Groundhog Day: What Do You Do With Forever?
Movies are about more than they are about.
Obsessive fans and critics have applied several complex equations in attempt to determine how many days Phil Connors was stuck reliving February 2nd in the 1993 comedy Groundhog Day. Educated estimates range from nine years (Wolf Gnards) to 34 years (WhatCulture.com). Danny Rubin’s initial script had Phil stuck in a single day in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for 10,000 years. Had this detail not been changed, Groundhog Day would have been an unwatchable movie for some.
Apeirophobia is the fear of infinity. For those who deal with it, this fear can manifest as crippling anxiety. As is the case with all phobias, severity varies, but apeirophobia can result in stretches of physical panic, disorientation, or even lasting depression, all triggered by the mind’s inability to understand eternity as a concept.
While filming Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s first marriage was failing into his first divorce. Creative differences over the direction of the film drove a wedge between Murray and the film’s director, longtime friend and collaborator Harold Ramis, with whom Murray had paired to create comedy classics like Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Caddyshack. Murray’s petulant and erratic on-set behavior was so obstructive that the two comedic geniuses didn’t speak for 21 years afterward. It’s difficult to say whether the weariness we see in Murray’s face and body in the second half of Groundhog Day is residual from his life stress or a product of his nuanced acting. Either way, watching his panic give way to cynicism and then hopelessness provides the film with the gravity necessary to elevate the film from zany comedy into an existential sci-fi masterpiece.
All of time has already happened. Think of time as a flat surface, every moment within infinity already exists and we are each moving through that boundless map in a single direction. Perhaps incidentally, Groundhog Day illustrates that basic model of the universe as precisely and accessibly as as any film ever has. Phil Connors gets stuck in one segment of time like a needle gets stuck on a record. Like a tire that gets hung up in mud, the vehicle rhythmically shifting back and forth, morning to night. February 2nd in Puxsutawney, Pennsylvania is singular with its own infinite presence.
To Ramis’ credit, his choreography of the repeated but unaltered events of that single day is a thing of wonder. As Phil is awakened by Cher, as he moves downstairs to deal with the hotel staff, out front to address the pandhandler and then around the corner to deal with insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, all the way to the filming location where everyone stands in the same location, saying the same things, everything looks, sounds, and feels continually identical, on repeat. To show the permanency of a moment is no simple task; to show it so impeccably is a commendable directorial and editing feat.
It is this identifiable sameness which communicates the infinite in Groundhog Day. And it is through the terms of this very permanency that Phil comes to understand his predicament. Compare Groundhog Day to last year’s like-minded, entertaining, but comparatively hollow Edge of Tomorrow. In that film, Major William Cage uses his predicament to become the super soldier necessary to save the world. Sure, there’s an element of fatigue in Tom Cruise’s performance, but nothing like the sense of forlorn resignation that Murray communicates when he admits to Rita (Andie McDowell) that he is a God and moves around the diner to prove the omniscience he possesses in the vacuum of that day. The same evidence that leads Phil to consider himself a God also inspires a montage of pointless suicides. In the metaphysical architecture of Groundhog Day, God-like status is an empty status, a status of meaninglessness, not power.
The difference between the temporal and the infinite is a separate infinity. If an existence is measurable from a beginning to an end, then eternity measures that existence as having zero value. In any such comparison, the whole of human knowledge and awareness is reduced to buzzing white noise. Charity and crime, life and death, heaven and hell. All of these concepts are void of meaning to the apeirophobe and, arguably, to this film. While, in cinematic terms, Groundhog Day offers a happy ending (Phil escapes his time pocket and wins the affection of Rita), everything Phil has learned (French, piano, ice sculpting) and everything he has done (from the crimes he committed to the life he saved) is rendered obsolete upon his February 3rd wakening. Because the next day is weaved from the same infinite fabric as the one in which Phil was entangled.
If it isn’t already clear, I have struggled with apeirophobia for as long as I can remember. I would lose sleep as early as four years old trying to negotiate some sense of comfort with notions of everlasting life. This isn’t a confession I have freely offered audiences before, so from a personal perspective, I wish to offer little more beyond this: there are a small handful of films that address man’s position within eternity in a manner that is useful to apeirophobes. I’m thinking chiefly of The Fountain, Tree of Life, and most recently, It’s Such a Beautiful Day. And, as a cinephile, I sincerely believe that Groundhog Day earns its mention with those films in more ways than just thematically. Like those films, Groundhog Day makes a suggestion that through love, a phenomena for which a temporary existence is a necessary precondition, man in his mortality holds a certain benefit over all things eternal. So, in the most basic sense, Rita and Phil’s affectionate triumph is standard fare for generic romantic comedies, but for some, it’s about much, much more than that.