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Saturday, December 20, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 26.0° F  Overcast
The Daily
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Jimmy the Groundhog, we salute you

If you don't like what one groundhog says, try another. This morning the nation's more-or-less official groundhog -- Phil, of Punxsutawney, Pa. -- predicted an early spring, but out in Sun Prairie our local rodent prognosticator, Jimmy, declared to top-hatted officials that winter will last six more weeks. That also is more or less what the calendar says, but who knows?

Groundhog Day is a charming midwinter frivolity, a festival celebrating an American legend that, since sometime in the 19th century, has declared groundhogs, those humble burrowing beasts, to be at least as accurate in predicting the weather as any Charlie Shortino. In recent years, though, we have added another Groundhog Day ritual to the quirky small-town revels: A Hollywood movie set, in a very focused way, at one of those quirky small-town revels.

As you probably know, Groundhog Day is the 1993 film starring Bill Murray as an unctuous television weatherman forced, by some supernatural twist, to endlessly relive Punxsutawney's Groundhog Day festival, an event he despises. The film opened to mixed reviews -- some critics found the film puzzling, and insufficiently funny -- but in an ironic development, this film about unstinting repetition is now, every year at this time, unstintingly repeated on basic cable. (Comedy Central is showing it twice today, three times tomorrow.)

I recently revisited the film for the first time since it was in theaters, and I found myself moved beyond proportion. Directed by Harold Ramis, a director far more spiritually minded than he is usually given credit for, Groundhog Day is a meditation on boredom, greed, lust, ambition and despair, a lovely poem about how we humans never can be quite happy with the familiar, or satisfied by the new.

The film has much to teach us. As it begins, the Murray character does not even attempt to hide his contempt for the Punxsutawney event and the merrymakers -- the hicks, he calls them -- who adore it. But as his predicament unfolds, he grows kinder, more generous and thoughtful, and finally the screenplay by Ramis and Danny Rubin has him deliver a news report from the Groundhog Day festival so jarringly eloquent that I am delighted to quote it in full:

When Chekhov saw the long winter, he saw a winter bleak and dark and bereft of hope. Yet we know that winter is just another step in the cycle of life. Standing here among the people of Punxsutawney and basking in the warmth of their hearths and hearts, I couldn't imagine a better fate than a long and lustrous winter.

The rapt Punxsutawney onlookers cheer when he finishes, in a moment that makes me (okay, I'll admit it) a little weepy. Murray's words are sheer highfalutin hokum, of course, but they also are a reminder that the world has more to offer us if we respect each other, and if we look for the surprising beauty around us -- in our rituals and customs, for example, no matter how silly they seem.

It is a lot to think about this long and lustrous winter, and cozy nights by the proverbial fire are good times for thinking. So let us toast Sun Prairie's Jimmy (and his photos and webcam), and thank him for as much winter as he can give us.

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