Egon Sadly Gone

I was very saddened today to read of the death of Harold Ramis.

Ramis was a titanic yet nevertheless underappreciated cultural figure who played a large role in many hugely popular, clever, often brilliant movies — like Animal House, Groundhog Day, Stripes, and Caddyshack — and who dazzled in some small roles that helped to make good films, like As Good as It Gets and Knocked Up, even better. Anyone who could write Animal House, direct Groundhog Day, and bring a poignancy and warmth to the role of Ben’s Dad in Knocked Up has more talent that most people could even fathom.

I’d like to focus specifically, though, on Ramis’ depiction of Egon Spengler, the genius who created the hard-scientific core of the spirit-catching team in Ghostbusters. Egon Spengler is arguably the greatest depiction of a true scientific nerd ever to grace the silver screen. Ramis captured every element of the character, from the Eraserhead-like hairdo to the lack of awareness of normal social behavior to the immediate knowledge of every page of obscure spirit guides and ghostly treatises to the willingness to create catastrophically dangerous ghost-catching devices without a second thought. We knew the Bill Murray was the clown and Dan Aykroyd was the rumpled everyman, but Egon Spengler and his protonic inventions is the one who allowed the Ghostbusters to match up with Gozer and could explain the extraordinary danger in it all by using a Twinkie as a illustration.

Ghostbusters is a great movie — one of the first “high-concept” blockbusters, where the gist of the plot could be captured in a single sentence — and Egon Spengler is what really made the movie work. The Spengler character made the Ghostbusters concept plausible, and Ramis had to sell that brainy, socially oblivious character as someone who could design ghost-catching traps and understand cross-dimensional portals. He did it brilliantly and hilariously . . . and, equally important for the nerds among us, in the process he somehow made being the nerdy scientific geek kind of cool.

You’d be hard-pressed to find many other modern figures who had the impact on popular culture of Harold Ramis. He was only 69, and these days you can fairly say that people who die at 69 die much too young. He will be missed.

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Assignment in Punxsutawney

Here’s something cool: Richard, who is in the midst of an internship at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, will be covering the annual Groundhog Day ceremony in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania for the newspaper. He’s already tweeted about getting ready for the assignment by watching the classic film Groundhog Day for the 200th time.

It will be hard for Richard to rise to the level of deeply moving rhetorical brilliance displayed by Bill Murray’s weatherman Phil in his last live broadcast after he lived through Groundhog Day, over and over and over again, for countless years. (The initial script for the movie had Phil trapped in the Groundhog Day time loop for 10,000 years, and Phil spent enough time reliving the day to learn how to play some killer piano, speak fluent French, and mature from a selfish, self-absorbed jerk into a sensitive guy who really cared about the citizens of Punxsutawney.)

However, the movie does offer some helpful tips about surviving Groundhog Day in Punxsutawney. Be on guard for an insurance sales pitch from Needle Nose Ned Ryerson. Watch out that a kid in a tree doesn’t fall on you. And when you walk across the main street next to the Punxsutawney town square, be sure not to step into the puddle — it’s a doozy!

Those Carping Computer Voices

Whenever I am in the drive-through lane and have to unbuckle my seat belt to retrieve my wallet, an insistent computer voice repeats “Please fasten seat belt” until I comply.  (What, they don’t use definite articles in the computer world?)

When I am in the self check-out lane at our neighborhood Kroger, an annoying computer voice instructs me to “place item in the bagging area” — and it does it every time I scan an item and don’t instantly hurl it into a bag.  This computer voice is not only bossy, it also apparently thinks I’m such an idiot that I can’t remember a simple instruction throughout the check-out process, so it needs to remind me again and again and again.  I find myself speeding up the scanning and bagging process in hopes of avoiding that irritating voice.  (Hey, do you suppose that’s why they have the computer voice in the first place?)

