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It was Groundhog Day that dramatically raised Ramis’s profile in the spiritual community. When the Museum of Modern Art put on a film series in 2003 called The Hidden God: Film and Faith—with work by icons such as Ingmar Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, Alfred Hitchcock, and Luis Buñuel—the opening-night feature was Groundhog Day. It was such a popular choice that a squabble erupted among thirty-five critics over who would get to write about it in the retrospective’s catalogue.

For anyone who is somehow unfamiliar with the movie, cynical and egotistic TV weatherman Phil Connors gets stuck in an inexplicable time warp that makes him relive the same day over and over. First it depresses him; then he realizes he can control it, perhaps even win the love of his field director, Rita. When that fails, he sinks further until he discovers that goodness may be just the ticket to win her love, as well as break the cycle. He delivers the line that so many of us relate to: “What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing really mattered?” To which his drinking buddy responds, “That about sums it up for me.”

Ramis said he was taken by surprise when the film hit a spiritual nerve for so many. He first got wind of what was to come when he heard Hasidic Jews were carrying placards in front of a theater where it was playing. He worried that they had found something objectionable—until he found out that the placards read: “Are you living the same day over and over again?” Then came letters and calls from Buddhists, Christian fundamentalists, and yoga practitioners.

“It always seemed ironic to me,” Ramis said, “that it didn’t lead people to recognize the commonality of all their points of view, but rather, ‘This must be about us and only us.’”

Even the psychoanalytic community found its angle on it. In 2006, the International Journal of Psychoanalysis published a scholarly paper entitled Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic depiction of mutative process.” The film, it stated, “shows us a man trapped by his narcissistic defenses. The device of repetition becomes a representation of developmental arrest and closure from object relatedness. Repetition also becomes a means of escape from his characterological dilemma. The opportunity to redo and learn from experience—in particular, to love and learn through experience with a good object—symbolizes the redemptive, reparative possibilities in every life.”

Ramis said Danny Rubin, who wrote the original screenplay, based the weatherman’s evolution on the stages of death and dying, as outlined by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.

“I had high hopes for the film, but I had no idea the phrase would enter our lexicon and the idea would become part of our consciousness the way it did,” Ramis said. “Like when I heard it was entered in the Congressional Record” after a congressman likened a particularly long debate to Groundhog Day.

Angela Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, screens the film for students in her Buddhism class. She says it perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth, a cinematic version of the teachings in Mahayana Buddhism. “In Mahayana,” she told the New York Times, “nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it.”

The film has been analyzed more times than weatherman Phil seems to live the same day, which Ramis said the original script suggested was 10,000 times, a number that carries some significance for Buddhists. Dean Sluyter, author of Cinema Nirvana: Enlightenment Lessons from the Movies, contends the film shows Phil repeat parts of the same day forty-two times, or six weeks, exactly the time we will wait for winter to end if the groundhog sees his shadow. “In other words,” he said, “we are the groundhog and we are afraid of our own shadow, a shadow created by light. That light is truth, reality. Ultimate truth, then, is not a bummer. It’s nothing.” He also suggested that Rita, the love interest, could be compared to a dakini, a female deity who can help practitioners.

I admit I saw none of this when it came out, nor even after watching it again. And again. I was relieved to hear the same reaction from David Cohn, a college friend of Ramis’s who became a longtime member and ordained priest of the San Francisco Zen community, managing the Zen Center’s culinary spin-offs, and eventually opening his own restaurants. “I can see it now that it’s pointed out, but it didn’t strike me as great spiritual text,” Cohn said, adding, “Ramis is a wonderful warmhearted guy, a bodhisattva who makes everyone around him feel better, and he has always had that.”

Ramis pointed to several lines that do suggest a Buddhist subplot. When Phil discovers he can do anything he wants—like overindulging in food or punching nerdy high school chum Ned in the mouth—he says, “I’m not going to live by their rules anymore.” “Yes, no consequences, no cause and effect, so empowered,” Ramis said. “He doesn’t realize yet it’s a trap his ego has set for him. The power to do whatever you want is a common delightful fantasy.”

And when Phil drives his truck off a cliff in an effort to end the cycle, only to wake up at 6:00 a.m. on Groundhog Day once again, he tells TV viewers that “it’s going to be cold, and it’s going to be gray, and it’s going to last a long, long time.”

“This is the state of total nihilism,” Ramis said. ‘Even death is no escape from our demons. It usually takes hitting the bottom of the barrel for man to seek spiritual redemption.” Phil says, “I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.” “Now,” Ramis comments, “Phil is ready for change.”


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