A specter haunting Hollywood

July 27, 2016

Something's been missing from the movie industry, and it becomes clear what it is when you watch the new Ghostbusters. Laura Durkay explains.

GHOSTBUSTERS IS not the kind of movie that should be generating think pieces. It's a broad, four-quadrant action-comedy, a remake of a franchise from the 1980s with its nostalgia cannons aimed squarely at people in their 30s and 40s, who will hopefully bring their children and their children's snack appetites.

It's solidly funny, buoyed by strong comedic ensemble performances, but aesthetically nothing to write home about.

It's a film that should be considered an incredibly safe box-office bet. It's a reboot of a well-known franchise, directed by Paul Feig, who has an established track record of well-performing, big-budget comedies starring women. (Bridesmaids, The Heat and Spy were all highly profitable.)

It stars two established comedy veterans, Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy, both experienced in working with Feig's semi-improvisational style, and two Saturday Night Live regulars, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

It's the kind of enjoyable, reliably executed summer fare that would be utterly forgettable except for the fact that it stars four women, three of whom are over 40 years old.

The new Ghostbusters
The new Ghostbusters

Over the course of the movie, these women have clearly identified jobs and spend time doing them; wear comfortable clothing, including baggy jumpsuits in which they execute multiple action sequences; eat food with no one making a comment about dieting or weight (despite the fact that not all these women are skinny); operate heavy, dangerous and quite possibly not-thoroughly-tested weapons without men having to show them how to; work together; save each others' lives; zap some ghosts; and thwart an aggrieved nerdboy intent on destroying New York City.

Supernatural beings aside, they are mostly normal women doing a job together. The fact that this feels groundbreaking shows exactly how low the bar has been set for women on film. But when academic studies of gender portrayals on film find that only 44 percent of female characters are shown at their job, doing work, and that only a third of women on screen are over 40--yes, the bar really is that low.

In this context, women who have storylines about work and friendship instead of romance, family and children, who do action sequences in coveralls instead of bikini armor, who make stuff and do stuff like actual humans with agency, can seem completely revelatory.

Review: Movies

Ghostbusters, directed by Paul Feig, starring Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones.

If a summer comedy reboot is reducing women to tears because they hadn't realized what they'd missed seeing, there's a cultural event going on that's worth discussing, no matter how many soup jokes it involves.

IN THE Ghostbusters of 2016 (which Feig says is an alternate timeline, in which the events of the 1984 film never happened), New York City's ghosts are busted by scientist/best friend duo Erin Gilbert (Wiig) and Abby Yates (McCarthy). They're aided by delightfully weird and not-very-subtly queer-coded engineer Jillian Holtzmann, played by McKinnon like she's having the time of her life.

The final member of the team is Patty Tolan (Jones), an MTA worker with a wealth of historical knowledge about New York City. While Patty's character never totally escapes the Sassy Black Friend box, she's also just as much a nerd as the other three women, ready to recite the history of any address in New York at the drop of a hat--knowledge that's just as useful as particle physics when you're fighting people from the past.

The women are joined by sidekick/secretary Kevin (Chris Hemsworth, a genius casting decision), who operates as a feature-film-length Dumb Blond joke, until the third act, when he switches tropes to become the token team member in peril who needs rescuing. The purpose of his character is entirely and intentionally to highlight how stupid these tropes look when they're gender-swapped, and it works brilliantly.

The film has been generating an ectoplasmic sludge of misogynistic internet hate since it was announced. (Jones in particular, the sole lead cast member of color, has been barraged with racist and sexist online harassment since the film's release.)

While this isn't particularly surprising, one of the most interesting things about the film is how intentional it is about giving a middle finger to a certain type of entitled male fan.

Not only is the villain of the film a very specific variety of bullied loner who retreats into a sense of superiority and designs of global destruction, but a particular scene was even modified during reshoots to mock the film's online haters. You'll know it when you see it.

These choices, while they may seem minor, are significant because the kind of dudes complaining about lady Ghostbusters on Reddit are exactly the people whom studios have considered their core audience for sci-fi and action for the past 40 years.

While numerous studies have shown that films starring women and films with racially diverse casts are profitable, the default assumed audience member for a big-budget movie is still assumed to be a white man.

So it's notable that Ghostbusters so aggressively ignores the perceived straight male audience appetite for dude heroes and young, sexily dressed, mostly useless women in favor of female characters who actually feel like people.

In some ways, the 2016 film is almost overly faithful to the original. It's loaded with callbacks, winks and nods to its predecessor. Erin, like Bill Murray's Peter Venkman, begins the film by getting fired from a teaching position at Columbia University.

Some sequences are restaged almost beat for beat in different locations: an opening encounter between an unsuspecting civilian and a ghost, a prominent sliming incident and a big set-piece that involves the Ghostbusters splitting up in basement hallways and ends with them uniting to trap a ghost.

