The Threat and Triumph of Groundhog Day

Since 1840, Groundhog Day has been a quaint little tradition brought to us by German immigrants from Pennsylvania. It’s a charming idea. The whole village gathers to see if a furry little rodent will predict an early spring. Then they celebrate their good fortune or drown their sorrows.

It’s a sweet little excuse to throw a party. And either way, they get to drink themselves silly.

Sweet, But Pretty Damn Stupid

The whole premise of this made-up holiday is illogical. If it’s sunny on February 2nd, the groundhog is scared by its shadow, goes back to his hole to hibernate, and winter drags on another six weeks. If it’s cloudy, the hog comes out of hibernation and spring starts early.

That’s just dumb. If anything, being sunny would be a sign that spring is coming. Cloudy would tell most groundrats to expect more winter. Not the other way around.

And the little hog’s track record as a forecaster is pretty damn dismal. Over 177 years, he’s been right only 39% of the time.

Incredibly, wantonly, stupid.

But Not The Movie

In 1993, Bill Murray starred in the movie called Groundhog Day.  Though initially seen as just a sweet and silly comedy, after a generation of reflection, this film was added to the United States National Film Registry,  being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” You’ll find it listed just after The Godfather and Gone with the Wind, and just before Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner and Gunga Din.

Murray plays Phil Connors,  a stuck up TV weatherman assigned to do a live remote from the big Groundhog Day festival. Phil travels with his crew (Andie MacDowell as his producer Rita & Chris Elliot as his cameraman) to Gobbler’s Knob, the night before Punxsutawney Phil is to do his thing.

An insufferable snob, Phil is kind of a dick to everyone he meets. He thinks the locals are all stupid hicks and he can’t wait to finish his broadcast and head back to the big city.

Metaphysical Plot Twist

As you know (if you haven’t seen this movie stop reading immediately and watch it right now), Phil gets trapped in Gobbler’s Knob by a blizzard he failed to forecast. When he wakes up the morning after Groundhog Day, he finds himself trapped in a time loop. No matter what he does, when he falls asleep at the end of the day, he wakes up again on the previous day. He is forced to relive Groundhog Day over and over in Gobbler’s Knob.

A place he detests, full of people he despises.

Over and over again.

At first, he tries resisting it. He bitches and moans and is rude to everyone. Then he fights it by committing suicide dozens of times in a variety of ways. Then he tries to take advantage of it.

He takes up smoking and eating all the donuts he can, because, why the hell not? Then he tries to seduce his producer Rita, because, why the hell not? He learns a bit more about her each day and uses this knowledge to pretend to be the kind of guy she’s dreaming of.

But each attempt ends badly, and we’re treated to an awesome montage of Rita slapping the crap out of Phil. Hilarious.

The Turning Point

Finally, he resigns himself to his fate and tries to better his lot. Mostly out of boredom, Phil starts paying attention to the personal lives of the people he’s stuck with.

He shows a little kindness and empathy and starts getting rewarded with warmth and acceptance. Every day he fixes the sweet old ladies’ flat tire, rescues the kid falling from the tree, performs the Heimlich maneuver on the mayor, and helps the homeless guy get something to eat. Over and over. He starts to like his day.

He even starts taking piano lessons (because Rita likes musicians), and over many days, over and over, he starts to get really good at it.

Though he’s still stuck in Gobbler Knob, he’s no longer stuck in hell. He’s stuck in a town of amazing possibility, where he has the chance to improve himself by getting better at each interaction of just that one day. By endless trial and error, he makes better and better choices and gets better and better results.

Phil eventually becomes a thoughtful, generous and beloved member of the town, and a badass piano player. Rita witnesses his growth and falls in love with him for real, and after repeating Groundhog Day endlessly, he finally wakes up to the day after. Yay! Happy ending!

Groundhog Day  – The Movie’s Legacy

Today, the movie Groundhog Day is a cultural metaphor and an example of “spiritual transcendence”.

Buddhists like it for its themes of selflessness and rebirth. Christians like its representation of Purgatory and the release that comes from shedding selfishness and committing acts of love. Hindus like the reference to reincarnation, and Jews like that it shows good deeds (mitzvahs) saving a person to return to earth to perform more.

Religious leaders have called it the “most spiritual film of our time”. And one egghead theologian even called it “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.”

Postmodern Contemporary Cosmos My Butt

I just like it because it shows how our lives are threatened by our repeated, poor choices. And it shows the triumph that can occur when we learn, from trial and error, like the dumb humans that we are, to improve our lives by improving our choices and our behavior.

One day at a time.

Most importantly, Groundhog Day is a lesson to us all. If we are unhappy, it’s probably because we wake up to the same set of circumstances brought on by all the choices from our past.

To change these circumstances, we must make better choices every day. If we resist it, fight it, or try to take advantage, we will still wake up in the same exact place. But along the way, we will be forced to watch the montage of life slapping the crap out of us.

So celebrate the day. Watch the movie, and wake up tomorrow willing to do things differently. To make better choices and behave in a more selfless and generous way.

Because ultimately, through enough trial and error, you too may reap the rewards and accolades showered upon that stupid, furry, forecasting rodent.







3 thoughts on “The Threat and Triumph of Groundhog Day”

  1. Thanks Aram! Going to watch Groundhog Day with my parents. Makes total sense about the cultural phenomenon of spiritual ascendance. We need something more to help us through the day. A bigger sense of the universe than just what can I get for me and mine.

    1. Enjoy the movie and your folks, Don. The three of us will be watching it together tonight.

      Here’s to something more to help us through the day!

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