Let me kick this chapter off with one of the most pretentious sentences I've ever written: Visual motifs are an invaluable component of cinematic storytelling.
They aid the filmmaker in sorting information and conveying key ideas in shorthand. Some such motifs come from individual movies—any film student can tell you how The Godfather uses oranges—and some emerge from a director's body of work, like the iconic Stanley Kubrick glare. Using motifs reinforces the film's commitment to narrative, helps us navigate the connections between events and themes. A film, unlike life, can organize itself for our interpretation.
Skillfully employed, motifs can make points that single images, let alone words, cannot. For instance, in Ridley Scott's Blade Runner, the motif is eyes, from the ubiquitous Orwellian eye watching over society, to Tyrell's weakening and ultimately destroyed vision, to the notion of eyes as the window to the soul, in the context of the Replicants' eerie mechanical orbs. What starts as a one-shot idea grows and reinforces itself on each revisitation, and becomes an indispensible element of the film's resonance.
And it gives freshman film majors something to write about.
In Ghostbusters, the recurring image is statues. Most statues in movies bear an external symbolism, like history, or the weight of the past. Ghostbusters generates an internal symbolism for its statues, a meaning specific to the film. The monuments come to signify the presence of ghosts, of evil, of something old and malevolent watching the characters. But they're also connected, in the most literal manner, to something even bigger than that—to the one special thing pervading the look and feel of the film.
It's New York City. And Ghostbusters bends over backwards to invite the two great clichés about New York movies: (1) it's a cinematic love letter to the city, and (2) it makes the city a character in the movie. The iconicity of the city that never sleeps is a visual cue that the film never gives a rest—no wonder, then, that Ghostbusters makes many a list of favorite New York movies.
But what's a 'New York movie', anyway? As critic David Edelstein muses in (where else) New York magazine, "what could possibly be christened the New York movie, the one that inspires millions to cry, 'That's my town!'? The city would have to be a character and a canvas… Its story would play out in public with a shot of showbiz razzmatazz." Since practically the dawn of cinema, New York has symbolized the best and worst of metropolitan life, representing not only its own legendary virtues but the very essence of city. It's hosted the picture-postcard fantasy playground of Woody Allen and the gritty urban trenches of Martin Scorsese, taken in the celebrations of lovers and dreamers and been destroyed by countless alien invasions and/or giant monsters. If there's one city in the cinematic landscape where anything can happen, it's New York. Ghostbusters couldn't have taken place anywhere else, and Ivan Reitman won't let us forget it.
"The Neighborhood Is Like a Demilitarized Zone"
First impressions are crucial, and Ghostbusters begins by placing New York front and center. The very words appear in the opening shot, featuring one of the most recognizable spots in the city, at as iconic a crossroads (42nd Street and Fifth Avenue) as we could ask for. Architect and historian James Sanders recounts the journey in Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies: "The film does not start high in the sky, just high enough. A few feet above Fifth Avenue, it introduces the theme of hidden meanings through one of New York's best-known landmarks. We see the ornate frieze of the New York Public Library, gleaming in the sun, its allegorical statues—just who are they, anyway?—set between carved inscriptions recounting the institution's origins, half-forgotten history, frozen in stone."
We've come far enough in our analysis that we can easily synthesize the cinematography, the music and the design choices into a cohesive reading of this shot: from the very beginning, the film depicts New York as a powerful place of some brewing spiritual turmoil, worthy of an ominous theme from the orchestra, and apparently the statues in particular are something to pay attention to. There's a sense of history looming over Ghostbusters; the cold eyes of New York statuary have been here longer than we have, and they see all. If New York is indeed a character in the movie, as they say, it's not a friendly one.
Because the bulk of Ghostbusters' interiors were shot in Los Angeles, the filmmakers took pains to make the most of their time in New York; using the actual New York Public Library reading room as the first interior may help us put aside any subconscious suspicions of fake Hollywood sets. Indeed, when Stantz repeats the details of the haunting—"at 1:40 PM at the main branch of the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue"—the name-drop of the location lends the whole affair a new credibility. The notion of a ghost in a specific, well-known library somehow seems more believable than one in some hypothetical library out in the universe.
