Learning of the recent passing of directors Alain Resnais and Harold Ramis was, for a number of reasons, particularly painful for me. In a weird way, these two great artists, so seemingly different on the surface, were always linked together in my mind: following the lead of the critic Glenn Kenny, I was only half-joking when I introduced a screening of Last Year at Marienbad in a class just weeks ago by saying that it was “the arthouse version of Groundhog Day.” Both movies explore the premise of having a character relive the same time frame over and over again while trying to convince others that they are not crazy in the bargain. But the affinity between the whip-smart creators of these movies goes deeper than that. Resnais was a critical darling frequently characterized as “cerebral” and “intellectual” but he had a poppier side that was often sadly overlooked. (He was fond of comic books and Stephen Sondheim, and his love of The X-Files directly resulted in a fruitful collaboration with Mark Snow, the composer of that show’s theme song.) Ramis received a kind of grudging critical respect for being a successful-but-vulgar showman and yet his films also explored serious philosophical issues that went unremarked upon at the time of their initial release. Alain Resnais was one of the last living links to a heroic era of European art cinema and Harold Ramis was one of the last remaining “good guys” directing for the major Hollywood studios. The world now feels like a much emptier place without them.
Harold Ramis’s death ended up being the occasion that got me to recently watch his final film, the Jack Black-starring caveman-comedy Year One. Even though I was a fan of Ramis when it was released in 2009, I had foolishly avoided seeing it in theaters due to its mostly negative critical reception. After having a rough couple of days in which I found myself feeling creatively and professionally unfulfilled, however, my wife and I finally decided to watch Year One last night — and found ourselves laughing uproariously through the whole thing. Of course, the Mel Brooks-inspired effort has its share of fart and piss jokes but the director of Groundhog Day also managed to slip in a sly and resonant message about the importance of not following leaders and being the master of one’s own destiny. Ramis, who once rhetorically asked of those who preferred movies that didn’t make them think, “Why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?,” was making smart comedies that were ahead of their time until the end. In a neat coincidence, I also recently saw Ben Rivers and Ben Russell’s masterful experimental film A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness, which contains the loveliest tribute to Ramis imaginable (even if it was unintentional): in a documentary segment set in a hippie commune in rural Estonia, a young woman lifts up her Animal House t-shirt to breastfeed her baby while simultaneously engaging a male friend in a philosophical dialogue about how to make the world a better place. “The world needs more parties,” the woman decides. Her intellectual companion concurs, noting that “parties are autonomous zones.” I’d like to think that, somewhere, the author of Animal House is smiling.
Last August, Harold Ramis’s wife, Erica Mann Ramis, was a guest in my Intro to Film class at Oakton Community College. She graciously allowed me to interview her in front of the class, sat through a screening of a documentary she had produced about the Joffrey Ballet (which she’d probably seen 500 times) and participated in a question and answer session with the students afterwards. She acted both surprised and pleased when I told her how much I loved her husband’s unheralded black comedy The Ice Harvest. She told me she was going to tell him I said that, and I really hope she did because — even though he was super-famous for playing Egon in Ghostbusters — he never really got the critical respect that he deserved as a director. My thoughts go out to Erica and the entire Ramis family. You can read my interview with her here:
You can see my personal photo tour of the Woodstock, Illinois locations featured in Groundhog Day here:
Prior to screening Last Year at Marienbad, I told my Perspectives on Film class that I considered Alain Resnais to be one of the world’s five best living filmmakers. Indeed, it is impossible for me to imagine what the past half-century of cinema would have looked like without him — the hotel-corridor tracking shots in The Shining; the nonlinear structures of early Tarantino; the narratives doubling back on themselves in Run Lola Run and Too Many Ways to Be Number One; the backwards storytelling of Peppermint Candy, Memento and Irreversible; the Cubist editing schemes of Upstream Color; and the entire filmography of Wong Kar-Wai, with its obsessive focus on the themes of time and memory. Would any of these things have been quite the same had Resnais’s formally innovative and groundbreaking films not come along first to provide a shining example?
