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The Profoundly Humane Vision of “Groundhog Day” ~ The Imaginative Conservative

The protagonist of the film “Groundhog Day” discovers that what makes life worth living is not immediate gratification, or moral autonomy, or flippant cynicism, or self-deification, but rather encountering those things that give meaning and purpose to our lives.

Today, we are experiencing nothing less than a renaissance of classical education throughout the United States, Europe, and Africa. According to the Association of Classical Christian Schools membership statistics, there were ten classical schools in the nation in 1994, today there are over 230. Since 2002, student enrollment in classical schools has more than doubled from 17,000 nationwide to over 41,000, and all indicators suggest that the next decade will be one of significant growth. And we are already seeing the effects of this kind of education. As of 2015, classical schools had the highest SAT scores in each of the three categories of Reading, Math, and Writing among all independent, religious and public schools.

However, could the recovery of classical education mean more than mock trial and SAT achievements? Students are once again reading the classical texts and great books, reciting epic poetry, studying the classical languages, developing comparable music literacy and art appreciation, worshipping through traditional liturgy, and writing and orally defending theses. Through this renewed encounter with the highest forms of classical culture, are our students getting more than merely testing advantages?

According to the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, the answer to such an inquiry is an emphatic: “Yes!” The movie has rightfully garnered enthusiastic acclaim from the likes of both audiences and critics, as well as professors and philosophers; indeed few films have matched its combination of clever and sardonic humor with profoundly deep moral reflection. In fact, Jonah Goldberg of National Review hails this film as one of the most important movies of the last forty years.

Groundhog Day stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a narcissistic weatherman for Channel 9 Pittsburgh, whose delusions of grandeur are expressed by his self-given nickname, “the talent.” As the movie opens, we find Phil very disgruntled. He’s been given what he considers an absolutely demeaning assignment to cover the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney, Pa., at which “Punxsutawney Phil”—a real groundhog—comes out of his hole to reveal how much longer winter will last. Phil reluctantly travels to Punxsutawney accompanied by his producer, Rita (played by the beautiful Andie MacDowell), and his cameraman.

They arrive the night before, and Phil stays at a local Bed and Breakfast, wakes up at six am to the clock radio playing “I Got You Babe” and the local DJ’s greeting: “Rise and Shine, campers, it’s Groundhog Day.” When Phil comes out to the town green where the crowds are gathered, he sees all the people excited, and Rita is caught up in the thrill of it all. She can’t contain her enthusiasm: “These people are great!” she says. Phil replies, “Yeah, they’re hicks, Rita.” The groundhog emerges, the crowd goes wild, and Phil turns to the camera, and with an incredulous expression, comments: “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather.”

However, if Phil thought he could make a quick getaway out of Punxsutawney, he was in for a rude awakening. A snowstorm strands the crew in town, and so Phil is forced to spend another night in the same little bed and breakfast.

The next morning, the clock radio goes off at the same time with the same song “I Got You Babe” and the same declaration, “Rise and Shine! It’s Groundhog Day!” At first, Connors believes it’s a typical mistake made by a second-rate radio station. But as the day unfolds he discovers it’s the exact same day—February 2nd—all over again.

And this is the plot device for the whole film. Everyone else experiences that day for the “first” time, while Connors is completely alone in his awareness of the day’s repetition. Phil panics, he is trapped in some kind of time-warp that keeps repeating day after day after day. But he slowly realizes if there is no tomorrow, then he can, in effect, live forever without any consequences to his actions. So Phil dives head-first into indulging his adolescent self. He shoves cigarettes and pastries into his face with no fear of love-handles or lung cancer. During a drunk-driving spree, he declares “I am not going to play by their rules any longer!” He uses his ability to glean intelligence about the locals to seduce women with lies.

