The greatest story ever told? (Independent, UK)

groundhog day movie poster

Andrew Buncombe, The Independent (UK): A 1993 romantic comedy starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell is being hailed by religious leaders as the most spiritual film of all time. Today, as the US town of Punxsutawney celebrates Groundhog Day, Andrew Buncombe reports on an unlikely parable.

Fred knew a thing or two about redemption, about the willingness to change, about turning one’s life around. Sitting drinking beer from a bottle in a dark, late-night bar in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, as a blizzard blew up outside, he explained, “A few years ago, my son was about 12 or 13 and it had got to the point where he needed me around more than I was. I was working for a gas company, making $55,000 [£30,000], which is good money for these parts. But I just walked away from it. Now I sell trailers and low-loaders, anything, and I doubt I make a third of what I used to. But I’m always there for my boy. Now my son’s a star athlete at high school and a grade-A student.”

Fred put down his bottle, tugged on the peak of his baseball cap and glanced at the snow coming down outside. “I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my time, but I can walk down the streets of Punxsutawney with my head held high.”

Today, the people of Punxsutawney will be holding their heads as high as any. For the 117th consecutive year the people of this small town will hold aloft a small, rat-like creature and, by its subsequent behaviour, seek to forecast the weather. Records suggest that the forecasters usually get the prediction correct, but either way the town’s Groundhog Day has become world famous, and tens of thousands of people will flock to this part of Pennsylvania to participate in it.

Much of that has to do with the success of the 1993 film Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a brash TV weatherman who is dispatched to Punxsutawney to cover the annual festival. Yet the movie has achieved far more than simply luring crowds to a Pennsylvanian town – what is usually described as a romantic comedy has become a crucial teaching tool for various religions and spiritual groups, who see it as a fable of redemption and reincarnation that matches anything that Fred could tell me at the bar.

“At first I would get mail saying, ‘Oh, you must be a Christian because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief’,” the film’s director Harold Ramis recently told The New York Times. “Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists! Well, I knew they loved it because my mother-in-law has lived in a Buddhist meditation centre for 30 years and my wife lived there for five years.”

Firstly, a brief synopsis of the film: Murray’s arrogant and curmudgeonly character, Phil Connors, having been sent to Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row, finds himself inexplicably trapped in a seemingly endless cycle in which he is forced to repeat that 2 February day over and over again. Nothing he can do – not suicide, not prayer, not visits to the psychiatrist – can break the circle. At first he uses the repetitious cycle to his advantage, learning to play the piano and to speak French in an effort to seduce his producer, played by Andie MacDowell.

It is all in vain. Every day at 6am he wakes up in the same bed with the same crushed pillow in the same small hotel, the same tinny radio on the bedside table playing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” and the same obnoxiously cheerful local-radio presenter reminding everyone – just in case they had forgotten – that it is Groundhog Day. It is only when, an endless number of days later, Murray learns humility, understanding and acceptance of his fate that he breaks the cycle.

Unknown to Fred, and probably to most of the people in snow-bound Punxsutawney, Groundhog Day is now associated in the minds of many spiritual seekers with redemption, rebirth and the process of moving to a higher plane. Professor Angela Zito, the co-director of the Centre for Religion and Media at New York University, told me that Groundhog Day illustrated the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that individuals try to escape. In the older form of Buddhist belief, she said, no one can escape to nirvana unless they work hard and lead a very good life.

But in the teachings of the slightly more recently established Mahayana Buddhism, no one can escape samsara until everyone else does. “That’s why you have what are called bodhisattvas who reach the brink of nirvana and come back for others,” she said. “The Dalai Lama is considered one living bodhisattva, but Bill Murray could also be one. You can see [in the film] that he learns.” Zito shows the film to her undergraduates in New York without any explanation beforehand. “Most of them know the film,” she said. “I think they find it interesting.”

But Ramis is quick to point out that it is not just Buddhists who are able to draw parallels with the film. Scholars of Judaism have also leapt on it, and Ramis claims that many Buddhists in the US started out as Jews. “There is a remarkable correspondence of philosophies and even style between the two,” said Ramis, who was raised in the Jewish tradition but practises no religion. “I am wearing meditation beads on my wrist, but that’s because I’m on a Buddhist diet. They’re supposed to remind me not to eat, but they actually just get in the way when I’m cutting my steak.”

Dr Niles Goldstein, the author of Lost Souls: Finding Hope in the Heart of Darkness, is rabbi of the New Shul congregation in Greenwich Village. He recently said that there was a resonance in Murray’s character being rewarded by being returned to earth to perform more good deeds, or mitzvahs. This was in contrast to gaining a place in heaven (the Christian reward) or else achieving nirvana (the Buddhist reward). He is considering using the film as an allegory when he speaks to his congregation. “The movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn’t end until the world has been perfected,” he said.

As Ramis has been told by Jesuit priests among others, the film clearly also contains themes found within the Christian tradition. Michael Bronski, a film critic with the magazine Forward and a visiting professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, where he teaches a course in film history, said: “The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays. And when I say that the groundhog is Jesus, I say that with great respect.”

Not everyone in Punxsutawney buys into the Groundhog Day cult. Rev Mary Lewis of the town’s First Baptist Church felt the idea that the film illustrated resurrection was taking matters too far. “However, to me, in terms of Christian values I see that [Murray] is growing as a person. He starts out as a creep only out for himself, but gradually he begins to actually become a better human being.”

The morning after the night in the bar, I drove up to Gobbler’s Knob to inspect Phil’s temporary home. Bill Cooper, the president of the Groundhog Club, and Butch Philliber, another member, were shovelling away the overnight snow and throwing down salt in anticipation of today’s crowds.

Cooper, an affable banker from Pittsburgh who moved to Punxsutawney some years ago, knew all about the religious groups who had jumped on the movie, and he appeared to approve of the spiritual element attached to the event. “With the forecasting, it depends who you listen to,” he said. “Some people say we get it right a lot, others say we usually get it wrong. But if you’re the sort of person who is going to come and argue about that, then Groundhog Day is not for you.”

[Original article no longer available]
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