The firehouse from the original film was located in a neighborhood one character described as "look[ing] like a demilitarized zone"; the modern-day Ghostbusters find it renting for $21,000 a month. And cameos from the 1984 cast litter the new Ghostbusters, ranging from awkward to applause-worthy (and running through the end credits, so make sure to stay in your seat).

BUT THERE'S one striking difference between the original and reboot that stands out sharply in comparison.

Those who haven't seen the original film since childhood may forget how quickly and easily the male Ghostbusters become famous, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and traveling with a police escort from the mayor's office. Their office is flooded with calls and they have a cheering crowd watching their third-act battle with Gozer. They're superstars.

In contrast, the female Ghostbusters are constantly struggling just to be believed.

Venkman starts out as somewhat of a ghost skeptic, becoming a Ghostbuster for potential profit and to impress women. Erin Gilbert is obsessed with ghosts because she saw one as a little girl, but no one believed her--except her childhood best friend Abby. She was teased at school and sent to therapy for something she knew to be her real-lived experience.

Abby and Erin had a history of fascination with the paranormal together. But somewhere along the line, Erin presumably decided the accompanying ostracization just wasn't worth it. She pursued a career as a "serious" scientist, ending up in a tenure-track position at Columbia. (The opening scenes show us just how much this prestigious institution respects her, as she gets comments about her clothes and is told her recommendation letter from Princeton isn't prestigious enough to impress the tenure committee.)

Erin's career choices have left her estranged from Abby, who continues her ghost research at an academic institution that seems more like the kind of shady for-profit technical college you see advertised in the New York City subway.

Of course, a series of events lead to Erin and Abby's paths crossing again, via the appearance of a vengeful 19th century ghost whom they're able to document on video. There's real joy in Erin's voice as she screams "Ghosts are real!"

Her childhood experience has been finally validated. But the viral video of their encounter gets her summarily fired from her professorship at Columbia.

What drives Erin throughout the movie is not a quest for fame, money or romantic conquests, but a simple desire to be believed. As a scientist, this means a quest for proof and documentation. But it's also clear that what Erin needs is external validation, to be taken seriously and afforded respect by others.

In some ways, Abby and Erin represent opposite reactions to being mocked. Abby is happy to do her work and let the haters hate. She's unconcerned when the mayor's office tells the Ghostbusters that in order to continue their work, they'll have to agree to be publicly painted as frauds. Erin is outraged.

The film doesn't set out to say that Abby is right, or that Erin is shallow for wanting validation. In fact, this is exactly what makes the ending of the film unexpectedly poignant. While the mayor continues to deny that New York City experienced a near-apocalypse, millions of New Yorkers saw it with their own eyes and know that these women aren't just making stuff up.

Clearly, there is a gendered component to all this. It's not the world's most subtle political message, but it's part of what makes the film resonate.

GHOSTBUSTERS IS one of a handful of recent big-budget films that seem to punch a small hole in what a 2013 film commentary article called a "solid, impenetrable wall of movies about dudes." No one should doubt that these films can have a powerful effect on their audiences.

As one Ghostbusters reviewer described the feeling of watching a particular trailer-worthy action moment in the film:

How did I go 20 plus years without seeing this on a giant screen in a packed theater, without feeling these things? How did I not realize what I was missing? It is one thing to go through life knowing you are missing something and finally find it. It is quite another to suddenly find something you didn't realize you had been waiting your whole life to see.

For some people, that moment came watching The Hunger Games' Katniss Everdeen yell, "If we burn, you burn with us!" Or watching Furiosa land a sniper shot with one bullet left in Mad Max: Fury Road. Or watching Rey stomp Kylo Ren in a light saber duel in Star Wars.

These moments have value on their own, for audience members young and old. But behind them are also the future careers of talented actresses stuck playing Unnamed Girlfriend, Hooker #1, or Damsel in Distress, and female screenwriters and directors not hired because this story is about dudes, for dudes, so surely only a dude can bring it to life.

They're important not only for the little girl who wants to pretend she's the hero of an action movie, but the little girl who wants to make action movies.

You may surmise by this point that we've left the territory of reviewing Ghostbusters. But that's because the film can't be divorced from its social context, which is one of an incredibly unequal media landscape.

There are so many voids to be filled, in our collective imagination and in the actual payrolls of movie studios. It doesn't really matter whether you think the film is funny (I do), whether you think it's imperfect (it is), or whether you think we should set our sights beyond the horizons of rehashed intellectual properties from our childhoods (we should).

The point is that we need, as one reviewer wrote in a different context, "more of everybody doing everything," until a gender-swapped comedy reboot is just another summer movie.

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