Today is Tomorrow: 24 Hours of Groundhog Day

That’s right, woodchuck-chuckers! It’s GROUNDHOG DAY!”

Groundhog Day posterIt is a genius meta-challenge: do you have what it takes to subject yourself to twenty-four hours of a movie in which the protagonist is himself subjected to a horrifying twenty-four hour loop? Would you lose your mind doing it or have a total blast? These are questions posed every February 2nd by the Gateway Film Center in Columbus, Ohio, when they host their annual Groundhog Day viewing party/endurance marathon. The movie in question is of course Groundhog Day, and they challenge you to watch it twelve times in a row. Completing the marathon yields a year’s worth of movie tickets, a very coveted prize considering the average theater’s tragicomic ticket prices. On the contrary, a ticket to the Gateway event is only fifteen bucks, and fifteen bucks for twenty four free movie passes is certainly a gamble worth taking, to say nothing of the singular weirdness of staying in a movie theater all night with three hundred other entranced revelers.

7660 days have passed since Groundhog Day was released on February 12th, 1993. The movie chronicles the surreal hell of Phil Connors, a TV weatherman played by Bill Murray, who learns some important life lessons when he finds himself reliving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney, PA, over and over and over again. Andie MacDowell plays the sweetheart TV producer who inspires him to be a better man and Chris Elliot plays the unnerving odd guy Chris Elliot is known for. Initially Bill Murray is excited at the surreal turn of events, as he realizes he can steal money and perfect his wooing techniques, but he grows increasingly despondent when it doesn’t seem like the loop will ever end. The only way out seems to be to win Andie’s heart by becoming a good person, and some genuinely warm n’ fuzzy moments makes up the last chunk of the movie as this transformation takes place. But it takes Phil a long time to get to this point, and the movie becomes a bit darker when you realize the enormity of what his character is actually facing. At minimum, it is estimated that he relives Groundhog Day for at least forty years, though Stephen Tobolowsky, the guy who plays Ned the Insurance Salesman, said one of the writers “felt something like 23 days were represented in the movie, [but the total time Murray is trapped lasted] over 10,000 years.”

The same day over and over again for 10,000 years – not that my friends and I were worried that watching a movie twelve times in a row would be equally as maddening, but the prospect of watching the same movie twelve times in a row was kind of daunting: an entire day in one place, in the same seats, with hundreds of other people eating, farting, snoring and talking, all of us experiencing the difficulties inherent in doing the same weird thing over and over again. My good chum Pat and I were both new to the contest, but our friends Tess, Afton, and Kevin were old hands and explained that the viewings break down like this:

1-4: You sleep through most of them.
5: “This is a good movie.”
6: “This is the best movie ever made.”
7: “…”
8-10: “I can’t comprehend anything that is happening in this movie.”
11-12: Fun because everyone is going crazy, but also excruciating because you’re almost done.

I figured my point of no return would be 16 hours – I had to stay if I made it that far, and Pat assured me that he would convince me to stay. I legitimately didn’t know what to expect.

 

Dylan and Pat in the building

Dylan and Pat in the building

****

The rules of the challenge are as follows:

  • You must be present in the theater for every screening of Groundhog Day in its entirety.
  • Cell phones may be carried into the theater, but must be powered down during the screenings.
  • No laptops, tablets, or other devices are permitted in the theater.
  • Your lanyard must be in your possession at all times during the marathon. This is very important, as the lanyard is punched after every viewing, and you must have all twelve punches to win the tickets.
  • Every time Phil says “Ned”, you must say “Bing!”

“I think it would be funny if they wouldn’t let you socialize, like they make you watch it,” Pat said. “I want them to fucking crack down. I want them to make it a challenge.” I know Pat would fare well in a contest like this, even if it were one of those sinister experiments where you are strapped to a chair and your eyes are pried open as you are bombarded with all kinds of horrible sights and sounds. Pat is up to stuff like that – he has a competitive drive that has made him successful business owner and allows him to be infuriatingly good at every sport. People come to the event in pajamas with pillows and blankets; he firmly considers the people stretched out on sleeping bags in the front of the theater to be cheating. How hard can it be when you are essentially allowed to camp?

A valid point, but I don’t think the theater has psychological trauma in mind when they host the event. The marathon isn’t intended to toughen you up mentally; it’s supposed to be ridiculous fun, and it is. Attendees are encouraged – If not expected – to join in chanting lines, which range from quotable insults to a horrified “UGH!!” when poor Andie MacDowell makes a woodchuck face at Bill Murray. The experience inspires exuberant narration, and attendees yell whatever they want from the anonymity of the theater. A lot of the commentary is genuinely hilarious, but this anonymity also lends itself to some cringe-worthy unfunniness, attempts at humor that make you feel bad for the person who said them. But no worries, you can try again soon – the open invite for audience participation gives everyone a second chance to shine, and indeed, there is nothing quite as affirming as cracking up the people in the rows around you.

