Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Theology of Groundhog Day

One of my favorite movies, Groundhog Day (1993), apparently has a lot more to it than I had previously thought. I ran across a fascinating article, "Phil's Shadow", written by Michael P. Foley, which appeared in Touchstone Magazine. You can find it on-line here.

The movie stars Bill Murray as Phil--a weatherman who finds himself re-living a single day of his life--Groundhog Day. If you haven't seen the movie, you can watch the trailer above. The movie beautifully illustrates the emptiness of Nietzsche's nihilistic philosophy and depicts the way Bill Murray discovers true happiness in the pursuit of Aristotle's virtuous "good life".

Foley explains:

Once Phil realizes that in his Nietzschean quagmire there are no consequences to his actions, he also experiences modern philosophy’s liberation from any sense of eternal justice. “I am not going to play by their rules any longer,” he gleefully announces. His reaction epitomizes Glaucon’s argument in Plato’s Republic. Remove the fear of punishment, Glaucon argued, and the righteous will behave no differently than the wicked.

Nineteen hundred years later, Machiavelli, arguably the father of modern philosophy, elevated this view to a philosophical principle. And Phil embodies it perfectly: Once he learns that he can get away with anything he wants, he becomes Machiavelli’s prince. He unhesitatingly steals money from a bank, cold-cocks a life insurance agent, and seduces an attractive woman.

To Phil’s surprise, however, this life of instant gratification proves unfulfilling, leading him to set his sights on Rita, his beautiful and wholesome co-worker. The name “Rita,” I contend, tells us something about the role she plays in Phil’s life. Rita is short for Margarita, the Latin word for “pearl.” To Phil, Rita is the pearl of grea price. We know from Matthew’s Gospel that this pearl is the kingdom of Heaven, but it may also be appropriate to think of it as happiness, since, according to Aristotle, happiness is that towards which everything in our life is ordered.

And so the overriding question of the story becomes clear: What will it take to attain true happiness? What will it take to buy the pearl? Phil’s initial attempts to win Rita again betray his Machiavellian instincts. Machiavelli contended that it is better for a prince to appear to be virtuous—which fosters in others a gullible trust—than to be virtuous, which hamstrings his actions. And so Phil goes to extraordinary lengths to learn about Rita’s aspirations and then to feign the same. (The logic here is also Hegelian: Injustice is justified in the name of historical progress.) Yet the ruse never
works; each night ends with Phil receiving a slap in the face rather than acquiescence to his overtures. The pearl of happiness, it turns out, cannot be bought with counterfeit money.

Phil’s failures lead to despair. At the end of his rope, he now commits suicide—over and over. Yet no matter how often he jumps off buildings or electrocutes himself, he stills wakes up to another Groundhog Day. His poignant awareness of his emptiness recalls the chilling line from St. Augustine’s Confessions: “I went far from you, my God, and I became to myself a wasteland.” Liberation from the divine law initially sounds thrilling, but such freedom proves to be not only hollow, but self-squandering annihilation. As Phil says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.”

And so Phil, with nowhere else to go, unconsciously turns from modern philosophy, with its “concentred” individualism, to ancient philosophy, with its praise of the just life as the best way to live. Phil begins pursuing excellence (which in Greek is the same word as virtue), not for any ulterior motive but because he enjoys it. In good Aristotelian fashion, he cultivates moral virtues (e.g., saving a choking victim), intellectual virtues (reading Chekhov), and a proficiency in the arts (playing the piano). And thus Phil starts to become happy, for he is now fulfilling the conditions of happiness identified by the moralists of antiquity: knowing, doing, and loving the good.

Of course, the movie clearly has theological implications, as Foley goes on to explain.

One can also argue that there is a theological dimension to Phil’s transformation. Part of his conversion involves recognizing that there is a God and he is not it. Like most moderns, Phil thinks of himself as (in Freud’s immortal phrasing) “a prosthetic god,” someone who “makes the weather” through his mastery of science. Later, after his unsuccessful suicides, he tries to convince Rita that he is a god, a claim she rejects on account of her “twelve years of Catholic school” (this is the only time in the movie a religion is explicitly mentioned).

But Phil’s conviction evaporates once he is forced to acknowledge the inevitable death of an old beggar whose life he repeatedly tries to save. In the final scene of this subplot, he is kneeling down, vainly administering CPR to the man, when he stops and plaintively looks heavenward. And in an unrelated moment, he indirectly acknowledges God as Creator by reciting the verse, “Only God can make a tree.” God alone, Phil learns, is the Lord of life and death.

The article goes on to find references to Augustine and significance to the liturgical feast celebrated on February 2nd (Groundhog Day). Read the rest here.

Foley is not alone--others have discussed the significance of this movie. For more check out this article as well as Joseph H. Kupfer's chapter on the movie in Visions of Virtue in Popular Film (Boulder: Westview Press, 1999), 35-60.


Jeff Miller said...

I remember several years ago Crisis magazine ran an article on the best Catholic movies as listed by Deal Hudson and he also included Groundhog's Days.

Watching again subsequently I agree.

Slatts said...

Wow! What an interesting insight! I watched the movie a LONG time ago...maybe I'll have to see it again!

Chris Petersen said...

You have good tastes,Michael. This is one of my favorites as well.

Anonymous said...

Have that one in my DVD collection and just watched it again the other day. I knew there was a reason I loved the movie.
Fascinating analysis.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful article! "Groundhog Day" has been playing quite frequently in the States the past month or so, and I watch it (even in parts) nearly every time it's on. I saw it in the theatre when I was a wee lass and merely viewed it as an original if not quirky comedy. As an adult, I once read someone cite it as one of their most favorite "Catholic films." Ever since, I see it with a completely new understanding. This film is absolutely rich with philosophical and theological questions and resolutions. The commentary and articles posted truly capture this tremendous film.