[Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal — LDB]
What would you say the politics of the late Harold Ramis were? The writer or director of Animal House, Caddyshack, Ghostbusters, Groundhog Day, Stripes… obituarists got a writing cramp listing his greatest hits. Most critics and fans have described his films and scripts as irreverent, anti-establishment, or anarchic.
But a CNN tribute, which you can see here, calls him the Orson Welles for Generation X, and, though I think the comparison wasn’t meant politically, it is difficult to invoke Welles and not summon the Popular Front along with him. And that connection to the Popular Front makes a certain amount of sense, at least to me: I might have intuitively said that Ramis was the Preston Sturges of the generation that came of age around 1980, but Sturges was not the Popular Front figure that Welles was, and that parallel, I think is crucial.
When Ramis died, I checked out his Wikipedia bio for some fast facts, since I knew relatively little about him. Ramis’s peak occurred before I was born, so while I’ve seen his major films, I encountered them disconnectedly, not as part of a career but as part of a general cultural landscape. At any rate, a line in the entry made me stop short:
In an interview in the documentary American Storytellers, Ramis said he hoped to make a film about Emma Goldman (even pitching Disney with the idea of having Bette Midler star) but that none of the movie studios were interested and that it would have been difficult to raise the funding.
A lot to process there (The Divine Miss M? Disney??), but it made a certain amount of sense given what I already knew about one of the incubators of Ramis’s talent, The Second City improv group.
The Second City was founded in 1959 by Bernard Sahlins (the brother of anthropologist Marshall Sahlins), who describes in his memoir the inspirations for the troupe as “some vague ideas of European cabarets, and dim memories of the Living Newspaper and the Pins and Needles Review done during the Great Depression by the WPA Theatre.” Vague ideas and dim memories provide slim evidence, but it is not terribly difficult to see in the work of many Second City affiliates or alums—Elaine May, Ed Asner, Mike Nichols, Peter Boyle, Alan Arkin—the impress of the Popular Front, what Michael Denning has called the “laboring of American culture,” the long-term echo of the Thirties’ proletarian accents. In a later post, I might try to substantiate this hypothesis, but for now I’ll just throw it out there: the Second City was a descendant of the Popular Front.
Whether Ramis was himself part of the Popular Front legacy is less sure. Thomas Frank has written about Ramis and states in no uncertain terms that Ramis’s real politics gelled perfectly with the Reagan Revolution, not with the CIO. Frank argues that Ramis’s subversive humor shouldn’t be reflexively categorized as liberal just because it mocks authority. Republicans mock authority all the time, Frank points out, and they mock the kinds of authorities that often end up the butts of Ramis’s jokes.
I’ll let you read Frank’s piece—some of it is convincing, some of it isn’t. For instance, he reads the main conflict in Caddyshack as being between one kind of rich white guy and another kind of rich white guy, rather than being between rich white guys and an exploited pool of contingent labor, i.e., the caddies. And he doesn’t touch Stripes, which might create some problems for his Ramis-as-crypto-Reaganite argument, and most of his evidence for the innate conservatism of Ramis’s films is anachronistic, but Frank seldom makes historically precise or measured arguments, so it’s rather beside the point to grade him on his grasp of the details.
In fact, I’m inclined to agree with Frank to some extent. A book that makes a much better version of his argument is Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Looking at Brand and a number of digital pioneers, Turner traces the tangled lines of New Left, libertarian, and neoliberal thinking that intersected in Silicon Valley (and Ramis certainly voices many Silicon Valley-ish sentiments in this video). Turner’s account generally abstains from judgment. It doesn’t see the subversive energy of the Sixties funneling straight through the Me Decade into the tragedy of the Reagan Democrat, the way that Frank does. Instead, it looks at the anti-establishment position as a historical bloc, with leftist and rightist variants, with mixed motives and mixed results.
Were Ramis’s films liberatory, or just libertarian? I don’t know—on the mere basis of his films, you wouldn’t shock me if you told me Ramis voted for Reagan in 1984, and you wouldn’t bowl me over by telling me he made regular donations to In These Times. That extreme ambiguity is itself a legacy of the breadth and force of the Popular Front and of the New Left—we cannot trace clean genealogies. But it’s a question we will be facing, I think, for a broad range of intellectual and cultural figures from Ramis’s moment as we continue to put them in historical perspective