It seems like everywhere we go we hear those aggravating, soulless mechanical voices telling us what to do and badgering us until we do their bidding.  I object not only to the dead-sounding voices, but also to the fact that the computer voices are always bugging us rather than encouraging us. Why not have a voice, sounding like the Bill Murray lounge singer from Saturday Night Live, that says “Looking good!” every time you get in the car, start the ignition and look in the rear view mirror?  Why not have the car say “Great driving today!” when you get to your destination and put the car in park?  Why not have the Kroger voice say “Way to go with the healthy eating!” when you drag the salad fixings across the scanner or “Hey, that looks good!” when you scan that frozen pizza?

We’re destined to hear hectoring computer voices for the rest of our lives.  I’d be more willing to put up with them if they paid me a compliment once in a while.

Hyde Park On Hudson

Hyde Park on Hudson is a gentle movie about President Franklin Roosevelt’s affair with a distant cousin, Daisy — but because war in Europe is approaching, the King and Queen of England are coming for a visit to seek America’s help in the coming conflict, and Roosevelt was an exceptionally complicated and manipulative man, there’s a lot more to the story.

A lot of threads make up the tapestry of this movie.  Daisy is introduced to Roosevelt’s curious family situation, with his domineering mother, his wife Eleanor, who insists on treating the royal couple in egalitarian American fashion, and Roosevelt’s secretary and occasional lover, Missy.  There is the young, stuttering King of England, who worries that he is not up to the task of winning the support of FDR and the American people, and his wife, who is sensitive to any perceived slight and a bit mystified by the challenge of being served hot dogs and dealing with commoners — and Americans, to boot — in close quarters.  There is the evident split in American views of the royals, with Roosevelt’s mother and the other Hudson Valley aristocrats trying to show they belong in the same room with the king and queen, while the average people want to show there’s nothing special about them.

Bill Murray turns in a very strong performance as FDR.  The movie is structured to make you admire the man notwithstanding his philandering ways, and you do — for the cheerful and uncomplaining way he accepts his inability to walk, for his skillful mediation of conflicts with his mother and wife, for his gentle, fatherly interaction with the king, and for his deft control of the visit (and the press) to achieve his ultimate goal.  Laura Linney is equally good as Daisy, a woman who begins the movie with no future in Depression-era America and ends as a key part of FDR’s Hyde Park coterie.  Linney believably depicts a woman who loves and worships Roosevelt and struggles before ultimately accepting her role in his life.  The rest of the cast, interacting against a backdrop of constantly scurrying servants at the Hyde Park estate, also is quite good.

The pace of this movie is deliberate — Richard called it a snoozer — but Kish and I enjoyed a movie that paused now and then to focus on the gorgeous Hudson Valley scenery and to let scenes and characters develop slowly.  No guns were fired, no cars or buildings were blown up, and no blood was spilled.  It was quite a change from Django Unchained and other current Hollywood fare, and a very pleasant change at that.

 

The Importance Of Sleep

How important is it that we get a 40 winks at night?  A recent study of “astronauts” who were on a simulated mission to Mars gives us some guidance on that question.

Mars is far away, and a trip there would require astronauts to be cooped up aboard their spaceship for months, without natural day-night cycles.  The Mars500 project sought to test what the effect of such an extended time in space might be, so it selected astronauts using standard criteria, isolated them, and communicated with them solely through time lagged communications that approximated the delay in communications between Earth and a spaceship on its way to Mars.  During the 17-month simulation, tests of the astronauts were conducted — and the results now being published show how crucial sleep patterns and the daylight cycle really are.

One crew member went from a 24-hour day cycle to a 25-hour day cycle, which meant he was awake and asleep at odd hours in comparison to the rest of his crew mates — and therefore became isolated.  Other crew members began to sleep more and more, and yet another crew member became chronically sleep-deprived and struggled with performance tests as a result.  In short, if a real mission to Mars were underway, sleep issues — and their resulting mental health impact — would have been a significant problem for crew performance and cohesion.  Researchers will be looking at whether a lighting scheme that better approximates our normal daylight-night rhythms might help.

Anyone who has done much travel — or watched Bill Murray and Scarlett Johannson in Lost in Translation — knows how tough the effects of jet lag can be.  Imagine if you had to deal with sleep deprivation for months, stuck with the same people in an unchanging environment, without ever seeing daylight.

Now, get some sleep!