“This is pitiful. A thousand people freezing their butts off waiting to worship a rat. What a hype. Groundhog Day used to mean something in this town. They used to pull the hog out, and they used to eat it. You’re hypocrites, all of you!”
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?”
So today of all days, February 2nd, is the only day to discuss one of the greatest films of all time, Groundhog Day. I think by now we all know the film and the concept…although just in case you don’t know let me quickly recap the movie (I have to do this because I found some people just live in caves and don’t know movies at all). Phil Connors (Bill Murray in his last enjoyable role) an unhappy, misanthropic TV weatherman gets sent to Punxsutawney, PA to cover the annual Groundhog festival to see if famed weatherman and groundhog Punxsutawney Phil sees his shadow or not. Then a snowstorm hits and he can’t get out of the small town he loathes. But what’s worst of all is that when he wakes up the next morning, it’s still Groundhog day. It’s always Groundhog Day. Every day he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day. Every day he wakes up and it’s Groundhog Day. The universe seems to reset itself every time he falls asleep and only he seems to remember what happened. And after having all the fun you could think of having when there are no lasting consequences, a funny thing happens, the meaningless pleasures become, well meaningless, and he starts to actually improve himself and become a better human.
Ever since it came out this film has been popular with spiritual people of all faiths and ethical philosophers because it shows the progression of self-improvement and placing value on things that actually matter as just about all religions actually call for. For those spiritually inclined it works as an allegory for a very abbreviated form of reincarnation and movement toward enlightenment. For others it is a description of ethical and personal growth, often seen through the lens of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Which is probably why conservative scholar Charles Murray recommend this as the one movie everyone should watch and watch often. Bill Murray as Phil Connors works his way both through Maslow’s Hierarchy. Starting at the bottom, first with food as we see him stuff himself on every food the coffee shop has to offer, then sex (with what seems like half the female population of the town), then money (a bank robbery and then spending it on anything his heart desires), followed by thrills and the fun (and sometimes crazy) stuff we’d always like to try but never have the guts to because, unlike in Phil, there are consequences for us in the morning.
Soon, Phil, like all of us, becomes both fixated on something of value and something which is just out of his reach (in this case Rita played by Andie MacDowell’s affection, and I say affection because still at this point Phil is a fairly shallow individual has a lot of growth left to do, thus love is beyond his conception). As these lower pleasures give no lasting pleasure he tries to find something that lasts for more than a single day. Which takes him through the long effort of trying to win Rita over. The challenge gives him both something to work on but it offers the safety of not having to worry about finding a new pleasant distraction for the next day.
But as he cannot find it by being his shallow petty self he becomes depressed.
In spiritual discussions of a lot of religions there is always a point where a person has progressed far enough to understand that the purely physical world isn’t enough to bring Happiness, but, in spite of deeply held faith (and oddly usually because of it) a person will hit a point where both the material world they have left and the spiritual world they have yet to fully enter both become meaningless and bereft of hope. “You want a prediction about the weather, you’re asking the wrong Phil. I’ll give you a winter prediction: It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be grey, and it’s gonna last you for the rest of your life.” In Christianity this period is called the dark night of the soul. It’s a necessary spiritual point, but also a dangerous one as the soul hits rock bottom and feels it has nothing to lose. In the case of Groundhog Day this manifests in repeated suicide attempts. And this occurs because it is stage many people don’t get to or past because it is a point where you have to make the decision to live life as more than just base pleasures and just worrying about the needs of safety and pleasure…and start working for much more. And that’s daunting. Even if you don’t fully realize it, your soul or subconscious (depending on whether you want to take the spiritual or non-spiritual take on this) realizes those belonging, esteem and self-actualization need require risk. For most of it means risky failure, risking heart break, risking the safety we have worked to maintain (and many would choose a life of simple pleasures without risk rather than risk speaking out for what they believe in, risk telling someone they love them and the possible rejection, risking their livelihood on a business that could succeed but might not). For Phil it means accepting that he can’t win Rita, risking opening up to an old man whom he can’t save from death, and accepting that no consequence is not the apparent safety it seemed to be.
“I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned. […] and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender… I am an immortal.”
Luckily, like most people, he arises from the dark night with the help of a higher power believing in him which allows him to again continuing through the levels of Maslow’s hierarchy to work on issues of personal improvement, achievement and self actualization. Reading, learning the piano, dealing with people at a deeper level, even in the passing relationships (“Buon Giorno, Signori” to first person he meets in the morning), and a wealth of other learning. After passing through the dark night he ceases to be fully fixated on only himself which actually allows him to better himself (which harkens back to the conservative point that there is an extreme difference between narcissism and rational self-interest, between materialism and finding joy in the material world that liberals never seem to understand). And by becoming a better person he actually becomes a much happier one.
“Whatever happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life, I’m happy now… because I love you.”
This movie works as a good movie for conservatives because, more or less this is what we believe happens is the point of that pursuit of Happiness we defend so dearly, that given the freedom to choose people will begin to see that the base pleasures are not worth it, that we don’t have to restrict it from people, that they can learn the truth of the path to Happiness and virtue on their own without coercion. That we don’t need to have the government force charity through welfare and the dole, that people see the value of helping others on their own (even when the little brat never thanks you). That when given the chance to risk (especially when the government isn’t adding extra risk through regulation) people, even someone as shallow and useless as Phil was at the beginning of the movie, will find that life has more to offer through self-improvement and virtue.
The film not only shows the true path to Happiness, but also reflects the conservative faith that liberty leads to prosperity for the individual and society.