It's weird how big we've all become, us children of the eighties.
Call us Generation Y, call us Echo Boomers, call us Millennials, but our turn in the American spotlight is at hand, and we deem it, in a word, awesome. The kids who grew up with the Internet now run the place, to the horror and confusion of our elders. We poured out in record numbers to elect a President whose charisma and media savvy drew consistent comparison to Ronald Reagan, even as his base denounced all things Gipper. We don't watch MTV the way we used to, but Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" worked its way back onto the charts, and what we don't genuinely love any more we can still enjoy out of irony. Shit, sometimes it's hard to tell the difference.
We survived the console wars, and now the video game industry's big demographic is adults with disposable income. The cartoons we worshipped on Saturday mornings became the foundation for the new century's art and commerce. Even our toys made a comeback—and as Strawberry Shortcake goes, so goes the nation. And the less said about Hollywood mining our childhoods for reboots, remakes and rehashes, the better.
Call it laze, call it pluck, call it nostalgia, but the indefatigability of 1980s pop culture seems to bear out the old Jesuit maxim: "Give me the child until he is seven, and I will give you the man."
I became a Ghostbusters fan at the age of seven, and I've never looked back.
A little about me.
I speak primarily in pop culture references. I watch entirely too many movies. I am one of those people who considers fandom not a state of mind but an activity—that it's all well and good to say you like something but more meaningful to prove it, perhaps by attending gatherings of like-minded individuals or festooning oneself with franchise-promoting t-shirts.
I dismiss the difference between high and low culture. I prize my plastic toys. I trounce in duels of trivia, I overanalyze every Goddamned thing and I've patiently explained the minutiae of my favorite obsessions to people who were sorry that they asked.
If you've read this far, I'm probably just like you.
"We've Been Going About This All Wrong"
This humble monograph is built around two focal ideas that work in concert. One comes in reference to a 1980s comedy, a Bill Murray / Harold Ramis collaboration. The other stems from a work of supernatural horror.
"Groundhog Day is a film that finds its note and purpose so precisely that its genius may not be immediately noticeable. It unfolds so inevitably, is so entertaining, so apparently effortless, that you have to stand back and slap yourself before you see how good it really is. Certainly I underrated it in my original review; I enjoyed it so easily that I was seduced into cheerful moderation."
This trap is just the kind of thing I find impedes decent discussions of Ghostbusters, or the other beloved standbys that we '80s kids grew up with—E.T., Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Back to the Future, all the high-concept classics. Everything seems to circle the drain toward some tedious tautology: it's a great movie because it's a great movie.
I think we can do better.
Great movies don't have to explain themselves—this is true. But that doesn't preclude a closer look. Like any classic work, you just find more and more every time you go back… unless you've trained yourself not to. It happens. You have to force yourself to look at these films through trained eyes, adult eyes. Otherwise you're enjoying the movie so much that you don't realize how good it is.
The question, then, becomes: what makes Ghostbusters so damned good? (Put another way, what justifies this project?) I've been asking myself that for a couple of decades now, and what strikes me is that even people who love the film—and we are many—aren't always convinced that the answer requires more than a couple of paragraphs.
But the fact remains that movies like this are distressingly few.
If you love it half as much as I do you'll agree. And you might wonder why.
And we could throw up our hands and simply stammer that they just don't make 'em like they used to, as if that was any sort of excuse; we could chalk it up to chemistry, or some mysterious magic that we'll never understand—and we'd be right. But that's no reason not to try. To start the conversation. To stop confusing praise for perception. To take off the blinders of glib nostalgia and read a great movie for what it is.
I don't want to pontificate about what the film means to me—because what would that prove. I'd rather help you discover it yourself. I want the world to slow down a little bit; I want people to look a little deeper, to see what I see. Let's not take brilliance for granted. Let's figure out where it came from, and hope we'll glom onto a little of our own.
I guess you could say I wrote this because no one understood why I was writing this.
"The Door Swings Both Ways"
Our second organizing idea stems from Alan Moore's From Hell, a graphic novel about Jack the Ripper. Moore posits that the Whitechapel murders, mixing shock, gore, power struggles, conspiracies and subjugation, not only summed up the cruelties of the years leading up to 1888 but prefigured the horrors of the post-Victorian age. As his Ripper leaves his final victim, it dawns on him:
"It is beginning, Netley. Only just beginning. For better or worse, the twentieth century. I have delivered it."
In Moore's whirlwind worldview of time, space and blood, the Whitechapel crimes mark both the turning point and summation of history; everything from the machinations of world leaders to the psychogeography of his focal city intertwine, all bringing us to the big question: what did all this really mean?
Can you ask that kind of question of anything? An event, a point in time? A movie, perhaps?
We're going to try.
Two ideas. No waiting.
Duality, as we'll see, is a pretty major theme in Ghostbusters.
"You're Always So Concerned About Your Reputation"
The aims of this project are twofold:
(1) To make the case for Ghostbusters as quality cinema.
Go ahead. Start the snickering. I'll wait.
