Existentialism in February Talk on 'Groundhog Day' Themes - and the Usual Fun - Shadow Festival

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Byline: Cheryl Chojnacki Daily Herald Correspondent

Sometimes it takes something - well, a bit superficial - to get people talking about the deeper issues of life.

"Groundhog Day," a 1993 comedy starring Bill Murray, is a case in point.

Directed by Harold Ramis and also starring Andie MacDowell, the story, of course, is of Phil Connors, a "prima donna" weatherman. He's doomed to relive the same exasperating day over and over until he finally confronts his own character, or lack of it, and is brought to true humility.

Woodstock Groundhog Days has been a midwinter hit ever since it got off the ground in 1994, and "it's the most fun you're going to have in Woodstock in February," publicity chairwoman Eileen Millard promised.

But this year's festival marks an anniversary.

It's been 15 years since Hollywood descended on Woodstock's picturesque town square to make the award-winning movie.

The town was thought to be prettier than Punxsutawney, Pa., long known as the country's official prognostication headquarters for the legendary groundhog's Feb. 2 forecast.

Festival activities in Woodstock begin tonight and run throughout the weekend.

New to the schedule this year is a symposium for adults and kids who want to discuss the deeper issues of the story: the spirituality of man's need to become a better person, redemption, the path to enlightenment.

The session will be led by Mitch Olson, who teaches education and psychology classes at Elgin's Judson College.

One of the things that fascinates Olson about "Groundhog Day" is its resonance with people of widely differing religions - Christian, Jew, Zen Buddhist, humanist, existentialist, to name a few.

"Every faith claims that movie as their own," Olson said. "To me, that's something worth talking about."

This universal appeal is probably a nod to its universal truth, he said.

"The 'monomyth,' the theme that goes through all of literature - good vs. evil - is the one thing that we all have in common with our consciences," Olson said.

"It's so beautifully portrayed in this movie. You identify with Phil Connors. You become Phil Connors."

Though played for laughs in "Groundhog Day," Olson said the idea of a person living through the same day countless times over actually comes out of a far less humorous book by 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

"His whole premise is that in life we keep reliving the same life every day," Olson said.

"It's an existentialist belief. It's not exactly what I believe, but I'm not going to push my beliefs. I'm just going to show all the different ideas I have."

For his part, Olson is intrigued by the Old-Testament concept of the Ebenezer stone, which he sees as a "Groundhog Day" influence.

Signified by stone altars of dedication built by the early Israelites, "the Ebenezer marks a point of change," Olson said.

There were plenty of stones in the movie, as Olson is reminded every time he drives by Mulford Quarry, near his home in Rockford. …