The occasion of Groundhog Day seemed a fortuitous moment to finally sit down and do a little write up of an all-time favorite film, Groundhog Day. Like the best Big Lesson films, its presentation is unassuming. So unassuming, in fact, that it took cultural critics and religious zealots almost a decade to begin trumpeting its genius in numbers loud enough to be audible. Likewise, it took me a good dozen viewings over almost 20 years to arrive at the revelation that there is a veritable wealth of postmodern thought packed into this film.
Groundhog Day is invariably relegated to the romantic comedies genre in video stores. Its movie poster features the brow-beaten visage of Bill Murray peering, bewildered, from behind the smooth glass face of an alarm clock. And it is rescreened ceaselessly on cable movie channels, often late at night.
It was precisely during one of these nocturnal screenings a few months back that the idea for this essay came to me. There in the darkened living room of my sister’s house, bathed in the ethereal, flickering glow of the television screen, my creative license bolstered outrageously by the ingestion of a few chemical products, I saw the light. This movie was pure genius! And postmodern, through and through.
My enthusiasm was dampened somewhat when I set out to do some research and discovered that a small army of bona-fide philosophers and religious types had already churned out an abundance of mealy-mouthed tomes on this very subject. And, to my surprise, many argued that the film summarily rejected the central premises of postmodernism. It was an allegory, they said. A religious trope, or perhaps a modernization of Nietsche’s doctrine of eternal returns. But postmodern? Hardly.
I’d like to disagree. But, first, let’s work backward a minute.
Groundhog Day, for the three of you who haven’t seen it, tells the tale of Phil Conner, a rumpled, road-weary meteorologist who is brought, against his will, to Punxsutawney, PA, to film a cutesy news segment. He grumbles and snarls his way through the trip, sneering at the exuberant locals and throwing a man-sized hissy fit when a blizzard traps him in Punxsutawney overnight. Then, time hiccups, and Phil awakens the next morning to find that he is trapped in the past—doomed inexplicably to relive the exact same day over and over.
Predictably, antics ensue. Phil becomes drunk with his own power and decides to use his unique knowledge of the day’s events to play out a host of dark fantasies: he hops into bed with a bevy of local gals, he steals, he lies, he uses his knowledge of the townsfolk to trick them into seeing him as a deity. When this gets dull, he grows terrified by the concept of his own immortality and attempts a multitude of suicides: he electrocutes himself, he drives off a cliff, he sets himself on fire. When these attempts fail, he resigns himself to performing good deeds and developing his latent intellectual abilities. Unknowable eternities pass in clipped montage. Eventually, Phil’s fancy alights on Rita, his producer, and the only being who seems immune to his manipulations. And, well, you can guess the ending: Phil decides to use his powers for good, not evil, he gets the girl, and the spell breaks. He is free.
What does all this have to do with an obscure critical theory, right? Well. Writ broadly, postmodernism can be understood as a genre of literature, art, architecture and general thought that rejects a fundamental premise of modernism—that the world can be explained by all-encompassing truths.
Postmodernism asserts that we are incapable of understanding the nature of reality. On its own, this is a depressing notion. But, and here’s the cool part, because reality cannot truly be understood, we as individuals are freed up to draw from a variety of narratives (Christianity, Buddhism, Democracy, Science, Hollywood, Greek Mythology, etc.) as we construct our own individual pictures of what reality is. And as more and more people construct these unique pictures of what constitutes the human experience, society is destined to fragment into a noisy sea of narratives.
Further, in a postmodern world:
• Objectivity is seen as impossible to achieve
• The part is seen as more interesting and more important than the whole
• Emotion trumps reason as a guiding social and personal force for decision-making
• Linearity in all forms is questioned or outright rejected
• There exist no originals; only copies
Postmodern societies are earmarked by several aesthetics: pastiche, collage, juxtaposition, simulations, reflections and copies, and nonsense in any form. Las Vegas, the band Radiohead, and wax museums are a few commonly referenced expressions of postmodern thought.
If you ask me, postmodernism gets an unfair rap. It is often dismissed as a mere parlour riddle, some piece of philosophical fluff scratched out for the singular pleasure of cabbage-faced academicians and pompous cultural critics, or worse.
If postmodernism stopped with the assertion that our lives are colored by meaninglessness, if it wiped its hands and left it at that, then yes, we could interpret its assertions as essentially nihilistic or existentialist. And we could, by extension, reasonably assume that Groundhog Day is arguing noisily against the primacy of the postmodern framework of understanding, and is promoting in its stead any one of a variety of philosophies that see all things as infused with deep and tangible meaning. Because, really, take your pick: the Buddhist belief in reincarnation, the Christian premises of purgatory and redemption, the Jewish belief in salvation through good deeds. That’s the beauty of this film: they’re all in there.
But there is a bigger lesson at play, here. One that spans the longer story of our civilization’s emotional and mental development.
“What if tomorrow never comes,” Phil moans at one point in the film. “It didn’t come today!”
Keep this line in mind as you consider this: Phil’s understanding of himself, and of his nonsensical plight, evolves as the film progresses. He starts out as an insufferable prick who hates his life. When he falls down the rabbit hole, he is shepherded through a series of transformations. First, he is giddy with his newfound power. Then, he grows desperate to rid himself of it. And, eventually, he merely resigns himself to it.
Keep in mind, also, that postmodernism has never asserted that life is meaningless, and anyone who tells you it does has failed to understand it properly. Quite the opposite is true.
Postmodernism asserts that humans have failed to grasp life’s true meaning, yes. And postmodernism also asserts that said true meaning is, at our current point of individual and collective development, incomprehensible. There is simply too much data in our store of collective knowledge to sort out. There are too many possible interpretations, and too many possible interpretations of those interpretations. In short, as we make life decisions, we are picking our way through a mess of code, a jumbled welter of sensory data that we lack the time or the art to detangle. We are all of us grouping in the dark, every day of our lives.
But. Postmodernism rejects the notion that it or any framework of understanding can ever be the endgame of cultural, social and moral progress. Instead, it merely describes a stage of understanding humans find themselves passing through in this present moment, as they move beyond the modern.
I’d like to argue that this film uses the subtext of postmodernism to work out the potentialities tied up in the concept of infinite possibility: What would happen if we could do and have whatever we wanted, without consequence? And what if we were given an infinite amount of time with which to decide just what it was we really, really wanted? And, finally, what if we were permitted the luxury of changing our minds about what it was we really, really wanted, over and over?
In short: what would we choose for ourselves if we knew that all choices were reversible?
Groundhog Day essentially amends postmodernism by theorizing that, in the post-postmodern world, meaning will be restored. But it asks us to ponder what might happen when that curtain is yanked suddenly back? What will we find there?
A whole heap of trouble, if Phil Conner’s misadventure is any indication.
When we eventually come face to face with the troubling concepts of infinite power and possibility, when we finally navigate the leap beyond the postmodern, we may well be forced abide more power than we know how to handle. Like Phil, we’ll be forced to take account of all eventualities. And we’ll have to make a choice, or perhaps a thousand choices, over and over, until we’ve exhausted all those possibilities and settled on just one. And at that point, the postmodern experiment will be finished.
With knowledge comes power. And with power comes, well, a lot of power. Whether we asked for it or not.
Happy Groundhog Day.