Groundhog Day, Again

It’s Groundhog Day…again.

It could have been just another funny comedy, a Bill Murray vehicle, a good but forgettable flick. But clearly it’s much more. It’s more than a cult film, even: it’s a classic. Why?

In a story meeting a few days ago Mary said that “Groundhog Day” is for a certain generaton — mine, I guess (I’m 30) — what “High Noon” “The Searchers” was for a former one. I’m not exactly sure what this means, but I have a feeling she’s right. And also that it’s more than generational.

Screenwriters crib from it. Film theorists teach it. Orthodox Jews love it. As do Jesuit priests. And Buddhists really love it. Stanley Cavell, the Harvard philosopher who normally writes about Wittgenstein and Emerson (along with film comedies of the 30s and 40s, and a lot more) named it as the contemporary work of art that will be cherished 100 years from now.

But unlike, say, Caddyshack — another Bill Murray movie also directed by Harold Ramis — people don’t memorize lines or standout scenes. Fans may have their favorites of each, but the movie seems to be beloved more in its totality. Which seems good and right in a Buddhist sort of way.

But if Mary is right (and when isn’t she?), and “Groundhog Day” is some new touchstone for a generation or a time, what does that mean? What does Groundhog Day mean to you? Why does it hold up? (Or maybe the first question is: does it hold up, for you?) Why does it get better, this film with so much repetition and such subtle variation? What kind of religious gloss would you give it? Any at all?

Far from Pennsylvania

Most other countries don’t have groundhogs; none have Groundhog Day. How, then, to present the movie “Groundhog Day”? We dredged up a few examples.

What they called “Groundhog Day” in…
Sweden: Måndag hela veckan, “Monday All Week Long.” Translation courtesy Helena Bergenheim, Swedish Consulate, New York.

France: Un Jour Sans Fin, “A Day Without End”

Italy: E Gia Ieri, “It’s Yesterday Already” This was an Italian-language remake, with a writing credit to original writer Danny Rubin.

Germany: Und Täglich Grüßt Das Murmeltier, “And Every Day the Marmot Says Hello”

Guest List
Paul Schindler
Groundhog Day fan extraordinaire and keeper of groundhogdaythemovie.com
Danny Rubin
screenwriter of Groundhog Day and professor of film writing.
Angela Zito
professor of anthropology and religious studies at New York University, and co-director of The Center for Religion and Media at NYU.
Niles Goldstein
founding rabbi, The New Shul in New York City and author, Spiritual Manifestos: Visions for Renewed Religious Life in America from Young Spiritual Leaders of Many Faiths, among many other books.

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  • Mary

    For the record, I’m 28, and I think I mentioned another John Wayne epic, “The Searchers.” I’m a big fan of John Ford westerns but I don’t think many others of my generation are. In the words of Dutton Peabody, my alter ego in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence:” When legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

  • jseeley

    I am 51, and I have been calling this my favorite movie ever since it came out. I also liked “A Christmas Carol” (the Alistair Sim version esp.) for the same basic and corny reason: spiritual redemption. In Groundhog Day there is the added element of belly laughing humor, which of course Murray excels in. Also we get to see the details of the process of the “everyman” character going through his dark night of the soul and then pulling himself up gradually by his own bootstraps.

  • evan

    20, here, and as a writer/improv’er/comedian/musician/fan of breaking up a sentence this way I love the film because it takes the pattern of a day, a pattern that you so clearly and blindly know after a point, and frees Murray to create whatever he wants, with all the voices the prism of the scene could allow: his success depends on his invention.

  • SethP

    I am 29, and for the past 10 years this has been a classic for my circle of college friends. We celebrate every year rattling off quotes and e-mailing each other. In fact, this morning, the first e-mail I got included this quote:

    “Pastry Larry?”

    So, I think this movie does get the same love and respect as Caddyshack. We quote it. “Don’t drive angry!”

  • I didn’t mean to start some kind of age-divulging compulsion. Feel free to omit it… or to lie.

