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A Review Of Groundhog Day

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Philosophy
Wordcount: 4288 words Published: 5th May 2017

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Groundhog Day is one of those rare films that has been entirely embraced as a cultural artifact by Western society. Roger Ebert says; "... there are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points. When you find yourself needing the phrase 'this is like Groundhog Day' to explain how you feel, a movie has accomplished something."

As a term it has been absorbed into popular speech, as observed by Ryan Gilbey;

"It's everywhere - in travel writing, rock journalism, advice columns, horoscopes. Tony Blair refers to it in a speech about the Northern Ireland peace process, and it crops up in the Archbishop of Canterbury's Richard Dimbleby Lecture in 2002. It makes its way into the headline of a restaurant review (a culinary 'groundhog day'), a cricket report (Groundhog Day for the West Indies), and an editorial on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (No "smoking guns", no huge breakthroughs, just a hint that Groundhog Day may be over) while a kidnap victim uses the phrase to describe his captivity in the Colombian jungle."

It was even unofficially adopted into the American military jingo with reference to their conflict in Somalia at around the time that the film came out on VHS, and officially adopted into the United States Film Directory as being culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant in 2006.

It was screened in the New York Museum of Modern Art in a season entitled 'The Hidden God: Film and Faith' along with works by Bergman and Rossellini, and the occasion was seen as an opportunity for religious groups to vocalise their suppositions as to its pertinence to their individual faiths. The most vocal were the Buddhists, with a popular urban legend regarding the film stating that in an early draft Phil was stuck in Punxatawny for 10,000 years, a significant number in Buddhist teachings. Danny Rubin, the film's screenwiter, denounces this as untrue:

"Harold [Ramis, the director of the film] likes that allusion, and it's good for the legend of the film because of the Buddhist connection. However, that wasn't on my mind."

Some interpretations were that the film was intrinsically Jewish, ("the movie tells us, as Judaism does, that the work doesn't end until the world has been perfected") or Christian ("…clearly the resurrected Christ"). The film has also apparently been used in teachings by the Chinese spiritual movement Falun Dafa.

If Nietzsche had been at that screening, however, I think that he would have revelled in it as intrinsically Nihilistic (in the positive sense), or (if the term existed when he were alive) "Nietzschean".

I have always been intimidated by Nietzsche, and indeed by Philosophy in general. I have always found the subject bewildering. I'd hear outlandish quotes like "God is dead", or about philosophical leanings like utilitarianism, empiricism or relativism, and be frustrated by their opacity, or at least by my inability to decipher what they are.

But I also found it fascinating, at least from a distance. My aim for this thesis is to examine Groundhog Day - a film I personally have a great love for - using the parlance of the philosopher which most intrigued me, so as to better understand the work in the context of something which I have an afinity for.

Nietzsche's writings and musings had a huge effect on Populist opinion in the twentieth century, and it is my contention that this can be observed clearly in Groundhog Day.

Chapter One examines Nietzsche's notion of Eternal Recurrence, and how it appears in the film. Eternal recurrence is the idea that we have lived the exact life we are leading now an infinite number of times in the past and will do so an infinite number of times in the future. If we've enjoyed a particularly righteous or pleasurable life, this might sound like the greatest of outcomes. If not, eternal recurrence may strike us as a curse.

Our misery, far from being over when we die, is destined to be repeated on us, eternal retribution for our mistakes. This is very obviously manifested in Groundhog Day.

Chapter Two then will examine Phil seeking and achieving what Nietzsche refers to as the Ubermensch, or Overman. Nietzsche coined the term Ubermensch in his book Thus Spake Zarathustra;

"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughing stock or painful embarrassment.

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The idea of the overman was misappropriated by National Socialism in the early part of the twentieth century. After Nietzsche's death, his estate was run by his sister Elizabeth, a staunch nationalist and rampant anti-semite, two things which Nietzsche himself found unpalatable. She re-edited and reinterpreted Nietzsche's work so that he became the representative philosopher for the Nazis, going so far as to print a book called The Will to Power posthumously, which was made up of notes and musings which he had no intention of publishing. This became something of a bible for National Socialism leading to Nietzsche being worshipped by the Nazis, an image which Nietzsche only overcame in the latter part of the Twentieth century. As you can imagine, the idea of the Ubermensch became a standard for the Nazis and their theories on eugenics and ethnic cleansing.

But this was not Nietzsche's intention. According to documentarian Simon Chu,

"Nietzsche proposes an ideal of self overcoming, an ideal he calls the overman, not by having recourse to a metaphysical realm outside of the human, but within the possibilities of the human… how can we as humans transcend ourselves?

