For Anyone Who Wonders What Thomas Frank Thinks of the Films of Harold Ramis…

Liberals do not "own the imagery of subversion and outsiderness."


One of the few memorable moments at last night's largely dreary Oscar ceremony came when Bill Murray, onstage to present the cinematography award, gave an unscripted shout-out to the late Harold Ramis, Murray's frequent creative partner from the '70s through the early '90s. The reactions to Ramis' death haven't quite faded from the press yet: Besides the coverage of Murray's tribute, yesterday saw Salon publish a critique of Ramis' work by the liberal pundit Thomas Frank. Frank, while acknowledging that he enjoys Ramis' movies, argues that liberals do not "own the imagery of subversion and outsiderness" and that Ramis-style comedy can be adapted to other political ends—indeed, that several of the writer/actor/director's pictures are open to libertarian or even conservative readings. The evolution from the anti-square humor of Animal House and Caddyshack to the anti-EPA humor of Ghostbusters is a natural progression, Frank writes, not a rupture.

I can't disagree with that, since I wrote pretty much the same thing last Thursday, albeit from a different political perspective. Indeed, I wrapped up my post by saying my observations were "old hat, really, whether you're a libertarian pointing out those continuities to praise them or a Tom Frank type pointing them out to attack them." Frank was probably plotting his piece already as I wrote that. Or maybe I've stumbled onto the blogger's equivalent of chanting "Candyman" into a mirror.

Frank also adds some arguments that I didn't make. Some are sharp: He's absolutely right that the old-money/new-money conflict at the heart of Caddyshack fits snugly with the supply-side worldview. Some are less impressive: He attempts to find a special ideological meaning in the fact that College Republicans were making anti-Mondale "Fritzbusters" jokes during the '84 election, an effort that runs aground on the fact that Democrats were doing Reaganbusters gags in the same campaign. Everyone was making Ghostbusters references that year. It was like all those forced references to selfies and hashtags today.

And Frank gets off a clever line when he writes that "the fraternity at Dartmouth which served as one of the models for 'Animal House' has of late become a kind of pipeline into the investment-banking industry" right after he quotes one of the movie's most famous bits of dialogue—the part where one of the Delta House crew says, "You fucked up. You trusted us." You can see the seeds of an interesting comparison there: If Animal House blurred the boundary between anti-authoritarian fun and entitled assholery, there are people on Wall Street whose rhetoric blurs the boundary between desubsidized deregulation and subsidized moral hazard. Frank, alas, isn't keen on drawing that distinction either.