Saturday, 19 January 2013

Groundhog Day: Possibly the most spiritual film ever made?

I was "ligged out" relaxing watching the darts final and chatting with folk on facebook last Sunday evening. The snow had just begun to fall, the first of winter as far as I can recall. A couple of people began to comment on the weather and then the barrage came; people posting comments complaining about people posting comments about the weather. In fact there was more complaining about people talking about the weather than people actually talking about the weather...There really is “Nowt as queer as folk”

I noted two great British obsessions at play, talking about the weather and complaining about other people. In fact you could say I’m falling into the trap myself I’m complaining about people who complain about people who complain or merely obsess about the weather...funny really isn’t it.

We do like to complain about the weather though don’t we? Heaven knows why because we do not suffer the meteorological extremes that people in other countries do. Maybe this is why; maybe we talk about it so much, because our weather is oh so bland.

I’ve felt a deepening sense of connection these last few days. I’m not sure what this is about. I do know that in and of itself it is not new, I just seem to be more aware of it at the moment. This is a good sign and evidence of how awake to life I am at the moment. I believe that this is a vital quality for a worship leader or anyone attempting to communicate thoughts, feelings, experiences to others. Robert Walsh expresses oh so eloquently what I mean in the following...“I moved through the experience with my attention alternating between the present moment and a future time, when I would be back home, telling the story. It’s what preachers call homiletic consciousness, which means going through life thinking, Can I use this in a sermon? But it’s not just preachers who do it. I imagine a painter would do the same. Or a poet. Or a novelist, teacher, composer, or a storyteller – anyone who uses the experiences of life in order to give something to someone else.” This is precisely what I was doing as I lay observing my friends commenting about life. It is seemingly my souls purpose.

I went for a haircut on Monday morning and as I sat in the chair letting the man get on with his craft it came to me what I wanted to explore this week “Groundhog Day”. Now I’m sure the seed was planted over Christmas as I watched Bill Murray in Scrooge. It developed as I watched the snow fall and listened to folk complain about the weather. So as I sat in the chair and considered the last time I sat in the very same chair and had the same conversation etc and as I thought about the week ahead the phrase “Groundhog day” rose up out of my soul and cried out to be expressed. How could I resist it?

Now if truth be told we are a bit early for this. Groundhog Day is not until the 2nd of February, not that it is something that we mark in Britain. Here, depending on our spiritual tradition we may well mark Candlemass, Imbolc or St Brigid’s Day.

Groundhog Day falls in the dead of winter, flanked equally on either side by the winter solstice and the spring equinox. According to folklore if the groundhog sees his shadow on this day there will be six more weeks of snow. So the hope is that he does not see his shadow. And this is why it was on my mind. Last week’s news was full of stories that a big freeze was on the way, that we were going to endure weeks of frozen temperatures and falling snow. We shall see, I tend not to go for fear mongering myself, although we have had quite a bit of snow these last few days. We shall see.

It is not the legend of Groundhog Day that really interests me, more the film that bares the same name. It is one of my favourites and may well be one of the most spiritual ever made. That sounds like quite a bold statement for what is, on the surface at least, a Hollywood romantic comedy.

“Groundhog Day” tells the story of a self centred weatherman named Phil. At the beginning of the film he is sent on his annual excursion to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania to record the "thrilling" moment when Phil the Groundhog makes his annual winter trek into sunlight in search of the shadowy predictor for the coming weeks. Phil (weatherman) hates the fact that he has to be there and treats everyone he meets in “the hick town”, with disdain. The film crew find themselves stuck in town, as the weather takes a turn for the worst, so they are forced to spend another night there.

Phil awakens the next morning to the same song he heard the day before “I Got you Babe” by Sonny and Cher, he is to awaken to this every morning as “Groundhog Day” is repeated over and over again for days, weeks, months, years. Every day is the second of February; every day is the same day; every day he is offered the opportunity to experience that same Groundhog Day over and over again, running into the same people, having the same encounters. Within those very same limitations he is offered infinite choices. Where he can eat, how he can respond to each encounter, who he can hurt and who he can help. He is offered the opportunity to grow and to change every single day; he is offered the opportunity to become the man he wants to be every single day. He can be the bad guy or the good guy, the funny guy, the happy guy, the free guy or the trapped, the suicidal guy. He is offered the chance to change which he begins to do, as he learns from his mistakes. He learns that he cannot control all that is going on around him and that happiness can only be found by truly living in what is there, the sacred moment. His inspiration is his producer Rita (played by Andie Mcdowell) she is the opposite of Phil, good hearted and at peace with herself. Phil falls in love with who Rita is, he awakens to the longing to be a person worthy of her love and he begins to allow himself to be that person.

Within this Hollywood romantic comedy we see those same universal messages found within the mythos’ of the great faiths? That love can transform even the most self centred of hearts and that we can all aspire to be the best that we can be. That hope can be found in total despair and that you do not need to seek it in some special place, it is to be found in the ordinary everyday things of life.

So could it be that this Hollywood Romantic comedy is the most “spiritual” film ever made? Well Harold Ramis the films co-writer and director has said that religious leaders and writers have continually contacted him over the last twenty years claiming that “Groundhog Day” is an allegory of their traditions key messages. Buddhist have claimed that it illustrates their notion of Samsara, the continuing cycle of re-birth. Phil (The weatherman) is seen as the Bodhisattva who keeps on being sent back into the world in order to save it; that he keeps on going through his personal trials, failing to reach enlightenment each time, in order to help others.

Jewish observers have made similar claims noting that Phil keeps on being sent back into the world to perform Mitzvah’s (good deeds). They claim that the story is not really about his individual salvation it is more about perfecting the whole world.

Still others have claimed Christian and Pagan interpretations. It has been suggested that the groundhog symbolises re-birth and the hope of renewal at Easter or spring. It is worth remembering that the 2nd of February is Imbolc and Candlemass, key festivals in both traditions. The story is also a classic redemption tale, very much like a Christmas Carol. My thinking about this film started as I watched Bill Murray play a modern version of the Dickens character in “Scrooged”.

Groundhog Day is a favourite film of mine, if you haven’t seen it I heartily recommend it to you it will warm you through on a cold winters night, especially if the cold snap continues. I do not know if it is "the most spiritual film ever made", that is quite a claim. that said it does seem to contain all the key messages, of the great universal mythos's, of the great traditions. I think it's real power comes in the fact that this message is found in the least likely of places a Hollywood romantic comedy. Perhaps this is why it works so well?

I am going to leave the last words to Bill Murray’s character Phil. Words he eventually said while signing off at the end of his final broadcast.

He said: “When Chechov saw the long winter, it was a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope; and yet we know winter’s only one more step in the cycle. And standing among the people of Punxsutawney basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter."

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