. Why are two separate programs with entirely different creators all depicting young people trapped in time, repeating the same day over and over, specifically now, in the year 2020? What makes these time traveling stories so timely? The answer is rugged individualism, a trademark of western civilization that has become so normalized, it would take an event of such colossal magnitude as a time loop to allow for the introspection required to become privy to its presence.
Why now, would Natasha Kermani and Max Barbakow, two filmmakers from opposite sides of the globe, both happen to make Groundhog Day-esque projects simultaneously released right around the same time? Their characters are a manifestation of the culture in which they reside. Both May and Sarah believe it’s better to go it alone, to stay where it’s safe and isolated, away from the demands of everyone else. Both characters live inside of an individualistic nation that enables their self-centeredness. Both Sarah and May contributed to the destruction of their most valued personal relationships, and both must stop trying to run away from the world in order to hide their shame. Both must face the past in order to move forward. If Sarah can look outside of herself for once, she might be able to discover the truth behind that strange vacuum in the desert that pulled her into an endless nuptial reception. If May can allow herself to be vulnerable enough to ask for and provide help to her fellow women, an act which would normally be considered completely out of character for a girl who prides herself on never sticking her neck out for anybody, she might stand a chance at defeating her attacker once and for all. Acting on behalf of the team as opposed to the the individual for the good of many is a lesson that would behoove many patrons who refuse to follow guidelines in a pandemic to learn before it is too late.
The time loop is such a powerful storytelling mechanism, and it’s more relevant than ever in 2020, a year when every single day feels the exact same as the day before. The prevalence of Groundhog Day type films in our current cinematic climate is both a result of increasing rugged individualism, particularly in the western world, as well as the infinite limbo which we find ourselves in daily. Given the ego-trumping-empathy era, it only makes sense that our films would serve as a replication of our attitude as a culture. Just as the motif of the mask in Lucky serves as an unwanted reflection of the inner turmoil within the characters that they’d rather not face, so, too, does the never-ending nuptials in Palm Springs act as a catalyst to force us, the viewer, to consider our own mental state. What regressive, narrow-minded habitual acts do we repeat on a daily basis that always result in the same disappointing conclusion? How do we get in our own way?
Attaching significance to a protagonist’s emotional state and placing them in an echoing environment allows for a proper exploration of the human condition. By engaging a character study in such a limited and confined space, the focus is shifted from the typical narrative to a deeper investigation, a peeling back of the layers of the person, much like a Russian doll. The individual’s newfound ability to see one’s effect on others takes on a more collectivist perspective, thereby gaining the empathy needed to change as a person and move forward in the timeline.
May and Sarah are merely two individuals learning how to shed their self-absorbed ways in order to begin anew. Just like weatherman Phil Connors finally realizing he’d have to cease his individualistic tendency to put himself before all others in order to attain the girl of his dreams, we, too, can throw a wrench into the machine and start over. We can take this time stuck at home, living the same day over and over to grow, not as individuals, but as a people. All it takes to truly stop a bad habit in its tracks is to recognize the pattern.
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