SATURDAY READING: Phil’s Shadow, by Michael P. Foley

The Lessons of Groundhog Day

From Touchstone

Last December the New York Time ran an intriguing article about a Museum of Modern Art movie series on film and faith.  What attracted the Times to the series was not its pageant of grave Swedish cinema but its opening feature, the 1993 romantic comedy Groundhog Day.  The curators, polling “critics in the literary, religious, and film worlds,” found that the movie “came up so many times that there was actually a squabble over who would write about it in the retrospective’s catalog.”

The movie, the article went on to observe, “has become a curious favorite of religious leaders of many faiths, who all see in Groundhog Day a reflection of their own spiritual messages.”  A professor at NYU shows it in her classes to illustrate the doctrine of samsara (the endless cycle of rebirth Buddhists seek to escape), while a rabbi in Greenwich Village sees the film as hinging on mitvahs (good deeds).  Wiccans like it because February 2nd is one of the year’s four “great sabbats,” while the Falun Dafa sect uses the movie as a lesson in spiritual advancement.

Deciphering which, if any, of these interpretations is correct is no easy task, especially since the director and cowriter of the film, Harold Ramis, has ambiguous religious beliefs (he is an agnostic raised Jewish and married to a Buddhist).  The commentators also seem wedded to a single hermeneutical lens, forcing them to ignore contradictory data.

A more fruitful approach, I suggest, would involve following all of the clues, clues that lead not only to religion but also to the great conversation of philosophy.  Once we do so, Groundhog Day may be seen for what it is: 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.

Typical Modern

Groundhog Day is the story of Phil Connors, an obnoxious weatherman at a Pittsburgh TV station who must cover the celebration of Groundhog Day in rural Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania.  Phil (masterfully played by Bill Murray) is egotistical, career-driven, and contemptuous of his fellow man.  “People are morons,” he tells his producer Rita, played by an adorable Andie MacDowell.  “People like blood sausage.”  Phil, in other words, is the typical product of modernity, the bourgeois man who lives for himself in the midst of others.  Rita describes him – and us – well by quoting Sir Walter Scott’s “There Breathes the Man”:

The wretch, concentred all in self
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

By refusing to die to himself, Phil and those like him are doomed to die doubly, triply, innumerably.

The Punxsutawney celebration of Groundhog Day culminates with the town elders consulting a real woodchuck, also named Phil, about the next six weeks.  The groundhog sees his shadow, an omen that more winter is to come.

Connors cannot wait to return to Pittsburgh, but trapped by a blizzard (which he failed to predict), he and the crew must stay another night in Punxsutawney.  When he awakes the next morning, Phil discovers to his dismay that it is February 2nd – again.  The same thing happens the next day, and the next.  For reasons that are never made clear, Phil is condemned to live Groundhog Day over and over.

Phil’s situation is unique, yet the movie hints that it is not unrelated to our own quotidian lives.  Commiserating with two locals over beers, Phil asks, “What would you do if every day was the same, and nothing you did ever mattered?”  The men’s faces grow solemn, and one of them finally belches, “That about sums it up for me.”  Phil’s preternatural plight bears a twin resemblance to ours: first, as a symbol for the Fall, with its “doubly dying” estrangement from God and return to the vile dust from whence we sprang; and second, as a symbol for life in the wake of post-modern philosophy.

For the great father of this philosophy is Nietzsche, and the idea that frightened him most was “the eternal recurrence of the same,” i.e., that even the superior human being must bear the same dreary existence an infinite number of times.  Like us, Phil is the modern man who must now confront the hardship of postlapsarian life on the one hand and the metaphysical meaninglessness of postmodern thought on the other.

Indeed, Phil’s various reactions to his enslavement read like the history of philosophy in reverse.  Phil is shocked at his own impotence, so much faith had he put in his meteorological training.  (“I make the weather!” he tells an unconvinced state trooper.)  Phone lines and automobiles prove useless, as do his visits to a doctor and a therapist.  All of the Enlightenment’s societal buttresses – collapse under the weight of a problem outside the parameters of space and time.

Failure and Happiness

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice.  “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces.  His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic.  Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked.  Nineteen hundred years later, Machiavelli, arguably the father of modern philosophy, elevated this view to a philosophical principle.

And Phil embodies it perfectly: Once he learns that he can get away with anything he wants, he becomes Machiavelli’s prince.  He unhesitatingly steals money from a bank, cold-cocks a life insurance agent, and seduces an attractive woman.

To Phil’s surprise, however, this life of instant gratification proves unfulfilling, leading him to set his sights on Rita, his beautiful and wholesome coworker.  The name “Rita,” I contend, tells us something about the role she plays in Phil’s life.  Rita is short of Margarita, the Latin word for “pearl.”  To Phil, Rita is the pearl of great price.  We know from Matthew’s Gospel that this pearl is the kingdom of Heaven, but it may also be appropriate to think of it as happiness, since, according to Aristotle, happiness is that toward which everything in our life is ordered.

And so the overriding question of the story becomes clear: What will it take to attain true happiness?  What will it take to buy the pearl?

Phil’s initial attempts to win Rita again betray his Machiavellian instincts.  Machiavelli contended that it is better for a prince to appear to be virtuous – which fosters in others a gullible trust – than to be virtuous, which hamstrings his actions.  And so Phil goes to extraordinary lengths to learn about Rita’s aspirations and then to feign the same.  (The logic here is also Hegelian: Injustice is justified in the name of historical progress.)  Yet the ruse never works; each night ends with Phil receiving a slap in the face rather than acquiescence to his overtures.  The pearl of happiness, it turns out, cannot be bought with counterfeit money.

