We’ll always have Punxsutawney | Chuck's World

Feb 01, 2017

I mentioned Groundhog Day last week, and sort of jumped the gun. I’m blaming my upper respiratory infection. Half of my brain feels stuffy, and the other half has, in all honesty, never worked all that well.

I was speaking of the movie, not the day itself, although it’s this week, Feb. 2. The 1993 film “Groundhog Day” was initially written as a comic fantasy with dark overtones, a star vehicle for Bill Murray, who plays a sarcastic and generally antisocial Pittsburgh weatherman who finds himself snowed in while visiting the town of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of Phil the shadow-seeking groundhog.

Murray, whose character is also called Phil, is less than enthused. “This is one time where television really fails to capture the true excitement of a large squirrel predicting the weather,” he says sarcastically to the camera on one occasion, but then there are lots of occasions.

Phil soon realizes that he’s reliving Groundhog Day, every day. Same place, same people, same day. The only thing different is Phil, who remains aware of the other days even as he goes through the same, one after another.

One of the questions fans find interesting is exactly how long (spoiler alert) Phil spent in this time loop before finally waking up on Feb. 3. The film shows us 38 separate Groundhog Days, but there are implications throughout that there were many, many more.

Several people have tried to calculate, using as much information as they can glean and, making a fair share of assumptions, that it was approximately 34 years, over 12,000 Groundhog Days, for weatherman Phil. It’s never documented or even suggested in the film, so their guess is just a guess, but it’s a fascinating number to think about.

And in a surprise to the filmmakers, something unexpected happened.

I know a fair amount about this film, as it’s a favorite and I’ve seen it several times. I’m also leading a discussion this week after a showing of the movie, so I watched it again last week to see if I picked up on something new.

I think I did, which is what this is all about. Not so much the movie.

You see, what happened that was unexpected in the making of this film was the reaction it inspired. It was a big success at the box office, featuring a leading comic actor and just a generally fun and funny movie, but very specific fans began to crawl out of their specialties. Psychologists, philosophers and theologians began to embrace this comedy, and many articles and scholarly papers have been written about it.

It’s an allegory, they say, perhaps a modern “Pilgrim’s Progress” or some other spiritual journey, although theology is never mentioned. What they saw, though, and what I see, as much as it makes me laugh, is a bitter and sad man who, working his way through this snowy purgatory without an instruction manual, becomes better.

The film is nearly 25 years old, but once again, spoiler alert: Phil, after his anger, after his depression, after his attempts to bargain his way back onto a regular calendar, after his awareness that he will never establish a relationship that lasts longer than 24 hours before starting all over again, recognizing that he may never escape, has a noble but maybe simply human response to his situation.

He can’t change his condition.

He can’t fix the forces that have trapped him in this nightmare.

But he can fix the small things, the things that only people can do for other people. Repairing a flat tire for some elderly women. Saving a man from choking. Catching a boy who falls from a tree. Helping a homeless man. Treating everyone he meets, people he knows intimately by now, with the only currency he has: kindness.

A lot has been said about kindness lately. It seems to be a reaction to the meanness people see in our contemporary discourse and politics.

It’s hard to argue with being kind. It’s also hard to take it seriously as a political movement. It’s personal. It can’t be legislated, or persuaded. It can be demonstrated, but mostly it has to come from somewhere else.

There’s no question, in my mind at least, that being a kinder person, particularly to those who lack your status in society, even if you’re just ordinary and making ends meet, is a good thing. There are always people worse off, and there are worse things than being kind.

I have no answers to our current mess. I don’t think kindness will save us. I think voting will, and activism, and participation. Your basic civics.

But the reason I recommend “Groundhog Day” at any time but maybe particularly this week, is the same reason the story resonates with Hindus and Buddhists and Jews and Christians of all sorts, among many others. One man, trapped and desperate and ultimately alone, decides to spread small acts of goodness around, knowing his reward will be momentary and forgotten the next day.

And this is how he finds his way out this trap, and that’s why today it’s worth watching. Maybe more than once.

These little acts of kindness, scattered around a small community, create a force of nature that only slowly becomes apparent. They certainly change Phil.

More importantly, to the story and, I think, to us, is that they change others. It’s what saves him, and I wonder now if it might not save us all.

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