Revisiting Groundhog Day

James Walters

To mark Groundhog Day on 2 February, Dr James Walters of the Department of Film and Creative Writing revisits the 1993 film, and explores it’s resonance within the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

‘Groundhog Day.’ The film’s title has achieved a status within contemporary culture that surely exceeded the ambitions and expectations Danny Rubin had when he wrote the story of a man trapped in an ever-repeating day, 2 February. Before Rubin’s script was realised onscreen through his collaboration with Harold Ramis, how many people had even heard of the Groundhog Day ceremony, or knew that it was held annually in Punxsutawney? Nevertheless, the phrase slipped very quickly into everyday life, employed to evoke feelings of derivative repetition from a seemingly endless list of topics including sport, entertainment, politics, war and, of course, the incessant drudgery of human existence. The widespread nature of these applications might remind us of Joseph Heller’s ‘Catch-22,’ an equivalent phrase that so potently captures an experience common to a great many of us. I wonder how many people who are familiar with Heller’s phrase have read his book. Perhaps we have reached that stage with ‘Groundhog Day’ now, whereby a growing number of people utter the words without having seen the film or having needed to.           

Repetition has become a curious feature of everyday life during the Covid-19 pandemic. Against the backdrop of tragic death and illness, we may have found ourselves guiltily regretting certain enforced repetitions as our lockdown worlds shrunk to the size of a daily exercise route, a weekly essential shopping journey or the same four walls for the stream of online video calls. Equally, we have missed the comfort of repetition as our friends and family have remained safely distanced; the lost routines of sitting, talking, laughing and embracing together felt more keenly with each passing day. For some, repetition has seeped into viewing choices and come to define them as favourite movies or television box sets are re-discovered and re-watched, their familiar pleasures somehow vital again. 

Revisiting Groundhog Day, a film so fundamentally about endless revisitation, seems to fit with these kinds of habits almost too well. The scene in which Phil (Bill Murray) watches Jeopardy in his pyjamas, knowing all the answers, shovelling popcorn into his mouth, acquires a peculiar resonance in lockdown when our viewing etiquette has the potential to mirror his so closely. I don’t suppose I’m alone in having revisited the film many times over the years. Watching it again now, I’m struck by a scene towards the end of the film, in which Phil sculpts Rita’s (Andie MacDowell) likeness in ice. It seems to be a moment that strongly connects the extraordinary futility of Phil’s endlessly repeating existence with the facets of ordinary life. If anyone carved that sculpture, it would eventually melt. If a new one was made, it would melt again. The material he chooses perhaps symbolises the impermanence of all human endeavour: whatever we build will inevitably fall. And yet, the moment celebrates that fact: crafting an object whose beauty is intensified by its transience. I don’t know what sets Phil free at the end of the film, but he is set free shortly after he carves something that connects his life to the lives of everyone. We all repeat ourselves and our efforts are always lost in time. 

The carving of Rita’s likeness in ice raises other questions. What do this couple see in each other? Phil recreates Rita as silent, passive, inanimate. It is an objectification. Is this how he sees her? Rita has no knowledge of Phil’s cyclical ordeal and will never know him as he knows her. What does she see? What future can they have together? Phil hints at a little uncertainty when, on the morning of 3 February, he declares they should live in Punxsutawney but ‘rent, to start.’ However, it’s possible that he may soon face the ethical question of whether he should be with Rita at all. Could they ever be equal? Would he have to tell her truth about himself, however ludicrous he seemed? Another phrase, which derives from a film and has come back into circulation, forms in my mind: Gaslighting. We might consider what we’d make of Phil if he kept his special knowledge of Rita secret in their relationship.

There’s a common perception of films, particularly Hollywood films, that their conclusions provide ‘closure’ for an audience. I wonder if this is ever true. Groundhog Day invites us to consider what the characters do next, after the credits have rolled, based on the hour and a half we’ve spent with them. Blessed with the power of human imagination, we can replay again and again all manner of new scenarios in our minds. Those thoughts will never be filmed, may never be told to anyone else. They are ephemeral and bereft of tangible purpose, gone like a phantom Groundhog Day. And yet, they are the essence of our enduring relationship with art on screen.