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Life on a Loop: The Enduring Appeal of Groundhog Day.

Few films have entered the cultural imagination as pervasively as Groundhog Day (Harold Ramis, 1993)- The title itself has become a kind of linguistic shorthand, referring to the sense of being trapped in some kind of undesirable recurring situation. Yet while the central narrative conceit may seem overwhelmingly familiar by now, the film itself remains a tangled web of contradictions: a high-concept romantic comedy with a surprising amount of pathos and a genuinely dark undercurrent. In hindsight, it represents a career highlight for its stars, Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, as well as for its director. It is also a work of rich thematic depth, and provides a useful entry point for considerations of altruism, happiness, and deeper existential and metaphysical concerns.

Murray plays disgruntled TV weatherman Phil Connors, dissatisfied that his career has stalled at a small Pittsburgh network. An odious, cynical individual, Phil is dispatched to the frozen Pennsylvania hamlet of Punxsutawney, along with his colleagues, producer Rita Hanson (MacDowell) and camera operator Larry (Chris Elliott). They are tasked with covering the town's traditional Groundhog Day ceremony, held annually on 2 February, in which the eponymous rodent is held aloft to prognosticate how long the remainder of winter's duration will be. If he sees his shadow, winter will continue--if not, an early spring is due. Phil loathes the ceremony and the town, and plans to make a hasty getaway as soon as he can. But the crew are snowed in by a blizzard, and Phil is forced to spend the night at a bed and breakfast in the town. In the morning, he is woken by his alarm clock and discovers the inexplicable: it is Groundhog Day all over again. Phil is the only one who is aware of his predicament. At first, he is understandably unsettled, forced to endure foreknowledge of every event and circumstance as everyone around him experiences them seemingly for the first time. Phil tries desperately to escape, or to alter the course of events; but no matter what he does, he awakes again on Groundhog Day. Phil goes wild, living a life without consequences: he eats whatever he wants, goes on a destructive rampage and contrives to manipulate women into sleeping with him. But no matter what he does, at 6am the world resets, with only Phil retaining the knowledge of his repeated experiences. Unable to effect any meaningful change on the time loop that ensnares him, Phil falls into despair and attempts suicide; but even this isn't enough to arrest the cycle. Eventually, Phil begins to take an interest in the minutiae of his situation. In the process, he realises his love for Rita. But no matter what Phil does to enlist Rita's affections and sympathies, he is unable to overturn her impressions based on his past ill-treatment of her. It is only when Phil turns his attention to the people of Punxsutawney and to improving their individual circumstances that Rita is taken aback by his newly magnanimous nature; and, once they spend the night together--a chaste union, the film suggests--the time loop is broken, and Phil and Rita wake up on 3 February.

It is a bold move by Ramis and co-screenwriter Danny Rubin to never offer an explanation for Phil's predicament. In fact, Rubin's original screenplay--as he recounted in a 2016 piece for The Telegraph - was considerably more abstract, beginning with Phil already caught in the loop. (1) The singularity of the film's premise made it a tough sell for the screenwriter. Prior to writing Groundhog Day, Rubin had already sold his first feature screenplay, which would become the psychological thriller Hear No Evil (Robert Greenwald, 1993). The dark comedy Groundhog Day, with its metaphysical conceit, was a more difficult proposition, and it took Rubin and his agent a year to sell the screenplay. Ultimately, Ramis took an interest, and the film went into production with Columbia Pictures. As Rubin recounts, regarding the collaborative rewriting process that ensued with Ramis, the studio had two major demands: that the him begin with a prologue showing Phil's life before he becomes caught in the time loop, and that it show him reacting and adapting to the situation once his predicament has begun. The studio also demanded that the film offer an explanation for why Phil gets trapped in the first place, suggesting perhaps a Gypsy curse. (2) Ramis inserted the prologue, but the Gypsy curse backstory was discarded.

As filmed, Groundhog Day follows a precise three-act structure. The first act neatly establishes Phil's character and his unwillingness to travel to Punxsutawney. By the thirty-minute mark of the film's 101-minute duration, as Phil finds himself caught in the third repetition of the day, the enormity of his situation has dawned on him. The stakes are raised considerably at the one-hour mark, when Phil reaches the depths of despair and takes his life several times, including in a dramatic set piece wherein he kidnaps the groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, and drives him over a precipice to a fiery death. This marks the crisis point, from which Phil ultimately reforms over the film's final thirty minutes. Ramis lends an understated, classical elegance to the film's visual style, favouring long takes that allow Murray to play out his trademark comic improvisations. Midway through the film, Phil demonstrates his omniscience to Rita by taking her on a tour of the diner and the minutiae of the daily lives of its customers. In Ramis' rendering, this is a low-key but impressive showcase of complex staging and camera movement.

