essay, Film

RIP Harold Ramis…A Celebration of His Genius

IMG_2693_V1

Harold Ramis died today at the age of 69. He was a talented actor, comedian, and writer but for me he will always be best remembered as a genius director. I could go on for pages and pages about his talent and ideas but instead I will limit myself to just a few words on what I believe is his masterpiece, the film Groundhog Day.

Everyone by now knows the plot of this great film. What people may not realize is how subtle and genius the philosophical issues underlining the plot are. It is essentially a story about a man living in a world he feels he cannot control. Phil (played by the grossly under-estimated and under-utilized Bill Murray) finds himself trapped in a time loop that causes him to repeat what may be the most banal day of his life. This film could have been nothing more than a comedy of errors that allowed Murray to run rampant through this little town using all the jokes and tropes in his bag of tricks but Ramis did not let the story go that route. Instead he gave Murray and the rest of the cast a task to explore what it means to be a human being confronted with the boring, bland and even oppressive monotony of the everyday. Ramis’ story is Nietzschean in its view of time and place, positing a eternal reoccurence of events and circumstance that starts out as comical and slowly moves on to the absurd, the tragic and then finally the transcendent.

This would not work the way it does if not for Ramis’ skill with framing scenes in such a way as to elicit a sort of cinematic/aesthetic deja vu. We do not see actors redoing scenes, we see them reliving them and in this it enhances Murray’s performance and allows him to interact with the characters in such a way as to bring out the desperation of a man who has realized that his life is a loop that is unable to be broken. We come to realize with Phil that the seemingly mystical redo of this day is not so mystical at all but just a more literal manifestation of the everyday. Nothing changes in the world, nothing except for how we react to it, the choices we make and the interactions we have with other people. For the first few days (or is it weeks, or years?) of Phil’s experience he continues to push himself to do the same thing over and over again, to try and recreate his experience from the perspective he brought to this town he did not want to visit to do a task he never wanted. But soon he realizes that he has a chance to not only change himself but to change the world around him. He learns to play the piano, he becomes an expert on the goings on of this town and its people, he makes friends, forms memories, and makes realizations about himself in relation to others. Nothing changes in the world around him but he changes, and through this he slowly begins to change the people and the world he interacts with. His interactions with his old high school chum, the insurance shill Ned, starts as a comedy of errors but Phil’s disdain for the man slowly becomes an affection that leads him to realize that in his own way Ned is trapped in his own loop. By interacting with him as a human being instead of just as an annoyance he is able to transcend the strangeness of their interactions and help release Ned from his nightmare, the everyday. This epiphany is repeated with other people, most notably his love interest played ably and believably by Andie McDowell, and most tragically with the homeless man who hides in plain sight on the margins of this little universe. He tries to help this man, to improve his life in some way, but continually runs into the true end of this endless loop: death. The man cannot be saved because this man has reached the end of his journey. Phil is thrown into a depression that is all the more profound because he once did not give a shit about anyone or anything. He tries to kill himself, countless times and in many creative and silly ways, but he cannot ever do the deed. Maybe this is because he is not ready to die? Maybe it is because he is not meant to? There is no answer to that question as there is no answer to the finality of death.

The the structure of the movie moves from cynicism to hilarity to farce to cynicism and eventually, inexorably to revelation. Not a religious experience, not some cheap throwaway message about eternal life or the inherent joy of existence. Instead change comes when Phil finally gives up trying to change the world and his circumstances and instead focuses on changing himself and being a good, compassionate friend to those around them. It does not matter in the end that they may not remember this or even reciprocate his generosity and friendship, what matters is the experience of the joy of the moment and the love of people and their flaws, stupidity, and imperfections. People are not meant to be perfected, they are meant to change. Change is not positive or negative but instead regenerative, a constant cycle of renewal and growth that, like the idea of natural selection in nature, moves the individual into greater harmony with and understanding of the world around them. The world itself, the whole, changes so slowly that it may as well be the same day over and over again. Phil embraces this and that is when he is freed from this perverse parody of the everyday.

It takes a real visionary to be able to take such a basic set of tools and turn them into something truly profound. Harold Ramis achieved that feat with Groundhog Day. Groundhog Day may be the most successful American comedy of the past 50 years in regards to its honesty, creativity, humor and craft. I try to watch the film at least once every year and I am continually inspired by Ramis’ ability to take what is essentially a ridiculous concept and turn it into a sort of  transcendent examination of what it means to live day to day and how our own choices are the main way we escape the drudgery of life. It is a perfect existentialist examination of what it means to be a person living in a world that does not change save for the actions of each person.

Standard
Olympics

I Love the Olympics!

1912395_10152218002799216_1313645311_n

I have watched every Olympic Games since 1992 in Barcelona…one of my earliest memories of anything is watching a Spanish diver jumping on a spring board into a clear blue pool. It was sunny out and I remember thinking that it looked very fun what these amazing looking athletes were doing.

