Shot by Shot
Call it the inoculation. This chapter's not a deep reading of Ghostbusters, but a close one. The film school crowd will feel right at home; the reader less used to dissecting movies will find out it's actually kind of fun. (Promise.)
To start, we'll concentrate on how director Ivan Reitman stages scenes, and, by association, what the film shows us and when. This encompasses the composition of the frame, the objects captured in the image and the progression of the shots. Along the way, we'll point out some other little tricks that help tell the story in cinematic form, just to set us up for future chapters and/or further complicate matters.
We're gonna go slowly, even shot by shot. We'll uncover how filmmaking choices reveal character, further the themes of the work and enhance both the horror and the comedy. And we'll see how the movie was working a subtle kind of magic on us all along.
"The New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue"
The second-best filmmaking advice I ever got was this: If you need to ask a favor, bring a pretty girl with you.
The best filmmaking advice I ever got was this: Make your opening shot a visual metaphor for the whole movie.
Ghostbusters begins on a tilt, in two different ways. Obviously, the camera tilts down. But notice the unbalanced diagonal formed by the line between the New York Public Library and the blue sky. The tip of the roof just barely touches the edge of the frame, dividing the sky into two blue triangles. As eerie music stirs, the camera drifts downward, cutting off the sky, the negative space of the composition. A suitably ominous clump of spooked pigeons fly off en masse in ill portent, and we settle on a lion statue.
Already there's a lot going on here. With one shot, the filmmakers have not only established the genre and an appropriately unsettling air, but laid the groundwork for a few important tropes and themes for the subsequent film to cover. Our location—New York City—is identified with a bona fide landmark. The film wants us to understand that, in Zeddemore's words, "these things are real," even as it prepares us for the weirdness to come; Reitman estranges the library, shooting it on a harsh angle, forcing the cowed viewer to look up at the imposing lion.
The lion is the first of many statues, idols and architectural touches that crop up throughout the film, the everyday scares of the city. Architecture plays a major role in both the design and the plot of Ghostbusters; indeed, the film's first image shows us the names, dates and circumstances behind the library's founding, and the renovation in progress elegantly if inadvertently foreshadows the importance of the architect and the construction process behind the Ivo Shandor Building.
The clear split between positive and negative space, off-kilter, with one side subsequently eliminated, sets up a visual trope of tensions between two opposites—setting the stage for a film about the blurring of the line between two worlds, the crossing between life and death, lowly Earth and the spiritual realm.
All this in one damn shot. And the flowers are still standing!
Here, the reader is invited to scoff at the amount of detail being read into things. We'll tone it down a bit, don't worry. But it's important to cover the early scenes with a fine-toothed comb, because the filmmakers are deploying their visual strategy—and I'm deliberately less graceful about it than they are. The effect becomes ridiculous in the black and white of printed text, because something meant to be absorbed subconsciously is robbed of subtlety, all spelled out, gasping for air. The film isn't asking that you notice all this stuff, only that you feel it.
In developing the script, Reitman and Ramis subscribed to "the Domino Theory of Reality", believing that audiences would only buy the bizarre plot of Ghostbusters if they were led along in little increments. "If you can go one step at a time and it seems to make sense, you can then take your audience into an area that is relatively outlandish," as Reitman puts it. The ultimate goal was to sell the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man; this credibility is achieved by starting the characters in a grounded, believable situation, leading them to their first paranormal encounter, depicting the start of a business, then their early struggles, and so on until the climax seems just another step in the progression.
What the script does, on the surface level, the director mirrors with the language of cinema. Ghostbusters is constantly building toward the comic mayhem of its climax by planting the seeds early on, continually revisiting these visual themes. Put simply, it's laying dominoes. It knows where it's going and what it needs to get us there. Any filmgoer who's given up on a movie because it doesn't seem to know what it's about, or why anyone should care, will understand.
Let's move on to the second shot.
"The Usual Literature"
The first character we meet is Alice the librarian, entering the film moving from right to left, traditionally indicating retreat—in screen direction, 'forward' motion is generally left to right, in keeping with how we read words and images. (In the West, anyway.) The scene thrusts the rest of the room, including most of the moving extras, in a left-to-right direction; she departs against the natural flow, into the wild.
In the basement stacks, the unsettled camerawork conveys unease as it leads Alice down the stairs and to her task. Books fill the frame. Our victim has a clearly defined, limited pathway to walk, her sole route in and out, a visual trope Reitman will play with as the scene and the film march on.
At the card catalog, Reitman shifts perspective, makes us observer rather than participant; he also more conspicuously varies his shot distances, and trades off on which side of Alice the camera sits. These techniques sell Alice's disorientation and horror: when the catalog drawers spew their cards about, at first we keep some distance from Alice, then, boom, all of a sudden we're in the thick of it. We cut to close-ups of the drawers; the first purports to represent Alice's point of view, but the second insert, depicting the drawer extending from the right, is physically impossible from her standpoint. This cheat sells the emotional reality of the moment—not what she sees but what she feels.
She bolts. We linger on the cards a moment longer, filling the frame, piling up on the floor, covering her escape route. When we rejoin Alice, she's looking back over her shoulder and then ahead, as if something is chasing her or up ahead of her—even though there isn't. Again, Reitman favors the sense of horror to the real thing. The camera is closer on Alice here, hiding the footpath; she's boxed in.
Then, the reveal—or not. The film denies us the horror-movie payoff, instead announcing the comedy genre with the overblown scream, upbeat theme song and friendly cartoon logo. (Indeed, the bright red graphic encircling Alice recalls the bouncy opening of the Warner Bros. "Looney Tunes" shorts, with its concentric red rings.) On the note of screen direction, the logo runs its diagonal in opposition to what we're used to from 'no smoking' and 'no parking' signs worldwide, so the ghost can face left, in retreat.
The logo closes down around the ghost to wipe us to the next scene. This title and transition marks Ghostbusters' formal self-admission as fiction. The film, unusually, eschews opening credits, without even a couple of lines for the production entities; only the Columbia studio logo has stood between us and the story. Lobbing this title at us now is the film's chance to wink at the horrors preceding and say, hey, it's only a movie.
"Is It a Star?"
