For 16 years, Groundhog Day has been hailed as a meditation on self-redemption. But to pigeonhole it into one overarching theme would be an insult to the layered precision, and perfection, of Harold Ramis’s 1993 masterpiece, which ventures into the heart of darkness and despair to ultimately emerge unharmed, but not unmarked. This story of a man doomed to relive the same day over and over again is not concerned about tomorrow. A true absurdist triumph, it cares not what the destination might be, for it knows that the pursuit of meaning is itself meaningful whether or not that pursuit is eventually rewarded. Life might very well lack purpose, and it might very well be a struggle. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an asshole about it.
A shot of a blue sky (cotton-white clouds floating, lazily, across the screen) opens the film. Every few seconds the shot changes—yet it remains the same. The sky is blue, the clouds as pearly as before and still in their hazy dance, even though they are not the same as the ones from the previous shot. It is a visual metaphor that permeates the rest of the film. That it is intertwined with an otherworldly small town marching band track only adds to the positively Lynchian feel.
Eventually, the sky cuts to a blue screen as an outstretched palm invades the frame from the right, looking like it belongs to an illusionist—a flick of the wrist, a legerdemain, and an Ace of Spades might suddenly appear, dangling precariously from the tip of the fingers. The illusionist in this case is Phil Connors (Bill Murray, wonderfully channeling W.C. Fields), a weatherman with Channel 9 Pittsburgh, acerbic and detached from his fellow humans to the point of nervosa. In this brief moment, however, beyond Phil’s soul-devouring sarcasm, we are presented with one of the film’s central themes. That our lives as we live them are illusions—not in a New Age/Philosophy 101 sense, but in the way that we reflect into them the meaning that we want them to have. The blue screen is, in fact, Phil’s tapestry, and he is, in fact, its creator. Later in the film, Ramis makes his point even clearer in two separate scenes where Phil, incensed by a snowstorm he predicted won’t happen, and shivering uncontrollably, will declare “I MAKE THE WEATHER!” Further on, he is confronted by his Pollyanna of a producer (Andie MacDowell) on the way he is, seemingly, living his life. “I am a god,” he says, before adding, not too convincingly, “I am not THE god…I don’t think.” These are not mere character beats showing off Phil’s egocentricity. They are, instead, singular examples of absurdist existentialism (like the film, this writer is also aware of the oxymoron).
February 1st is not a good day for Phil. It is when he has to make his annual trip to Punxsutawney, PA. to report on the town’s Groundhog Day festivities; or as he puts it, “the excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” His frustration grows when he finds out that he is unable to leave town due to the aforementioned snowstorm, and it is doubled the next day (or, the very same day) when he discovers, much, much to his chagrin, that he is stuck in a time loop. This is the film’s premise—one that needs not repeating. Roger Ebert put it best, as he so frequently does, when he said: “When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like “Groundhog Day” to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.”
But back to that original key sequence. Look at the way it is framed. From wide open blue skies, Ramis takes us into the cramped, controlled environment of a TV studio. He keeps his shots short, he keeps them tight. During the exchange between Phil and his fellow anchorwoman, who is all too happy that Phil is going on a bitch of an assignment, the back-and-forth is dominated by the fake cityscape background behind the anchor, and the wan dullness of an office. This is the real world that Phil will come to miss.
And the transition into the world he loathes is exquisite. As Phil’s party, with his producer Rita, and abrasive cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott, in a career-defining role), takes its leave from the confines of the studio, the camera lingers on an out-of-the-way television showing that trustiest of visual metaphors, a bridge, as it zooms slowly towards it, and takes us, suddenly, into the screen itself. Now we are quite literally through the looking glass, and our ordeal will be the same as Phil’s, as a new, quite cheerful, credit sequence starts.
And it is within the confines of this make-believe world that Phil finds himself, as we all do. Phil hates the small town as a concept, and, in this case, the concept is all too real in Punxsutawney. For eternity, he is condemned to live a life of whimsy, a life of naïveté, and a life of earnestness. These are anathema to Phil as they are to any man or woman who lives in the modern city. One of the cleverest ways the film deals with the petit bourgeois compulsions of the Western city dweller (sounds like a genus and maybe that is correct) is to make the small town big. We all have been in company where someone says, possibly us, that they would just love to leave everything behind, all the trappings of the modern world, and move to a small town. Groundhog Day has the audacity to make the small town a metaphor for life, sure, but also a representation of the Christian heaven. Andie MacDowell’s character flat out says so when she declares her love not just for the town, but for the idea of the town itself. The film is not impressed. In that very scene, as Phil and Rita walk through the snow, the camera stays suspended looking down at the two pathetic figures making their ways through the snow, as if to recall that unforgettable line from The Twilight Zone: “This is the other place.”
As many have observed, in other hands, and with other actors, Groundhog Day might very well have felt like an extended Twilight Zone episode, for, in its reductive summary, the film would call for it. An allusion to, and connection with, pop culture is somewhat essential to see the true point of the film, but it is not Rod Serling that one should be immediately drawn to. Instead, it is with that perennial Christmas classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, that the film has more in common. That, in the brummagem Scrooged, Bill Murray was the star of a failed reimagining of, you know, the original It’s a Wonderful Life only helps to highlight the association.
