Nietzsche, Buddhism & the spirituality of Groundhog Day

So, I love this movie.  This is one of my all time favorites, and I must say I am embarrassed that I did not list it before.

The trailer makes it sound sort of silly and a little slapstick. To understand the spiritual depth of this film one needs to be familiar with reincarnation and Nietzsche. Nietzsche connected the idea of eternal recurrence with many of his concepts. The idea is that events repeat themselves over and over. That because time in infinite and matter is finite, that everything will repeat. Nietzsche felt that “The law of conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence.” and thus posed a question,

“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’ … 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.’ ”

It’s a heavy question because it means that the life you live matters since it will repeat in all future lives. Or maybe doesn’t matter since this is just a repeat of something that has already happened an infinite number of times. Either way this film is a response to that question. What if you could live a day over and over until you get it right? How many times have you later thought of the perfect response, or the ultimate retort long after the event was over? How many times have you been in a position where you thought, “Damn, I wish I hadn’t said that.” That is what this film is. It’s an exploration of that opportunity.

At the start we meet Phil, played by Bill Murray, who is a weather reporter sent to Punxsutawney to report on groundhog’s day. He is unpleasant to say the least. He’s disappointed in his career. which is evident from the start. He is rude and sarcastic to people while having an air of self-importance. In one scene he is drinking with a couple of locals and asks,

“What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and everyday was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?”

Sounds like the angst of the middle aged, middle class to me. The typical malaise of modern life.

So Bill begins to understand that he is repeating the same day over and over. Once he realizes there is no consequences for his action he embarks on a wave of self-destruction. There is a scene in the cafe where Phil is stuffing his face with pastries. Rita the producer, played by Andie Macdowell, disgusted with his gluttony quotes Sir Walter Scott to him,

The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.

Once bored with self indulgence, he begins to manipulate people for his own satisfaction. First the blonde woman, in the cafe Nancy. Then later he fixates on Rita. With each successive day learns more and more about what she is looking for in a man. He tries to trick her into sleeping with him, by liking the same things. Over time after repeatedly rebuffing him he gets bitter. Rock bottom is when he ends up stealing the groundhog hoping killing it and himself will end the cycle. When it doesn’t he kills himself in a dozen different ways.

Over time this changes who he is. Over time, he begins to understand that if he focuses solely on himself the cycle will never be broken. In another scene in the cafe Phil shows Rita he knows all about everyone in the cafe. He starts focusing on others. There is one scene where Phil befriends an old homeless man and takes him to the hospital. The nurse later informs him that the old man has passed and it was “just his time”. And that is the key, time.

With each repetition he becomes more self-aware. The connection to reincarnation is obvious. In fact, this is probably the most Buddhist film you will ever see. If you’re a Christian you can think of it as purgatory and atoning for one’s sins before being able to pass on to the afterlife.

He rescues a kid falling from a tree. He fixes the flat tire on the car of some older ladies. He saves the mayor of the town who is choking on a piece of steak. Interesting side note, the actor who plays the mayor is actually Bill Murray’s real brother. He gives newly-weds tickets to wrestlemania. He buys all of Ned’s different insurance. He gets good at piano, and he learns to ice sculpt. He learns French and becomes familiar with 19th century poetry. It’s estimated, based on the amount of time it would take to get that good at things, he spends 35 years repeating this day. Unlike Nietzsche’s recurrence he is able to change something about each cycle, himself.

It’s not until he begins to act selflessly that Rita begins to fall in love with him and the cycle is eventually broken.

Whether you like Nietzsche’s idea, or Buddhism or Christianity, the spiritual message is the same perform selfless acts to obtain happiness.

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