The title shot showcases another imposing building and another statue. The frame is symmetrical. Half of South Field is grassy and alive; half ain't. (The critic must pause here to note the perennial trivia favorite that, yes, Columbia University's royalty from Ghostbusters goes to the maintenance of that very grass.)
Mocking the opening shot, a tilt-down introduces the laboratory location, this time revealing something comic. It's our first shot of a door, a symbol we'll revisit throughout the film. The viewers' eye is drawn to the 'Maid' sign, making for a smooth transition to the star on the Zener card on the cut.
In an amusing visual pun, the reveal of our protagonist is where he reveals, well, the star. He's kept a little shrouded; we see his face, his shirt and tie, but the rest of the image is sort of a murky brown, a mess of equipment. A little stray takeout food no one ever cleaned up. The shots are simple, but they make a point about Dr. Peter Venkman's little world. We're closer on the students than on him, staring them down directly, judging the young man's nervousness and Jennifer's beauty. Venkman's on a less subjective angle, the partition in the desk making a wall between him and his subjects, the diagonal rolling downhill to him on the right; he's in control, but relaxed about it.
The script makes the most of the comic possibilities of Zener cards. Jennifer guesses "Is it a star?" for her card right after Venkman shows her one; she's picking up on his cues, even turning complicit in the shocking of her schoolmate on his incorrect guess. Venkman drawing a circle for Jennifer, by contrast, says an unkind thing or two about his opinion of her.
A couple of hidden jokes flesh out the scene. Jennifer's "Figure eight" guess, which Venkman validates, is not only wrong, but there is no such card in the Zener deck, as the kids would no doubt have noticed in the next seventy-five cards. (How, exactly, did Venkman present this proposed experiment to his superiors, anyway?) When Venkman joins Jennifer on her side of the partition, we might well note the 'Caution' sign in frame.
Then in bursts Dr. Raymond Stantz. He's introduced as a man of action; he crosses right (the 'forward' of screen direction), advancing to the foreground, announcing "This is it!" Then he retreats again, into the murky background, to the tools and toys and tricks of the trade; Venkman must abandon Jennifer and join his colleague in the shadows. This is a man's conversation, and Jennifer is, visually and socially, left out.
Once all is settled with Stantz, Venkman rejoins Jennifer in a two shot: they're face to face, full profile, shot from the side, more or less equal weight in the frame. Graphic, perpendicular, unmistakable. Reitman repeats this simple but direct framing several times over the course of the film, usually for romance (or some parody thereof), always in reference to Venkman's desires. In a lighthearted crack at the patent absurdity of Venkman's ploy, Reitman balances the frame perfectly, with a horizontal line in the background complementing the imaginary vertical between Venkman and Jennifer. Nothing could be more stable, more faultless. Venkman faces right, advancing toward his goal. Eight o'clock looks to be full of possibilities.
We return to the exterior of the library, but the camerawork's changed; no low angles, no ominous looming, just a building under renovation in a busy city.
Inside, Dr. Egon Spengler's first shot renders him barely noticeable; he's all business, lost in his studies, and Venkman must discover him for the viewer. With all assembled, the three march down the hall together, heroes on the move; then their client slides in. (This setup will later be repeated at the Sedgewick Hotel.)
They question Alice; she takes the weak position, looking up, but the men are kept on eye level, perhaps so her plight won't seem too cruel for comedy.
Similarly, down in the stacks, the film deliberately spoofs its own horror-movie affectations. Venkman's attitude up to and including the card catalog gives the film's opening all the joshing it needs. The tower of books, a scene improvised by Reitman en route to the set that morning, mocks the movie's architectural conceit. Ray's "Listen! You smell something," punctuated by a stinger, is of course a playful jibe at the use of such sonic silliness in horror movies—deemed important enough to let the movie break the fourth wall. Finally, the falling bookshelf, exposing white space, deflates the sense of enclosure and entrapment that the opening created. Just as the men who would be Ghostbusters trip themselves up, the film's gleefully poking holes in its own arguments. Might as well laugh while we can; something strange is literally just around the corner.
"A Full Torso Apparition, And It's Real."
The reveal of the library ghost is calculated to chill. Reitman widens out, shows some clear floor out in front of the characters; the whole space seems to expand. Three theoreticians have found a new world.
The camera keeps a respectful distance from the ghost. Reitman doesn't show the specter too much or too often; the scene stems from the actors, and only a less trusting filmmaker would keep cutting back to the effects shot. He lets us take in his protagonists' expressions, their little moments, and he uses the measured pace of the scene to employ the 'peek-a-boo' effect as the characters confer—the inherently if inexplicably funny moment where characters disappear from view, only to return in the same shot.
(And just for fun, here's a couple of droll little details I noticed on a big-screen viewing: a red book near Venkman's head entitled Great Man and a handwritten sign on a library shelf, shown as they approach their would-be prey, reading "Fiction" but looking like "Action".)
When the library ghost takes wraithlike form, the camera slips down and under, submitting to her. It's quick, but that's all Reitman needs; the editing, cinematography and sound let us in on the joke. The jubilant piano of "Cleanin' Up the Town" accompanies the monster's outburst, and we cut away quickly—to a position akin to her viewpoint, the better to leer at our heroes as they run. For added comic value, Spengler, the rationalist of the three, seems the most shaken, and he and Stantz continue to scream openmouthed even outside the library. Venkman does not scream, and barely runs. He jogs calmly.
As with Alice's spectral encounter, it's the leadup that makes Ghostbusters horror and the payoff that makes it comedy. Even the use of music is similar, relieving the tension and ushering in the gag. As our heroes flee the library, pigeons scatter, just as in the first shot. What a difference perspective makes.
(The truly obsessive viewer will note that this exterior marks the first appearance of a curly-haired extra with a distinctive face. He pops up across the street later, outside the bank. Perhaps he is a cousin to the place-shifting red-haired extra outside Spook Central. The things you notice when you've seen a movie too many times…)
With harsh reality confronted, the retreat to academia seems to suit all involved. They walk down a clearly delineated path, unnoticed and unbothered; Spengler even has his calculator back. Harmony and levity on all fronts. We can see some construction in the background, some renovation work; as always, the city is changing.
