If there's any precedent for serious discussion of Ghostbusters, we owe it to politics. Much has been made of the movie's libertarian leanings; just slap together a brief retelling of the Walter Peck plotline, remind people of the time frame and you've got yourself a blog post.
At first glance, it appears an easy film to peg down. Ronald Reagan's camp was "entranced with the movie Ghostbusters and its relevance to the upcoming election" during the 1984 Republican National Convention, reports journalist Sidney Blumenthal; as for the President himself, he had nothing but praise: "That was great!" he said, upon seeing the film at Camp David. "It was better than movies when I was making them." There you would have it, it would seem; unapologetically right-wing while demurring to depict humans raising a monkey as their son.
Certainly that reading is hard to escape; the film is a definite fan of the free market. My hastily-scribbled initial outline for this project included a chapter on politics and a subsequent chapter on business—it didn't take me long to correct that, because in Ghostbusters, they're basically the same thing. "You have to like a movie," chirps The National Review, "in which the bad guy… is a regulation-happy buffoon from the EPA, and the solution to a public menace comes from the private sector."
It's somewhat more complex than that, but, then, most of Ghostbusters bears closer examination than it gets. Whatever the case, it's not an explicitly political film, even in the moments it celebrates capitalism. The political statements are implicit, submerged in the story rather than taking center stage. This does not equate to neutrality. When a film grosses $238 million domestic, it's worthwhile to consider the messages it's sending—because, clearly, someone out there is absorbing them, even if only subconsciously. "I figure everything we do creatively makes a statement, intended or not," Harold Ramis mused in a Writers Guild interview. "Every romantic comedy is saying something about gender politics. Every depiction of human life can be extended through psychology, sociology. There's semiotics involved."
Ramis has never been shy about his liberal views. "I entered college just when people were in the post-Korean-War fraternity wildness," he once told The New York Observer. "You know, no cares, everything looked great, Kennedy, Camelot, our generation taking over the world—and suddenly, my second year of college begins with Kennedy killed, and everything goes to hell… I sang folk songs when everyone else was singing rock-and-roll and I could be outraged about union problems in the railroads and coal mines in the late 19th century."
Although less talkative about politics, Dan Aykroyd describes himself as "a dyed-in-the-wool Canadian liberal"; for his part, Ivan Reitman directed Dave, a film practically begging for the term 'Capra-esque', and says, "I've always been something of a conservative-slash-libertarian." In any event, all three are on record as frequent donators to Democratic campaigns. As such, it's hard to read Ghostbusters as terribly right-wing, even when the government (a government regulator, no less!) is a key villain. No, the film aims wider.
The movie isn't anti-government, it's anti-institution. In the tradition of Animal House, Meatballs, Caddyshack and Stripes, the conflict is above all the little guy standing up to the big guy—the misfit Deltas against the Faber College administration, Camp North Star against Camp Mohawk, the Bushwood underclass against the stodgy Judge Smails camp, or John Winger against the U.S. Army. It's a comic setup older than celluoid: the individual against the institution. And America is a nation that roots for the underdog.
The politics of these films are, more than liberal, populist. They value the needs and the rights of the common people over the august authorities that lord over them. By itself, that tells us little about Ghostbusters—from Voltaire's Candide to Mad magazine and The Simpsons, comedy has long asked us to re-examine the world and the authority figures (and moral authority in general) in charge of it, to look past the hype to the hidden agendas. Indeed, 'question authority' could well be the central theme of comedy. Heck, sometimes comedy's a kid's first indication that his generation is being sold a bill of goods.
But Ghostbusters applies the Harold Ramis brand of populism on terms that'll play in the Reagan years, and our reading of the film is necessarily a reading of the times. Prior decades had their targets, but in the '80s, the oppressor of the hour is government regulation. Fitting Ghostbusters into the trend of anti-authoritarian comedies, Peck and the EPA become nothing but new names for the old enemies; meet the new authority figure, same as the old authority figure. In the end, perhaps the film's cleverness isn't in picking a villain for the times but in convincing us that its target was anything timely. Oppressive institutions are with us always; all the filmmakers did was choose the form of the Destructor. As Ramis tells The Believer: "We tell our kids that policemen are good and God protects us and our country is noble, and at a certain point—for some of us, it comes quite early, at five or six years old—we start to realize that it's all a facade. So the child says, "Well, geesh, the institutions that I'm supposed to respect are telling me things that don't appear to be true. Either I'm crazy or they're crazy.'" ("I don't think you're crazy," as Venkman, ever the rebel, might respond.)
