On Ghostbusters

Besides Scrooged, another Bill Murray film I have been all-too familiar with is Ghostbusters, which was a totally sexist movie. According to ravishly‘s article, “Newsflash: The Original Ghostbusters Was Totally Sexist“:

Ghostbusters is “a guy movie for guys” . . . apparently. Critics have been eager to assert this in the wake of announcing an all new, all women Ghostbustersreboot starring none other than Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Donald Trump harumphed, “now they’re making Ghostbusters with only women. What’s going on?!” Ernie Hudson, who played an original Ghostbuster, commented uneasily, “all-female I think would be a bad idea. I don’t think the fans want to see that.”

Hudson quickly reversed himself smelling his own blood in the wind . . . but the fact is, he and Trump have a point. The original Ghostbusters was a guy movie for guys—which is to say the film was, in many ways, both sexist and misogynist. The Ghostbusters in the original were all men not because women couldn’t lift the proton packs or some such nonsense, but because the film treated women with not-especially-veiled contempt and distaste.

The contempt and distaste are mostly expressed through the character of Peter Venckman, played by Bill Murray. Venckman is presented as a disreputable but utterly charming charlatan; a raffish fraud. But in practice, his character is “winning” because he crudely and constantly harasses women—and harassing women is funny, get it? In his first scene, he rigs an experiment in order to better hit on a female student volunteer. It’s not clear whether she’s a graduate student or an undergraduate, but either way, she’s significantly younger than him, and he’s flagrantly misusing a position of authority—which again is supposed to somehow be a joke in itself. Shortly thereafter, he asks a librarian who’s seen a ghost if she is mentally ill, and then follows that up by asking if she’s having her period. The implication appears to be that menstruation and insanity are equivalent—and, of course, it’s additionally amusing when guys ask women embarrassing personal questions.

The main target of Venckman’s smarmy ickiness however is Dana (Sigourney Weaver), the putative love interest. Dana discovers an extradimensional portal in her fridge and seeks out the Ghostbusters for help. Venckman starts hitting on her immediately, and never stops through the entire movie; at one point she has to shove him out the door physically while he mumbles about how he loves her (they’ve talked to each other maybe a total of ten minutes.) He uses the fact that she needs his professional help to continue to bully and nag her, and finally she agrees to a date because the plot says she has to. It’s the usual Hollywood formula, assuring guys that if they’re obnoxious and repeatedly refuse to take “no” for an answer, the woman of their dreams will eventually come around, because women secretly find obnoxious harassment charming.

And more than charming. Before her date with Venckman, Dana is possessed by the evil spirit of Zuul, which conveniently has her dress in a slinky off-the-shoulder-number, wear heavy eye-makeup, and spout double entendres (“I am the Gatekeeper!”) and not-even-double-entendres (“I want you inside me.”)

On the one hand, this is a pretty obvious a continuation of Venckman’s (and the film’s) male wish fulfillment. Dana goes from utterly uninterested to (magically) somewhat interested to (scarcely more magically) demanding sex. But her transformation also comes across as a function of a kind of adolescent fear of cooties. The film’s giggling sexist interest in women is balanced by a giggling misogynist fear of them. Bodily fluids are viewed as ectoplasmic ick; the films’ most famous line is “He slimed me!” Murray is constantly verbally demanding sex, but actual intimate encounters (whether with ghosts or demons) disgust and frighten him. Thus a pleasant dinner for two with an attractive woman is, for the film, presented as the literal end of the world. When Dana/Zuul expresses sexual desire, Venckman spurns her. It’s only when he pumps her full of tranquilizers till she’s unconscious that he feels it’s safe to nibble on her collarbone— an intimacy which might seem affectionate if Dana was actually already his girlfriend. But she isn’t, so it just comes across as a fairly gross violation.

That’s not the end of Dana’s indignities either. Since—again—men hitting on women who aren’t interested is innately funny, the film throws another suitor at her in the form of her neighbor Louis Tully (Rick Moranis.) Louis is eventually possessed as well, and he and Dana/Zuul end up passionately kissing, and possibly more than kissing. Thus loosened up, Dana cheerily kisses Venckman once Zuul is banished, as the film scurries to make sure that she ends up with every guy who’s pursued her, not matter how much (or especially if?) she’s said she doesn’t want them.

