I’ve been thinking about prison lately. A lot. About living the same day over and over again. About unimaginable boredom. Why? Have you been following the news about that sex cult NXIVM and its execrable leader, Keith Raniere? Convicted by a jury, in less than five hours, of sex trafficking, child porn, and branding his female “slaves” with his initials? That guy?
That guy was my grade school classmate. He sat next to me all of fifth grade. Now, he’s awaiting sentencing and locked up in “The Tombs” in Brooklyn with, as Frank Parlato says on his blog, giant rats, roaches, bedbugs, lice, and ringworm infection as his cellmates. He’s getting beaten by Mexican inmates for the statutory rape of Mexican girls: broken toe, cracked ribs. His glasses are stolen repeatedly, and his shoes are used as toilets by other inmates. And when he gets shunted off to a high-security federal prison, sometime in 2020, for probably 25 years, the horrors that await him will escalate exponentially.
I feel my imagination being morbidly fettered by all this. Like I’m living in prison vicariously. Thanks Keith!
I enjoyed the trick-or-treating Halloween playdate in sixth grade at your house, with you, Peter, and Matt, but I would have preferred you didn’t end up in the slammer, so I’m depressed—above and beyond the usual depression about the state of the world today.
What Do We Call Keith’s Situation?
We call Keith’s situation “groundhog day.” We all know this term in America today, but perhaps millennials aren’t familiar with the facts about when and how this term became part of America’s cultural lexicon.
The film “Groundhog Day” was released almost 26 years ago, on Feb. 12, 1993. It grew from a somewhat successful Bill Murray comedy to a cultural phenomenon such that when you hear the term, you don’t even think about the original folksy Americana legend of Groundhog Day, where the woodchuck comes out of his burrow, sees his shadow, and it means six more weeks of winter.
No. When someone says “Groundhog Day,” you think of waking up to the exact same day over, and over, and over, and over, and over again for all eternity.
It’s a grand metaphor for the fact that, as Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Are you just surviving? Are you just doing the same routine daily? Running into the same people, the same mindless chitchat? “Groundhog Day” is about breaking out of the routine and becoming “woke.”
Samsara: The Ultimate Time Loop
Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, a surpassingly rude, narcissistic Pittsburgh television weatherman, who gets stuck in an endlessly repeating time loop. He’s shackled, fairy tale-like, to Groundhog Day.
It’s also a metaphor for what ancient Indian spiritual culture called “samsara.” Which means that humans are doomed to infinitely repeat the earthly cycles of birth, growth, school, marriage, family, illness, and death until such time as they grasp the meaning of spiritual enlightenment and find a method (a spiritual path) of paying down their constantly accruing karmic debt, until they can get out of here.
After the initial shock subsides, Phil tries exploiting the situation—indulging all the things people would often like to get away with if there were no laws, consequences, and karma. Phil seduces women by figuring out what they like on, say, days 264, 265, and 266, and then feigns being incredibly in-tune, prescient, wise, and sensitive on day 267, to great seductive success.
He memorizes the sequences of events occurring around an open Brinks truck and, with impeccable timing, strolls over when the guards aren’t looking and smoothly filches a bag of loot. He stuffs entire cake slices in his mouth, prompting the best sarcastic line in the movie: his producer Rita Hanson (an incredibly adorable Andie MacDowell) saying, “I like to see a man of advancing years throwing caution to the wind. It’s freeing, really.”
Speaking of Rita, Phil falls hard for her. She’s the opposite of him—sweet, kind, and caring. Phil probably spends five months of identical Groundhog Days learning every last detail of Rita’s life. Then he plays the lead-up to the seduction over and over again, only each time to eventually get into new territory, inadvertently expose his lowly moral stature, and get slapped in the face: “Whack!” “Pow!” “Slap!”
This leads Phil to a state of hopelessness. He attempts probably a year’s worth of daily suicide: He jumps off towers, drives off cliffs, stands in front of trucks, and gets in the bathtub and throws a live toaster in.
To no avail: At precisely 6:00 a.m. the next day, the “oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah” tootling oboe of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” tortures him awake to a brand new Groundhog Day.
Next is a fun sequence where Phil strolls through his daily morning breakfast with Rita at the diner, like a tour guide, expounding on the histories of all the good folks of Punxsutawney residing therein. Phil’s latest theory is that he must be a god.
It’d be interesting to know the timeline: How many Groundhog Days did Phil experience? I’m thinking maybe 500 years of Groundhog Days. Because Phil learns how to do many things, expertly.
And herein lies a great lesson. Just what is it that Phil learns? Early on, he preoccupies himself with meaningless pursuits. He fritters away his time, ostensibly because he thinks he’s privy to an endless supply of it. And per this premise, he is.
But the real message is—are we? Phil thinks he’s got forever to live, so he spends five hours a day, for six months, practicing the correct flick of the wrist required to land a playing card in a hat. Woo-hoo. After Rita’s been let in on his secret—that he’s stuck in endless Groundhog Day samsara—her comeback regarding his card party-trick is priceless: “Is this what you do with eternity?”
Enlightenment: The Lotus Rises Out of the Mud
The key to Phil’s breaking the cycle of earthly incarnations is his desire to love, and be loved by, Rita. Rita is thus the Beatrice to Phil’s Dante Alighieri. That is, Phil inadvertently sets out on the path of enlightenment by seeking the love of a woman.
Rita has what in Chinese is referred to as a higher “xinxing,” or moral standard. She’s a good person. Phil is not. If he wants to win Rita, he must become a better man by raising his xinxing standard.
And so, as Phil slowly begins to raise the level of his morality, he wholesomely gains favor with Rita. He becomes an accomplished keyboardist and a doctor. He has a daily list of scheduled good deeds: Give the local homeless man all his money, catch a boy falling out of the tree, and purchase the full menu of mega-annoying insurance salesman Ned Ryerson’s (Stephen Tobolowsky) insurance policies.
The ancient Indians say the odds of a human being figuring out what the true meaning and ultimate purpose of human life is about, during his or her endless cycle of earthly incarnations, are about the same as that of a singular turtle, swimming through all the world’s seven oceans, coming for air, and in so doing, surfacing exactly within the circumference of a 5-foot wooden hoop that floats randomly across all those seven oceans. In other words—the chances are not good.
And so, should ever that chance come, should it finally dawn on you what the true meaning of life is about, you should try to break out of the cycle of samsara by paying off all your karma in one lifetime. If not now, when? If you figure out what enlightenment means, you should pursue it with the fervor of a man whose hair is on fire seeking a pond.
The message here is that stolen money, stolen women, and stolen valor—anything gained with none of the normally required effort—won’t bring you happiness. It’ll make you want to throw a toaster in your bath.
So try being a better person. If not now, when? Do it before you end up in your own little Groundhog Day hell, like the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where Keith Raniere currently resides.
Director: Harold Ramis
Starring: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott, Stephen Tobolowsky
Running time: 1 hour, 41 minutes
Release Date: Feb. 12, 1993 (USA)
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5