By Doug Ammar
Though I was encouraged to develop a one-hour professional CLE, no one encouraged me to use a movie. My encourager didn’t realize that I was a movie lover. (In fact, I reviewed movies for the law school paper). One of my favorite movies is Groundhog Day – staring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, directed by Harold Ramis. But how do I teach professionalism from a movie about a sarcastic weather man who is stuck in the same day? What does a nearly 20-year-old romantic comedy have to say to lawyers about what is most noble in our profession? Before I tell you let me first get you up to speed on this “movie of movies” by reminding you of the plot.
Phil Connors (played by Bill Murray) is a weather man assigned to cover the most famous groundhog (Punxsutawney Phil in Punxsutawney, PA) on Groundhog’s Day. An unexpected snowstorm traps the Pittsburg based weather crew (Murray, MacDowell as the producer and camera-man Chris Elliot) for the night. The next day is . . well . . . not. It isn’t the next day – it is the same day – February 2 all over again. The day is repeated, over and over. The twist is that everyone else in Punxsutawney doesn’t know they are reliving the same day (and thus have the same experiences). Murray’s character, however, remembers everything. So he is trapped in same day (Groundhog Day), yet he alone remembers reliving each day – carrying forward the lessons and memories, one day to the next.
Phil enters the movie as a selfish, self-important, and arrogant person. He is conceited and a bit hedonistic. He fancies an interest in his new producer, Andie MacDowell. But she is not interested. Faced with re-living the same day, he possesses significant power. Armed with this power, Phil still focuses on his selfish pursuits. Though he begins using this opportunity to get what he wants – money, sex, etc. – it doesn’t help him with Andie. All of his planning fails. Every attempt to win her ends in defeat.
About half way through the movie, Phil reaches the bottom. He becomes nihilistic, defeated and suicidal. His creative efforts employed to off himself are some of the funniest scenes in the movie. From the bottom, as they say, the only way to go is up.
By the end of the movie, Phil Connors is a changed man. No longer arrogant and self-centered, he is humble, other-centric, and fully engaged with all those around him. He is an artist – skilled as a jazz pianist and creating beautiful ice sculptures. He is a humanitarian – saving folks, some from certain injury and others from inconvenience. He quotes poetry and sees potential and warmth in the things he once resisted and despised. And his love interest in Andie MacDowell finally has a future.
What leads to his change? Therein lies the true gem in the movie.
What is this movie about? Is it simply a romantic comedy? Is it just a silly movie about a guy who can’t get out of the same day? It is a wonderful romantic comedy – but it is so much more. I believe the movie is about human maturation: more specifically moral and spiritual development. There is a story of human development buried in this romantic comedy.
My belief in the movie’s profundity was bolstered by a New York Times article a few years ago. A long article on the cover of the Sunday arts section announced that Groundhog Day was the most taught movie in graduate school film classes regarding the intersection of spirituality and films. With the backing of the New York Times and having listened to the director’s comments on the DVD version my wife gave me one birthday, I knew I was onto something.
THE TURNING POINT
When teaching this class, I love to ask folks what leads to Phil’s change. What is the turning point in his moral development? Sure there is his love interest in Andie McDowell. Sure he has the chance to learn. But what leads to his change. Then I show the scene.
The scene I show is less than three minutes long. Yet this scene, when Ramis and his crew presented their finished product to their Hollywood backers, set off an alarm. The money-men in Hollywood extolled Ramis to remove the scene.
You have to take it out. This is America. No one wants to get depressed watching a comedy.
“I can’t” Ramis responded.
Again they protested. “The movie is wonderful but you have to remove this scene.”
Ramis stood his ground. “You don’t understand. This IS the movie!”
What scene am I referring to? It is the scene where, after Phil reaches bottom and starts to come up, after becoming interested in art – he tries to save a homeless man. The homeless man, who has no spoken lines in the entire film, dies each and every time Phil tries to save him. Yet Phil calls the man father and dad. Phil gives him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Phil embraces this man on every level. All to no avail.
Phil’s efforts with this man prove pivotal. Only after this scene is Phil truly humble. Only after this encounter is Phil concerned for those around him. Only after Phil fails to save this man’s life, is he then available to suffering and joy of those around him.
I believe that it is in Phil’s failure that he finds power – power to be a force for good.
And it is only after this lesson, only after this failure with the old man, and only after his actions saving others, that Phil’s own salvation is delivered. After Phil finds this power and uses it power for others, he is freed from his own problem of re-living the same day.
THE LESSONS – FOR THE LEGAL PROFESSION
This movie offers plenty of lessons. It addresses issues of power and suffering and engagement and poverty. How did Phil understand his power? What was his power? For what purpose did he have it? How did he use it? What of those who suffered around him? The poor – was he even aware of them? Was he engaged with the community around him?
To all of these questions the answers change pre vs. post-engagement with the homeless man. He is aware of his power (and uses it for good!) only after he recognizes his powerlessness. He is engaged with those in pain only after he is intimately connected to the one most obviously suffering. And his only suffering is abated when he embraces the suffering of the person most distant from his reality. He is fully transformed by the end of the movie. His transformation was made complete through his engagement with the homeless man.
In the CLE I encourage lawyers to think about their pro bono work. While representing a person pro bono, for instance, is their sole objective to win? Is that how we define our service work in the profession? Or is there another, broader opportunity? What is your relationship to those you serve? Are you open to their humanity, to their suffering, to their reality? And, in your service work are you open to the possibility that your work, your pro bono service, could serve the purpose of changing YOU? Or is your power – even as a volunteer lawyer – wrapped up solely in your bar card . . . versus your humanity, your heart, your vulnerability.
FROM THE LESSONS OF THE GEORGIA JUSTICE PROJECT (GJP)
For 20 years I have been working at the Georgia Justice Project (GJP). GJP is an unlikely mix of lawyers, social workers, and a landscaping company. We represent folks charged with a crime and, win or lose; we stand with them as they rebuild their lives.
We provide free criminal defense. We represent our clients (and others) to help them overcome the debilitating civil consequences of a criminal record. We provide social services when we accept clients. If our clients go to prison, we stay with them by visiting them and arranging prison visits for their families. Once out of jail or prison, we offer some clients a job on our landscaping company to help them re-enter society.
Our legal work, to be sure, is powerful. We keep scores of innocent folks from being convicted. We secure non-incarceration outcomes for all but a handful of our front-end criminal clients.
But, like Groundhog Day, our work is not just about the (legal) result. I believe that at the heart of GJP’s work is a personal embrace that uses legal services not as an end, but rather as a beginning. I believe that lawyers possess power, and though we should use that power in service to others, our power might keep us from a deeper lesson. The opportunity for our redemption, like Phil Connors, might lie in our defeat. Service could open the door to a Hegelian revelation: serving others opens the door to our salvation. The highest use of power might be to lay it down - at the feet of those we serve.
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