The idea of the overman came from Nietzsche's own battle for self mastery. Human beings in general, he argued, had a duty to rise above their own condition. Nietzsche himself was quite limited physically due to perpetual illness, and socially due to self-imposed isolation, and Phil Connor is similarly limited by his own nature: he creates a bitter façade which, through the course of the film, is broken down through his own endeavours at self-improvement.

Ubermensch actually means overcoming, looking for a new path devoid of God.

Chapter Three will deal with that notion: the association between Phil Connor's self-betterment and the Nihilistic idea which must be embraced by the Ubermensch. Nihilism, as Nietzsche saw it, was not just a viewpoint that nothing in life has any meaning: Nietzsche proposed that we must look within ourselves to find a strong moral compass, rather than be corralled by the external ideals purported by religion. This type of moral opinion is negative; only from looking within ourselves can we find a true moral standpoint. When left to his own devices for an eternity of recurrence, Phil makes the choices which make him a better man for himself, not for anyone or anything else, "Maybe the real God uses tricks. Maybe he's not omnipotent, he's just been around so long he knows everything."

Eternal Recurrence

Phil: What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?

Ralph: That about sums it up for me.

Phil: I have been stabbed, shot, poisoned, frozen, hung, electrocuted, and burned.

Rita: Oh, really?

Phil: ...and every morning I wake up without a scratch on me, not a dent in the fender... I am an immortal.

Groundhog Day concerns itself heavily with the notion of Eternal Recurrence, or Eternal Return, to the extent of illuminating some conflicting interpretations of this key Nietzschean thought. In Nietzsche's book The Gay Science, he first hits upon the idea of Eternal Return:

"What if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you, `This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you, all in the same succession and sequence - even this spider and this moon-light between the trees, and even this moment and I myself. The eternal hourglass of existence is turned upside down again and again, and you with it, speck of dust!' Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him, `You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine!'"

This statement makes the point that Eternal Return, though at first glance a hellish endeavour, is in fact a positive occurrence, if the person that he is referring to in the quotation is in fact happy to repeat their lives.

The notion rears its head in earnest in Thus Spake Zarathustra. The semi-autobiographical text sees a fictional interpretation of the prophet of the Zoroaster people make his way down from his mountain retreat to spread the word of Nihilism to the people down below. He arrives during his journey to a straight road leading far off in distant directions under a gateway titled "Moment". His dwarf travel companion makes this point:

"All that is straight lies," ... "All truth is crooked; time itself is a circle."

Zarathustra cannot reconcile with the thought of eternal recurrence quite as easily as his companion, largely because he would have to recognize that the mundanity of humanity that he so deplores will never be fully overcome, but rather will be repeated over and over again. This seems contradictory of what happens in Groundhog Day: Phil experiences February 2nd every day in the same small town, but every day he does something different, thus negating Eternal Recurrence as Nietzsche sees it.

According to Deleuze's interpretation, Nietzsche was not in fact promoting the idea of the return of the identical but rather the return of the different. Each return selects the life-enhancing while rejecting the life-degrading, leading to each iteration being better than the last. As Deleuze says,

"We can thus see how the eternal return is linked, not to a repetition of the same, but on the contrary, to a transmutation. It is the moment or the eternity of becoming which eliminates all that resists it. It releases, indeed it creates, the purely active and pure affirmation."

Groundhog Day contradicts both the outlined hypotheses. In Phil Connor's world, there is no Nietzschean return of the identical - he is able to act differently each time and cause different events to happen. And no repetition is more affirmative than the last - Groundhog Day presents a far more human version of eternal recurrence. Phil mostly muddles his way through the situation, sometimes winding up less affirmative, sometimes more. Motivated by his love for Rita, he does finally reach a state of metamorphosis and at that point he is extricated from eternal recurrence.

Luce Irigaray is perhaps the right philosopher for guiding us to unlocking the Nietzschean essence of Groundhog Day. Irigaray agrees with the conventional view that eternal recurrence concerns the return of the same. She objects to it on the grounds that it is a sterile thought that excludes any notion of the other, of outer influence. She writes of eternal recurrence as nothing but the will to "recapitulate all projects within yourself." In other words, it is self-perpetuating and self-referential. We might think of it as a type of parthenogenesis - it provides men with the ability to give birth to themselves over and over again, thus denying the role of the female.

Irigaray wishes to promote the value of the other, which she largely conceives in female terms, in opposition to the traditional philosophical subject that she considers steadfastly male and masculine. She says "For, in the other, you are changed. Become other, and without recurrence." In Groundhog Day, it's Phil Connors love for his female colleague Rita that proves decisive. By immersing himself in otherness, by learning everything that makes Rita tick, he performs a type of metamorphosis, a rebirth in a sense rather than a return. He sheds his old, sexist form and emerges as a far more rounded human being, in touch with his feminine side (his inner other). As soon as he has fully achieved this, he's released from eternal recurrence. As argued by Irigaray, in any case.

