Monday, July 27, 2015

Movies You Already Should've Seen: GHOSTBUSTERS

at 1:00 PM
Sorry, I didn't mean for this feature to just be every main nerd movie ever. I think I'm just at your typical five-year taste renewal. At least we got RETURN TO OZ last week.

GHOSTBUSTERS (1984)
Directed by: Ivan Reitman
Written by: Dan Aykroyd & Harold Ramis

GHOSTBUSTERS in one sentence:
Yourself: I think these days CafePress auto-corrects text fields to the nearest GHOSTBUSTERS quote.

Golem: The EPA is about to learn that supernatural cleanliness is just as important as environmental cleanliness.

Here's a story about me and GHOSTBUSTERS:
Yourself: Despite growing up in the '90s, I never watched GHOSTBUSTERS as a kid. Despite growing up in the '90s, I watched Extreme Ghostbusters in the mornings before school.

Golem: This movie was on in syndication a whole lot.

Get the plot bitching out of your system:
Yourself: For at least the second time in my life, the first half hour of GHOSTBUSTERS tricked me into thinking I'd spent years criminally underrating a filmic masterpiece. Then I saw the rest of the movie. I get a mild amount of shit for this opinion, but I always have and still do maintain that the entire Zuul/Gozer/apocalypse end-game is a massive misjudgment that drags the rest of the movie down with it.

The Ghostbusters are mundane. They basically lasso ghosts into traps. The entire premise of the film is "if ghosts were real, wouldn't exorcists just be exterminators?" - it's all uniforms and bills and customer service complaints. Egon asking Venkman to scrape up slime is a particularly funny running joke that reinforces the nasty grungy blue-collar work being performed by these PhDs and their space-age technology. Catching ghosts is a piece of cake! But what isn't a piece of cake is running a small business in New York City. Cue anal government bureaucrat with his damned government bureaucracy. He doesn't get ghosts! That is a perfect conflict that highlights how the movie is really just about normal everyday bullshit. The EPA agent making the logical/legal/authoritative decision to shut down the containment unit (freeing the ghosts) is arrogance fucking over hard work.

But then the portal/Gozer/all that shit appears and the movie loses its sense of identity - the rules of ghostbusting aren't important anymore. The second-act crisis isn't even addressed because giant ancient dead gods are way more important - and more lazery - than validating hard work and public interest. Ray, Egon, and Winston, who weren't as relevant as they should've been during act 2, now completely don't matter at all. Neither does Venkman really; for a Bill Murray character, he gets awfully ciphery. More problematic than the fairly awkward stylistic shift from paranormal horror to straight fantasy, this is a shift from character-oriented conflict to faceless dickless lazer shootouts. It's the kinda shit that makes the long arcs in Buffy/Angel/X-Files suck so bad - building up our heroes just so you can put them on a roller coaster is lame. And when the car comes to a full stop, they don't even bother to go back and clean up the mess raised by the EPA and Scully's abduction - see you in 1989!

Golem: Until this viewing, I hadn't noticed the contrast between the film's first act and the latter portion.

When the action centers around Venkman, Egon, and Stantz figuring out the ins and outs of a ghost-catching business, GHOSTBUSTERS is clever. The contrast between mundane exterminators and freaky supernatural beings comes out as early as their first meeting with a ghost in the New York City Public Library. Comedy follows through with thoughtful plot structure, whether it's rushing to meet a ghost before figuring out what to do with it or the fact that the first glorious shot of the proton pack is a misfire. That is to say--beyond making the characters fun to watch, the plot structures itself to set up and resolve expectations in a funny way.

Once signs of the apocalypse show up, GHOSTBUSTERS doesn't forget to make jokes, but they're secondary. Venkman can still crack wise about Dana floating, but the scene of her possession plays out as a drama. Is this a necessary aspect of plot progression?

That said, I do admire the structure of that climactic sequence--climbing the staircase of Dana's apartment building kills me. It's a well-placed moment that defeats the suspense built up for the final conflict.

The aesthetic is basically:
Yourself: Tower of Terror maybe. Or am I thinking of the Haunted Mansion?. GHOSTBUSTERS is one of those movies I very strongly associate with the city of New York - that idiosyncratic crossroads of modern and turn-of-the-century American architecture, caked in all kinds of dust, trash, and slime. The metropolitan skyline, the bustling roads, and Dana's trendy apartment contrast the spacious stone interior of the Ghostbuster's firehouse and the dark wood and warm lighting of the hotel and library.

Random thought: Gozer's costume has always really bugged me. I think it's a flesh-colored gymnast's outfit rolled in cashmere, bubble wrap, and sparkles. It sorta looks like it's meant to be skin, but it clearly has a collar and wrinkles on it.

Golem: The 'Busters have large, whirring backpacks with little flashing bulbs dotted here and there. Along with their baggy work uniforms, it's kind of goofy and kind of cool. The same goes for the flashing, wiggly lasers that sprout from the proton packs and the screaming, rambunctious, gooey ghosts. On reflection, I bet GHOSTBUSTERS could have benefitted from at least one more funny-looking ghost (after the morphing librarian and Slimer--although I guess there is the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man).

Performances to speak of?
Yourself: When allowed to be on screen together, all three Ghostbusters are hilarious. As a bunch of overgrown nerds, Aykroyd, Murray, and Ramis have an indelible chemistry that rightly earned a place in film history (Ernie Hudson holds his own for what little he is given to work with, but he is given forgettably little to work with).