But the goal of Connors’ adolescent spree is his scheme to seduce Rita with the same techniques he used on other women. But he can’t do it. He fails, time and time again. She simply refuses to give in to his masterful seductions. And when Phil realizes that there is no escaping this time warp, that he is eternally trapped in a perpetual February 2nd, and that all of his pursuits at self-gratification amount to nothing, he comes to the end of his rope, and, in total desperation, Phil commits suicide, only to wake up at six am in the same bed and breakfast to the DJ’s announcement: “Rise and Shine! It’s Groundhog day.” So he tries to kill himself again, and again, and again, and every time, at six am, he is greeted with “Rise and Shine!”

And so, Phil interprets his situation as only Phil Connors could: He convinces himself that he is a god. But Phil was soon to learn that there was nothing godlike about him. You see, throughout the movie, Phil would turn a corner where an elderly homeless man would be begging for money, a man Phil avoided as if he were a leper. But on one cold night, Phil decides to walk the old man to a local hospital where he can get warm, and shortly after arriving at the hospital, the old man dies. Deeply moved by this, Phil would spend each day with the old man, [in fact he calls him ‘dad’ and ‘pop’], feeding him at restaurants, keeping him warm, trying to get him healthy, but to no avail. Every night, despite Phil’s administering mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the old man would pass away. Alas, there were just some things that he could not change.

And it is at this point in Phil’s experience that he begins to discover that what makes life worth living is not immediate gratification, or moral autonomy, or flippant cynicism, or self-deification, but rather encountering those things that give meaning and purpose to our lives. He begins to read great literature and poetry, he begins to learn the piano and ice sculpting, he helps the locals in matters great and small, including catching a boy who falls from a tree every day. In fact, all of Punxsutawney is transformed by the caring attention he gives to those in need. And his affections for Rita transform into a love without reservation and without any hope of his affection ever being returned. In short, the perpetuity of February 2 became an arena in which Phil’s humanity was awakened. And the result is that Rita falls in love with him. And it is then that the cycle comes to an end, Phil wakes up on February 3, the great wheel of life no longer stuck on Groundhog Day, and he lives the rest of his life with his dear Rita…in Punxsutawney, Pa.

As I reflect on this film, especially with regard to Phil’s original self-indulgence, I find that it provides a fascinating mirror for the modern age to which we find ourselves waking each morning. For the last few centuries, the Western world and increasingly the East has engaged in an unprecedented and frankly radical experiment in human civilization. We are in the midst of a collective social experiment that is attempting to construct a civilization based solely on scientifically observed cause and effect processes irrespective of any divinely-gifted transcendent meaning. Rooted in Enlightenment conceptions, it was argued that the enthronement of reason would finally realize what humans have hitherto for attempted to achieve through religious pursuits, but to no avail: wars would end, prosperity and technological advance would reign, and social and economic equality was finally within reach. The toll that we all had to pay for such promise, however, was that we collectively had to surrender the concept of meaning—what the Greeks called telos—as a reality divinely embedded in a created order, precisely because the created order has now been replaced with impersonal nature. But this was fine, we were told, since now we have the freedom to impart to life whatever meaning we as individuals choose to give it.

And so, it is to the self that our modern age has turned for meaning and life. Today, it is ubiquitously believed that the self needs to be cultivated and nurtured, and in this process of turning toward the self, there has emerged a sense of entitlement to self-actualization, and an accompanying right to charge with malice anyone or anything that would seek to stifle the self. The result of this collective self-indulgence is what researchers have called in a recent publication “The Narcissism Epidemic.” The authors of this study have noted “a single underlying shift in the American psychology: Not only are there more narcissists than ever, but non-narcissistic people are seduced by the increasing emphasis on material wealth, physical appearance, celebrity worship, and attention seeking.”  How far self-indulgence has become a virtue in our culture was captured profoundly by Ralph Schoenstein in his article, “The Modern Mount Rushmore.” Schoenstein writes:

One day last spring I stood before 20 children of eight and nine in [a] third-grade class to see if any heroes or heroines were inspiring them. I asked each child to give me the names of the three greatest people he had ever heard about.

‘Michael Jackson, Brooke Shields and Boy George,’ said a small blond girl, giving me one from all thee sexes.

‘Michael Jackson, Spider-Man and God,’ a boy then said, naming a new holy trinity.

