Friday, February 2, 2018

Groundhog Day @ 25 - An Existential Treat for the New Year

Groundhog Day: An Existential Treat for the New Year

As many people do, I’ve occasionally used January 1 as a time to re-set, start over, and finally begin to live, in the words of Thoreau, “the life I have imagined.” But as February approaches, and desks become re-cluttered and gym attendance begins to wane, I’m realizing perhaps a month later is a better fresh start date. Specifically, the second of February becomes my target for rebirth, just like it was a quarter-century ago for a weatherman named Phi Connors. Groundhog Day, which has become as well known for a subtly ingenious romantic comedy starring Bill Murray as it has for the odd folk practice of celebrating a weather-forecasting rodent, is another option for mid-winter self-reflection and reinvention.

On the twentieth-anniversary of the quirky Harold Ramis-Danny Rubin hit, it’s worth looking back at the film for all the existential wisdom and advice it offers, especially in a year when people are increasingly divided and confounded in their search for meaning and understanding amidst a world gone somewhat crazy. In a year ripe for self-reflection and reinvention, Phil Connor’s existential journey to a better self is a reminder of our ability to bring meaning to our lives in world that often appears to be nothing short of absurd.

2018 seems like an apropos time for a shift toward existentialism, what with divisive politics tearing at the fabric of society as a pop-culture President toys with nuclear annihilation over whose button is bigger. It’s hard to believe it’s been a quarter century since a pretentious, snide, and self-absorbed weatherman named Phil Connors begrudgingly made his way to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the nation’s strange little tradition of waiting for an over-sized gopher to predict the weather when seeing his shadow. The absurdity of the tradition is matched in the film by the absurdity of Phil’s unique dilemma, as he ends up stuck in small town Pennsylvania, reliving the same day again and again. Groundhog’s Day itself is a bizarre little folk tradition, and Phil’s monotonous waking up to an outdated and random but annoyingly catchy tune – “I’ve Got You Babe” by Sonny and Cher – matches the inane circumstances that force Phil to re-evaluate everything he knows and does.

Obviously, the idea of living the same day over and over again – especially while stuck in a small town you despise – could be seen as a curse, and Phil certainly spends years believing that about his fate. But the idea of reinvention and getting a second chance – or unlimited chances – for a do-over to finally “get it right” is actually quite appealing. Phil’s initial reaction to his bizarre predicament is predictably to use his newfound power to indulge his basest fantasies. Given such freedom and power, who wouldn’t abuse it? He truly indulges in life with a string of hilarious scenes of Phil smoking indiscriminately, gulping coffee and pastries, manipulating women (“Nancy? Nancy Taylor?”), and even robbing an armored car. Of course, ultimately the freedom and power he truly achieves is freedom from and power over those Neanderthal-like urges. For even unrestricted access to endless hedonism and debauchery apparently becomes boring after a while.

Groundhog Day is truly a message film and the existential theme is clear – you will awake tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow as the same you in the same situation for no clear reason. Everyone lives through years, if not decades, in the same spot, doing the same job, with the same people in an endless loop. And the only way that situation will change or mean anything is if you change it, and you define the meaning. It’s never been a truer example that, as Dr. Phil once told audiences, “you create your own experience.” The issue of control in our lives is a central tenet to the philosophy and the film – our world is a creation of our own making. Yet, in many ways, the only thing we truly have control over is our choices, our reactions, and our interpretation. The issue of judgment is also relevant for Phil’s growth, for there is no correlation or causation between his actions and his circumstance. Whether he’s good – helping the homeless man – or bad – robbing the truck – his situation always remains the same. There is only one way out of the prison of our own existence – and that’s to not see it as a prison.  

Not entirely existential because the resolution of the film seemingly rewards him for making “good choices,” there is a value judgment bias in the film. At the beginning of the film Phil is narcissistic and egocentric, and that’s the point. Everyone is. He begins the film as a TV personality who declares “I make the weather.” Later, he shares a more melancholy realization that he’s a deity – “Well, I’m a god, I’m not the God. I think.” It even takes on a sweet innocence as he speculates, “Maybe God isn’t omnipotent. Maybe he’s just been around soo long, he knows everything.” Phil appears to have achieved immortality – but is that a blessing? He conquers death, but only because he literally tries to die out of exhaustion and despair. He ultimately becomes what Fitzgerald once called the “Platonic conception of himself,” or Jung just called the fully realized individual and self. He becomes what he is meant to be – the fully actualized self. The ideal.

The film has become more than just an entertaining rom-com, as critics, writers, and teachers have used the story as an avenue into the philosophy of existentialism. It first occurred to me about ten years ago while teaching a class called Intro to College Literature, a standard unit of which included Camus’ The Stranger, as well as his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus.” Clearly, the existential premise has occurred to numerous educators and writers, for this is no shortage of articles about the existentialist brilliance of Groundhog Day. The most obvious philosophical components of the film and story are the absurdist nature of existence, the idea of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, and Camus imagining Sisyphus happy. Camus saw the story of Sisyphus as the perfect metaphor for the human condition – stuck in a repetitive cycle which would seem absurd to the outsider. When he “imagines Sisyphus happy,” he shifts the paradigm from judgment and punishment to liberation and empowerment. Both Sisyphus and Phil transition through the act of acceptance – accepting and embracing their inescapable dilemma.

Once Phil accepts his fate, he is ironically freed from it. Life in Punxsutawney is no longer a prison, but an opportunity. He learns to play piano, becomes an expert ice sculptor, develops deep genuine knowledge of the people around him, and appreciates the woman he loves for all her simple goodness. The process takes time, and time is the one thing he has. One enterprising film fan, Simon Gallagher, once calculated the number of days Phil is stuck – 12,403, or approximately 33 years. That stretch of time is basically the length of adulthood when people come into their own, finish their education, develop careers, enter long term relationships, have kids, and look toward retirement.

Unlike many redemption stories, there is no specific antagonist nor any obvious guide or mentor figure leading Phil to peripeteia, his moment of clarity. The movie never explains why Phil’s space-time continuum glitch is, well, glitching. And it’s all the more satisfying that way. Phil’s status and challenge is his and his alone to understand and resolve – as is the case for all of us. If there seems to be nothing we can do about the state of the world, perhaps the most logical choice, which is really the only choice we ever had, is to turn back toward ourselves with a focus on making meaning of the one thing we can, ourselves.  Ultimately, the film deftly touches up 18th century neo-classical ideas of “freedom” – not the ability to do whatever you want, but to be free from ultimately unsatisfying and dead end of impulsiveness and appeals to our primal nature.

Pieces of popular culture truly embed themselves in the national consciousness at the moment they enter the lexicon. Danny Rubin’s screenplay certainly did that, as “Groundhog Day” has become the catchphrase for “monotony” and a drudgery-filled sense of repetitive daily life. Beyond that, the movie has become a reliably entertaining bit of self-help for the existentially thirsty who seek solace and understanding in the classic redemption narrative that has captivated audiences since the time of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, which Bill Murray also explored in the Christmas classic Scrooged. Ultimately, after all these years the weird little tale of Phil Connors remains a refreshingly engaging romantic comedy that also happens to be an inspiring primer on the wisdom of existentialism. Given one life to live with certain parameters beyond our control, the best and only thing we can do is to make that life exactly what we want it to be and imagine ourselves happy.

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