These landmarks, these glimpses of brand-name New York, are crucial to grounding Ghostbusters in reality; this really happened, the film is saying, and it happened in an actual and inimitable place. Furthermore, the film needs to prepare us for a big story, to set a stage of epic proportions—and you can't get any bigger than New York. The filmmakers are laying important groundwork for the climax with every sprinkle of big-city magic. So after the library, the scene turns to Columbia University. (Look for an "I Love New York" piggy bank behind Venkman.) Then back to the library, back to Columbia, then Fifth Avenue again for a bustling crowd scene. Indeed, the first non-famous exterior in the movie is the firehouse… which the film would, ironically, catapult into history.
Varick Street seems a little threadbare next to the lively, populated, public environments the rest of the movie's taken place in, as well it should; the disgraced protagonists have been cast out of the inner circle, and must seek accommodations on the fringes of a city with fringes to spare. At the time, Tribeca was a poorer man's SoHo, with scrounging artists and cutting-edge night spots occupying warehouses and industrial spaces. "There is something desolate in the streets of Tribeca," began a 1983 piece in The New York Times, which also lauded the recent opening of the area's first supermarket. No wonder that, apparently, even the resident fire company had to pull up stakes. As Time Out New York film critic Joshua Rothkopf tells The A.V. Club, the still-functioning firehouse epitomizes the film's vision of a "kind of beaten-down, survivalist, cynical New York vibe"; there's a reason that fans flock to it, even today.
But this unassuming spot is saturated in the ghosts of urban history from well before Hollywood came calling. The real Ladder 8 company first set up shop on the corner of Varick and North Moore Streets in 1905; Varick was named for Richard Varick, the city's forty-sixth mayor, and Moore took its name from Benjamin Moore, second bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, and, ironically, president of Columbia College—and to think, our heroes were trying to escape their shame at the hands of the Columbia administration. Ladder 8 used to be a two-bay firehouse until the 1917 widening of Varick Street, whereupon the western half of the building was torn down and the outer façade pushed in without leaving so much as a scar. Two halves, one on Earth, one vanished into the ether.
When the television series Secrets of New York visited the firehouse, they learned of a (well…) secret floor upstairs, once sealed away and long forgotten, containing journals and logbooks chronicling the company's busy and bloody past—when the city's industrial district, all unattended warehouses with wooden floors and beams, meant frequent fires and the nickname of 'Hell's Hundred Acres' for a certain district south of Houston Street. Among the fires to rip through the neighborhood was the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory tragedy, a four-alarm fire to which Ladder 8 was a respondent. The mass pyrotechnic activity in the area has an earthly explanation—but why the secret world stashed away in the dark recesses of the building? History lingers in the corners.
For in New York, location is not merely geography; it's character, it's destiny, and the place you call home has a way of working itself into your bones. Spengler's crack that "the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone" doesn't have the zing it used to in light of today's post-gentrification prices, but New York is a city obsessed with real estate, and neighborhood names carry meanings. Where you live is everything, and the Ghostbusters' distinctly downtown status sets them apart from the safety of academia—not to mention the unattainable Upper West Side lifestyle represented by Dana and the monster in her icebox.
