Harold Ramis, who died Monday at age 69, was a comedy supergenius. He made movies for everyone, but I was drawn to them for their absurdity and wit via a very specific breed of person they highlighted: Smart people with bad attitudes, the people you might describe as too clever for their own good, AKA wiseasses. Though many of his movies, from Meatballs to Caddyshack to Stripes to Ghostbusters, double as tales of juvenile pranksters at basically what amounts to endless summer camp, they also hide Big Messages about what it means to be alive. Take his end-all be-all masterpiece of a movie, Groundhog Day.
For starters, I've never met anyone who doesn't like the movie Groundhog Day. It was even beloved upon release in 1993, and usually, art beloved upon release by all comers is known among snootier types to be Bad Art, or merely passable art, you know, dumbed-down art, art for people who don't want to have to think about "art." It's just a funny flick about a smug, egocentric weatherman Phil (Bill Murray) who repeats the same day over and over again (Groundhog Day, to be exact) until he convinces Rita (Andie MacDowell) to fall in love with him, which breaks the "curse."
And yet, underneath that is actually a movie about time, metaphysics, the meaning of life, the redemptive power of love, and a bunch of other important shit. But its genius is in how it manages to achieve the triple whammy of art: It was hugely popular and actually great in its heyday. This makes it The Beatles of comedy movies, the chart-topping pop song of cinema. It employs many of the same techniques of pop songs, too — it's Repetitive (it even uses a massive hit song repetitively, "I Got You Babe" within it), it's Simple (guy has to do one thing, just one thing!) and it's So True (in order for it to work, he has to really mean it).
Most people wrongly assume it's the serious art that teaches us about the Real Meaning of Life — dark films, serious poetry, boring documentaries, heavy-handed religions. But I posit the opposite: Everything you need to know about what it means to be alive can be found in comedy, particularly of this kind. Comedians are far better prophets because they are deeply flawed, but at least in their quest for laughter to blot out the horrible, they transcend the plodding omniscience of philosophers and gurus to go for the jokes.
So here, in honor of Ramis, nerdy soothsayer, are all the things his Groundhog Day taught me about living. (For lessons about what to do in the afterlife, see Albert Brooks' brilliant Defending Your Life. Seriously. It has Rip Torn in it. Put these two movies together and all your questions are answered).
A Consequence-Free Life Would Eventually Become Boring
When Phil first realizes he's living the same day over and over again, he takes advantage of it. He steals, he lies to get laid, he's lawless. And it gets boring! Eventually he realizes manipulating people to get exactly what you want all the time isn't that satisfying, and begins to help them instead.
People Make People Better
It isn't money or stuff or careers or fame or superiority that makes you a better person, it's giving yourself to something bigger or other than yourself — a person, a cause, an endeavor. Other people make you better! That's what people are for!
Don't Try Too Hard
Life requires effort, but more importantly, it requires some degree of sincerity. When Phil courts Rita again and again and again while stuck in the loop, his first efforts at winning her over are 100% fakery, a total act — who among us hasn't quoted 19th century French poetry or toasted to world peace if that's what it took to worm our way into the hearts and minds of others? But it isn't until he taps into something authentic — an actual, honest to god appreciation for his fellow man/woman — that he stands a chance in hell at being happy, OR waking up to February 3rd.
We are All in a Prison of Our Own Making
Everyone is living out their own Groundhog Day as we speak. You're bumping into the same problems, the same issues, the same challenges in most of the situations you're in, because, duh, you're you, and this is your heavy, heavy synthetic bag. You could even argue that this is The Point of why you're here. To overcome this shit.
The Only Way Out is Through
Since suicide doesn't always work (Groundhog Day joke!) there is no quick fix through our issues and hangups. We have to face them, take them on individually, one by one, until the shit is worked out. It is so very very boring, and yet, so very very true.
It'll Take Forever (But You Don't Have Forever!)
One of the enduring mysteries of the movie is how long actually passes while Phil is stuck on repeat learning all these skills to be less of a dick. He becomes fluent at jazz piano, for one thing, learns French, some card tricks, and memorizes everyone's name and backstory in the town. Ramis and others have said the passage of time is anywhere from 10 years, to 30 or 40, to even 10,000. (In the script, it's said he was supposed to have read a page a day from a book in the library, eventually completing every book.) The point is, Phil is in a movie, and us nonfiction mortals have no such luxury when it comes to facing our bullshit. Tick tock.
Love is All You Need
Obvious, but always bears repeating: There is no transcendence like the transcendence of luv. It soothes what ails you. And that love doesn't have to be romantic, it could be spiritual: In fact, that seems to be the Big Message many people took from Groundhog Day, an answer to the deep persistent questions wrought by simply being alive. In an interview, Ramis said he'd heard from nearly every religion that the film pinpointed the heart of their beliefs:
Harold Ramis, the director of the film and one of its writers, said last week that since it came out he has heard from Jesuit priests, rabbis and Buddhists, and that the letters keep coming. "At first I would get mail saying, 'Oh, you must be a Christian, because the movie so beautifully expresses Christian belief,' " Mr. Ramis said during a conversation on his mobile phone as he was walking the streets of Los Angeles. "Then rabbis started calling from all over, saying they were preaching the film as their next sermon. And the Buddhists!
At one point, the film was screened for a class on Buddhism at NYU:
Angela Zito, a co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, screens the film for students in her Buddhism class. She said that "Groundhog Day" perfectly illustrates the Buddhist notion of samsara, the continuing cycle of rebirth that Buddhists regard as suffering that humans must try to escape. … "In Mahayana," she said, "nobody ever imagines they are going to escape samsara until everybody else does. That is why you have bodhisattvas, who reach the brink of nirvana, and stop and come back and save the rest of us. Bill Murray is the bodhisattva. He is not going to abandon the world. On the contrary, he is released back into the world to save it."
Ramis may no longer be of this world, but I can only imagine what someone who thought so deeply, and so hilariously, about what it meant to be in it would think about what comes after it. To that, I raise my glass to world peace, 19th century French poetry, and to one of the very, very best.
Image via AP.