In fact, a few things have changed when our heroes arrive back at their lab. They enter not through the glass-windowed door bearing names and titles, but a plain, functional door marked only with a number. (The eventual importance of doors to the plot, of course, cannot be understated.) The lights are brighter—the mystery's been sucked out of the lab, and with the equipment cleared away, or at least out of the shadows, all their careers have amounted to is a bunch of boxes.
The production design acknowledges a duality in the prevailing attitudes of the lab's now-ex-occupants. One piece of wall art is a classical portrait, perhaps some great thinker. The other, a cheesy motivational poster. 'Go for it,' indeed.
For the catalyst scene that launches the Ghostbusters story, Reitman gives his characters an expansive view of the campus, a vista. Stantz stands and paces, below; Venkman reclines in the upper right part of the frame, in harmony with the sweep of the staircase and the architecture below. As with his coeds, he's dominant, but lazy, and going with the flow. His comfortable shoes poke into Stantz's shot, comically puncturing his colleague's worry; when Stantz reminds him, "You've never been out of college," Reitman goes in for a close-up of Venkman framed against Low Library, safely nestled in the academic space, smirking, unworried.
As Venkman reveals the new plan, he and Stantz end up face to face in profile, assuming the same two shot he used to ask Jennifer for a date. Reitman shoots it wide at first, to let us get there, then cuts in for the two shot once his actors are placed, as a punch line. We know Venkman's going to get what he wants.
And so the scientists join the private sector. (Curiously, their bank is directly across from the New York Public Library—and of course they move left, in retreat.) Their entry into capitalism is greeted with a brief but stirring little musical flourish—and there they are, in the same flow of traffic as everyone else. Welcome to the '80s. But they're prepared for the business world; Spengler's calculator gag resurfaces for one last payoff, and his newest number-crunching serves not physics but economics.
The camera moves higher again, with the establishing shot of the firehouse taken from well above street level. A bigger story is being told, piece by piece. Inside, the filmmakers emphasize the dust and decay of the run-down old hall, limiting the color palette; yellows and browns and earth tones everywhere. The sole splash of contrast: Stantz's blue shirt. He's excited.
"Will You Guys Relax?"
I'm going to touch on one of the nasty little truths of film criticism here.
I mentioned above the walk-and-talk outside the bank, the sight of the library, the motion in retreat. It was an interesting and astute analysis and will win this project high praise from all the appropriate tastemakers.
Now let me tell you the real reason the shot is like that: because the location was close to the library, so they could shoot the two together without hiring more extras or moving the crew.
And the reason the camera points west, at the library, is because it makes a more attractive frame than the alternative.
And the reason that any of this happened is because movies are incredibly difficult to make, and time is money, and no one but obsessive shut-ins will even notice the library to begin with.
So when I say, Reitman did this, Reitman did that—I don't know Ivan Reitman. I didn't ask his opinion before offering my own, any more than I asked any other filmmaker, actor or artist I've ever written about, whether for love or money.
More perversely, I don't actually care. I enjoy the same privilege as any critic, any audience member. We create these simulacrum-filmmakers, fictional characters, sock puppets bearing the names and professions of actual humans that worked in the industry. We speak of writers and directors as if we know them.
Because what's on the screen is all that matters.
"Oh, Dana, It's You!"
The transition into Dana's storyline is a major turn for the film to maneuver. Not only must it introduce a major character, but it's the first time we've left Venkman and his cohorts since we met them, over a reel ago.
Reitman signals this new chapter in grand style, first with the film's widest shot yet, a grand Manhattan skyline, and then its highest—and most subjective. These high angles are fatalistic, rendering the world below small, powerless, trapped. There's no mistaking the intent behind the shot of the terror dog looking down on Dana's cab. She's being watched.
Dana arrives on an elevator with two sets of doors, one ornately carved, prefiguring the Temple of Zuul. She greets a neighbor with "Oh, hi," neatly bookending her last line in the movie. But Reitman isn't just looking forward, he's reaching back; he's put us in hallways again, but this time clean and white, eschewing the clutter of the library. Will Dana's story be like Alice's? Or something new?
Louis's entry is framed for comic effect. He slips out of his wall as if emerging from nothing, then moves right to pursue Dana—but doesn't get far. The height difference between Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver is played for laughs; the camera in their single shots is at her level, not his, so we look down at him, and when he's in the foreground, the camera peers anxiously over his shoulder. (Normally, over-the-shoulder shots highlight intimacy, but there's none here to highlight.) His head leaves awkward space above him while hers scrapes the top of the frame. When she takes her leave, she vacates the frame; he turns to full profile, mimicking Venkman's profile two shot as previously discussed—but there's nobody for him to talk to.
A few further subtle visual jokes enhance the comedy here; Dana claims she has to go to rehearsal, but the fact that she's lugging her cello home implies that she's already been. The symbolism of Dana denying Louis entry is obvious enough; more interesting is the bright light from the window behind her as she slams the door on him, like a beckoning escape route.
In a few short moments, the film has established Dana as confident, capable, but still a potential target. She is clearly cultured, well-off, and nobody's fool. Nonetheless, we've seen the size of the building and the way it looms over her just as surely as she looms over Louis. Her very first shot depicts her as weak and preyed upon in ways she can't even imagine yet. There's always something bigger in the food chain.
Her apartment is a strongly feminine environment: pink, peach, coral, a far cry from the cluttered brown caves the Ghostbusters seem to end up in. Was her television on by mistake, or by some byproduct of recent surges in psychokinetic energy? It's anyone's guess. She turns it off and moves to the kitchen, rendered in colder, sadder colors: single woman with groceries for one. The significance of her eggs being made to throb, vibrate and heat up is for the reader to work out.
Of course, the film has a little fun when she opens the door to the spirit world, consigning its door imagery to a refrigerator; not exactly the romance of C.S. Lewis' wardrobe. Reitman employs extreme shot distances to heighten the emotion: a vast landscape, rendering the terror dog but a dot, suddenly cutting so close that we can literally see down the creature's throat.
Dana slams the door; the next time we see her, she's opening the door of the Ghostbusters' firehouse, ready to cross that threshold.
Janine Melnitz's presentation is, to say the least, less feminine than Dana's. Short hair, shorter attitude; Reitman lines her up against a stack of boxy, squarish file cabinets.
