Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Harold Ramis (1944–2014)

Harold Ramis has died at the age of 69. He directed two films dear to me, Groundhog Day and Ghostbusters, and had a hand in many others I enjoyed. By all accounts, he was a selfless collaborator, and this is amply on display in Ghostbusters, which Ramis acted in and cowrote with Dan Aykroyd. Ramis plays Egon Spengler, the no-nonsense brains of the outfit, meaning he delivers some great lines deadpan, but mostly plays straight man to Bill Murray and Aykroyd – and let them have most of the funniest lines. (He also often showed sound judgment as a writer and director, as when he rejected a studio idea that the cause of Phil's Groundhog Day predicament should be a jilted ex soliciting a gypsy curse on him.) Some great tributes have been written to Ramis, but I wanted to take a look at Ramis' craft and artistry, especially since comedy often don't get no respect.

The difference between a decent comedy and great one is often just a few elements, and Ramis' successes demonstrate that well. Three aspects stand out for me – the ending, exploring the premises, and the human core of the story. (Obviously, in a good story, all of these will overlap.)

Let's begin with endings. They can be tricky, and it's not uncommon for a story to go for the big climatic scene and flop. The typical forced-versus-earned climax chooses spectacle over character, and loses sight of what made us invest in the story earlier. A forced climax in action and horror films tends to be a big-but-hollow CG spectacular. Comedies often build toward madcap mayhem, the ultimate chaos of the film – but in the forced versions, it all feels strained and artificial. In The Party, the forced climax is the all-too-predictable, everyone-in-the-pool-with-the-baby-elephant bit. (Some people love the film; I think Peter Sellers is brilliant and delivers some great moments, including a hilarious Gunga Din parody, but don't like the overall flick much.) In American Pie 2, it's the turn into the third act – the overamped-for-the-circumstances scene where the bros hear their other bro is distraught and has gone walking on the beach alone (oh noes!) so they must find him urgently, pull him out of the film's lowest moment (bro despair of little more than a minute or two) and then stride back to the beach house together, gorgeously lit as the music swells, bro-triumphant. (I only saw the first two films in the series, and they have their moments, but that sequence felt forced, unearned and reeked of filmmaker desperation.) I'm sure readers can come up with their own examples. But compare the misses with the finale of Ghostbusters. The extended showdown with the demon Gozer, who transforms into the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, is absolutely hilarious. The editing build-up of teases and reveal is perfect, Dan Aykroyd's lead-in is masterful, and the ensemble play off each other beautifully, with some classic lines. (Ramis: "I'm sorry Venkman, I'm terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.") The climatic parade mayhem scene Animal House is likewise actually funny. In a different tone, Groundhog Day's big celebratory party scene feels completely earned, as does the final morning wake-up scene. Ramis knew how to set up his partners for a topper, and at his best, he really stuck the landing.

Many films don't fully explore their own premises. It's a key frustration for viewers of a near miss, usually voiced something like, "They had a good idea, but they just didn't know what to do with it!" The better the core idea, the more maddening the whiff is. In the best films, that exploration has happened during the writing process, dozens of bad (or merely not as strong) ideas have been tried out and discarded, and the final script reflects all that thought and experimentation. The best scripts work through all the weak spots until the character(s) and the plot click together and are inseparable. Groundhog Day is one of those films for me, and I've praised it more times than I can remember on those grounds. I found it immensely satisfying when I first saw it, because every time I thought, "What about...? What if he tried..?" the filmmakers actually explored it. (Groundhog Day was originally written by Danny Rubin, but it was significantly reworked in collaboration with Harold Ramis, and both authors deserve some credit for the script's success.) Dumb characters are maddening to watch. Phil (Bill Murray) is certainly selfish, self-destructive or despairing at points in the movie, but he's not dumb. He tries everything – personal advantage, charity, suicide, conning Rita (Andie MacDowell), and many other approaches. The basic idea of being stuck in a particular place has been explored countless times in storytelling, and the idea of being stuck in a specific day or returning to the same spot has been done several times in sci-fi. (I've actually argued that Groundhog Day can be viewed as sci-fi/fantasy/speculative fiction – using an unusual situation to explore some facet of the human experience.) Groundhog Day covers similar ground to other "trapped" stories, and it's actually funny to boot (even moving). That's quite the feat.

