I Got You Babe

Okay, campers, rise and shine, and don't forget your booties because it's cooold out there today!

Roger Ebert has included Harold Ramis'* "Groundhog Day" in his expanding list of "The Great Movies." It belongs there. And it's a much better date movie than "Citizen Kane."

Ebert describes how a film he first regarded "with cheerful moderation" has stayed with him.

But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like "Groundhog Day" to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.

Today is Groundhog Day, an odd little tradition that I can never quite keep straight. Do we want the groundhog to see his shadow or not? I always have to look that up.

You're now more likely to hear someone talk about "Groundhog Day," the film, than you are about the holiday. The phrase has entered the language.** It is, as Ebert writes, a reference point, and an indispensable one. But for what, exactly?

Ebert describes "Groundhog Day" as:

… a parable for our materialistic age; it embodies a view of human growth that, at its heart, reflects the same spiritual view of existence Murray explored in his very personal project "The Razor's Edge." He is bound to the wheel of time, and destined to revolve until he earns his promotion to the next level. A long article in the British newspaper The Independent says "Groundhog Day" is "hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time."

That Independent article is fascinating. Andrew Buncombe finds religious experts who cite Christian, Jewish, Buddhist and Wiccan lessons from this little romantic comedy:

Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life. …

Tizzy Hyatt of the Women's Theological Institute, a Wicca group based in Madison, Wisconsin, said that their name for Groundhog or St Bridget's Day was Imbolc. "It's the return of the light," she said.

Um, OK. The tradition of Groundhog Day carries lots of death-and-rebirth imagery, the end of winter and the coming of spring, the corn god resurrected, etc. But that's what every comedy is about and it doesn't really distinguish "Groundhog Day" from, say, "Ghostbusters."

Buncombe, like Ebert, uses the word "parable" to describe "Groundhog Day." And because it is a parable none of those folks attempting to summarize its meaning or its purported spiritual message are quite convincing. That's the thing about parables, they're irreducible — the meaning of the story can't be separated from the story itself. Whenever you hear the preacher say, "What this parable means is …" you know he's got it wrong, or at least incomplete. They're not fables that can be summed up in a tidy, didactic "moral of the story."

I'm worried that, like Buncombe's religious experts, I'm starting to sound like I'm giving far too much weight to this breezy little story. But keep in mind that most of Jesus' parables are, more or less, structured like jokes. "A priest, a Levite and a Samaritan walk into a bar …" They might have a punchline (or two or three), but that's different from the moral of the story.

If Andrew Buncombe had asked me to wax philosophical about the deeper meaning(s) to be found in "Groundhog Day" I would have told him that I like the way it illustrates Aristotle's idea of virtue. Bill Murray's Phil does not become a good person and then start doing good things, he becomes a good person because he starts doing good things.

Phil doesn't even seem to want to be a better person. It's really only just a scam at first. He's just pretending to be a good person in the hopes of bedding Andie McDowell. His good-guy act doesn't really fool her, and he certainly doesn't fool himself. But gradually, with practice, pretending turns into becoming.***

And without besmirching "the most spiritual film of all time," this aspect of the story needn't be considered "spiritual" at all. There's little sense in the movie that Murray's plight is providential or miraculous. It seems, instead, simply absurd and inexplicable. His situation is more Kafka than Capra — we never learn why this is happening. But again when Phil begins to pretend the absurd is meaningful, it becomes meaningful.

But so anyway, if you've never seen "Groundhog Day" you should probably ignore all this talk of parables and Aristotle and spirituality. It's a funny, immensely entertaining movie and I apologize for making it sound like homework.

. . .

One final semi-related piece of news/gossip. Steven Sondheim is reportedly considering developing "Groundhog Day" into a musical. I found this out by Googling "Groundhog Day" + "the musical" in the middle of the night several months ago after waking from a dream in which I was attending a performance of "Groundhog Day: The Musical." (Most of the dream slipped away but I remember a big chorus number in which the townspeople of Punxsatawney had hoisted Stephen Tobolowsky onto their shoulders and were singing "Ned Ryerson" to the tune of "Ed Sullivan" from "Bye Bye Birdie.")

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* Ramis, who directed "Groundhog Day," shares the screenwriting credit with Danny Rubin, who wrote the original story. Here's the IMDB link.

** The only other film title I can think of that has entered the language with anything like the frequency or utility of "Groundhog Day" is "Rashomon." But, like most people, I haven't seen "Rashomon."