"No Job Is Too Big, No Fee Is Too Big"
Even as early as 1984, Bill Murray's presence in a movie was a sure signifier of rebellion, from his quickly solidifying lovable-jerk persona of Meatballs and Stripes to his turn in Where the Buffalo Roam as no less an iconoclast than Hunter S. Thompson. Roger Ebert, after so eloquently defining Murray's screen persona in his Groundhog Day recap, also noted that his characters need an element "to push against". The phrase also crops up in Ebert's reviews of Murray's work in The Man Who Knew Too Little and Charlie's Angels. This may explain why Venkman is so eager to stick in Walter Peck's craw. As critic Saul Austerlitz notes: "Smirking, winking, commenting on rather than taking part in the action, Bill Murray was the ideal comic hero for a generation raised on dreams of rebellion but too unmotivated to rebel themselves."
For America loves rebels, and it loves winners; Dr. Peter Venkman is both. We admire his guts and his willingness to go against the grain, but furthermore, we recognize that "Pete Venkman's a guy who can get things done." He has book smarts and street smarts, the skills we wish we had and the attitude we know we do. He is a natural leader, or at least a ringleader, with a heavy dose of charm and an eye for the bottom line. He is a doer, a dreamer, a schemer—and all on his own terms. In short, he is an American.
His first scene in Ghostbusters depicts him cheerfully overstepping the ethical boundaries of both a scientist dealing with a human subject and a professor dealing with a student. And we love him for it. Venkman's attitude with his colleagues at the library indicates that he can be insubordinate even among his equals, but his most memorable comeback is the one he gives his client: "Back off, man. I'm a scientist." Truly the James Dean of the test tube set.
Strangely, it's Stantz who first sums up the anti-authoritarian clash of the film, only a few scenes later: "The possibilities are limitless—hey, Dean Yeager!" There's the conflict, in one line, seven words. For Ghostbusters is a film about the clash of opposites, and here's a big one. From the unnamed Dean of 1925's The Freshman to the wonderfully-named Dean Vernon Wormer of Animal House, there's a long cinematic tradition of college administrators as killjoys, and Yeager is here to limit a few possibilities.
To make his defense, Venkman appeals to the popular spirit: "But the kids love us!" Yeager is unmoved, and indeed throws the notion right back in Venkman's face: "Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe."
So much for the purpose of science being to serve mankind. Our sympathies lie with Venkman, and the academic world comes off as elitist. Stantz, never one to rock the boat, bemoans their fate. But Venkman sees a new opportunity on the horizon, and it's called the private sector.
Of course, even Stantz's concerns about the world outside academia are economically motivated. He challenges Venkman's romanticized view of the outsider scientist ("You know how much a patent clerk earns?"), wistfully reflects that the university "gave [them] money and facilities" and explains that his proposed ecto-containment system requires "a load of bread to capitalize. Where are we gonna get the money?" We're invited to laugh here at the ivory-tower intellectuals thrown out on their ears, forced to confront the practicalities of working-class life. But Venkman is prepared. Ever since the suspicious camera hold on him after Spengler's intriguing forecast ("we have an excellent chance of actually catching a ghost and holding it indefinitely…"), we've known something was up.
And he leads the group to their salvation… in the form of a high-interest third mortgage. Risk and reward in the world of high finance: very Manhattan, very 1980s. (Mark Lee of OverthinkingIt.com helpfully and hilariously points out just how much trouble the Ghostbusters are getting into with a loan of this kind, and thus just how big business needs to get to cover it.) "The franchise rights alone will make us rich beyond our wildest dreams," Venkman coos, and the cheerful music brings us to a real estate transaction, with a dollar sign worked into the mise-en-scène in the firehouse window. Here, the film becomes what Reitman calls "a going-into-business movie", as the Ghostbusters find their property, outfit their car, hire their hardworking staff, and, of course, advertise. There's something appealingly American about the scrappy spirit of the entrepreneur, and though we giggle at their cheap commercial, we're also happy to see them land a customer.
All the while, some of the trappings of their business invite comment. They set up shop in an abandoned firehouse, reconvert an ambulance for their company car and festoon it with sirens and lights of dubious legality. They may be operating for profit, but they also crave the legitimacy of public service; after all, they wound up in the firehouse in the first place to indulge Stantz's fantasies of New York's bravest. Certainly Stantz's unabashed enthusiasm indicates a respect for this sort of authority, no doubt mirroring Aykroyd's own lifelong love of law enforcement. (According to his own official bio, Aykroyd once "composed a standard manual for the deployment of correctional personnel in emergency situations. He also had jobs with the Canadian Department of Transport as an airport runway load tester and at the Department of Public Works as a highway surveyor and flex-track/ATV assistant mechanic in the subarctic.... Until late 2002, Aykroyd was a sworn captain in the reserve for the police department of Harahan, Louisiana.") This respect for government even extends to the federal level: as much as the filmmakers may have intended the Ghostbusters' jumpsuits to recall custodial coveralls, any fan with a homemade costume will tell you it all starts with an Air Force flight suit. From a certain perspective, the Ghostbusters' aspirations (pretensions?) toward official status are understandable; the group is simply providing an emergency service the government can't or won't, filling a crucial gap. It's a strange thing to say about a film concerning the clash between worlds, but here, the Ghostbusters represent the best of both worlds: the safety-net reliability we expect from government with the innovation and competitive service of private enterprise.