… When the other children recited, Michael Jackson’s name was spoken again and again, but Andrew Jackson never, nor Washington, Lincoln or any other presidential immortal. Just Ronald Reagan, who made it twice, once behind Batman and once behind Mr. T …

In answer to my request for heroes, I had expected to hear such names as Michael Jackson, Mr. T, Brooke Shields and Spider-Man from the kids, but I had not expected the replies of the eight who answered ‘Me.”’Their heroes were themselves.

It is sad enough to see the faces on Mount Rushmore replaced by rock stars, brawlers and cartoons, but it is sadder still to see Mount Rushmore replaced by a mirror.

Rita, from our movie, provides the voice of wisdom in the midst of this national narcissism. As she watches Phil’s initial infatuation with himself, she quotes to him the words of Sir Walter Scott:

Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentrated all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonor’d, and unsung.

Alas, Rita’s diagnosis has begun to manifest itself in our collective consciousness. “Death” has become a recurring motif in our age. We now talk not merely of the death of God, as per Nietzsche, but now ethicists declare the death of virtue, philosophers talk of the death of truth, aestheticians pronounce the death of art, and our world is increasingly being referred to as a post-human age, noting that humanity has no inherent meaning apart from the meaning humans choose to give it, what C.S. Lewis called “the death of man.” With no meaning, no fountain of life from which to drink, our cultural pursuits have begun to disintegrate into the dust from whence they sprung, unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

And yet, it is only when we in a sense return to the dust that the blossoming process of resurrection begins. It is fascinating that only after Phil Connors dies to himself again and again, [in fact, he makes the comment: “I’ve killed myself so many times I don’t even exist anymore”], after he dies to himself, he begins to discover something extraordinary about our humanity, that we yearn for a meaning and a purpose outside of ourselves; that we long for a beauty that awakens us from our self-centered slumbers; that our hearts ache for a life filled with wonder and awe. What makes us human is an insatiable desire to encounter the true, the good, and the beautiful in a life-transformative way, a way that enables our souls to reach for and embrace a state of being than which none greater can possibly be thought. This is the classic view of what it means to be human, summed up in Augustine’s opening prayer in his Confessions: “Thou, O Lord, hast made us for thyself, and our hearts remain restless until they find their rest in thee.”

And so, Phil turns to the very same things humans have been turning to for thousands of years, those things that awaken the divinely infused meaning that is there. He turns to music and art because, as transformations of time and space, music and art transform us. He turns to literature since it is through stories that our moral imaginations are awakened. In the words of G.K. Chesterton, we read The Iliad because life is a battle, The Odyssey because life is a journey, The Book of Job because life is a riddle. And Phil considers the needs of others as more important than his own, since he discovers that it is only in losing one’s life that we begin to find it.

But Phil has only scratched the surface. Standing in this ancient tradition, the Apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians: “Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things… and the God of peace will be with you.” You see, by encountering the true, the good, and the beautiful, we discover the echoes of a garden, the shade of a tree of life in the shape of a cross, the rivers of Eden restored in the river of Jordan, that take us to the all-sufficient self-replenishing source of life, the ultimate human encounter with the Incarnate Son of the living God.

Groundhog Day is a magnificent film about what makes us truly human. In our modern age, so enamored with self-centered technocratic utilitarianism and political pragmatism, it is a reminder—perhaps one can go so far as to say a revelation—of the deeply formative significance of literature, art, and music for our lives. Like this new generation of classically educated students, Phil didn’t encounter the highest forms of human culture to magnify his pragmatism or merely get ahead in the corporate world, but rather to discover the wonder of a life of virtue, to taste and savor the wisdom of well-ordered loves. Groundhog Day awakens us to what it means to be truly human, to recover the distinctively classical conception of the educated person, to rediscover the world anew, to rise and shine.

This essay was originally published in Movies and the Moral Imagination: Finding Paradise in Films by Stephen Turley and is republished with gracious permission from the author.

This essay was first published here in February 2018.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image is courtesy of IMDb. It has been enhanced for clarity.

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