*** The sacred cliche that AA/NA people have for this is "fake it 'til you make it." This idea of virtue as craft tends to make Protestants nervous — it sounds a bit too much like what they'd call "works righteousness." The AA folks do a better job than just about anyone of reconciling the Protestant/Augustinian/Pauline emphasis on grace with the Catholic/Thomist/Aristotelian emphasis on works.

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  • Peatey

    Fred, who are the “AA/NA people?” Not sure what AA/NA means.

  • Jeff G.

    I would guess NA/AA would be Narcotics Anon and Alcoholics Anon.. but that’s just a guess
    Rashomon.. GOOD Film. But you have to like Japanese movies and be willing to watch it subtitled. It’s definitely got it’s own style.

  • laughingman

    Rashomon is quite simply beautiful. Oddly enough, it is in my DVD player at this very moment.
    Kurosawa is rightly considered one of the greatest filmmakers of the 20th century. You owe it to yourself to see as many of his films as you can.

  • Grant

    Don’t apologize; that was a nice jaunt through the philosophical park.
    When I woke up this morning, I found my wife and daughter watching Groundhog Day on DVD.

  • Andrew Cory

    Having grown up in Alanon* circles, I can state fairly definitively that “fake it ‘till you make it” works amazingly well…
    *Alanon is a program for people screwed up enough to think that marrying alcoholics might be a good idea. Conversely, it is a program for people whose formative years were shaped by alcoholics and people screwed up enough to marry them

  • julia

    Rashomon is a brilliant, brilliant movie.
    It’s also a parable of a sort, not because of its use of perspective but because of the epiphany one of the characters who are hearing the tale has at the end.
    See it. Really.

  • Marley

    Something I heard once that stayed with me:
    Some people think, “I must have what I want to have, so that I can do what I want to do, so that I can be who I want to be.” But in fact, you must be who you want to be, and then you will do what you need to do; and then you will have what you want to have.

  • Jeff Keezel

    Real nice article on Harold Ramis with some interesting tidbits on Groundhog Day – the movie that ended the Murray/Ramis friendship – right here: http://www.newyorker.com/fact/content/?040419fa_fact3

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    I don’t like ‘fake it till you make it’ because that’s the secret of the success of the Bushies. And don’t pretend they haven’t ‘made it.’ Bush is even an ‘alcoholic,’ in that quaint way that AA says people always are that ever were. Oh well, a a little German kid told me 7 years ago ‘once a whore, always a whore,’ which may be true, but I assure you has only applied to me temporarily.
    One of my favourite things that AA people will do is to encourage you to have a drink as if they don’t mind. This is all right in a restaurant, but my experience in the home is that they too often serve rotgut.

  • julia

    I prefer “act as if” myself. Not act to make others believe you believe – act as you would if you believed.
    Comes in real handy in your crises of faith too.

  • Charles Sperling

    Do yourself a favor and catch “Rashomon.” It’s a wonderful movie. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself wanting to see the other collaborations of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune from “Drunken Angel” to “Red Beard.”

  • Sunil

    Thanks for writing this. I’m a huge Groundhog Day fan. It’s my official Favorite Movie (if restricted to only one, as if anyone can have only one favorite movie).

  • Groundhog Day

    Steven Sondheim is reportedly considering developing “Groundhog Day” into a musical.

  • Mabus

    Interesting. Maybe my claim not to be a Protestant has an unexpected form of validity. *chuckle*

  • Lila

    I only recently saw “Rashomon” because I was embarrassed, as a Kurosawa fan, not to have seen one of his most famous films. It’s brilliant.
    You should also see Kurosawa’s “Ikiru”. See it quick, before Tom Hanks does the American remake. Talk about a spiritual film.
    Oh, and “Red Beard” is another good one that is less well known.

  • Lila

    Heck, I got so het up about Kurosawa I forgot the point I meant to make about “Groundhog Day”: that the aspect of the film that has become part of the language is NOT the “spiritual message” but rather that it’s useful shorthand for “feeling like you’re trapped in some weird time warp where the same events are happening over and over again” (not quite deja vu).
    Similarly, “Rashomon” is useful shorthand for “the same story being told by different people becomes totally different stories”. Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!” used a similar technique but its title is a bit unwieldy for a catchphrase.

  • Rook

    What? Not one mention of the other Icon of film “The Princess Bride?” Shessh.

