Four years ago on the film’s 25th anniversary, Chicago Tribune writer Ted Slowik called Groundhog Day “the best movie ever made.” Strong praise for a Bill Murray comedy, even though it’s one of my favorite movies. https://www.chicagotribune.com/suburbs/daily-southtown/opinion/ct-sta-slowik-groundhog-day-st-0201-20170131-story.html
February 2. You know the drill. Cut to Punxsutawney, PA, where, in delightfully unscientific fashion, top-hatted town officials determine if resident groundhog Phil has seen his shadow, thus indicating how much longer winter will last. The film opens with vain, self-obsessed TV weatherman Phil Connors sent to Punxsutawney to document the excitement. When a snowstorm, which Connors had incorrectly forecast as a non-event, forces him, his camera man, and their producer to spend an extra night in Punxy, our flawed everyman weatherman pulls up the bed covers in his quaint B&B, expecting to wake up on February 3 then promptly head back to Pittsburgh. Instead, when the six AM blast from his clock radio rouses him, he finds the rest of the world around him turned back twenty-four hours.
His bewildering and frustrating day ends with him back in his B&B, only to wake up in the morning for yet another trip through February 2. By the film’s end, viewers grasp that he may have gone through this cosmic lather-rinse-repeat cycle hundreds, if not thousands of times.
Sound familiar, oh brothers and sisters who have survived COVID so far? I bet that in the last year, many—perhaps even most—of you have referred to COVID life as Groundhog Day. In an April 30, 2020 article in The Atlantic, Megan Garber pointed to Jeep’s use of the metaphor in their ads during COVID. https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/04/groundhog-day-horror-movie-quarantine/610867/
Mask, wash hands, isolate. Hell?
Reliving February 2 proves to be hellish for Connors in every imaginable way, but because of Bill Murray’s comic gifts, we laugh through each disaster in Connors’s desperate and pathetic efforts to satisfy his libido. Realizing that he apparently is doomed to relive February 2 ad infinitum, he eventually makes use of his time by taking piano lessons, learning how to carve ice with a chainsaw, catching a child falling from a tree, and unsuccessfully trying to save a dying man—a progression that ends with the conversion of his lust into love and his turn from self-obsession to active empathy. A triumph of the Golden Rule in our post-modern world.
As Ted Slowik notes in the Tribune article (and as you can see in the bonus features section of the movie’s DVD), the film triggered positive reaction and support from both the therapeutic and spiritual communities—many of whom saw the movie as supporting or echoing their own views. If you have access to the DVD, you’ll enjoy hearing about this from the late Harold Ramis, who directed, co-wrote, and co-produced Groundhog Day.
Films and literature are full of fantastic tales in which people, often through time travel, get a chance to evaluate some of life’s moments, and, in some cases, to re-visit certain decisions. In short, they’re offered a cosmic Mulligan. A Christmas Carol, The Time Machine, and It’s a Wonderful Life leap to mind. More recently, the British film About Time.
Sometimes, the experience of watching a film or reading a book can cause us to think differently about something, to change/learn, but we’ll save that for another post.
In life, we all have those moments when doing or not doing something proved to be a turning point. I thought about that a lot as a teacher of first-generation college students, and wrote about it in Open Admissions. Reflecting on past personal change can make us or break us, and neither you nor I invented that kind of mindfulness.
How long do you suppose humans have been going back in their minds to moments when they found themselves changed, or when they might have undergone change but didn’t?
If we’d only chased that woolly mammoth off the cliff instead of trying to wrestle with the bugger, we wouldn’t be eating berries and nuts again tonight!
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Ned Bachus is the author of Open Admissions (Wild River Books, 2017) and of the TURNING POINTS blog on nedbachus.com and on his OPEN ADMISSIONS Facebook Page. City of Brotherly Love (Fleur-de-Lis Books), his book of stories, was awarded the 2013 IPPY Gold Medal for Literary Fiction.