Ramis brought an accomplished, workmanlike sensibility to the film as both a writer and director of comedy. Early in his career, he was involved with Chicago's Second City improvisational comedy collective. Ramis and fellow Second City alumni Murray and John Belushi came to prominence through their association with the formerly Harvard-based satirical brand National Lampoon. Ramis co-wrote National Lampoon's Animal House (John Landis, 1978) and Meatballs (Ivan Reitman, 1979), and also co-wrote his directorial debut, Caddyshack (1980)--the latter two of which starred Murray. Ramis also emerged as a comic performer in his own right, his geeky, bone-dry straight-man act a memorable foil to Murray's more untamed tendencies in Stripes (Reitman, 1981) and Ghostbusters (Reitman, 1984), both of which were also co-written by Ramis. (3) All of these films were enormous commercial successes, as was National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Ramis' realisation of a John Hughes screenplay. Ramis' reputation as a bankable commodity as both a writer and director of mainstream comedy continued when he co-wrote Ghostbusters II (Reitman, 1989), in which he once again starred alongside Murray. If there is a unifying thematic strand tying these films together, it is in their anti-authoritarian comedic slant, embodied by the sardonic characters played by Murray. This is the lineage that led Ramis to Groundhog Day, and also how Murray came to star in it - but not before Tom Hanks had already turned down the lead role. (4) Although Hanks had one of his earliest starring roles in the similarly high-concept Big (Penny Marshall, 1988), he had also recently top-lined the notorious flops Joe Versus the Volcano (John Patrick Shanley, 1990) and The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian De Palma, 1990). As it was, Hanks' 1993 would ultimately be marked by his career-defining performance alongside Meg Ryan in the romantic comedy Sleepless in Seattle (Nora Ephron) and his Academy Award-winning role in Philadelphia (Jonathan Demme).

Murray's career steps in the years between Ghostbusters II and Groundhog Day were also a little rocky. He made his directorial debut in collaboration with Howard Franklin on the dramatic heist comedy Quick Change (1990), in which he also starred. The film won neither commercial nor critical success, repeating the frustration that Murray had experienced with the failure of his previous personal project, the 1984 adaptation of W Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge (John Byrum), for which he co-wrote the screenplay. Murray's prior starring role to Groundhog Day, the comic farce What About Bob? (Frank Oz, 1991), had its share of darkness, with Murray playing an obsessive-compulsive man who begins stalking his psychiatrist (Richard Dreyfuss) when the latter takes a family holiday. When Murray came to Groundhog Day, Variety reported that the star had eschewed his 'usual' US$8 million salary for the him, which was budgeted in the US$15~20 million range (5)--perhaps a sign of his confidence in the material and in Ramis' direction.

The film was not shot in the real Punxsutawney, but rather just outside Chicago - in Woodstock, Illinois, close to where both Murray and Ramis grew up. Groundhog Day came at a moment of personal crisis in Murray's life, as his marriage to Margaret Kelly was falling apart, and he exhibited volatile behaviour during the production. Dariel Figueroa writes that Murray's 'demeanor on the set was increasingly erratic. He would show up late to work, throw tantrums, and generally disagree with many of Ramis' choices.' (6) It is interesting to consider how much of this creative tension may be mirrored in Murray's performance in the final film. Early on, en route from Pittsburgh, Phil displays his brazen misanthropy, telling Rita that 'people are morons'; later, he remarks about the denizens of Punxsutawney, 'They're hicks, Rita.' Murray's earlier performances had been marked by their share of cynicism, but his frazzled groundskeeper Carl Spackler (Caddyshack), down-on-his-luck slacker John Winger (Stripes) and improbable paranormal scientist Peter Venkman (Ghostbusters) were all essentially good-natured when cracking wise. Where, typically, Murray brought a laconic wit to his best-known roles, there is a real nastiness to his Phil. His role in Groundhog Day comes closest to another television industry figure played by Murray, Frank Cross in Scrooged (Richard Donner, 1988), but with none of the executive success. In Ramis' body of work, Phil's besieged, entitled narcissism occasionally recalls Chevy Chase's Clark Griswold from National Lampoon's Vacation; but whereas the sources of Clark's frustrations and fleeting moments of happiness are tied to his family, Phil is alone in the world - incomprehensibly so once he becomes caught in his loop.

