February 2nd, 2013

Another year, another…Groundhog Day!

[BUMPED UP: and for more on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the film, please see this and this.]

Today is Groundhog Day, and I think it very appropriate—very—to repeat an older post on the subject of the movie of that name, one of my favorite films of all time. So without further ado, here it is again (and if you’ve never seen the movie—well, all I can say is, please do).

In discussions of the film “Groundhog Day” on this blog, I’ve noticed a couple of people questioning why the Bill Murray character would find Andie McDowell’s Rita deserving of all those years of his devotion and energy. For example, “…[W]hat, exactly, made the lovely but, let’s face it, vapid Rita worthy of Phil’s centuries of effort?”

My answer is that he discovered love. Yes, Rita was beautiful, and a good human being with many excellent qualities. But of course she was imperfect, and over the years (centuries? millennia?) Phil no doubt had learned just about all of her flaws. Still, it didn’t matter to him because it wasn’t about Rita, exactly—it was about the fact that, somewhere along the long path of his transformation to wisdom, he finally understood that every person in town, including the ones he couldn’t tolerate at the beginning, was worthy of his attention—and of something one might call “love,” in its broadest sense.

And somewhere along the line to that knowledge, Phil’s efforts in “Groundhog Day” stopped being about getting into Rita’s pants or even getting her to love him, although that certainly took up a larger percentage of his time (and the movie’s length) than some of his other pursuits. But he probably spent at least as much time learning to play the piano (a form of love, too), or to carve ice sculptures, or to become skilled at some of the more mindless and meaningless tricks he mastered, or learning details about the life of almost everyone in town.

Was the old derelict, whose life Phil tried to save over and over and over, “worth it” either? Such questions no longer mattered to him, because the gesture and the effort were worth it, and every life was worth something to him.

Rita, of course, had always been physically attractive to Phil. But as the film (and time) wore on—and on—she became the object not just of eros, but of agape as well. By the end of the movie, I think that Phil had come to appreciate the idea of the theme and variations versus the symphony, which I wrote about here:

And, although walking repeatedly in the same place is very different from traveling around the world and walking in a new place every day, is it really so very much less varied? It depends on the eye and mind of the beholder; the expansive imagination can find variety in small differences, and the stunted one can find boredom in vast changes.

And I submit that love is like that, too. Some people spend a lifetime with one love, one spouse; plumbing the depths of that single human being and what it means to be in an intimate relationship with him/her. Others go from relationship to relationship, never alighting with one person for very long, craving the variety.

It would seem on the face of it that the second type of person has the more exciting time in love. But it ain’t necessarily so. Either of these experiences can be boring or fascinating, depending on what we bring to it: the first experience is a universe in depth, and the second a universe in breadth. But both can contain multitudes.

Towards the end of the film (SPOILER ALERT), he makes it clear that he has given up the pursuit of Rita entirely, and immersed himself in his love for her instead. Is this what finally frees him?

[NOTE: In the original post, there was a more complete version of the ending, but YouTube seems to have taken it down and this was the closest one I could find. To those of you unfamiliar with the movie, it won't seem like much, but trust me; in context, it's extraordinary, especially in contrast to Phil's original snarky personality.]

[ADDENDUM: In one of the links I recommended in the "UPDATE" above, I just noticed an error (maybe that's because it's the NY Times, natch). The article states, "Of course, this being an American film, he [Phil] not only attains spiritual release but also gets the producer [Rita] into bed.”

Well, that may be literally true; on the final night, Rita and Phil do sleep in the same bed. But what the writer is implying—that they have sex—is completely untrue. Note, also, the snide “American film” reference.]

[ADDENDUM II: I also just noticed that, surprisingly enough, the other essayist, Michael P. Foley, makes the same error as the Times. He writes:

I should add, though, that the movie is not perfect. Rita’s final “redemption” of Phil, for instance, results in their sleeping together the next morning. (Call it the incense that had to be thrown on the Hollywood fire.)

I am quite surprised that so many thoughtful viewers of the movie have made such an elementary error. But it seems quite common. How odd. As commenter "Ed Bonderenka" points out, "Rita says, the next morning, that Phil fell asleep the night before."

That's not to say that Phil foreswears sex. We can be fairly certain that, when he returns to normal time with Rita, sex is part of their lives.]