  • SethP: You’re right. I think I might have been talking out of my ass up there about the whole quote thing.

    Today’s favorites, after watching it again last night in preparation for tonight’s show — work is hard! — were:

    “I’m A god. I’m not THE God… I don’t think.”

    and:

    “I’LL give you a winter prediction: It’s going to be cold, it’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last you the REST of YOUR LIFE.”

  • Enkido

    I’m ageless and immortal.

    I want to chime in in agreement with Seth: movie scenes may not have caught on such that they are parodied, but there are great lines that weave their way into the vernacular of we Hogaphiles. And the lines take on their robust full meaning:

    Bing: used for any insight, or when you expect insight from someone else

    Don’t drive angry: pay attention to whatever it is you’re doing

    Is it too early for pancakes?: Should we have sex now? or later?

    I hate white chocolate: A statement that precedes revealing your true feelings.

    Is it snowing in space?: That’s a feeble excuse!

  • You should have Stanley Cavell on the show; his essay on Groundhog Day is genius.

  • zeitgeist

    I love the movie, but I have something more serious to bring up. The semantics of Groundhog Day: Phil has to see his shadow. It is not the Phill has a shadow, he has to SEE it, and then whisper it to the guy in the top hat what he saw. I see some problems with this kind of prgnosticating! First, there could be a lot of reasons Phil may not see his shadow, even if his shadow IS there! How do we know if for instance Phil is not going blind, has cataracts, somebody elses shadow could be in the way of his shadow, or maybe he just want to throw us humans off for fun? Also, how good is the guy in the top hat’s Gorundhogese? Could Phil’s dialect hamper translation? We have to think about these questions to secure the future of Groundhog day!

  • DevanJedi: You’re right. Unfortunately he isn’t available tonight.

  • Groundhog Day reminds me a bit of It’s a Wonderful Life — not a huge hit when it first came out, but a movie that’s gained a lot of resonance as time’s gone by as a cultural touchstone.

    Part of the appeal, I think, is the idea that anyone can reach enlightenment, should he or she choose to try. And, of course, you can only reach it once you stop caring about whether or not you ever get there — by the end, Phil is doing these things because he enjoys them, and that’s what breaks the pattern.

    It’s also an appealingly simple idea, run through with enough variation to be interesting but not dragged on to ridiculous extremes.

    I wonder if a bit of its longevity is due to Bill Murray’s career upswing? Or maybe it helped spur it. Rushmore and Lost in Translation and The Life Aquatic all come after Groundhog Day. And they all make use of Murray’s status as an icon, more than an actor. Like Cary Grant or John Wayne, Murray doesn’t have enormous range, but he’s great at working variations within that range.

  • Murray has the gift of being able to draw from the general ‘Bill Murray’ persona in every character he plays. The power of his modern films like ‘Broken Flowers’ and ‘Lost in Translation’ (which are not comedies however much the Hollywood Foreign Press forces us to believe they are) is that we know Bill Murray from a previous Caddyshack/Groundhog Day life. In fact, Broken Flowers and Lost in Translation are the same film as Groundhog Day, devoid of the humor. We have a man who seems to be stuck in a rut; reliving the same excrutiating details of his life over and over until something helps him break free.

  • houseofnolan

    Ramis said at one point that Murray’s transformation occurs over the course of ten years. Obviously, the movie hasn’t got enough scenes to portray ten years, and we know from the diner scene, where Murray mentions quite a few ways of killing himself that we never actually see, that the movie is condensed. Likewise, as good as he is at piano, he must have practiced for some time. This surprises a few viewers, that is, it’s “real time” aspect, but really it’s built into the ultimately optimistic view of the film. In a few months, Murray’s character might believe that his condition was temporary, but, surely, in leading up to a full ten years, his character must see his neverending day as exactly that, a step towards the unending. And, in the face of that prospect, when time stretches before him infintely, that is when he decides to make meaning of his life, to compact in that single day all the possible good he could do. Needless to say, if you had ten years to practice a single day, you too should have something to show for it.

