Enthusing over this film. Spoilers.
-The Voice before the Void
“Have to see it again.”
The Most Spiritual Hollywood Movie: Groundhog Day, 1993, starring Bill Murray
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“Groundhog Day (film)”
Interpretations and analysis
The film is often considered an allegory of self-improvement, emphasizing that happiness comes from placing the needs of others above one’s own selfish desires. As the released film offers no explanation why the time loop occurs—or why it ends—the viewer is left to draw his or her own conclusions. Rubin has said that while he and Ramis discussed several of the philosophical and spiritual aspects of the film, they “never intended [it] to be anything more than a good, heartfelt, entertaining story”.
“Groundhog Day”, as an expression, has become shorthand for the concept of spiritual transcendence. As such, the film has become a favorite of some Buddhists who see its themes of selflessness and rebirth as reflections of their own spiritual messages. In the Judeo-Christian tradition, it has been seen as a representation of purgatory. “Connors goes to his own version of hell, but since he’s not evil it turns out to be purgatory, from which he is released by shedding his selfishness and committing to acts of love,” wrote Jonah Goldberg. “Meanwhile, Hindus and Buddhists see versions of reincarnation here, and Jews find great significance in the fact that Connors is saved only after he performs mitzvahs (good deeds) and is returned to earth, not heaven, to perform more.” It has even been described by some religious leaders as the “most spiritual film of our time”. “The curse is lifted when Bill Murray blesses the day he has just lived,” wrote the critic Rick Brookhiser. “And his reward is that the day is taken from him. Loving life includes loving the fact that it goes.”
Theologian Michael P. Pholey, writing for Touchstone Magazine, commented on the difficulty of determining a single religious or philosophical interpretation of the film, given Ramis’s “ambiguous religious beliefs” as “an agnostic raised Jewish and married to a Buddhist”, and suggested that when not viewed through a “single hermeneutical lens”, the film could be seen as “a stunning allegory of moral, intellectual, and even religious excellence in the face of postmodern decay, a sort of Christian-Aristotelian Pilgrim’s Progress for those lost in the contemporary cosmos.” Others see an interpretation of Nietzsche’s directive to imagine life—metaphorically or literally—as an endless repetition of events. “How would this shape your actions?” asks Goldberg. “What would you choose to live out for all eternity?”
The New York Times
2003 December 7
Since its debut a decade ago, the film has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in “Groundhog Day” a reflection of their own spiritual messages. Curators of the series, polling some 35 critics in the literary, religious and film worlds to suggest films with religious interpretations, found that “Groundhog Day” came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective’s catalog.
Harold Ramis, the director of the film and one of its writers, said last week that since it came out he has heard from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and that the letters keep coming. “At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,'” Mr. Ramis said during a conversation on his mobile phone as he was walking the streets of Los Angeles. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it, because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation center for 30 years and my wife lived there for 5 years.”
Angela Zito, a co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, screens the film for students in her Buddhism class. She said that “Groundhog Day” perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that Buddhists regard as suffering that humans must try to escape…
“Groundhog Day,” Dr. Zito said, is a cinematic version of the teachings in Mahayana Buddhism, known as “the greater vehicle.”
“In Mahayana,” she said, “nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world.[“]
Some theologians see much less Buddhism in the story than Judaism. Dr. Niles Goldstein, rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village and author of “Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness” (Bell Tower, 2002), said he finds Jewish resonance in the fact that Mr. Murray’s character is rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more mitzvahs — good deeds — rather than gaining a place in heaven, which is the Christian reward, or achieving nirvana, the Buddhist reward.
Michael Bronski, a film critic for The Forward who teaches a course in Jewish film history at Dartmouth, said he sees strong elements of not only Jewish but also Christian theology. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever hopeful renewal of life at springtime…[“]
“Groundhog Day The Movie, Buddhism and Me”
Reel To Real: Buddhism and Film
…a showing of Groundhog Day sponsored by the San Francisco Zen Center on Friday, Aug. 10, 2001, held in the Trustees’ Auditorium of the Asian Art Musem in Golden Gate Park…
The showing of Groundhog Day, to a full house audience of 300, was introduced by Dairyu Michael Wenger, dean of Buddhist studies at the San Francisco Zen Center. The main speaker was Reb Anderson, Tenshin Roshi, a lineage holder in the Soto Zen tradition.
Reb Anderson made brief but amusing remarks prior to the film; several people left when the showing was over. That was too bad, because a lively and informative conversation ensued.
One of the first questions was “who wrote this?” As it happened, I knew, from writing about Danny Rubin and from owning a copy of the original script, so I raised my hand and informed the audience. Michael Wenger said he had heard that Danny Rubin was influenced by George Gurdjieff, a Western mystic with some Buddhist ideas in common particularly around practice which they call the work.
I asked what the Reb thought was the turning point in the film. …I concluded that it begins 4/5 of the way into the 103 minute film, at about the 80 minute mark. Phil is throwing cards into the hat, and Rita points out that the eternally repeating day doesn’t have to be a curse.
Reb Anderson disagreed. He thought the turning point came later, when Phil found he was unable to save the old man’s life. Only here, he said, did Phil realize “It’s not me, it is the universe, I am just the vessel.”
One member of the audience was troubled because Phil was too successful at the end, and was given too much credit. This was chalked up, by the audience, to the requirements of Hollywood film-making.
