Building the New World Within (6) – Groundhog Day
In the 1993 film, Groundhog Day, by writer Danny Rubin and director Harold Ramis, Bill Murray plays the role of a television weatherman, Phil Connors, who gets stuck in a small town due to strange circumstances, a situation which ultimately leads to his individuation and personal transformation.
The underlying theme of individuation is incredibly strong throughout the film, but is dealt with in such a light-hearted manner that elements of it could easily be missed. To illustrate how the individuation process might look like for an individual, on a practical level, let’s revisit some segments from this film.
Phil travels with two colleagues to the small town of Punxsutawney in Pennsylvania where the team are to report on an annual folklore festival known as Groundhog Day.
Groundhog Day is a day celebrated on February 2. According to folklore, if it is cloudy when a groundhog emerges from its burrow on this day, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will persist for six more weeks. – Wikipedia
In south-eastern Pennsylvania, Groundhog Lodges (Grundsow Lodges) celebrate the holiday with fersommlinge, social events in which food is served, speeches are made, and one or more g’spiel (plays or skits) are performed for entertainment. 
During the first minutes of the film, in the weather studio before departure, while travelling to the assignment and on arrival in Punxsutawney, we get a snapshot of Phil’s personality. He comes across as egocentric, obnoxious, self-important, temperamental and clearly dissatisfied with his work.
On the second day of the assignment we see Phil half-heartedly covering the Groundhog Day event with minimum cooperation, to the exasperation of his colleagues. They are perplexed by his attitude and call him a prima donna. Phil obviously can’t wait to get out of town.
Soon afterwards, the crew departs on their return journey to Pittsburgh, only having to turn back some miles out of town due to a huge incoming blizzard on the motorway. To Phil’s frustration this would mean another day spent in Punxsutawney. Phil makes various phone calls for assistance in order to find a solution, but to no avail.
The day before and that morning before they left town, several people indicated that there was a blizzard on the way, but Phil had confidently rejected the notion, insisting that as an experienced weatherman he was certain that the blizzard would comfortably miss the area.
Back in Punxsutawney, Phil’s colleagues suggest that they should participate in and enjoy the Groundhog Day ball and festivities at the Pennsylvania Hotel that evening, but Phil’s not interested – he’s done it all before and favours going straight to bed, looking forward to leaving first thing in the morning.
Phil wakes up the following day to find to his surprise and disbelief that it’s the morning of the day before. It’s Groundhog Day again! To his incredulous shock, this happens again the day after and keeps on happening on subsequent days. Phil finds himself in a time-loop of sorts. Every day is the same day and each day plays out more or less in the same way.
Naturally, he has trouble adjusting to this new paradigm. He feels unwell and confused and we can clearly see a strong sense of déjà-vu and paranoia engulfing him. Phil is going through an existential crisis.
In existentialism, the individual’s starting point is characterized by what has been called “the existential attitude”, or a sense of disorientation and confusion in the face of an apparently meaningless or absurd world.- Wikipedia
Although a serious matter, Phil’s experience of paranoia and his suspicion that “people are having him on” is indeed hilarious to watch. Most people would have experienced thoughts of “the absurdity of it all” and being “out of time and out of place” at some point in their lives.
Phil is stuck in a place he doesn’t like, with colleagues he doesn’t particularly care for, having to deal with cultural activities he has no interest in. To top it all, he’s on an assignment that he’s done several times before.
It would also seem that he’s the only person having this surreal experience. Phil first confides in Rita, his colleague and producer, during a chat in the local diner. She recommends that he “seeks help”. This he does subsequently with a local psychiatrist, but he comes away with no concrete answers.
In the film it’s not clear how much time passes between scenes and this is left open to interpretation, so one event could, for example, be one version of the same event, due to the recurring nature of things in the film. In the following scene we see Phil at the bar counter of the local bowling club having a coffee. We get the feeling that he has become somewhat resigned to his plight, but is depressed.
On his left are two local fellows, Gus and Ralph, enjoying a few pints of beer. They were also at the table adjacent to him a couple of days before, when Phil was discussing his predicament with Rita at the diner. On that occasion one of them overheard Phil’s name and quipped: “Phil, like the Groundhog Phil? Look out for your shadow there, pal!” They both laughed heartedly and in response Phil called them “morons”.
This time around, Phil decides to confide in them and he laments the fact that he had to end up with this day as opposed to any number of enjoyable days he had had in his lifetime. He then reminisces about a particularly memorable pleasure and sensation-filled day he would have preferred to experience many times over.
The conversation continues:
Gus, in reply to Phil: “You know, some guys would look at this glass and say, you know, that glass is half empty, other guys would say, that glass is half full. I think you’re a glass-is-half-empty kind of guy, am I right?”
Phil: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day were exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?”
Ralph: “That about sums it up for me…”
They all leave the bar and Phil offers to drive his two newly-made friends home in Gus’s car, as both of them were drunk. While they’re driving, they continue the conversation:
Phil: “What if there were no tomorrow?”
Gus: “That would mean that there would be no consequences, there would be no hangovers, we could do whatever we wanted!”
Phil: “That is true. We could do whatever we want…”.
Phil then proceeds to accelerate the car and drive recklessly, knocking over mail boxes and driving on a railway track, until finally crashing into some cars after a car chase by the police.
While driving on the tracks, Phil shouts:
“I’m not going to live by their rules any more! You make choices and you live with them!”
