Harold Ramis: Empathy for the Rebel (Revisited)

haroldramis1-300x184

Consider this: a world without Animal House. Or Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

I can’t fathom how much less happy my childhood would have been without any one of them. A life without all of them? Unimaginable.

And I know I’m not alone. This is Harold Ramis’s legacy: he brought humor and happiness—the real, enduring kind—to millions of people. In a world (then, now) that is full of quick hits, tweets, 15 seconds of fame, weekend blockbusters, and increasingly formulaic, artistically DOA drivel, and their inevitable, unending sequels, it’s worth noting, and celebrating, funny films that endure. What makes a movie funny, of course, ultimately boils down to subjective criteria. But what makes a movie smart, particularly a funny movie that manages to also be smart, is a respect, if not affinity, with the viewer. Even at his most sophomoric (and the immortal Caddyshack might be the most sophomoric film consistently worshipped by adult males), Ramis was creating characters everyone could recognize and identify with on various levels.

Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote, aside from providing a template for so many comedies that followed, was notable for celebrating the outsiders and losers typically reduced to stock characters. We’re not talking about the underdog, necessarily, as that trope was well established (and predictable); Animal House subverted the entire notion of what being a “winner” meant. Delta Tau Chi was not just the fraternity that accepted the outcasts no other house would have, it was the fraternity full of guys who wouldn’t have any other fraternity.

The misfits and miscreants of the Delta House were rebels with a cause. Yes, they were down for mayhem and shaking things up by any means necessary, but they also lifted a middle finger at convention. They weren’t misunderstood so much as they understood they wanted no part of a culture that equated conformity with success and imitation as the most insincere form of self-flattery.

Naturally, it being a movie, the good guys get the last laugh, but importantly, all the ostensible winners get their comeuppance down the road. As has been widely noted, Ramis & Co. appreciated that the insufferable weasels from Omega House would be the ones working for Nixon and being fragged by their own troops in Vietnam. It’s a conclusion that is satisfying and depressing, because while true in part, everyone knows our country is still mostly run by the Omegas.

animal-house

As silly as the movie gets the further it goes along, Stripes is notable for following a similar course: it’s the soldiers who refuse to, or are unable to, become part of the machine who ultimately succeed. It’s a fantasy, but one that adheres to reality: it’s the fat, ugly, unbearably plain citizens who do the dirty work and don’t usually have movies made about them. Ramis’s oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

As sheer escapism Ramis’s films are reliably consistent and satisfying. But we root for his protagonists because they are so ordinary, so fallible, so identifiable. Not for nothing was Caddyshack based on his own experiences as a caddy: the material probably wrote itself. Of course, even the best writing is doomed if the perfect actors are not cast. It’s difficult to imagine Caddyshack without Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but it’s impossible to consider it without both Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. John Candy in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, every role in Animal House (especially John Vernon as the impeccably named Vernon Wormer), Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day: Ramis knew he needed the exact fit to sell his stories.

Speaking of Groundhog Day, this is generally considered his masterpiece; the Ramis film any adult can worship without embarrassment or circumspection. Is it a comedy cleverly disguised as a philosophical treatise, or vice versa? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, though it’s difficult, as usual with Ramis’s best films, to imagine a different cast. As a vehicle for Murray, Ramis gave him the opportunity to do some of his best work, and Murray in turn gave substance and nuance to what might have otherwise been a great idea on paper. Mostly, this movie is a slyly large-hearted affair, with the one-two punch of compassion and humanity transforming a repeated gag into something that resonates with repeated viewings.

Speaking of large hearts, while Ramis is rightly venerated for his mind and imagination, there is no doubt that he wrote and directed from his heart. One gets the sense, watching his work, that the plots are not engineered in order for the righteous to triumph so much as Ramis couldn’t bear the alternative. He was humble about his success and that humility informs almost everything he did. It’s the reason so many people quote his scripts and the reason he is arguably the most emulated comedic director of his generation. He was a likeable guy who made likeable films about likeable people. Not a bad way to spend one’s life.

Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can provide is the miracle of making you feel young. When you feel innocent, uncorrupted, optimistic, and it’s not the result of kitsch or sentiment, there is a sort of magic at play. Ramis is one of the best things that happened to kids coming of age in the early ‘80s. He remains one of the best things for us as we’re dragged into middle-age, kicking and screaming.

The coarser our discourse becomes, the more refreshing Ramis’s films remain. Their lack of pretension and cynicism offer a course of defiance, where we smile instead of surrender. We’ll return to his movies partly for nostalgia’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that: something making you yearn for a familiar experience has its own type of magic. His films remind us that occasionally, the good guys win. In this regard his work was also the story of his life.

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PUNCH DRUNKER: THE 50 GREATEST MOVIE FIGHTS OF ALL TIME (Part Two)

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40. Superman II

The (Super)Man vs. (Super)Man fight scene (Clark Kent vs. “Bad” Super Man) in Superman III has more literary import, but we’re talking fight scenes here. As such, it’s hard to top our hero facing off against his three (almost) equals, in NYC (or, Metropolis), naturally. “General, would you care to step outside?” (Bonus points for the awesome and always-elegant Terence Stamp camping it up to full effect as Zod. Extra bonus points for some of the most aggressive, albeit easy, product placement in movie history.)

 

39. Animal House

The food fight that launched a thousand imitations, both in movies and in cafeterias across America. Preceded by one of the best provocations in cinematic history: “See if you can guess what I am now!”

 

38. The Last Detail

While there is a perfectly suitable, if pedestrian, fracas in a restroom (Navy vs. Marines), the best fight in this film occurs without a single punch thrown. As Billy “Badass” Buddusky, Nicholson does the Nicholson Thing before doing the Nicholson Thing became The Nicholson Thing. And his rage is righteous, as he rises to the defense of his African-American shipmate, who is maligned by the redneck bartender.

-Buddusky: “I’m gonna’ kick your ass around the block.”

-Bartender: “You try it and I’ll call the shore patrol.”

Buddusky, brandishing gun: “I AM the motherfucking shore patrol MOTHERFUCKER! I AM THE MOTHERFUCKING SHORE PATROL! NOW GIVE THIS MAN A BEER!!”

Epic.

 

37. The Deer Hunter

Another one where no blows are thrown, yet the verbal barbs land, but good. The boastful and tiresome (and lovable, RIP John Cazale!) Stan pushes group leader Mike (De Niro) too far and gets a talking to that’s equal parts philosophical and nonsensical: “This is This” is what all of us would love to say to any blowhard, whether it’s a friend, an idiot at the end of the bar, or our boss.

 

36. A Clockwork Orange

Man vs. Droogs. There are many outstanding candidates from this single film, all of them disturbing in their own weird, wonderful ways. But the stylized irony of group leader Alex, stewing over the putative mutiny amongst his soldiers, and then being inspired by hearing Beethoven from an open window before delivering a slow motion smack down, all choreographed to Rossini’s “The Thieving Magpie Overture” (proving once again that no one, except possibly Scorsese, ever used music to such enchating effect), is violent ballet of the first order.

 

35. King Kong

This one still hurts. And it’s difficult to overstate its impact, not merely the super-ape sized shadow it still casts over cinema, but the (unintentional?) commentary it provides for us, as ugly Americans, and our ceaseless capacity to misunderstand, appropriate and, yes, murder the natural (and unnatural) beauty we can neither appreciate nor preserve. It’s all in here, Man Vs. Beast, Beast vs. Machines, Beasty vs. Beauty and yes, Man Vs. Man. Also: one of the best closing lines and epitaphs ever: “It was beauty killed the Beast.”