  • Daddy-O

    I had to peruse the comments for this post. I had a senior moment when I couldn’t remember the phrase that julia was kind enough to share; I just knew someone would come up with it.
    “Act as if” is an important concept in 12-Step programs of all shape and size, not just the chemical dependency programs. It’s the actual phrase I would have used to describe what Phil goes through instead of “fake it ’til you make it”. And probably only because that one’s the one that I learned.
    Ah, the Slogans. Written by anonymous people, mostly, simply in order to help others, anonymously. Now THAT’S Christian.
    I read on one of his great novels that Kurt Vonnegut Jr believed there were only two advances of modern American culture that were actually truly helpful to mankind at large. One was Alcoholics Anonymous; forgot the other one.
    Another senior moment. Later.

  • DF in WA

    “Fake it ’till you make it” isn’t just an Al-Anon thing. There’s a series of Jewish rabbinical lessons about how it’s not important to be a religiously-compliant person — you just need to act, in all ways and all times, as one. And sooner or later it will be habit. And sometime after that, it will be intergral to your life.
    Sometimes it works.
    Sometimes it breeds a life of pissed-off, holier-than thou Jews. Or AlAnons.

  • pablo

    Ramis is a Buddhist who has said that the movie is a buddhist metaphor of the cycle of rebirth. It’s also one of my faves.
    Speaking of Rashomon…
    Marge: “C’mon Homer, you’ll like Japan. It will be like Rashomon. You enjoyed Rashomon.”
    Homer: “That’s not how I remember it.”

  • Emma Goldman

    One of my coworkers brought in the DVD yesterday and we watched it at work. (The company is about to go out of business, possibly, so it’s not like we had any actual work to do.) Three comments:
    1. “Act as if” is extemely useful for people dealing with addiction issues–I suspect because, in part, it requires them to learn the things that those of us who weren’t getting wasted every single day learned when we were teenagers.
    2. A relative of a friend of mine was in a concentration camp. He no longers believes in a god, but he continues to practice his religion–it’s his way of fighting back, preserving what the Nazis tried to kill. An interesting twist on the “act as if” instruction.
    3. I actually hear at least as many quotes from “Caddyshack”–“big hitter, the Lama”–and from “Holy Grail,” but maybe that’s because of the people out with whom I hang.

  • Beth

    Just got to add another “See Rashomon!” to the chorus. And Julia’s right. The outer story — Rashomon is a story within a story within a story, though not nearly as confusing as that sounds — is basically about a man undergoing a spiritual crisis, brought on by witnessing the telling of the central story. That crisis is eventually resolved in a profound, revalatory way.
    If you simply can’t bear subtitles or Japanese movies, I can heartily recommend the American remake, “The Outrage.” I normally hate remakes, and especially American remakes of foreign films, but The Outrage is a shining exception. It was directed by Martin Ritt (who also made Hud and Sounder), and was obviously a labor of love. It translates the original into English and the Old West without losing the complexity or meaning of the original. Of course Kurosawa was a master, and I wouldn’t advise anyone to deprive themselves of the pleasure of seeing one of his films, but Ritt was no slouch either, and who knows, maybe it could inspire people who wouldn’t otherwise to go back and watch the original.

  • HP

    translates the original into English and the Old West
    So, how many Kurasowa samurai films have been remade as Westerns? I know The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. And one of the Eastwood westerns–Pale Rider, maybe?–is based on a Kurasowa film.
    I haven’t seen a lot of Kurosawa, but I love his takes on Shakespeare. I’ve seen Throne of Blood (Macbeth) and Ran (King Lear). After hearing all the brouhaha over the battle of the Ents in The Two Towers, my first thought when I saw it was, “Apparently, Peter Jackson never saw ‘Throne of Blood.'” That’s what it looks like when trees go to war.
    About Groundhog Day: I don’t quite get it when I hear about a movie like this developing such a following and reputation. Isn’t cinema primarily a visual medium? When I think of a truly great film, my first impression is always the visual look of the film. No matter how great a story it has, Groundhog Day looks like a mid-budget mainstream American film. It’s all that same “American naturalism” high-speed, stock-composition, artificial-made-to-look-natural-light cinematography and way too many beautiful people. No matter how resonant the story is, I just can’t get past that look.

  • Lila

    “A Fistful of Dollars” is pretty much a remake of “Yojimbo”. Here’s a good article about the cross-fertilization between East and West in Kurosawa’s work:
    Kurosawa also wrote a book called “Something Like an Autobiography” which covers his childhood and early career. It’s a great read, and it’s available from Amazon in paperback.