For the sake of picking favorites, I'm in camp Egon. The characters are in a state of arrested development, echoing frat comedy tropes. Venkman is the horny one, Stantz is the dweeby over-achiever, and Egon, the one I relate to, is robotic to the degree of what we would today call Asperger's (back then it was just called Spock's Disease).

The strength of the cast just makes it that much suckier that the movie goes where it does, with Aykroyd and Ramis essentially taking a half hour intermission. But we talked about that already.

Golem: Bill Murray's dry sense of humor is always a treat, and his Peter Venkman has predictable but well-executed foils in Akroyd's Stantz and Ramis' Spengler--both too focused on supernatural studies to appreciate the world around them. Upon spotting a genuine full-torso apparition: "Come here, Francine!" says Venkman, tugging an awestruck Stantz by the ear. But he plays well against just about everyone in the film; he doesn't take you seriously if you're Walter Peck shutting his business down ("Yes, it's true. This man has no dick.") or Gozer about to bring the end of the world ("This chick is toast!").

It almost makes sense that the Hudson's practical Zeddmore doesn't hang around, since Venkman gets the most screen time as the film picks up speed--there's nothing oddball or antagonistic about Winston Zeddmore for him to bounce off of. But then, who knows? There are hints of character within Zeddmore as he relates to Stantz and Spengler, but nothing comes of them. But at least we get, "That's a big twinkie."

Also, the ghost of the library is a librarian, and the ghost of the hotel buffet is a glutton. The ghosts are built to fit their settings.

A really cool shot or sequence:
Yourself: The sequence with Dana's kitchen becoming so possessed you could fry an egg nails that carnevil (TM) tone. The popping eggs splattering and sizzling on the counter-top is fairly creepy just by nature of implied violence (and goo), yet it's also eggs harmlessly frying themselves on a counter-top. GHOSTBUSTERS loves a good wacky/menacing counterpoint (naturally that culminates in a certain apocalyptic destroyer who would never hurt anyone). That moment where Dana opens her refrigerator and finds herself teetering at the gateway to another dimension sells the most extreme comedy/horror juxtaposition; the sitcommy "ew, what's in the fridge!" blown up to cosmic proportions (Zuul is in the fridge).

Also, remember the part where a ghost gives Ray a blowjob? I didn't. How come they never did that on the cartoon?

Golem: The library investigation captures what makes GHOSTBUSTERS such a catchy idea. Our three leads stalk through the New York City Public Library basement in search of a reported ghost, and the shot composition makes an effort to show all three of their faces at once. The shots roll down narrow, creepy hallways, but they're also following three cramped, bumbling PhDs. Had they walked single-file, it would have allowed fewer character dynamics, and it would have looked professional and orderly.

Anyway, they follow the trail of horrors, and we find a stack of books ("just like the Philadelphia mass turbulence of 1947," Ray informs us) and a slimed-up card catalog. The opening sequence isn't like horrific or anything, but it is gripping to watch the librarian run from a violent card catalog--what happened next? The whole thing falls comically flat as we find out ghosts just make things sticky.

But things get serious, and soon after a falling bookshelf almost crushes them, they come across the ghost. (Maybe "crushes" is a strong word.) This dramatic reveal is also subverted when we learn it's just a normal librarian, only floating. She shushes them, a caricature of your typical librarian. And then when she pulls out her ultimate shush, the three professional scientists run, screaming and crazed.

What does it all really mean?
Yourself: If I am completely honest, I don't know the point of this movie. Don't be afraid of ghosts? It doesn't feel like satire - I mean, Scooby Doo is the standard for the haunted house genre. And actual paranormal investigation is such a broad and marginalized culture that it's a hard target for mockery. They didn't even stick to their Ayn-Rand-salutes-the-working-man guns. [This is a lazy answer, but I wrote pretty hard about the story already, and the lack of resolution therein leads to a lack of takeaway thereout.]

Historical note: the movie was originally proposed by Aykroyd in a draft called GHOSTSMASHERS. That script revolved around a dimension-hopping SWAT team who wielded wands in a battle against gigantic ghosts (including the Stay-Puft man). Reitman, with budgetary restrictions in mind, liked the idea but wanted to stick to the real world. That might explain the dissonance between the good stuff and the Gozer the Traveler artifacts.

Golem: I start my journey for meaning with character arcs. Peter Venkman learns that... well, at least the EPA guy gets his comeuppance. So much of the film gets sidelined at its plot shift that I find it hard to spot consistent lines of development throughout.

If you want, you could look at Dana: she's reluctant to date Peter, she eventually relents, she gets possessed, Peter (and his coworkers) free her (and her fridge) from possession. So, do with that what you will.

Note to future self on watching GHOSTBUSTERS:
Yourself: I laughed out loud so many times that I really want to give GHOSTBUSTERS the benefit of the doubt, but I've been there, done that, and I cannot understate how boring and unremarkable the second half is. Probably better to leave this one on the shelf, where it can catch my eye and remind me of a hilarious quote from time to time.

That said, anyone reading this who isn't future me, you certainly have to see GHOSTBUSTERS at least once in life.

Golem: Maybe watch the latter half closer. Ponder comic structure.

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