When Hollywood (accidentally?) gets it right.
Groundhog Day starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell turns 21 this year, and I wish I could take it out for a drink ("Sweet vermouth on the rocks with a twist, please."). I feel as if I’ve seen this movie about as many times as Phil Connors lived that day. In college, my roommate and I decided to drive to the tiny hamlet of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the real thing. (Warning: the movie bears very little resemblance to the phenomenon that is a thousand screaming drunk people in utter darkness. Learned that the hard way.) After spending the night in a car and freezing for two hours just waiting for a shuttle bus, the highlight of the day was buying a
DVD copy of
Groundhog Day in the town itself and then driving all the way back to our warm and cozy apartment to watch it. I have high standards for movies, and I confidently declare that this one is the best movies made in my lifetime. Its universal appeal will ensure that it stands the test of time. And what I aim to show here is that the movie’s universal appeal is such because it is rooted in what Blessed John Paul II called the
Theology of the Body (
I came to know
TOB in ways probably similar to many of you. I read some Christopher West in college. I’ve attended
TOB lecture series and conference talks. I’ve done a few small group discussions over it with friends. I used it whenever I could when I taught high school theology. Then to prepare for this post, I read Michael Waldstein’s impressive and scholarly
introduction to the work and finally mined the magnum opus itself for some choice quotes. But even after all of that, I think the best thing I can offer you is the
flavah of the ideas as consciously digested and understood by me and less-consciously so by the people who made
Groundhog Day. Still, in order to fix the discussion on a couple of key ideas, I will focus on two important fragments from the
TOB (General Audience 32:4,6):
Gaudium et Spes, 24:3).
Concupiscence in general—and the concupiscence of the body in particular—attacks precisely this "sincere gift":
it deprives man, one could say, of the dignity of the gift, which is expressed by his body through femininity and masculinity, and in some sense "depersonalizes"
man, making him an object "for the other." Instead of being "together with the other"—subject in unity, or better, in the sacramental "unity of the body"—man becomes an object for man, the female for the male and vice versa" […] 6. "Concupiscence brings with it the loss of the interior freedom of the gift. The spousal meaning of the body in linked exactly to this freedom. Man can become a gift—that is, man and woman can exist in the relationship of the reciprocal gift of self—if each of them masters himself.
Concupiscence, which manifests itself as a "
constraint ‘sui generis’ of the body," limits and restricts self-mastery from within, and thereby
in some sense makes the interior freedom of the gift impossible."
Summed up in one sentence, JPII is saying that the man who is ruled by concupiscence (which is the desire to possess something as an object to be exploited) cannot freely give of himself in love until he first mortifies those desires. For my purposes, that man is Pittsburgh weatherman Phil Connors (Murray). The story functions as a philosophical thought experiment: what if you woke up every day and discovered it was yesterday? For Phil, that day is February 2nd, Groundhog Day. When we first meet him he is an arrogant, cynical, prima donna. He is a man driven by concupiscent desires. He is fixated on the idea of landing a bigger network and deeply resentful of the fact that he has to cover the groundhog festival in Punxsutawney for the fourth year in a row. An attractive, vivacious new producer, Rita (MacDowell) has just joined the news team and she immediately catches Phil’s eye while playing with the studio’s green screen just like a happy child might. Another weatherman tells Phil that she’ll be accompanying him on the trip to Punxsutawney and says, "She really nice. You two are going to have a lot of fun." Even though we viewers see Phil’s face soften when first sees Rita, he replies, "Mmmhmm. She’s fun. But not my kind of fun." His comments and actions suggest that his preferred fun is of a selfish kind. When he says Rita is not his kind of fun, he means that her innocent joyfulness is not sexy—or at least it doesn’t promise the gratification of sexual desire. He’s saying that she does not arouse his lust because and thus is not easily objectified for his pleasure.