I have never myself been a very athletic person. Sure I will play the occasional game of pick-up basketball and I enjoy playing games like anyone else, but I have always been a sports fan. I have watched the Chicago Bulls since I was a toddler and I am still a fan (even though they are sucking right now…WHY DID YOU TRADE Deng?) and I watch American football as a more passive observer. I am  a new fan of Football (soccer) and have been watching the world cup and international league matches since 2006. I still remember when the World Cup was in Chicago and my dad told me about all the crazy Japanese and Brazilian tourists running around the streets and Union Station waving national flags! My dad (a former high-school Greco-Roman wrestler) got me into MMA fighting and now I am something a of a fanatic for that sport as well! I guess you could say I have always had an appreciation for sport.

But the Olympics have always been special to me, especially the Winter games. I think it started with the flags…I have always been something of an amateur vexilloligist and having a chance every two years (I grew up in the post Albertville biennial games era) to many of the beautiful flags of the world on parade with the people that they represent always enthralled and amazed me. It is the international character of the event that captures my interest as well. Seeing so many different sorts of people from all over the world all together to do something inherently cooperative and peaceful. Some nations that only ever meet on the battlefield or angrily over a conference table in Geneva can set aside this animosity and just relate on a human and athletic level. The athletes are the real reason I watch, above everything else. Watching the women’s downhill snowboard competitors hug each other after each of their runs really drives home how cynical so much of the world can be and how much sport can teach us about compassion, cooperation and friendship.

Being able to see all this beautifully maintained and crafted human forms, male and female, in motion and doing things that you would never see otherwise is another draw. There is very little that is more exciting then watching a person go down an icy hill face first on a tiny sled going 145kph, and the grace and power of a figure skater flying about on blades twirling and jumping in the air will never cease to amaze me. That is one thing that has made the Winter Games stand out to me, the ability to transcend gravity and and embrace the true power of physics. The Summer Games are wonderful but there is nothing to compare to the speed and the power on display in its winter counterpart, save perhaps for BMX racing.

There are negative aspects to the games of course: the corruption of the IOC (which I feel needs to be abolished and reformed into something truly egalitarian and humanitarian), the gross attempts by corporations to cash in on the games and turn them into yet another line on a profit report, and of course the ignorant, jingoist, supremely sexist and mawkish coverage of the games by NBC in the US (the sexism in particular galls me as a man with three younger sisters and a wife, all of whom were or still are involved in some sort of athletic endeavor). I wish there were a way we could watch the games in the US without the 1950’s style “story-lines” shoved down our throats by the network, but until we can find a way I suppose the mute button will have to do.

I really do love the Olympics. It makes me happy and it allows me to see parts of the world I may never be able to see, and cheer for people I will probably never meet. It introduces me to sports that are neglected in the US and to ideas of partnership and cooperation that are all to rare in the everyday world, especially in our hyper-capitalist money driven individualist mindned US.

It is nice to see another world out there were more than just profit and power matters.

***

Sports I will be paying special attention to this year:

Ski Jumping

Figure Skating

Hockey

Luge

Standard
poetry

Semele

kingrichard

The following poem is an excerpt from my soon to be finished play “The Fields of Eleusis”

Oh Muses sing your endless song of lust and fatal abandon

Sing of Cadmus dancing mindlessly to this succulent threnody

Giving his seed to Harmonia, who wore the ill-starred brooch on her breast,

The world was given Semele, a beauty to tempt the gods!

It was not long before the ever wandering eyes of Zeus beheld her charms

As she stood upon his altar bathed in the blood of a sacrificial bull

The God-King was struck with love incurable

And he thirsted for her

Parched he set out for this fertile spring

And knew her like the rains know the yearning fallow fields

But she who wore the polos of Olympus, Hera, beloved of thunder maker

She was jealous of her husband’s new lover

And descended from her heavenly perch in the visage of a crone

Befriending Semele and sowing doubt in her love-struck mind

Pregnant with the child of Zeus she now feared he was not who he said

And begged him to grant her a boon worthy of his power

He swore on ever flowing Styx that he would abide

She begged him to reveal his splendor in full

Consumed with sadness and remorse Zeus did abide

And showed her his eternal form in all its terrible glory

And like the endless fire of the sun burns the deserts and the sand

She fell to ashes, consumed by his awful glory

But Zeus would not let the child of their union perish

So he clove his thigh and sewed the babe, not ready to be born, up into it

And after month passed on month the new god, Dionysus, sprung from his father’s wound

Twice born, once from the ashes of his stricken mother

And once again from the flesh of his immortal father

So great a god was Dionysus that the very earth rejoiced by given up

Its intoxicating berries

And the twice-born god made wine for all peoples to revel and celebrate

The union of mighty Zeus and fair Semele

And the child the created

Gift to earth and heir to heaven’s heights!

Standard