****

The first American reference to Groundhog Day comes from a diary entry from 1841, where it is explained that if the groundhog emerges from its burrow and sees its shadow, winter will last another six weeks. This is the same tradition as it stands today. Appropriately, the diary is that of guy from Pennsylvania. The world’s most popular rodent arbiter resides in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, where the movie takes place and where real life Groundhog Day crowds have numbered up to 40,000 deep. The tradition seems to come from a mix of ancient weather lore involving prognosticating animals and contrasting calendrical systems. The pagan festival Imbolc celebrated the seasonal turning point on February 1st, but other traditions held that spring did not begin until the Vernal Equinox, about seven weeks after Groundhog Day, the traditional first day of spring for us in the US. A groundhog or hedgehog was used as a way to settle the disparities between the two calendars, and either choice he makes corresponds to one of the calendars’ first day of spring. Groundhog Day organizers say that the Punxsutawney Phil’s forecasts are accurate 75 to 90 percent of the time. Thirty-three percent accuracy could be expected by chance, and a Canadian study unfortunately shows that weather pattern predictions made on Groundhog Day are right only 37% of the time. Buzzkill scientists from the National Climatic Data Center have described the forecasts as “on average, inaccurate,” saying that the groundhog “has shown no talent for predicting the arrival of spring, especially in recent years.” (Spoiler alert: in the movie, Punxsutawney Phil predicts that winter will last another six weeks.)

Our night started off not in Punxsutawney but in a restaurant next to the theater called Mad Mex. Tremendous plates of nachos were necessary to carry us through at least the next couple of hours, and after 10:00pm everything is half-off. The waiter noted that the new margarita flavor was good because “nobody has sent it back yet,” and it was thus ordered and consumed. Not too long into our meal, a guy sat down next to the hostess’s stand, right across from our table, and promptly broke down in tears. “I hate boys,” he said, explaining that his boyfriend puts everyone else before him.

Patrons of Mad Mex soon began getting up and leaving. It was clear where they were going. They were carrying sleeping bags and backpacks and were dressed in sweats and pajamas, and some people even had laundry baskets full of games and enough food for the next 24 hours. We too left in order to claim the perfect spot. The sad guy from Mad Mex was in an impassioned argument with his presumptive boyfriend on the sidewalk when we walked outside, and they too would likely enter a time warp of their own, arguing in endless circles as they tried to sort out the complications of love.

****

The Marathon Begins…

Back row clique
Back row clique!

12:00 – We quickly realized that the undertaking wouldn’t be as big a deal as we thought – we sat in the middle of the topmost row, with nobody on either side of us for at least three seats. We were able to put up armrests and stretch out and sleep as freely as we wanted to. Sitting in the back row seemed crucial to our success since nobody could hang their stinky feet over our heads, and we weren’t in danger (or as much danger, at least) of something like the hurricane-level of puke that annihilated the area behind some seats in the middle of the theater. But I did begin to understand why the challenge might yet be pretty difficult. Stills from the movie that precede each showing tell you how many times you’ve seen the movie and how many you have left. These stills are supplemented by key soundtrack music played on a loop, so not only did you hear the same songs multiple times throughout the course of the movie but you’re stuck listening to them over and over again before the movie even starts. Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” was followed by a ridiculous number called “the Pennsylvania Polka.” The tradition of clapping along with the latter started as soon as it began playing over the still, and we caught on to that aspect of the event.

Welcomes were given by the staff and the rules were read. The concession stand would be open the entire twenty-four hours and alcohol sales would stop at 2:30am but would begin again at 6am. The first viewing felt more like a normal night out at the theater than the beginning of a ridiculous challenge. I hadn’t seen this movie since 2010 (I remember this specifically because I was housesitting for a guy that had it in his collection) but I pretty quickly fell asleep. I woke up in time to see a surprisingly amazing truck explosion. The truck drives off a cliff and smashes below; its intense smash is satisfying and incredible. The resulting explosion is great too – big, full, multi-layered, good expansion, deep oranges and reds – as is the way the gate bursts open when he drives through it. Note that the grill of the truck breaks when this happens. It became a scene I greatly looked forward to.

2:00am – I was wide awake as the movie began again. On top of the quoted lines and random quips, nonstop talking and settling occur for the first fifteen to twenty minutes of this and every subsequent showing. The atmosphere was that of a giant slumber party.

