The City and the ’70s

The headline at the Drudge Report shouted “Tensions in NYC like ’70s,” and we shuddered at the thought. We well remember what New York City was like during that dismal decade, and had hoped it would never again get so bad.
Those too young to recall the urban nightmare need only watch the movies of the era, now running on late night television as cautionary tales. In “The Out of Towners” Jack Lemmon is mugged, kidnapped, beset by mass transit and sanitation strikes, nearly killed by a manhole explosion, and attacked by protestors outside a United Nations embassy, and that’s a light Neil Simon comedy to start off the decade. “Panic in Needle Park,” Fort Apache: The Bronx,” “Death Wish,” “The French Connection,” the gunning gag about Central Park muggings in “Where’s Poppa,” and of course “Taxi Driver,” with its memorable lines about a hard rain washing all the scum off the streets and its blood-splattered climax, are all more realistic accounts. “The Warriors” and “Escape From New York” belong to the decade’s vast genre of dystopian futurist movies, by they’re not far off the mark. The era is still fondly recalled by the coke-addled denizens of Studio 54 and the artsier sorts who thought all the graffiti-covered and trash-strewn mayhem was somehow invigorating, but those who had to make their way to work and back home to an exorbitantly-priced have no such nostalgia.
We still recall a telephone conversation during the late ’70s with a college chum who had moved to the big city. Expecting to be regaled Runyon-esque tales of Gotham, we were surprised to hear him describe an urban nightmare more redolent Heironymous Bosch. Our friend was a small town Kansas boy, but he was also a pony-tailed hippie and a liberal, and he frankly confessed that he had no idea how the time might go about saving itself. Taxes were already so sky-high that any further increases would only drive more taxpayers away thus result in even less revenue, he conceded, and social services were generous enough to lure all sorts of troublesome characters to the streets, and the criminals were being treated with as much sensitivity as even America’s most progressive city could muster, so our friend was stumped. The best advice he could offer was to not let our own hometown get in such bad shape.
Not long after that the city was so short on ideas that it elected Rudy Giuliani as Mayor, and he famously cut taxes, but new restrictions on social services, and started enforcing order on the streets. Although counter-intuitive to New Yorkers, the program put the city’s finances in good enough order to fund basic services, the economy improved enough to provide jobs for former welfare cases, and the crime rate fell so dramatically that tourists were tempted to take walk through Times Square or Central Park. It worked so well, in fact, that New Yorkers took the good times for granted and assumed it was safe to return to the city’s old ways of doing things.
Higher taxes on the richest workers who have largely supported the city, more free stuff for the ones who aren’t working at all, and more sensitivity toward the criminal class were the platform that got Mayor Bill de Blasio elected. When several of his officers were involved in a fatal encounter with an unarmed man who was illegally selling cigarettes and was unwilling to be arrested for it, he didn’t call for an investigation of the questionable methods that caused the death, or ask for the city’s respect for a grand jury that declined to press charges, or question the city’s tobacco policies that created the black market the man was dealing in, but rather spoke of how his biracial son was endangered by the city’s police and egged on the protests that chanted for the murder of police. The chanters got their wish on Saturday, when two New York City police officers were gunned down by a man who had proclaimed his motive of revenge on the internet, and already the headlines liken the tension to the ’70s.
The cops in New York have no desire to return to that violent decade, and we hope that the rest of the city is similarly disinclined. People seem to have to relearn the lessons of the past from time to time, however, even when those lessons are playing on the late night movies.