26 Responses to “Another year, another…Groundhog Day!”

  1. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    *That* was a pretty good day. Why couldn’t I get *that* day over, and over, and over…

  2. neo-neocon Says:

    Ed Bonderenka: the movie is screamingly funny, it’s true. Bill Murray couldn’t be better.

  3. rickl Says:

    Funnily enough, I occasionally see groundhogs outside the building at work, but I’ve never seen one at home. I live only about 15 minutes from work.

  4. vanderleun Says:

    Headline today at the Rumford Meteor: “Punxsutawney Phil Predicts About Four More Years Of Living In A Goddamn Hole In The Ground”

  5. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    I love your analysis neo. I read it to my wife right after the scene where Rita “realizes” she’s being played and accuses him of not knowing what love is.
    She also appreciated the post.

  6. George Pal Says:

    This is one of my favorite movies, one of Murray’s best movies (not that he stretched his acting abilities but the material/story perfectly fit his natural deadpan/wiseass demeanor), and unexpectedly thought provoking movies I’ve ever seen. The one thing that piqued my interest beyond the others was that I had seen in the movie what I thought to be a reasonable exposition of purgatory. Catholics and Protestants have contended on the existence or need for purgation, sometimes too harshly, but it has been a source of wonder for me. Seeing Murray live the same day over and over, incrementally persuaded to the good and loving, and the diminishment of self, I immediately thought of Purgatory.

    Though it may be said we are to be saved by the Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, I had always wondered, good and well… but what good is it to end up in heaven with the same human nature that pestered you throughout life – hence purgatory; a purgation of our fallen natures. There’s probably more to it than frustratedly chasing Andie MacDowell around until you know what it is your chasing but it helps and works as a parable.

  7. vanderleun Says:

    “…. learned just about all of her flaws.” Yes, of course. But may I suggest there’s always one specific “flaw” that is especially endearing; a cute flaw if you will. A flaw that makes all about it, no matter how perfect, more perfect still.

  8. Otiose Says:

    Big yes to the thoughts captured in your write-up.

    I’ve always taken the main character’s predicament to be a form of purgatory.

    There was a TV series on Showtime some 10 years ago called “Dead Like Me” in which the main characters were Grim Reapers held back from passing over after death and their situation seems to share some of the purgatory like aspect with this movie’s main character.

  9. T Says:

    and, for everyone’s information, AMC channel is running Groundhog Day continuously until 8:00 pm (EST) tonight.

  10. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    George Pal: The way you put it, that salvation may not be based on purgatory, but incorporate it (heaven’s boot camp) not as penance but as cleansing makes incredible sense.

    Who would believe that this movie would inspire such philosophical and “religious” discussion?

  11. neo-neocon Says:

    Ed Bonderenka: for more on the philosophical and theological underpinnings of the film, please see this and this.

  12. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Thanks Neo. Those were good. Particularly the second.

  13. vanderleun Says:

    Then of course there is this use of the film: “since it is Groundhog Day, here’s a replay from Phil, covering our first, second historic Inauguration of BHO:”

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=rWmbuKSWLDE

  14. Wry Mouth Says:

    Yes: the viewers that come away from the film thinking the Phil and Rita have had sex that night are (pitifully) mistaken. The screenwriter himself has said that they did not.

    And I (backwards person that I am) have always understood Phil’s mindset that night, that sex wouldn’t necessarily or even preferentially have to be a part of it.

  15. Ed Bonderenka Says:

    Wry Mouth: Correct. Rita says, the next morning, that Phil fell asleep the night before.

  16. LTEC Says:

    My contrary views on “Groundhog Day” can be found here:
    http://icouldbewrong.blogspot.ca/2005/01/groundhog-day-superman-and-wizard-of.html
    together with an explanation of the relationship between that film and “Superman” and “The Wizard of Oz”.

    Summary: Normal, heterosexual men are fundamentally evil and should be banished to a circle of hell.

  17. neo-neocon Says:

    Ed Bonderenka, Wry Mouth: I also just noticed that, surprisingly enough, the other essayist, Michael P. Foley, makes the same error as the Times. He writes:

    I should add, though, that the movie is not perfect. Rita’s final “redemption” of Phil, for instance, results in their sleeping together the next morning. (Call it the incense that had to be thrown on the Hollywood fire.)

    I am quite surprised that so many thoughtful viewers of the movie have made such an elementary error. But it seems quite common. How odd.

  18. Bender Says:

    Just to be clear here, while what George Pal says is interesting, it does NOT describe Purgatory, as understood in Catholic teaching.