Pat was lying on the floor resting; he overhears the scene where the local yokel shows Bill Murray a half-full or half-empty glass and says Billy Murray looks like a half-empty kind of guy. “That’s the whole message of the film!” Pat realized. He told me with the sureness of an inebriated philosopher that Groundhog Day is a metaphor for our search for happiness – you could look at the groundhog’s augury like glorious spring is just six weeks away, or that winter will brutally oppress us for six more. In other words, look on the bright side! Life is what you make it! Pat imparted this wisdom and fell back asleep.

4:00am – I was tired and kind of grouchy as the third viewing began. I was worried that perishable food I brought would go bad before I had a chance to eat it but I was too full to keep eating. Nachos were raffled off by theater staff. I noticed that the stunt double used when Bill Murray jumps off the tower looks like Ben Stiller, and that the bath water Murray sits in to electrocute himself is probably ice cold, judging from the cold shower sequence earlier in the movie. I began appreciating the attention to time-related details, like taking into account how doing thing A for a few seconds longer the second time means that subsequent thing B would happen differently the second time around. But sometimes the movie wasn’t as accurate as I’d like in this regard (some events take place in the exact same way regardless of how long Bill Murray takes to do the thing that precedes them), but I realized that I had ten more viewings to obsess over these disparities and so I would be better if I put them out of my mind. It’s just a movie, anyway, right?

Groundhog Day factoid

Groundhog Day factoid

6:00am – I realized I hadn’t even seen the movie all the way through yet. There are scenes that I didn’t remember seeing the first three times around, and there are scenes I saw between naps that I wasn’t sure where/why/how they fit in the narrative. An announcement was made that the concession stand had started serving breakfast burritos. The paper towel dispenser in the men’s bathroom was jammed, but the front had been pried open by attendees desperate to dry their hands.

8:00am – “Now it gets difficult,” a veteran told me, “Most of the sleeping you’ll do has already been done.” I was increasingly annoyed by the peppy song that accompanies the opening credits. The song is called “Weatherman” and was co-written by the film’s director, Harold Ramis. Heard nowadays, the song is totally anachronistic – it is one of those catchy, distinctly American-sounding rock songs that play during the opening credits of comedies from the 80s and 90s. (Which are themselves a very distinct and sorely missed breed.) But I soldiered on. I got an encouraging text from a friend at 8:50: “You can do it!” My parents also cheered me on when the night got started.

10:00am – Somebody nearby started a story that begins with “I didn’t work at PetCo but…” but unfortunately I don’t hear the rest. After five viewings, I still hadn’t seen the movie all the way through, but from this point on, I watched the movie pretty much in its entirety from this viewing until the end of the challenge. The ten o’clock showing was different, as there was markedly more shouting, clapping, and merrymaking, and it increased with every viewing.

Unfortunately this increase in volume also applied to our neighbors and their wellspring of criminally unfunny comments. It was kind of awkward because other unfunny comments fade into the darkness but you are hyper-aware of failed humor when the perpetrators are only a few seats away from you. There is a scene where Bill Murray says he is going to go back to his room and read Hustler; our neighbors yelled “Go read Hustler – everyone likes to see naked ladies!”

12:00pm – I found that I always happened to be looking up at the screen when Andie MacDowell’s name is listed in the opening credits. I also found that the opening sequence of clouds rolling backwards is simple but really cool, and somewhat haunting. I was also able to study McDowell’s distinct mouth, as her twenty-foot visage was on the screen pretty frequently. People in the audience continued chanting at choice moments: each scene with Needlenose Ned the Head is repeated word for word every time. The diss Chris Elliot delivers about the Home Shopping Network is always awarded with a tremendous “OOOOOOoooohhhhh!” Everyone clapped in time with the slaps of the slap sequence and everyone claps sarcastically when the waiter drops his tray. Brian Doyle-Murray’s speech as the mayor is also a beloved moment in the film, as attendees love to help him call Punxsutawney Phil the “Seer of Seers, Prognosticator of Prognosticators.” The increasing dollar amounts are chanted when Bill Murray get auctioned off as a desirable bachelor.

2:00pm – Two young kids were in attendance with their dad. One of the two became a sort of celebrity for the occasion, as he was the first to lead claps and cheers and even yelled a bunch of comments of his own, at the screen and in response to other people who are yelling stuff too. Between showings, everyone around him observed that not only was he having a FaceTime chat with his Grandma but that they were talking in another language. Everyone who saw this looked at each other knowingly, nodding at how hard this kid rules. As the day wore on, the two kids and the dad change seats from time to time, leading one person in the audience to ask “Hey! Where’d that kid go?!” in fear that the family would miss part of the action, or, worst case scenario, that they had left, which would have been a bummer for the kids but also worrisome to the rest of the crowd, for what would it mean for their own endurance if their totemic spirit decided he had finally had enough? Not to worry – his commentary resumed quickly enough, just from different seats.

