Groundhog Day at 25

How many days are there in 25 years? If you include six extra days for the leap years, it will total 9,131. On April 9, the 1993 film Groundhog Day was celebrated with a 25th anniversary screening of a recent 4K DCP at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater.

The film opened on Feb. 15, 1993. The Academy screening (for sticklers among you) was actually 25 years and 51 days after the initial release. Those 51 days are just a blip in the overall tally that weatherman Phil Collins (Bill Murray) spends trapped inside the “same-o, same-o” time warp in the town of Punxsutawney, Penn.

A favorite “parlor game” among the film’s diehard fans is guessing how many days/years Phil makes the daily trek to Gobbler’s Knob in the town’s central plaza to watch “a large rodent” being pulled out of a tree stump to announce the imminent (or not) coming of spring.

Phil and friend
Phil and friend

At the screening, I made the introductory remarks as president of the Academy, and I also shared my own perspective on the production as the movie’s cinematographer. Nia Vardalos moderated a panel discussion that also included producer Trevor Albert, actor Stephen Tobolowsky (who plays Ned Ryerson), co-screenwriter Danny Rubin and animal trainer Kim “Corkey” Miller. Our special guest was director Harold Ramis’ widow, Erica Mann Ramis, the daughter of director Daniel Mann. Both Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell planned to send remarks, but the videos apparently got caught in a time warp and never arrived.

Panelists (from left): John Bailey, Stephen Tobolowsky, moderator Nia Vardalos, Trevor Albert, Erica Mann Ramis, Danny Rubin and Kim "Corkey" Miller. (Photo courtesy of AMPAS)
Panelists (from left): John Bailey, Stephen Tobolowsky, moderator Nia Vardalos, Trevor Albert, Erica Mann Ramis, Danny Rubin and Kim "Corkey" Miller. (Photo courtesy of AMPAS)

In my own remarks, I recalled the last time I had seen Stephen Tobolowsky: 

At the September 2011 Big Bear Lake International Film Festival — I kid you not — Ned Ryerson, yes, that Ned Ryerson, with us tonight in the guise of Stephen Tobolowsky, and I were given special festival awards — not some silver or gold semi-abstract figure, but this incredible bust of a California brown bear. Isn’t it a beaut?

Ever since that day, I’ve wondered: Why don’t psychologists create a groundhog statuette for their patients who successfully escape Groundhog Day syndrome? Yes, there really is a clinical diagnosis of Groundhog Day syndrome. Google it! 

The film has been cited as metaphor for everything from the Buddhist concept of ‘samsara’ or continual rebirth, to Roman Catholic purgatory, to Judaism, to psychoanalysis. Just read an article in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis titled “Revisiting Groundhog Day: Cinematic Depiction of Mutative Process.” And even in the New York Times, a film critic noted the Christ-like attributes of Punxsutawney Phil: ‘The groundhog is clearly the resurrected Christ, the ever-hopeful renewal of life at springtime, at a time of pagan-Christian holidays.’ 

I think I can speak for everyone on the film’s crew when I say that we had no idea we were creating such a momentous socio-cultural meme. Maybe screenwriter Danny Rubin has a different perspective, but the rest of us thought we were making a pretty straight-ahead romantic comedy. But you all be the judge. How many here have never seen the movie? The rest of us envy you — over and over and over.

Here is a video that attempts to frame a timeline of Phil’s journey toward escape — or personal salvation, depending on your perspective:

Here is a vlogger’s mashup of a baker’s dozen of Phil’s wake-ups:

In the eight months I have stepped away from working as a cinematographer to serve as Academy president, I have had the opportunity to reflect on how fortunate I have been to spend a working life at the camera — as a loader, camera assistant, camera operator and, for 40 years now, a cinematographer.

Good, bad or indifferent, however our films turn out, however they survive (or don’t) as part of our visual history, each one is a time capsule — and not just of the cultural moment reflected in the cars, clothes and technical gadgets the characters use. In a much more defining sense, they are markers of our daily lives in ways that follow us through the decades. And because so many films are made on location, they are also markers of the weeks and months we have worked “on location,” in a world often much different from our personal comfort zones. But the ancillary surprises we receive during production are the close, often enduring relationships forged in the kiln of cinema production.

On the evening of April 9, I stood at the lectern alongside Erica Mann Ramis as she spoke from the heart of her love for Harold, whom we lost four years ago. Erica and I had not seen each other in over a decade, but the personal closeness she, Harold and I shared during the making of the film is, in some ineffable sense, baked into the film itself.

Erica Mann Ramis at the lectern. (Photo courtesy of AMPAS)
Erica Mann Ramis at the lectern. (Photo courtesy of AMPAS)

Totally separate from the shoot, I remember my wife, Carol, driving to Woodstock, Ill., the cinematic stand-in for Punxsutawney, as we finished filming. She and I then drove through the Upper Midwest into Wisconsin, Spring Green and Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin, and into South Dakota and the town of Mitchell, with its famed Corn Palace — two iconic, strikingly dissimilar architectural landmarks.

Corn Palace
Corn Palace

We entered Yellowstone National Park through its eastern gate, which was just opening at the spring late thaw. It was a haunting landscape, with burned-out, blackened tree trunks from the 1988 fire jutting through the snow and grass shoots and saplings aching for new life. 

This is how many of us frame our lives in film: first, the movie and its high and low days and scenes, and then, somehow, the pieces of life we try to grasp in between.

Each day I go into my Academy office, greet my executive assistant, Kathleen Dimpfl, and try to sort through the work, work unlike anything I have ever done. For me, standing beside or at a camera for nearly all of my adult life, when viewed from the perspective of a desk and computer, evokes in a visceral way what it means to be a “set dog.”

Do I miss it? Do I miss the challenge of creative engagement in the often-frenzied atmosphere of the day’s shoot? Do I miss the inspired satisfaction we feel when the work of colleagues all comes together in one of those magical moments that leaves us breathless before we have to catch our breath, strike the setup, and move ahead to the next shot and the next and the next?

Of course I do. But even though there are those ritualistic moments when I find myself staring at a computer screen, caught in my own Groundhog Day, I am thankful that here, now, I have the privilege to engage with fellow filmmakers in ways of which I previously only dreamed. I am, indeed, a fortunate man.

Cherry Street Inn
Cherry Street Inn


Joseph Strick at Muscle Beach


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