  • Chris Andersen

    Let me join the chorus of those who love “Groundhogs Day”.
    Another movie I’d recommend is “Joe vs. The Volcano”. I know some people don’t like it because they think it beats you over the head with its “message” to much, but its one of those movies I stick in the player when I need a little pick me up.

  • Jason

    Chris is right on target about Joe vs. the Volcano. The visuals alone in that movie are terribly lovely and work on several levels – the overt, in your face level, and sometimes they’re much much more sly.
    And any movie where luggage plays a vital role is a good movie. Just look at It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!

  • Jeff G.

    The Bruce Willis movie? I think.. Last Man Standing is also a Yojimbo remake but more of a ganster than a western bent..

  • Chris Andersen

    And any movie where luggage plays a vital role is a good movie. Just look at It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World!
    Or “What’s Up Doc!”

  • emjaybee

    C.S. Lewis had his own version of fake it till you make it…in the Screwtape Letters? Not sure. Basically, the premise was that you will eventually become what you actively pretend to be. He applied it to believers (not waiting on being spiritually “pure” to do good deeds, but acting in the way you know you should) and I think, unbelievers also (acting as though you don’t believe to get along with nonbelievers, and you will actually become like them).
    I think there’s a difference between forcing yourself to do what’s right even if internally you don’t feel all that virtuous, and hypocrisy, which is pretending that you care about what’s right, but actually *doing the opposite.* Bush is *not* doing virtuous deeds despite his non-virtuous heart; he’s mouthing virtuous platitudes while hurting the poor and killing off innocents (and lying, stealing, etc.)

  • Beth

    Kurosawa did a wonderful “act as if” movie as well. Kagemusha is about a common thief who becomes a stand-in for a noble warlord, appearing before the troops to inspire them before a battle when the warlord can’t be there. When the warlord is wounded, the thief must take on the role more fully. I saw the film many, many years ago and still get a little misty-eyed just thinking about it.

  • Patrick J. Mullins

    I’m convinced that movies are the one true American art form. There is not a single other thing that inspires such enthusiasm–and well film should, because there is no such thing as ‘les enfants du paradis’ anywhere else, even if that one’s French. I have to thank Jason for making me remember how divine Ethel Merman was in ‘It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World,’ a ‘perfectly awful movie,’ as Judith Crist used to say, but so wonderful. And Dick Shawn in it!

  • 537 votes

    Comparing Groundhog Day to Rashomon is an inspired choice. Every time I watch GHD–and I am a geek that watches it on GHD, every year–I think that some enterprising film student with spare time should edit together a “Groundhog Day: Rita’s Perspective.” I think it would be fascinating to see Phil Connors’ (Bill Murray) story solely through the eyes of Rita (Andie McDowell).
    But one thing the Independent article misses–the strong tones of existentialism in the movie. Very much Camus’ “The
    Myth of Sisyphus” and Kierkegaard rolled together.

  • Emma Goldman

    And let’s not forget Kurt Vonnegut’s (I think) notion that we are who we pretend to be.

  • reuben

    I find it a bit irritating how you feel the need to include this 20th century pop-culture fad known as ‘wicca’ in with ancient schools of thought and wisdom.. and then neglect to include either Hinduism, Islam, Tao, et al..
    You might as well go all the way and include ‘quotes’ from crystal-channeling tenth dimensional intergalactic navigator priestesses..

  • Reuben

    Get your irritation, to a degree (no, I’m not replying to myself here), and really, I tend to agree with Randy Milholland on wicca (with a bit less swearing). However, I’ve got one or two wiccan friends, and they don’t seem too strung up in the angsty-ancient ways-I was burnt at Salem thing. What they get out of it is much what lots of other people get out of their faiths and/or philosophies, which is more about feeling a connection to something larger than themselves, and working within that framework for the betterment of themselves and others. I don’t particularly care if wicca is only 50 years old – Pentecostalism is less than two hundred, and it’s the fastest growing branch of Christianity today.
    Not that Pentecostalism can really lay much claim to being a source of ancient wisdom… BURN!
    Plus, Fred’s linking to someone else’s work for the wicca part, so not much point getting irritated at him.