In Nietzsche's conception of eternal recurrence, the individual has no memory of his previous lives. In Groundhog Day, Phil Connors certainly does. But he's the only one. All the others with whom he shares his eternal recurrence are perhaps in the classic Nietzschean position of having no recollection of their past existences. However, if they specifically interact (or even not specifically or personally) with Phil then their fate each time is no longer fixed, although they have no memory of the different paths Phil engineers for them. Phil's circumstance is in this sense much more horrific than theirs. He is not dealing with eternal recurrence as an interesting hypothesis; he is a conscious participator and victim of it, entirely out of his control. Nietzsche's eternal recurrence is, of course, logically problematic because if an individual's life is a repeat of previous lives then he would appear to have no free choice, yet Nietzsche seems to want us to alter our attitude to life in the face of the realisation of the harsh truth of eternal recurrence.

If we accept his scenario in its strictest sense then our response to the concept of eternal recurrence is nothing over which we can have any control and our reaction, whatever it may be, is entirely futile, one we have exhibited an infinite number of times before and will do so an infinite number of times in the future.

For Phil, this objection is removed. He can change; he has complete free choice. It's up to him to choose his attitude towards his metaphysical and existential predicament. At first, understandably, he experiences complete shock, before enjoying a brief sensation of omnipotence and omniscience. Then suicidal depression kicks in at the utter futility of everything he does. Of course, he is incapable of dying, so there is no way out. He then has few choices within the confines of Punxatawney.

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After much duress, Phil chooses to make the most of the world he now inhabits. He educates himself in many new fields and becomes accomplished as a scholar, artist, linguist and musician. He also develops as a person and achieves self-awareness, rather than the self destruction that he pursued previously. Through this enlightenment, he at last secures the love of the woman he has pursued from the beginning. In Jungian terms, Rita represents the Self that we all strive to find during our life's journey. By winning her, Phil has completed Jung's arduous process of individuation, and become Nietzsche's monument of self-improvement. This is so momentous that Phil actually escapes from eternal recurrence and re-enters causality, but now he is a transformed human being, completely reborn out of the hardships that he has experienced, given that chance to view the world through entirely new eyes.

This then is the key to Eternal Recurrence: it's not meant to be interpreted literally, but as an aphorism to guide people to whom Nihilism was becoming an increasingly attractive prospect when Nietzsche wrote about it in 19th Century Germany [1] . In a meta-physical sense, it's like an Aesop's Fable, with an easily discernible moral. It's not to be analyzed and dissected scientifically to ascertain its veracity: as said in The Simpson;

"Lisa: When a tree falls in the woods, does it make a sound?

Bart: Sure it does. Neeeeer-crash."

To argue (as Nietzsche himself did), that there is a scientific grounding in the theory is missing the point, I feel [2] . The point is that the individual must strive for self-improvement, to aim to achieve the Ubermensch, as I feel Phil did in Groundhog Day.

The Ubermensch

"I teach you the overman. Man is something that shall be overcome. What have you done to overcome him? … All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to overman: a laughing stock or painful embarrassment.

Larry: Prima Donnas.

As said in Simon Chu's documentary Human, All too Human,

"Nietzsche proposes an ideal of self overcoming, an ideal he calls the overman, not by having recourse to a metaphysical realm outside of the human, but within the possibilities of the human how can we as humans transcend ourselves?"

The idea of the overman came from Nietzsche's own battle for self mastery. [3] Human beings in general, he argued, had a duty to rise above their own condition.

Nietzsche (early on) was what was referred to as a "Schopenhauerian", as in he became a disciple of the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer after reading The World as Will and Idea. Schoppenhauer was a huge influence on Nietzsche, and talks about the "will".

Schoppenhauer's "will" is akin to Freud's id, an

"unconscious, striving, persistent force, it may seem that the intellect drives the will, but it is in fact the other way around."

In a Darwinian sense, every individual is striving against the will of others in a self interested way. Schoppenhauer saw the will as essentially evil, and the only way out of this suffering and evil is the denial of the will, a refusal to take part in the egotistical contest for domination of others.

It's interesting to take a look at Phil Connors with Schoppenhauer's 'will' in mind, seeing as he was such a huge influence on Nietzsche. Early in the film, even before the time loop comes into effect, Phil strives persistently to impose his higher status onto the people around him, mostly by belittling them. In the first three minutes, almost every line out of his mouth is vitriolic, from calling his fellow anchor "hairdo", to diminishing Rita's authority through impersonating her, to fussing over the fact he won't stay in the hotel that Rita is staying in, to insulting how Larry eats, the list goes on. [4] 

After the loop sets in and the realization of "we can do whatever we [want]", he sets about dominating the whole town, to becoming the King of Punxatawney. The loop and the actions that Phil took eventually led to what Schoppenhauer referred to as "the extinction of the self".

