The ‘Ghostbusters’ Trolls Were Right

The ‘Ghostbusters’ Trolls Were Right

The ‘Ghostbusters’ Trolls Were Right

In one sense: The jokes do change when the characters are women, who incite you to laugh through a graveyard of America’s bloody history.


The original Ghostbusters was neither the most lucrative film released in 1984 nor the year’s biggest social breakthrough. Those titles went to Beverly Hills Cop, the first movie starring a black actor to conquer the US box office. I feel safe in saying that Ghostbusters also wasn’t the funniest movie of 1984 (the year of This Is Spinal Tap), the greatest generator of pop mythology (The Terminator, A Nightmare on Elm Street), the hippest (Stranger Than Paradise), the cleverest (The Company of Wolves), the most ambitious (Once Upon a Time in America), the most melodious (Purple Rain), or the one farthest out on the edge of defiant weirdness (let’s hear it for Straub-Huillet and Class Relations, their deadpan rendition of Kafka’s Amerika). Yet despite its second-place finish in any number of categories, Ghostbusters stood out. It was arguably the best-liked movie of 1984 and remains so to this day.

With the release of the not-quite-new Ghostbusters, this distinction suddenly looks like a puzzle to be solved. Thinking back, I wonder if the original belonged to its time at all.

In June 1984, when Ghostbusters came out, Jesse Jackson was shocking the political class with his run for the presidency, Walter Mondale was preparing to put a woman on a national party’s ticket for the first time, and Ronald Reagan’s flacks were describing the long economic and cultural twilight he instituted as “morning in America.” AIDS was raging, wars were raging, and the antinuclear movement was still in the streets. If you’re too young to recall those times—I’m told that a smattering of Nation readers are under 60—then I will assure you, the sense of crisis was no less acute than it is today; but the urgency, let alone its immediate motivations, did not figure even atmospherically in Ghostbusters.

You might say, at a stretch, that the film’s ghost-trapping proton beams were a goofy, more or less timely rebuke to the notion that nuclear devices were under safe, responsible control. Like other projects that Dan Aykroyd had a hand in writing, Ghostbusters also gave a one-finger salute to the ascendancy of the so-called young urban professionals, or “yuppies”—more simply, rich white kids—whose bland self-approval had recently made them the darlings of media trend-spotters. But slobs had been taking revenge on snobs long before Ghostbusters came along with its heroic band of the low-rent, rumpled, disrespectful, and dubiously credentialed. And machines of an advanced but highly unlikely design were hardly new in film or literature. As for the prospect that all hell might break loose, it was neither more nor less pertinent in 1984, as envisioned by Ghostbusters, than it had been when John the Divine prophesied on Patmos.

Blame it on the green slime if you will, but Ghostbusters slips from the grasp of those of us seeking to fix movies into historical moments. If you’re not in that group—if you’re content to dump the film’s enduring popularity into the category of “escapism,” that flimsy and capacious catchall—then there’s no problem. But more needs to be done if you want to locate the current, explicitly feminist remake in relation to the original. You might also want to face up to the likelihood that a movie about ghosts will have something to do with forces that ought to be dead but aren’t.

To be more precise about the question, as implicitly posed in the original Ghostbusters: About which inadequately buried aspects of the past is it ridiculous to feel afraid? Well, look at the ghosts. There’s a stern, elderly librarian, who might have burned the memory of scoldings into a generation of elementary-school students; a giant, childish, malevolent advertisement for marshmallows, a snack on which many of us can recall having gorged till the fun turned to nausea; and a demon-possessed Sigourney Weaver, behaving like a teenage boy’s porn-inspired fantasy of a sexually aroused woman. The original Ghostbusters calls up the ectoplasm of juvenile shames and humiliations, exposing their lingering presence in our souls and inspiring men in the audience to laugh them away. Women can let out knowing laughs about the men.

The subjects that haunted the first Ghostbusters were real enough. They just weren’t the topics of the day, leaving the film free to develop the enduring popularity that has shadowed the new version. If you follow movies at all, you’ll know that for months the Internet has been burning with outrage over the effrontery of anyone’s remaking a purported classic, and (what’s worse) casting it with women as the leads.

I’m here to tell you that I enjoyed the new Ghostbusters, but that in one sense the trolls were right. The jokes do change when the characters are women—especially when those women incite you to laugh through a graveyard not of youthful error, but of America’s bloody history.

I come to the moment when, if you want to sound smart, you’re supposed to quote Faulkner. My impression is that director Paul Feig and his co-screenwriter, Katie Dippold, are literate enough to mutter “never dead…not even past” with the best; but you don’t need me to vouch for them. Just listen to Leslie Jones, who as the movie’s working-class heroine cheerfully doubles as an amateur historian, teaching lessons to the others about way interesting slaughters going back to colonial times. The New York of this Ghostbusters is dotted with the cemented-over sites of battles, massacres, and executions. The ghosts, when they emerge from their uneasy graves, include out-of-town visitors like a Massachusetts Bay Puritan (a witch-burner, no doubt) and Abraham Lincoln, who looks like he’s got malice toward all.

Not that any of this perturbs Jones—the team’s tower of strength—or her newfound friends and colleagues, who are too excited by measurements of spectral ionization to care that they emanate from revivified horrors. Ostensibly, scientific professionalism keeps Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, and Kate McKinnon happily enthused in the face of whatever. But maybe the deeper reason that these women don’t fear a centuries-long accumulation of supernatural rage, or succumb to its sorrow, is that they’ve never pretended injustice was dead. A man—a creepy, villainous man, determined to exploit historic miseries out of vainglory—may nourish a grudge about the humiliations he’s borne; but the ghostbusting women advise him to get over it and look on the bright side. As McCarthy explains to him, with dimpled good humor, “We’re pretty much dumped on all the time.”