 

34. The Warriors

If your movie is going to be silly, own it. Wallow in it. The Warriors is 93 minutes of glorious, gluttonous wallowing, and it’s impossible to stop watching. Props to Walter Hill and the entire assembled crew (including the poor, ignored Orphans) for achieving something like a stylized video game disguised as a movie. Or something. So, on their way to eluding or thrashing every gang from the Bronx to Coney Island, we get gangs in buses (the baldheaded Turnbull AC’s) to all-female outfits (The Lizzies) to dudes in overalls and rollerskates (The Punks). But for style points and the best brawl, caps off to the Baseball Furies. Painted faces and Yankees uniforms (yuck!), at first The Warriors flee, then face-off against these major league wimps. Timeless line: “I’m gonna’ shove that bat up your ass and turn you into a popsicle.” Ajax FTW.

 

33. Cape Fear

Your mileage may vary on the remake (for my money, it’s Scorsese getting too Scoresesian for his own good), but De Niro certainly doesn’t phone it in. Yet, as scary as his Max Cady manages to be, no one on the planet could be as menacing as Robert Mitchum. The scene where the hired goons realize they’ve bitten off way more than they can chew is a little bit hilarious and a lot horrifying. Mitchum is scarier here than any and all fake Tinseltown monsters ever imagined.

(Like any proper fight, I brought some back-up. Brother Sean Beaudoin making sure Mitchum gets appropriate homage. Tag-team in effect: Worth mentioning that Mitchum ran away from home as a teenager and worked on trains as a stevedore, a brutal job. He was expelled from school for beating up the principle. He also boxed professionally, and did time on a chain gang in the deep south….also, unlike Bogey and Cagney and Tom Cruise, he was actually as big a dude in real life as on the screen. He was so fucking terrifying in Night of the Hunter that he didn’t have to fight, just tattoo Love and Hate on his knuckles and show people….In Cape Fear (only approx. 33,000 times better than the remake), after Cady beats up the thugs you mention, there’s one guy left, who realizes he’s made a massive mistake. The guy’s got his dukes up and then Mitchum gives him a look….and the dude turns and runs with palpable and believable terror. Mitchum goes after him and…fade to black. Possibly the most brutal fight scene in cinema history then takes place in our mind, because you know Mitchum caught that guy….and you know he did way worse things just than punch him.)

 

32. Slap Shot

The Hanson Brothers are a silly, satirical and also fairly accurate representation of what hockey at its worst (or best) degenerated into during the era of the Broad Street Bullies. Dutifully over-the-top, they can’t even wait until the game begins to initiate their first of many conflagrations. (Bonus points for patriotism: “I’m listening to the fucking song!”)

 

31. Days of Heaven

Man vs. Insect. Make that thousands upon thousands of insects. You never feel more human than watching Nature ruin your farm, and your livelihood. It’s an marathon battle in miniature, an entire war that is over before it starts, and the carnage is total and lasting. It’s also disturbingly beautiful (and that’s just Sam Shepard), with extreme close-ups on the bugs, the fields and the faces of the folks as they make their futile stand against the inevitable. Unlike much of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s easy to understand exactly what’s going on here; like virtually all of Terrence Malick’s work, it’s full of arresting and splendid images.

This essay originally appeared in The Weeklings on 7/29/15.

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Harold Ramis: Empathy for the Rebel (One Year Later)

haroldramis1-300x184

Consider this: a world without Animal House. Or Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

I can’t fathom how much less happy my childhood would have been without any one of them. A life without all of them? Unimaginable.

And I know I’m not alone. This is Harold Ramis’s legacy: he brought humor and happiness—the real, enduring kind—to millions of people. In a world (then, now) that is full of quick hits, tweets, 15 seconds of fame, weekend blockbusters, and increasingly formulaic, artistically DOA drivel, and their inevitable, unending sequels, it’s worth noting, and celebrating, funny films that endure. What makes a movie funny, of course, ultimately boils down to subjective criteria. But what makes a movie smart, particularly a funny movie that manages to also be smart, is a respect, if not affinity, with the viewer. Even at his most sophomoric (and the immortal Caddyshack might be the most sophomoric film consistently worshipped by adult males), Ramis was creating characters everyone could recognize and identify with on various levels.

Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote, aside from providing a template for so many comedies that followed, was notable for celebrating the outsiders and losers typically reduced to stock characters. We’re not talking about the underdog, necessarily, as that trope was well established (and predictable); Animal House subverted the entire notion of what being a “winner” meant. Delta Tau Chi was not just the fraternity that accepted the outcasts no other house would have, it was the fraternity full of guys who wouldn’t have any other fraternity.

The misfits and miscreants of the Delta House were rebels with a cause. Yes, they were down for mayhem and shaking things up by any means necessary, but they also lifted a middle finger at convention. They weren’t misunderstood so much as they understood they wanted no part of a culture that equated conformity with success and imitation as the most insincere form of self-flattery.

Naturally, it being a movie, the good guys get the last laugh, but importantly, all the ostensible winners get their comeuppance down the road. As has been widely noted, Ramis & Co. appreciated that the insufferable weasels from Omega House would be the ones working for Nixon and being fragged by their own troops in Vietnam. It’s a conclusion that is satisfying and depressing, because while true in part, everyone knows our country is still mostly run by the Omegas.

animal-house

As silly as the movie gets the further it goes along, Stripes is notable for following a similar course: it’s the soldiers who refuse to, or are unable to, become part of the machine who ultimately succeed. It’s a fantasy, but one that adheres to reality: it’s the fat, ugly, unbearably plain citizens who do the dirty work and don’t usually have movies made about them. Ramis’s oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

As sheer escapism Ramis’s films are reliably consistent and satisfying. But we root for his protagonists because they are so ordinary, so fallible, so identifiable. Not for nothing was Caddyshack based on his own experiences as a caddy: the material probably wrote itself. Of course, even the best writing is doomed if the perfect actors are not cast. It’s difficult to imagine Caddyshack without Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but it’s impossible to consider it without both Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. John Candy in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, every role in Animal House (especially John Vernon as the impeccably named Vernon Wormer), Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day: Ramis knew he needed the exact fit to sell his stories.

Speaking of Groundhog Day, this is generally considered his masterpiece; the Ramis film any adult can worship without embarrassment or circumspection. Is it a comedy cleverly disguised as a philosophical treatise, or vice versa? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, though it’s difficult, as usual with Ramis’s best films, to imagine a different cast. As a vehicle for Murray, Ramis gave him the opportunity to do some of his best work, and Murray in turn gave substance and nuance to what might have otherwise been a great idea on paper. Mostly, this movie is a slyly large-hearted affair, with the one-two punch of compassion and humanity transforming a repeated gag into something that resonates with repeated viewings.

Speaking of large hearts, while Ramis is rightly venerated for his mind and imagination, there is no doubt that he wrote and directed from his heart. One gets the sense, watching his work, that the plots are not engineered in order for the righteous to triumph so much as Ramis couldn’t bear the alternative. He was humble about his success and that humility informs almost everything he did. It’s the reason so many people quote his scripts and the reason he is arguably the most emulated comedic director of his generation. He was a likeable guy who made likeable films about likeable people. Not a bad way to spend one’s life.

Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can provide is the miracle of making you feel young. When you feel innocent, uncorrupted, optimistic, and it’s not the result of kitsch or sentiment, there is a sort of magic at play. Ramis is one of the best things that happened to kids coming of age in the early ‘80s. He remains one of the best things for us as we’re dragged into middle-age, kicking and screaming.

The coarser our discourse becomes, the more refreshing Ramis’s films remain. Their lack of pretension and cynicism offer a course of defiance, where we smile instead of surrender. We’ll return to his movies partly for nostalgia’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that: something making you yearn for a familiar experience has its own type of magic. His films remind us that occasionally, the good guys win. In this regard his work was also the story of his life.