This can all be interpreted as similar or influential on Nietzsche's idea of the Ubermensch.

Nihilism

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. [5] 

Phil: I'm a god.

Rita: You're God?

Phil: I'm a god. I'm not *the* God... I don't think. [6] 

Nietzsche does not deny the existence of values, but the denial of value is in some sense what he means by 'nihilism'. Michael Tanner says,

"What he portrays, in book after book, is the gradual but accelerating decline of Western man into a state where no values any longer impress him, or where he mouthes them but they mean nothing to him any longer. Tanner, p 32.

If forced to label Nietzsche as a particular sort of philosopher, one would label him as a moral philosopher. But unlike moral philosophers that had come previously, Nietzsche does not provide the reader with a set moral code. His aim is to motivate the reader to come up with their own moral code, one that comes from within.

Morality is usually studied philosophically from two different perspectives: normative ethics and meta ethics. Normative ethics is concerned with what is good and what is bad, and providing a perspective for moral decision making. Meta-ethics is concerned with what we mean when we use the word "good" or "bad", and where our definition of those words come from, ie where our morals come from. When we think of the word "good", we are probably not tapping into some universal reservoir of "goodness", rather our definition more than likely comes from the society we inhabit. [7] 

Nietzsche is mostly concerned with meta-ethical issues. Nietzsche is not so much concerned with the fact that our beliefs are false, but rather the belief about those beliefs. Why should we hold the beliefs that we do?

When Nietzsche first declared that "God is dead" in The Gay Science, he means that society no longer has a use for God, that the belief does not help the survival of the species, rather it hinders it. The ethical implications of this are important, for with the death of God comes the death of religious morality, a morality that has underpinned Western culture for hundreds of years. Morality as it is still practiced derives from the Hebraic-Christian tradition, its origins to be found in the dictates of the god of a small middle Eastern tribe, and that its contents remain very much what they were.

This brings us back to Phil Connors in his Punxatawney time-warp. Observing Phil superficially, we can surmise that he was probably raised in a Christian moral system, and would have been raised with the ubiquitous Western moral code.

But as soon as he trusts in the fact that there will be no repercussions for his actions in the form of punishment from an external authority figure (a staple of the Christan moral code), he was able to cast aside 'his' morals easily, "Phil: It's the same thing your whole life: "Clean up your room. Stand up straight. Pick up your feet. Take it like a man. Be nice to your sister. Don't mix beer and wine, ever." Oh yeah: "Don't drive on the railroad track." Gus: Well, Phil, that's one I happen to agree with." This signifies that they were not his, merely the morals society applied to him. He then embarks on a spree of ethical naturalism.

Ethical naturalism is the view that our morality can be based on our nature. For example, in a utilitarian sense,

"Our moral beliefs did not fall from heaven and neither are they credentials we can flash like a badge to establish our moral probity" - p30, Tanner

"And morality, meaning the variety of attitudes that we find officially espoused in our society? It ministers to our welfare, in its basic form, so that at least we feel safe when our backs are turned on other people" Tanner, p31

"If he sometimes thinks of himself as the prophet of nihilism, it is not in the sense that he is proclaiming arrival as something to be celebrated, but in the sense that Jeremiah was the prophet of the destruction of Jerusalem." Tanner, p32.

"What he portrays, in book after book, is the gradual but accelerating decline of Western man into a state where no values any longer impress him, or where he mouthes them but they mean nothing to him any longer. Tanner, p 32.

"Christianity has always been in a state of moral identity crisis. That, though a large factor in the moral bewilderment of the West, is a marginal issue for Nietzsche, whose main interest is in the nature of morality's sanctions in general." Tanner, p 33.

It's interesting to note the moral compass of the film itself. As (despite the philosophical ramification of the premise) a light-hearted entry into the romantic comedy genre, it was unlikely to go to a particularly "dark" place with the premise. What this means for the character is that Phil represents the morals of the progenitors of the piece: they were unwilling, morally, to allow Phil to become involved in any particularly unsavoury acts or crimes. The repeated suicides were a strong turn in the film (unusual in its genre), but Phil never acts upon his presumed darkest impulses to commit forceful sex acts or to murder. I'm glad we don't have to watch a scene where a deranged Phil takes a meat cleaver to Ned, or brutally sexually assaults Rita, but I find it worthwhile to note the morally controlling influence of creator and audience. Imagine Gaper Noe's Groundhog Day.

Could it be said that this was, in fact, Phil's punishment?

 

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