It's not the best of bonding situations at Ghostbusters headquarters. Venkman literally walls himself off from Janine, and indeed the world, in his office; Spengler, despite emerging from a suggestive position, quickly puts a computer between Janine and himself. The sound design reinforces the emptiness of the hall (and the client roster) by the slight echo in the footsteps and dialogue.
Then Dana enters, and the camera lingers on her, our gaze as interested as Stantz's. Venkman's interest in his new client shines through in more than his groundhog-like 'peek-a-boo' pop into frame and his leap over the divider. He rushes to the foreground, hoping to be seen, to join in the dominant framing, to assume the trademark profile two shot. Reitman deliberately moves the camera to place Venkman on the right of frame (rather than, for example, shooting from Janine's perspective), to weight the frame toward him; Venkman wants to be seen not as asking for something, but as the guy with all the answers.
The subsequent examination repeats the Alice scenario: three men clustered around a woman and not terribly certain just how to help her. Reitman doesn't play with framing or composition as much this time around, but it's worth noting how he blocks his actors. Stantz and Spengler cluster together on a couch with Cheez-Its and beer, like a pair of college kids; Venkman literally puts himself on Dana's side, but stands over her, playing the hero. Trying, anyway.
The camera looms higher than ever before for the new establishing shot of the Temple of Zuul. We gaze down on the city from godlike perspective. Things are escalating.
As before, the images are telling. Dana stays constant as they enter the apartment; Venkman moves about, examining everything, literally sniffing around. (The mild phallic imagery of the ghost sniffer wand held at waist level is not ignored.) To reinforce the battle of the sexes, there comes a point where Venkman is framed against squares, in a box, and she with a circular mirror, almost a halo, behind her; then she puts him down with her "game show host" comment, and we see her framed against the rectangles, and him demoted to the female position, the circle.
Venkman's arrival in the kitchen comically upends the portentousness of our last visit here. When he slowly opens the refrigerator door, Reitman splits the frame symmetrically down the center, visually reinforcing the notion of two parallel worlds, and the diagonal grooves on the cabinets place Venkman on a series of harsh diagonals, a dangerous downhill precipice to suck him into the unknown. All this to reveal Coca-Cola and luncheon meat. The over-the-shoulder shots here attempt to create some closeness between the game show host and his unwilling contestant, and there's even a hint of a profile two shot toward the end—but Dana's having none of it, and the moment we cut to that image, she strides out of frame.
Back in the living room, Venkman, already ready to "go for broke", sinks into the pink couch and lets Dana stand over him. He subsequently rises to the occasion (no profile two shot this time) and is summarily shut down. The editing slows a little for this segment; the back-and-forth between Dana and Venkman might invite rapid-fire cuts between lines, but instead the film favors our protagonist's slow, inexorable shove out the door. Reitman uses his actors as editing marks, letting them turn, reveal themselves, turn away.
"It's a Call!"
Ghostbusters transitions to its second act with its first night shot. Spookiness is in store. Upstairs, our heroes confer in a disconsolate parody of the Last Supper. When Janine takes the phone call, the camera slowly pushes in. We are being invited in, drawing closer as if trying to hear the other end of the line.
Ecto-1's reveal is treated with appropriate heroic gravitas. The double doors swing open; the car appears in strong, direct, symmetrical compositions. Then it gets a comic send-off as it screeches out of the firehouse: it reverses screen direction a couple of times as it loops around, with the film sped up just a bit, for that silent movie / Benny Hill punch.
The second act has officially landed when the Ghostbusters arrive on the scene, dressed for battle. Their march forward, three in a line interrupted by a worried client, mirrors the approach to their last supernatural showdown at the library, and invites a comparison. They're more prepared now. (Maybe.)
Note the understated way the film highlights the Ghostbusters' tools of the trade. Car aside, there's no show-stopping reveal of anything, no big fancy 'suit-up' sequence or close-ups on ghostbusting gear, but we get a peek at the back of the proton packs, the name patches, the logo on the arm, all while exposition and comedy happen. Efficiency is the name of the game here.
The 'no smoking' sign in the elevator is perhaps the most commonly noted bit of the film's comic mise-en-scène. (A French term meaning, roughly, what is being put on stage, in front of the camera. You can't get too far talking about movies without invoking some French.) Beyond that, Reitman stages a humorously flat tableau, all parties facing front as they murmur. When Stantz's proton pack is activated, the sound slides up the scale and seems to suck all the ambient audio out of the room; it's the sonic equivalent of the 'no smoking' sign. (On that note, mild amusement may be found in considering the inspiration for the no-ghosts logo the Ghostbusters employ.)
Up on the twelfth floor comes one of the film's most dazzling visual effects displays—in a comic situation, of course. In Ghostbusters, visual impact alone is not good enough; the eye candy must work hand in hand with inspired levity. Once the moment passes, Reitman undercuts our three-hero march conceit with the shot of them standing, clumped together, from a distance, looking like contrite schoolchildren.
The old-fashioned look of the sets, the orchestral score, the upper-class clientele, even the sound of the scratchy old TV broadcast, all contribute to a feeling of age in the Sedgewick Hotel, a sense of the classic ghost comedies. Same scenario, newer players; weren't we told, after all, that there's a history of disturbances on the twelfth floor? As befits a hotel, a lot of the hallways sort of look the same; as with the depths of the library stacks, we lack a reference point for orientation. We can't tell where Venkman, Stantz and Spengler are in relation to each other. They're adrift, and fending for themselves.
The Stantz-Slimer confrontation is shot without fanfare, and designed to introduce Slimer more than anything. Reitman has a little more fun with the green ghost's next scene, though; it's framed like an Old West standoff, the characters objectified, staring each other down. (Bill Murray's dead-center framing makes for an odd precursor to the Wes Anderson films in his future.) Note the film's restraint with Slimer in his scene with Venkman. With his look established, there's no need to go in for a close-up; it's funny to just watch him linger far away, sizing up his opponent. He's not shot like an effect, but like a character. And that makes a difference.