While the Ghostbusters make do with "a unique fixer-upper opportunity," Gozer lives in luxury atop an elevator building overlooking the park. Sanders again: "For generations, New York's builders had embellished their towers with richly symbolic elements, aspiring to transcend functional reality with a hint of something grander, more ancient, more poetic… it had the effect of weaving not just a sense of the past, but a whole texture of human intentionality into the stones of the city, all the more evocative for being partly obscure. It was the special gift of Ghostbusters to meet those earnest efforts more than halfway." Initially, the filmmakers had hoped to 'cast' 1 Fifth Avenue as the Ivo Shandor Building—another iconic address, to say nothing of its domineering height, Gothic accents and temple-ready roof. The building eventually used, 55 Central Park West (renumbered the non-existent 550 for the movie), boasts similar strengths; indeed, a 1992 New York Times column by architectural historian Christopher Gray specifically cites both structures' use of shaded brick to trick the eye and look especially imposing. (Gray notes in another column that 55 was a trendsetter on Central Park West, "the first full-blown Art Deco building on the thoroughfare".) And yes, there's even a suspiciously temple-like structure on top, a whimsical structure to encase the mandated water tower; in creating the gateway to the spirit world, all the filmmakers had to do was build upon the city's existing trends. "Indeed," architectural historian John Tauranac points out, "the top of a building is often its most significant architectural detail, its own idiosyncratic characteristic, its calling card. The decoration was more than cosmetic, of course. It put the buildings into perspective by providing scale—there wasn't the same old module stamped out by a machine and repeated on a grid, International Style, ad nauseam. There were dips and curves, innies and outies, there was the stuff of dreams."
Even today, 55 continues to earn the respect of historians and critics alike as an exemplary symbol of its style, and of the burgeoning Manhattan of its era. It's opulent and it's huge. As author and The New Yorker contributor Elizabeth Hawes observes, "the building was the note of honest fantasy that the mind of the age desired. It romanticized modern imagery so unabashedly that it might have been drawn by Hugh Ferriss. Everything about it—the stepped tower form, the façade overlaid with a pattern of vertical bands, the stylized fluting, like vestigial wings on the top stories—focused upward. The structure seemed to celebrate the height it achieved… 55 Central Park West was neither the most sophisticated nor the most explicit example of the modern ideology to appear at the end of the twenties, but the very naiveté of its winged setbacks and soaring water tower made it the most passionate." (Spengler sums this all up more succinctly: "Art Deco. Very nice.") All in all, a fittingly triumphant nexus for the end of the world. Even the decorative stonework patterns on the sides span multiple stories, and the awfully distinctive spiky awning, last seen on film in 1980's It's My Turn, spells menace right at the door. There's a bit of humor to the Upper West Side hosting unspeakable evil, as critic Karina Longworth points out: "The city's real estate hierarchy is thus upended: still-scary downtown is a safe haven from the horrors of the high-rent district." But it makes sense—for the tony location represents not only money, but power. The masters of this universe live there, why can't the next?
The two major base camps have now been established, the ramshackle pre-gentrification firehouse against the corner penthouse. Somehow, the fundamental oppositeness of Venkman and Dana never seems greater than when viewed in terms of New York real estate. Reitman is able to use his city location, fraught with dualities, to tell the story, as one more tool alongside camerawork, score, editing. The fearful and the prosaic, the dominant and the subjugated, the flow of traffic and the bareness of dead ends—New York's got it all.
"Tearing Up The City"
The next stop on our tour is the Algonquin Hotel, the inspiration (but not location) for the Sedgewick, its distinctive awning bringing to mind—for the initiated—a wonderful history of literature, comedy and wit. As tempting as it is to imagine Venkman, Stantz and Spengler (or their respective actors) trading bon mots at the Algonquin Round Table, one must ask if this scrap of history alone inspired Reitman.
The answer: Not really. Pragmatism played a part. The hotel corridor sets, recycled from the George Cukor period piece Rich and Famous, were designed to mimic the Algonquin. (Ironically, the only real hotel Reitman shot at was the Biltmore in Los Angeles, its lobby being the lobby and its side standing in for the Algonquin's front.) Shooting in the real Algonquin was evidently not in the cards for either film, but as cost-saving measures go, using the accurate, pre-built sets was a well-played move on Reitman's part; as with any other part of Ghostbusters, the movie had to feel like the real thing.
And 'the real thing' means New York, through and through. Ghostbusters harbors no regrettable attempts to make Toronto or Vancouver pass for the genuine article, and rare is the exterior shot that doesn't capture some unmistakable hint of Manhattan. The use of notable locations escalates in the "Ghostbusters" montage, from the easily spotted (Chinatown identified by name, Rockefeller Center) to the more subtle (Saks Fifth Avenue's three-second cameo). If a spot is not so instantly identifiable, as in the long take of the trio jogging toward camera, it is because it is being asked to represent all New York streets.