On that point – Groundhog Day works so well because Phil not only amuses us, we begin to really care about him and his predicament. There's a human core to the story. (In Ghostbusters, that element isn't as strong or crucial, but we do grow to like the team.) Groundhog Day is one of Bill Murray's best performances, and the importance of that can't be underestimated. But the screenplay, cowritten by Ramis, creates the path, and Ramis' direction guides that performance and sets the story's pace and build. There's a great line in The Fisher King where Jack (Jeff Bridges), who's in genuine despair and feeling deserved guilt, says, "I wish there was some way I could just pay the fine and go home." He wants an easy out rather than actually changing. One of the triumphs of the The Fisher King is that it fully explores that dynamic and what it takes for Jack to truly transform, and Groundhog Day pulls off something identical. After a lovely night with Rita, Phil tries to recreate the magic another night, but it's forced and artificial, and doesn't work. In a different vein, he tries to save the life of a homeless man, but nothing he tries succeeds. Both of those elements are pretty damn profound for something sold as a comedy. (The sequence of deaths is also masterfully assembled.) Death can't be cheated forever, and sometimes not even for day; true love is not a matter of tricks or following the um, perfect script, but of honestly, intimately connecting with a human being. Call it soul or heart, but we need to care about Phil for the film to resonate ultimately; Ramis and the rest of the team provide a recognizable human experience in the fantastical by grounding the proceedings in an emotional reality. ("Imaginary gardens with real toads in them.")

All of this is to say that Harold Ramis' best work shows a craftsmanship and artistry that's genuinely impressive. Here are a few scenes to demonstrate this. First, here's one of my all-time favorite comedy scenes:

Ramis deadpans his bit expertly, as does Ernie Hudson in his reaction. Notice all the exposition and setup in this scene hiding under the comedy? It starts with Ramis, Aykroyd builds on it, Murray mentions the EPA and asks about the grid, gets an update, and then the scene closes with a callback – "What about the twinkie?" We get several funny lines – all rooted in character – plus plot development, all in about 45 seconds! That's mighty efficient.

Here's the bridge scene, the most serious one from the same movie. Ramis isn't in it, but he and Aykroyd wrote it, and notice that only this combination of team members could have this discussion. The scene is actually pretty spooky for a comedy, and builds the stakes and tension:

Over to Groundhog Day. Murray's very good here, but this sequence also shows off how tightly written and edited the film is:

In this later clip, Phil tries to recreate the connection he felt with Rita building a snowman on a previous Groundhog Day. But Phil's trying to force things, and discovers that the magic doesn't work like that:

Well done.


Harold Ramis on the metaphor of Groundhog Day (video).

The Los Angeles Times obituary.

The New York Times obituary.

The Chicago Tribune obituary .

The NPR obituary

The Variety obituary.

Rob Vaux's fine remembrance.

The io9 remembrance.

Ubiquitous character actor Stephen Tobolowsky, probably best known as Ned Ryerson in Groundhog Day, has a great remembrance of Ramis.

The Wrap: "Harold Ramis, ‘Buddha of Comedy,’ Remembered By Rainn Wilson, Judd Apatow," "Harold Ramis and Bill Murray: Inside The ‘Groundhog Day’ Duo’s Decade-Long Feud" and "President Obama Makes ‘Caddyshack’ Joke in Tribute to Harold Ramis."

Esquire:"An Oral History of Ghostbusters."

Indiewire, 2013: "5 Things You Might Not Know About Groundhog Day."

The New Yorker, 2004: "Comedy First: How Harold Ramis’s movies have stayed funny for twenty-five years."

DVD Review, 1999: "Anatomy of a Comedian."

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