The recent passing of this prominent comic actor, writer, and director has engendered much debate about what his films mean. I think that the discussion has been valuable in reminding us that cultural products of all stripes can carry much more meaning than is commonly understood.
Writing at National Review Online, Brad Lips of the Atlas Network revisits the subject of Harold Ramis, and in particular conservatives’ admiration for the anarchist-comedy filmmaker, writer, and actor and the abject revulsion some current-day progressive statists express toward Ramis.
Lips’s essay constitutes a particularly devastating takedown of Thomas Frank, author of the 2004 book, What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which looks down on conservative voters who, in Frank’s estimation, are acting contrary to their economic self-interest,” as Lips aptly describes it. Lips’s zeroes in on Franks’s recent article Salon article in which, as Lips summarizes it, “[Franks] acknowledges Ramis’s comic genius but warns his ideological fellow travelers that they’re wrong to see Ramis as a defender of their values, calling Caddyshack ‘a piece of crypto-Reaganite social commentary.’”
Their particular bone of contention is the anarchic military-comedy film Stripes:
Will Thomas Frank ever wake up from his own Groundhog Day, in which he wonders why normal Americans just get on with the stuff of living instead of joining his dreamed-of progressive revolution?
For more than two decades, Thomas Frank has put his eloquence into making the same sophomoric cultural critique. I first became aware of Frank in the early 1990s, reading his magazine, The Baffler, which I considered a highbrow indie-rock fanzine. Like so many of us cliché hipsters of that era, Frank lamented the lowbrow tastes of the masses. But when the masses came around to digging Sonic Youth too, Frank continued to lament. Applying cultural theories of Marx-via-Gramsci, he saw that whatever subversive messages once existed in “alterative music” had been corrupted by society’s ubiquitous consumerism. Frank didn’t want us indie kids to celebrate any victories until the capitalist system itself was smashed.
I don’t want to go overboard here and repeat the mistake of politicizing what should be simply entertaining. Harold Ramis was no tea-partier. As I understand it, he identified with the antiwar Left of the 1960s and wanted that to show through in his work in Stripes. The military brass in that film is depicted as incompetent and uncool. In that sense, perhaps, Stripes was “anti-war.” But here’s the thing: It was also unabashedly pro-America in a way today’s Left no longer tolerates. In Stripes, we were flawed, but our Communist adversaries were evil. We might be the wretched refuse, but we’d wear it as a badge of honor. And in the America of Ramis’s imagination, we inevitably got the last laugh.
Lips and Franks largely agree on what Stripes and other Ramis products mean; they just disagree very strongly on what judgment to make about them.
Lips shows a truly liberal, generous point of view toward the normal people who populate most of American society even unto this woeful day, and his evisceration of Franks’s elitism and statist mentality is salutary and enjoyable to read.
However, Lips omits something about Stripes that is important to understand: Ramis may have intended to make it conform with ideas of the antiwar left (though I don’t know that and I don’t suppose anybody else does, either), but what the film really reflects is a strong anti-government attitude that has abundant precedent in many films and books since World War II, especially beginning in the late ‘50s.
This sensibility manifested itself in a large number of “service comedies” such as Operation Petticoat, Mister Roberts, No Time for Sergeants, The Wackiest Ship in the Army, Wake Me When It’s Over, and many others, plus many more serious (and less overtly enjoyable) books, movies, and television series such as Catch-22 (‘60s book and 1970 film), M*A*S*H (‘50s book, early ‘70s movie, and ‘70s TV show), Slaughterhouse Five (book and movie), Onionhead, and many, many others.
Stripes is in the classic “service comedy” mold, firmly in the comic, entertainment-oriented quadrant of this very strong anti-government, anti-bureaucrat, anti-authority tradition, and thus that aspect of it fits perfectly well with the rest of the observations Lips makes.
Ramis was more consistent in his thinking than is readily apparent.