July 18, 2016

Ghostbusters (2016): I Really Liked It

Ghostbusters (2016) is a movie whose mere existence has made a lot of people angry.

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, I’m going to discuss the movie.

Ghostbusters is a brilliant film. In order to discuss why, I’m going to talk about the film in a way that might spoil some things. I’m also going to try to keep this pretty succinct, so I’m going to gloss over stuff, and use pretty non-academic language (and contractions). As a small taste, lemme just tell you that this movie is not about busting ghosts. But its hugely feminist bent is not what made me like the movie. That it was a good movie, in which the comedy was well timed, the visuals were on point, and the acting/script/cast etc were firing on all pistons, is what made me like it. Granted, that there was a deeper meaning tied in there didn't hurt...

The antagonist in Ghostbusters is a dejected genius whose goal is to effectively bring about hell on earth. Rowan North (Neil Casey) feels as though others have never truly recognized his genius, he feels like he is being bullied by the world, and for this crime, he will see it burn. For all the trouble this man causes in the film, the real conflict is the one within Dr. Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig).

The two personal philosophies presented by Rowan and by his foil, Melissa McCarthy’s character Dr. Abby Yates, are fully diametrically opposed positions. Rowan lives and dies by the recognition of others. Abby doesn’t care at all. These two ways of interacting with society are at war within Erin.

Throughout the film Erin is shown trying to impress men in positions of power, be it the Dean at Columbia University, the paranormal debunker played by Bill Murray, or the Mayor of New York. She is looking for recognition from the patriarchy, and she’s consistently willing to betray her friends and herself (albeit usually only in small ways, but that doesn’t diminish the betrayals’ importance) in order to receive even the hope for attention, for some semblance of power.

It is to her benefit that her lot is thrown in with three powerful, self sufficient, and independent women. While Abby is most clearly positioned as Rowan’s foil, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones) and Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) would not be caught dead pandering to the masculinized power structure simply for the possibility that a small amount of agency within that structure might be gifted their way. These three women support Erin, and, importantly, their unwillingness to give up on her does not stand in the way of challenging Erin’s pandering and betrayal when she makes choices that betray her self. They know it’s hard not being recognized, but they also know that their worth is not determined by the patriarchy, and they want Erin to see this too.

Now, none of this is presented this plainly in the movie. None of them say “Giiiiiiiirl, you need to stop pandering to the patriarchal power system and define your own self worth with terms of your own creation. Write not with ink but milk.” This battle between desiring male recognition and being proud of one’s own self is primarily seen through the actions of and dialogue expressed by Rowan, Abby, and Erin. Rowan tells Abby at one point that he was bullied, that no one recognized his genius, and that no one knows what that’s like. And Abby, much more sympathetically than she needs to, says that, actually, she does know what that’s like, leaving unsaid and implied that she took that pain, and decided to recognize it as irrelevant. This interaction comes shortly after the scene where Erin describes why she wants recognition so badly. And while, in the conversation between Abby and Rowan, Erin doesn’t speak up and give her “me too’s,” the lingering effect of hearing her express the same frustrations Rowan goes on to express is not forgotten. Rowan is the end result of the path Erin’s Ghostbusting friends are leading her, by example, away from.

By the end of the film, Erin has gone through the traditional radical shift in ideology common to blockbusters ... and books ... and like all media (re: The Hero With a Thousand Faces). Her epiphany that she doesn’t need male recognition in order to have a sense of self worth comes right when the other three need her to be a fully realized powerful woman, and the four of them collaboratively save the day. What I'm mean by this is that the film's reliance on traditional action/comedy/blockbuster beats does not diminish its worth. A well told story is still a well told story. And the pleasure derived from an avant-garde film is very different than that of a blockbuster. There's nothing wrong with either, and neither pleasure is more important or better.

There are a billion examples of how this film expresses the irrelevance of pandering to patriarchal power, and to go though and discuss them all would go against my goal of just putting out my thoughts in a short little write up. Basically, the film exudes indifference to the entitled expectations of masculine power. It is a brilliant companion piece to last year's Mad Max: Fury Road.

I can’t end this without at least touching on a few things that all the dudes who want to hate the film are using to continue their hateful spew-fest.

It is a film that is aware of its controversial existence, and in keeping with its core message of not caring about the patriarchy’s opinions, it shrugs this controversy off without a second thought. It is a film that, despite the feminist undertones, does not live and die by its feminist message. This is not the Affirmative Action Ghostbusters. That they are women doesn't make this a good movie. Sure, it helps to create the feminist undercurrent, but I firmly believe that if the four women had been men instead, only maybe one or two jokes would be different, and the fan boys would have went nuts for it. Which does nothing but show how petty their points of contention really are.

It is a film that has four women who are in an action film that doesn’t empower them by having them adopt masculine-coded power (using brute force to overcome one’s enemies, holding a gun in such a way that it is an analog for a penis, etc), doesn’t empower them by coding their power as some sort of stereotypical-femininity on steroids (think flowers and rainbows on chainsaws (which itself is just a way to pretend that it’s not still masculine-coded power)), but instead creates opportunities for them to express their power in what I think was fairly a-gender way (i.e. superior martial arts films. Martial arts films are never about one person being stronger than the other, they’re about superior strategy). This is a good thing in my mind. As much as I like Arnie movies, the combat in Jackie Chan movies is just more fulfilling.

Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon are visions, and without their powerful presences, the movie would not work. The same, however, could be said about Wiig, McCarthy, the great script, the amazing etc etc etc. There is no one thing about this movie that saves it. It's simply a well coordinated piece of cinema. I personally felt like the film was a little too beholden to the original, but it didn’t bog the movie down, and half the time the jokes and references did make me laugh, or at the very least smile.

And there were a few jokes that didn’t land, just like every movie, but there weren’t so many that it was even noticeable.

Lastly, I liked how the ghosts looked. A fair number of people are comparing them to the ghosts in The Haunted Mansion (2003). To those people, I would recommend revisiting the trailer for The Haunted Mansion (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U32Law7K-b8), revisiting the trailer for The Frighteners (1996) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lKWiQLwr9Xs), and then trailer for Ghostbusters (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w3ugHP-yZXw).

Ghostbusters is a funny, fun, exciting, and beautiful film with a core message that you don’t need outside approval in order to love and be proud of yourself.

5 Stars. Positive Review. 3 Noses. I can’t wait for the sequel.

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