It's no wonder that conservative and libertarian publications and blogs embrace the film. "The original Ghostbusters is as good a libertarian meditation on government as has been made," pronounces Nick Gillespie, editor-in-chief of Reason magazine ("Free Minds and Free Markets"). Left-leaning writers can't help but spot the reading either. "Children who looked at movie and TV screens," David Sirota warns in Back To Our Future, "and saw the success of government's handing over municipal security responsibilities to the Ghostbusters will naturally be less surprised/outraged when, as adults, they look at the same screens and see the government handing over the same responsibilities to the Ghostbusters' terrorist-fighting colleagues at Blackwater." He paints a gloomy picture of the film's back half, starting from when Peck "turn[s] off their ghost incarceration machine—the equivalent of releasing all convicted terrorists into Times Square—a nuclear explosion ensues, the ghosts declare World War III, and a metaphysical ayatollah named Zuul triumphantly waltzes into Manhattan and imposes a paranormal caliphate…" This in between contributions to The Huffington Post and The Nation.
Even an environmental law journal has gotten in on the act—as Christine Alice Corcos writes in "Who Ya Gonna C(S)ite?: Ghostbusters and the Environmental Regulation Debate": "Ghostbusters, like many other films, appeals to a public whose frustration with what it perceives to be government bureaucracy inaction or overaction, an overly litigious and corrupt legal system, corporate greed, and the individual's inability to control his or her own decisions has reached epic proportions." Perhaps the film could prove instructive to government agencies suffering public relations problems. Or perhaps the problem runs deeper than any fault of government's. Corcos continues: "At the same time, [Ghostbusters] glorifies the ability of the individual to create opportunities, to become important, and therefore become authoritative and powerful."
It's the power of the individual that Ghostbusters celebrates, not the system of business—or indeed any system—over another. Take the protagonist. Venkman behaves with a decidedly American sense of freedom and a laissez-faire attitude toward both economics and life. He is a creator, a trailblazer, a do-it-yourselfer; he is the antithesis of the middle-class wage slave that every Millennial fears becoming. He is literally his own boss, a self-made freelance superhero, a guy with a big important job and an even bigger, more important gun. And he triumphs because of his skills, his ingenuity and his efforts. (Well, mostly Stantz and Spengler's efforts, but the spirit remains.) He would no doubt subscribe to the credo of American exceptionalism, provided that he is the American in question.
At the same time, we recognize the limits to just how exceptional Venkman is. First off, he only gets so far on his own; the movie is not called Ghostbuster, and Reitman's remark to The New York Times ("Danny was the heart, Harold was the brain and Murray, of course, was the mouth") is worth repeating to illustrate the importance of the team effort, lest Bill Murray's charm and top billing color our judgment. Secondly, we've seen "the Domino Theory of Reality" in action; we've seen these guys at their lowest, three mere mortals unable to save their jobs, let alone the world. We're with them every step of the way, and we enjoy the comic gulf between the image they present ("Yes, sir! Don't worry! We handle this kind of thing all the time!") and the reality of figuring ghostbusting out as they go along. Journalist Chris Turner reflects: "To this day, the muscled alpha males of Hollywood cinema continue to reinforce the grand American producer-culture myth of the rugged individual, imbued with an unshakeable moral compass, ready to take the law into his own hands… This archetype remains the standard mould for American heroes." Ghostbusters gleefully sends this archetype through a wringer fueled by Venkman-grade bullshit; the fantasy of the "Supernatural Success Story" celebrated in Time is no truer than the "Ghostbusters Super Diet!" advertised in the Globe.
But that's why we love them; they're not anything we're not. If the Ghostbusters are suitable representatives of the rugged pluck of the West, it is not just for their virtues but their flaws—our flaws. Here are pop culture heroes not an iota larger than life. We cannot fly like Superman, nor master the ways of the Jedi, and we must privately admit that even the admirable endurance of a Rocky Balboa may be beyond our grasp. These icons are for looking up to, not necessarily living up to. But Peter Venkman's more or less on our level, and what the Ghostbusters lack in inspiration value they make up for in identification. Strap on a proton pack and you could be a Ghostbuster, too, with all the ineptitude and improvisation that implies. If politics is the art of the possible, the Ghostbusters represent 'the possible'; the joys of the compromised end. Perhaps Austerlitz sums it up best, in a turn of phrase all but designed to describe the American heart: "Dr. Venkman is endearingly, enduringly insincere."
For image is everything. "Paint RR as the personification of all that is right with or heroized by America," ran a June 1984 strategy memo by Richard Darman in support of guess-which-candidate. "Leave Mondale in a position where an attack on Reagan is tantamount to an attack on America's idealized image of itself—where a vote against Reagan is, in some subliminal sense, a vote against a mythic 'America'." We enjoy the Ghostbusters' idealized, mythic brand of costumed heroes, and yet, with Venkman at the forefront, we can also claim credit for recognizing the fabrication.
