It is very possible to read too much into some films; I do always chuckle at the Volkswagen advert featuring the usherette talking about Toy Story and its subtext of sexual awakening, complete with appropriate ‘Woody’ and ‘Buzz Lightyear’ euphemisms. When directors start spouting off about how their films are exploring philosophical issues, this is usually a good cue to start running a million miles from them (see Wachowski brothers, Lars Von Trier, the worst of Gus Van Sant, etc etc..). But on the flipside, there are some films which are perhaps not taken as seriously as they should be; horror films have long suffered from critical prejudice in this respect – maybe not Dario Argento, but is there a greater satire of consumerism than George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978)?
Another area which is often overlooked is comedy. It is a standard witticism that the trouble with comedy films is that ‘no-one takes them seriously’, and nowhere is this more evident than with Groundhog Day. It is perhaps to an extent understandable that it is not considered a ‘text’; director Harold Ramis can hardly be considered an arthouse auteur, his other films including Analyse This (1999), a hideous remake of Bedazzled (2000), and his other comic collaboration with Bill Murray, Caddyshack (1980). The cheesy George Fenton score, though at times hinting at Nino Rota, seems to give the film the feel of a run-of-the-mill early-Nineties Rob Reiner throwaway comedy. And just how serious can a film with Andie MacDowell be??
(granted, she was in Short Cuts and Sex, Lies and Videotape)
Everybody is familiar with the story; Phil Connors is the sarcastic TV weatherman sent to cover the annual Groundhog Day festival at small-town Punxsutawney, an assignment which fills him with as much glee as a trip to the dentist for extensive root-canal work. He plans to do his piece and leave as soon as possible, but ends up getting snowed in, having to stay another night. But when he wakes up, he discovers that he is forced into reliving that day all over again. And again. And again. It is said that the original screenplay had Connors trapped in Punxsutawney for as long as ten thousand years!
The device is never explained, nor does it need to be. Connors is initially confused, but then tries to use the situation to his advantage; finding out about women who he then proceeds to sleep with, punching people who he dislikes, scoffing cream cakes knowing he will not have put on weight in the morning. Not that it is all sweetness and light: he is shown killing himself in numerous different ways in order to try to escape his trap, and many other attempted methods are alluded to later. The situation he faces seems to bring out the worst in him, a heady combination of hedonism and complete despair.
Despite the rather simple premise, what the film touches on is a complicated issue, both philosophical and religious. For example, it touches on one of Nietzsche’s key ideas, that of ‘eternal recurrence’ in Also Sprach Zarathustra, the central idea being that if man were condemned to live his life over and over again for eternity, then he would be forced into going about deriving the greatest possible satisfaction out of life, safe in the knowledge that this satisfaction would be repeated forever. Instead of nihilism, the doctrine actually ends up as a positivist one, the finite being accepting that the way to eternal enlightenment is through benevolence rather than empty hedonism.
The Nietzschean theme is perhaps more well-hidden than the overall Buddhist overtones of the film. Connors is, in a sense, reincarnated at 6.00am every morning, and though faced with an identical day every time, confronts the day’s challenges anew. His progress is measurable; by the final day he is an accomplished pianist, can recite French poetry off-by-heart, and has become acquainted with the life stories of seemingly everyone in Punxsutawney. Despite his situation, he has reached a state of moral and social betterment, has embraced the absurdity of his situation and by the end has acquiesced with it. Here we have the Buddhist concept of ‘samsara’ made flesh in celluloid: the continuing cycle of birth and death that man must escape in order to become a deity.
The real genius of Groundhog Day is that all of this is touched on, and explored in surprising depth, without the viewer feeling preached to. There are fantastically moving moments; late on, when Connors catches a boy from falling out of a tree for what must be near-on the millionth time, his comment is at once comic and yet intensely poignant: “You never thank me!“. That what is such a light comedy can have moments which melt your heart like that is especially extraordinary. Bill Murray is the only man who could pull this act off, and he has never been better as the maudlin, sarcastic meteorologist who finds life affirmation in small town Pennsylvania.
Consulting the list of the greatest ever films, one will always come across two remarkable pictures: Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Both deserve more than a brief mention in the history of cinema, and should rank anong the great works of humanity, of the affirmation of life and living over doom, despair and nihilism. To this, I hope, will one day be added Groundhog Day, a similarly great cinematic achievement which, after viewing, makes us all at least think about trying to be better, kinder, more thoughtful human beings.