It's a great tribute to the city, but then, New York montages are almost inherently tributary: from the "New York, New York" number in On the Town to the ever-romanticizing black-and-white opening of Manhattan to the dizzying, propulsive Grand Central imagescape of Koyaanisqatsi, it's hard to travel the town without a certain sense of awe. Perhaps François Truffaut's assertion about war can be applied to the city: cinema's tendency to glamorize means that there can be no such thing as an anti-New York movie. With an upbeat music track and a full slate of landmark locations, Ghostbusters' big montage proudly takes its place in a long and proud tradition: the Gotham lovefest, laid bare on celluloid.
Indeed, even after the montage, the film makes a point of hitting a string of brochure-friendly New York hot spots. The next new location we visit is Lincoln Center, and after that, Tavern-on-the-Green, where the script mocks the legendarily uncompassionate nature of New Yorkers: Louis screams for help, no one cares, life moves on, a sort of bourgeois parody of the infamous Kitty Genovese incident.
Then the northeast corner of Columbus Circle, with the Maine Monument prominently featured. By now the viewer has had ample time since the terror dogs' debut to consider the film's steady parade of statues, and their significance will only be made more explicit with the coming tale of Ivo Shandor. The past is always with these characters, built right into the city around them, and it's going to drop in on Central Park West very shortly.
It's almost as if the New Yorkness of the film is intensifying in preparation for the Traveler. The film never much traded in social stereotypes before the terror dogs escaped, but in fairly short order we've not only been given the classic New York brush-off, but run into some street performers, a wisecracking driver and a bag lady. Then policemen with Noo Yawk accents enter the picture. Central Casting may as well have taken over the movie.
The film's preference for ever-widening vistas of Manhattan seems to confirm the trend—go big, go broad, go recognizable. After the Judgment Day scene, Ecto-1 crosses the Brooklyn Bridge and Reitman pulls back, taking in the city at dawn, Lower Manhattan's crush of skyscrapers packed up against the southern tip of the island, impossibly tall. The correlation is clear. Whatever the mounting rush of psychokinetic energy means, it's linked to the very spirit of New York itself, and as the stakes get higher, the city seems to expand, too.
The "Magic" montage breaks tradition, and after one big shot, largely eschews Reitman's penchant for iconic views: as discussed in the 'Shot by Shot' chapter, Louis even walks through famous spots that we're deliberately denied the chance to recognize. A businessman asks a cabbie to go to the "Columbia Building, 57th Street"; he's referring to the Columbia Artists Management Inc. building. A real place, even one worthy of city landmark status (conferred in 1999), but not exactly up there with Lincoln Center or the Brooklyn Bridge.
But the reading of this montage need not be limited to architectural terms. We must take our cue from the film, and look at the people and the society rather than the buildings that surround them. Reitman hasn't abandoned the New York feel, he's simply moved from the specific to the generic; a subway station, a newsstand, a yellow Checker Cab with a twist on the old bad-driver joke. Even a hot dog cart.
All appropriate synecdoches for the city, but perhaps what's important is not what's in the frame but how much of it there is. The compositions are packed: dense traffic, teeming crowds, a claustrophobic contrast to Dana's comparatively roomier apartment. New York is inherently texturally busy, of course, but Reitman pushes it here, and uses the business of the frame to create tension. For example, in the vignette at the subway stop, Louis bumps into someone, the passersby are walking in all directions, newspapers scatter everywhere; there's no unified direction, and our eyes dart all around the frame. And during the wayward Keymaster's brief cross left into Times Square, the swarming cars overstuff the image, making him small and easy to lose. Negative space is in short supply all around; a haze seems to have fallen over the world. There is no escape.