— Bud Norman

Harold Ramis, RIP

The recent death of Harold Ramis set us to thinking about comedy. Not because there’s anything funny about the death of Ramis, who by all accounts was a decent sort of fellow who deserved better, but because he was the most influential comedic filmmaker of recent years.
As a screenwriter, director, or actor, and oftentimes taking on all three jobs, Ramis had a hand in such hugely popular and widely imitated movies as “Animal House,” “Ghostbusters,” “Caddyshack,” “Stripes,” and “Groundhog Day,” as well as the “SCTV” television series and the “National Lampoon Radio Hour.” This is an uneven oeuvre, to our old-fashioned tastes, but there’s no use denying its lingering effect. Get almost any white male of our age group drunk and he’ll sooner or later start quoting cherished lines from Ramis’ movies, perhaps even reciting the entire script of “Caddyshack” verbatim, complete with a mush-mouthed imitation of Bill Murray’s Carl the Groundskeeper character, and the smart-alecky anti-authoritarianism that defined a Ramis movie is still the default style of almost every aspiring comic. Commentators on both the left and the right have also acknowledged the inevitable political influence of Ramis’ movies, although they predictably disagree on whether it was for good or bad, and we suspect that Ramis would have found it all quite amusing.
So far as we can tell from his rare public political pronouncements Ramis was a conventionally liberal Hollywood baby-boomer, but his movies were inadvertently conservative enough to have thoroughly annoyed much of the left. Over at Salon.com the noted writer Thomas “What’s the Matter With Kansas?” Franks did his best to live up to every detail of the humorless liberal stereotype with a scathing obituary, claiming that Ramis’ sense of humor “liberated Reagan and Wall Street” to unleash all the supposed catastrophe that humorless liberals have always associated with those stock movie villains. We once thought Franks was the funniest writer of his generation, until we realized that everything he wrote was intended in earnest, but we suspect his characteristically high dudgeon is at being the butt of a far better joke than he’ll ever write. The joke wasn’t written by Ramis, though, but by the strange cosmic shift over the past 40 years that has transformed Ramis’ movies into a conservative cause celebre.
Ramis came of age in the 1970s and the “National Lampoon,” and you really had to be there to understand what that meant. It was a post-Vietnam and in-the-middle of Watergate era when being young meant snidely questioning authority or being hopelessly square, and nobody questioned authority with the slide-splitting cynicism of the “National Lampoon.” The magazine was raunchy and irreligious and disrespectful of every convention of polite society, but just as irreverent toward the constraining pieties of the emerging counter-culture. Chafing at even the earliest restrictions of feminism and the civil rights movements the magazine was brazenly and hilariously sexist and racist, and it had a deliriously liberating effect even on readers who had to keep the latest copy out of sight of their disapproving parents. We recall issues devoted to mocking The Beatles and the Kennedy clan with a particular nostalgia, and proudly retain the courage it gave us to laugh at anything. Ramis was similarly affected, apparently, and had the good fortune to begin his career with the magazine’s radio show that somehow got past the Federal Communications Commission’s censors and onto the national airwaves.
Ramis’ first big movie hit was “National Lampoon’s Animal House,” which he co-wrote with the magazine’s Douglas Kenney and Chris Miller, and at the time no one would have considered it a conservative movie. In the unlikely event you haven’t seen it, “Animal House” is an admiring account of a fraternity of drunken, horny, aggressively rude students at a typically staid early-‘60s college campus. A pretentious pot-smoking professor and a guitar-strumming folk musician are among the satiric targets, and some believably menacing black males figure in one of the gags, but the leading bad guys are from the Reserve Officer Training Corps and the blue-blood houses and the oh-so-establishment administration. This is hardly the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and doesn’t sound like an appealing premise for a comedy, but the passing of time can change a movie. “Animal House” has been so frequently re-made in one form or another that it would be hard for anyone encountering it on Netflix or the late show to appreciate how shockingly fresh and laugh-out=loud funny it was in 1978, and only in retrospect can Franks can accurately complain that it made fraternities cool again and that the Dartmouth fraternity “Animal House” was based on was a pipeline to Wall Street sinecures.
Franks and his fellow liberals have more plausible gripes with “Ghostbusters,” a silly little special-effects comedy that libertarians have embraced as a classic. The heroes in the movie are entrepreneurs who have bravely left the cozy but constrained confines of academia, despite one’s worry that “I’ve been in the private sector, and they expect results,” and the villain is a self-righteous and utterly incompetent Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrat. This does sound like the stuff of right-wing propaganda, and the premise for a first-rate comedy, but for some reason we never liked the movie any more than Franks did. The public loved it, and we defer to its judgment on the matter, but Franks’ opprobrium makes it all the more appealing.
“Caddyshack” is a class-conscious comedy about a proletarian lad who clashes with the bourgeoisie at an obscure country club, but even that seemingly Marxist pitch contained enough subversive comedy to offend the refined sensibilities of the left. Franks shrewdly notes that “country club Republican” is now a pejorative more often used by the Tea Party right than the respectable left, and that Rodney Dangerfield’s heroically slobbish character is a self-made businessman striving to crash an enclave of the crony-capitalism that conservatives now rail against, but we can’t share his view that is a fateful fault in the movie. “Stripes” was a frequently amusing tale of two fiercely individualistic losers who wind up in the strictly-regimented army, which spared it Franks’ scorn, but if he’d wanted to Franks could have griped about the grudging respect that the protagonists eventually gave to their old-school drill sergeant.
Any movie is best judged on its aesthetic rather than political merits, and on these grounds we found most of Ramis’ movies flawed. At the risk of sounding like the sort of cinephile snobs that Ramis could have cannily ridiculed, our notions of comedy were influenced by an earlier and more serious school of comedians. The Ramis movies gave us a lot of laughs, but rarely provided a fully satisfying movie-watching experience. They lacked the cinematic inventiveness of Chaplin and Keaton and Lloyd in the silent era, the elegant sophistication of Ernst Lubitsch in the ‘30s or the carefully considered satire of Preston Surges in the ‘40s, or any of the great comedies made in the ‘50s and ‘60s before the heavy hand of the political correctness that the “National Lampoon” had to resist starting in the ‘70s. As much as we admire the slapdash anarchism of the Marx Brothers’ tweaking of Margaret Dumont’s propriety or W.C. Field’s drunken surrealism in “Never Give a Sucker an Even Break,” most of Ramis’ films seem merely sloppy with chaotic endings and a good-enough-for-Hollywood feel.
There were a lot of laughs in those movies, though, and we appreciate that so many of them annoyed the liberals. If there really is any political lesson to be learned from Ramis’ work, however, it is that the liberals are now in authority and that a properly anti-authoritarian impulse should be directed toward those bastards. The great “National Lampoon” writer an editor P.J. O’Rourke has unabashedly embraced conservatism, and we see no reason why Harold Ramis shouldn’t be posthumously inducted into the ranks of right-wing bastards even if it would have annoyed him. President Barack Obama gave a respectful eulogy, saying that because of Ramis he and his wife “Questioned authority,” so one can only hope that Ramis will also inspire late-show viewers to question this president’s authority.
Ramis’ only true masterpiece, however, invited viewers to consider more important matters than the passing the political controversies. “Groundhog Day” is a deeply philosophical and fully-realized film about a man who finds himself trapped in the same day and only manages to escape the monotony of his selfish existence by rejecting the smart-alecky rebelliousness of Ramis’ other films and seeking a more spiritual existence. It’s funny, too, and will long survive the squabbles that Ramis would have laughed at.

