The following is an excerpt from my (one day to be published) book Reel Transformation.
Spiritual transformation can be found in all film genres, even comedies.
Groundhog Day (Albert, 1993) is a funny film that gives us a great view of someone who keeps refusing the call. We get a picture of Phil Connors (Bill Murray) at the beginning of the film as an adult who has, so far, successfully avoided the call to maturity and authenticity.
Throughout the movie we see him avoid the call over and over again when he tries to use his situation, not for personal growth, but for personal gain. When he does finally respond to the call, he opens himself up to an authentic, altruistic and loving life.
In this movie Phil’s Ordinary World or Home is not a physical place, but rather a state of mind or way of being in the world. He is a weatherman covering a story in Punxsutawney, Penn. on Groundhog Day that he feels is beneath him. “I don’t want to stay an extra second in Punxsutawney,” he says. He tells his cameraman, “Someday, someone’s going to see me interviewing a groundhog and think I don’t have a future.” He has higher aspirations for his career. “There’s a major network interested in me,” he says. We quickly see that he is a shallow, selfish, narcissistic, sarcastic, egotistical man who can’t wait to get out of what he considers a pitiful town. However, he gets stuck in the town another night due to a blizzard and wakes up to Groundhog Day all over again. He has become trapped in a personal time warp, waking up every day at 6 a.m. on Feb. 2 over and over and over again.
This is a wonderful analogy for the rut that sometimes happens when we find ourselves living, not just a day, but a life that does not satisfy us; yet instead of changing what we are doing, we keep repeating the same patterns, usually with different people.
Phil’s rut is more obvious in that he is actually living the exact same day with the exact same people over and over again. For everyone else it is the first time they are living this day, but Phil lives it thousands of times, again and again. The original script called for Phil to live the same day over and over again for 10,000 years. (National Review, 2006, paragraph 10).
We don’t know exactly how many days Phil stays stuck in the same day, but we know it must be a very long time, as we see that he learns to play the piano, as well as sculpt ice proficiently.
The Call and the Call Refused
Awareness of our life circumstances and the unhealthy patterns we live is a wonderful call to change. Too often we stay stuck in unhealthy patterns totally ignorant of them. Once we have awareness that we are stuck in a rut or an unhealthy pattern, we can respond to that awareness and begin to make changes.
Being stuck in the same day over and over again is an opportunity for Phil to look at his life in depth. However, Phil has successfully refused the call to personal growth his entire life, so it is not surprising that he continues to resist the call to transform.
Also early in the movie, when he first sees her, we see a glimmer of an attraction to his producer Rita, which he quickly pushes away. This is another call he has refused. Phil has seen something in her that attracts him. She is happy with life and her job. She is carefree, generous and giving, but he has denied those same qualities within himself; so he cannot accept them, at first, in someone else.
Rita represents his positive shadow. Our shadow is anything, positive or negative, that we have not developed or acknowledged within us that we project outward onto someone else. There is another side to Phil that he has refused to develop and this movie is about his acknowledging and transforming his dark side, and embracing and developing the light side of his shadow.
Interestingly enough, this movie has the backdrop of a groundhog—named Phil—coming out to see his shadow to predict the coming of spring, and that is what the human Phil must do if he is to transform and get out of this very long winter.
Before that happens, though, Phil realizes he can manipulate his situation with people since he already knows what is going to happen, and they do not.
Phil continues to refuse to take any responsibility for his life or the rut he is in. Even when he knows exactly where there is a puddle on the ground he continues to step in it over and over again.
“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same and nothing you did mattered?” That is the question Phil asks a drunk in a bar, who responds “That about sums it up for me.”
That about sums it up is a familiar sentiment for many people in life who are stuck in unhappy circumstances.
Phil asks, “What if there were no tomorrow?” “There wasn’t one today.” He figures out that no tomorrow also means there aren’t any consequences.
At first this knowledge empowers him. He finally misses the puddle, but allows someone else to step in it instead. He also begins being reckless, breaking the law, and using the knowledge that he learns each day to try and win over Rita. He is still acting selfishly for his own gain and does nothing to change or transform himself.
Later he falls into a deep despair. He is in the midst of his wilderness experience and nothing he does, so far, has shifted or changed his world. He is frustrated. In one of his broadcasts he shares, “You want a winter prediction. It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be gray, and it’s going to last you the rest of your life.” Clearly he is having, what in spiritual language is called, “a dark night of the soul.”
He tries over and over again to commit suicide, but with each attempt he continues to wake up each morning to the same day. At first he feels invincible, like “a god”. Yet even the knowledge that he is immortal brings him no peace.
His deepest wilderness comes when he falls in love with Rita and realizes that no matter what he does, or how much he wins her over; she will wake up the next day and not remember any of it. He tells her about waking up to the same day and how difficult it has been. Her response is, “Maybe it’s not a curse—it depends on how you look at it.” This, of course, is the crux of his problem. He needs to shift how he looks at his life in order for him to change his life.
When he shares his dilemma with her, Rita decides to spend an entire day with him to see if she, too, can experience his time warp. She falls asleep next to him, and Phil speaks to her and confesses his love. He admits to the sleeping Rita that something happened to him the first time he saw her.
Something is beginning to shift inside of Phil. He still wakes up the next morning to find that Rita is gone and it is Groundhog Day again, but something inside of him has changed. During one of his weather broadcasts he tells us that winter is but another step in the cycle of life. He has become real and humble and has finally accepted his life and situation.
He stops judging others, and even asks for their opinions. He treats his cameraman Larry as a worthy co-worker for the first time. He begins doing things, not to manipulate others, but for himself. He learns to play the piano and to sculpt ice, and we can see that his arrogance is gone. He is doing these things, not to manipulate others or win over Rita, but for his own enjoyment. He is finally finding pleasure and joy in life.
He begins to use his day to help others. With his foreknowledge of what is to happen, he passes up spending time with Rita and, instead, goes around the town saving lives and helping others. We see him catch a child falling from a tree, and saving a man from choking in a restaurant.
Over and over again he tries, in vain, to save a homeless man from dying. He seems obsessed with helping this man, and even calls him father and dad. One wonders if there isn’t some unresolved parental issues he is attempting to work out. No matter what he does, the old man dies. Eventually Phil recognizes that he just can’t save everyone; he is not a god, and he finally accepts that there are some things he cannot change. We see the transformation in him during his broadcast the next morning when he says,
“When Chekhov saw the long winter…he saw a winter long and bleak and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney, and basking in their hearths and hearts I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”
He begins to win over the townspeople who see him as the wonderful, giving man that he has become. He has embraced the qualities that he saw in Rita, and she notices the change in him. Rita is now attracted to him, and when the town holds a bachelor auction, she bids and wins him for the evening.
The moment that shifts everything for him is when he tells Rita, “No matter what happens tomorrow or for the rest of my life—I’m happy now!” He has finally reached a place of total acceptance of the now moment.
Phil’s homecoming is not to a physical place. Phil has transformed from an arrogant, self-centered man to one who is at home in his own self. When he finally comes to that place of peace and acceptance and realizes that he can be happy no matter what tomorrow brings, he finally wakes up to a brand new day with Rita lying beside him. His first sentence in this new day shows how far he has changed. He asks Rita, “Is there anything I can do for you today?”
He and Rita, having fallen in love, decide to stay and settle in Punxsutawney, and no doubt Phil will continue to grow and change, as transformation is never a one-time event, but an ongoing process.