So, Punxsutawney Phil predicted an early spring this year. Thanks to Bill Murray’s classic performance in the famous film, you know what I’m talking about. America has a lot of strange, offbeat traditions or holidays, which is to be expected in a commercial republic of 328.4 million people that bridges the world’s two largest oceans.
Immigration into the republic played, and continues to play, a role in the strange and offbeat traditions of America’s regions. The contributions that immigrants bring to the republic are immense, and include cultural as well as economic positives.
The strangeness of some, if not all, of our traditions is, counterintuitively perhaps, emblematic of the cultural power of American film to enrich not only American life, but life around the globe. Hollywood’s impact on global culture by itself is astounding, but when you think about the cultural production of life in developing economies like India (which now has Bollywood) and Nigeria (Nollywood), it’s hard not to be humbled by our place in the world. American films shape the views of billions of people around the world.
But why did American cinema ascende the globe? Why didn’t, to use one example, France’s filmmaking industry assume prominence? Or Soviet cinema? The most reasonable answer would be that cinema took off in popularity around the same time that the United States came out as the clear winner in World War II. Our commercial republic avoided much of the territorial and industrial devastation that the other victorious powers absorbed in the war. A more interesting answer would be that policies in competitor states like France or the Soviet Union regarding cultural production led to poor quality filmmaking. French sociologist Jacques Delacroix has a non-scholarly article on this latter argument here, if you’re interested.
Groundhog Day is obscure, and could have remained a regional oddity if it were not for Murray’s film. A “Pennsylvania Dutch” tradition, versions of Groundhog Day first appear, in writing, in the United States, in 1840. The German-speaking peoples who settled the New World had a tradition of weather predicting by a furry animal (usually badger or fox or even a bear), and this was continued by using the groundhog in place of the Old World’s forest-dwelling rodents. That’s a weird tradition. Not in a bad way, mind you, but it’s weird, and Americans accepted it, processed it, and gave it a whole new life. Now, well-cultured people around the world celebrate this odd holiday by watching the film that celebrates a universal parable in its own unique way. And thousands descend on the tiny town of Gobbler's Knob every year to see the event in person.
The film itself was directed by Harold Ramis, who was Murray’s co-star in Ghostbusters (he was Egon), and co-written by Ramis and Danny Rubin (who now lectures in Harvard University’s English Department). The film only met with modest success at the box office, but like all classics, like all producers of culture, it has stood the test of time and become one of most-loved comedies of all time in American life.
Groundhog Day might even be one of the best comedies in global life, too. Imagine what life would be like without the freedom to express yourself. For many people in the world today, that is the way it has always been and always will be. For Americans, it’s unfathomable. That’s the lesson I drew from Punxsutawney Phil this year. That’s why I love living in America.