Pat noted that the scene in which Bill Murray steals the truck/varmint-naps the groundhog occurs almost exactly one hour into the film. We took this into consideration for the rest of the viewings, almost like a breather that the movie is two-thirds of the way over. The coffee served by the movie theater is surprisingly good, and refills are free. Pat noted that Bill Murray gives the finger to the camera – during the second newscast he does on the first day, the 3-2-1 countdown ends with 1 being his middle finger. Lots of details like this are noticed, including the unsettling layer of reverb/creepy frequency placed over top the ‘Pennsylvania Polka’ when Bill Murray gets freaked out.

“Ohhhhhhh…SIX!!!!”

4:00pm – This was the wildest showing yet. The hootin’ and hollerin’ reached a hilarious, exuberant pitch. The audience has taken to yelling “SIX!!!” every time Bill Murray’s alarm clock goes off at 6:00am. A wag in the audience also yelled “3:02!!” when that time was shown on a clock. One of my favorite shots is the giant alarm clock face switching from 5:59 to 6:00. I found myself yelling along with everyone without even intending to.

Our genius neighbors got told for the second time to put away their electronic devices during the showing of the movie. They take huge offense to this despite the rules’ clear prohibition on devices, and the scolding was a topic they discussed with the utmost derision every twenty minutes for the rest of the contest. “We’ll give her an anti-bitch coupon if she’ll let us use our phones,” they snickered. The also took to calling the attendant a “device Nazi.”

The audience’s sense of humor reflected the fact that we’d been there for sixteen hours: “That’s Shia LaBeouf’s stepdad!” someone yells when Production Assistant Alecia LaRue’s name rolls by in the credits.

6:00pm – I began getting kind of antsy. My stomach was weighted down with food, as I’d eaten all my provisions out of fear that they’d go bad. I wondered if I could sneak into a different movie. I wasn’t too bothered by the ethical dilemma of not seeing every single showing, as sometimes self-preservation trumps morality. But just getting up and walking around is good too:

Pressure ulcers, also known as decubitus ulcers or bedsores, are localized injuries to the skin and/or underlying tissue that usually occur over a bony prominence as a result of pressure, or pressure in combination with shear and/or friction. The most common sites are the sacrum, coccyx, heels or the hips, but other sites such as the elbows, buttocks, knees, ankles or the back of the cranium can be affected.

A simple example of a mild pressure sore may be experienced by healthy individuals while sitting in the same position for extended periods of time: the dull ache experienced is indicative of impeded blood flow to affected areas. Within two hours, this shortage of blood supply, called ischemia, may lead to tissue damage and cell death. The sore will initially start as a red, painful area. The other process of pressure ulcer development is seen when pressure is high enough to damage the cell membrane of muscle cells. The muscle cells die as a result and skin fed through blood vessels coming through the muscle die. This is the deep tissue injury form of pressure ulcers and begins as purple intact skin.”

The customary ‘SIX!’ yell started off a ‘7! 8! 9!’ succession. Someone yelled “You can count!” in response, to which the initial yeller yelled “I’m a math major!” This was actually true – the proud math major was observed doing math homework between each showing.

Our neighbors’ choice comment from this showing addressed the motivations of the “creepy” psychiatrist Bill Murray sees: “Mommy touched me when I was little so now I’m going to help people,” they narrated.

In 2012, Bill Murray embarked on a nationwide party tour in which he would come to your house and hang out, provided you call him Keyser Söze and had a banner out front that says “Bill Murray can crash here!” There was some speculation/hope that he (or anyone from the movie, for that matter) would make a surprise appearance at the contest, especially since Murray reportedly has a house in Dublin, a nearby suburb.

(Bill Murray was also said to have this trick where he’d walk up to you and steal your hat [and not return it] just so you could tell your friends that Bill Murray stole your hat. Yes, it would be funny, but reckoned I would also be pretty annoyed if he stole my lucky hat. As he hadn’t shown up, it did not seem that this was in danger of happening.)

