I watch Groundhog Day every year, always around Groundhog Day. Ostensibly, I do this for the sheer pleasure of watching it, but in reality I also do it to fulfill a little itch that grows every time I watch.
I first saw the film when I was very young, and back then only two things really stuck: Bill Murray was the greatest and funniest of all time (I still stand by this)—and I was terrified by the plot. I literally used to pray that I not wake up back in today. I would watch the movie as if to ward off little demons that would pop up on my chest and say, “You must live your life all over again!”
But that’s not why I watch the movie any more. Now the movie comes to me like a dream, like the dream. Murray’s Phil Connors gets to live his afterlife in this life, AND THEN GETS TO KEEP ON LIVING!
I’m sorry I shouted there, but the redemptive promise of Phil’s journey keeps on rocking me. I am not trying to downplay the tedium and desperation that would set in, but the end result keeps getting more and more appealing, more and more worth the price of admission, each time I think about it.
And I keep thinking about it because of God. This romantic comedy has given me more reason to think about God than the Bible ever did—as well as more room to figure out why I don’t believe in God—because it depicts a far more compelling alternative: the creation of a god on Earth.
Some people find Jesus; I found Bill Murray.
The elevator pitch for Groundhog Day might not sound like a religious treatise—Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) goes to Punxsutawney to cover Groundhog Day, gets frozen inside that single day, lives it over and over for possibly a thousand years, and eventually becomes less of a dick—but it makes a heartfelt and brilliant argument for the irrelevance of the almighty in the face of humanity.
God never speaks in Groundhog Day. At best, they make themselves known through Phil’s implacable bedside alarm clock. His plight is never explained, and he never makes any concerted effort to explain it: Phil is not a philosopher, he’s a weatherman.
And making Phil a weatherman is perhaps the first perfect stroke in the movie. A weatherman is interested in seeing things coming on the horizon, then explaining these things away with phrases like “pressure systems,” “warm fronts,” and “rain events.” Mostly, they are interested in the here and now…and possibly the upcoming weekend. Phil is not a meteorologist, mind; he’s a weatherman: a Middle American huckster who wants to climb up the corporate ladder. Which is to say that Phil is about as low as you can go, morally speaking.
One final point about the moral depravity of weathermen: they lie, or at the least, they feel little need to tell the whole truth—particularly in the early 90’s, when we didn’t have huge digital databases, just Doppler. The original TV weatherman was a cartoon sheep. That’s true. The sheep was soon replaced by sober meteorologists, dispensing real advice, until they too were traded in, mostly, for more cartoons and “weather-girls” in skimpy clothes.
The biggest TV weatherman in Phil Connor’s era would have been Willard Scott on the Today show, who had previously been both Ronald McDonald and Bozo the Clown, and who once said, “A trained gorilla could do this job.” Weathermen served to talk down to happy suburban Americans about real, necessary weather science so they could pretend to care about the weather as much as their farmer forefathers while planning where to shuttle the kids off to next. Phil Connors has a big head about being in an industry that traffics in clowns, dissimulation, sexism, and plain old American sadness.
Phil is greedy, avaricious (which are synonyms, yes, but Phil needs both), a drinker, and a womanizer. He uses people to get ahead. The moment after first meeting Rita (Andie MacDowell)—who is fun, funny, and apparently good at her job—all Phil can think about is how attractive she is. In other words, he is in desperate need of a karmic scrub down.
Karma is the key. Groundhog Day operates on a very Eastern axis, particularly the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism known as Krishna-centered Vaishnavite Hinduism.
Vaishnavite Hindus believe that Vishnu is the Supreme Lord, and Krishnites believe Krishna is the ultimate incarnation of Vishnu. The relevant theology/philosophy for us is that worshippers of Krishna believe both that this world is maya, an illusion, and that this illusion is the only way we have to connect with Vishnu, who exists both above and inside the illusion. God exists as something more real than the sensual world, but the sensual world is God’s creation, and thus our best way to experience God. This was in disagreement with earlier Hindu beliefs that the world in which we live is merely a false dream, to be engaged with only insofar as one must to complete their Dharma or purpose.
Groundhog Day reflects Vaishnavite philosophy by likewise erasing the highest God from view, except in the totality of the world itself. There is nothing abnormal about the city of Punxsutawney, except for the fact that Phil is stuck there by a will much greater than his own. And because of this surface normality, the total unimportance that Phil sees in Punxsutawney, he first becomes totally enraged by his imprisonment.
