Delight at the end of the tunnel December 20th, 2007

Many people over the years have observed that Groundhog Day is a very spiritual movie, and have interpreted Phil’s journey as being towards enlightenment.  

Very interesting.  I’ve just been reading a book about enlightenment.  

Michael Hutchison is a paraplegic living in Santa Fe who recounts in this book his own amazing story.   At one time he was a writer who specialized in mind-spirit searches, doing extensive research using sensory deprivation tanks and also on controlling brain waves using electroencephalograms and biofeedback.  Then there was a horrible fire that wiped out his past and his future.  Then there was a horrible accident that left him paralyzed from the neck down.  


But Hutch (I’ve met him and can call him this) isn’t into self-pity.  In fact, somehow, through the drastic reduction of his life, he has actually achieved what he had been searching for in his research – enlightenment.     

In Groundhog Day, Phil’s life was similarly reduced – both geographically and temporally.   Like Phil, Hutch would wake up every day to the same day, to repetition and routine, and neither of them was able to escape the irreducible: their own existence. 

I have no reason to question Hutch’s sense of enlightenment, and maybe I even understand it better by having taken the journey with Phil.  

But I wonder about Phil’s enlightenment.   

The last February 2nd of Phil’s Punxsutawney life was certainly a high note, one that reflected a significant reduction in Phil’s ego, a generosity towards his community, and a life-affirming perspective on the significance of the day he was reliving.  He had become loving, of people and of life itself, and as a result he finally became lovable.  

But what if that day was not the last day?  What if Phil’s repeating day had kept on repeating?  

Any movie you see, and most stories you read or hear, will come to a conclusion of some sort or another.  A comedy will end on a high note where everything unresolved for the character will resolve.    A movie in particular is bounded by time – for a comedy it is usually about 90 minutes – and it always comes to an end.   Where the writer chooses to end the story will determine what that story is about.  

A fairy tale ends nicely with “…and they lived happily ever after.”  But what if the same fairy tale story kept going and ended on a day when the couple is fighting, the bills are due, the crops have failed, the baby is sick, and the dog has fleas?  Do we feel the same way about the story? 

Groundhog Day ended happily.  Phil reached “enlightenment”, became lovable to Rita, and his life was able to continue.  But let’s say that wonderful day was actually a repetition of many similar days, and that there were many repetitions to follow.  Would Phil ever tire of helping people?  Once he achieved selfless love, would more endless repetitions in any way change that?   

Maybe he would wake up one day and think, “Fine.  I can spend my day helping people and making them happy, but what’s the point?  Tomorrow they’ll just wake up miserable again.”  Perhaps he would go through a phase of not interacting with other people at all.  

As a fully enlightened being Phil would just “be”.  He would sit still, doing nothing, disappearing into the one-ness of the universe.  He may be pure energy and love and one-ness, but so what?    Is that any kind of a life?  He may at some point conclude that it is not. 

He may even in time grow to resent the townspeople again, once again feeling separate and superior to them.  The cycle could turn, and what had seemed like enlightenment to Phil could have just been a passing phase, one that he did truly achieve, but would lose again.  A thousand years beyond he may once again achieve it, even more deeply and profoundly than before, and a thousand years after that he could again realize the pointlessness and even wrong-headedness of such an achievement. 

The thing about Phil is that at each stage of his existence he kept feeling that he finally understood himself and his predicament.   After endless escape attempts he concludes, “Now I get it – I’m stuck in this hellish place forever.”  That was one ending.  After realizing he could do anything he wanted to do without consequences he concludes, “Now I get it – I am a god in this town.”  That was another ending.  After proving unable to make Rita love him he concludes, “Now I get it – I’ll never be lovable.”  And on and on, one ending after another, each with a different lesson for Phil.  

When Phil finally feels unconditional love for the people he once despised and he loses his ego and becomes one with the Punxsutawney universe, it is easy for us to conclude, “Now I get it – Phil has reached enlightenment.” 

Do we get it?  Is that really the ending, or is that just where I chose to end it?


Comment by Paul Hannam
2007-12-20 17:40:50

What is enlightenment like? What is heaven like?

I remember a comedy sketch from the 1960s with Peter Cook and Dudley Moore standing in heaven. After a very short while they become restless and Pete says to Dud – This is one of the most boring places in the world. And whats more you are for millions of years ….. you are here forever

Comment by danny
2007-12-20 23:21:40

I’ve always thought comedians make the best philosophers. Plus they’re funnier.

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-21 08:21:51

You might be right. If so you’ve given cynics an ending more to their liking.

Is there another possibility than Phil-is-determined-to-become-a-better-person versus Phil-gets-better-until-he-takes-a-turn-for-the-worse? Maybe the movie was just about Phil learning and growing. He learned to play the piano. That had to open up a satisfying world. So what if he was trapped in Punxatawney? He could escape musically while seated at the keyboard. As with sculpting. Or with literature. He even seemed to take up medicine.

Phil’s appetite for learning could explain his interactions with townspeople, too. Was he studying them? Even if he studied them initially out of boredom, did Phil find things he could like or appreciate about some of them? Might that have lead to his good deed doing? I don’t know. I’m just suggesting it’s possible. Phil’s becoming a better person could have been almost accidental.

Would Phil have tired of this? I doubt it. He was likely still driven to keep learning. He might still have thought well of various people for whatever reasons. Why would that change?

Comment by danny
2007-12-21 10:01:16

The questions I’ve raised are intended to be intellectually honest, not cynical. I didn’t mean to feed the cynics out there, and hope I didn’t.

By extending my experiment toward eternity and by suggesting that the story could be arbitrarily ended anywhere, I’ve merely removed the inevitability of a “happy ending.” For spiritual searchers, “enlightenment” would be a happy ending.

