Thursday, April 19, 2012
"BACK OFF, MAN, I'M A SCIENTIST": THE ENDURING APPEAL OF GHOSTBUSTERS
I'll spare you the details, but I had the kind of day Wednesday that makes one go, “fuck it, Ghostbusters is on Instant. This is what's required.” You've all been there. Maybe it's a different movie, but the stars aligned just so where I was like, “I need to fucking watch Ghostbusters right now.” There was a bit of a delay between the decision and actually being able to start watching, which of course meant I had time to wonder if it would hold up. It's been a while since I actually watched it—the last time I saw it, in 2009, is inadmissible, as it was at about two in the morning under extremely do-not-operate-heavy-machinery circumstances—and so the possibility that the experiential memories of the movie may have outweighed its actual quality had to be taken into consideration.
Because I have many happy memories of watching Ghostbusters. The first time in the theaters I don't remember so well (I was 5, I think) but I remember liking it enough that I was very excited when my elementary school got a 16mm print and made kids get permission notes from their parents to watch it after school; as not everyone's parents signed off, I was one of the “cool” kids—a fleeting pleasure in 2nd grade, believe—which only added to the enjoyment. Then there was that most recent time, whose aforementioned inadmissibility is in large part due to the thing I remember most about that viewing was successfully blowing pot smoke rings during the scene where Sigourney Weaver's levitating in that off-the-shoulder red thing (pot smoke is difficult to blow rings with, due to its texture, which is why I was so proud). Still, fun as all that is, it still begs the question: is Ghostbusters still awesome?
It is with great pleasure that I report back that the answer to that urgent and essential question is: of course Ghostbusters is still awesome, what the fuck did you think? One of the great things about having grown up with Ghostbusters is that all the parts that I dug when I was young—Bill Murray being Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis being co-gods of all nerds, Sigourney, the ghosts sliming everything, “Yes, it's true, that man has no dick,” and all that—are still great. Even better than that, though, is that all kinds of little details that flew right over my head as a kid (or stoned to the point of mental regression) landed perfectly as an adult.
The thing about being the age that I am (born in 1978) is that I was around for all of the 1980s, in all that decade's loud, ridiculous, head-up-its-ass splendor. For most of it, though, I wasn't in a terribly culturally aware place (to put it mildly; I didn't start reading the paper on a daily basis until the '88 presidential election, and even then stuff went over my head, and even then it was the Post, so there's that too) but I was still physically present experiencing and observing. I'm able to piece together through analysis and context what feels “real” and what misses the mark from cultural artifacts of the era. You can sit there and go “oh, what the fuck do you know about Ghostbusters' capturing the early-mid 80s zeitgeist, motherfucker, you were in kindergarten?” all you like. In so doing you forget a couple things: a) I'm really, really, really fucking smart, b) I was then, too, as well as observant c) even if a) and b) make you roll your eyes at my egotism, they're irrelevant, because lots and lots of other people will back me up on this.
Movies become hits—genuine hits, not just marketing-driven box-office numbers—by resonating with large numbers of people. They do so by tapping into universal truths, and by getting people to react, rather than think about what they're seeing (which is not to say that when you think about it, said hit doesn't hold up, it's that the feelings are running point and the intellectually substantive stuff is the fleet trailing just behind). One way to do that, as Ghostbusters does, is to ground things sufficiently in the given place and time, and by having a fundamental understanding of that place and time.
Ghostbusters was written, produced, and released during Ronald Reagan's first term, which is the early 80s (his second term, even though it mostly spanned the years one would normally think of as the mid-80s, was the late 80s; Reagan was president for the entire 80s in cultural terms). The early 80s were a time when the number of people who thought Reagan was a dangerous asshole who was cavalierly playing nuclear chicken with the Soviets was comparatively small, and where a whole lot of people, whether they want to admit it now (or even five years later) totally bought into the whole gung-ho money is everything trip. Also, it's important to not that depiction does not always necessarily mean endorsement, so the fact that Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis get their asses booted out of “Columbia” (the university isn't named in the movie, but it's totally shot there) for reasons more economic than academic, leading them to have to quickly figure out a way to monetize their paranormal knowledge is perfectly in keeping with the time. What helps audiences in less avaricious times (if any such indeed exist) identify with this profit motivation is the fact that the lads have a marketable skill: Harold Ramis does some math with his cool little gadget and figures out that they can in fact imprison ghosts, if they can catch them. So, taking out some ridonkulous mortgage on Dan Aykroyd's family house to raise some quick capital actually isn't suicidally stupid, it's just risky (also, as Scott Tobias pointed out, the way Dan Aykroyd says “You didn't even bargain with the guy” afterward is hilarious, and points up Bill Murray's immature recklessness perfectly), especially because, conveniently enough, the library specter in the first scene was the herald of a lot more paranormal activity in New York.