8:00pm – I got up and walked around for the last forty-five minutes of this showing. I met Max Vokhgelt in the lobby and he told me that he and his friends were keeping some tallies: “I’ve Got You, Babe” plays ten times in the movie, as does the “Pennsylvania Polka.” I added this to my own list of tallies: Bill Murray is slapped ten times, once because he asks to be slapped, once in the bedroom, and eight times during the sequence showing his repeated failure to woo Andie MacDowell. Fifteen snowballs are thrown during the snowball fight sequence, the last being a particularly (some may say unnecessarily) forceful throw at a kid. There is an uncomfortable scene when Bill Murray tries to get Andie MacDowell to stay with him – she offers ten refusals to his fifteen inducements to stay. He hits himself in the face three times in the psychiatrist’s office. “Strrrriiiiiiike!!” is yelled by the audience when the guy gets a strike at the bowling alley, and someone pointed out that, come the final showing of the movie, the guy will have bowled twelve strikes, a perfect game. Candice at the concession stand said that everyone was cheery and optimistic when the day started but by this point everyone was red-eyed and looked defeated. Alcohol sales were steady. The staff was commendable for the quality of the bathrooms – I was worried about potential hygienic disaster but it had all been managed perfectly. The movie theater itself did not take on the offensive odor one might expect from three hundred people sitting around and eating all day, so that was a relief too. This was the penultimate showing and people seem to be gearing up for an explosive final viewing.

9:00pm – someone in the first row was clearly using a tablet. It was a dark theater, so any source of light was completely noticeable from anywhere in the room. A few people started booing, and a few people yelled warnings at the dude to put it away. Suddenly, the movie stopped and the lights turned on – a staff member walked up to the guy and told him he committed his final error and that he’d have to leave. My neighbors renewed their colorful invectives against the fascist theater staff, as they were beside themselves that such an affront was actually taking place. Not that I encourage submitting to some arbitrary authority, but the rules for the marathon were very clear, not to mention the offending party had been repeatedly warned that devices are verboten any time the movie was playing.

10:00pm – the last showing was great and worth the 22 previous hours. Everyone immediately started yelling and cheering when the movie began, and everything yelled throughout the night was repeated again, but much louder and more enthusiastically, if that was even possible. People got up and danced to the opening credit music and the music used to transition between scenes. The warnings for Bill Murray to watch out for a shovel that’s about to hit him reach a fevered pitch, with the awesome kid in the audience noting sadly that “he never heeds our warnings” after Bill Murray gets clocked. Someone yelled ‘HOGROUND DAY!’ and for some reason this was utterly hilarious. The scene where Gobbler’s Knob is named for the first time was an audience favorite: “Wait for it….wait for it…. [‘Gobbler’s Knob’] YEAH!!!!!” “Why is that funny?” someone asked. Uh, what? The place is called Gobbler’s Knob for crying out loud! The last viewing definitely felt like the shortest. I wanted the movie to progress not so I could go home but to hear the new commentary to our favorite parts of the film. But before you knew it, the challenge was over. No more stills or Pennsylvania polka or card-punching once the credits finished scrolling. People gathered their belongings and shuffled out of the theater as easily as if they were leaving a normal night at the movies.

The movie originally ended with Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell waking on February the 3rd to find that Andie is trapped in her own time loop, and I’m sure there would be more than enough people willing to stay for another twenty-four hours. I’m sure Pat would have been up to it.

 

11 down, 1 to go!

11 down, 1 to go!

****

As is the case with any fun event, once it is over you can’t believe all of the anticipation and antics have finally come to an end. It is weird experiencing something unusual with hundreds of other people and then leaving as if nothing had happened. It was kind of a bummer to bid goodbye to all these intimate strangers.

Walking home was a little strange because my sense of time was genuinely kind of skewed. Not that I am by any means whatsoever comparing myself to people who have actually experienced some kind of horrible real life imprisonment, but I had the briefest glimpse into what confinement-induced time disorientation must be like. It felt like ages ago that Pat and I walked from my apartment to the movie theater, but it also felt like no time had passed at all. Fortunately I was already wearing sweatpants and comfortable tennis shoes – the discomfort of my compressed ass could be addressed by running a few laps around the block.

Would I do the challenge again? Possibly, as the last couple of viewings are definitely worth experiencing again. Will I do it again? I’m not sure, for right now the idea of seeing a movie in a theater sometime even in the next month is pretty unappealing. But I do have a year’s worth of free tickets, so a night at the movies might be in order to simply to celebrate my dubious accomplishment. Having ate and slept and lived there for a day, the theater almost felt like a home away from home.

(Apparently a musical adaptation of Groundhog Day in the works, which I will absolutely not be seeing once, let alone twelve, times. A musical marathon would be tantamount to torture, even if it is based on a story I have come to know intimately.)

 

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2 Responses to Today is Tomorrow: 24 Hours of Groundhog Day

  1. This is a really great write up. Thank you for sharing. Have you been to another movie yet?

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