THE BLOG
02/27/2014 03:06 pm ET Updated Apr 29, 2014

The Art of Unsticking Ourselves: Learning (and Relearning) From Harold Ramis' Groundhog Day

On Monday after hearing that Harold Ramis died, I made an overdue trip to Woodstock, Illinois, the far northwest Chicago suburb where the beloved actor, director and writer filmed Groundhog Day. The 1993 movie about a weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray), forced to live the same day over and over again has special significance for me, as it does for many people. I'm not a weather fanatic or groundhog enthusiast, but I have -- like Phil and like everyone -- felt profoundly stuck at certain junctures in life. More than once the Ramis-directed philosophical comedy has helped me unstick myself.

Since the mid-'90s, Woodstock has reveled in its own special connection to Groundhog Day -- over and over again. In the film, the quaint city is disguised as Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, home of the largest Groundhog Day celebration and Punxsutawney Phil, weather-predicting rodent numero uno. In real life, Woodstock won't be overshadowed. It hosts its own Groundhog Days starring its own prognosticating marmot, Woodstock Willie. The festivities here are considerably more meta, stirring ongoing enthusiasm in a movie that stirs ongoing enthusiasm for a strange holiday. Every February 2, and the week leading up to it, hundreds of people flock here for pancake breakfasts, screenings of the film, tours of filming sites and the traditional animal augury.

This Feb. 2, Willie predicted six more weeks of winter. (No surprise there.) When I took my impulsive pilgrimage to Woodstock this week -- about an hour's drive from Chicago -- I found a quiet city blanketed in snow. Parking along the town square, where much of the Groundhog Day action takes place, I planned to walk to some of the movie locations. A bone-chilling gust of wind whipped up, making me wish I'd worn a warmer jacket.

The cast and crew experienced a similar kind of cold when they began filming here in 1992, despite the residents' warm reception. Co-producer Trevor Albert recalls (in the DVD extras),

We were shooting in the square, maybe the third day... I'm watching through the monitor and noticing something odd about Andie [MacDowell], her face. And I'm also noticing something odd about myself -- I can't feel my fingers.

Adds Stephen Tobolowsky, who played pesky insurance salesman Ned Ryerson, "It was a cold that came up through the ground, and you couldn't stop it... up through the ground, up through your feet and into your knees."

On Monday, the historic square was virtually empty, the Groundhog Day hoopla having subsided a few weeks ago and the long winter, as prophesied, not going anywhere. I walked past the familiar gazebo, the Tip Top Café (now a taqueria) and the spot, marked with a commemorative plaque, where Phil Connors repeatedly steps in the same puddle. On Main Street, north of the square, I half expected to see the Woodstock Theater (the Alpine Theater in the film) showing Heidi 2, the "family classic" that Phil tells his date he has sat through more than 100 times. Instead it was the family-friendly Lego Movie. Around the corner are the train tracks, scene of the car chase and the bowling alley where Phil gets canned with two yokels before embarking on said car chase, the first of many suicide attempts.

"What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing that you did mattered?" Phil asks the two townies at the bar. "That sums it up for me," one replies.

The most iconic landmark in Woodstock is the Victorian-era Opera House, the limestone, fieldstone and terra cotta building looming over the square. In Groundhog Day, it's called the Pennsylvanian Hotel, and it's where Phil Connors, at the end of his endless rope, jumps from the bell tower. In the nearby Read Between the Lynes bookstore, I flipped through a Groundhog Day calendar -- one of the many souvenir items for sale -- and saw photos of the stunt double who made that dramatic leap. "Let me know if there's anything I can help you find," the friendly bookseller said.

I wasn't sure what I was looking for. Many of the local businesses are closed on Monday, so the red brick square felt especially dead. The groundhog statues and signs and décor in store windows and on street corners felt a little like Christmas lights left up too long. Maybe everyone has this experience when visiting a movie location -- not the magic of the film itself more vividly rendered, but a reminder that the filmmaking that happened there was a fleeting moment in time. Where you're standing is real and now -- much larger and realer than its movie moment(s). This is an especially weird feeling to have in Woodstock, because in many ways, the city tries not to move on, living and reliving its '90s claim to fame.

Indulge me in some self-reflection. After all, I think it's what Harold Ramis and his co-writer Danny Rubin hoped viewers would do after seeing the funny and macabre events of Groundhog Day give way to surprising depth. Maybe my trip to Woodstock wasn't about touring movie locations -- finally seeing the spot where Phil muddies his shoe or being better able to picture where the cast and crew shivered away on set. Recently I lost my job, rather unexpectedly, and have felt adrift. My options at this juncture seem to be: 1) Move on determinedly, or 2) hopelessly spin my wheels. On Monday, just before I heard Harold Ramis had passed away at age 69, I was doing the latter -- sitting at a Starbucks with my laptop, in a staring match with the cursor. Accusingly it flashed in a blank text box. Writers are familiar with this game, the scary blankness of no ideas rolling in, often amplified for freelancers by bouts of self-pity and the shame of few paychecks rolling in either. It was this very stuckness that reminded me of Phil Connors and his futile attempts to move forward. How everyone, at some point, feels this way and how the phrase Groundhog Day has become a useful way to describe it. Sick of the shame cycle, I knew I had nothing to lose by trying something new. Why not a road trip to upstate Illinois?

