The Dark Power of Harold Ramis

1000px-Harold_Ramis

(I wrote most of this in March, 2014, but it needed polishing, and then life intervened. I’m publishing now because the topic is important to me.)

Like almost everybody else, I was saddened to hear of the death of Harold Ramis on February 24, 2014. Too young. Too soon. Too talented. Too nice. Of all his roles, my favorite was his relatively small one as the kindly doctor in As Good As It Gets. He seemed perfect for the part; blushing, beaming, gentle, self-effacing. No one, it seems, had a negative word to say about him. How could you? The man was an American comedic film legend.
But his death has led me to think about his other side – maybe his dark side? – namely his influence on our culture as a director and writer. The March, 2014 Atlantic, which went to print before his death, features what has become a widely-circulated story titled “The Dark Power of Fraternities” . Author Caitlin Flanagan makes a strong case for the moment in time when fraternities went from being seen as fuddy-duddy preservers of the old order to the hip, alcohol-crazed, off-campus sanctuaries of bacchanalia they are today. Maybe you’ve already guessed: “Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned (my emphasis) the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ‘80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene.” The article is replete with horror story after horror story describing alcohol-induced deaths on campuses across America.
Ramis wrote and directed Animal House. Judging by obituaries like this one in the New York Times, it ranks as one of his crowning achievements: “His breakthrough came in 1978 when he joined Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller to write ‘National Lampoon’s Animal House’, which starred Mr. Belushi and broke the box-office record for comedies at the time.’ The obit continues: ‘More than anyone else,’ Paul Weingarten wrote in The Chicago Tribune Magazine in 1983, ‘Harold Ramis has shaped this generation’s ideas of what is funny.'”

I would like to make the case that Harold Ramis shaped much more than a generation’s idea of what was funny. We could engage here in the argument of whether art reflects or directs culture, but in citing the importance of this one movie on the rebirth of a dying fraternity system, and to the general party atmosphere on college campuses today, Flanagan seems to believe the latter.
And so do I, more or less. Like everyone else, I laughed at the outlandish behavior of John Belushi as John Blutarski (how could you not love it when he took that dweeb’s guitar and smashed it to bits against the stairwell wall?), but deep down I remember an overall sense of discomfort with the idea that I and so many people around me in the theater, and in my generation, were laughing at the unstated premise of the film: that virtually all aspects of the Ancien Regime are ridiculous and by (hilarious) inference, are not worth saving. I distinctly remember thinking that I would not want my children (to be born just a few years later) to be anything like John Blutarski.
Does that make me a prude and a killjoy? Maybe by today’s standards, but call me what you want, we’re talking something deeply important here. If you step back and look at other Ramis films, Caddyshack (1980) or Stripes (1981), you’ll understand the real purpose behind Animal House. All three films mock moribund American institutions – the old-line military in the case of Stripes, old-line conservative education in Animal House, and the old-line greed and hypocrisy of the country club set in Caddyshack. Granted, there was plenty to mock.

And they’re all hilarious. All three were extremely effective at ripping the shrouds off of and exposing the bloated corpses of these institutions. But when you take them together you see the real message: there’s NO institution worth saving.

But then what? What solutions were offered? None, except “Let’s dance on the rubble of what we destroyed.” Caddyshack, in fact, ends with Rodney Dangerfield joyfully exclaiming to a cheering crowd (in a line that seems out of place until you understand its larger context)  “Hey everybody, we’re all gonna get laid!”. As in Animal House, the future being offered by Ramis to America’s next generation? Let’s get drunk, let’s get high, let’s get laid. Why these solutions? Because everybody knew that by 1980 American liberal Christianity was in crisis mode (Read retired Notre Dame professor George Marsden’s The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief)It had offered no viable solutions to the Baby Boomers, who as children were taken by their parents to Norman Rockwell-looking churches which by the 1950s had been emptied of any real content. The children were not fooled and by the 1960s they had either abandoned religion altogether or were experimenting with other more exciting and exotic religions, like Taoism or Buddhism, to fill the void.

So, I would argue that what happened as a result of Ramis’s films was the “second generation” of an already-tattered ’60s New Left movement. Some history. In 1962 a group of intelligent and motivated college students at the University of Michigan issued their Port Huron Statement, listing concerns for a world they saw being ruined by their elders and offering clear, intelligent and humane alternatives. Go ahead, back up two lines and read it. It doesn’t take long. Does it not offer a reasoned response to what could be called, without much argument, the real problems of their day, most of which were being ignored by The Establishment? It put some big ideas out there.

But what happened to this movement within a few short years? By 1969 it had been dragged down by a tidal wave of youth’s lowest common denominator, who took its call for fundamental change as license to open the floodgates of “sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll”, and a helpless adult American culture, now awash in teen Baby Boomers, sat by and watched the revolution envelope them, their only responses as the waters closed over them being knee-jerk demands for “law and order” and Richard Nixon. At the same time, the very real concerns of the Port Huron Statement (ie., nuclear annihilation, civil rights, poverty) actually were beginning to be addressed, but… its real message was lost on most Baby Boomers, who just wanted to get drunk, get high and screw in the mud at Woodstock: the ideals of the New Left were lost in a fog of purple haze.

Enter the next (or “second”) generation of cultural gate-keepers, led at least in part by Ramis and his National Lampoon cohort, who jumped on a bandwagon that by the late ’70s seemed unstoppable (and we now begin to see art not only reflect the culture of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, but target its direction).
We began to see more and more movies that tore apart the hypocrisies of the “old school” (literally, in the case of Animal House) but offered no solution other than sex, drugs and rock-n-roll. (To make my point, Ramis didn’t write Stripes; he co-starred with Bill Murray. But the screenwriter’s first acting choices were  … wait for it … Cheech and Chong.) It was the New Left/Port Huron crowd stripped of its moral base, much like Poor Richard’s aphorisms in the early 18th century were 17th century Puritanism reduced to one-liners and stripped of its moral base. As happened in the ’60s, the lowest common denominator saw this movie in its most simplistic terms, and off they went to college with the expectation of (or at least the hope of in the case of Animal House’s “EveryMan”, Larry Kroger) getting drunk, getting high and screwing on the grass in the Quad. After all, it was their turn, wasn’t it?

By the turn of the century, as Flanagan points out, the entire culture of “higher education” had been changed, and not to the benefit of either education or the nation. Many prospective students now make the Princeton Review party school listing their first college research. Local and national media, like Chicago’s Fox affiliate in 2013, highlight these Princeton results before any other: “The University of Iowa may top the list of the nation’s top party schools but the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign isn’t far behind.”

Side Story (This could be a separate blog entry, but it belongs here. Sorry.)

Back in 2002, Lois and I hatched a book idea. It was a culmination of three things: 1. our concern for the degree of alcohol abuse by our athletic teams at Downers North High School (I had two consecutive varsity soccer seasons ruined by drinking incidents in the early 1990s) combined with what was our perception of a lack of parental concern for the problem in our school community; 2. our reading of Indiana University Professor Murray Sperber’s amazing 2001 expose of college athletics and alcohol (Beer and Circus: How Big-Time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education); and 3. attendance at our daughter’s freshman orientation at University of Colorado-Boulder in 2000 where we heard that it’s not the college’s job to police student drinking; it was our as parents job to instill non-drinking values in our children before they got to college. (Please picture the university wiping its hands here.)

Bottom line: we felt that outside of a Wheaton College or Bob Jones University, there was an entirely new level of bacchanalia of which today’s parents were simply not aware. The reigning opinion seemed to be, “Oh, I drank when I went to college, too,” and when we would try to tell them that what was going on now was at a completely different level from what they were doing in college, they simply didn’t believe us. Besides, and maybe the root of the problem, how could they tell their kids not to do what they had done when they attended Faber?

Our idea: take a year’s leave of absence from our teaching jobs and travel from coast to coast, visiting one college or university campus each week, from major “big-name” universities to the smallest of small colleges. On each campus we would interview students, deans, janitors, campus security, campus health center personnel, frat and sorority presidents, college presidents when possible, but most importantly we would observe the party scene, a new one each week. During the week we would write it all up, and then move on to the next campus. The idea was that by documenting the horrors of collegiate alcohol abuse on campus after campus after campus, that American parents would no longer be able to slough the epidemic off as something either exaggerated or infrequent. (A decade later, Flanagan’s Atlantic article was heartening to us.)

We thought the book was a good idea, and decided to do a test run.
On a weekend in January, 2003 we made arrangements to visit the University of Illinois campus in Champaign-Urbana, staying two nights. Our first stop was a pizza joint with more than a dozen of our former students. For over two hours they told stories that confirmed – no, exceeded our worst fears. They wanted us to write this book.
Over the course of the next two days and nights we: met with the Dean of the University, the president of the campus Greek system, the head of Health Services, the head of dormitory maintenance, rode the infamous “night bus” from midnight to 2:00 a.m .  (from a U of I nightlight website: “Transportation is always open for students through safe rides. The weekends is very hard to find someone that can actually walk in a straight line. The parties here do get out of hand sometimes.” You can read many more entries for yourself, but we can affirm the truth of that statement.)

If it wasn’t an exhaustive study, it was exhausting. We returned home Sunday afternoon, sobered (no pun intended) and convinced that this was a subject in need of a book, but we soon realized we weren’t the ones to write it, a decision that had as much to do with our not being able to afford taking a year off from our teaching jobs as anything else. The need is still there: View this 4-minute Youtube video put together by U of I students. It’s part of a series of “I’m Schmacked” videos on campuses all across the country. It appears to confirm that nothing has changed for the better since we visited over ten years ago.

Our short weekend at the University of Illinois showed us that everyone benefited from the current alcohol policies; everyone except the students, of course, who naturally thought they benefited (remember, they’d all seen that American classic, Animal House). And the parents, who were ignorant either by absence or choice. And our nation.

Here’s the way it worked.
The university banned drinking in the dorms, and the fraternities (over 55 of them at U of I) were now all dry (most of them own separate “party houses”, so yes, there’s no drinking allowed at the frat house itself [get it?]. This looks really good in the college alumni and fraternity magazines.). That made the bars on Green St. the prime focus of legal alcohol consumption. The university felt, as the Dean of Students said, “with regret” that this was the best the university could hope for in at least controlling the problem. It’s remindful of the red light districts in 19th century American cities.
So the university and the frats are absolved of responsibility, right? Okay, next step.

Kam's

At Kam’s on graduation day: remembering the best part of their college experience?

The City of Urbana has a law that allows 18-year-olds into the bars, but they’re not allowed to drink. Did you get that? “Sure, go ahead and sit with your friends at Kams (“Home of the Drinking Illini”), but whatever you do, don’t drink!” Right. What happens, of course, is that the underage drinkers, identified with a special bracelet, sit at the tables while the 21-year-olds buy the pitchers at the bar, bring them to the table, and you know the rest of the story.

Conclusion

I’d like to stop here to talk about Animal House again. Because I’m curious how we got from the 1950s and early 60s to the present. In the 50s yes, there was certainly drinking and pre-marital sex and who knows what other behaviors on college campuses, but at nowhere near the levels we see now. The drinking culture is perhaps now the primary culture on campus, to the extent that it has begun to exert powerful influences over the academic culture. And as Sperber surmised, any university that doesn’t offer a competitive mens’ football or basketball team is simply out of the race. (My theory is that as true liberal arts education is now all but dead on university campuses anyway, replaced by technology-driven job training, the traditional feel of a college education is gone. A college diploma is now the equivalent of what a high school diploma used to be. It’s nothing special… and students, I mean, customers, may not feel any more special at U of I than they do at Costco.)  Sperber points out that the older tenured professors, of which he was one, have first dibs on the class calendar. As such, they place their classes between Tuesdays and Thursdays. Why? Because the partying starts on Thursday nights and they know from experience that there’s a significant “hangover effect” on class attendance on Mondays. That leaves Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday as the remaining productive days of the week. If this rings a bell, by the way, it’s because it’s almost identical to what was happening in the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 80s before the fall of the Wall: alcohol abuse so rampant that factory production on Friday’s and Mondays showed seriously deteriorated production quality.
Alcohol abuse affecting factory production in a dying Soviet Union is one thing: Russians had every reason to be depressed. But rampant alcohol abuse affecting virtually every institution of higher learning in the United States is, in my opinion, quite another, and more serious thing. Way more serious, partly because the college years are the peak years for expanding one’s mind and examining one’s soul, partly because college students represent the future of American society, and partly because college should be a “high-brow” affair (as in, you know, “institutions of higher learning”).

The real concern in all of this? If in twenty years campus life has deteriorated to this level of moral depravity, what will we see by 2040, and what will the ramifications for the nation be? It should be noted here that while other nations also have campus drinking, the United States stands virtually alone in its degree of moral depravity in its institutions of higher learning.

Now, of course, the issue of campus rape is on everyone’s lips. We have but one question. How much campus rape is alcohol-fueled? In our opinion, the problem isn’t rape; it’s the alcohol that fuels the rape.

Back to Urbana. On both our nights riding along with the Urbana police, the night ended just before 2:00 a.m. as we pulled up across the street from Kams. It soon became obvious why. As the students trickle onto the sidewalk at closing time, the police don’t have to wait long. On my night, it was a girl who fell down within a few feet of leaving the bar. My policeman got out of his car to “assist” this young lady. Bringing her to the squad car, she got into the back seat. He obtained her ID and discovered she was 18 years of age. She pleaded with the officer not to write her a ticket. He was sympathetic, but firm. He wrote the ticket. She was crying now. How much? $400. That’s $400 into the city coffers from just this one student. Start doing the math.
So let’s review. The university is absolved of responsibility, the frats are absolved of responsibility, and now we have the City of Urbana raking in how many tens (hundreds?) of thousands of dollars each year, simply by waiting for girls to fall down on the sidewalk. That’s easy pickin’s, man. And let’s not forget the immense profits for Kam’s and the dozens of other bars in both Urbana and Champaign which, like the Urbana police, have zero interest in making any attempt to curb binge drinking.

I asked the officer if I could talk to this girl. She was still crying, drunkenly distraught over her situation. Her parents would be notified, so it wasn’t just a matter of the money; she had to face her parents. I felt sorry for her. She had gone to Fremd HS in Palatine, a northwest Chicago suburb. I asked her how often she drank like this. She said just about every weekend. I asked her what her gpa was. She said it was a 3.2. I remember wondering about the level of academic rigor that allows a U of I student to maintain a ‘B’ average while drunk every weekend. (although as we know, you pretty much have to be a corpse to get a grade lower than a ‘B’ in college these days – otherwise, the “customer” gets upset and takes his business elsewhere, be that a different professor, a different major, or a different university.)
I don’t remember now how it came up, but she volunteered that she had been sexually abused at a party while drunk. Maybe at more than one party; she wasn’t sure.
She was a freshman.

While I was parked at Kam’s, Lois was in another squad car responding to an alcohol-caused 1-car intersection accident, but raced away from it to answer a more urgent call: a group of male students was seen dragging a female up the stairs of an off-campus apartment building, apparently against her will. When they arrived, there was no sign of anyone.

Just another weekend at Faber.

Postscript May 27, 2014: There was another mass shooting the other day, this one is Isla Vista, California, near the campus of UCSB. The killer released a 140-page manifesto plus a YouTube video that displayed his rage at the fact that he was still a virgin. He’d show those girls. The shooter, like most these days, took his own life. The media is awash with the usual questions. I mention this here because this article caught my eye. Apparently movie star Seth Rogen is highly offended because a Washington Post movie critic, Ann Hornaday posed the theory that his recently-released movie, Neighbors, might have had an influence on the shooter. The movie apparently (haven’t seen it) is at least in part about a college guy who gets a lot of sex (I know – shocking, right?). Among other things, Hornaday says, “Movies may not reflect reality, but they powerfully condition what we desire, expect and feel we deserve from it.” 