“Groundhog Day (film)”
The film was released to generally favorable reviews. Janet Maslin of The New York Times called it “a particularly witty and resonant comedy”… Desson Howe of The Washington Post noted that even though the film is a good Bill Murray vehicle, “‘Groundhog’ will never be designated a national film treasure by the Library of Congress”. Despite this, the film was selected by the National Film Preservation Board for preservation in the Library of Congress in 2006.
Roger Ebert revisited it in his “Great Movies” series. After giving it a three-star rating in his original review, Ebert acknowledged in his “Great Movies” essay that, like many viewers, he had initially underestimated the film’s many virtues and only came to truly appreciate it through repeated viewings.
In 2009, American literary theorist Stanley Fish named the film as among the ten best American films ever, writing that “as the movie becomes more serious, it becomes funnier. The comedy and the philosophy (how shall one live?) do not sit side by side, but inhabit each other in a unity that is incredibly satisfying.”
“Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, Groundhog Day scores”
2005 February 1
Here’s a line you’ll either recognize or you won’t: “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.” If you don’t recognize this little gem, you’ve either never seen Groundhog Day or you’re not a fan of what is, in my opinion, one of the best films of the last 40 years. As the day of the groundhog again approaches, it seems only fitting to celebrate what will almost undoubtedly join It’s a Wonderful Life in the pantheon of America’s most uplifting, morally serious, enjoyable, and timeless movies.
EDITOR’S NOTE: OK, campers, rise and shine! It’s become a Groundhog’s Day tradition around here to run this cover story from the February 14, 2005, issue of National Review over and over and over . . .
When I set out to write this article, I thought it’d be fun to do a quirky homage to an offbeat flick, one I think is brilliant as both comedy and moral philosophy. But while doing what I intended to be cursory research — how much reporting do you need for a review of a twelve-year-old movie that plays constantly on cable? — I discovered that I wasn’t alone in my interest. In the years since its release the film has been taken up by Jews, Catholics, Evangelicals, Hindus, Buddhists, Wiccans, and followers of the oppressed Chinese Falun Gong movement. Meanwhile, the Internet brims with weighty philosophical treatises on the deep Platonist, Aristotelian, and existentialist themes providing the skin and bones beneath the film’s clown makeup. On National Review Online’s group blog, The Corner, I asked readers to send in their views on the film. Over 200 e-mails later I had learned that countless professors use it to teach ethics and a host of philosophical approaches. Several pastors sent me excerpts from sermons in which Groundhog Day was the central metaphor. And dozens of committed Christians of all denominations related that it was one of their most cherished movies.
When the Museum of Modern Art in New York debuted a film series on “The Hidden God: Film and Faith” two years ago, it opened with Groundhog Day. The rest of the films were drawn from the ranks of turgid and bleak intellectual cinema, including standards from Ingmar Bergman and Roberto Rossellini. According to the New York Times, curators of the series were stunned to discover that so many of the 35 leading literary and religious scholars who had been polled to pick the series entries had chosen Groundhog Day that a spat had broken out among the scholars over who would get to write about the film for the catalogue…. Charles Murray, author of Human Accomplishment, has cited Groundhog Day more than once as one of the few cultural achievements of recent times that will be remembered centuries from now. He was quoted in The New Yorker declaring, “It is a brilliant moral fable offering an Aristotelian view of the world.”
I know what you’re thinking: We’re talking about the movie in which Bill Murray tells a big rat sitting on his lap, “Don’t drive angry,” right? Yep, that’s the one. You might like to know that the rodent in question is actually Jesus — at least that’s what film historian Michael Bronski told the Times. “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ…[“]
Rita tells Phil that people love the groundhog story, to which he responds, “People like blood sausage, too, people are morons.” Later, at the Groundhog Festival, she tells him: “You’re missing all the fun. These people are great! Some of them have been partying all night long. They sing songs ‘til they get too cold and then they go sit by the fire and get warm and then they come back and sing some more.” Phil replies, “Yeah, they’re hicks, Rita.”
He is a thoroughly postmodern man: arrogant, world-weary, and contemptuous without cause.
[A] blizzard stops him at the outskirts of town. A state trooper explains that the highway’s closed: “Don’t you watch the weather reports?” the cop asks. Connors replies (blasphemously, according to some), “I make the weather!”
…how many actual Groundhog Days Connors endures. We see him relive 34 of them. But many more are implied. According to Harold Ramis, the co-writer and director, the original script called for him to endure 10,000 years in Punxsutawney, but it was probably closer to ten.
But this is a small mystery. A far more important one is why the day repeats itself and why it stops repeating at the end. Because the viewer is left to draw his own conclusions, we have what many believe is the best cinematic moral allegory popular culture has produced in decades — perhaps ever.
Interpretations of this central mystery vary. But central to all is a morally complicated and powerful story arc to the main character.
…he begins to believe he is “a god.” When Rita scoffs at this — noting that she had twelve years of Catholic school (the only mention of religion in the film) — he replies that he didn’t say he was “the God” but merely “a god.” Then again, he remarks, maybe God really isn’t all-powerful, maybe he’s just been around so long he knows everything that’s going to happen. This, according to some, is a reference to the doctrine of God’s “middle knowledge,” first put forward by the 16th-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina, who argued that human free will is possible because God’s omniscience includes His knowledge of every possible outcome of every possible decision.