We all know the rest of the story. Bill Murray's hare-brained idea and the unethical way he shanghais it into existence makes them celebrities (another extrapolation very much of the movie's time; the branding of the Ghostbusters, like this iconic image—
—was part of the movie's central creative process rather than being subcontracted to a marketing department), and requires them to hire Annie Potts (who's great, and does a perfect if caricatured NYC outer-boroughs accent) to answer the phones and Ernie Hudson (who replaced Eddie Murphy when he had to go do Beverly Hills Cop instead, but who brings a lived-in prole-y world-weariness to the role that Eddie simply wasn't old enough for at that point) to help with the workload. And of course there is Sigourney.
Sigourney Weaver is very important not only because she may have laid the groundwork for my lifelong passion for refined, slightly repressed brunettes, but because she brought a very formidable feminine energy to science-fiction/fantasy in the 80s. Her role in Ghostbusters is less groundbreaking in that regard than it is as Ripley, and she does veer a little close to a kind of damsel in distress business that's beneath her, but what saves it (to the degree it needs saving in this context) from collapsing into a sexist mess is that she represents an aspirational goal for Bill Murray. Not in the dumb sense of him “winning” or possessing her or any of that fuckin shit but because she's an actual grownup. And he's not. Ghostbusters is a companion piece to Stripes in a number of ways (Harold Ramis, being really fucking funny), most importantly as pertains to Bill Murray specifically in that he's playing another puer aeternus wiseass who has to, by hook or by crook, grow the fuck up before the Commies or Gozer win. While part of Stripes' charm is that he manages to squeak by without maturing past the age of 12, in Ghostbusters the stakes are a bit higher, where that Ziggy Stardust lookin ass Sumerian demigod is literally going to end the universe (which despite what Ronald Reagan would have had you believe is a little more severe than driving Bulgarian cars and wintering in Irkutsk). Fortunately, the desire to impress Sigourney leads Bill Murray to kiiiiiiiiiiiiind of grow up (enough, anyway) before the shit hits the fan.
One great benefit Ghostbusters has had, as any movie must that would become an enduring classic must, is the advantage of the culture evolving along with it, and/or meeting it halfway. In the case of Ghostbusters, it was one force among many driving that evolution, being as it is one of the movies that would be on Mount Nerdmore, were there such a thing, and were reification such that a movie could have a face. The reason for Ghostbusters' nerd appeal is simple: the Ghostbusters are giant, giant, giant nerds. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis represent two distinct genera of nerds here: Aykroyd the effusive, guileless enthusiast and Ramis the otherworldly, super-serious obsessive. Bill Murray doesn't seem to fit within this immediately, but for all his glib charm he doesn't fit terribly easily in society, and if you'll recall he has to go to rather extreme lengths to get that nice blonde girl by herself in that early scene and does absolutely horribly in his initial attempt to hit on Sigourney. He's kind of a nerd too, just in a very Bill Murray sense of the term.
At the same time that a certain degree of continuing relevance benefits a would-be classic, there's also (complicating the already near-impossible balancing act even further) a requirement that the given movie recall a distinctly irretrievable past. Ghostbusters fulfills this with room to spare in two ways: one, the pre-CG special effects, which look fake in a far more appealing way than all but the most perfectly-done CG (and, because the filmmakers understood that special effects are, you know, special, they made sure effects shots were only there when they absolutely had to be), and two, its portrayal of pre-Disneyfication New York City. New Yorkers complaining that New York isn't like it used to be has probably been going on since some old drunk Dutch dude in the 1700s bored the tits off English colonists telling them shit was only real back when Peter Stuyvesant was around. But there is an actual difference between the New York City before Rudy Giuliani's take-the-good-with-the-fascism reign as mayor and after, at which point the violent crime that had long lent a “once more into the breach” air to every venture outside one's apartment in New York was no more. It was, however, replaced by a Manhattan by, for, and of the extremely rich, which is even still rapidly expanding to Brooklyn and Queens, a place that is safer to live unless one disturbs the moneyed elite, but arguably missing that ineffable quality that made New York New York once upon a time. None of Ghostbusters' three primary protagonists have anything even remotely resembling New York accents (to be fair, it is never concretely implied that any of them are actually from here) but they—and the many locals they encounter, like Annie Potts, and the “that must be some cockroach” guy with the cigar waiting by the elevator, and Ernie Hudson—all have that kind of “what the fuck” swagger that New Yorkers all like to think they possess even now. Whether or not that's real or illusory is beside the point: it's a shared positive perception of what New York was at the time, at just the right pitch to resonate with audiences far and wide.
All of which is to say, man, Ghostbusters is still really fucking great. It's just lovely. Even if the parts that are loveliest go from “tee hee hee Bill Murray” to “wow Laszlo Kovacs sure knows how to use the wide screen and man Elmer Bernstein's a god with the tunes,” it's still about as good as pop cinema gets. The fact that the best parts change over time too is another sign that Ghostbusters is one of the great classics of its decade. Long may it reign. Who ya gonna call.