  • Reuben

    Oh and Fred – you really think that the whole coming of summer/fertility/corn god deal is the source of all humour? I know that early fertility rites had tons in the way of humour, bawdy jokes, certain gestures, giant fake phalluses… so it makes sense that the rising of the light over the dark would be a thematic theme for comedy, which it also is for drama, and drama developed out of comedy anyway… and I think I’m arguing against myself here…
    Right. I mean – is this the source of humour in toto, is what I’m asking. Has anyone around here studied this at all?

  • julia

    Well, if we’re free to be testy here, existentialism annoys me far more than wicca ever could (although maybe it’s because Camus shut me out of the top two on Google)

  • Jon H

    “Ramis is a Buddhist who has said that the movie is a buddhist metaphor of the cycle of rebirth”
    And it’s not bad, considering that in Buddhism, rebirth is a negative thing you want to stop. It’s the “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” religion.
    The attempts to fit it into other religions don’t seem to be as well founded, but then again, I’m not as familiar with those religions.

  • Lo Ping Huang

    I read a review in Zen Unbound years ago that talked about Groundhog Day being a Buddhist parable. It was one of my favorite movies before that anyway, and realizing how neatly it fit into Buddhist philosophy only made me love it more.

  • julia

    a friend of mine described rebirth in the buddhist system as the moment when you realize you’re not brave enough to move on and you “run screaming back and bind yourself to the wheel”
    It really does look different if you think of it in those terms

  • Matt McIrvin

    “Groundhog Day” is also a fine example of how much execution counts in storytelling. The basic fantasy set-up– somebody is condemned to experience the same period of time over and over, either as a spur to solve a puzzle or learn a lesson, or as a simple eternal sentence– had been used many times before (including a Monty Python sketch, a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode, an Urusei Yatsura movie, and a couple of old Twilight Zones), but never with such cultural resonance. You’ll hear lots of people on Usenet insisting that the movie is a rip-off of a short film called “12:01”; I’ve seen “12:01” and it’s a clever little film, but it’s not “Groundhog Day.”

  • Lila

    I think Jon H has just devised the best one-sentence description of Buddhism ever.

  • Beth

    I think Jon H has just devised the best one-sentence description of Buddhism ever.
    I disagree completely (Unless “Keep those pitchforks away from me!” is a good one-sentence description of Christianity.) A goal of Buddhist practice is to escape “the cycle of birth and death”, just as avoiding Hell is a goal of Christianity, but it would be insulting to either religion to claim that’s all it’s about. If anything, Buddhism is less oriented toward that goal than Christianity. Can you imagine a Christian saint refusing to enter heaven until everyone in the world had been saved? That’s basically what Buddhist ‘saints’ (Bodhisattvas) do. They vow not to leave the cycle of rebirth until all sentient beings have attained enlightment.
    Buddhism says that all life involves suffering, and that suffering is caused by attachment. That includes ‘positive attachments’ such as greed and selfish desire and ‘negative attachments’ such as anger, fear, and hatred. People who free themselves from attachments avoid needless suffering and are unstintingly generous and compassionate toward all beings because they live in harmony with the universe. Buddhism differs from Christianity in many particulars but it’s basic ideals — to be loving to others and in harmony with the Ultimate — aren’t that different from Christianity, or any other major religion for that matter. The promise of a reward after death is basically an added inducement to live what would be a good life in any case.
    (Jon, I’m not disagreeing with your original statement. “Jane! Stop this crazy thing!” is a basically fair and funny way of distinguishing Buddhism from other religions, but of course that’s not what it’s all about.)

  • Lila

    How can a one-sentence description of ANY religion convey “what it’s all about”?
    I’m sorry if my comment suggested anything different from what you just said: “a fair and funny way of distinguishing Buddhism from other religions.” I certainly meant no disparagement to Buddhism.

  • Eileen

    I’m an atheist and I love Groundhog Day, too (though I’ve always sort of wished it had ended without the day changing). There’s something really special about a movie that can hit so many people with so many different perspectives in the same way. My other favorite movie is Truman Show.
    Cary Grant once said that he became Cary Grant by acting like Cary Grant until he became Cary Grant.
    I’m on a Kurosawa kick (lots of his early movies are just coming out on DVD this month) and saw Rashomom…I liked it, but it’s not the kind of movie I would watch time and again…

  • Ground Hog Day

    Link: slacktivist: I Got You Babe. All you want to know (or don’t) and more about the movie and the holiday. FYI – I don’t like the movie, but that’s just me.