' Cinema Romantico: In Memoriam: Harold Ramis

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In Memoriam: Harold Ramis

"Much as I want to be a protagonist, it doesn’t happen, somehow. I’m missing some tragic element or some charisma, or something." - Harold Ramis 

In the seminal "Ghostbusters", our trio of entrepreneurial parapsychologists are eating Chinese takeout in their shabby Tribeca headquarters. Unexpectedly, a call comes in. A hotel is reporting a ghost. The alarm sounds. The three men descend the close-at-hand fireman's pole to their waiting mode of transport. Stantz (Dan Akroyd) plummets with an urgant pep. After all, half the reason he wanted to buy the place was because of the pole. Venkman (Bill Murray) slides down with a box of the aforementioned Chinese food in one hand and chopsticks between his teeth, transforming a heroic moment into something sardonic. Spengler (Harold Ramis) slides down by literally hugging the pole, his face a shriek of abject terror.


Well, we'd all like to be have either Stantz's joy or Venkman's cool irony, wouldn't we? But most of us don't. Most of us are Spengler, sliding down the fireman's pole of life, scared out of our minds. Much as most of us want to be protagonists, it doesn't happen. Instead, we have to be content as supporting players, living our own lives off to the side, only a fraction of it picked up by the camera, content with our hobbies of collecting spores, molds and fungus.

Of course, even supporting players can play a major role. The first person Michael Jordan thanked in his Hall of Fame Introduction speech was Scottie Pippen, and Ramis was sort of the Pippen to Bill Murray's Jordan. The story has been told so many times as to induce overkill, but on this morning it bears repeating - Ramis going for a run on the set of "Caddyshack", which he directed, and giving a dramatic play-by-play of his jog aloud to himself in the manner of a sports broadcaster, and consequently pitching that idea to Bill Murray in his small but vital role as Carl Speckler. Murray ran with it, improvising his famed "Cinderella Story" speech. You get by with a little help from your friends.

I am aware of "Caddyshack's" place in pop culture but I will confess it is not a film close to my heart. Still, last summer when my friend Matt - a "Caddyshack" fan - asked me to tag along with him to a special screening of it at the Music Box, the old-school indie theater in my neighborhood, I obliged. Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips spoke afterwards, and listening to him espouse on how Ramis the director had to both harness and wrangle outsized and combustible personalities like Murray, Chevy Chase and Rodney Dangerfield made me realize how much movie directing is also human resources. If I have a favorite scene in "Caddyshack", it's the lone tete-a-tete between Chase and Murray, which Ramis mediated since each man despised the there. Chase and Murray may have made it funny, but Ramis made it happen.

As an auteur, Ramis's most notable quality was really just non-fussiness. His real skills were writing and deploying talent. In Tad Friend's insightful 2004 New Yorker interview, Akroyd notes that Ramis's contributions to the "Ghostbusters" screenplay were incalculable. "(H)e knew which passes to throw Bill," Akroyd said, "so Bill would look funny throughout.” (Scottie Pippen!!!)


"Groundhog Day", a screenplay which Ramis heavily rewrote before directing, was an utterly brilliant mixture of tone - as funny as it was poignant, as wry as it was heartfelt, comedic but imbued with a philosophy that while simple was never hokey. It was a truly special achievement, a film that in keeping with its theme has, somehow, not seemed to have aged a day. I vividly remember watching that in the theater as an idiot teenager and being as moved by it as I am as a mawkish thirty-six year old. Maybe this is because we are all in an eternal struggle to better and/or make peace with ourselves. I don't know that Ramis ever climbed higher than that 1993 peak, and I don't know that he'd disagree with me, and I don't know that any comedy director could have climbed higher.

In 2007, Ramis, who passed away yesterday at the age of 69, was featured in a cameo as Seth Rogen's dad in "Knocked Up", a film featured under the Team Apatow umbrella. As that character, in that scene, Ramis projected such conviviality. The script did not allow him to delve much into his background in raising Rogen's Ben Stone, but the performance conveyed a gladness in his path and a gladness with where he wound up. Apatow and others on his Team have not been shy in singling out the influence of Ramis, and this is what made the moment doubly patriarchal. Ramis's character was happy with his son and Ramis himself was happy with his legacy.

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