  • In terms of religious metaphor, Groundhog Day is essentially Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha. The ‘enlightened’ path is unappealing and impossible to understand until the protagonist has experienced everything else. Once he has experienced everything else, the path is obvious.

  • John

    I like Groundhog Day because it is one of the least cynical movies ever made. I hate the phrase “Same sh#t, different day.” This movie takes that funk and turns it around..sure, at first it looks like the same thing SAME day, but you slowly see the power of choice, options, what ifs…the power to take life and move it in many many different directions. The irony is here is a weatherman (he talks about it but can’t do anything about it) who discovers his ability to change something more powerful: his life and the impact his presence has on others.

  • cheesechowmain

    I enjoy movies that use Time as a conceptual framework for a narrative. Groundhog Day did an excellent job at this. Other films I’ve enjoyed in this regard are:

    “Night On Earth” (explored the concept of simultaneity),

    “Zentropa” (had a dreamlike quality),

    “Shadow Play” (Twilight Zone nightmare of repetition),

    “Pulp Fiction” and “The Limey” (both played with non-linear narrative),

    “The Mechanic” (time passage through physical withering of a human being, sort of reminded my of Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist”),

    “Seconds” and “Memento” (amnesia and body memory),

    “Sexy Beast” (personal past becomes a cage or prison for one’s future behavior),

    “Time Bandits” and “The Time Machine” and “Back To The Future I” (time travel fantasy).

    There are a bunch more, this is an off-the-top-of-my-head list. The original “Twilight Zone” series explored this terrain often. “Night On Earth” is very interesting to me because the simultaneity aspect must be managed in the viewers head; the medium of film cannot fully capture this notion directly. It is also just fun to watch; this was my first contact with Armin Mueller-Stahl and Roberto Benigni.

    Returning to “Groundhog Day”…

    “Groundhog Day” explored in a tangental way the essays of Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” The absurdity of repetition is very apparent in this film, though the remedy of death is not an option in this particular story. Thus, the escape clause has been removed and confrontation of the repetition is the only available option. This has the potential to turn into a nightmare (ala “Shadow Play”), but this film avoids this trap and is able to do so without being overly contrived or superficial. That in of itself is a remarkable achievement.

    “Groundhog Day” shows you can keep the tedium to a medium.

  • A great study of ‘reality creation’ as my studies of metaphysics has taught me. The only things that are retained for Phil are ‘his more real self’. These are primarily thoughts and feelings, but also, passions and Dreams. He winds up dealing only with these and as he does them successfully (valuing, choosing, et al) his reality changes.

    Rubin the writer ‘chanced’ upon Feb 2/Groundhog Day, but his ‘more real self’ intervened fortuitously: As portrayed in Japanese ‘astrology’ known as ‘9 Star Ki’, this period between winter & spring (between ‘midnight’, 10PM-2AM, and dawn 6AM-10AM) is the ‘darkest before the dawn’. A Quantum, Heisenbergian, paradox period that appears in the time/space illusion just as it points our way out of it. This period is one of a holding of the time/space illusion while also, the process of being outside it. Being outside it allows for the 7 loops subsuming the pasts, and 7 loops out-spinning to the future–“Let’s shift to ‘neutral’ for a moment and gain some perspective to plan our next move(s). Much more can be said about this tricky phase of the ‘relative’, but, to be brief; this movie could never be, say, a Fourth of July comedy.

    As is obvious, the carrying out of the movie was immpeccable, thankfully. We’ve got a great gift here.

  • Nice to hear my comment discussed on the show; thanks David, Chris, everyone else. Though, for next time, that’s Jedi as in Obi-Wan… not Jedee 🙂

  • Cato

    Monday all week long. A day without end. It’s yesterday already. And everyday the marmot says hello. Black hole of love. Try, try again. Day of the earth-pig.

  • Cato

    How about “The Day After Groundhog Day” and we see how Murray’s character has changed the lives of the inhabitants of the town?

  • Cato

    (Im kidding.)

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  • stalman

    I have relistened to this episode several times, it seems to have hooked me into its own loop.