Phil’s sempiternal misery echoes George Bailey’s, and by the end of both films, the characters, like the audience, are duped. Kenneth Von Gunden, in his 1989 book Flights of Fancy, sees through the illusion of happiness:
“Poor George has been sandbagged, this time by Clarence, for good. He has been revealed as the only glue holding the town of Bedford Falls together, and the guardian of the lives of a number of people who would otherwise be dead. George now cheerfully accepts his imprisonment. Yet despite the warm and uplifting ending, nothing has really changed. George will pinch pennies for the rest of his life, bludgeoned into accepting his lot in life as inevitable and unavoidable. Mr Potter, and others like him, will continue to oppose George and make his life difficult.”
Von Gunden’s observations on the Frank Capra classic can very easily be applied to Groundhog Day. Unlike George Bailey, Phil is not the glue that holds Punxsutawney together, but, instead, he metamorphoses into it in the process of his travails. Like George he saves at least two people from certain death and becomes the very force that holds the town together—the Ghost of Community Spirit, if you like. Like It’s A Wonderful Life, Groundhog Day tenderly weaves the concept of middle aged, middle class self-sacrifice into the narrative, highlighting, on the way, the importance of counting one’s blessings (its ending is also slightly, but ever so slightly, more upbeat than the earlier movie). As Christopher Tookey wrote in 1994, “Our hero regrets, but comes to terms with, the fact that he has had to give up his hopes of escape ... for the sake of local community.” Phil’s life might not be wonderful, but he has to go on living it pretending that it is. Just like we all do.
And it is so funny. God, it is so very, very funny. The fine moments, as in This Is Spinal Tap (another existential melodrama), have been referenced so many times, but look at the smaller ones; the ones that are much more subtle: Once again trying to win over Rita, Phil orders the one drink that she loves, and toasts, as per the previous day’s mistake, to what she usually does, world peace. “I’d like to say a prayer and drink to world peace,” he says. The scene stays as a two shot as Andie McDowell sips from her glass just as Bill Murray waits, looking into the distance, for a moment or two. After a beat, a silent “amen” escapes from his lips, before he takes his drink. All the money in my pocket to the person who can top that. All of it.
Similarly, remember the scene where, having learned of Rita’s background in French literature, Phil recites Baudelaire, bizarrely mimicking the wonderful James Lipton, only to answer to Rita’s incredulity if he can’t speak French: “Oui.” It is all in Murray’s delivery.
Bill Murray’s delivery makes a lot of things more powerful in Groundhog Dog. Phil comes to terms with the pointlessness of time just as, paradoxically, he does with his self worth when he notices, for the first time in what may very well be years, an old vagrant he passes by on the street. He buys him a meal, which turns out to be his last. The old man’s time has come, but that does not deter Phil from trying to save him, even though he fails every single time. Watch as Murray gives the best delivery of his career as a nurse tells him that “sometimes people just die.” “Not today,” he says.
This scene is crucial to Phil’s eventual transformation. Earlier, Murray goes through the various circles of grief with relative ease (has there been a more cheerful approach to modern man’s suicidal tendencies) that we forget how, in lesser hands, the part might well have foundered. In fact, imagine, if you dare, how this film would work out in today’s Hollywood cinema. There would have to be a spiritual guide of sorts, one that would give meaning to Phil’s ordeals (the film doesn’t offer an explanation to the time loop—it is an allegory, and has more in common with J.B. Priestley’s Time Plays, in particular the absurdist I Have Been Here Before than it does with Back to the Future). An ecclesiastical take would be necessary and a montage of various visits to a church, a synagogue, and a Buddhist temple mandatory (who else but Jack Black as the wacky yogi!). But Phil’s problem is not so much spiritual as it is existential, and Groundhog Day is an incredibly secular film—upon his initial discovery of his predicament, Phil, like any normal person, first goes to the doctor, and when that fails, he goes to see a psychiatrist. During none of his trials does Phil ever feel compelled to visit a holy man. The only time we ever see a church is when Phil commits suicide by jumping off the bell tower. It’s a powerful image.
Phil doesn’t have any guide but himself. He has to figure out the lesson without celestial counsel. Phil Connors is the modern-day Sisyphus, sequaciously rolling his boulder with the greatest effort, and greatest trepidation, to the very peak of the mountain, only for the gods to wish it down once again to the bottom. Groundhog Day is the only Hollywood film—hell, the only film in the history of cinema (not even Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel comes close)—to truly delve into the abyss of Camus’ absurdist nightmare (or dream, I suppose). Its closest spiritual relative is The Sopranos. Both Tony and Phil eventually understand the nature of the rut they have found themselves in—Tony has to take peyote and sleep with the girlfriend of the cousin he recently murdered—and Phil has to witness his powerlessness in the face of life. That he cannot prevent the old vagrant’s death is when Phil truly changes, and when—as an Internet critic whose name or site escapes me puts it—he finally transfers the sympathy he had towards the old man to his fellow humans. Despite his infamous assertion to the contrary, Tony Soprano never gets it. He doesn’t get that we, all of us, are Ouroboroses, stuck in our own loops, the perpetual damnation that is life. Phil comes to realize that life might, in fact, be damnation, but you have to live it as if it isn’t. Arthur Schopenhauer’s concept of eternal return is the true leitmotif, as is Albert Camus’s parable of Sisyphus:
“I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain! One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night filled mountain, in itself forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”
Eventually, Groundhog Day does (Camus would have loved this film), even though he very well might not be. Phil’s last line is the profession of a desire to live in Punxsutawney, but he is cautious: “We’ll rent first.” It is a very funny line, a spiritual descendant of “Nobody’s perfect,” in that it identifies with the limitations set by the universe and life. Phil will acquiesce, but only in his own terms. But, at least, he finally gets it: For there to be shadow, there has to be light.
Ali Arikan is the author of Cerebral Mastication.