U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Harold Ramis: Orson Welles or Reaganite? (Guest post by Andrew Seal)

[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

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Probably also worth mentioning: the main worldly (i.e. neither Gozer nor Zul) is EPA agent Walter Peck. His name is close to “pecker”—he’s literally almost a dick. If you were really going to stretch, you could read the beginning of the film, when Egon Spengler and company lose their university support for paranormal research, as a criticism of secular humanism in the academy.

      • I see that less as a critique of secular humanism than 1)a critique of the university not all that different from the one in animal house, as a reactionary bureaucracy controlled by vindictive old white guys, and 2)an example, pace Sheila Slaughter and Larry Leslie/Gary Rhoads, of the ways that shifts in university science research funding produce an entrepreneurial faculty. Ghostbusters as university-incubated startup. (The focus on the gentrifying Upper West Side and particularly Rick Moranis’ character Louis, however, suggest to me that neoliberalism is at least as much the object of the film’s satire as it is its narrative motor and/or governing episteme.

    • Thanks, Zach! This is a really great interview. I particularly appreciated this anecdote:

      “during the appeal process, the Weather Underground had planned a Days of Rage demonstration. They ran up and down the street, smashing car windows and stuff. My first reaction was, “Yeah, right on!” But then I thought, “Wait, I’m parked out there.”

  2. Great post. Ramis was certainly a Popular Front filmmaker… here, I think, Popular Front comedy (a la Sturges, Lubitsch, Wilder) should be differentiated from Welles’s metier, which was Denning’s (after K Burke) “proletarian grotesque”–comedy with the laughter taken out.

    Popular Front comedy was obsessed with the insanity of institutions–so Frank’s vulgar Marxism would make Billy Wilder a conservative, too. The Marx Brothers, too. What he forgets is that Marx was also obsessed with the insanity of institutions, which is why the Eighteenth Brumaire reads like slapstick. The single metrics of “attitude towards the state” or “for or against workers” are just totally inadequate.

    It is redundant to say, but Ramis’s most perfectly Ramis-ian film was “Groundhog Day,” which is, besides being a perfect film in every respect, a candidate for the great last Popular Front film (Trading Places, 9 to 5, Monsters Inc, Planes, Trains, and Automobiles are probably all contenders, too). Its intense interest in repetition as an organizing principle of capitalist life makes it also one of the finest comedies about capitalist everyday life and one of the most experimental films ever released by a Hollywood studio. If we are searching for the politics of Ramis, that’s where we should look, I think.

    • This is a really fantastic comment, with so much to think with and think on. Thanks so much!

      I agree with your preference for Groundhog Day as the best place for reading Ramis’s politics–it’s his richest and also most personal text. But I am also interested in the politics of his ’78-’84 films, and I think there’s a lot to say in reference to them about the interaction of both emergent and residual historical blocs, as well as the inheritance of multiple moments of class formation (or deformation). I can’t really do justice to that in a post (or a comment), unfortunately, but I hope something comes across!

      I think these films’ primary investment is, in fact, not in a laborist culture or environment; I don’t think they’ve totally lost their grounding in a proletarian idiom, but it does no longer predominate. Instead, they are more taken up with the new class coalitions and affinities forming at that time. By which I mean, that I think they have less to say about an unmaking of the working class (à la Cowie) and more to add to the kind of project that I think Turner or (in a completely different direction) Bethany Moreton and Shane Hamilton are trying to do.

    • I’ve never considered *Groundhog Day* perfect in every respect, but I’m 100 percent willing to watch it again in Kurt’s frame of mind. – TL

  3. Hi Andrew–

    Really enjoyed this post a lot. And the comments. Quick thoughts, pardon any typos please.

    I think there’s a fascinating new move here to rethink the 30s-60s cultural relationship (kind of the cultural version of Isserman’s If I Had a Hammer on the political Old and New Lefts), but now via 80s movie culture.

    You almost start to picture a kind of “long popular front” film culture that runs from the 30s through to the 80s (with Ramis as among those breathing its last gasps perhaps?). But I think you are right to turn to someone such as Turner for the ways in which the sixties New Left/counterculture at once continued and abandoned this cinematic ethos. Most of all, it strikes me that you are correct: the libertarian dimensions expanded from the Popular Front understanding of culture as an arena for fighting fascism in all forms into the 60s counterculture, New Left, anti-Vietnam War milieu of opposing bureaucratic liberalism to the kind of post-counterculture world of Ramis, Ackroyd, and crew in the 80s. The libertarian side expanded, but the communitarian dimensions fell away, maybe except for buddy movie, boy’s clubhouse kind of fraternizing (which is intriguing in relationship to second wave feminism bursting on the scene in the 60s and especially the 70s).

    I do think that Turner comes out more fundamentally against the anti-politics of what he calls the New Communalists (Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog crowd). He argues that their refusal to accept the “agonistic” politics of other New Lefties, the way in which they cut off, indeed fiercely rejected and fought against traditional political organizing and confrontation, was their downfall in trying to shape a radical cultural politics that was pro-technology but anti-mass society. I think (1) the counterculture of the 60s was more than just what he calls the New Communalists and (2) there is more to sort out about their libertarianism in relation to their “communalism” but those are topics for another conversation.