Until now, Ghostbusters has largely stuck to the tourists' New York, one photo opportunity after another. With the story taking a grimmer turn, the value the film comes to emphasize isn't New York's beauty, its history or its diversity. It's the danger. The cruel weight of history, established with all the statues, looms just as heavily with the statues themselves out of view: as Longworth contends, "Ghostbusters plays on an entire city's anxieties that, as renters, our spaces don't belong to us, that there's a history to our homes that we'll never know, and probably shouldn't know." The "Magic" sequence foreshadows the plot of Ghostbusters II: a city's most intimidating fears and angers, coming home to roost.
When the Ghostbusters' situation perks up, the tour-bus nature of the locations does too: our next and last new exteriors are City Hall and its environs. Here, the natural state of the building at shooting time helps sell the film's tropes: just as the renovation on the library called attention to the architecture and construction of the city, the "Furnishing the Streets" banner on City Hall invites us to consider urban planning and design. (The banner refers to an exhibition from the archives of the Art Commission of the City of New York; one wonders how much say said Commission had in placing all those statues.)
Then comes "Savin' the Day", the third sequence to give us a musical cross-section of the city. But while "Ghostbusters" and "Magic" took us all around Manhattan, this moment cuts away from downtown, drops us on Central Park West and leaves us there. This time we're not looking at buildings or places or events. We're looking at people.
The scene's intent to show diversity is telegraphed from the get-go, as we pan from nuns and priests to punk-rock kids huddled together on the same steps. Young or old, black or white, rich or poor, these people have two things in common: they're all from New York, and they're all backing the Ghostbusters.
This is the scene residents remember when they talk about Ghostbusters as a New York movie. There's a spirit, an inclusiveness to its Gotham that shows the city at its finest. And not a moment too soon. For grim 'n' gritty portrayals of the city were a staple in the 1970s—The French Connection, Mean Streets, Serpico, Taxi Driver, The Panic in Needle Park, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Death Wish, all rendering the Big Apple rotten. Vincent Canby summed it all up in a 1974 New York Times article: "New York City has become a metaphor for what looks like the last days of American civilization. It's run by fools. Its citizens are at the mercy of its criminals… The air is foul. The traffic is impossible. Services are diminishing and the morale is such that ordering a cup of coffee in a diner can turn into a request for a fat lip."
In the Reagan years, conditions remained less than ideal, but the financial crisis had abated and the Big Apple was ready for big dreams. As Eric Henderson notes in Slant Magazine, "Following years and years of cinematic bad faith in the city, morning in America more or less coincided with the resurrection of Manhattan's glistening commercial potential as effortlessly exploited in Ghostbusters' careful but perfectly pitched appeal." A quick survey of 1984's other New York movies speaks volumes: standouts include the feel-good Moscow on the Hudson, the warm romance Splash, Broadway Danny Rose by the ever-nostalgic Woody Allen and the unabashedly celebratory The Muppets Take Manhattan. With its all-encompassing tour of the city and its open, unified crowds, Ghostbusters doesn't merely show a New York that we want to be a part of. It shows us one that we can.
"The State, County and City of New York"
In a cinematic cheat, the Ghostbusters leave the city behind for the final stage of their journey. (And not just in the sense that it was shot on Stage 16 in Burbank.) The lovingly detailed matte painting surrounding the set may indeed accurately represent the world they're trying to save, but they're past it now, on the threshold to the other side—at best, one might imagine the temple as some sort of spiritual Ellis Island or Port Authority. Stantz's "duly designated representative" credentials aside, it's the people on the ground standing in for New York now. Before long they get their own visitor to deal with.
The Marshmallow Man's march uptown predates modern Hollywood's penchant for destroying Manhattan on screen, if only because effects budgets were smaller back then. But Godzilla had already paid the town a visit in Destroy All Monsters, tidal waves had drowned it in When Worlds Collide, Escape from New York had turned it into a dystopian city-prison and Planet of the Apes had memorably informed us that we blew it up. Perhaps most notably, Mr. Stay-Puft's ascent of the tower invites parallels to King Kong, still arguably the most iconic case of (and precedent for) fantastic havoc loose on metropolitan soil. "How better," Sanders argues, "to convey the end of the world than to show the destruction of its best-known place—a place, further, that was construed in postwar decades as the closest thing to its capital?" If the bad guys can make it there…
The truth is, a certain sense of pride comes from seeing your city blown up; you're nobody unless someone wants you dead. Asked why anyone might engineer the destruction of New York on screen, film critic and former Mayor Ed Koch offered two words: "Edifice envy."
