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.")
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* 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.