Movie comedy needs a happy ending, and this one was honestly come by. Phil’s transformation does honestly lead to the happy moment with Rita, and does release him from his stuck patterns. That’s all still true.

But time and repetition can change a person. Phil’s story proves that. If it can change a selfish person into a giving person, I’m suggesting that it could also change a life-long learner into a person bored by knowledge and its acquisition. This could take a really long time, but it’s possible, isn’t it?

If anything I’m suggesting a cyclic nature to all human experience. Maybe it does wind corkscrew-like towards a center-point – or maybe it doesn’t. For reasons of pure dramatic satisfaction, I’m hoping my own life ends on a high note. I’d love for my last words to be “Now I get it!” And then a laugh, because I’ll know that I’ve heard myself say this many times before. Such is the glory of human folly.

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-21 10:48:00

Apart from your point about the need for a happy ending, if I understand your initial question it amounted to: what if this had played out further? Maybe a different, but related question would be what happens next? What would the sequel be like?

Comment by Danny
2007-12-23 12:29:42

Oh, I’ve got the sequel, but it’s not what you would expect.
The title would be something obvious and sequel-ish, such as, “Groundhog Day II: Return to Punxsutawney.”

The rest of the movie is just “Groundhog Day”, perhaps digitally retouched but otherwise identical.
To me, that is the only appropriate sequel.

Within the same time-span of the original movie, however, there are infinite untold stories. In the movie we did not see every day of Phil’s existence. What about the day he finally found a cappuccino-maker? What about the day he decided to try being a homosexual? What about the first day he tried to perform surgery? Every experience he had and every moment he learned something new would potentially make a wonderful and engaging story – not for a movie, but for a TV series.

In fact, the setup of Groundhog Day has everything a television series requires: repeating characters, a finite number of sets, an ongoing soap-opera-like desire to follow the lives of the characters, yet every episode pretty much starts from scratch and is self-sustaining. New characters can be introduced whenever desired because there is always some townsperson or some tourist in some corner of the town whom Phil has yet to meet.

The only flaw in the idea of making this a TV series is that the actors playing the characters will age. Occasionally one will get pregnant, or break a leg skiing. There is no way to work such things into the repeating-day reality of the show. In the very successful TV show M.A.S.H. we saw the 2-year Korean War go on for about five or six times that long, and the audience seemed to go along with it. Still, if your premise is an unchanging day, every little change will be scrutinized by the audience, and that could become distracting.

One solution? Animation.

And, of course, I could always write it as a book.

As you see, the “sequel” to Groundhog Day has infinite possibilities and could take many forms. It probably won’t ever be a “sequel” so much as an “afterlife” or a “rebirth.” Unfortunately, to my knowledge, I personally only have the one lifetime to work with, here.

Comment by Al Long
2007-12-23 15:40:10

I’d enjoy any and all of those sequels.

What if you changed the focus? What if you looked at Larry in a sequel? You could still keep track of Phil and Rita through Larry’s eyes. I guess I’m drawn to the idea out of pity. Rita already had a “life” going. Phil got a better “life” by way of the movie. Poor Larry seemed to be without.

Your point, “…What about the day he tried being a homosexual?” might be pushing it. I’d think if he were wired that way he would have tried that long before. (Although Phil did have some fun jumping over that orientation fence to unnerve Ned.)

Comment by Ron D.
2007-12-22 23:36:14

Excellent post, Danny. Intellectually honest, and rather profound. Truly, I’ve never even heard this sort of question broached before.

The fact is that human beings crave novelty — they tend to get bored with the same things after a while, even perhaps happiness. Once Phil had discovered ‘enlightenment’ … and, perhaps, repeated it over and over again … he may well eventually want to try something ‘else’. Thus, the whole thing could well be cyclical in some form.

But it’s a very candid exercise to deconstruct and go beyond the established Hollywood ending to this wonderful (and healing) story.

Comment by Danny
2007-12-23 12:47:38

Many thanks, Ron. The exercise of taking a fantasy situation and trying to be “honest” with it is, basically, my method. That’s my territory, the land I love. There is no external research that can answer the questions raised – it is always an internal search. If you are looking for the truth within yourself, that is really the same as looking for what is true about yourself – who yourself truly is.

The way I figure it, if you’re going to spend your whole day making things up and writing them down, you may as well get something out of it. I’ve found that by choosing to write honest fantasies, which is a lot of what I do, I get to simultaneously have the daily soul journey that deeply religious people get to have – without ever leaving the comfort of my home!

Comment by Adam
2008-01-02 03:10:10

I’ve always wondered whether there was a Buddhist intent to the movie. Obviously that wasn’t the idea, but it fits all too well with the path to enlightenment. The idea that the ending is too positive is sort of funny, for while the ending seems to be finite, it can’t be. Of course Phil would continue to have an inner discourse on his life, but what he learned is what, at least in Buddhism, would keep him on the path towards enlightenment. The small part of the story we see is, at least in my mind, the heroes’ trial of Odyssian legacy. It is possible Phil would devolve into his former character, but that would void everything that came before. One has to imagine that no story ends until everyone who has and will ever read it has passed, and that is the beauty of literature. Infinity is the blessing and bane of every authors’ existence. I, however, like to think Phil figured it out for the long run. Art IS the one place where optimism is allowed to become reality.

Comment by Danny
2008-01-02 09:15:36

Thanks, Adam – a thoughtful and delightful perspective. “Infinity is the blessing and bane of every author’s existence.” Blessing! I choose Blessing!

2008-02-13 14:59:06

[…] Day writer Danny Rubin responded to my earlier story, pointing me to a wonderful post from last year in which he discusses the cycle of enlightenment and our perception based upon where the story (artificially?) ends. A must read for anyone who saw […]

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