The final defeat of the evil female demigod Gozer (Slavitza Joven) is accomplished when the Ghostbusters cross the streams of their nuclear weapons. It’s a triumph of male-male (quasi-sexual) intimacy. The guys join together to defeat the monster matriarch and her giant evil Staypuff Marshmallow Man in a victorious money shot of spewing stickiness. Once the guys establish that they love each other, Dana can be handed off as a trophy, and the film can mercifully come to a celebratory end. Sigourney Weaver, at least, in that final street scene, looks genuinely relieved to be moving on to something else. Who can blame her?

The original Ghostbusters, then, nervously denigrated and (literally) demonized women. Misogyny and sexism were what held the plot together; without them, the film would be emotionally and narratively incoherent. A Ghostbusters with a female cast is a thorough violation of the spirit of the original. And that’s a good thing.


According to Roger Ebert:

“Ghostbusters” is a head-on collision between two comic approaches that have rarely worked together very successfully. This time, they do. It’s (1) a special-effects blockbuster, and (2) a sly dialogue movie, in which everybody talks to each other like smart graduate students who are in on the joke. In the movie’s climactic scenes, an apocalyptic psychic mindquake is rocking Manhattan, and the experts talk like Bob and Ray.

This movie is an exception to the general rule that big special effects can wreck a comedy. Special effects require painstaking detail work. Comedy requires spontaneity and improvisation; or at least that’s what it should feel like, no matter how much work has gone into it. In movies like Steven Spielberg’s “1941,” the awesome scale of the special effects dominated everything else; we couldn’t laugh because we were holding our breath. Not this time.

“Ghostbusters” has a lot of neat effects, some of them mind-boggling, others just quick little throwaways, as when a transparent green-slime monster gobbles up a mouthful of hot dogs. No matter what effects are being used, they’re placed at the service of the actors; instead of feeling as if the characters have been carefully posed in front of special effects, we feel they’re winging this adventure as they go along.

The movie stars Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis, three graduates of the Second City/National Lampoon/”Saturday Night Live” tradition. They’re funny, but they’re not afraid to reveal that they’re also quick-witted and intelligent; their dialogue puts nice little spins on American clichés, and it uses understatement, irony, in-jokes, vast cynicism, and cheerful goofiness. Rarely has a movie this expensive provided so many quotable lines.

The plot, such as it is, involves an epidemic of psychic nuisance reports in Manhattan. Murray, Ramis, and Aykroyd, defrocked parapsychologists whose university experiments have been exposed as pure boondoggle, create a company named Ghostbusters and offer to speed to the rescue like a supernatural version of the Orkin man. Business is bad until Sigourney Weaver notices that the eggs in her kitchen are frying themselves. Her next-door neighbor, Rick Moranis, notices horrifying monsters in the apartment hallways. They both apparently live in a building that serves as a conduit to the next world. The ghostbusters ride to the rescue, armed with nuclear-powered backpacks. There is a lot of talk about arcane details of psychic lore (most of which the ghostbusters are inventing on the spot), and then an earthshaking showdown between good and evil, during which Manhattan is menaced by a monster that is twenty stories high, and about which I cannot say one more word without spoiling the movie’s best visual moment.

“Ghostbusters” is one of those rare movies where the original, fragile comic vision has survived a multimillion-dollar production. It is not a complete vindication for big-budget comedies, since it’s still true, as a general rule, that the more you spend, the fewer laughs you get. But it uses its money wisely, and when that, ahem, monster marches down a Manhattan avenue and climbs the side of a skyscraper … we’re glad they spent the money for the special effects because it gets one of the biggest laughs in a long time.





3 thoughts on “On Ghostbusters

  1. Pingback: On Groundhog Day | The Progressive Democrat

  2. Pingback: On Ghostbusters II | The Progressive Democrat

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