It all comes back to Ghostbusters' unusual ability to be two things at once. Our hero neatly embodies both the qualities we aspire to and the faults we know we should probably deal with. Sure, Venkman's flippant, lackadaisical, and a con man. He shirks the textbook characteristics of a homegrown hero. He does not exemplify the values we hold dear, or at least pay lip service to. He also saves the world. Finally, a protagonist of the American monomyth we can see ourselves having a beer with. No wonder Louis is so eager to throw on a spare uniform and join the Ghostbusters, in his fashion, in the sequel. Well, why not him?
It's this question of identification that allows us to view the boys in gray as political agents; we should view the film's politics on the terms of its characters, not merely its actions. For all its capitalist leanings, a distinctly blue-collar spirit permeates Ghostbusters, no small trick when its protagonist claims to hold two Ph.D.s. The characters may not boast the actual credentials for working-class status, even among scientists, but they have the necessary credibility. (The inimitable quality that every politician strives for.). Their television spot brings to mind any number of cheap commercials for beloved local businesses; their equipment looks as handmade as it is; they come home weary after a hard day's work, cigarettes lit. Notice how the cop snaps at Peck in the firehouse basement: "You do your job, pencil neck, don't tell me how to do mine!" He might as well have been speaking for the Ghostbusters themselves, hardworking guys just trying to earn a buck. Duality, as usual: they may be captains of industry, Campbellian masters of two worlds, even gods, but the end they're working-class heroes.
And once the Ghostbusters join the working class, they never look back. While the plot begins in the ivory tower—university professors summoned to do research in library—it's not long before our heroes are cast out of Eden and wind up below Canal Street, and from then on, they are guests in the upper-class world, never equals. Certainly Venkman doesn't seem to belong in Dana's penthouse of privilege, and it's a wonder that the boys in gray got into the Sedgewick Hotel without being asked to use the service entrance. In they tromp in their heavy boots, decked out in janitor-style jumpsuits and identifying themselves as exterminators, ready for a hard night's work so Mrs. Van Hoffman and the Eastside Theatre Guild don't have their ritzy evening spoiled. Then we laugh as they overcharge the hotel for their services. It's the American way.
No wonder, then, that the cigar smoker's question—"What are you supposed to be, some kind of a cosmonaut?"—is met with a clear rejection. The summer of 1984 was certainly no time to accept a Soviet mantle, and the Ghostbusters enterprise is nothing if not truly American.
"The Mayor Wants to Rap With Me About Some Things"
With victory achieved at the hotel, the film launches into a business-is-booming montage: "No job is too big, no fee is too big," crows Venkman. The montage also features one of the film's few overt political potshots, a dismissive crack at liberal hand-wringing as The Atlantic wonders: "Do Ghosts Have Civil Rights?" There's no kowtowing to political correctness in Ghostbusters, not when there are serious issues to contend with, such as the impending apocalypse, or just keeping the cash flow going.
Yet the film clearly depicts social value to the enterprise. With one hardworking Noo Yawk type already on the payroll, the Ghostbusters' success allows them to double their staff and provide much-appreciated gainful employment to Zeddemore, thus proving their company a positive economic force; after all, small business is the backbone of the American economy. No doubt hosting a respectable business with a scientific bent is also a net benefit to the "demilitarized zone" of a neighborhood. They've done exactly what Dean Yeager said they weren't doing—using science to serve mankind. (While, naturally, continuing to exploit it as a "dodge, or hustle"; Venkman, ever equipped to deal with duality, must figure, can't it be both?) The Ghostbusters are poster boys for the entrepreneurial imperative; as Stantz points out late in the film, "Everything was fine with our system until the power grid was shut off by dickless here." So why, one must ask, does dickless ever show up to begin with?
Bill Murray had the answer in a famous line from The Life Aquatic—revenge. "Because the authority demonstrates its inability to identify and protect the community from the spirit world's dangers," Corcos writes, "government loses the respect necessary to demand cooperation and obedience… [T]he time most government agencies require to organize, carry out, and report on such a threat is likely to delay necessary remedial action until well after the problem reaches crisis proportions." As Robert Jewett and John Shelton Lawrence's American monomyth dictates, when "normal institutions fail to contend with" such threats, heroes must step in. In short, the Ghostbusters are picking up the government's slack.
But it's important to define 'government' here. The municipal government, for instance, seems to have learned its limitations. The police have no qualms with the new service in town, even after the Post headline seen in the montage calls our heroes 'Ghost Cops'. The boys in gray work right out in public in the busiest city in the world without so much as a traffic ticket or a request to see a nuclear accelerator license. And when the city's Bellevue psychiatric facility can't deal with Louis, a friendly policeman drops the possessed accountant on the Ghostbusters' doorstep—call it outsourcing to private contractors, if you like, or chalk it up to another case of private enterprise handling what government can't. The city is certainly aware of the burgeoning business in its backyard; they had access to the same "wild stories in the media" that Peck did. Yet City Hall looks the other way, until an explosion occurs (not the Ghostbusters' fault) and the walls in the 53rd Precinct begin to bleed (ditto).
