Sunday, February 2, 2020

Déjà vu All Over Again—Ground Hog Day Cult Classic Film

Bill Murray in Woodstock again.  This time the snow was real.  An unusually mild winter in 1992 forced fill crews to use fake snow for the filming of Groundhog Day.
Bill Murray created quite a stir in these parts when he showed up in Woodstock, Illinois last week to film a Jeep commercial on the Square.  I believe it was the first time he has been back since filming wrapped on Groundhog Day in 1992.  Also on hand were his brother Brian Doyle Murray who played the Mayor of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania and Stephen Tobolowsky who played effusive insurance agent Ned Ryerson and who has regularly returned to town of annual Groundhog Day festivities.  Murray, older, heavier, and greyer was even wearing the same dark overcoat he wore in the film.
Jeep has been exceptionally coy about the commercial and when it will air.  But if you think that they went to the huge expense to hire a movie star and get authentic props like Murray’s TV news van to run randomly during some Thursday night sit-com you are not very bright.  Yesterday the company released a 15 second tease.  Since today is both Groundhog Day, the folk celebration, and Supper Bowl Sunday you can bet your bippy that you will be able to see it during the Big Game along with all of the other hugely hyped spots.
The enormous success of the movie and the fond memories of the hundreds of locals who were featured as extras and in small speaking spots in the film or who rubbed shoulders with the cast over the two months or so of location shooting led to the creation of a Groundhog Day event recreating the revelation of the rodent dubbed Woodstock Willie.  It was such a success that it became an annual event now in its 26th year and stretching out over three or four days.  It attracts dead-of-winter tourists and gives the locals a chance to party hearty.  In addition to the official prognostication at precisely 7:07 this morning, events include free showing of the film at the Woodstock Theater, storytelling, a dinner-dance at the Moose Lodge, a chili cook-off, pub crawl, tours of the Old Court House and Woodstock Opera House (both featured in the film), a walking tour of shot locations which are now marked by brass plaques, and a “Drink to World Peace” at the bar in the Woodstock Public House.  Visit the schedule of events on the Real Woodstock web page for details.

Groundhog Day is featured prominently in the Welcome to Woodstock Mural which also celebrates Orson Wells, Opera House stars, and Dick Tracy creator Chester Gould.
The city also commemorates the film as part of the Welcome to Woodstock mural on a wall next to the Woodstock Theater.
Despite bone chilling sub-zero temperatures last year thousands showed up for Woodstock Willie's prognostication. 

In contrast to the 25th anniversary unveiling last year when Woodstock was in the grips of an extended string of sub-zero days, the TV weather people tell us that the city can expect to see the sun for the first time in ten days and that temperatures could near 50 degrees by afternoon. We shall see.
A few years ago I mused about the movie and it meaning in a blog post essay I have updated.

Bill Murray in Groundhog Day.
I used to work Woodstock.  It’s a country town, the government 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 restored copper dome, the former McHenry County Courthouse built in 1854 and the Jail and Sheriff’s House next 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 worked 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 walked out the front door and looked up the road, looms the manor house of our neighborhood, a large imposing Victorian mansion.

You may have seen it before.

A private residence when used as a Bed and Breakfast in the movie, this old home has since become one--The Cherry Street Inn.
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 tries 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.

Guess what day it is...
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 behaves.  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 kindly 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.  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 kibosh 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.

True love cannot blossom until Bill Murray painfully changes himself and finally puts Andie McDowell's needs before his own.
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 when 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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