Saturday, February 2, 2013

The Greatest American Movie Comedy Classic Turns 20

Note:  Winter has been pretty much of a rumor in McHenry County this year.  Maybe a couple of inches of accumulated snow all winter.  Hell, it was 60̊ on Tuesday.  But just in time for Groundhog Day the bottom dropped out of the thermometer and we are expecting snow the net four days finally amounting to several inches.  Probably not too hard to figure out Woodstock Willie’s prognostication this year.  But the celebration of the day will go on, enlivened this year by a big anniversary.
Twenty-one years ago Hollywood came to Woodstock, Illinois in a big way and twenty years ago the product was released to movie theaters nation wide.  Writer/Director Harold Ramis selected the picturesque town as the stand in for Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania where there has been an annual festival built around the prognostications of an over sized rodent for an early or late spring for more than 100 years.  He brought with him big name stars and a little razzle-dazzle to the sometimes drab and dull Midwestern winter.
The film they made, Groundhog Day became a cult classic and is regularly in the top five of lists of the best comedy films of all time.  Many local people appeared as extras, or even with small speaking roles.  The cast and crew mingled amicably—even sometimes crusty Bill Murray—with local folk in restaurants, bars, and local stores.  Practically every business on Woodstock Square was adorned with framed autograph pictures of the stars.
The city has taken advantage of the fame thrust upon them by the film to have a yearly Groundhog Days Festival.  The movie is screened for free at the local movie house, special tours of locations in the film are conducted.  There are breakfasts and dinners.  Cast members sometimes return and participate in Q and A sessions at the Opera House.  And every year Woodstock Willie, the star of the movie, his descendent and/or doppelganger is pulled from his den to make his prediction on the balance of the winter.
Two years ago real live epic blizzard shut down the Fesival.  This year it was  damn cold with light snow at 7:07 this morning when he sleepy rodent is rudely pulled from his nap.
A few years ago, I created a letter for my employer, Robert S. Jackson of Oaktree Capital Corp. to send to his clients, prospects, friends, and acquaintances.  The following is adapted from that letter.
I work in the city of Woodstock, Illinois.  It’s a country town, the governing center for suburban/rural McHenry County.  The 19th Century Square, replete with Civil War Monument and gazebo, seems sometimes to rise like Brigadoon or Avalon from the mists of a forgotten time.
The venerable Opera House dominates one side of the Square.  On another side sits a large red brick building with a gleaming white dome, the former McHenry County Courthouse built in 1854 and the yellow Milwaukee brick Jail attached to it.
Historic public buildings, churches, and graceful old homes on tree-lined streets radiate out from the Square.  Three blocks away as the crow flies The Peter Nestor House, built in 1900 sits halfway up Madison Street. I work there in an office in the basement of my employer’s home.
At the far end of the street, on a small hill and facing all of us on the block when we walk out the front door and look up the road, looms the manor house of our neighborhood, a large imposing Victorian mansion.
You may have seen it before.
This mansion played the role of a bed and breakfast in the classic Bill Murray comedy Groundhog Day.   In the movie, the Square was dubbed Gobbler’s Knob, the name of the site in the Pennsylvania town where a Groundhog is pulled from his sleepy den every February 2 to prognosticate whether or not spring was coming. 
Most movie comedies sink below the surface of memory without leaving a ripple.  But since its release this film has resonated with audiences in a way that is reminiscent of the James Stewart/Frank Capra classic It’s a Wonderful Life—with which it shares important themes.
However, unlike James Stewart’s likable character, Bill Murray begins the film as a repellant jerk.  An arrogant Pittsburgh TV weatherman, Murray has been assigned to cover the Punxsutawney festivities.  He is surly to his camera man, Chris Elliot, insulting to his lovely and generous producer,  Andie MacDowell, condescending and disdainful to the local Punxsutawney yokels, and their ridiculous pageant.
While Stewart learned to value the person he actually was, Murray in Groundhog Day learns how to change the world for the better—but only after he becomes someone other than the vain, shallow human being we first see in this film.
After being forced to stay in Punxsutawney by a blizzard, Murray wakes up in that Victorian bed and breakfast—the one at the end of the block—only to find that his bedside clock/calendar tells him that he has awakened once again on the morning of February 2. Then the film shows us that day repeated, and then again repeated, as day after day he wakes up again on February 2.  He is caught somehow in a closed loop of time.  The movie shows snippets from dozens of these February 2s, but makes clear that he experienced hundreds, perhaps thousands of them.
After being astonished to discover that is his life is an apparently endless series of empty, identical experiences, Murray goes through the stages of grief over the meaningless of his existence—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance.  He tried to escape by repeated, ever more creative attempts at suicide, always to re-awaken in the same bed to the same song on the clock radio.
When he finally comes to acceptance, he learns something remarkable.
He learns that he is actually able to change how this otherwise repetitious day unfolds—by how he himself acts.  He discovers he can change the outcomes of lives around him.  For instance, every day when the moment comes when a certain child is to fall out of the tree, hit the ground and break his arm, he arranges to be there, under the tree where he can catch the child.  He uncharacteristically acts in a kind manner to a sick and dying homeless man.  He creates an engaging conversation with an otherwise annoying insurance salesman who—as his previously repetitive experiences had taught him—will accost him every morning on a certain street corner.
He also learns he can improve himself.  He becomes a piano virtuoso by showing up each day and presenting himself as a new student to a piano teacher.  Each day having mastered what she is unaware she that has taught him, he presents himself anew and learns from there.
At first the object of this self-improvement is largely to win over and seduce his lovely producer.   And each day he makes progress with her.  Yet as he comes to know her, his feelings turn to something like real affection and love.  But he’s not through learning yet.  Each day at some point his old, habitual, self-centered arrogance rises and puts the kabash on their blooming relationship.
Yet he really is changing.  Eventually the whole town comes to adore him for the many kindnesses this one-day visitor bestows on them, not just for his wit, his talent and his fame.
And each day we see an implicit love affair that had previously been stymied become something possible. We see it in Andie McDowell’s eyes which—when in his presence—shine  a little brighter a little longer.
But this love relationship cannot break through until that day arises when, in a simple act of complete unselfishness, Bill puts Andie entirely ahead of his own needs and wants.  We are then shown a scene in which she comes to his bed at the inn and they awake in each other’s arms.  The next morning the clock/calendar awakens them to February 3. We know that he and she may have an unfolding future together that would not have been possible for him prior to his awakening.
So Groundhog Day becomes the metaphor, not of some automatic seasonal rebirth experience, something that appropriately takes place in the spring, but rather of a breakthrough in taking responsibility now. By taking an action that anyone can take when one chooses freshly—an action that is not a mere repetition of the past, not the result of some long-established habit—Murray, you, or I, can cause a future that otherwise would not be.  And we can take such an action anytime—
Even in the dead of winter.  Even in the dead of winter.

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