Who ya gonna call? Not the feds…

Ivan Reitman, USA, 1984

I finally decided, after seeing it “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind and hearing so much about the latest video game adaptation, to watch this mainstream comedy “classic” once more, as my childhood memories of it (from a home-recorded VHS, possibly a censored broadcast airing) were vague at best, the better to be renewed by checking out the brand-new Blu-ray release, which looks great, grain and all. It’s hard to really make a unified comment on this film, so I will just take it piece by piece. There are some spoilers, in case you haven’t yet seen the film, or have forgotten it as I did and would like to see it again before being reminded about everything.

The movie works, but only despite itself. The structure is quite haphazard. Their first attempt to capture a ghost is shown in a very long sequence in which the Ghostbusters cause massive, unnecessary property damage due to their terrible aim. This leads to a montage of magazine covers and appreciative crowds watching them carry traps; apparently the effects budget did not allow for any further ghost-catching sequences until the “final battle,” which is itself a different animal. This is sloppy at best, but of course, as a kid I never noticed any of this; the disjointed nature of the “plot” may actually appeal to children.

For a mainstream film, the comedy is actually quite understated (I guess I’m used to the cameo-ridden affairs that are produced today, in which each walk-on tries to steal the show). Bill Murray is really the only person who is funny in this movie, as Pauline Kael noted (although she seems to think the sequel was better, an opinion that apparently no one else holds). The problem is that although his persona involves a certain laziness, Murray himself seems to only really wake up about halfway through the movie. At the beginning, he’s lifeless, but by the end, he’s finally quite funny.

Murray doesn’t only distinguish himself by his comedic skills, however. While Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis portray sexless nerds (Stantz and Spengler), the one childish and the other deathly serious, Murray’s character, Venkman, is a raging pervert, who, in the film’s first scene, is thwarted in his deceitful seduction of a blonde undergrad by Stantz’s juvenile enthusiasm at a ghost-sighting. Quite inexplicably, Stantz is much later interrupted while sleeping by a female ghost, who unzips his pants and performs oral sex on him. Huh?

Venkman’s greatest moral triumph comes when Dana (Sigourney Weaver) discards her previous, entirely understandable reticence and offers him sex, but only because she’s been possessed by the demon that Venkman failed to stop, largely because he was more focused on getting her to sleep with them (although this, like many things, is not entirely clear). In turning her down, Venkman turns out to have some kind of sexual ethics after all, although it may be more of a self-preservation thing (would she kill him after they were done, for instance?). That said, once the Ghostbusters have somehow saved the day, Venkman awkwardly kisses Dana, who gives us a vague feeling that, now that she owes her life to him, she feels that she is no longer entitled to say no.

The demonic villain, Gozer, is terrible, as she looks like a reject from a David Bowie video, and herself is dispatched quite easily (sorta). The iconic Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is cool but often poorly animated, especially when his foot seems to turn transparent as he attempts to step on someone. (by contrast, the pre-digital laser effects and stop-motion animated demon dogs were sometimes quaint, but mostly effective). Indeed, I believe that the true villain is the EPA agent Peck, played by William Atherton. It did not at all surprise me that this film, in 2008, was officially sanctioned by the conservative movement, or at least the business conservative branch of it (obviously, the religious right would not be amused… or would they? hard to say)

you have to like a movie in which the bad guy (William Atherton at his loathsome best) is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA, and the solution to a public menace comes from the private sector.

Yup, this was enough to declare the film number 10 in the list of “The Best Conservative Movies of the Last 25 Years” I mulled this aspect of the film over with my friend Tanner, and he said that I shouldn’t place so much importance on plot decisions in what is obviously a disjointed comedic film. Actor and screenwriter Harold Ramis agrees:

Well, it seemed logical, like who would be involved in regulating the Ghostbusters? I think we actually picked it because it was so counterintuitive, because we think of environmental protection as such a good thing, which it is, but the Environmental Protection Agency is not always the most efficient. Here we were dealing with a completely new area. It wasn’t so much that the EPA was the bad guy. There was a bad EPA guy, who was the bad guy.

(For the record, Dan Aykroyd, the other screenwriter, also identifies himself as “a died-in-the-wool Canadian liberal.”)

The problem is, not only is the face-off with the “bad EPA guy” the arguable climax of the film (everything after they defeat him becomes more and more dreamlike and arbitrary, but the conflict with him is very clear-cut), but the Ghostbusters triumph over him by appealing to the mayor of New York City. The superiority of local government over federal government is a key article of faith in right-wing ideology, and the notion of “environmental protection” is one of the things they hate the most. I’m just going to imagine that Aykroyd and Ramis, in spite of what they remember, got swept up in Reaganism (tons of Democrats voted for him, after all).

It just shows that you’re not always in total control of what you write… on the other hand, it’s tempting to say that the EPA guy was right in spite of himself (clearly, he’s motivated by petty revenge and hidebound skepticism more than anything). You see, the apocalyptic event was itself triggered by the opening of the containment unit, ordered by Peck, but if the Ghostbusters had never placed all those ghosts in one place, it’s not clear that the event could have been triggered otherwise. Of course, the film never acknowledges this, and one gets the feeling that we’re not supposed to notice, but with such irresponsible characters, it’s inevitable that the contrivances which get us from point A to point B also inadvertently raise the question of their own complicity in the catastrophic events that occur.

My last thought is that, in some of the throwaway lines about the demonic apocalyptic threat, I feel like the seeds were planted for the many “library scenes” in the early seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There seems to be a common thread in the kind of overblown demonic rhetoric they find in their texts, combined with the nonchalant fashion in which they respond to it. Of course the two works might share a common inspiration instead. I might look into this further.


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