Very true. Witness the disdain that drips from Wiig’s department head at Columbia, the frat-boy sexual insults flung at McCarthy at her technical college, the infuriating tag of “Ghost Girls” with which journalists belittle the whole group. None of it sur­prises these women or daunts them. What does torment them are the imperfectly forgotten betrayals they’ve committed against other women while striving to get along in a man’s world. At the start of Ghostbusters, a tightly buttoned Wiig is struggling to win the forbearance of a male professional establishment (approval, let alone respect, seems beyond reach) by tamping down all traces of her long-denied friendship with McCarthy and the interest they shared in the paranormal. As soon as this repressed past erupts into view, realizing Wiig’s greatest fear, the story can get moving, ghosts can be spotted, and Wiig can gradually be reunited with her best and only pal.

Part of the pleasure of Ghostbusters comes from seeing Wiig light up her eyes and loosen her posture by degrees. An exceptionally sly comic actress who is sometimes funniest while seeming to gaze inward, Wiig makes emotional breakthrough seem like a matter of slipping from nuance to nuance, as she goes from a grudging initial relaxation of her defenses to full-tilt swagger. Curiosity does some of the work in drawing her character out, along with an awakened self-­assertiveness, but much of the credit goes to the contact high that is Melissa McCarthy. Not just outgoing but brash (that’s with a hard Illinois “a”), McCarthy in Ghostbusters associates herself with everything that’s loose, from draping herself in cardigans to guzzling soup. She also errs on the side of relaxation when aiming the ghost-neutralizing weapons engineered by Kate McKinnon.

I confess that McKinnon’s charm had eluded me until now. I had to see her tromping around in overalls, a leather jacket, and welder’s goggles, with her wavy blond hair swept up and a perpetual grin on her mug, to understand that she’s Harpo Marx. How could I have been so obtuse? McKinnon is the otherworldly imp who greets everything she encounters as absurd, and wants to improve on its risibility by setting its pants on fire. Whatever hints you may find of complete insanity in Ghostbusters flash from her baby blues. Whatever evidence you may find of the ground of reality—without which nothing is funny—resounds from the firm tread of Leslie Jones’s feet. The comparison is unfair but unavoidable: She’s been given the Ernie Hudson role. But Hudson, though a fine actor, was consigned to the status of sidekick. There is nothing sidekicky about Jones, a presence so powerful that she conducts exorcisms with her fists.

As a black woman, Jones is also, as I’ve mentioned, the movie’s fitting conduit to American history. Now that I think again about that part of the history we enacted in 1984, I feel it’s a sign of merit that Ghostbusters stood apart from its time. With its New York values (as Ted Cruz would call them), underdog pride, and joy in community, Ghostbusters represented a better America than the one that reelected Reagan in a landslide. In a sense, the new Ghostbusters also stands outside its moment, even though it embeds itself in history and is emphatically a product of these times. It, too, represents a better America than the one that’s threatening to elect Donald Trump, and for good measure radiates a stronger sense of sisterhood than you might get from the glass-ceiling feminism of Hillary Clinton.

Need two hours of good spirits amid this mess? Who ya gonna call?

* * *

A coincidence of August release dates has yoked together two strikingly different French productions, making them seem like a pair—perhaps to the discomfort of their makers. And yet there’s some justice in thinking of Disorder and Neither Heaven nor Earth together. Although their methods are almost diametrically opposed, the subject matter is essentially the same: the disintegration brought about in men’s minds and bodies by unending war.

The fancier of the two, Neither Heaven nor Earth is a first feature directed by Clément Cogitore, who cowrote the screenplay with the very busy Thomas Bidegain. Set on the Afghan border with Pakistan in 2014, it’s the story of a squad led by Captain Bonassieu (the always excellent Jérémie Renier, looking muscular and grizzled) and the escalating tensions with the village it oversees. A mundane argument over the price of a dead sheep gives way to suspicions about the villagers’ nocturnal activities and then to an insoluble mystery, as members of Bonassieu’s unit start to vanish. Did they desert? Were they captured? When Bonassieu fails to discover any explanation—other than the one put forward by a local belief system that he can’t rationally credit—he starts to come apart. The performances are strong, the cinematography by Sylvain Verdet alternately harsh and spooky, and one or two of Cogitore’s images are almost good enough to have come from Claire Denis. The theme of mutual incomprehension across cultures is effective, too—assuming you don’t take the Twilight Zone stuff at face value.

Disorder, written and directed by Alice Winocour, is also a story about a wartime breakdown; but its method is intimate and almost physiological compared with Cogitore’s cerebral approach, and its setting is even more disturbing for being familiarly French. Hulking, intense Matthias Schoenaerts, with his sloping boxer’s shoulders and eyes set as close as two rifle sights, plays Vincent, a French soldier who has been so traumatized by his tours in Afghanistan that he can’t be sent back. Having no job skills that don’t involve guns, he self-medicates with bootleg pharmaceuticals and hires out with some army buddies as a security guard. The all-too-predictable trouble starts when he’s assigned alone to watch over the wife and young son of a wealthy, politically con­nected man who’s gone off on business. Vincent hears all sorts of things (even though his ears ring constantly), sees threats everywhere (some of which might even be real), and frightens the woman he’s meant to protect, because she’s played by Diane Kruger and looks good to him. It’s a relief that Vincent gets along well with the dog—because the rest of his experiences (which Winocour makes into yours) are a quickening drip, drip, drip of paranoid hallucination and real violence. We’re approaching the end of the 15th full year of the current war in Afghanistan. As we have sown, so shall we reap.

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