In a way, Phil's impotent dissatisfaction with his failing professional prospects reflects another portrayal of male rage from the same year, Michael Douglas' D-Fens from Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993): an anonymous everyman raging violently at the various incarnations of progressive society that cross his path, in a film that assumes that its spectator is similarly white, disenfranchised and out of step with their surroundings. Where D-Fens manifests his problematic impulses as outward inflictions of violence, Phil is brimming with verbal hallmarks of hostility from the beginning of the film, when he sarcastically replies to his co-worker, 'C'mon, I wanna stay an extra second in Punxsutawney? Please!'--a line that will soon be flipped with ironic resonance. Similarly, his desire to be elsewhere is present from his very first line in the film, as he delivers his weather forecast; 'Somebody asked me today, "Phil, if you could be anywhere in the world, where would you like to be?'"

At the film's outset, Phil makes very clear his determination to move on from WPBH 9 Action News and graduate to a 'major network', but his colleagues mock him for having to take his fourth --and, he swears, his last--trip to Punxsutawney. Indeed, once he becomes trapped in his time warp, it is unclear whether he will ever be able to leave, the metaphysical small-town prison a metaphor for his professional and personal purgatory. The resonance of his situation is made clear in a telling exchange as, on an early pass through the Groundhog Day loop, the gravity of Phil's situation sets in. Despairing, Phil opts for a night of bowling with two similarly down-on-their-luck working-class men. 'What would you do,' asks Phil, 'if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?' 'That about sums it up for me,' replies Ralph (Rick Overton), as his friend downs a shot. On this particular night, Phil's nihilistic response is to turn to destruction, leading the police on a car chase. Later, his dark impulses will turn not outwards, as in D-Fens' violent rampage, but inwards, as he attempts suicide through a variety of methods. The him downplays the seriousness of these first two attempts by accompanying them with jaunty comic music; but the third, when he jumps from a church tower, is given some gravitas, shot in stylised slow motion and accompanied by a funereal orchestral score. Interestingly, the subsequent scene, in which a shell-shocked Rita and Larry identify him at the morgue, is the only scene in the him without Phil--although technically he is present, in the form of his pale corpse.

Phil's relentless, hangdog pessimism contrasts with Rita's perpetual optimism, exuded in MacDowell's energetic, inquisitive performance. The difference in their attitudes is evident in the way they regard the people of Punxsutawney: upon witnessing the Groundhog Day ceremony in the town's square, Rita excitedly enthuses, 'You're missing all the fun. These people are great!' Phil's reply is to dismiss them as 'hicks'. Unlike Phil, Rita is open to new experiences, and takes joy from literature and the arts. While watching Phil gorge himself in the diner, she equates his gluttony with a sickness of the soul and an impoverished social standing, quoting from Scottish poet Walter Scott's 1805 epic The Lay of the Last Minstrel:
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, unhonor'd, and unsung.


Later, Rita reveals that she studied nineteenth-century French poetry at college, to which Phil's initial, scoffed response is, 'What a waste of time!' He memorises a stanza in French for their next meeting, however, as part of his unethical, studied seduction strategy. Ramis states that Phil's 'interest in her is [...] perfunctory' at first, another challenge he sets himself out of boredom, no different to studying the movement of guards so that he can rob an armoured car (7) It is a task that seems doomed to failure, as Phil cannot hope to undo the impression of self-centredness that his past behaviour has implanted within Rita, a lesson driven home by the punctuated montage of her slapping him at the conclusion of each of their many dates.

The fundamental turning point in the film's narrative, and in Phil's outlook, is when he shifts his intentions 'from being a prisoner of that time and place to being master of that time and place'. (8) This project involves him putting his total understanding of the day's intricacies into service; racing to catch a young boy at the moment he falls from a tree, and helping a group of elderly women change a flat tyre on their car. Phil also grows to understand the importance of community and local ritual. His climactic redemption comes at a social gathering in which he is the toast of the town, in a moment that cannot help but recall George Bailey's (James Stewart) similarly public rehabilitation in It's a Wonderful Life (Frank Capra, 1946). That film is also marked by visions of darkness and suicide before its ultimate redemptive turn, so it's unsurprising that Variety characterised Groundhog Day as 'the love child of Frank Capra and Jacques Rivette', (9) the latter director known for his tricky play with narratives within narratives. The film never makes clear why, precisely, Phil is able to break free from his time loop, but there are suggestions: in his embrace of the arts (playing the piano, reading the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ice sculpting), he finds some kind of transcendence; his focus on community service frees him from the Sisyphean burden of his karmic sufferings; or perhaps he is simply redeemed by the love of a good woman. But there is also a letting-go, a resignation towards his powerlessness to change everything, embodied in his inability to prevent the death of an old homeless man. Whatever the reason for Phil's emancipation, Rubin sees something instructive in the film's resolution. For him, the film is not 'just about a man repeating the same day but a story about how to live.' (10)