The film's obvious love for New York, then, trumps its anti-authoritarian stance. But Washington gets no such courtesy, and the federal government, personified by Walter Peck, is portrayed by turns as meddling, bureaucratic and stupid. There's a palpable smugness in the officious Peck's voice as he waves his "federal entry and inspection order"; apparently having a city cop in tow isn't good enough for him. He doesn't represent government. He represents big government.
"A Federal Entry and Inspection Order"
Peck is the kind of person President Reagan meant in his decade-defining quip: "The ten most dangerous words in the English language are, 'Hi, I'm from the government, and I'm here to help.'"
It's not terribly clear what brings Peck to the firehouse on the day he meets Venkman, but it's probably not his deep love for the environment. The EPA, not the environmental movement, makes the mistake in Ghostbusters; the film is careful not to conflate popular Earth-friendly sentiments with the bureaucracy's execution of (or lip service to) same. There are no Greenpeace protestors lined up on Varick Street, not even any Cold War concerns over the negative externalities of unlicensed nuclear accelerators, and Peck has surely never hugged a tree in his life. He is there to defend law, not justice; he acts on the letter rather than the spirit of the rules, unimpeded by his complete ignorance of the technology the Ghostbusters use or how existing environmental regulations may or may not even apply to it. He obstructs for obstruction's sake, and Venkman senses that. Venkman, predictably, refuses to go along with the institution, instead turning Peck's own insistence upon bureaucracy back on itself—demanding a court order before budging. And the die is officially cast. Peck may arrive on business, but he departs with a personal vendetta.
But, then, maybe he came with one. He cites "a lot of wild stories in the media" as his source for concern; maybe he's just jealous that Environmental Protection Agency bureaucrats toil unsung. He calls Venkman "Mr." for no significant reason and he shamefully fails to use the magic word. By disrespecting Venkman, he disrespects the audience—for Venkman represents not only our own perspective in the movie, but our aspirations. It's the American government against the American dream.
Certainly Venkman is not suggesting the Ghostbusters are blameless. (You can't be a rebel without doing something wrong.) If there was nothing in the basement worth hiding, Peck's visit would have been over that same day. No, Venkman is noticeably downcast when he informs his colleagues of the EPA's interest, and asks with concern, "How's the grid holding up?" To be sure, all four men are socializing in the basement without so much as a hazmat suit, and even eating Twinkies stored on the premises, so it can't be too dangerous. The prevailing attitude in constructing the facility seems to have been: we may be violating an environmental regulation here and there, but, so long as nobody gets hurt…
But Peck is not interested in doing the greatest good for the greatest number of people. He returns with the government on his side—"Excuse me! This is private property!" protests Spengler, arguably the film's best attempt at a rallying cry. Ignoring their logical objections, Peck shuts down the protection grid on the storage facility, causing an environmental disaster far greater than anything the EPA might have hoped to prevent. As smoke fills the streets and the freed ghosts escape, Peck ducks responsibility for his actions, blaming the explosion on the Ghostbusters. And that's the last we see of them for a bit.
"They Caused an Explosion!"
It's when the bad guy avoids personal responsibility that the last piece of the puzzle falls into place. Ghostbusters is a film about three logical, scientific people (the parapsychologists) with a streak of rational self-interest (Venkman), rejected by the community of self-styled intellectuals. They instead assert their individual rights and take up laissez-faire capitalism. Their chief enemy is government interference, and only when the most productive citizens are unshackled is the world saved for all.
In short, it's an Objectivist parable.
Not until Brad Bird's The Incredibles, twenty years later, would a mass-appeal comedy adventure so relentlessly celebrate—or at least invoke—the ideas of Ayn Rand. The debate was louder in 2004 than it was in 1984, perhaps because Bird's film was more explicit in some of its Randian themes, or because said themes were less palatable in a Disney-Pixar cartoon than in a Bill Murray comedy. Nonetheless, much was made of a film depicting the egalitarian war on the exceptional, where the mediocre conspire against the most capable out of sheer resentment.
At least one more movie touched on the subject in the intervening two decades. Ghostbusters II didn't seem to drift too far from the fountainhead, or The Fountainhead; it opens with a look at how society punishes its heroes, then drags the protagonists through the restrictions and indignities of the legal, governmental and mental health systems before finally letting them free—at which point they commandeer the Statue of Liberty (celebrating both liberty in general and the privatization of government property), achieving victory in part by towering over everybody else.
Ghostbusters' political charging, like its proton charging, all looks pretty cut-and-dry on the surface. A 2007 dispatch from The Atlantic, amusingly enough, sums it all up right in the title: "Ghostbusters as Rightwing Agitprop". Regrettably, no comment is made on the politics of the next dimension.