Animal House, Meatballs, Stripes and Caddyshack weren't the first movies to have fun with the comic upheaval of dignified façades; it's a tradition older than the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges that the classy must be taken down a peg. But Harold Ramis's work shows particular fondness for such cheerful anarchy, and as such, the shot announcing the fancy dinner to take place in the ballroom makes for a clear and delightful harbinger of the chaos ahead.
What makes the ensuing mayhem work is the fun of the characters figuring out their game plan: the film follows the conceit that you tell people what you're gonna tell them, you tell them, then you tell them what you told them. The movie's already treated its audience to the electronic light show the equipment creates; now, we get to follow along as our heroes piece together how to actually use it.
Of note is that the team forms a triangle composition to catch Slimer. The shape created by the two proton beams will be echoed later with lightning bolts at the Temple of Zuul. These image systems are constantly being developed over time, to cumulative effect. Everything comes from something else, carefully, organically.
"Some Unperceived Authority"
The musical montage takes full advantage of a popular trope, incorporating real-life news figures and brands to ground the story in reality. (Remarkably, it's Larry King's first such appearance.) The attention to detail on the fake newspapers and magazines is endearing, and a wide range of sources is employed to show the strong, unifying support for the company—everything from The Atlantic (highbrow) to USA Today (less so).
It used to be that we enjoyed Ghostbusters from a perspective alongside its characters. But here, the media takes over. No longer is the feel 'you are there'; now it's 'you are reading about it, or more likely seeing it on TV', and indeed our vantage point is closest to Dana's, following along with the adventure but not participating. Reitman all but telegraphs this shift when an on-the-street reporter speaks into our 35mm camera; the media is the director now. (Reitman would explore this trope more extensively in Dave, featuring late-night commentators and Beltway insiders alike.)
With a new style of filmmaking in play, Reitman takes the opportunity to widen his stance and capture some more recognizable New York locations; Chinatown, Little Italy, and of course the distinctive gold statue at Rockefeller Center. This not only reinforces the quintessentially New York character of the film, but, again, makes visual the wide range of support that the Ghostbusters have garnered.
The sequence closes out by introducing Winston Zeddemore. As the straight-shooting Everyman archetype, Zeddemore is introduced as exactly who he is and who he claims to be: a man looking for a job, classified ads in hand. (Note how, with his very first line, he turns the Ghostbusters' "We're ready to believe you" line back on them: no, it's he who's ready to believe them.) Zeddemore brings us back into the firehouse, where Venkman and Stantz show up, and our privileged perspective is restored.
The Lincoln Center scene plays with perspective again. We don't begin with Venkman, in wait in the courtyard; we begin on Dana, in the middle of her conversation, and experience the scene as she might.
When she spots Venkman—and how could she miss him, in a suspiciously bright orange shirt he never trots out again—the camera lingers on a long pan following her approach, leaving her violinist companion behind, moving left to right. Venkman and Dana settle into the profile two shot; the line of the fountain connects them. The frame is divided vertically, split between two worlds (foreshadowing their conversation); on one side, the bustle of the city in the background, on the other, the flow of water. A balanced, stable composition.
Of course, the violinist literally positions himself between them. But Reitman cuts away. And soon enough they're walking away from him.
After they converse, Dana takes her leave of Venkman, but he won't be left behind, and he catches up soon enough. He sneaks into the background of Dana and the violinist's two shot as they depart; he doesn't dare leave her alone with the stiff.
Venkman's celebratory twirl at the close of the scene is of course meant to mirror the roller skater. But it also reflects the radial design of the tilework below his feet. The man who confessed to a lonely lifestyle is now at peace with his environment, happily integrated into the urban architecture. The circle is complete.
Down in the basement, Stantz shows Zeddemore the ropes. The compositions of the wide and medium shots are strongly weighted; the bright red of the storage facility (if nothing else) grabs our attention and pulls our focus to the right, like some sort of gravity well. Great strength lurks behind that wall.
Upstairs, Venkman and Janine confer. They stand in a parody of the profile two shot, made comic by their height differences and his obvious disregard. Note the 'X' of conflict formed in the composition—their eyeline forming one bar, crossed by the staircase in the background. Venkman's looking for a quarrel. He'll get his chance shortly.
Our introduction to Walter Peck gives Venkman the chance to look down on him; he's a little head poking up into frame, under a map of Manhattan.
Venkman's status as the mouth of the group has caught up with him; we'll never quite know what made the Environmental Protection Agency choose him to interview, but his behavior here dictates the plot, and even the nonverbal cues of communication lead us to the ensuing tragedy of errors. He assumes a casual position at his desk, a bag of Wise potato chips behind him (product placement, of course, but a 'wise guy' joke as well). Peck, by contrast, skulks around like a wolf. Venkman actually manages to coax Peck down from his higher position, down to his level, where he wants him.
And when Peck rises again, Venkman joins him. He's not going to be outmatched. There's that penchant for rebellion again…
The Twinkie scene—for so it must surely be named—both discusses and represents convergence. It's the first time all four Ghostbusters are assembled in one place ("a fourfold cross-rip" indeed), and here Spengler speaks on the escalating psychokinetic energy in the region. Plots are escalating, too; clearly there's a push-pull of Cold War tensions between the two worlds. As one side stockpiles more firepower, the other responds.
It's all laid out in a metaphor perfectly emblematic of Ghostbusters, the comic collision of the fantastic and the mundane. "That's a big Twinkie," indeed. There's actually a fair amount of snack food strewn about the film, from Chinese takeout to Cheez-Its to Hi Hos to Wise potato chips—and, lest we forget, Stay Puft Marshmallows. (Your correspondent, incidentally, finds it hilarious that the marshmallow product shot is really no less overt than any other such shot in a film today.) Perhaps it's a comment on, or testament to, our consumer culture; perhaps Spengler might have chosen his words more carefully, had he known that someone within earshot would literally re-imagine the mounting psychokinetic energy as an overgrown taste treat.
The trend of hiding jokes in signs continues, of course; note the 'danger' signs beside Venkman on the immortal line "What about the Twinkie?" For danger is indeed imminent.
Night again. The film indulges us with the classic tropes of dark skies and lightning, complete with the old 'Castle Thunder' sound effect. Our approach to the terror dogs harkens back to the first statue we saw; the camera move mimics the reveal of the library lion, and the music swelling beneath is an evolution of the same theme from that opening shot.
