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.]