    Finally, one argument I make (in The Republic of Rock) is that if we use Denning’s brilliant notion of a “laboring of American culture” in the 30s popular front milieu, we need to think about how, in the 1960s especially, there was a kind of “leisuring of American culture,” a fundamental and powerful turn to leisure, particularly new ideas about consumer leisure and play and pleasure and “free time” (as Adorno called it in the late 60s), that needs more study and analysis as a historical bloc (to stick with our recent Gramscian turn on the blog!). Ramis and crew’s films seem to be juggling the older residues of Popular Front film culture with the newer ideologies erupting out of the 60s. This is what makes them useful against something like Turner’s focus on Silicon Valley/tech world alone or Cowie’s focus on traditional labor movement and working-class culture. Something else coming into view here with traces of both 30s and 60s, getting crunched and reprocessed and edited into a strange weird 80s brew. It was “morning in America” then, after all (though a pretty bleak sunrise of course!).

    Thanks for this great post!

    All best,
    Michael

  4. PS

    My Turner comments are in response to your thought that “Turner’s account generally abstains from judgment.”

    And my “leisuring of American culture” riff might be understood as an appropriation of Warren Susman’s work (though he has a different timeline of the labor to leisure transition than either Denning or me, asking us to think of a 19th century “producerism” giving way to a 20th century “consumerism” and a related shift from “character” to “personality). Also drawing on excellent edited essays on consumerism and culture in the 80s put together by Jackson Lears and Richard Wrightman Fox.

    Best,
    MIchael

  5. Michael,

    Thanks so much for these comments! I really appreciate the response to my all-too-cursory discussion of Turner. You’re definitely right about his ultimate position on the New Communalists; I was just trying to contrast his approach with Frank’s. I feel that where Turner tries to understand and evaluate Brand et al. on their own terms, Frank comes to them with a political (and crypto-moral) grid already drawn up.

    More generally, I think your concept of the leisuring of American culture was precisely what I needed in this post to make sense of the historical bloc I was pretty clumsily edging towards. And as to your comment about Ramis & crew offering something different from Turner’s Silicon Valley folks and Cowie’s last days of the working class, I think that what is quite distinct about Ramis and Second City is geography: while Cowie talks about Haggard some, if I remember correctly his book does not get much more into the interior than eastern Ohio. Maybe it is just my own academic interests shaping my reading, but I think there’s a great deal to be said for the influence of a quite conscious Midwesternness on the Second City alums (or on a host of Midwestern comedians from that era: Bob Newhart, Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Pryor, Dick Gregory, Lily Tomlin….), a specific mix of countercultural and Popular Front influences that gelled better there than elsewhere.

    Anyway, thanks again!

    • I think Cowie’s big midwest example is Akron’s Devo, right?

      (The Second City and sketch comedy in general was of course also a midwestern Canadian phenomenon: SCTV, for whatever strange reasons, was based in Edmonton for several years).

  6. FTR, I’m related by marriage to Harold Ramis, know our family in Chicago, my wife appears in Caddyshack [Harold cast her without knowing they were related].

    I also had the pleasure of meeting his co-writer–my idol Doug Kenney [National Lampoon High School Yearbook Parody, which formed half of Animal House along with Chris Miller’s Tales of the Adelphi Lodge]–before he aced himself in Hawaii.

    These guys–the Lampoon and Second City, then Saturday Night Live–ARE the mainspring of American comedy since 1970.

    And Groundhog Day will live as long as they show movies; it is perfect and it’s beautiful. Translate it into any language–or no language atall–show it on the biggest screen or on the smallest screen, and I think people will get it.

    RIP, Harold. You were funny, the greatest compliment you ever sought. Plus you were honest, because one cannot be one without the other.

  7. I think the commenters here don’t know how movies are made. The script for Groundhog Day did not spring from Ramis’s fingertips directly to the screen. The film is not his text. The script is not his text.
    Many successful Hollywood types talk one way, vote another and put their money into still another direction.

  8. Belinda, thanks so much for this comment. It is a very important reminder for us to use caution when thinking about the negotiated and collaborative nature of, I would say not just films, but of many other forms of cultural or intellectual production. It is often by our general tendency toward auteurism that we can lose sight of the contributions of, as I wrote about here before, the women who are key interlocutors but whose names are not the ones on title pages, or other forms of explicit intellectual acknowledgment.

    That said, I think in this instance we can certainly go too far the other way and argue that we can learn very little about Ramis because Groundhog Day isn’t his text alone, but the production of many hands. I’m more optimistic, I guess, that if we find certain motifs in Groundhog Day that we can firmly connect to known facts about Ramis or to themes and ideological structures present in other films he worked on, that we can say something worthwhile about what “Ramis thought” or what “Ramis believed” or wanted or imagined or considered important. I for one cannot kill off “the author” quite yet!

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