There's no way to not make this sound heavy-handed. It's true, we don't hear much about comedies in film classes; after Charlie Chaplin and the occasional nod to the fast-talking fifties screwballers, the arbiters of taste lean toward very serious movies about very serious people. Yukfests don't exactly clean up on Oscar night. You won't see an Ivan Reitman retrospective at Film Forum, and you'll never attend a lecture at NYU on the finer points of Twinkie metaphors. It's not always easy or even productive to analyze humor, as E.B. White so memorably pointed out, and comedy does not insist upon respect the way drama does.
When I say I wanna approach this film seriously, I mean in the sense of 'serious fun'.
Ghostbusters' place in film history is already assured. As the breakout blockbuster of 1984, if nothing else—but grossing $238 million domestic doesn't impress people the way it used to. It's also a key lesson in how to sell a film from a tease, a logo—but that's not really about the movie, is it. It helped jump-start the trend of pop songs and music videos in movie marketing—again, same problem. And more importantly, so what?
Unfortunately, critical attention for Ghostbusters as a film—not a franchise, not a phenomenon, not a collection of deals—is sorely lacking. Worthy comedies like Annie Hall, The Big Lebowski, This is Spinal Tap, Animal House and the Monty Python films have been raised from the comedy ghetto, been treated as art: a BFI Modern Classics book there, a National Film Registry entry there, Criterion Collection this, et cetera. Surely there's room for one more at the table. So what must we talk about when we talk about Ghostbusters? What can be said now that apparently no one's said in generations? What do the gatekeepers want? Out of sheer laziness, I'll just quote the National Film Registry's criteria here: "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant films"… Well, it's a start.
(In fact, it was enough of a start that this site spearheaded a successful campaign to get the film preserved in the National Film Registry.)
I'm not claiming it's of earthshaking importance to prove that Ghostbusters deserves to be honored or included on some list someplace. (Although it surely deserves higher than 28th place on AFI's "100 Years… 100 Laughs" chart.) We can hardly weep over its fate, or call it unfairly slighted, or pat ourselves on the back for rescuing it from obscurity. But the canon is always under revision, and should anyone care to argue for Ghostbusters, we're going to collect some ammunition for the cause. We'll discover the beauties that were hiding in plain sight. We'll strap on our ecto-goggles for a closer look at what makes this classic comedy tick, and by gum, we'll prove Ghostbusters aesthetically significant—and generally, you don't see that kind of behavior in a major studio comedy.
That is where I come in.
"Either a Certified Genius or an Authentic Whacko"
It takes a fan to write this sort of thing, the kind of fan who cares enough about the movie to live with it for months on end, who's seen it a few hundred times and can't wait to see it again.
The kind of fan who has a proton pack and jumpsuit. And a vintage Ghostbusters II logo jacket for less formal occasions. The kind of fan who got Harold Ramis to sign his DVD. The kind of fan who made a literal music video of the theme song to entertain 300,000+ YouTubers and embarrass himself for all eternity (the lawyers made me take it down, sadly). The kind of fan who made a crappy fan site in high school, in the days when WordArt logos and "Under Construction" banners were all the rage. The kind of fan who found time to transcribe both Goddamned movies off his VHS tapes in middle school. (That's right. If you ever Googled a a transcript of the movie, you probably found mine. It's not as accurate as it should be, and, humiliatingly, it mislabels Lincoln Center as Carnegie Hall, but give me a break, I was thirteen. Thank God my horrendous Ghostbusters III script has vanished from existence.)
(Where was I?…)
It takes a fan to write this sort of thing. Musicologist Doug Adams explains why, looking back on his decade-long study of Howard Shore's score for The Lord of the Rings. "You have to just live in that world for so long that it becomes second nature to you and all you really end up having to do is describe what you see around you. So it's not that sort of dry academic process where you sit down to write four pages a day and say, 'I'm going to analyze the first ten minutes of this composition or whatever.' You just put yourself in that headspace for as long as you can so that the act of writing it is almost secondary. It's expressing these thoughts that have fully clogged up your head."
Maybe the longer you've been in that headspace, the more thoughts you have.
And, like I said, I've loved this movie since I was seven.
"I Don't Think You're Crazy"
Our second goal, then:
(2) To examine Ghostbusters' impact on the American sociopolitical climate of the 1980s, and on the generation that grew up adoring it.
This is not a small demographic. Just ask New York's movies editor Kyle Buchanan. "Though it was a four-quadrant success that plenty of people have a soft spot for, the most ardent Ghostbusters fans grew up on repeat viewings of the film and are now in their thirties… I don't think any other movie could possibly compete with the amount of times I've seen Ghostbusters, owing mostly to once- and sometimes twice-a-day viewings when I was a kid."
"You know, kids are really good critics," reflected cinematographer (of guess-what-movie) László Kovács. "I have a daughter who's a film buff, and she loves Ghostbusters. She first saw it on VHS, and she was roaring. She still loves it."
It stays with you.
