Bill Murray’s Liberal Arts

February 2nd has become the Feast Day of Saint Bill. Every year, this date promises an airing of Bill Murray’s now-classic 1993 film Groundhog Day. For aficionados of the liberal arts, it’s a day for rejoicing. More than any other popular movie, Groundhog Day offers a powerful defense of the humanities.

One specific scene is the key to this strange film, in which Murray’s character—Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors—inexplicably and inescapably relives the same day over and over again. While having a beer in a bowling alley with two Punxsutawney locals, Phil turns to one and says, “What would you do if you were stuck in one place, and every day was exactly the same, and nothing that you did mattered?” The local, a man named Ralph, replies, “That about sums it up for me.” (The scene is especially central to the Broadway musical adaptation.)

Here the film tips its hand, exposing the allegory structuring the supernatural fantasy. Rather than a bizarre paranormal prank outside the realm of actual possibility, Groundhog Day is about the mundane nature of all our lives. Everyone knows this feeling of being trapped in an endless recursion—stuck in one place, every day the same, nothing you do matters. So what do you do about it?

Suicide is Phil’s initial solution, but when that repeatedly fails, he drifts toward a liberal education. He begins with the study of French poetry in a botched attempt to seduce his producer, Rita (played by Andie MacDowell). But while Baudelaire’s verses fail to deliver the desired goods, they succeed as a hook. Phil starts reading for himself—British Romanticism, Russian Realism, whatever moves him. He takes up piano and practices Rachmaninoff. He learns to sculpt. It’s been estimated that Phil spends between eight and thirty-four years reliving the same day over and over. And he uses those years to work on himself, undertaking an education that yields impressive results.

One could claim that Groundhog Day is simply a reboot of Scrooged (1988), in which Murray’s Frank Cross has a change of heart after being visited by three Christmas ghosts. But Phil Connors is no simple Scrooge. By the end of the film, Phil hasn’t just transformed from grouchy to generous; he’s become more poetic and eloquent. His spheres of perception and influence expand tremendously. To the admiration of bystanders, he records the following conclusion to his news footage of the holiday ceremony:

“When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. But standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn’t imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.”

Instead of a change of heart overnight (as is all too often the case in ninety-minute films), Phil experiences a growth of mind over years. He’s not just better, he’s more, displaying the fruits of a larger and more comprehensive soul.

In the evening of what, unbeknownst to him, will be his final Groundhog Day, Phil claims that it’s been the best day of his life. The claim is doubly ironic: first, because at this point Groundhog Day is his life; and second, because he initially saw the day as a disaster. Nothing in the world has changed; the social and natural environment remain exactly the same throughout the film. But Phil has changed, and that has made all the difference. His emergence into a new morning at the end of the movie is less an escape than a graduation.

In a fascinating reevaluation of a film about reevaluations, Roger Ebert reappraised Groundhog Day a dozen years after its release. Having initially written a lukewarm review in 1993, in 2005 Ebert hailed it as one of the all-time greats in film history. In his reconsideration, he highlighted the heightened aesthetic capacities of the transformed Phil Connors: “There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, ‘When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.’ The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.” In other words, the appreciation of arts and culture is just as important as the passion of a human relationship. The film is ultimately not a romantic but a Romantic comedy—a sweeping affirmation of the powerful human spark within all of us that can swell in might and magnitude if properly fostered.

Bill Murray has thus become quite a spokesman for the liberal arts. And why not? This is an actor who parlayed the success of Ghostbusters into an unprofitable adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge—then put his career on hold to study philosophy at the Sorbonne. Phil Connors similarly becomes a Murrayesque dilettante while caught in his repetitive limbo. Instead of honing his on-camera skills in hopes of a more lucrative meteorological job in the Big Apple, Phil develops his humanity in pursuit of a more fulfilling life. Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, in 2009, eminent humanities professor Stanley Fish claimed that Groundhog Day was the best American movie to appear in the last thirty years. As Fish notes, the film depicts “a self-help project that takes forever.” If there’s a better motto for a liberal education, I can’t think of one.

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