But all turns out well—you can't keep a good city down. Having begun the film on a New York note, the filmmakers go for the most logical conclusion, the only proper reaction to a night spent confronting a god, saving the world and getting doused in marshmallow. It's a line that seems to resonate best with locals: not only does Zeddemore "love this town!", he loves it unconditionally. Credits aside, it's literally the film's last word.
The town loves the Ghostbusters right back, of course. Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters II and even The Real Ghostbusters all kick off their credits with the cheers of an ecstatic Manhattan crowd. The characters have completed their adventure, and come home.
Ghostbusters II would examine the heart of the city more closely, making the stereotype of the rude New Yorker the jumping-off point for the whole story. Vigo draws his strength from negative human emotions like anger, greed and malevolence, and finds it in 1980s New York. "Being miserable and treating other people like dirt is every New Yorker's God-given right," as the Mayor so memorably puts it. Stantz observes, "You know, I just can't believe things have gotten so bad in this city that there's no way back. I mean, sure, it's dirty, it's crowded, it's polluted, it's noisy and there's people all around who'd just as soon step on your face as look at you…" (New Yorkers will confirm with pride that the film really couldn't have been set anywhere else.) Harmony is restored when the Ghostbusters mobilize the biggest symbol of city pride on two legs. It's been the case ever since On the Town: the easiest bridge between New York and cinema is iconicity. No wonder that the last event in the movie is the Ghostbusters getting the key to the city, and the final image is a fond goodbye to Manhattan.
Certainly the Ghostbusters should be embraced by their hometown. But the films clearly depict them saving the world; why, then, is the focus on the city? Why do the Ghostbusters films, whose plotlines have implications for the whole human race, choose to make their endings about the relationship between the city and the characters? What, one might ask, about the outside world?
As any New Yorker will tell you, that's completely irrelevant.
Reflecting on her favorite film for The Guardian, Hadley Freeman writes of a place at once real and lost in time: "Trash is piled on the sidewalks and Checker cabs whizz round corners: this recreation of New York, 1984—the New York of my childhood—is still how I think of the city, even though I live there now and Manhattan has, for better or worse, changed a lot since. Ghostbusters is as much a love letter to New York as anything Woody Allen ever wrote, and a much less self-conscious one at that. Even the hilarious anachronisms give me a sentimental frisson…"
(There's that 'love letter' thing I warned you about.)
Ghostbusters documents a New York that's more than streets and skyscrapers, a place built not in steel but in memories, the "collective unconscious" Spengler speaks of. This explains how a team of Canadians and Chicagoans could make a quintessential New York movie. There's more to New York than being from there, just as there's more to being a New York movie than shooting there. With apologies to Billy Joel, it's a state of mind.
Ghostbusters succeeds as a New York movie not because it shoots the right locations but because it captures the exciting, vibrant and endlessly resilient spirit of the people. As Ed Koch says: "You don't have to be born here to be a New Yorker. If you've lived here for six months and you walk faster, and you talk faster, and you think faster, you're a New Yorker." Ghostbusters only shot in the city for a month, but Stantz walks faster, Venkman talks faster and Spengler thinks faster than most movie heroes, world-savers or otherwise.
It's a film rife with dichotomies for a city of endless contradictions, encompassing uptown and downtown, dreams and reality, all classes and creeds. Sometimes it seems like every element in the film is met by an equal and opposite reaction, a Newtonian push-pull creating tension and energy—and not always resolution. A yin for every yang.
"I love this town!" is the exception. It stands unopposed.
BIBLIOGRAPHY (will open in separate window)
Overthinking Ghostbusters © 2012 Adam Bertocci.
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