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And, typical of a Ramis film, change means Phil becomes the good guy, the bodhisattva who performs selfless acts of kindness, not manipulatively, but for their own sake. This, naturally, wins him the love of the whole town, and, naturally, of Rita. And not surprisingly, he comes to love himself.

“No matter what happens tomorrow, or for the rest of my life,” Phil tells Rita, “I’m happy now because I love you.”

Sure, it’s a Hollywood ending. But Ramis would have it no other way. In his commentary on the fifteenth anniversary DVD, he confessed: “I’m such a sap. I actually believe in this stuff. The movie is quite sincere.”

Ramis said that, for him, the key to Groundhog Day is learning to have the insight, courage and energy to make changes when you come to those moments when “you are about to make that same-old, same-old mistake again. We face those changes every day, large and small, every single day. If you change one little thing, one little behavior, then everything might change.”

 

 

Little did I know that my mission to unmask the real Harold Ramis would take me, months after we met on Martha’s Vineyard, straight to Sodom, or at least to a set built to represent Sodom near Shreveport, Louisiana, for three days of interviews as he worked on his new film, The Year One. Ramis describes it as a “a biblical epic comedy.”

The movie is another one in which goodness wins. And in which, through the Hebrew Old Testament story, Ramis gets to offer his comedic take, yet again, on theological and moral questions, on fate versus destiny, and on who is running the show—“all embedded in The Year One,” he said, “because those enduring questions are all embedded in me.”

Before I left home for Shreveport, I received a surprise from Ramis—a laminated red page folded in three, with lists on it. “The idea was to present a simple Buddhist primer on something the size of a Chinese takeout menu,” he wrote in an accompanying note. Instead of a guide to putting together a dinner by choosing, say, the five spice tofu from column A and the egg drop soup from column B, this menu was called “The Five-Minute Buddhist.” It listed the five aggregates, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the seven factors of enlightenment, the four sublime states, the five hindrances, and the five precepts, ending with a quote from Thich Nhat Hanh: “The miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth, dwelling deeply in the present moment, feeling fully alive.”

The last time I saw Ramis, in Chicago in late fall 2008, he was deep into editing The Year One, and had grown a beard of, well, biblical proportions. He said it was for movie publicity purposes.

He was wearing mala beads around one wrist. “I tell people they’re from Neiman Marcus if they ask their religious meaning.” Or, “I say I’m on the Buddha diet and they remind me not to eat too much, but they keep getting in the way of my steak, so I take them off when I eat.”

At his suburban home, I meet his wife, Erica, whose father was director Daniel Mann. The family lived in Kyoto during filming The Teahouse of the August Moon, and her mother became fascinated with Buddhism. Back in Los Angeles, after her parents split up, her mother moved into the International Buddhist Meditation Center, where the Vietnamese teacher Ven. Thich Thien-An was the spiritual leader.

When Erica sensed her mother was going through increasingly difficult times, she left Menlo College in Palo Alto, moved into the center, and lived there for four years. “It was a wonderful, bizarre time,” she said. “My mother ended up living there for more than thirty years, until the end of her life.” Erica went on to live and practice in a number of other Buddhist communities in New York, Rhode Island, and California.

And, by the way, she’s not a Buddhist either.

 

Perry Garfinkel is the author of “Buddha or Bust: In Search of Truth, Meaning, Happiness and the Man Who Found Them All” (Three Rivers Press, 2007).

Originally published in the July 2009 Shambhala Sun magazine.




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