Groundhog Day represents many things to many people. In a 2009 talk at New York City's Hudson Union Society, Ramis shared how when the movie opened in Santa Monica, Albert called to tell him there was picketing outside the theater. "I asked what they were protesting," Ramis said. "'[Albert] said, 'They're not protesting. They're Hasidic Jews walking around with signs that say ARE YOU LIVING THE SAME DAY OVER AND OVER AGAIN?'"

Buddhists have embraced the film as depicting samsara, or cyclic existence; Catholics have likened Punxsutawney to purgatory; and Baptists have viewed the groundhog as a metaphor for Christ. "Then the psychiatric community chimed in and said obviously the movie is a metaphor for psychoanalysis because we revisit the same stories over and over," Ramis recalled. Every day someone talked to him about the film, the director said. "There's something in it that allows people to, every time they see it, reconsider where they are in life and kind of question their own habitual behaviors."

The first time Groundhog Day helped me out of a rut was about 10 years ago. Just out of undergrad, I packed all my possessions into my Nissan Sentra and moved from Michigan to Washington State for a guy. I'd accepted a job I wasn't really enthused about but that would allow my boyfriend and I to live in closer proximity. When he abruptly dumped me six months later, I fell into a deep depression. This was made worse by my lack of friends, the fact that my first love (whom I'd prematurely pegged as my only love) had quickly found someone new and the unendingly dreary Pacific Northwest winter. To distract myself from myself, I rewatched Groundhog Day. This time Punxsutawney represented Bellingham, Washington, and I was Phil, emotionally careening off a cliff. It was clear I needed to get behind the wheel, not to crash, but to get the hell outta there. On February 2 -- yes, Groundhog Day, a symbolism I relished -- I quit my job, repacked my Sentra and made the long drive back to the Midwest. I landed in Chicago, a city that quickly and unexpectedly became home, and haven't left since.

Now Groundhog Day, as opposed to January 1, is the day I celebrate fresh starts. The lore means little to me -- shadows seen or unseen, winter usually stays too long in the Midwest, and this year, even longer than usual. The snow lingers along the sidewalks in dirty clumps, the cold creeps into our knees and the great radio alarm clock in the sky plays "I Got You Babe" ad infinitum. As everyone knows, the way Phil Connors finally escapes his fate is to do something positive with the terrible cards he has been dealt. At a juncture where his options are 1) Do something meaningful, or 2) Forever be time's prisoner, he eventually opts for the former. Rather than self-destruct or bemoan or deny, he fills his days with rewarding errands such as changing a flat tire for some stuck elderly ladies, performing the Heimlich maneuver on a choking man and catching a kid who falls from a tree. ("You little brat," Murray ad libs, clutching his sore back. "You have never thanked me!")

While he wasn't specifically referencing Phil Connors, the late writer David Foster Wallace talked about this kind of liberating transformation in a 2005 commencement speech:

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

Ramis understood this mindfulness. A smart and sly comedian, he always packed more into his movies and performances than just comedy. In fact, the existentialist philosophy at the heart of Groundhog Day is the same one he tried to live by. "I believe the essential task to leading a good life is to discover meaning at all times," he told Terri Gross in a 2005 "Fresh Air" interview. "Meaning is not given to us. There is no universal meaning to life that applies now and for always to each and every person. But our job, and it's a tough job, is to figure out what it means." The potency of this message, and how inevitably and entertainingly it unfolds, prompted Roger Ebert to give Groundhog Day another chance in 2005, years after publishing his original underwhelmed review. "There are a few films, and this is one of them, that burrow into our memories and become reference points," he wrote the second time around.

As I wandered through Woodstock, it occurred to me that Ramis' film isn't alive for me in any physical location -- not on these cobblestone streets or among these familiar storefronts -- but its message continues to resonate wherever and whenever I feel really stuck. Maybe for you too. Whether in cities or jobs or circumstances that feel entrapping, caught in mindsets or memories we want to move beyond, Groundhog Day is a reminder that change is possible. That's what makes the '90s movie so timeless. It's the realization we can catch the thankless kid, learn to slay on piano, overcome writer's block and experience fulfillment we weren't even looking for but was always there to find. Anyway, back here at Starbucks, no longer fazed by the blinking cursor, this is what I've been inspired to write.