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Groundhog Day

Entry updated 9 February 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (1993). Columbia. Directed and coproduced by Harold Ramis (1944-2014). Written by Danny Rubin and Ramis, based on a story by Rubin. Cast includes Chris Elliott, Marita Geraghty, Andie MacDowell, Bill Murray and Steven Tobolowsky. 101 minutes. Colour.

Phil Connors (Murray) is a cynical and unhappy television weatherman with no real future in store, dejected at having to cover for the fifth time the annual 2 February Groundhog Day ceremony in the small town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania (a real ceremony held in a real place). This year Punxsutawney Phil the groundhog predicts six more weeks of winter, and indeed – contrary to Connors's prediction; at one point he says, perhaps only half in jest, "I make the weather": which indeed may be the case (see below) – he and the television crew are snowed in that night by traffic jams, the first signs of a blizzard of metaphysical intensity, which is not actually shown on screen. Everyone is trapped in Punxsutawney, but when Connors awakens at what he thinks is the next morning in his hotel room, he finds he has awoken into the same 2 February he had already endured; and when the same thing happens again the next morning, and the next, he understands that something like a Time Loop is refusing him exit from Groundhog Day. No one but Connors knows they are all trapped in a seemingly endless recursion: as far as everyone else is concerned each 2 February they experience is their first, and unless he injects some novelty into their day they repeat that day down to the letter: which opens a Satirical subtext only allowed to surface once or twice. Connors's awareness that he is reliving ad infinitum one soul-numbing day in Hell (see Horror in SF) is taken by some of those he talks to as describing their own experience of life in a small town in America in midwinter: like living the same stupefying day again and again. But as Groundhog Day is a commercial film made in America, this undertext is soon submerged in unction: there are no villains in product-placement Punxsutawney; the only person Connors uses his accumulating knowledge to humiliate in public is Nancy (Geraghty), who had been brazen enough to let him seduce her, nor does he commit murder or blasphemy.

As the day continues to repeat and he learns more and more about his oblivious fellows, Connors increasingly acts like an Antihero with Superpowers, using his remembered knowledge of the day and of its inhabitants to condescendingly manipulate this repeating world. He has become its Secret Master, and his growing awareness that nothing he does will stave off his return to the same morning generates a comic escalation of outrageousness without consequence: even after committing suicide several times (sometimes on camera), he awakens the next morning not dead yet. At least thirty-eight separate days or fragments of days are actually shown on film, sometimes passing in seconds; but it is made clear that they represent only a small fraction of the total number Connors must experience – at one point he hints at a total amounting to at least ten years worth, or 4,000 days – before he enters the last day of his entrapment in 2 February, which occupies the last quarter of the film.

During this escalation, he is constantly thwarted in his attempts to seduce his idealistic producer Rita Hanson (MacDowell), initially by learning all about what she likes and dislikes as the day repeats, and attempting caddishly to manipulate her with this knowledge: but this is no way to escape. Clearly he has been placed in closed circuit for some other purpose than to play games with his flock, or to trick a lovable woman into bed with him. If the film is to make any sense, his immurement must be just (see Crime and Punishment): he is being punished because of who he is: a narcissistic badmouth jerk with no future. He must improve or else, and by slow stages he begins to understand this. Groundhog Day is a Godgame story, with the Labyrinth that must be traversed in most Godgame stories becoming, in this version, vertical: a spiralling palimpsest of Time Loops whose last iteration will be the heart of the matter. There is of course a magus forcing Connors to climb the ladder of days, and invigilate his soul in order to become a better person, but this magus can be no one but Connors himself (see Postmodernism and SF). Earlier (as noted above), he had half-jokingly claimed to "make the weather". Here, much deeper into his fate, he makes a further claim: "I am a god". "God" is where the buck stops.

No sf explanation is offered at any point for the Time Loop, nor anything but the vaguest suggestion that Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day might be an appropriate sacred ground for some ritual drama of Return and Redemption, even with its mythic elements hilariously denatured (any temptation to portray the groundhog itself as vatic, as a messenger of gods who may have Connors in view, is wisely eschewed). It is perhaps reward enough to follow the creation of a Hero, as day by day by day Connors reshapes his soul, shepherding the inhabitants of Punxsutawney so that they almost literally revel in their lot, which he improves daily [for Theodicy see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below]. Not at all en passant, he also wins Hanson's heart and, seemingly to mark the moment of redemption, as the night passes and the blizzard finally wipes the slate clean (still magically off-screen, like the invisible hand of a god), they very clearly (but off-camera) engage in joyous world-transfiguring Sex, and the portal opens, and he enters into the new world their love has created: it is finally 3 February: Groundhog Day is finally yesterday. This reading of redemption, not easy to gainsay, is manifestly too meaningful for a PG film, and the two lovers are in fact seen awakening fully clothed, still "unmarried" (though of course the American cinema has a long tradition of drawing nod-and-a-wink curtains over that which is exactly meant). The betrothed couple now stroll down a snow-covered street in what may well be their new home town, while on the soundtrack can be heard "Almost Like Being in Love" from Brigadoon (1947) by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, a fantasy play about a village that appears only once every hundred years, and where true love flourishes as long as the lovers never leave it. We trust that the newlyweds will never feel imprisoned. The narrative complexities of the film are smoothly and deftly juggled, without a hitch. MacDowell does her best to make the priggish Rita likeable. Murray's rendering of Connors is conspicuously dextrous, running a gamut from smart-ass smarm to panicky despair to self-ironizing redemption; Lost in Translation (2003) directed by Sofia Coppola could almost be a direct sequel. Groundhog Day might have won a Hugo, had this not been the year of Jurassic Park (1993).

Several genre sources have been suggested, or claimed, for the basic premise of Groundhog Day, including William Dean Howells's Time-Loop tale "Christmas Every Day" (January 1886 St Nicholas Magazine), which scriptwriter Danny Rubin acknowledged; sf readers are more likely to recall Richard Lupoff's "12:01pm" (December 1973 F&SF) – twice filmed: see 12:01 PM (1991; 1993) – or Ken Grimwood's Replay (1987). [JC/PN]


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