Monday, February 24, 2014

RIP Harold Ramis 1944-2014

Corey Sipkin/NY Daily News/Getty Images

I remember watching the original Ghostbusters with my dad at the movie cinema. I can't recall if at the time I knew it was supposed to be a comedy. I remember being stoked to experience this picture, because it was about four guys with cool looking laser gun type things battling ghosts. My imagination was instantly captured in the first few minutes of the picture with the ghost librarian and I was immersed into the comical but exciting world for the entire running time. 

The strength of the writing is clear by how this picture was able to resonate at many levels towards many demographics. It was a fantasy action-adventure that occasionally made me laugh back when I was a little boy, and exactly the type of picture that this Star Wars fueled kid was in love with. It has remained a beloved movie as I've grown up and my taste in stories has expanded, because it was able to elevate beyond a mere genre. It was a witty and biting satire of old fashioned horror pictures but it also took the time to craft fleshed out characters along with having substantial dramatic moments and scenes that challenged some of the social issues of the time. It has depth, but remains a delightfully exciting and funny popcorn muncher. It also may be one of the very few high-budget comedies that succeeded in pulling out a high degree of laughs from the audience.

As an emotional boy with a vivid imagination that aspired to be the class clown but was always far too shy to reach that prestigious height, my affections leaned more towards Dr. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) and Dr. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd). I couldn't relate to the scientific and almost robotic Dr. Egon Spengler. I remember almost being more intimidated by him than the ghosts, and I couldn't understand why he'd spurn the advances of a girl (liking girls was never something I had to grow into). It would be fair to say he was my least favourite character the first time I saw the picture, but I still rooted for him because he was part of the awesome Ghostbusters.

The little boy was oblivious to the fact that the man playing Egon was partly responsible for the movie that I adored (he co-wrote the script). Back then, I couldn't dissociate actor from character. I also wasn't at the point where I could appreciate subtleties and nuance. I clearly wasn't aware that I was witnessing the comic genius of Harold Ramis. One of the most important actors, writers and directors of my lifetime. But I've had a lot of time to grow and learn since 1984 and I am much more aware of this man's impact on cinema.

It is easy to recognize the comedians that bounce off walls and make crazy impersonation as the apparent kings and queens of comedy. The comedians who are superstars because they instantly grab you and shake you up and take command of every scene. Ramis likely isn't the first person you think of when trying to list the funniest people in movies. He was never the lead or the person with the most memorable laughs in pictures. But even if he wasn't the easy comedy headliner, he was a clear comic genius, talented actor, and a great filmmaker.

30 years later, I now recognize the brilliance of Ramis' performance and his importance to Ghostbusters. Well, I realized it much faster than 30 years, but as time has gone on, it the Spengler character that has stuck with me. It is the Ramis performance that stands out as the one that really ties the picture together and is the real glue of the movie. Not only is Ramis incredibly funny, but he is the one that makes everyone else look that much more brilliant and wonderful. It takes a special talent to not steal the spotlight from other comedians while being funny but rather put on a performance that make everyone else's jokes that much funnier and brighter.

Ramis as Egon delivers so many witty but also ridiculous jokes in an expertly dry and serious manner that often it takes a few seconds to really hit you with their charm and genius. It is a droll performance that is so understated and peculiar that Ramis may be the only person who could have ever pulled it off. It was also the type of character Ramis perfected in his acting career. I wouldn't say he was typecasted or continued to go to the well for each performance. But rather that none of his characters were ever the obvious comedy focus or ever aware they were comedic, because every time his character considered himself serious and smart. Ramis was never afraid to reveal how goofy his characters truly were but it took a bit work to find those jokes. When you uncovered them, each one was a precious gem.

I can now recognize that his characters were almost always the highlight of the movie. Ramis was able to command each scene he was in and portray such a powerful wit without ever once stealing a scene from the real leads. He delivered some of the best laughs, but you often weren't really aware of it while it occurred. He still allowed the superstar comedians to give the impression they were running the show. Ramis was always a delight even when he was "slumming" it in lesser movies. He has one of the best scenes in the not so great Airheads as the undercover cop. After Ghostbusters, his acting really was left to smaller parts, but always some of the funnier parts of the picture.

His roles diminished because even though he is a brilliant comedic actor, his true gift was in directing and writing. He has crafted some of the most iconic and defining comedy picture of the modern era. He made obviously funny comedy pictures that comfortably shifted into other genres. They were straight comedies that never truly felt like pure comedies, and we always got much more than we'd expect. 

Groundhog Day is one of his greatest crowning achievements and a true symbol of his skill and what he gave to cinema. It is a romantic comedy that doesn't quite feel like a romantic comedy and one that easily attracts those that would claim they hate such a genre but still appeals to the very fans of that genre. It is also a picture that plays to the fan boys and girls that like to debate the real meaning of stories and try to solve the riddles of a sci-fi or fantasy picture. It has something that almost no other romantic comedy can claim, which is a mythology. It came out in 1993 but many a film geeks still like to debate exactly what caused the crusty weatherman Phil Connors (Bill Murray) to be trapped in the loop that would torment but also reward him. Unlike many other similar movies, the fact we were never given a real answer is actually more satisfying 

The picture follows the tried and true romantic comedy pattern of two people who hate each other at the start but gradually fall deeply in love as the picture progresses. It turns out to be much more than that. It is a clever twist on the Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life that focuses more on the main character seeking redemption but first being shown such a thing is what must be sought. It is an intriguing character study that starts with a caricature but slowly allows him to become fully formed. It ends up being about more than just Phil learning the error of his ways but is also an effective looks at the magic of small town life. At the same time it is a film full of deeper imagery and symbolism that rewards one who goes for repeated viewings. It is a classic that has grown in prestige and wealth as the years have gone by.

Ramis was a funny screenplay writer that always knew to add in deep human elements and willing to play within various genres in order to provide a good story but also amplify the jokes. His films were rich and much more complicated than one could see on the surface. He also proved to be a director who could pull out incredible performances, and it shouldn't be any surprise many of Murray's most acclaimed pictures came from Ramis' direction.

If one tries to compile some of the most classic and complex comedies of the past several decades then you'll often find pictures that Ramis either wrote or directed. Animal House, Stripes, Meatballs, Caddyshack, National Lampoon's Vacation, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day are not only iconic comedies that are considered treasures of the genre but have all had great influence on many comedies and sitcoms that have proceeded them. These pictures have not only inspired countless comedians and filmmakers and created the template for other pictures, but they've held up well for new film fans.

Ramis always made pictures that would have jokes that grew over time. Pictures that offered things that made other genres great. He'd do straight slapstick but also have warmth and heart, but then toss in some high octane action. This approach to making films that went beyond comedy often meant that even his failures turned into pictures that exceeded their initial reputation. Analyze This, Year One, and Ice Harvest are films that even with their flaws and missteps still have some entertaining moments and offer up something different than many much more generic comedies. The talents of Ramis always shone through and he created some of the most ambitious of comedies.

Ramis' pictures were always something special. It is sad to think that a man who played a big part in defining my childhood and created films that I hold close to my heart won't be creating any more. He won't be forming any new memories for me. His catalogue is now done. It is a wondrous and rich catalogue. One that I plan to return to over and over again.

Ramis will be missed. I send my condolences to the people that actually knew him and have been hit much harder by this. He will be remembered and celebrated for a long time.

As thanks for all he has done, maybe I'll watch a few of his pictures on constant repeat.

RIP Harold Ramis.

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