In my list of the 50 Best Living Film Directors, from which he has just been removed, this is what I had written of Alain Resnais:
Although often lumped in with the Nouvelle Vague, Alain Resnais was a successful documentary filmmaker years before his brethren at Cahiers du Cinema took up cameras and started doing it for themselves. Among these early works, Night and Fog remains, for my money, the best movie ever made about the holocaust. That film’s elegant use of tracking shots and cross-cutting foreshadowed the intellectually provocative and formally dazzling qualities of Resnais’ classic early narrative features: Hiroshima mon amour, Last Year at Marienbad and Muriel. Resnais’ brilliant editing schemes, in which chronologically scrambled stories dovetail with his cherished theme of subjective memory, have been massively influential on the last half-century of world cinema. After the underrated La Guerre est finie in 1968, Resnais’s output became more hit or miss (I personally have no use for Stavisky or Smoking/No Smoking); but later masterworks like Mon Oncle d’Amerique and Wild Reeds are disturbing, hilarious, deeply satisfying examinations of human behavior that reconfirm Resnais’s status as a giant of the medium.
Essential work: Last Year at Marienbad (L’annee dernier a Marienbad) (1961), Muriel (1963), Mon Oncle d’Amerique (1980)
Alain Resnais’s final film, Life of Riley, premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival last month, where it won the prestigious Silver Bear award. One hopes that it will receive stateside distribution soon.
You can read my long review of Resnais’s penultimate movie, the splendid You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, here:
March 2nd, 2014 at 2:13 pm
Lovely piece. One teeny thing: Mark Strong is a wonderful actor; Mark Snow is the X-FILES composer who worked so fruitfully with Resnais.
March 2nd, 2014 at 2:14 pm
Good God, thanks for correcting me!
March 2nd, 2014 at 3:03 pm
Great piece. I’m not all too familiar with either man’s work (besides touching upon their “hits”) so I’ve a treasure chest to explore.
And as an aside, bravo on your recent output. In between your Oscar thoughts and art-house reviews, along with this, it’s been a pleasure reading.
March 2nd, 2014 at 3:24 pm
Thanks, Daniel. It’s always nice to know someone else is reading, especially when it’s a fellow blogger whose work I admire.
March 4th, 2014 at 11:36 am
Sorry I have been away from your blog the past few days I have just been very busy with watching and recording the Oscars (which I have a new blog post about) and yesterday I had college so I completed the entry late. I am going to give you two replies today under this entry. This first one is about the deaths of Harold Ramis and Alain Resnais. From a deeper perspective, I can see why you compared Last Year at Marienbad to Groundhog Day. Alain Resnais was a master of European cinema, but it is interesting as you note that he had a really fun side with your talk about him loving comic books, Stephen Sondheim and the TV Series The X-Files. I bet Harold Ramis is humored by that documentary (A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness) in which Animal House is unintentionally referenced. I love that line he said about comedies that did not make one think which was “why not just shoot yourself in the fucking head?” It must have been a pleasure to have Harold Ramis wife Erica Mann Ramis as a guest during one of your classes at Oakton Community College where you interviewed her to your class. I had no idea she produced a documentary on Joffrey Ballet. Interesting stuff. I will have to watch The Ice Harvest again because I last saw it in 2005 when it came out. I am happy though that Erica was going to tell Harold that you mentioned it:) Come to think of it, he was ahead of his time as a comedy director/writer. I will also look at your two links which is the interview with Erica Mann Ramis and the Groundhog Day photo tour. May Harold Ramis rest in peace. As with you, I consider Alain Resnais to be a great filmmaker (he is somewhere in my top 100). You are totally correct that his work has influenced films beginning with everything from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) to Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color (2013) from last year. As you said, he was also a masterful documentary filmmaker (1955’s Night and Fog) and as you say some of his later stuff is really intriguing (in my opinion, this would be the ones you mentioned although I would extend it to Private Fears in Public Places and Melo). I have seen You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet and you will see that it made it on my honorable mentions or Runners up in my Best Films of 2013 blog entry. It will be interesting to see how Life of Riley since it is now the final film before his death. As with Ramis, may Alain Resnais rest in peace. I am going to send reply concerning my new blog post.
March 4th, 2014 at 3:24 pm
As always, thanks for reading so closely. I enjoyed reading your Oscar thoughts – more than I did watching the show itself!
March 4th, 2014 at 9:28 pm
Thank you for the kind words as always. Glad to hear that my thoughts were more interesting than the show 🙂 I will admit though, the best parts of the show were the times when my personal picks won the prize:)
March 4th, 2014 at 11:37 am
I have a new blog entry up that concerns my thoughts of Sunday night’s Oscar show. Here is the link below:
January 15th, 2015 at 12:30 pm
And so they do: everyone learns language within a culture Dave