Phil’s failures lead to despair.  At the end of his rope, he now commits suicide – over and over.  Yet no matter how often he jumps off buildings or electrocutes himself, he still wakes up to another Groundhog Day.  His poignant awareness of his emptiness recalls the chilling line from Saint Augustine’s Confessions: “I went far from you, my God, and I became to myself a wasteland.”  Liberation from the divine law initially sounds thrilling, but such freedom proves to be not only hollow, but self-squandering annihilation.  As Phil says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”

And so Phil, with nowhere else to go, unconsciously turns from modern philosophy, with its “concentred” individualism, to ancient philosophy, with its praise of the just life as the best way to live.  Phil begins pursuing excellence (which in Greek is the same word as virtue), not for any ulterior motive but because he enjoys it.  In good Aristotelian fashion, he cultivates moral virtues (e.g., saving a choking victim), intellectual virtues (reading Chekhov), and a proficiency in the arts (playing the piano).  And thus Phil starts to become happy, for he is now fulfilling the conditions of happiness identified by the moralists of antiquity: knowing, doing, and loving the good.

 Not God

One can also argue that there is a theological dimension to Phil’s transformation.  Part of his conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it.  Like most moderns, Phil thinks of himself as (in Freud’s immortal phrasing) “a prosthetic god,” someone who “makes the weather” through his mastery of science.  Later, after his unsuccessful suicides, he tries to convince Rita that he is god, a claim she rejects on account of her “twelve years of Catholic school” (this is the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned).

But Phil’s conviction evaporates once he is forced to acknowledge the inevitable death of an old beggar whose life he repeatedly tries to save.  In the final scene of this subplot, he is kneeling down, vainly administering CPR to the man, when he stops and plaintively looks Heavenward.  And in an unrelated moment, he indirectly acknowledges God as creator by reciting the verse, “Only God can make a tree.”  God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.

And then there is the pearl.  On what ends up being the cycle’s last day, Rita is mesmerized by Phil’s now luminous character.  As the first item for sale at a fundraising event in which eligible bachelors are auctioned to the highest bidder, Phil generates tremendous interest from the town’s ladies, but Rita grandly outbids them all by offering the contents of her checking account.  In a happy peripety, rather than Phil buying the pearl with everything he has, the pearl buys him with everything she has.

Like grace, Rita comes to Phil as a freely given gift; like the kingdom of Heaven, she confers on him an ineffable bliss.  Rita’s purchase of Phil is literally a redemption or buying back from the slave block.  (As she coos to him later, “You’re mine; I own you.”)

It is only after this redemption that Phil – and Rita – wake up the following day on February 3rd.  The seemingly endless recurrence of the same has been broken by a love born of virtue, and the couple is now free to live happily ever after.  (Because the cycle is broken by the consummation of love and desire rather than the abandonment of it, the story cannot be seen as an allegory for Eastern religious thought.  And because this “eternal” recurrence is terminated by love and classical virtue, it is a refutation rather than an endorsement of Nietzsche.)

Though Phil and Rita’s romance is essential to the plot, it is not, however, the only gauge of progress.  Throughout the movie, the groundhog seems to function as Phil’s non-human doppelganger.  Both are weathermen and they share the same name.  Phil suspects a link but wrongly concludes that as long as Phil the groundhog sees his shadow, he will be doomed to relive February 2nd.  (This initiates a tragicomic incident in which he kills himself and the groundhog.)  But what we eventually come to realize is that it is not Phil the groundhog’s shadow that proves crucial, it is Phil the man’s.  As long as Phil wakes up in the morning and sees his shadow, there will be for him more winter, more of the same.  But if he awakes without a shadow, he will be given spring, a new life.

What is Phil Connor’s “shadow”?  It is his vices, his bad habits and sinful ways that detract from and diminish his God-given goodness.  The equation of shadow with vice is apposite, since both are, in Saint Augustine’s terms, a privation: Shadows are a privation of light, and evil and vice are a privation of the good.  Significantly, when one of the townies hears Phil Connor’s name, he teases him with the admonition, “Watch out for your shadow there, pal!”  And significantly, the townie’s name is Gus – short, of course, for Augustine.

I should add, though, that the movie is not perfect.  Rita’s final “redemption” of Phil, for instance, results in their sleeping together the next morning.  (Call it the incense that had to be thrown on the Hollywood fire.)  Also, despite promising hints, Phil’s turn to God is underdeveloped and falls short of a full religious conversion.

Purifying the Ground

Nonetheless, Groundhog Day exemplifies genuine progress, from the nadir of contemporary thought to the apex of classical philosophy, from depravity to virtue, from wretchedness to happiness.  And perhaps more interestingly, the movie taps into a Christian symbol of which its makers were no doubt unaware.

February 2nd in the liturgical calendar is the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, the feast that commemorates the presentation of her son in the temple forty days after his birth.  It was on this occasion that the aged Simeon declared the infant Jesus a “light for the revelation of the gentiles.”  Traditionally, candles are blessed on the feast, with a prayer that “just as visible fire dispels the shadows of the night, so may invisible fire, that is, the brightness of the Holy Spirit, free us from the blindness of every vice.”

Simeon’s prophecy led to a folk belief that the weather of February 2nd had a prognostic value.  If the sun shone for the greater part of the day, there would be forty more days of winter, but if the skies were overcast, there would be an early spring.  The badger was added later in Germany, but the Germans who emigrated to Pennsylvania could only find what native Americans in the area called a wojak, or woodchuck.  Since the Indians considered the groundhog a wise animal, it seemed only natural to appoint him, as we learn in the movie, “Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.”

The ground of Groundhog Day, in other words, is Catholic.  And just as our secular celebration of the day unwittingly echoes a deeper truth about the Light revealed to the gentiles, so too does the movie unwittingly point the way back to that truth.  And who knows, perhaps Rita, with her twelve years of Catholic school, knew this all along.

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