Just to reinforce the terror dogs' function in the plot, the next scene opens with a shot of, yes, doors opening. Dana is placed dead-center; the last person we saw in that framing was Venkman in the Sedgewick Hotel with a ghost barreling down on him. Fill in the blanks.
The tension is quickly undercut when Dana tiptoes down the hall, trying not to be heard—not to escape some monster or crazed slasher, but Louis's party. "Hot Night" on the soundtrack serves as an ironic reinforcement of the evening's portentous mood. The night's about to get hot indeed.
The scene in her apartment begins with a neat little vertical split between light and darkness, as she lets herself in. New elements enter the mise-en-scène as she ventures deeper in. Reitman introduces prominent foreground elements between the camera and the actor, a technique not seen since the index cards in the opening. No prizes for pointing out that blocking the character with bars serves to visually 'imprison' her; more subtly, her walk, obscured by foreground architecture, mirrors the first teaser shot of the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man later on.
She starts to strip, mocking the gratuitous nudity of countless scream queens. The phone rings. It's the same stock sound effect heard in The Exorcist, with the same cavalier attitude toward reasonable volume, and for the same reason: good old-fashioned 'jump' value. As usual, the film twins this jolt of horror with humor, with Dana's banal beg-off of her mother's call.
The terror dog attack, too, mixes scares with laughs. It's funny to cut to a self-conscious, extreme-high-angle shot—clearly diminishing Dana—to watch a chair spin. It's funny to see an unexpected third hand reach out from the cushion between her legs, or the way the chair makes the rug in front of it pile up. The gags even reinforce the visual themes of paths and doors: the rug makes a clear path (self-destructing) for the chair to follow, and Zuul opens a door from its world (in the hallway) to Dana's—psychically, just as Louis will do later.
On our return to the temple, we get a look at the carving on the door, foreshadowing what waits inside. Ghostbusters continually tips its hand on its own climax, preparing us to accept how wild the plot becomes—and how hilarious.
Louis's party serves as a comic tour de force for Rick Moranis; Reitman stages the action in a tracking shot around the room, in a comic inversion of the shot that swung around Dana during her phone call. The terror dog's choice to perch on his bed makes for a subtle foreshadowing of the bedroom antics to come. (How it got in the bedroom, we'll never know. It's best not to overthink these things.)
Louis bolts from the building in full retreat, booking for the left side of frame. Note the statue he passes near Tavern-on-the-Green, an eagle with a snake in its beak, suitably predatory; this piece was added by the filmmakers. His face-off with the (unseen) terror dog centers him, like Venkman in the stand-off with Slimer. This heightens the tension; the film's lulled us into a near-Pavlovian response. We know this isn't going to end well.
Oh, and by the way, Debbie Gibson's in this scene. Yeah.
The theme of a door between our world and the spirits' makes its umpteenth appearance when the Gatekeeper greets her date. (Never mind where she got the wild orange dress, note the inexplicable wind in Dana's hair just to give her that sexy model look.) Reitman lets the first contacts play out in one shot, behind Venkman—partially for the 'peek-a-boo' effect when Dana comes and goes, partially so we don't get his full reaction. What does he know and when? What's on his mind?
Reitman breaks for a point-of-view shot—a formal outlier, and a rarity in the film thus far—as Venkman casts his eye around the room. This allows us, at last, to process his moment of understanding. When we return to the scene, she, entering the bedroom, is framed in a rectangle and he in the circular mirror, foreshadowing the gender role reversal about to transpire.
The image reflects the upset balance of nature. The lights are out and the image is desaturated, just a bit; the soft pink environment's had the color, the life drained out of it, making an eerie sheen. In Venkman's single as he attempts to calm Dana, the balance in the negative space between the blinds (on a more or less even horizontal) and the curtains (in a harshly tilted diagonal pattern) shifts, one overtaking the other. When Dana floats above the bed, Reitman corrupts the rule of thirds, using her as the dividing line between the top third and the rest, inverting the accepted framing of two parts 'sky' to one part 'earth'.
These cinematic choices, taken alone, may not mean much. Viewed together, they support and enhance the weirdness of a woman four feet above the covers. Ghostbusters is about to hit the one-hour mark, and the stakes are getting higher.
Our reunion with Louis as Vinz Clortho takes place by, what else, more public statues. Reitman moves his camera freely, allowing Louis to dash between forward and background, in and out, stirring the comic pace of the scene. The film hides a joke in the wild-eyed ramblings—the irony of the title of Keymaster conferred on a guy who keeps locking himself out.
The subsequent scenes proceed in largely utilitarian fashion, with the significant camerawork and mise-en-scène choices saved to tell the would-be love story. Janine calls Spengler aside to a not-terribly-private place, scarcely feet from Louis, and attempts the romantic profile two shot—but it feels awkward, out of place as she approaches the man of science, far taller even before accounting for his hairdo. (Watch for Ramis's blink-and-you-miss-it expression as they share a perfunctory hug.) The moment is ruined; when she joins him on the couch during the phone call, the fire pole divides them.
It could be worse, romantically. One might well ask why Venkman brought Thorazine on his date.
"The Last Days"
The Judgment Day scene is the kind of thing you just don't see any more.
A comedy, a 'genre' comedy, taking the time for a soft, unnerving interaction between two characters—one can easily imagine such a scene being lost on the cutting room floor, or torn out of the script by producers. It is to Ghostbusters' credit that the filmmakers recognized the importance of a small, quiet moment, rendering the big blasts bigger by contrast; indeed, even when the scene's original context (a bust at Fort Detmerring) was removed, the scene itself remained.
Staging the scene in the car limits the camera angles, but this is made a strength rather than a weakness; all involved knew that the importance of the moment was on the characters' dialogue, and their faces. A simple, direct two shot and a couple of close-ups. Just enough light to see what we need to see. A sparse music track. And we're done.
The film bookends this scene with its sole helicopter shots, rightfully setting the conversation off as a special moment. As the helicopter pulls back at the end and reveals Manhattan, it tilts to one side, as if Ecto-1 is careening downhill, into the madness.