But the Randian reading ignores the basic streak of populism running through the movie. It's the institution that drags the heroes down, not the lesser achievers. Indeed, the common people cheer for the Ghostbusters and praise them in the mass media, and the worst the Ghostbusters do to the people is overcharge them with a smile.
It's Peck who treats the Ghostbusters' clients with the most disdain, calling them "grotesquely stupid" and accusing them of hallucinating. Everyone was perfectly happy to play along with the capitalist system, including supporting the de facto monopoly of the most successful ghostbusting company in the nation, and Peck's intervention doesn't just curtail the efforts of the most productive citizens; it hurts the people who wanted to give those citizens money and maybe get the ghosts out of their house. In The Fountainhead, Howard Roark speaks passionately of how innovators and creators are mocked and persecuted. In Atlas Shrugged, Hank Rearden refuses to apologize for his success no matter how desperately the public rails against him. The Ghostbusters, by contrast, enjoyed an upbeat montage depicting their public acclaim. No Randian persecution complex here. Until in stepped the institution.
"I Got A City Blowing Up"
Eventually the city government steps in to save the Ghostbusters from the federal government—apparently, even among institutions, the little guy needs to fight the big guy.
Ghostbusters' fictional Mayor, identified only as Lenny, is described in the screenplay as "a likeable Democrat and a man of the people—particularly the Irish, Italian and Jewish people." This, combined with the year of release, seems to peg Lenny as a surrogate for then-Mayor Ed Koch. (As Koch himself puts it: "The Jews, when they took polls, 73% of them were for me. This would be for Mayor. Eighty-one percent of the Catholics, Italian and Irish were for me, because I have always perceived myself as a liberal with sanity.") Although he avoids the mannerisms, actor David Margulies isn't a terrible match for Koch—and they both keep a 'Be Not Afraid' sign on their desks, an obscure but telling detail for the film. Indeed, we can see Koch fitting into Ghostbusters nicely, as a man with a passionate love for New York on one hand, a commitment to financial stability on the other—a Democrat who refused to campaign for Carter but gladly invited Reagan to Gracie Mansion. In short, a pragmatist. Which Lenny is too. Although Koch's spiritual advisor probably wouldn't have been the archbishop.
The protagonists can offer little but theories in their defense, but Peck has nothing but lies. Perhaps it is Lenny's turn to realize that, as Venkman might say, "The usual stuff isn't working"; the limitations of government are obvious here, with the police and fire commissioner by turns overwhelmed and mystified. "I've worked in the private sector," Stantz moans at the beginning of the movie. "They expect results." Now he's proved that he and his friends, as part of the private sector, are the only ones qualified to deliver just that. Viewed in this context, Ray Parker Jr.'s immortal line "Who ya gonna call?! Ghostbusters!" is a call to action to intrusive governments the world over, a ringing endorsement of the power of private enterprise.
For in the end, the city makes the right choice—and, essentially, calls the Ghostbusters. New York's finest team up with the National Guard to facilitate crowd control and the running of red lights. Because there's quite a crowd on hand—and the Mayor knows it. Indeed, as Venkman's pitch implies, his decision to help the Ghostbusters may well be based in political self-interest, to get on board with the popular appeal. (This recalls a similar gag in another quintessential New York movie, 1974's The Taking of Pelham One Two Three—wherein the beleaguered Mayor is assured that a million-dollar payoff to save eighteen hostages will, at least, land him eighteen votes.) And so, as our heroes sally forth to battle, the government and the private sector are working hand in hand.
"I Used To Love Mr. Stay-Puft"
For such an enthusiastically pro-business movie, Ghostbusters picks an interesting topic to lampoon in its most memorable set piece. The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man clearly represents consumerism gone wild, a corporate icon running rampant, and it's not the kind of reading you have to stretch for, either: the screenplay describes him as "the cute, quintessential American brand symbol, looming as large as Godzilla." It's hilarious that when Stantz flings his mind back to warm childhood memories, his first thought is the friendly character on the marshmallow package; no doubt that's exactly the association the marketers were hoping for, although perhaps not in this context. The semiconscious yoking of emotion to brand image has succeeded all too well, and now America's love for its corporations has literally created a monster.
If the Ghostbusters represent capitalism doing right by society, Mr. Stay-Puft represents capitalism at its most destructive, the company that gets too big and starts destroying everything. Admittedly, not the most sophisticated observation. But consider this: Stantz bears a cute cartoon logo on his uniform shoulder, trivializing the serious as surely as the abomination before him renders serious the trivial. He's already bought into the cycle. He's gone on television to sell people security and peace of mind; he even had the most lines in the commercial. Must all capitalism inevitably devolve into tyranny? If so, then Stantz already brought Mr. Stay-Puft to life, long before anyone asked him to choose the form of the Destructor.