— Bud Norman

The Series Finale of That ’70s Show

Rep. Henry Waxman of California has announced he is at long last leaving Congress, and one can only hope that America will at long last begin to leave behind the 1970s.
In recent years Waxman has been best known as one of Washington’s wackier liberals and perhaps the least handsome man ever to make a living in politics, both of which are notable distinctions, but it is also worth noting that he first arrived on the political scene as a member of the class of ’74. The estimable psephologist Michael Barone has reminded us that with Waxman and fellow Rep. George Miller of California both declining to seek re-election, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa making the same decision, and Sen. Max Baucus of Montana opting for an even cushier job as ambassador to China, the infamous freshman class will finally have almost fully graduated to private life after decades of legislative mischief. Two lone hold-outs will remain in the Senate after this fall’s mid-term elections, but it is almost the end of an error.
Readers of a certain age will readily remember the fall of ’74 with a shudder and a grimace, but for the youngsters among you it is hard to describe the horrors of that leisure-suited era. The Watergate scandal, the desultory end of America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, and the coinage of the word “stagflation” had brought the Republican party to unprecedented disrepute, a newly triumphant baby boomer counter-culture and the corporate clout of the only three channels on television had given the Democrats a overpowering fashionableness, and the country consequently elected one of the most liberal groups of lawmakers in the history of the republic. Things got so bad that even in here in reliably Republican Kansas the party stalwart Bob Dole had to resort to some prototypical abortion politics to survive a challenge from an allegedly moderate Democrat, and in less sensible sections of the country the likes of Henry Waxman won office.
There had been liberal eras before, from Woodrow Wilson to Franklin Roosevelt to Lyndon Johnson and their congressional enablers, but the class of ’74 marked the most liberal yet. Despite brief pauses during the Harding-Coolidge and Eisenhower years the country had already gone so far left by the early ‘70s that such a putative Republican as President Richard Nixon had created the Environmental Protection Agency, instituted the federal government’s first quota programs, proclaimed that “We are all Keynesians now,” normalized relations with Red China, sought an accommodationist détente with the Russians, and generally racked up the sort of record that would latter allow President Barack Obama to claim with a straight face that “In a lot of ways Richard Nixon was more liberal than I was,” and yet the freshmen of ’74 regarded both Nixon and his even more moderate successor Gerald Ford as knuckle-dragging paleo-conservatives. That Congress blocked military aid funding that might have saved Vietnam from communism, started spending like money as if it could simply be printed up, went on a binge of regulation and social engineering, and then went even further after Democrat Jimmy Carter was elected president.
The damage done was so severe that the country reacted in 1980 by sending the impeccably conservative Republican Ronald Reagan to the White House, even if the Democrats retained the decades-long hold on the Congress, and the result was victory in the Cold War, the longest and strongest economic expansion in the country’s history, and a renewal of America’s cultural confidence. Reaganism proved only another brief interregnum, however, and the seeds planted in ’74 would bear their most bitter fruit decades later. Among the other accomplishments of the mid- to late-‘70s government were the Community Reinvestment Act that provided the legal authority for the disastrous subprime lending policies of the Clinton and Bush administrations and the subsequent economic crash of ’08 that has still defied full recovery, as well as the Church Committee reforms that so constrained America’s intelligence gathering capabilities that the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks were made possible. The two greatest tragedies thus far in America’s 21st Century began in the late ‘70s of the 20th Century, and were voted for by Democrats who stuck around long enough to see President Barack Obama capitulate to the Russians and Chinese on everything, spend money as if it could simply be printed up, write up regulations and social engineering projects on a scale that make the ‘70s seem sober, and pass an Obamacare law that will ultimately do more economic damage than even the subprime schemes he is hoping to revive.
Conventional wisdom holds that Waxman and his fellow surviving members of the class of ’74 are declining another term because they expect the Democrats to take another drubbing in the upcoming mid-term elections, and it can be hoped that their well-honed instincts are correct. The next elections should not only be a repudiation of the past six years but also most of the past of the 40, and with luck we can finally put and end to the dismal ‘70s and maybe even embark on another roaring ‘80s.

— Bud Norman