Perhaps this is a reason for the film's enduring popularity. Certainly, interest in Groundhog Day does not appear to be on the decline. In 2006, the film was added to the United States' National Film Registry for preservation, (11) an acknowledgement of its cultural significance. In 2016, a stage-musical adaptation of the film, with songs by Australian musician Tim Minchin, opened in London, and has since travelled to Broadway. (12) The film's impact seems to be particularly profound in the United Kingdom, where it initially won a BAFTA Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1994. A cinema in London commemorated Ramis' 2014 death with a back-to-back showing of the film; (13) and in 2016, the Sky television network celebrated 2 February with a full day of marathon screenings. (14) And while the interlocking intricacies of the screenplay and Murray's crotchety performance have their own appeal, the film seems to have struck a more universal chord in the way it distils the enormity of life's experience into a single day: triviality, suffering, depression and death, but also the hope of happiness, transformation, transcendence and redemption.

https://clickv.ie/w/screen-ed/groundhog-day

Nicholas Godfrey is a lecturer in Screen and Media at Flinders University in South Australia. He is a regular contributor to Metro and Screen Education, and a curator at the Adelaide Film Festival.

Endnotes

(1) Danny Rubin, 'How I Wrote the Screenplay for Groundhog Day in Less than a Week', The Telegraph, 7 August 2016, <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/films/2016/08/07/how-i-wrote-the-script-for-groundhog-day-in-less-than-a-week/>, accessed 5 August 2017.

(2) ibid.

(3) Ramis also has a brief cameo in Groundhog Day as a neurologist who examines Phil.

(4) 'Happy Groundhog Day: Here's 5 Things You Didn't Know About the Movie', The Hollywood Reporter, 2 February 2015, <http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/happy-groundhog-day-heres-5-769137>, accessed 5 August 2017.

(5) Richard Natale, 'Col Cops to Canton-ese', Variety, 3 August 1992, p. 56.

(6) Dariel Figueroa, 'The Story Behind Bill Murray and Harold Ramis' 21 Year Rift', UPROXX, 21 September 2014, <http://uproxx.com/movies/the-story-behind-bill-murray-and-harold -ramis-21-year-rift/>, accessed 5 August 2017.

(7) Harold Ramis, in the featurette The Weight of Time (Michael Gillis, 2002), Groundhog Day, Collector's Edition DVD, Columbia TriStar Home Entertainment Australia, 2002.

(8) ibid.

(9) Scott Foundas, 'Remembrance: A Father Figure to Some', Variety, 25 February 2014, p. 11.

(10) Rubin, op. cit.

(11) Josh Tyler, 'National Film Registry Picks Groundhog Day', CinemaBlend, <http://www.cinemablend.com/new/National-Film-Registry-Picks-Groundhog-Day-4189.html>, accessed 21 September 2017.

(12) Ashley Lee, 'Groundhog Day Musical to Close on Broadway', Billboard, 15 August 2017, <http://www.billboard.com/articles/news/broadway/7905099/groundhog-day-musical-closing-broadway>, accessed 21 September 2017.

(13) Margot Huysman, 'Again and Again: Cinema to Show Groundhog Day Double Bill as Harold Ramis Tribute', The Independent, 28 February 2014, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/again-and-again-cinema-to-show-groundhog-day-double-bill-as-harold-ramis-tribute-9160621.html>, accessed 6 August 2017.

(14) Jacob Stolworthy, 'Groundhog Day: Sky Showing a 24-hour Marathon of Movie to Celebrate', The Independent, 1 February 2016, <http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/sky-is-showing-a-24-hour-groundhog-day-marathon-to-celebrate -groundhog-day-a6846576.html>, accessed 6 August 2017.
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Publication:Screen Education
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Date:Jan 1, 2018
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