    Rather, Purgatory is a purging (hence the name) of all the various imperfections in a person which is necessary in order to enter into a place of perfection (Heaven). It is purification. And although Phil did go through a process of purification, the purification in Purgatory is the purifying “fire” of God, if we wish to use the analogy of the purification of gold is through fire. In Purgatory, God is the purifying agent, not the person himself.

  19. Geoffrey Britain Says:

    “I am quite surprised that so many thoughtful viewers of the movie have made such an elementary error. But it seems quite common. How odd.”

    I confess that I’ve only seen the movie once when it first came out, I very much enjoyed it, just never got around to seeing it again.

    As I recall, initially and for much of the film (?), Murray’s becoming ‘a better person’ is a ploy, so as to increase the odds that he’ll get into Rita’s pants, yes? Might the reviewers themselves have never moved beyond that motivation? If I remember correctly, it isn’t until Murray has recognized and accepted his love for Rita that sex with her is no longer his primary motivation. I suspect the reviewers who assume that they finally had sex view that as a necessary payoff for all his efforts. Thus missing the point of the movie entirely.

    Metaphors like parables and even Hollywood movies can often be appreciated at different levels of insight. “let each understand as they are able” applies to more than just Jesus’ parables.

  20. neo-neocon Says:

    Geoffrey Britain: the “reviewers” I’m talking about are in the two linked articles about “Groundhog Day” and philosophy and religion. I discuss both in the addenda to this post (and I mention both, also, in the “update” at the beginning of this post). Both authors are most definitely way beyond the sort of reasoning you’re talking about that might be true of other reviewers. That’s what I find so very surprising; not that a casual reviewer, or ordinary movie reviewer, might make the error.

  21. George Pal Says:

    Bender,

    My point was not that it represented Catholic teaching but made a good parable. Clearly, Phil was not purified by his own agency but by something ‘other’ that worked on him.

  22. Roy Lofquist Says:

    I have seen quite a bit of the world, parts of it not very pleasant. Now I rarely travel more than five miles from home and I see a whole new world each day – a living, changing world. Whole nother story and a fascinating one.

    One thing that struck me about GHD was “I’ve Got You, Babe” which started as an annoying “hick” song and became somewhat transcendent at the end.

  23. T Says:

    Just to chime in on the” sleeping together on the last night” theme, both Phil and Rita are shown in bed dressed as they were the night before. I’d offer that the message here is that they didn’t, have sex, which would be in keeping with the premise of the movie. It was done with perhaps enough subtlety so that it was lost on those who think they have a higher degree of critical thought and sensitivity than the average viewer.

  24. neo-neocon Says:

    T: it was even more explicit than that. Rita says he fell asleep (from the script, part of the movie’s last scene) [emphasis mine]:

    (P) Something is different.

    (R) Good or bad?

    (P)Anything different is good…

    but this could be real good.

    Why are you here?

    (R) I bought you. I own you.

    (P) But why are you still here?

    (R) You said stay, so I stayed.

    (P) I said stay, so you stayed?

    I can’t even make a collie stay.

    I gotta check something.

    Stay…

    They’re gone! They’re all gone! Do you know what today is?

    (R) What?

    (P) Today is tomorrow. It happened.

    You’re here.

    (R) I’m here. [I recall that at this point they kiss passionately]

    Why weren’t you like this last night?

    You just fell sleep.

    [P} It was the end of a very long day.

    Now, someone could argue she means he fell asleep right after sex (although that would be stretching it ridiculously, because she says he just—as in, “only”—fell asleep), but that person would be tone deaf to what’s going on in this scene and in the scene the night before. The one the night before is not sexual in nature, whereas this one hints much more at sex. You get the idea that now finally, the relationship will definitely be consummated.

  25. CV Says:

    Jonah Goldberg also wrote a great column about this movie:

    http://www.nationalreview.com/blogs/print/228088

    I never get tired of watching it and very time I notice something I hadn’t noticed before. Love it! Right down to the annoying but very apropos Sonny and Cher lyrics that start every Groundhog Day for Phil.

  26. T Says:

    Neo,

    I had forgotton about the “you just fell asleep” line. Thanks. I agree completely with your last comment which, I repeat, “was lost on those who think they have a higher degree of critical thought and sensitivity than the average viewer”.

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Previously a lifelong Democrat, born in New York and living in New England, surrounded by liberals on all sides, I've found myself slowly but surely leaving the fold and becoming that dread thing: a neocon.
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