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Harold Ramis: Empathy for the Rebel

haroldramis1

Consider this: a world without Animal House. Or Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day.

I can’t fathom how much less happy my childhood would have been without any one of them. A life without all of them? Unimaginable.

And I know I’m not alone. This is Harold Ramis’s legacy: he brought humor and happiness—the real, enduring kind—to millions of people. In a world (then, now) that is full of quick hits, tweets, 15 seconds of fame, weekend blockbusters, and increasingly formulaic, artistically DOA drivel, and their inevitable, unending sequels, it’s worth noting, and celebrating, funny films that endure.    What makes a movie funny, of course, ultimately boils down to subjective criteria. But what makes a movie smart, particularly a funny movie that manages to also be smart, is a respect, if not affinity, with the viewer. Even at his most sophomoric (and the immortal Caddyshack might be the most sophomoric film consistently worshipped by adult males), Ramis was creating characters everyone could recognize and identify with on various levels.

Animal House, which Ramis co-wrote, aside from providing a template for so many comedies that followed, was notable for celebrating the outsiders and losers typically reduced to stock characters. We’re not talking about the underdog, necessarily, as that trope was well established (and predictable); Animal House subverted the entire notion of what being a “winner” meant. Delta Tau Chi was not just the fraternity that accepted the outcasts no other house would have, it was the fraternity full of guys who wouldn’t have any other fraternity.

The misfits and miscreants of the Delta House were rebels with a cause. Yes, they were down for mayhem and shaking things up by any means necessary, but they also lifted a middle finger at convention. They weren’t misunderstood so much as they understood they wanted no part of a culture that equated conformity with success and imitation as the most insincere form of self-flattery.

Naturally, it being a movie, the good guys get the last laugh, but importantly, all the ostensible winners get their comeuppance down the road. As has been widely noted, Ramis & Co. appreciated that the insufferable weasels from Omega House would be the ones working for Nixon and being fragged by their own troops in Vietnam. It’s a conclusion that is satisfying and depressing, because while true in part, everyone knows our country is still mostly run by the Omegas.

animal-house

As silly as the movie gets the further it goes along, Stripes is notable for following a similar course: it’s the soldiers who refuse to, or are unable to, become part of the machine who ultimately succeed. It’s a fantasy, but one that adheres to reality: it’s the fat, ugly, unbearably plain citizens who do the dirty work and don’t usually have movies made about them. Ramis’s oeuvre comprised a Hall of Justice for the nerds; people old enough to know there are no super heroes, but young enough to realize we could use them from time to time.

As sheer escapism Ramis’s films are reliably consistent and satisfying. But we root for his protagonists because they are so ordinary, so fallible, so identifiable. Not for nothing was Caddyshack based on his own experiences as a caddy: the material probably wrote itself. Of course, even the best writing is doomed if the perfect actors are not cast. It’s difficult to imagine Caddyshack without Bill Murray and Chevy Chase, but it’s impossible to consider it without both Ted Knight and Rodney Dangerfield. John Candy in Stripes, Dan Aykroyd in Ghostbusters, every role in Animal House (especially John Vernon as the impeccably named Vernon Wormer), Stephen Tobolowsky in Groundhog Day: Ramis knew he needed the exact fit to sell his stories.

Speaking of Groundhog Day, this is generally considered his masterpiece; the Ramis film any adult can worship without embarrassment or circumspection. Is it a comedy cleverly disguised as a philosophical treatise, or vice versa? Perhaps it’s a bit of both, though it’s difficult, as usual with Ramis’s best films, to imagine a different cast. As a vehicle for Murray, Ramis gave him the opportunity to do some of his best work, and Murray in turn gave substance and nuance to what might have otherwise been a great idea on paper. Mostly, this movie is a slyly large-hearted affair, with the one-two punch of compassion and humanity transforming a repeated gag into something that resonates with repeated viewings.