Here Phil adopts the “living for the moment” mantra instantaneously and spontaneously. He has just come to the conclusion that he’s absolved from responsibility. He has the benefit of the same day rebooting, allowing him to do it all over again, either similarly or differently.
He can have as much fun as he wants to, however he likes it, with no accountability. For Phil there is always another tomorrow, and the slate is wiped clean at the end of each day. Despite the restrictive time-loop he’s in, he has realised that, in fact, he has arrived at the “ultimate freedom”, which is often considered to be freedom from responsibility. Contrary to what he says in the car, no matter the choices he make, he doesn’t have to live with them, as opposed to his acquaintances, who feel that life itself is like Phil’s never ending-day, but with consequences. That night Phil sleeps in jail.
He wakes up the following morning as usual, in the same room in the B&B in Punxsutawney on Groundhog Day. But this time he’s exhilarated and motivated. Unlike before, when he confirmed to his host every morning that he would be checking out later that day, he asks her to keep his room, as he would be staying another day.
Subsequently, in the next few scenes Phil lives life boundary-less. He meets Rita again in the diner, orders everything on the menu and literally stuffs his face with cake – to her disgust, which he takes pleasure in. He tells his colleagues he’s not going back to Pittsburgh, but staying in Punxsutawney. Rita says she thought that he hated the town, but Phil replies that it was starting to grow on him. Phil has gotten smart: He’s going to try out a different approach.
He then sets out to purposefully manipulate situations and people to his advantage, drawing on what he had learned about it and them. This includes bedding various women around town and stealing money from a security truck.
He gets bored with these successes quite quickly though. Relatively-speaking, it’s easy enough to achieve them but these victories don’t bring any long-lasting satisfaction. He decides to move on to a bigger challenge. His attention shifts to the one conquest he had not managed, his attractive colleague Rita, played by Andie MacDowell, who is clearly a well-individuated person.
As usual, he tries to manipulate the situation. Getting to know Rita over time allows him to ask her lots of questions, which he then memorises and applies via various relevant approaches to seduce her.
Systematically, through trial and error, Phil practices how to mimic certain behaviours that Rita would or might find attractive. He learns to tell her what she would like to hear in terms of her likes and dislikes and he practices how to act appropriately and accordingly in certain circumstances to impress her and endear him to her.
Phil is getting ever closer to his objective. After many weeks of working on his target, Rita senses at the very last moment that something is up, that something is not well with the situation, and Phil’s plan unravels. Rita accuses him of it all being a ruse and of “setting her up”. She leaves.
It all goes downhill from there. Phil’s manipulations aren’t working any more and no matter how much time he spends on perfecting his approach, it simply doesn’t work out. He becomes desperate and obsessed and is repelled by Rita every time.
Rita remains Phil’s only unachievable objective within his new paradigm and he’s at his wits’ end. He had already had a feeling of self- entitlement before Groundhog Day, but took that to a whole new level after his light-bulb moment in the car. Phil is living from his shadow and his shadow is showing.
Our protagonist is not used to not getting his way by means of manipulation and this thoroughly depresses him. His desperation and depression becomes palpable. What is the point of living boundary-less if there are no pay-offs? Phil can’t see a way out. He’s not prepared to acknowledge his shadow, regardless of the signs and the warnings; therefore, an alternative approach to his predicament is out of the question.
Phil starts losing it. He’s frustrated beyond belief and bored to death. He’s done everything a thousand times over. He starts blaming it on his namesake, the ground hog, for seeing his shadow every time and extending the winter, causing Groundhog Day to repeat. Phil the weatherman decides to kidnap Phil the ground hog and end both their lives by driving off a cliff, hoping to bring to an end the perpetual time loop.
The following morning Phil wakes up as if nothing had happened the day before – it’s Groundhog Day! During the following scenes we see Phil taking his own life in a multitude of ways, always with the same result. He wakes up the morning after, alive and intact and having to do the same day all over again – perhaps until maybe he reaches a breakthrough one day.
Philosophers have debated solutions to the human condition for centuries; one such philosopher was Kierkegaard:
Søren Kierkegaard is generally considered to have been the first existentialist philosopher, though he did not use the term existentialism. He proposed that each individual—not society or religion—is solely responsible for giving meaning to life and living it passionately and sincerely (“authentically”). - Wikipedia
Another such person, more recently, was the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, quoted below, who was also a Holocaust survivor and the founder of logotherapy, a form of existential analysis:
“Some complain of a void and a vague discontent. This arises from an existential vacuum, or feeling of meaninglessness, which is a common phenomenon and is characterised by the subjective state of boredom, apathy, and emptiness. One feels cynical, lacks direction, and questions the point of most of life’s activities.” – Viktor Frankl
“Freedom, however, is not the last word. Freedom is only part of the story and half of the truth. Freedom is but the negative aspect of the whole phenomenon whose positive aspect is responsibleness. In fact, freedom is in danger of degenerating into mere arbitrariness unless it is lived in terms of responsibleness.”  – Viktor Frankl
To be continued…
© 2014. All Rights Reserved. Gypsycafe.org
This is Part 6 of a series. Continue to Part 7.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author. Interpretations of Jungian concepts are the author’s and are used to motivate certain philosophical arguments within the context of this essay. Jungian themes are briefly touched upon and this does not constitute a comprehensive overview.
For Jungian terms, please see: Jung Lexicon – A Primer of Terms & Concepts by Daryl Sharp.
References & Citations: