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SemiRamis: Thornton Melon’s Morning In America



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Brad Lips’s recent article on the Gramscian critique of the late Harold Ramis made a strong case that we should not let public-policy flapdoodle poison our appreciation for moviegoing — a pleasure that, like so many pleasures, is already in enough danger of being ruined by the intrusion of politics. But three key scenes from a movie that barely got mentioned in Ramis obits show that, for some Americans, the political slant makes his filmography even more enjoyable.

In fact, the politics become more clear if you leave aside the kind of post-Marxist criticism Lips deplores and give Ramis’ work a New Critical analysis.

By keeping outside factors (such as history and biography) out of the equation and focusing on what’s up on the screen, we can see that 1) Baffler founder Tom Frank has a point: Ramis produced plenty of movie moments conservatives can dig, and 2) these don’t appear to have crept into his work by accident but to have proceeded from a sensibility that is pro-market, pro-spirituality, and pro-American in ways that can’t exactly be quantified by whether Ramis voted Republican, Democratic, or (as Tom Frank might prefer) Socialist Workers Party.

Many others have already dissected the big Ramis efforts — Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day — in search of conservative politics. I would just add that Ben Schwartz got there first with a 2000 hit piece on Ramis that sums up the politics of Ghostbusters succinctly: “Hm, three goldbricks kicked off a welfare roll who become small businessmen and quickly get hamstrung by big government bureaucracy until society falls apart at the seams — could there be a better articulation of the Reagan era than Ramis’ script for Ghostbusters?”

Ramis also had a hand in the 1986 Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Back to School. That campus comedy is a straightforward paean to the disruptive power of capitalism, with strong elements of anti-elitism and folksy wisdom thrown in. 

The encounter between an apparently Keynesian economics professor and Dangerfield’s Thornton Melon (a self-made bazillionaire who struck it rich with Tall & Fat clothing stores) is still Hollywood’s finest, if not its only, depiction of F. A. Hayek’s knowledge problem and the folly of thinking central planners can run a business better than the person who actually runs that business:

Melon also crosses paths with a Vietnam-veteran history professor played by the late Sam Kinison. The character is a goof on the stereotype of the haunted ’Nam vet, and both the casting and the character name “Professor Turgidson” are clues that you should not take the scene seriously. But note how this sequence ends: with Kinison winning the argument and Melon agreeing that the United States should be fighting to win against the Commies:

Even the softest of liberal arts get a conservative makeover in Back to School. In every one of her scenes, the smoldering literature professor played by Sally Kellerman seems be running a class where post-colonial, feminist, and queer theories have never even been heard of. In place of these Eighties intellectual fads, she appears to concentrate solely on memorization and textual analysis, and her opening scene showcases the most unadulterated of High Modernist masterpieces by a dead white male:

Ramis has just one of four screenplay credits on Back to School, which also boasts two credited story writers and (according to IMDb) one uncredited writer. And the process by which a movie gets made is so relentlessly collaborative that it’s a stretch to call anybody the author of a movie. (We’ll have to debunk the auteur theory some other time.) In addition, one of the two story writers was the late Greg Fields, whose politics I don’t know but who was the genetic co-author of conservative pundit Michelle Fields.

But in journalism three instances make a trend, and we’re way beyond three. Conservatives are right to claim Ramis’s movies, if not Ramis himself, as popular gems that lean right more strongly than Hollywood might care to admit.


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