What if you were a filmmaker and you wanted to create a film that would be highly entertaining but at the same time would have a profound message about the human condition? Your central character would be straight out of a James Joyce novel, a man experiencing life as a nightmare from which he could not escape even though he seemed to wake up in a “normal” way each morning. He would therefore be an unconscious man living his life in a habitual state of continuous reaction, self-centered, interested in other people only if they could be manipulated for momentary pleasure, to obtain power or to further his career.
What if the central character gradually comes to realize that his life is such a nightmare but he is the only one of all the people that he encounters every day who is aware of this? There is a maddening “sameness” to his life that he is powerless to alter. What would he do? What would you do? Welcome to the human condition. Welcome to Groundhog Day.
Writer, director, actor and filmmaker Harold Ramis has brought us such films as Animal House (1978), Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, and the brilliant Groundhog Day. He was born in 1944 to a Jewish couple and at Washington University in St. Louis, he became friends with Michael Shamberg (who later became a Hollywood producer of Erin Brockovich, A Fish Called Wanda, and Pulp Fiction). Michael and I made a pact and shook hands on it, Ramis said. We agreed to never take work that wasn’t fun, to do only what we wanted to do, and never take a job that we had to dress up for.
Harold Ramis is a Buddhist and his work is obviously colored by his worldview. Harold is my most enlightened friend, Shamberg said. I always thought he was funny, but the reason I was drawn to him was that he was smart, honest, and he had a generosity of spirit. As far as I understand Buddhism, it’s a system of seeing through things with clarity and realism. [The First Great Question: Where am I? is essentially asking: What is the nature of reality?] It turns out, great filmmaking is a way of seeing things clearly. The essence of comedy is seeing things clearly when others do not, and playing with the disparity between what people perceive and reality. Harold does that so well because he, like Oliver Stone, who describes himself as a practicing Buddhist, is willing to entertain diametrically opposed ideas [paradoxes] at the same time to get to the truth.
Ramis’ film The Ice Harvest is a stunning indictment of the security center of the false self. Rabbi Irwin Kula, a spiritual advisor to Ramis, said he found the shadow of what Buddhists call the “hungry ghost” in one of Ramis’ darkest films…a dark black comedy, about larceny, lust, and lethal behavior in icebound Kansas on a Christmas Eve, starring John Cusack and Billy Bob Thornton. He told Ramis the movie “demonstrates that you can never get enough of what you really don’t need.” If you want a disturbing look at your own false-self, you must see this film, but it is not for those who are afraid of their shadow.
Now to Groundhog Day. For anyone who is somehow unfamiliar with the movie, cynical and egotistic TV weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck in an inexplicable time warp that makes him relive the same day over and over. First, it depresses him; then he realizes he can control it [since he always knows what is going to happen], perhaps even win the love of his field director, Rita. When that fails, he sinks further until he discovers that goodness may be just the ticket to win her love, as well as break the cycle. He delivers the line that so many of us relate to: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing really mattered?” To which his drinking buddy responds, “That about sums it up for me.”
I believe artists often create works intuitively that are more profound than they might realize at the time. Ramis said he was taken by surprise when the film hit a spiritual nerve for so many. He first got wind of what was to come when he heard Hassidic Jews were carrying placards in front of a theater where it was playing. He worried that they had found something objectionable—until he found out that the placards read: “Are you living the same day over and over again?” Then came letters and calls from Buddhists, Christian fundamentalists, and yoga practitioners.
Of course the reaction to the film was by people contained in P-B, so they could only understand the film from the perspective of the false self. “It always seemed ironic to me,” Ramis said, “that it didn’t lead people to recognize the commonality of all their points of view, but rather, This must be about us and only us.”
Therapists, as you might imagine had a field day projecting on such an open-ended look at human behavior. Even the psychoanalytic community found its angle on it. In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a scholarly paper entitled “Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic depiction of mutative process.” The film, it stated, shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolize the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.
And Buddhists also found it a good teaching tool for illuminating the First Noble Truth. Angela Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, screens the film for students in her Buddhism class. She says it perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth, a cinematic version of the teachings in Mahayana Buddhism. “In Mahayana,” she told the New York Times, “nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.”
Another Buddhist misses an opportunity to see something profound in Groundhog Day when he sees that it incorporates the obvious symbol of “the shadow.” Dean Sluyter, author of Cinema Nirvana; Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, contends the film shows Phil repeat parts of the same day forty-two times, or six weeks, exactly the time we will wait for winter to end if the groundhog sees his shadow. “In other words,” he said, “we are the groundhog and we are afraid of our own shadow, a shadow created by light. That light is truth, reality. Ultimate truth, then, is not a bummer. It’s nothing.”
Phil finally gets desperate to escape the madness of P-B and drives his truck off a cliff. But he still wakes up at exactly 6:00 a.m. the next day, Groundhog Day once again, and tells his TV viewers that “it’s going to be cold, and it’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last for a long, long time.”
“This is the state of total nihilism,” Ramis said “… It usually takes hitting the bottom of the barrel for man to seek spiritual redemption….Now…Phil is ready for change.” Phil becomes a good guy performing acts of kindness for members of the community, he wins the love of Rita, and likes himself better. He learns what it is to live in the present moment. And Ramis, it turns out, understands Groundhog Day perhaps better than anyone else.
Ramis said that, for him, “the key to Groundhog Day is learning to have the insight, courage, and energy to make changes when you come to those moments when you are about to make that same-old mistake again [that same old reaction]. We face those changes every day, large and small, every single day. If you change one little thing, one little behavior, then everything might change.”
If we had a practice (the Point of Power Practice) that involved changing our lives one reaction at a time and thereby moving from fear toward compassion, perhaps we could alter our lives in the way that Phil Connors did, one thoughtful and loving response at a time.
Bibliography, notes and references are in the published books by Roy Charles Henry.