Reitman gives us a low, wide angle for Peck's return to Ghostbusters headquarters, a cadre of police in tow; this gives the viewer the sensation of being backed into a corner. Once inside, Peck takes a long walk forward, to the foreground, advancing on Janine.
Our return to the firehouse basement recalls the Twinkie scene even before a word is said about the protection grid. Objectively, there's not much to the explosion when it actually happens; the fear and tension comes not through flashy effects, but by what the characters have led us to invest.
The firehouse is made small in the frame for the scene's closing shot; never before has the film shown this much sky, especially as some of the background buildings are allowed to recede into the haze. Negative space overwhelms the frame; all sense of balance has gone out the window. The ghosts are free. And they're winning.
We privilege the "Magic" montage with the most iconic New York skyline of the film, the Twin Towers looming in the distance, the Empire State Building piercing the sky. It's the last we see of that in the sequence; the remainder of the montage eschews classic New York vistas. The ghosts, not the city, are in charge.
Compare with the previous montage: upbeat, cheerful, focusing on the Ghostbusters and on their triumphs, with nary a ghost in sight (save in a dream) and a host of recognizable Manhattan hot spots and big names. "Magic" is dreary and maudlin, with nary a friendly human face or spark of tourist classics in sight. Rockefeller Center was featured in the previous montage with the famous gold statue on display; now it's a hot dog cart and a sign on a post. Similarly, Louis finds himself in Times Square, but you'd never know it from how the scene is shot: no bright lights or bold advertisements, just a mass of people and, of course, a burst of frightened pigeons.
Note the color scheme as Dana rises, approaches the window. The flesh tones are desaturated, as before, giving her skin a smooth, plaster-like sheen. She's become a statue. Death is coming, and this montage concludes with a literal shattering of a barrier between this world and the next.
The prison scene benefits from a couple of little ironies. Most obviously, our protagonists find themselves in the lock-up as a direct result of the ghosts being freed from theirs. More subtly, this may be the first jail scene in history where blueprints are brought out, a conspiratorial tone taken—and then the topic isn't a prison break.
The Ghostbusters are summoned to City Hall, downtown; Louis, meanwhile, has found his way back uptown. The film cuts from a never-ending façade of impenetrable brick and glass windows to the wide expanse of Central Park and the East Side revealed in Dana's blown-out wall.
Dana waits in the same chair that Zuul found her in; the pink remnants of her apartment are cast to one side, and the rest of the place carries an eerie mottled blue tone. The door swings open for Vinz just as it did for Zuul, and Reitman makes the most of the comic height differences between Weaver and Moranis (and she's not even wearing shoes!)—even with old souls in new bodies, it's clear who's in charge here.
On the march to City Hall, the Ghostbusters move with the cops, rather than against them as in the fight; a promising sign for things to come.
Inside, Peck separates himself from the group, more often than not standing alone against the negative space; the Ghostbusters cluster together, with the cops and even the paintings (the right side of history, perhaps?) on their side. Peck is found near the map of Manhattan, as seen in his introductory shot; this map is marked by the ripple effects of his actions, radiating out from the firehouse, reminding us of how much trouble he caused the last time he dropped a pebble into the proverbial pond. It's the same map, of course, that the Mayor was fuming over at the beginning of the scene ("I've got a city blowing up…"). It's clear which way he's leaning.
The Ghostbusters escape governmental sentence and receive more besides. The "Savin' the Day" sequence begins with them departing the Manhattan Municipal Building, with the New York County Supreme Court looming in the background. (Stantz will later acknowledge their newfound position of authority in local government, of course, in his order to Gozer.) Neither structure is emphasized here—indeed, Reitman purposely gives up his chance to showcase the important, influential and imposing Municipal Building's architecture. At this point in the film, one skyscraper dwarfs all others, both in prominence and importance.
We see this sequence not from the protagonists' perspective, but from the observers'. We miss, for instance, any private moments in Ecto-1; we don't see the Ghostbusters again until the crowd does, on the Upper West Side. (When we leave Venkman behind, we see him through the passenger side window, facing right; we rejoin him uptown just as we left him, as the car pulls him into a parallel setup.) During "Savin' the Day", we see what the masses see: hustle and activity, throngs of curious, excited or deeply frightened people. It's a key shift. For most of the movie, we have been with the Ghostbusters, joining them on their adventure. Now it's a heightened version of the theme song montage: we see them from afar, as fans meeting "those guys on TV." And our energy is with the crowd.
The streets are blocked off, making a clear path for the Ghostbusters. Smooth arrival, public acclamation. Things are looking up, at first; we rejoin the Ghostbusters' perspective as they, ironically, look up to find that things are looking down. Note the centered framing on Stantz just before all hell breaks loose.
When the earthquake hits Central Park West, Reitman peppers his compositions with harsh diagonals going every which way; the image, like the situation, is unbalanced and hazy. Our perspective shifts again, and we rejoin the crowd (the alternative being a hole under the sidewalk)—watching the scene rather than being part of it. The camera does not follow Stantz into or out of the pit; it waits for him on the sidewalk, crouched among anxious voices. And note the shot that he enters into: two halves in discord, off-kilter… then a hero arrives.
When the Ghostbusters re-emerge, so do linear compositions: the crowd arranges itself into unified, orderly cheering lines. We cheer with them; we watch the heroes go. All too easy.
And then, the stairs. As usual, the exciting slammed up against the mundane. But the film also uses this joke to foreshadow the dangers ahead. The last time the Ghostbusters needed to ascend a building, they took the elevator. Now, it's literally an uphill climb. We are back to, more or less, the protagonists' perspective, and evidently things haven't gotten any easier.
"The End of the Hall"
The film treats the opening of the Temple of Zuul with ample respect. Formal, symmetrical framing for the doors, reflecting the composition used before to indicate dread and conflict. Dark, forbidding sky surrounds the characters. All of the technical conceits and seed-plantings of the preceding scenes are finally converging.
Lightning passes between the Keymaster, Gatekeeper and the temple doors. It's easy to spot the triangle similar to the proton streams enclosing Slimer on the Ghostbusters' first call. From that five-thousand-dollar job to this. Note, incidentally, Venkman's reluctance to fall into single file with his allies in Dana's apartment. Perhaps he's aware of the trouble a composition can cause.
