Directed by: Ivan Reitman. I’m not sure if I re-watched this because Harold Ramis died, or because it was on my shelf and I wanted to watch it. Either way, it’s been long enough since I’ve seen it that I felt like this would be a good candidate for what I always meant to start but never did, namely, the Re-View. The point of this little feature is to let me do a blog post for a movie I’ve already seen, which normally I don’t do, with the caveat that I should try to offer some shred of additional insight and interpretation. So then, without further ado, here is my incredibly impressive insight into Ghostbusters.
The Short Version
This is a film about how the culture came to put its faith in fools because it couldn’t put its faith in heroes anymore. All of its heroes had died, either from the bullets of assassins, or symbolically died from shame, scandal, or ineffectiveness. With some fear of projecting too much, it’s safe to say that, by 1984, the culture had been through some shit, the American Dream had been pulled through the ringer a few times, and that by the Orwellian date of this film, securely within what the 20th Century had always pro-actively considered “the future”, 1984 was not a year brimming with optimism. Or at least, not real optimism. The culture had, however, already gone down the path of self-delusion, happiness by ignorance, understanding by omission, acceptance by repression, and pathological lines of thought that it had embarked on from the late 60’s onward, really becoming obvious in the late 70’s with the return to childlike wonder and naivete of films like Jaws, Rocky, Superman, and especially Star Wars. It must have been, for those alive through all of that, interesting to see a film like this, focusing on the dead coming back to life, the ghosts of the deceased American Dream come back to haunt us and call us to account for our sins in an Old Testament way. It must have been extremely fucking fascinating to see all of this come about in the form of a whacky comedy, and one which would prove to be one of the most resonant and enduring (and lucrative) comedy films of all time.
“It’s the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man.”
So then, what are all of these elements doing together, in this movie or in any other? How does a film become one of the biggest blockbusters of all time by mixing the belief in paranormal/pagan/new-age spirituality with a standard slackers-become-heroes-and-stick-it-to-the-squares story, and by undercutting the entire thing with the familiar Baby Boomer-National Lampoon-Saturday Night Live tone of irreverent comedy? To me, the key to this film is in what it is and isn’t laughing at. I’m pretty much knocking on the open door here, I know. The key to this film is written all over its forehead, precisely as conspicuous as the giant Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man lumbering down the Manhattan street. It’s a fictional, cute, cartoon mascot used to help sell marshmallows for a (presumably real?—I’m Canadian) marshmallow company—it’s a symbol of disposable, ephemeral, capitalist culture, whose significance stops and ends with the selling of products from one person to another—brought to life and made giant by an ancient pagan god bent on reducing humanity to a grovelling mass of repentant sinners and dragging the entire modern world back to the Old Testament and beyond. The god Gozer is brimming with ancient tradition and significance, and all of it is scary and terrifying. And while the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is certainly terrifying as he climbs up the building to destroy them all, it’s hard to be actually afraid of him the way that we’re actually afraid of Sigourney in her satan makeup, flanked by two giant gargoyle demons.
The truth is that this scene does what the entire movie does: it shows us something that is meant to be genuinely scary while cradling it in a context of humour and light-hearted absurdity. In other words, the ghosts of Ghostbusters may be scary at times (even the goofy green Slimer is a little creepy and unnerving) but the film does such a great job of nesting those scary elements within a world of safety, a world that looks very much like our own, but which is cocooned within the disarming sarcasm of Bill Murray’s smarmy grin. So even though at the end, the counterpoint to hellfire and brimstone isn’t fervent prayer and a strict adherence to scripture but instead a healthy dose of science (or at least fake movie pseudoscience), the real weapon against the scary things of the world, including the collapse of civilization itself, is sarcasm, detachment, self-parody, amusement. In other words, we don’t actually have to do anything to change the world—we just need to dismiss it as a stupid joke and throw a bunch of egghead science at it.
“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe in anything.”
If that line doesn’t strike a chord with the jaded masses of mid-80’s American culture (and today’s culture for that matter), I don’t know what will. Maybe I could read some extra significance into the fact that this line is spoken by Ernie Hudson, the only black guy in this old boys’ club of white northern nerds (all of whose characters have German names in this movie for some reason, just to make them sound even whiter I guess). Ernie Hudson’s presence is one of my favourite things in the movie because it’s so bizarre. The new guy Winston is kind of thrown in at the last minute so that he’s pretty insignificant and superfluous to the plot but somehow, from the mysterious freshness and gravity in Ernie Hudon’s face and voice, he feels like an integral part of the whole story. Less mysteriously, his character is the one who seems to embody the economic realities of the average person of the mid-80s. Winston is a regular working-class Joe in button-up plaid. Like the average viewing audience of 1984, he can’t afford to be particular, and to a certain extent he can’t afford to believe anymore. Again, the dream is over. JFK, RFK, MLK, Vietnam, Watergate. Believing in things hurts too much. Belief has been so thoroughly destroyed that it becomes something distant, something novel, the subject of fluff, of irreverent humour. And for Winston, it’s something you can pick up and put down again. I love that line that he says because it almost translates as: “If these white guys can get me a steady job, I’ll pay lip service to whatever phony-baloney fluffy shit they want”, and by extension: “If this culture can provide me with my basic necessities of life, I will buy into, or make the public gesture of buying into, whatever ideological project it puts in front of me, including this movie.” And, of course, I like to extend that to the audience at large, myself included. This movie resonated so deeply, and continues to do so today, because we’re still living in the wake of a culture with no dreams, we’re still living with the ghosts of our dead heroes, hoping for some levity in the midst of cultural and social decay. Our heroes are still dead, and we still need fools to lead us. Now, let’s see how Ghostbusters 3 turns out without Harold Ramis and Bill Murray, and we’ll see how we get along without even our fools to keep us safe.