Ghostbusters premiered to acclaim and adulation, not to mention surprisingly robust ticket sales, in June of 1984. Five months later, Ronald Reagan was re-elected to the Presidency by a near-stupefying margin. Reagan, 525 electoral votes; Walter Mondale, unlucky 13. Morning in America. His legacy lives on.
The following summer, Back to the Future, itself a high-concept comedy rife with special effects, hit, and hit big. Another beloved '80s classic. Reagan reportedly loved it.
Before the decade was out, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Goonies, Star Trek IV, Look Who's Talking, Big, Twins, Beetlejuice and Honey, I Shrunk the Kids—high-concept comedies with four-quadrant appeal and oft-generous effects budgets—would all break the top 10 for their respective years. It was more than a trend, it was a phenomenon.
But to what end? David Sirota explored the relationship between art and action in Back to Our Future: How the 1980s Explain The World We Live In Now—Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Everything. His introduction points to a media climate "perfectly constructed to reinforce natural cultural memes": "In short, you no longer received disparate bits of information about the world; the 1980s was the first time the tools existed to provide you with an entire way of thinking. Having never before been subjected to such a powerful propaganda machine, we were a tabula rasa without today's well-honed bullshit detectors, and the first imprint on our psychological blank slate—the pulverizing imprint of 1980s pop culture—has naturally been the most lasting."
Ghostbusters did not usher in the 1980s in any chronological sense. Nor would any sane person actually credit it for the political or economic destinies of any organization larger than Columbia Pictures. Nonetheless, every so often a movie comes along that is, simply put, the right movie for its time and place. The grittiness of the 1970s auteurist films (The Godfather, Mean Streets, Taxi Driver) gave voice to the disillusionment and dismay of a nation mired in recession and bloodshed; the popular yearning for hope and heroes in an uncertain post-Vietnam culture fed the success of Rocky and Star Wars and Superman later that decade. In the early 1980s, dream-crafters Steven Spielberg and George Lucas rewarded both our renewed optimism and our thirst for adventure with Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T. and Return of the Jedi. All these films are timeless, yet curiously twinned with their time. They are at once modern classics we hand down to our children and snapshots of our youth, forever stamped with that curious feeling of 'where were you when…' They said what we were all feeling.
Well, what people who saw them were feeling, anyway. I missed Taxi Driver in theaters; I didn't come along till the '80s, evidently quite a time to be alive. Sirota again: "Depending on the age, race, sexual orientation, geography, and sports-team affiliation of the person you are reminiscing with, the decade was hilarious, awful, or totally rad and the beginning of America's rebirth, or perhaps—not coincidentally—all of the above… That said, for all the decade's hard-to-quantify contradictions, broad themes from the 1980s clearly still influence our thinking, govern our worldview, and direct our actions. Today, we still see economics through Wall Street's eyes and government through The A-Team's garage goggles…"
None of this springs up out of nowhere. Movies aren't made in a vacuum; they're as much about what the audience brings into the theater as what's on the screen. Somehow, Ghostbusters spoke to its world, and the movie went on to define a decade, at once rising above the clichés and aesthetic pitfalls of its age while reflecting the ideas of the moment. Something in the American character was more interested in Ghostbusters than 1984 when 1984 rolled around.
Let's find out why.
"Important Safety Tip"
A few disclaimers before we proceed:
This site will focus primarily on the original 1984 film, with references to the sequels (produced or otherwise), the television programs, video games, comics and whatever else kept to a minimum. This is not to slight or disrespect those projects. For the record, I adore Ghostbusters II, I grew up on The Real Ghostbusters, I had a great time at Ghostbusters: Answer the Call and I've dug what I've seen of the rest. But this is the story of a film, not a franchise. And besides, space was limited.
This is not a making-of book. They already made one. The creation of the film is already well-documented by other scholars, and it would be a fool's errand for me to try and improve upon their work.
This is not a 'fan guide', in the sense of gaudy merchandise or assemblage of nerd-friendly factoids. There will be no neatly labeled diagrams of proton packs or glossaries of terms like 'Class Five full roaming vapor'.
This is not a definitive statement on the film. No such work is possible. The movie speaks for itself; these are just my interpretations, my readings. All opinions, analyses, overreaches and boneheaded mistakes ahead are all my own.
This is not a work of scholarship. I have to make that clear. I am not an academic. (They wouldn't touch me with a ten-meter cattle prod.) I am simply a film school brat with too much free time.
What is this? This is you and me, sitting down on a well-worn couch in a wood-paneled man-cave, tastefully decorated with posters endorsing the finest in the culture of our youth. We've made popcorn and stocked up on carbonated drinks. We're gonna watch the movie together, and every so often I'll poke you in the side and say something smart, and then we're gonna babble about it like the unabashed dorks that we are, hooting and laughing like overgrown kids, late into the lazy summer night. We'll come, we'll see, we'll kick some ass…
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
Ghostbusters and related elements ™ and © Columbia Pictures. This site is a non-fiction fan project
and has not been approved, authorized, licensed or endorsed by any entity or person involved
with the production of the Ghostbusters films or franchise.