Addenda:

1. Thomas Frank critiques the negative impact of Ramis from a different, and also valuable, perspective in  Salon. Worth reading.

2. Our Book Proposal…that was never proposed (2003)

            There are now numerous scientific studies dealing with binge drinking on American university campuses. We are drunk with statistics. They are comprehensive… and stunning.

To those who read them.

But most Americans do not read scientific journals and so do not realize how significantly the culture of alcohol on campus has changed since their own college years. It is the anecdotal version of the scientific studies, then, that remains to be written. We believe if it were, America would read.

The academic and administrative communities, the college towns, the student body and the providers of alcohol have no interest in changing this new alcohol culture; they all benefit from it in their own way. In his recently-published book, Beer and Circus – How Big-time College Sports Is Crippling Undergraduate Education”, Dr. Murray Sperber calls this type of symbiotic relationship a “non-aggression pact”: all parties appear to benefit (although the student certainly does not).

And America does not. There are obvious short and long-term health issues for our nation costing billions now and hundreds of billions in the future. There is the precipitous decline in academic standards and performance. Finally, and perhaps most serious for a democracy, there is the astonishing disappearance of intellectual, moral and political discussion on our university campuses.

Upton Sinclair exposed the ills of the meat-packing industry in the first decade of the 20th century in his muck-raking expose, The Jungle. His book was visceral. We learned that there are two productions the average American never wants to witness; the making of laws and the making of sausage.

In the first decade of the 21st century, we hope to expose a third “production” Americans don’t want to witness; the making of a campus weekend. We hope to shine a spotlight on these weekends because we feel that only the “outside world”, the off-campus world, can bring change where change is desperately needed.

We propose taking America with us on a one-year tour of university campuses, one campus per week, between September, 2001 and May, 2002.

Each stop will include visits to campus and off-campus parties, interviews with students, college administrators, campus health officials, campus and local police departments, maintenance workers, rape counselors, bar owners, residence hall supervisors, local ministers, local residents, fraternity and sorority officers and members, and any others who can provide local information.

We believe the results will be shocking… and sobering.

We will present the events that have led to this catastrophe in American higher education, illustrate its rapid growth, and the extent of its cover-up. We will show who benefits in the short run. And we will attempt to demonstrate that, in fact, the nation as a whole is the biggest loser, and stands to lose much more if current trends go unchecked.

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About robertwallacegraham

Retired high school teacher, curmudgeon, soccer coach, bicyclist, etc. etc.
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One Response to The Dark Power of Harold Ramis

  1. Katie Duffin says:

    A few things that are of good mention about the good ole’ UIUC

    There are 3 police departments in the area. The Champaign Police, The Urbana Police, and the Campus Police. All 3 have the power to ticket underage drinkers and fine them $400 a pop. So Some unlucky underaged soul that was drinking in Champaign and was walking home to Urbana, could get stopped and ticketed 3 times.

    Unofficial. Classes are usually cancelled on this day, because almost everone is too drunk to attend, even their 9 am classes. Or they think it is funny to attend their 9 am classes plastered. The inventor of Unofficial is the owner of Kam’s as well as some other bars on campus. I know when I was a freshman in ’03, it started a streak of like 5 years where at least 1 person was killed due to drinking on unofficial. This day all started because the owner of Kam’s felt he was losing money because spring break always seemed to fall when St. Patrick’s Day was occuring. In one of the last few years St. Patrick’s Day happened while students were still on campus, and there was still an Unofficial.

    In 2005 U of I decided to take some action against the underage drinking, by making all the freshmen go to essentially a play about the dangers of underage drinking and then go to a discussion at the end. I needed a job in ’06 and I think it was apart of one of my classes or something, so I was a facilitator to these discussions. It was the biggest joke. The play was really corny. It was also interesting observing which types of students came at what point of the 2 week show. The groups, as the shows went on became more lax and at the end, it was pretty much all the athletes. I really don’t think this did much for curbing the underage drinking, but the University probably felt they had to do SOMETHING.

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