To Phil, the little town in which he finds himself cannot be the true world; he even refers to Pittsburgh as “civilization” in comparison. Because the town cannot help him complete his (network TV) goals, Phil rejects everything that Punxsutawney is, and tries to get the hell out of town as fast as Chris Elliot can take him (which is, to be clear, not that fast). Phil’s entire M.O. as a dickish, self-aggrandizing modern man comes to a head right before he gets stuck. Shivering in the snow in front of a jack-knifed semi, Phil declares to a placid state trooper: “I make the weather.”
He kept telling everybody that he knew the blizzard would move off. He knew how the snow would behave. He knew. I mean, how juicy a target for divine retribution can you get? Not only is Phil Connors a boozing, womanizing, TV clown for suburbanites, he has a god complex to boot. And so, he gets stuck. In the snow.
Like so many spiritual journeys, Phil’s starts off on the wrong foot. At first, his new situation causes him to think he might actually be a god, and not a metaphorical one. In the early part of his incarceration, he does the wrong thing quite a lot—steals a car, breaks girls’ hearts—but perhaps no deed shows off his hollowed-out arrogance better than an early diner scene. Surrounded by the useless tchotchkes of many a Middle American diner (who invented novelty cookie jars? They haunt my life!), Phil simultaneously tries to woo Rita with his new “god” status, eat his weight in carbs, sugar, and soluble fats, and out-smoke the entire diner, ignoring anyone’s actual well-being in the interest of making his point. Rita is unimpressed, the diners are freaked out, and one young couple (half of which is played by a ridiculously young Michael Shannon) is on the brink of a breakup instead of a wedding. While the stunt itself achieves nothing, it shows us exactly what Phil believes a god to be: someone who has all the knowledge in the world and can do whatever they want.
What’s crazy is that Phil is both staggeringly wrong and utterly right.
The definition of a god in Hindu theology and philosophy was described to me by my professor, Shayoni Mitra, as follows: a god is a being that has a known Dharma, but need not worry about Karma. The gods cannot help but complete their purpose, so how they achieve that purpose does not matter. Even if a god does harm, the universe cannot punish that god because that god’s wrongdoing either furthered what the god was supposed to do, or it did not further anything, and the god still faces no consequences. Like if, say, god tried to show off by smoking, eating, and spilling secrets in small town diner.
The god Krishna exemplifies this dichotomy and the conflict between the world as illusion and the world as God’s creation. By experiencing the greatest pleasures of this world as well as recognizing its pains, Krishna was able to complete his Dharma, and so become that which Vishnu deemed he must be. The most important example of this duality is recorded in the Gita Govinda where Krishna makes amends to his holy lover, the human woman Radha.
The Gita Govinda tells us that in order to be his most godly self, Krishna needed the love, physical and emotional, of Radha. But after they make love, she falls asleep and he, being a god, does not. Instead, he goes for a walk and as he walks he plays his pan pipe. This most holy music attracts the female cowherds or gopi. The gopi have an unwavering devotion to Krishna and so they all make love with Krishna as well. But then Krishna, tired from “playing” with the gopi, returns to Radha, who had been worried about him. Appropriately, Radha is pissed. Krishna must work to regain her trust and apologize, for without her love he cannot be his true self nor complete his Dharma.
Phil undergoes much the same journey—in a slightly more modern way—with Rita. His first trial is to accept that he has a role to fill. No matter what he tries—the hedonism of his early years in the loop, the repeated mutilations of his suicide period, the arrogant bluster of his “godly” phase—he cannot escape. All he does slips away every morning. There are no larger consequences for Phil, except that he will not move on. He does not know what to do.
That inability to move ultimately takes a toll on Phil, as it would on anyone, and allows Groundhog Day to function as a look into the possible psyche of a god. What drives the gods mad is often their inability to change. Krishna or Christ are what they are for all eternity, and it is their one-ness that defines them as gods. But Phil is human, and he can change, given time.
Once Phil goes through all the stages of growth and grieving—even killing what he believes to be the avatar of his limbo, the groundhog, in a fiery murder-suicide—he starts to accept his lot and begins to change. He starts to actually interact with the town he finds himself stuck in. He stops being needlessly reckless and destructive. He begins to right his Karma and fulfill his purpose.