Speaking of large hearts, while Ramis is rightly venerated for his mind and imagination, there is no doubt that he wrote and directed from his heart. One gets the sense, watching his work, that the plots are not engineered in order for the righteous to triumph so much as Ramis couldn’t bear the alternative. He was humble about his success and that humility informs almost everything he did. It’s the reason so many people quote his scripts and the reason he is arguably the most emulated comedic director of his generation. He was a likeable guy who made likeable films about likeable people. Not a bad way to spend one’s life.

Perhaps the greatest gift an artist can provide is the miracle of making you feel young. When you feel innocent, uncorrupted, optimistic, and it’s not the result of kitsch or sentiment, there is a sort of magic at play. Ramis is one of the best things that happened to kids coming of age in the early ‘80s. He remains one of the best things for us as we’re dragged into middle-age, kicking and screaming.

The coarser our discourse becomes, the more refreshing Ramis’s films remain. Their lack of pretension and cynicism offer a course of defiance, where we smile instead of surrender. We’ll return to his movies partly for nostalgia’s sake, and there’s nothing wrong with that: something making you yearn for a familiar experience has its own type of magic. His films remind us that occasionally, the good guys win. In this regard his work was also the story of his life.

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You Using the Whole Fist, Wall Street?

I can’t get that hot, asphalt taste out of my mouth. We’re all out of money, it seems, but there is plenty of tar to go around. I  was only half-joking when I proposed that perhaps it was time to revisit the old-fashioned (and quite brutal, even savage) practice of tarring and feathering disgraced public servants, here and here. Less than two months later, our capacity for outrage has scarcely been quelled; indeed, we all better begin practicing yoga in order to prepare our nervous systems for the flood of feelings that will churn up as more of this mendacity is revealed.

I’ve considered myself relatively (remotely?) in the loop, just in terms of keeping abreast of the seemingly daily revelations about how outrageous and, let’s stop mincing words and tiptoing around the truth, criminal the so-called masters of the universe have acted in bringing down our entire economy. Most people know that these scumbags shit money because they eat it all day, but very few of us had any idea that we all had skin in this poker game they were playing with the national piggy bank. I’ve read virtually everything I can to try to get a handle on the situation (above and beyond the whys and wherefores, but just the simple how the hell did we get here and where the hell do we go from here?), and even reading a little is enough to make one sick. The aftershock of this meltdown is a psychic jet-lag that won’t pass anytime soon. Therefore, it is going to be imperative for us to seek out reliable sources of information and arm ourselves with the truth, because when the sytem shits itself we all have skidmarks in our shorts. Where we are right now is the proverbial car wreck you can’t help but look at. Only this car wreck involves each and every one of our cars, except that none of us were driving them at the time. Hence the proliferating public outrage.


 
As usual, Frank Rich is able to articulate, in one short column, the context of this escalating debacle in terms of where we find ourselves, right now. He rightly grasps the insidious bigger picture, but also correctly questions whether Obama is properly equipped to meet this challenge before it devours his administration. In short, everyone knows the game is rigged, but it’s time to wonder aloud how Change (with a capital C) can come about if everyone involved is playing on the same squad?

To get ahead of the anger, Obama must do what he has repeatedly promised but not always done: make everything about his economic policies transparent and hold every player accountable. His administration must start actually answering the questions that officials like Geithner and Summers routinely duck.

Inquiring Americans have the right to know why it took six months for us to learn (some of) what A.I.G. did with our money. We need to understand why some of that money was used to bail out foreign banks. And why Goldman, which declared that its potential losses with A.I.G. were “immaterial,” nonetheless got the largest-known A.I.G. handout of taxpayers’ cash ($12.9 billion) while also receiving a TARP bailout. We need to be told why retention bonuses went to some 50 bankers who not only were in the toxic A.I.G. unit but who left despite the “retention” jackpots. We must be told why taxpayers have so little control of the bailed-out financial institutions that we now own some or most of. And where are the M.R.I.’s from those “stress tests” the Treasury Department is giving those banks?

