On the Trail of the Groundhog:
            Why Groundhog Day is a Great Buddhist Movie

by Tom Armstrong


"Groundhog Day," the 1993 Bill Murray comedy, is a curiously crafted film.  It is peopled by many minor characters who are artificial in the way that situation-comedy characters are, yet the film is ambitious (and rises to its ambitions) with a keen sensitivity to the dynamic of change to the central character.

At the very beginning of the film there is something very interesting for a Buddhist audience.  We are introduced to the Murray character (Pittsburgh TV weatherman Phil Connors) as he gives his report in front of a bluescreen.  He is there gesticulating with essentially nothing behind him [signifying the true emptiness of Self], talking about the nation's weather.  He is grandly overdressed, in a pitch-black three-piece suit (like no other weatherman I have ever seen), befitting the egocentricity of the character as we quickly come to know him.  As we see him on a TV monitor (with the bluescreen now substituted for a satellite-view of the prior-day's weather) he acts as if he is blowing a mass of cold air eastwardly toward the Pittsburgh area.  European paintings, a millenium or more ago, used to depict the air being blown by God or gods to explain the cause of weather in just this way. [Indeed, fifteen minutes later in the movie, Connors will deny a blizzard starting to flurrying all about him (which he had predicted would miss western Pennsylvania) in a conversation with a policeman:  "What blizzard?" he says "I make the weather!"]

In sharp contrast to the Connors character, Rita the TV producer (played by Andie MacDowell) is introduced to us as she plays in front of the bluescreen after the broadcast, wearing a plain blue coat.  On the monitor, she essentially disappears against the background.  The qualities of Rita, as we come to know her, fit this depiction.  Later in the movie she will say "I just like to go with the flow (and) see where it leads me." 

Phil, Rita and cameraman Larry (played by Chris Elliott) drive to Punxsutawney to cover the Groundhog Day festivities surrounding Punxsutawney Phil, America's most-famous groundhog, where, as legend has it, if the groundhog sees his shadow, there will be six more weeks of winter weather.  Everything in the first fifteen minutes of the movie sets up the character differences between Phil and Rita.  In addition to displays of vanity--calling himself "The Talent," his unwillingness to stay in the largest hotel which he considers "a fleebag," etc.--we hear Phil ridicule people, calling them morons, making fun of people in ways they cannot be aware of, and we also are privy to some of Phil's internal monolog [When he talks to the landlady of the bed & breakfast on the first Groundhog Day, he mutters "you can't even spell espresso" just under her ability to hear him, meaning that he thinks she's a fool.]  Phil is certainly vainglorious, but he is also a tortured man.  Though he sees job advancement in his future, it is life inself in its untidiness that tortures him.  Before the movie's gimmick of the Groundhog Day holiday repeating thousands of times, Phil is trapped--in a pattern of thinking that saps him of the ability to learn from and enjoy the life he has.  Phil is classically Unaware.

After the situation has been set up--Phil has given the first report on the holiday activities and we have seen Phil's first reaction to a dozen of Punxsutawney's citizens--the film's gimmick comes into effect and we witness the evolution of his relationship with the people in his small universe and the changes that come over him.

Phil the Weatherman by no means undergoes a transformation to Enlightenment or Cosmic Consciousness, but the stages of change that Phil experiences is not uncoincidentally similar to the marks of the Cosmic Sense, as listed in Dr. Bucke's classic study in 1901, Cosmic Consciousness:  A Study in the Evolution of the Human Mind.  In an early chapter, "From Self to Cosmic Consciousness," Bucke lists the signs that this sense is present in an individual:

Bucke wrote, "...briefly and explicitly, the marks of the Cosmic Sense...are:

  • a. The subjective light.

  • b. The moral elevation.

  • c. The intellectual illumination.

  • d. The sense of immortality.

  • e. The loss of the fear of death.

  • f. The loss of the sense of sin.

  • g. The suddenness, instantaneousness, of the awakening.

  • h. The previous character of the man--intellectual, moral and physical.

  • i. The age of illumination.

  • j. The added charm to the personality so that men and women are always (?) strongly attracted to the person.

  • k. The transfiguration of the subject of the changes as seen by others when the cosmic sense is actually present.

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