Friday, February 1, 2019
Groundhog Day - “An Existential New Year
It’s not about monotony -- it’s about re-birth.
Twenty-six years ago, an unassuming little film about a cantankerous weatherman on the most random of holidays became a pop culture phenomenon that ingrained itself in our consciousness. The title became a metaphor for reluctantly acknowledging the dailiness of life. With the silly story of Phil Connors waking up everyday in Punxsutawney, PA, with Sonny and Cher singing “I’ve Got You Babe” on an endless string of February seconds, Groundhog Day entered the lexicon as a way to describe the drudgery and repetition of daily life. But the movie was never simply about the mundane nature of existence. It was always about self-awareness and second chances and reinvention and hope.
Let’s face it, by February 2 the New Year’s resolutions are fading, the fitness centers are back to the regulars, and we’re all bogged down in the drudgery of winter. These moments are ripe for a bit of pop culture existentialism, and the quirky film from Harold Ramis and Danny Rubin puts that long cold winter, the odd little holiday, and the repetitiveness of daily life in perspective. Watching the story of a disgruntled weatherman pondering the absurdity of a weather-forecasting rodent provides a second chance at mid-winter self-reflection and re-invention. The conceit of the film is not only the ridiculous holiday but also the inexplicable weirdness of Phil Connors’ predicament.
The film Groundhog Day is actually a wonderful primer for the wisdom of existentialism, and when I taught the philosophy in my college literature class, I would often lead or conclude with a viewing of Bill Murray’s brilliant portrayal of a man trying to bring some sense of meaning to a life that seems nothing short of absurd. Clearly, the idea of living the same day over and over again in an unfulfilling, dull, mundane place and repeating the seemingly mindless tasks of a pointless job is portrayed as a curse and a cruel joke, and that realization is at the heart of existentialism. Life makes no sense. Phil spends many years in disgruntled fashion viewing his life as exactly that, a cruel meaningless joke of an existence.
However, the movie shifts when Phil considers his situation as an opportunity and a second chance at reinvention with the opportunity to get it right. Of course, Phil’s initial reaction to his epiphany of a life without consequences is to indulge his most base fantasies. It’s understandable -- who wouldn’t at least consider that? He truly seizes the day, drinking to excess, smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women, and even robbing an armored car. Of course, the freedom and control he ultimately achieves is freedom from and power over those primal and materialistic urges. For even unrestricted access to hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.
Initially, Phil’s attempts at betterment are jaded with ulterior motives -- he learns French simply to seduce his producer Rita. Later on, however, his attempts to change become about improving his quality of life. A pivotal, but often overlooked, moment in the film is when Phil is sitting quietly in the cafe reading, and he notices a piano playing in the background. Rather than simply enjoy the music, he seeks to develop the ability to create such beautiful sounds and immediately begins learning piano, offering his piano teacher “a thousand dollars if we could get started today.” He also masters other art forms like ice sculpting, but most importantly he learns deeply the details and hope and dreams of the people in his life.
The film is more than an entertaining romantic comedy, and numerous writers have explored how Rubin and Ramis incorporated key elements of existentialism into the film, notably the idea that in a life devoid of meaning, it is up to man to create it for himself. The film draws on Nietzsche’s idea that existence is a cycle of eternal recurrence, and it incorporates insight from Albert Camus who theorized in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” that despite the apparent misery of the subject’s situation, he actually imagined Sisyphus happy. Sisyphus, as you may recall, was the Greek king whose punishment by the gods was to push a huge rock up a steep hill only to see it roll back down as he neared the top. Camus framed Sisyphus’ situation as a reflection of the human condition -- stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the narrative from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance -- embracing their inescapable dilemma and finding joy in the meaningless absurdity.
Groundhog Day is a film with a message -- each of us will wake up again and again to the same existence that at times seems pointless. The only point is that you have the rest of your life to make it exactly what you want it to be. Bringing meaning to our daily lives was a focus of the numerous American writers like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow whose poem “A Psalm of Life” advised us that “neither joy, and not sorrow is our destined end or way, but to act that each tomorrow find us further than today.” The point is progress; the goal is getting better. What F. Scott Fitzgerald called Gatsby’s “Platonic conception of himself” was simply the eternal quest for the ideal, for striving to become our own best selves. Life is an endlessly repeating opportunity to improve. In Bill Murray’s role as Phil Connor, we can find a second chance at New Year’s resolutions and an opportunity to, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “live the life you have imagined.”