The other night I watched again, for the umpteenth time, one of my favorite movies, Ground Hog Day, which, as you surely know, stars Bill Murray. The 1993 movie, tells a quasi-science fiction story about a local news weather-jerk Phil Connors, who finds himself reliving the 2nd of February in that year of 198X, over and over again – and only he remembers his previous experiences on that day. Most of you who may read these words are quite familiar with the story, so I won’t recount it, but I will share a couple of thoughts that occurred to me as I enjoyed watching it again.
Like Forrest Gump, the movie Ground Hog Day can be enjoyed on many levels – superficially as a clever and funny twist on the life we lead, and more profoundly, by challenging our own perceptions of who we are and what is important. It is deliciously humorous, as Bill Murray beautifully caricatures a self-centered, self-important, manipulating jerk. The movie also caricatures the un-cosmopolitan nature of small town life in Punxsutawney, somewhere west of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Connors finds it almost an insult for such a sophisticated ‘somebody’ as he perceived himself to be, to be forced to spend a night with the hicks and fools in this unsophisticated nowheresville. And then, the gods intervene, to leave him in Punxsutawney, apparently for eternity. If Phil Connors could imagine hell, this would be it.
What a bummer! What an injustice!
But for the rest of us – the viewers with a god’s-eye view – this is sweet justice delivered to an insufferable a__-hole! And Hurrah! The gods DO have a sense of humor! This is when the fun begins.
True to character, after realizing his predicament, Connors gets to work exploiting it for his personal fun and profit, finding advantage in his predicament to manipulate people and his environment for his own ends. Very humorous indeed! Eat all you want, because tomorrow, you start all over. Insult whoever you want, take, steal, break whatever you want, seduce every woman you desire – the world will forget everything tomorrow, when you can start over and try new tricks to find new pleasures. Connors is able to live everyman’s dream – to have a unique advantage over everyone else in the competition to score victories for ‘fun and profit.’ His advantage is almost perfect knowledge, and no accountability. He can find out anything and everything about his environment and use it for his own personal advantage. He can live the adage ‘knowledge is power’ to its logical and extreme conclusion.
When you know the winning lottery number, it’s easy to win the lottery. When you know which cards the dealer will play – it’s easy to win at Blackjack.
When you know another person’s history and vulnerabilities, it is easy to manipulate them to your own ends.
Connors’ situation essentially gives him superhuman powers and insights. His only problem is that he has just shy of 24 hours during which he can use this advantage – over and over again. And he’s stuck in Punxsutawney.
The underlying theme of the story however is Connors’ moral and spiritual development. At the beginning of the movie, Connors’ life revolves around whatever makes him feel good – right now. His predicament gives him new powers to get away with anything in order to attain this goal. But he eventually gets bored with the pursuit of pleasure, and discovers that it is ultimately unsatisfying. As he comes to terms with his predicament, he amuses himself by getting to know and even appreciate the people of Punxsutawney, with all their fears and foibles. He eventually comes to realize that his boss, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell), the target of his seduction efforts throughout much of the movie, is indeed an unusually good, genuine, and unselfish person. With these insights, his own attitudes change and his evolution accelerates. He finds satisfaction in music, art and literature, and finds new pleasure in enabling and supporting happiness in others, even for just that one day.
He ultimately realizes that this one day, the 2nd of February, 198X, is all he will ever have, and there is no point to manipulating events and people for some future advantage.
One of the great lines in the movie comes near the end, when Connors tells Rita “I don’t care what happens. In this moment, I am happy.” In the end, the insufferable jerk has become a genuinely good, unselfish and wise man.
But to get there, he had opportunities that most of us do not have – to live out his childish and selfish fantasies, to experience the power to get almost whatever he wanted, with no long term consequences. Aristotle distinguished ‘cleverness’ –knowing how to get what one wants – from ‘wisdom’ – knowing the right things to want. Early in the movie, Connors used his predicament to enhance his cleverness; during the course of the movie he became wise. This wisdom was earned, by some estimates, after repeating the 2nd of February tens of thousands of times.
So what? Merely a fun and clever movie? Or something more? If we try to imagine ourselves able to live out our own power-fantasies as Connors was able to do in this movie, most of us realize that it would merely scratch an itch, but probably not make us happy in any meaningful sense. That said, our power-fantasies have a strong hold on us, and I wonder whether in fact we may have to continue to work through them in order to fully realize that they are ultimately unfulfilling. Does our personal growth require that we move through the stages Connors went through by trial and error to get to that state of wisdom that he has attained at the end of the movie? Buddhists and others who believe in the evolution of the soul through reincarnation, have adopted Ground Hog Day as a metaphor for the lives we must re-live, over and over again, to attain cosmic ‘wisdom’ and freedom from suffering.
In our own little Punxsutawney worlds, perhaps we do in fact already have all that we need to be happy, fulfilled, and wise. But we’re still not convinced that we can get to the gold at the end of the rainbow without being more clever than the next guy.
I, for one, would love to see a sequel. After the time loop is broken, Phil and Rita are happily walking down the snow-covered streets of Punxsutawney, talking about settling down there together. But Connors’ quip at the end, “but let’s rent first” is full of irony and begs a number of interesting questions – that without a sequel, only invite speculation.
Wikipedia has an interesting and fun article on the movie, and from it I learned that (like me) Roger Ebert, “had initially underestimated the film’s many virtues, and only came to truly appreciate it through repeated viewings.” The article also notes that Ground Hog Day continues to rise in the rankings of great movies, and one pundit named it as one of the best American films ever. It occurred to me as I watched it again the other night, that the parallel dimensions of realities envisioned in the emerging ‘string theory’ of reality may imply potentially more ‘truth’ in the Ground Hog Day experience than we realize. Anyway, I will watch Ground Hog Day again, and again, not only to enjoy its humor, but also in hopes that my appreciation for its insights will evolve, as does Murray’s character in the movie.