The terror dogs take new places at their pedestals inside the temple. The arrangement directly and intentionally reflects the two lion statues flanking the New York Public Library steps; the film has been encoding the visual language for this showdown from the very first shot. Below, the Ghostbusters advance to their position at the bottom of the stairs, lined up like chessmen; Gozer emerges, takes her (its?) place. A strict, symmetrical battle formation has been drawn atop the Ivo Shandor Building. The war is on.
The filmmakers have so confidently constructed their case for this ending that they highlight this foreshadowing with a joke: Venkman's "Go get her, Ray!" command, a callback to Stantz's initial "get her" plan that worked out so well last time. Stantz moving front and center, breaking ranks, puts him in the most vulnerable, outlying psychological position of the group, setting him up for his errors to come. But for now, Reitman just milks the opportunity for tense humor; the visual disparity between Stantz in the foreground and an encouraging Venkman in the background entices a giggle.
Gozer remains unmoved, emotionally and otherwise, and retains her strong, centered framing as she blasts her non-god adversaries back; the contrast between her confident position and the haphazard pile of ragtag Ghostbusters reinforces the comedy of their humiliation. Having Venkman rally the troops round again with "This chick is toast!" is only proper; it's a one-sentence stand-in for the kind of Bill Murray motivational monologue we've seen before, the stirring speech ("It just doesn't matter!") of Meatballs or the Old Yeller tribute in Stripes. We're ready for action.
The film once again doffs its hat to its foreshadowing trope on the descent from Gozer's backflip; lightning appears at the spaces where her feet will land, and reaches up to her, as if guiding her to that point. There's a sense of comic inevitability coming to boil in these crucial scenes of Ghostbusters; everything has been building, inexorably, to the joke just over the horizon.
The first look at the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man is a bit of a tease.
Upon repeat viewings, one may wonder if the filmmakers showed too much before the wide shot; we know what we're looking at. But to uninitiated eyes, it's a mystery. Reitman lets us peek through and around foreground elements, similar to Dana's horizontal walk into her living room just before Zuul's attack. The joke is straining to break through.
It is the film's particular genius, of course, that its big set-piece joke arises from organic circumstances, literally coming from its characters (well, one well-meaning character). Lesser comedies impose jokes upon their characters; Ghostbusters plucks its show-stopping gag right out of Stantz's imagination.
Indeed, Mr. Stay-Puft has been hinted at all through the film, and not just by the package in Dana's kitchen or the painted advertisement on a Tribeca wall. But now he's here for real. So we take a little time with him, just observing the crystallized chaos, before moving forward. The camera angles add to the comedy here, reversing the traditional dynamic of representation of power; it's the Ghostbusters who hold the high ground, looking down on Mr. Stay-Puft, furthering his innocuousness and the irony of their fear. Note the framing of Stantz as he explains himself, recalling his happy summers at Camp Waconda. Shoved to the side. Alone in the dark.
The fight doesn't go well; the usual stuff isn't working, as Venkman might say. The visual symbolism of the Ghostbusters being nearly consumed by flames is self-explanatory. More significant is how the pace, paradoxically, slows down here. Our characters retreat to a quiet part of the set, away from the visual effects, for a moment about four people. It's like the climax's Judgment Day scene; a time for recharging, for a reminder of the stakes and for revelation of character. Reitman stages this last conference in simple close-ups. Their faces tell the story. Stay-Puft's cutaways do not disturb the atmosphere.
Then comes Spengler's bright idea—and the set obligingly places a literal light bulb next to his head for a cute visual gag. Of course the climax, the choice to cross the streams, stems from the moment he foreshadowed in the Sedgewick Hotel. That's easy to spot, Chekhov's proton gun, fired in act 3. It's why we appreciate it, how we got here, that makes the difference.
Boom. A fourfold cross-explosion, a dollop of marshmallow. The story is over.
The composition tells the tale here, in the wide shot after Peck gets his (painstakingly literal) just desserts; the frame is split in half along the horizontal, two worlds of earth and sky in perfect balance, peace restored. The smoke in the air is dissipating, suggesting a screaming Stay-Puft face, called to other dimensions. All is calm.
There is only one plot thread left to resolve: Dana.
Of course, the profile two shot is invoked, as Venkman stares glassily at the upturned terror dog claw. The composition is unbalanced. Something is unresolved. Indeed, when he walks away, leaving her behind, Reitman allows him to exit the frame, forcing us to look at empty wreckage—heaven knows why—
And then she stirs.
Much of the ending material was left on the cutting room floor, and rightly so. A few jokes in a walk-and-talk as the stragglers show themselves the door, and then the film picks a simple but endearing image to send us out with; a conquering hero, standing, wide and stably composed, having met and overcome his challenge.
And the credits kick in.
"Go Check On That Little Guy!"
We made it. Well. That wasn't so hard.
Ghostbusters isn't a difficult movie to read, it's just that, it being a popular commercial release, no one bothers. Unlocking its meanings can be a strange task, though ultimately a gratifying one. Like any film worth the celluloid it's printed on, it just gets better and richer with each viewing.
That smart and sophisticated visual strategies and techniques were employed on a crowd-pleasing special-effects romp should not come as a surprise. If nothing else, Ghostbusters is a film in which two points of a duality can and do co-exist. No, the film may not be packed with obfuscating metaphoric imagery or connect-the-dots symbolism to trace, but the fact that our heroes are unceremoniously disposed by academia should put paid to the notion of such facile film-schoolish decoding.
The joy of studying film isn't in limiting your understanding to the analytical experience. It's not about being able to discuss a movie in terms of hermeneutic codes or narrative intransitivity. The fun is in finding new things to appreciate; the educated viewer gets the most out of the good movies, and sometimes even out of the bad ones. Like a wine connoisseur, you begin to know what you're looking at, and looking for.
We've done a good amount of unpacking of the film by this point, the debris littering the floor. Analyzing a movie for the first time is like taking apart an old Cadillac. You have to understand how all the pieces (rings, mufflers, a little wiring) function before you can say what makes the car go.
In the chapters to come, we'll examine individual elements of the movie—the image, the sound, the story. Then we'll put it all together, and see what else the film is saying…
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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