Is this going to happen? Don’t bet on it. But why? Such a simple, and fair question. Unfortunately, as Rich indicates, the answer is also simple, and it’s ugly:

Another compelling question connects all of the above: why has there been so little transparency and so much evasiveness so far? The answer, I fear, is that too many of the administration’s officials are too marinated in the insiders’ culture to police it, reform it or own up to their own past complicity with it.

Matt Taibbi does some incredibly heavy lifting here, and this is award-winning journalism (I won’t hold my breath, since he is not counted amongst the connected and celebrated, and ever-supine, fraternity of the MSM):

People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they’re not pissed off enough. The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’état. They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.

The crisis was the coup de grâce: Given virtually free rein over the economy, these same insiders first wrecked the financial world, then cunningly granted themselves nearly unlimited emergency powers to clean up their own mess. And so the gambling-addict leaders of companies like AIG end up not penniless and in jail, but with an Alien-style death grip on the Treasury and the Federal Reserve — “our partners in the government,” as Liddy put it with a shockingly casual matter-of-factness after the most recent bailout.

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class. But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

The most galling thing about this financial crisis is that so many Wall Street types think they actually deserve not only their huge bonuses and lavish lifestyles but the awesome political power their own mistakes have left them in possession of. When challenged, they talk about how hard they work, the 90-hour weeks, the stress, the failed marriages, the hemorrhoids and gallstones they all get before they hit 40.

“But wait a minute,” you say to them. “No one ever asked you to stay up all night eight days a week trying to get filthy rich shorting what’s left of the American auto industry or selling $600 billion in toxic, irredeemable mortgages to ex-strippers on work release and Taco Bell clerks. Actually, come to think of it, why are we even giving taxpayer money to you people? Why are we not throwing your ass in jail instead?”

But before you even finish saying that, they’re rolling their eyes, because You Don’t Get It. These people were never about anything except turning money into money, in order to get more money; valueswise they’re on par with crack addicts, or obsessive sexual deviants who burgle homes to steal panties. Yet these are the people in whose hands our entire political future now rests.

Obviously, Obama inherited this shit storm. People would be more inclined to cut him slack if his administration did not happen to include some of the slimiest engineers of this national implosion. Throwing Chris Dodd to the wolves while going to the mat for Geithner is the first thing Obama has done that strikes me as blatantly political and self-serving. It borders on the outrageous and it considerably weakens his integrity (as an agent of change, and as a leader). And frankly, the bloated dog and pony shows in Congress aren’t doing much for me. It’s good TV for the C-SPAN cycle, but these clowns are a day late and a few billion dollars short. As usual, these out-of-touch enablers are only capable of (feigning) outrage when the public prompts them. While the Wall Street clusterfuck signifies the official comeuppance of Republican financial ideology, let there be no mistake that there are plenty of Democrats whose porcine paws are filthy with the muck they’ve been lazily wallowing in.

The only ostensible silver lining in this catastrophe is that the pitchfork wielding populace might oblige some overdue accountability. What we really need is a reckoning, but a simple Q&A session will signify sufficient progress at this juncture. It’s time to start getting some very basic questions answered, and it’s not too late to take back money that was handed out to unworthy recipients (on the individual level as well as entire companies). People are right to point out that the AIG bonuses are a tempest in a tea (party) pot in terms of the overall GDP, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t demand return on our investment; it’s our money now. Start with this minor mess, and work backward. That, and only that, will set the necessary precedent for how we untangle ourselves from this capitalist-on-crack quicksand going forward. Naive as it may sound, truth needs to trump politics, at long last. Anyone, no matter what side of the political fence they get Wall Street kickbacks from, needs to come clean. (Okay, that fantasy goes beyond naive and borders on comical.) We know the people lined up at the trough are disinclined to question their own conduct, so it’s time to slap the teet out of their mouths and demand some answers. Heads need to roll, at least figuratively. That, at least, is a start. 

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