On the other hand, consider this: Mr. Stay-Puft traps Gozer inside something physical, and thus beatable. He may be a constricting influence of incalculable destructive potential, but without him, our heroes cannot win. That's the thing about the system. Big business may threaten to stomp on us, but we need it to do our equally big jobs, or we can't function. Even the government has to call on corporations from time to time. Halliburton… Lockheed Martin… Stay-Puft Marshmallows. Maybe war makes strange bedfellows. Maybe Ghostbusters is just hedging its bets on free enterprise. Or maybe political power is simply where you find it.
One thing is clear: America saves the world, and it does so on American terms. The tradition here grows out of World War II movies, if not attitudes, of the exceptional nation sweeping in and winning the war for everyone else; the ever-patriotic Superman shilled for war bonds while Captain America's debut cover showed him socking Hitler in the jaw. The trope of worldwide problems solvable only by plucky Americans reached its fullest height in the late '90s, with disaster films like Independence Day, Deep Impact and Armageddon. Those films had their rebellious cowboy heroes, to be certain. But even they didn't do their world-saving in the context of an enterprise for profit.
For a current of money runs beneath Ghostbusters, much like the river of slime in the sequel; it's the inescapable topic, the elephant in any particular room. It is the secular religion of the film; the ending benediction, featuring the blessings of priests and rabbis and the dancing Hare Krishna, is set to the Ghostbusters' advertising jingle and gives equal time to a clutch of bystanders hawking t-shirts. But maybe money isn't so out of place in a populist movie. It's something that can bring us all together.
"Still Making Headlines All Across the Country"
Ghostbusters' twist on populism reveals that it's two things at once, and this time we're not referring to its comedy-horror hybrid. It's a people-power movie for the Reaganomics era. It gives its 1984 audience what it wants, an American dream to cheer for and a government regulator to hiss, and then digs deeper. After all, the clash of the individual against the institution rages on no matter who's in power. In fact, The Atlantic might argue, the Ghostbusters actually perpetuate and aggrieve that conflict; whether the ghosts are illegal immigrants from the spirit world or, more damningly, displaced natives of this one, they don't seem to enjoy having their individual freedoms infringed upon by the oppressive corporation. The film's stance on politics is like its take on religion; up front it seems to say one thing, but scratch the surface and you find the subtle shifts and contradictions and representations that coax out a blurrier, more complicated reading. Catch it in the right light and it's all things to everyone.
Ghostbusters II stokes the fires further. The grimmer sequel turns the once-amenable Mayor Lenny against the protagonists, blinded by his own political aspirations, sequestered away from the people by his "bureaucratic bookworm" Jack Hardemeyer. (Apparently only one of the Ghostbusters—representing the common class, as usual—voted for him in the last election. Given how the government treated them after the Gozer incident, it wouldn't be surprising to learn that they spent the rest of the '80s shifting toward Republicanism.)
The Ghostbusters were not only "stiffed on the bill" for their Gozer-hosing services, but "ended up getting sued by every state, county and city agency in New York." The most productive citizens have been beaten down; politicians have succumbed to corruptive self-interest and the once-supportive city has turned against its heroes.
Even the good institutions are, in the end, just that: institutions, with all the negative connotations implied. But, again, if there is hope, it lies in populism. Spengler tips the hand early by pointing out that Vigo was "not exactly a man of the people" and was killed in revolution. In the afterlife, Vigo resurfaces in a government building in the Financial District, his power fueled by late-'80s Manhattan's own selfishness, greed and apathy; the Ghostbusters win by having faith in the people, and rallying the power of said people to their side. The coda at the credits reveals Liberty restored and the Mayor presenting the Ghostbusters with a key to the city. Another victory for private enterprise.
As for Ghostbusters: Answer the Call, made in more liberal times—well, the film is a little kinder to the powers that be, making its government's adversarial qualities less about petty obstruction and more about what is politically expedient at the moment. The movie literally finishes with the Ghostbusters moving into their expensive new facilities on the government's dime. Still, some have observed that the film takes some conservative tacks: Elif Batuman points out in The New Yorker that the Ghostbusters are constantly confronting historical wrongs, from repressed Gertrude Aldridge to land stolen from the Lenni-Lenape to the grievances of bullied outcast Rowan, but who advocate the conservative approach of deal-with-it rather than demanding redress for the wounded. "Such ghosts of history, Ghostbusters seems to say, can't be allowed to monopolize the conversation: progress is about overcoming them, both literally and figuratively," observes Batuman; "We happen to like the world the way it is," says Abby, despite the fact that "People dump on us pretty much all the time."
The Ghostbusters brand of political philosophy certainly resonated in 1984; a vote for Reagan was a vote for fewer EPA representatives shutting off the American protection grid. The elections that followed all told similar stories, with narratives hastily organized around tales of the common man versus the elitist. Michael Dukakis never quite got the people on his side and suffered accusations of Harvard Yard elitism from a Yale man. Clinton's aw-shucks Comeback Kid persona easily trumped the beleaguered old-money incumbent. Famously, George W. Bush won votes for being the kind of guy you'd like to have a beer with.