Phil suspects early on that love might free him. He immediately recognizes Rita’s beauty, and in that, as Steve Martin might say, his own “special purpose.” But, like Krishna, Phil cannot meet his ultimate goal simply by wanting to do sp. He can’t just play his cards right to woo Rita, nor can he trick her into being attracted to him, as evidenced by his very creepy attempts to sculpt the “perfect” first date (including a final attempt that borders on sexual assault).
Dharma cannot be forced; it must simply come to be. Phil must not only appear to be good; he must become truly decent to understand his Dharma.
After Phil gives up trying to force his way out and gives into what he had previously thought of as illusions—what Marx might call bourgeois values— he begins to grow and learn. Which is what makes Groundhog Day so fascinating to me: it depicts a man growing, not just into an “adult” but into a fully-fledged person. Rather than commit random acts of kindness to earn brownie points to escape, Phil becomes engaged in his adoptive community. He becomes interested in helping others, learning new skills, and adapting to his new life. Phil Connors may be, in a disgusting Bill Murray way, the most human human ever shown on screen.
But in order to become human, and in order to love Rita not as a sex object or trophy, but as a fellow human being, he has to first experience the torturously confined freedom that defines Hindu god-hood.
Phil was right, he could become a god through knowledge (God is God because he knows everything), but in order to learn everything in town, he has to accept how deaf and dumb he was to the people around him. His truest growth comes not only from treating Rita like a person—talking to her as an equal, being interested in her goals and hopes, listening to her—but from his repeated attempts to revive the homeless man he calls “grandfather,” who dies on the night of Groundhog Day.
Phil does everything in his not-inconsiderable power to help this old, sick, unlucky man, but nothing he does can change it. So, in the end, Phil decides to help as best he can: knowing that the old man is going to die, he gives him soup to make his last day better. Knowing that the mayor is going to choke, he helps him. Knowing that the child is going to fall from the tree, he catches him. He stops squandering his privilege and intelligence on making the world fit his own personal needs. He stops trying to get Rita into bed and instead gets to talking with her. And so, he gets unstuck. He stops trying to make the weather, and instead just lives in it.
Groundhog Day is a film about knowledge. It believes knowledge to be the very basis of god-hood, the nature of the divine. But more than this, Groundhog Day also depicts learning as the most fundamental human act. The sheer fact of engaging with the world around him lifts Phil into the realm of the divine. The ultimate and quietly dangerous idea of this film is that there is no divide between the human and the divine. We are that which God is made of. Bill Murray is a powerful spiritual font.
My grandmother was the head of the choir of the Presbyterian congregation in the little lake town where I grew up, and I remember the feeling of musty, ancient knowledge in what was, in truth, a humble chapel. But the red carpet and the trees outside the stained glass windows lent the pine pews and oak beams a glow, a warmth of light that still causes me to be quiet and listen. The hushed little place where my grandmother sang whispered of things not generally known, and I can still feel that deep sensation long after having moved away. But the knowledge it held was all about the people who had worshipped there, not some higher knowledge.
No matter the sensation and elevation of the place, I never imagined the magnified figure in the stained glass was real. Instead, there was the fact of the constant cycle of birth, life, and death that was formalized there. At the simple pulpit of Fontana Community Church, families are baptized, families are made in marriage, and families are ended with funerals. It keeps going on and on and on, but the building still sees it, the organ still sings it. And we can still hear it, if we listen. This is the heart of religion, faith: the connection of now to the past and the future. Groundhog Day understands that.
I watch Groundhog Day in the same way some people read the Bible. I have stated before that movies helped raise me; in many ways, they became my religion, the tapestry of images I used to understand my world. Groundhog Day is my spiritual guide above all. I am laughing now, thinking of what my grandmother would say if I told her this at Christmas. And maybe it is exactly what you are saying right now. But I cannot help feeling it is true, that we need each other to become better, because we can only learn from each other. We don’t all get ten thousand years of do-overs of the same day, but if we are kind and pay attention, we may realize most of us are here for a long time and see so much.
Groundhog Day, the holiday, is all about people trying to get a handle on the cycles of the world, steal a little sliver of knowledge from the gods. It asks, “Will spring be soon?” but asks it to a rodent that lives in a stump.
Spring will take six weeks to get here no matter what (unless we keep on warming the planet), because the world doesn’t give a shit about what we do—only we do. There are only us humans, and it is only what we do to and for each other that defines the world, and by extension, god. So we must be kind.
A silly romantic comedy starring Bill Murray from the 90’s taught me that.