More on Groundhog Day

The story of Groundhog Day includes a number of phases:

1. The beginning, which takes place in normal time, in which the character is self-centered and embodies hate of self and others, defense and constriction.

2. The bulk of the movie, which takes place in an enchanted timelessness in which the character becomes other-directed, loving and free.

This has a number of subphases, which can, more or less, be described as:

  • bewilderment;
  • despair;
  • risk-taking and treating life as a game with selfish ends;
  • first breakthrough to intimacy;
  • generosity and the embracing of life;
  • shock at, and refusal to accept, death;
  • acceptance of the circumstances of life and death , and breakthrough to deep compassion (love);
  • being celebrated as a local hero and a second experience of intimacy in which he gets the object of his love.

3. The end, which has moved back into normal time, but which is now enchanted in a different way, by the attitude of the main character.

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In showing us this transformation, the movie provides a fictional counterpart to a universal experience, one that some people have in their own lives: that a confrontation with death and\or an acceptance of the circumstances of life, leads to a freeing up of the self, with greater enjoyment and compassion.

Although there isn't a perfect one-on-one correspondence, here, the stages of the movie bear a resemblance to the stages of growing up. Among the disguised images of childhood in the movie, are the following:

At first, the female producer is motherly toward the self-centered character and arranges for him to stay at a nice guest house. He wakes up into life, and discovers that he has been thrown into an alien situation. He has no idea what is going on and it seems that external forces control his life. He then gorges on food, showing a lack of table manners. Also like young children, he engages in risk-taking behavior and is convinced he is invincible, (which, in the movie, he is, of course). Knowing he is loved makes him generous and happy, and he plays and learns in a time when he has no real responsibilities. Then the existence of death shocks him out of his paradise of play and learning, and he refuses to accept it. (Death, here, is not only the child's discovery of literal death but all those aspects of life that have to do with loss and limitation.) His ability to deal with these feelings results in a healthy adaptation to life; he becomes a good person and a local hero and gets the girl who is now not a mother who has to tend to a spoiled child, but an interested potential mate.

It would seem, then, that  ideas and images about the stages of growing up have given the movie some of its basic framework. (In fact, some of these depictions bear a resemblance to the early stages of growing up, described by separation-individuation theory in psychology.) Many audience members undoubtedly take this in, without being aware of it.

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In addition to the mythic-archetypal elements described in the essay, the main character is like all kinds of heroes who have to face various monsters and obstacles. But, here, the obstacles unfold from his reaction to his circumstances. This aspect of the plot is one of the things that makes the movie such an interesting piece of moral (and existential) fiction: unlike so many stories, the character doesn't face a series of external dangers, as he grows inside. Instead, once the initial obstacle is created, most of the conflicts come from within him: they are a result of how he responds to life and what he causes life to give back to him.

(The movie also offers another mythic element in that the character is stuck in an ironic caricature of a timeless paradise, from which he must get himself expelled. This makes the movie similar to Logan's Run, which is one of many other works that embody the essential idea that humanity must escape, or be expelled from, false paradises to find an authentic life. More on this will be added soon.)

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The movie offers a number of contrasts that highlight the character's transformation:

Earlier, he gorges on food, because of his despair over his life situation. Later, he provides a feast for the old vagrant in an effort to conquer despair over life's consequences for other people;

Earlier, he keeps killing himself. Later, he keeps saving people.

Earlier, he injures people's self-esteem with sarcasm and drives them away. Later, he enlarges people with his vision of life, bolsters their self-esteem and draws them to him like a magnet.

Earlier, he is forced to be in Punxsutawney. Later, he decides to live there.

Earlier, he tries to simulate a false self, to win the female producer, and fails. Later, he shows her the real self he never knew he had and wins her over.

(Incidentally, he has to show her a false self because he hates himself so much, he doesn't believe anyone can love him. Once he experiences the breakthrough and what he has to offer is all out there, the self he shows to her becomes congruent with the self he experiences.)

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The timeless middle of the movie has some of the characteristics of a virtual world in which Murray can experiment with alternative ways of living and being. In that, it is like forms of fiction, including imagination. Since he participates in this virtual world, perhaps it is most like participatory fictions -- MUDs, video games, virtual realities. The movie similarly seeks to be our timeless interlude in which we can try on different ways of living.

Sherry Turkle, of MIT, whose work is discussed in an essay in The Age of Simulation, sees MUDs or text-based, interactive fictional worlds on the Internet as such a virtual world, allowing one to try on different selves. But she believes that they (and other participatory forms of fiction) allow us to discover that we are many selves, all of which turn out to be fictions. In Turkle's view, life is a kind of game, a form of theater, and the fiction in stories isn't much different than the fiction of life.

I believe the correct conclusion is precisely the opposite: fiction, whether participatory or vicarious, allows us to identify with and play characters who find their true selves, thereby putting us in touch with the universal human nature in each of us. The ability to watch and play the role of fictional characters makes the fiction more interesting and expands our vision of possible ways of being. But, one way or another, it must lead us back to our true selves, the universal, moral being we all (or most of us) are, which is as real as the physical world is real.

In fact, the movie symbolizes just this since Murray's character treats his life as a game only when he is in despair. Once he has a sense of hope, he becomes more authentic and discovers himself.

This is the essence of what this web site is about. It is based on the idea that all the stories and representations of popular culture are a free space in which we can play with the various possibilities inside us. But, ultimately, we have to ask to what degree they lead us away from our selves and to what degree toward our selves. Do we want to live in a culture that is like the movie's timeless realm, encouraging us to become authentic, or that turns our culture and our lives into the most sophisticated game in history, so we can escape from the truths of life. Like Phil (Murray's character) and his day, we can make either out of popular culture.

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The movie also attempts to create a mythic resonance by implying an identification between Murray's character and the groundhog: they are both trapped weather forecasters named Phil with some mystical connection to larger forces. As noted, there is an additional connection: Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog, and Phil the TV weather forecaster, are both used by people to tell what will happen next, because they fear suffering and want to control the conditions of life. But Phil, the human weather forecaster, has learned to accept life as it comes and so he gets to escape his entrapment, while the groundhog and most everyone else remain stuck in their's.

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The web includes at least one site with information on groundhog day, the annual, Feb.2, event, including some history and a map of Punxsutawney. You can return to Transparency with your back arrow at the top of the browser, unless, of course, the arrow keeps taking you back to the same page on Punxsutawney, and you discover that you are trapped there as you undergo various ordeals, on the way toward a new you. If so, you will find yourself up against one of the greatest obstacles of all: you will be stuck in a universe with frames.

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One would have thought this essay had plumbed the depths of the movie, but it turns out there is more. Here is the movie from a Buddhist perspective. While you are there, check out the essay on "The Ned Ryerson Cunundrum", which leads the author to wonder if another character might not be stuck in another time loop and trying to manipulate Murray's character, just as Murray is trying to do to others. (This link is no longer available.)