>While in the Christian calendar today marks the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, in the American secular calendar today is Groundhog Day. For my foreign readers not familiar with this custom, it arose in the German-speaking immigrant community in Pennsylvania during the 18th century and became popular throughout the state, later spreading to other regions of the U.S. The nutshell version of the folkloric custom is, a groundhog is observed this morning emerging from his burrow. If it is sunny and he sees his shadow, the groundhog will go back into his burrow and we will have 6 more weeks of winter. If he does not see his shadow, then the winter weather will end sooner.
Despite its broad appeal and practice in a number of communities on the East Coast, unquestionably the most famous American groundhog weatherman is located in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half north of Pittsburgh. Punxsutawney Phil, as he is known, became famous as a result of the film “Groundhog Day”, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, which revolves around this annual small-town Pennsylvania festival. (This, despite the fact that most of the movie was actually shot in Illinois rather than Pennsylvania, but never mind.)
What more can be written about this film, which is surely one of the best American movies ever made? The recurring leitmotif of living one day, over and over again, provided the writers and actors with a host of possibilities to explore within an essentially closed universe. Bill Murray’s character is trapped, and cannot leave Punxsutawney no matter how hard he tries, until he learns the lesson of selflessness. It is an astoundingly, though unintentionally, Catholic film in many respects, and one can find numerous scholarly reviews and dissections of its dependence upon or reference to Aristotle, St. Augustine, and others.
However despite its enduring popularity, it is interesting to note that the quirky “Groundhog Day”, while successful upon its release, was not by any means a blockbuster film. It grossed a very respectable $70 million domestically, but the more conventional courtroom-military drama “A Few Good Men”, released around the same time, grossed twice that. When we consider them both, it is interesting to consider how perceptions change over time, as well as the truism that box office is no indication of quality, as James Cameron’s appalling “Titanic” demonstrates.
For example 1942’s “Casablanca”, which a number of critics now consider the greatest film ever made, received generally good, if not rapturous reviews, and made about $900K at the box office. By way of comparison, the Busby Berkeley musical “Me and My Gal”, released the same year, grossed $4.2 million. As enjoyable as “Gal” is, it ain’t no “Casablanca”.
Similarly “Men”, while a memorable stage play of a film in its best sections, with actors circling each other like animals in a psychological cage match, over time has come to seem somewhat ordinary. It could easily have been made with John Wayne in 1958, or Gary Cooper in 1938. There is something of a slick and ultimately shallow series of camera muggings and intense close-ups disguised as depth that look more like a magazine spread than acting. Is it still watchable? Absolutely. Does it raise questions about the role of a military in a free society? Yes, indeed. Does it address deep, questions of existence and the meaning of life? No.
“Groundhog Day” is, intentionally or not, a weird film. It is a deeply spiritual film addressing issues of both consciousness and conscience, of death, the afterlife and existence itself, but disguised as comedy; it is also a comedy which, on reflection, makes us look at ourselves. For example, Bill Murray makes us laugh when he takes a toaster to the bathtub to electrocute himself, but then we stop to think, “Wait a minute – what am I laughing at?” It improves and improves with each watching – to the point that the great Roger Ebert, who originally gave the film three stars on its initial release, had to revise his opinion when looking at it again more than a decade later:
Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation. But there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase This is like “Groundhog Day” to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something.
Of course, it is completely unfair of me to compare “Groundhog Day” and “A Few Good Men”, since they are interesting but different films, doing different things: one does not expect Lady Gaga to attempt Puccini. Yet again, the box office evidence is instructive. Many films, from the aforementioned “Casablanca” to “It’s A Wonderful Life”, have grown in stature and reputation over the years, rather than being forgotten as just another good movie.
This is why it is important to be discerning when one goes to the cinema. Popcorn and popularity is fine, as far as it goes, but the films that are a bit different, that are a bit more challenging, need our support. Otherwise, we will be left with little beyond the collected works of Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston.