You know how sometimes when you say a word over and over again out loud, it starts to become unfamiliar and disjointed and meaningless? That’s the best way to describe the experience of the 24-hour Groundhog Day Marathon, an annual event hosted by the Gateway Film Center that challenges participants to sit through 12 showings of the Bill Murray film in a row from midnight on Saturday to midnight on Sunday without sleeping or using electronics during the movie. The prize for sticking it out: mild psychosis and a year’s worth of free tickets.
Well, I made it through the marathon and collected my rewards. It was a unique experience, and one that has weird effects. When you’re in a dark theater for that long, watching the same thing straight through one night and well into the next, everything starts to blend together and lack of sleep makes you slightly delirious. Time becomes recursive rather than linear, measured only by what scene is playing and how many holes are punched in your official card. All you know for sure is that winter won’t be over anytime soon.
“So if you’re feeling lonely, try to understand: Baby, I can warm you up, ’cause I’m your weatherman.”
Over the course of 24 hours that song goes from odd to annoying to oddly comforting. I hear the weatherman song for the first time as I look for a seat in the dark, still huffing a bit from running down 11th Avenue at 11:57. I nearly arrived too late, which is a real shame because I’ll only get to see that opening scene 11 more times. Spirits are high for this first screening, and as groups stake out floor space for blankets and sleeping bags, the whole thing feels more like a slumber party dare than the Ludovico method. History’s first marathon was run by an Athenian all the way back from Marathon to tell his countrymen of a great battle against the Persians that had just been won there. After the news was delivered, he collapsed and died from exhaustion. By the time this sedentary marathon is over, I think my ass might drop dead.
“People like blood sausage, Rita. People are idiots.”Are we idiots for doing this? As I wait in line to get my card punched after the third showing, I start to wonder. The first was fun and the second went by quickly, but it feels like this last one took forever. Nine more to go? An idea of just how long this day will be starts to sink in. It’s nearly 6 a.m. now, and some marathoners are losing steam and nodding off; the guy next to me is snoring. Really though, if you wear pajamas and bring pillows and blankets you’re setting yourself up for failure.
“Watch out for that first step, it’s a doozy…” The people love them some Ned Ryerson. One of the contest rules requires you to say “bing!” along with Ned when Phil says his name, but plenty of audience members go beyond that and shout along with more of his lines, or just say “bing!” at random points. By about halfway through the day a couple of people sitting behind me can recite the whole scene beginning to end. Sitting in Gateway’s Torpedo Lounge, I watch the opening scene on the TV above the bar for maybe the 8th time overall. I’ve retreated here from the theater to have a sandwich, drink PBRs, and get a change of scenery. The guy a couple seats down from me claps along to the Pennsylvania Polka. He’s alone among the six of us in the bar, but I know everyone in the theater is doing the same—this is one of 15 or so parts in the movie that always get a big audience reaction. It’s a fun ritual that gives the marathoners a sense of camaraderie, but I’ve started to get sick of it by now.
Phil: Excuse me, where is
Woman on Street: To Gobbler’s Knob.
It’s Groundhog Day.
Phil: It’s still once a year right?
Oh the good, wholesome people of rural Pennsylvania. The whole town is so innocent, not a soul makes jokes or even thinks twice about how they named it Knob Gobblin’ Park. Some of us big city types in the theater have dirtier, snarky minds; there’s some giggling at this line. Maybe I’ve started to lose it, but for me this has become one of the funniest parts of the movie.
“Punxsutawney Phil, seer of seers, prognosticator of prognosticators.” Seven viewings in, I run out of fresh thoughts to have about the movie. My handwritten notes from this point forward are full of unsuccessful attempts to find anagrams for “Punxsutawney Phil.” I know that little rat is hiding some dark secret, and it might just be SEXY PUTIN HUN LAW. Damn, there’s an extra P left over. I’ll crack this yet—I have to. The groundhog seems to be in league with the Russians—national security is at stake.
From my notes, thoughts at the marathon’s halfway point:
– Like Phil, I too pray for the sweet release of death
– I would probably come to hate any movie after watching it six times in a row
– With repetition, polka music quickly turns from cheery to nightmarish. It has very likely been used as an interrogation method in Guantanamo Bay
– Every year from now on February 2nd I’ll probably think about this day and have terrorizing flashbacks
– What if there really is no tomorrow?
“I’m a god, not the god, I don’t think.” It sometimes seems like the fandom surrounding Bill Murray borders on religious fervor. His image is printed on t-shirts as modern iconography, and people tell stories of him showing up unexpectedly at their parties like they were Saul on the road to Damascus. Who are these marathoners in the theater if not a group of ascetic monks who have withdrawn from the world into this hermitage to come closer to their god? I contemplate this on my way back from the bathroom after I accidentally walk into the theater next to the Groundhog Day one, which the Gateway rents out to a church on Sunday mornings.
As the fifth screening ends at around 9:40 a.m. I start to get seriously bored. Groundhog Day is a funny movie—a good movie—but it’s not what you’d call dense or complex. After watching it twice I had noticed every little minor joke that might have gotten past me the first time, and for the last few, I’ve been watching the extras in every scene. At the part when Phil gives the choking mayor the Heimlich and a piece of steak flies out of his mouth, there’s an extra sitting nearby who catches a bit of spit on his face and discreetly wipes it off. I see him do it every time, and wonder if his acting career ever went anywhere.
“Could I have one more of these with some booze in it please?” It’s nearly 8 p.m. and the 10th screening has just finished. I’ve mostly hung out in the bar drinking cheap beer for the last seven hours after receiving assurances from more than one Gateway employee that it’s not cheating because the movie is on in here, too. It’s much easier to stay awake in the bar where the lights are on and I can discuss with my fellow marathoners how much we’ve come to hate the Pennsylvania Polka and when Andie MacDowell’s southern accent comes through.
“It’s so beautiful, let’s live here.” Towards the end of the last showing, the crowd is keyed up again like they had been 24 hours ago for the first one. But it’s a slightly different energy now—the crowd feels anxious, like they’re collectively willing the movie to just end already. Once it finally does, they cheer and line up to get that final hole punch and their envelope of tickets. At the end of the Day, was it all worth it? My confirmation bias is telling me yes. Once I get back to my apartment, it feels unfamiliar, as if the Gateway was my real home now. The marathon was beautiful in its own weird way, but I don’t want to live there anymore. •
Nick Steffas is a senior at Ohio State University who now can see movies for the free for the next year.