On this festive holiday, I thought it only good and proper that I take a spin through one of the most celebrated patriotic films of our era. I had some trouble tracking one down that fulfilled two criteria: a) something that would make me less of a waste of film fandom for having finally watched, and b) not jingoistic tripe. I’m always happy to take suggestions from those more learned and experienced than me (see: everyone,) so shoot me an e-mail at email@example.com if you’ve got an idea of what I should have seen. It’s too late now, though. Independence Day will be gone before you know it; and who wants to feel patriotic beyond the prescribed celebration?
So, instead of going all American on you, I decided to make an honest man of myself and take a wide-eyed stroll through:
I don’t think I’ve ever fully expressed my appreciation for Bill Murray. I should like to write an ode on him, but I’ve been told that I do not poetry. Not that I can’t write poetry; just that I don’t. So, no ode. Instead, let me count the ways that I adore the man’s performances.
My math teachers said I don’t count, either.
I’ve always been impressed with how reserved his characters are. They seem to be perpetually aware of their position on the thin line between comedy and tragedy, which allows for the natural transition between projects like Groundhog Day and The Life Aquatic. There are comics who turn comedy into an offense, lashing out every social pressure that turned them into the class clown in the first place; but Murray builds a thick carapace out of comedy, turns it into a passive defense. Before you connect with the character himself, you have to brave through the comedy.
If the hero worship seems a bit enthusiastic, it’s probably because my generation had a list of comedic heroes that began and ended with Adam Sandler. No slight against Sandler, but his comedy methods employ exactly the type of forceful offense I mentioned above, which generally betrays a vulnerability of character. Murray’s passive humor lets his character remain an enigma.
I don’t think that Ghostbusters would have worked at all without him. I watched the film twice over this past weekend, and both times it was Murray’s presence on the screen that anchored the experience. It really is his vehicle; everyone else plays the straight man, albeit humorously clueless now and then. Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis could have been replaced by equally enthusiastic or nerdy players, respectively, without damaging the core team dynamic. I’m not suggesting that they should have been, of course; I love their individual contributions. All I’m saying is that without Murray as Venkman, the film’s best lines would have been very different animals.
Using Murray (who stepped into the role after Belushi died) is a perfect example of how the humor in Ghostbusters works. It’s a very structured humor, building simple dramatic constructs on top of incredibly bizarre bedrock. A team leader emerges from Murray’s insular talent; Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver play their possessions perfectly straight despite the fact that its god damned Rick Moranis and Sigourney Weaver; a portal to a hell dimension infiltrates our world, but happens to do so inside of a refrigerator; a demon of the apocalypse takes its form from a marshmallow mascot.
These are just my favorite examples. Ghostbusters is an action comedy, and commits to its genre fully. There are moments of laugh-out-loud comedy, but I was far mor entertained by the general, pervading sense of: "Hell opened up in a fucking refrigerator." The wacky foundation makes for a surprisingly stable movie.
I got quite a bit of mail when I wrote my column on Die Hard, much of which was along the general lines of: "How the hell did you miss this when it plays on cable at the following times and dates?" In that case, I missed it because I kind of wanted to preserve the experience of watching it, and could wait until the opportunity presented itself unedited. With Ghostbusters, I actively avoided watching either movie, because it was a franchise of my childhood. I knew about the characters, and the plot, and the cartoon, and the sequel, and the T-shirts; every time the opportunity to watch the movie presented itself, I had better things to do.
Silly me, equating a franchise with a film. It’s unforgivable, I know. In my defense, I’ve been trying really hard to hold off against nostalgia. But, as this week’s Transformers kind of implies, nostalgia buffered by good product isn’t an evil. That’s not an especially good argument when it comes to Ghostbusters, seeing as how the original, quality product came first, but still — my first exposure to the world was through the cartoon. At school and on the TV at home, the Ghostbusters were an icon. The logo encapsulated whole days of running around with my friends, who screamed, "Don’t cross the beams!" at me, while I shot my pretend gun madly in all directions, no more confused than I am normally.
There’s a key difference between marketing campaigns and franchisement. Franchises are expansive, trying to attract consumers to any touchstone of the franchise: the action figures, the show, the comic books, whatever. Marketing is designed to funnel your attention down to the original product. I’m kind of curious when it was the two got conflated, so that a marketing campaign turned into a franchise. "Shoot, kid, we don’t care if you go watch Episode 3 in the theaters; just buy the frisbee and the videogame and the mutant fish."
I’ll admit that it’s silly of me to have waited this long to check Ghostbusters out. It’s even sillier — in a vague, idealistic sense — that the franchise itself is what kept me at arm’s length from the film. There was a logo dwelling in my mindspace, and it didn’t leave much room for the movie.
Simple things attract me. I like projects that stand alone. When I went hunting for a copy of Ghostbusters, the only one I could find was the one boxed along with the sequel and the little art book. I watched the sequel yesterday, though not as a subject for the column. It held for me hardly any of the magic that the first did. It’s not the sequel-itis that ruined it; it was the franchise-itis. My impression — indefensible — is that the sequel became another product in the long line of Ghostbusters tie-ins, rather than a film on its own.
The original, though… What I love most about writing this column is the pervasive sense of shame it brings to me. What I love second most is that I get the chance to have an awful lot of fun with these movies. And, fully prepared for fun, I met Ghostbusters and just the right time.
Now, I need to go practice my defensive comedy technique. I’ll need it in preparation for the comments I’m going to get from the next column, two weeks out. I don’t want you to see how much your words sting me.