In 2008, a generation that grew up with Ghostbusters proved the crucial element in a grassroots campaign to elect Barack Obama. The notion of 'power to the people' had taken hold with us Millennials; we'd grown up with the Internet, the great untamed frontier of libertarian life. Indeed, we'd colonized it. Online, we did and said what we wanted in an unregulated space and expected our neighbors to do the same. We made our own movies on digital cameras and uploaded them to YouTube, moved them to our iPods, posted about them on MySpace, and otherwise engaged with social media networks monikered with pronoun prefixes stressing our individual importance. And when we didn't like how the powers that be treated us, we took to the streets, iPhones in hand, for 2011's Occupy Wall Street—a netroots revolution with its very own Twitter hashtag. We were well-poised for a takeover. After all, Time magazine declared each and every one of us the Person of the Year in 2006.
Technology gave populists of every stripe new ways to connect with and support their favorite personalities and ideas, including those outside the White House. On the left, the spotlight has fallen on the likes of Dennis Kucinich, Alan Grayson and even Saturday Night Live's Al Franken in Washington, with gadflies like Michael Moore, Jon Stewart and Keith Olbermann whipping up as much energy online as in traditional media. Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck and the Tea Party movement gave voice to a previously unexpressed populist sentiment on the far right; Ron Paul and his Revolution became touchstones for the emerging libertarian set. (As for 2016, at the time of this revision, political outsiders Donald Trump and to a lesser extent Ben Carson worked up the masses on the right, while on the left, Hillary Clinton's status as a traditional Washington insider seemed more a hindrance to her than a help.)
It's simple. We don't care what you claim or what you promised—we've worked in the private sector, and we expect results. "Millennials have yet to solidly commit to a political party," writes Margaret Hoover, not without optimism, in American Individualism: How a New Generation of Conservatives Can Save the Republican Party. "As a group, they are confident, open to change, globally oriented, techno-savvy, hyperconnected, and 50 million strong… They show signs of fiscal conservatism and cherish individual freedom, self-expression, and the ability to choose their own way in life. They have favorable attitudes toward business and individual entrepreneurship… They are likely to frustrate the ambitions of old-line political purists, because they do not fit neatly into the traditional partisan or ideological boxes."
Even Bill Murray agrees, advocating personal responsibility over party politics. As he told CNBC's Squawk Box, "I think we've sort of gotten used to someone looking out for us… this country is really a pioneer country." On Republicans and Democrats: "They spend all their time just trying to destroy the other guy, not to work together." All in all, he advised "taking your own personal responsibility, and when you do that, then you can work with other people. And since this is our little country here, let's work as a group and not squabble."
The vision of a government responsive to its people is tempting, and maybe it's not so inappropriate to compare politicians to governmental Ghostbusters. Deep down, we wish government could be so reliable—on call twenty-four hours a day to serve all our needs. During her unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Democratic primary, Hillary Clinton's infamous "3 AM" ad asked voters who they wanted picking up the red phone in case of an emergency; it didn't take long for wags to point out the one best answer to any question about who one was gonna call. (Back in the Reagan years, Walter Mondale had a similar ad. It only got him so far.)
Even if the individual campaigns don't work, the sentiment is right on target. Politicians want to be seen as professional, competent and cool under fire, heroes for hire, the kinds of people you choose to trust with your problems. But, as Ghostbusters shows, credibility isn't something you get just by running a commercial. You have to earn that.
"Nineteen eighty-four," Sirota muses, "was more artificially predestined to become an Important Year than any other single twelve-month period before it… Thanks to the folklore erected by Orwell's novel, the mystical expectations of real-life 1984 became an early-eighties version of the doomsday hoopla… if only because the buildup was so great." Not a bad time for a team of heroes to save us from doomsday, mystical or otherwise.
Both sides of the 1984 election tried to claim Ghostbusters iconography as their own. Enterprising types of all political persuasions did a brisk trade in both 'Reaganbusters' and 'Fritzbusters' t-shirts, stickers and pinback buttons, featuring bewildered caricatures of the candidates trapped in the circle-and-slash logo.
Given the film's seeming support of his stance, it's ironic how much face time the incumbent got on such merchandise. Did everyone miss the point? Or was there even one to begin with?
Perhaps the politics of Ghostbusters are best illustrated by analogy. Spiritual leaders of every faith and creed have embraced Harold Ramis's Groundhog Day as espousing the same traditions they teach. He's heard from Jesuit priests, from rabbis; he's even met the Dalai Lama. (So he's got that going for him. Which is nice.) There's never any one path endorsed in the movie, just a few basic points common to many views—but, somehow, people from all over the spectrum can watch Bill Murray's comic journey and see their views, their very selves, up there on the screen. It speaks to them no matter who they are, as great movies do. And they can leave with the satisfying conclusion that the movie is about what they hoped it would be about when they went in.
The political message of Ghostbusters seems pretty much the same.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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