Groundhog Day

There’s a festival each year at this time that captures the imagination of those who yearn for an early spring. But the term “Groundhog Day” has also come to be synonymous with a movie made in 1993, called by the same name, based upon the Festival at Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, starring actor Bill Murray and actress Andie MacDowell. The movie has, however, as much to say about the difficulty of coping with a long winter and the possibility of personal renewal, as it does about a groundhog’s shadow.

In the movie Groundhog Day, Bill Murray plays the part of a Weatherman, named Phil, “like the groundhog, Phil,” for a Pittsburgh television station. Like the Groundhog, who is caught in a never ending cycle of coming out from the warmth of his nest year after year to see or not see his shadow and thereby indicate whether the community will enjoy an early spring or need to dig in for another six weeks of winter, Weatherman Phil is caught in his own annual cycle of leaving Pittsburgh and travelling to the small town of Punxsutawney. “This,” he tells his cameraman on the way to the town, “will be the last time we do the Groundhog together.” He is hopeful that a major network will take him out of his perceived dull and cyclic life by transforming his career from Pittsburgh weatherman to national television personality.

Phil is, you might say, a little burnt out, a little weary of the winter, the cold, the snow. He is weary of his same old routine of forecasting the weather. Indeed, Phil is a little weary of himself and even life itself.

But Weatherman Phil’s seemingly never-ending annual cycle of journeying to Punxsutawney is about to be transformed into a “stuck-ness” of an entirely more serious nature. When Phil and the crew start to leave Punxsutawney after the festivities are concluded, they are stopped by, ironically enough, the weather. The snowstorm that Phil had predicted would “push off and hit Altoona,” a hundred miles to the east of Pittsburgh had apparently changed its course and stranded Phil and crew and everyone else. The problem was, in a way, that Phil, in his off hand and careless approach to meteorology, which characterized his approach to much in his life, did not bother to accurately predict the path of the storm.  He thus becomes caught as a result of his own lack of true and meaningful engagement. He also had, too, correspondingly, a lack of understanding of his own inner weather, into the conditions and meanings of the relationships in his own life.

Phil is initially, then, trapped by the snowstorm. When caught in the traffic jam on the Freeway out of Punxsutawney a police officer tells Phil, with a hefty dose of dramatic foreshadowing, that he can either go back to Punxsutawney or carry on along the Freeway that has been closed by police and freeze to death. The moment is a crucial one to the film. Phil answers the officer that “I make the weather.” Phil feels that he should be in control, that he should be able to exist above the temporal, but is finding out how self-deceived he is.  Phil can either go back to where he does not want to be and work out his problems with the his television station, the town, the festival, his crew, himself, or carry on down a closed Freeway as he is, isolated, at odds with the world around him, and suffer the consequence of his failure to come to a resolution with them.

Phil’s entrapment in the town by the snowstorm only gets worse, however, because it soon becomes evident that he is not only trapped by the snowstorm, but also by some kind of Time disturbance whereby he is subject to an endless repetition of the same day, Groundhog Day. It is always Groundhog Day now, and the Groundhog Day that was yesterday never happened. Each day Phil wakes up to the same sound of the alarm clock, to the words of Sonny and Cher’s, “I Got You Babe:” “there ain’t no hill or mountain we can’t climb.” There’s nothing Phil can’t do if he tries. Each morning he hears the same morning radio announcers announce that it’s “Groundhog Day” and that listeners in Punxsutawney had better not “forget your booties because it’s cold out there.”

And, it is cold out there. Weather wise, but also, for Phil, metaphorically. It is cold in his world void of true human connection. It is not always easy to manage human relationships and remain authentic and present, to be engaged with the community. It takes effort, effort which Phil has, at least of late, failed to make.

That Weatherman Phil is caught in a never-ending cycle of wake and work and sleep, with nothing ever changing is perhaps what draws our identification with the movie and Phil in particular. That feeling is perhaps best captured in the scene where Weatherman Phil, making his way from this Bed and Breakfast to Gobbler’s Knob, where the festival is held, steps each morning into the same curbside puddle, filled calf-high with cold, icy, dirty water. Each day Phil makes the same mistake.

The writer Danny Rubin suggested that one of the themes the movie explores is that of what a person would do with eternity. How would you spend each day if you were embedded in the infinite? While this is a fascinating question in its own right, the movie also speaks at the same time to the more mundane concerns of dealing with the challenges of the everyday. The two questions are perhaps more intricately related than they might at first appear to be. Anyone who has gone to the same place of work, day upon day, week upon week and year upon year, may well have felt, at some point, a little like Phil the Weatherman. Will this be my life forever? Can there ever be a change for me to a different job and place? Am I captive to the same “58 Dakota Express City Bus,”  or the “501 Queen Streetcar,” that picks me up each morning in the winter darkness at 6:36 am at the same corner in the rain and the cold and the snow, and delivers me to the same corner where I wait for yet another bus or streetcar that takes me the rest of the way to work with the same people at the same job?

The movie speaks, then, to the possibility of our getting stuck, stuck in a certain moment or circumstance, or mental landscape. And it is true. The possibility remains that we can get stuck so that we lose sight of the larger picture and the beauty that surrounds us. We can lose sight of the beauty in the people that surround us, the beauty in good things, in our family, and friends, and animals and pets (read horses). Groundhog Day speaks to the difficulty of feeling stuck in a winter that threatens to never end, so that we run the risk of losing sight of beauty itself, of what truly matters and the power of the human spirit. We can see beauty in the depth of winter, if we but choose to try. You might see it in the smile of a neighbour, in the wide eyes of a child, in the winter’s white hoary breath painting every intricate branch with frost on a rolling landscape under a magnificent partly sunny sky.

This is not to say that all is rosy and easy. Not at all. Weatherman Phil had to find his way out from the confinement of his own self-preoccupations. He found his way out when he came upon the realization that his happiness laid in his interest in the happiness of others, in his connection with the community around him, in his caring about them and helping them. 

Things changed only when Phil the Weatherman stopped seeing the people around him as objects, as the means to his own ends, and started treating them as subjects, with their own unique set of outlooks, circumstances and ways of being in the world, worthy of his attention and care. Indeed, one could argue that Phil the Weatherman discovered ultimately that the road to happiness lay in love itself. And in that discovery, the question of finding beauty in the everyday and the question of what to do with eternity may well have more in common than one might at first expect.

Reference: Groundhog Day (DVD, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment, 2002).

Photo Credits:

"Kalina at Gobblers knob" by JohnWDavisJr is licensed under CC BY 2.0
"IMG_0959" by Aaron Silvers is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0
"Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania" by Dougtone is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Douglas Allen - Red Scarf Equestrian Guest Blogger

Douglas Allen is a PhD Candidate in History at the University of Toronto. His historical studies are of late medieval and Renaissance Europe. He is interested in using the lens of identity to explore and understand history, human motivation and action. Douglas is also a writer who is currently writing a novel set in the City of Winnipeg in the 1980’s, which explores the nature of indigenous and non-indigenous relations.


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