“And the Franchise is Still Standing!”
The new Ghostbusters has garnered a stunningly negative reaction. Fans have taken the position that such films ruin their childhoods by replacing beloved male heroes with women. Among the infantile misogyny directed at the film: “Feminists ruin the world” and “Women are just incapable of being funny.”
Meanwhile, a popular new book about 1980s cinema, Life Moves Pretty Fast, builds its flimsy argument around Ivan Reitman’s Ghostbusters (1984). Hadley Freeman asserts that such films taught important life lessons, and while contemporary cinema does not. Without analytical method, the only thing Freeman has to rely on is her love of Ghostbusters, a film that was central to her identity during her formative years.
Both of these positions overvalue the original Ghostbusters, a film, incidentally, that I have memorized; quoting from it is the way I communicate with my friends and family: “That’s a big Twinkie,” “And the flowers are still standing,” “Back off man, I’m a scientist,” and, well, you get the idea.
A cursory glance at the academic literature on the original Ghostbusters reveals huge problems with the nostalgic embrace. My first film professor, Bill Paul’s must-read chapter, “Bill Murray, Anarchic Conservative” from his book, Laughing Screaming (1994) convinces that the mockery of one’s enemies was the central conceit of both Ronald Reagan and Murray’s characters. The 1984 Ghostbusters represents the Environmental Protection Agency as a bully out to keep our good businessmen down. When Walter Peck (William Atherton) shuts down the power grid entrapping the ghosts, he almost dooms the city. In short, Freeman doesn’t know enough to position the original Ghostbusters within its proper historical context, and the Internet misogynists ignore the history of comedy, riddled with funny women, from Lucille Ball to Carol Burnett.
From its first scene, the new Ghostbusters is funny. A tour guide at a haunted house tells us that it was the state of the art in the 19th century; it’s innovations: face bidets and anti-Irish fencing. The film pays homage to the original with funny little cameos that avoid overwhelming us with nostalgia. My favorite is Sigourney Weaver playing the mentor of the nerdy engineer, Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). When the teacher questions her design, Holtzmann jokes: “Safety lights are for dudes.”
The film gently needles the anti-feminist criticism. After posting their encounter with a ghost on You Tube, no one believes that their video is real, most of all, a dour skeptic played by Bill Murray, absurdly dressed as a refugee from an Oscar Wilde play. The beleaguered women read the negative comments on their work: “Ain’t no bitches gonna hunt no ghosts,” posts a moron in the film mimicking those outside of it.
This new Ghostbusters film is… gasp… better than the original. While chasing a specter at a rock concert, one of the ghost hunters, Patty (Leslie Jones) wanders backstage. Isolated from her colleagues, she frets about potentially seeing the twins from The Shining (Stanley Kubrick, 1980). Immediately afterward, a ghost possesses a mannequin from the costume shop. The moment invokes an entirely different Kubrick film, Killer’s Kiss, a 1955 film noir which famously ends with a shoot-out at a mannequin warehouse. This quite simply exhibits a sophistication in image construction that is far beyond the talent of Ivan Reitman, but not Paul Feig, the unchallenged auteur of the contemporary comedic woman’s film.
Sitcom director Feig, who cut his teeth on Arrested Development (2004-2005) and The Office (2005-2011), made a shift to female-centered comedy on the shows, Weeds (2005-2007) and Nurse Jackie (2009-2010). Parlaying his talent for capturing the performances of female comedians, he helmed the important Melissa McCarthy vehicles which have transformed contemporary American comedy: Bridesmaids (2011), The Heat (2013), and Spy (2015).
I don’t invoke this comparison with Feig to denigrate Ivan Reitman. The original Ghostbusters invented a new kind of film, an action-adventure vehicle that fundamentally believed in the dominance of the comic mode (rather than merely having violent characters making off-handed quips). The new Ghostbusters film exquisitely extends that conceit in an entirely new direction.
Feig’s film cares about the motivations of the characters. The lead scientist, Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) gets denied tenure at Columbia University for believing in her work on the paranormal, accomplished in the back story with her friend, Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy). There’s no equivalent to this in Reitman’s film: Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman was fired from Columbia for being a con artist; Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barret rightfully likens him to a game show host.
The new film climaxes with Erin risking her life for Abby, which allows the film’s action to breathe, for us to soak in the meaningful relationship between the two women. That human beings need each other is something that the Reaganite cinema used loud action sequences to mask, not celebrate. One of the whiny men on the Internet queried: “Did this just become a chick flick?” The answer, I am delighted to report, is: It sure as hell did… and it’s about time.