Wait, hear me out on this one.
I’d like to get very high-minded and technical to begin with. I believe it’s my right, I’m kind of paying through the nose and suffering my way through a lot of theory. And you guys can get an advanced humanities education vicariously through me. A language is any system of communications that we as people use to discuss and contextualize reality. What does any of that have to do with film? Or Ghost Busters (Reitman, 1984)? If you believe Christian Metz, film is like a language. Then, taking this argument further, film is a conversation between audience. In addition to that, we have meta-discourse (discourse about the discourse) like this blog, or “On the Virtues or Limitations of Montage” or Ain’tItCoolNews or whatever. Talking about an object that is talking about an object (linguistics would be a similar field. Or history.) Language (and, thus, film, stick with me,) is not a concrete, absolute, presentation of reality, as a matter of fact, it’s a representation, or, rather, an attempt to represent concrete reality, a representation that at times fails to adequately convey that thing (which is not a technical term, mind you.) That thing might be all sorts of things, it is something that we can’t completely or purely represent; it is unrepresentable. “But, again, Derek,” you may ask, “what in the world does that have to do with Ghost Busters and why is it the greatest film ever made?”
Before I further qualify this, there is the issue of that old selectively memory known as nostalgia. I watched the original Ghost Busters on VHS back in the day, I was about 4 when Ghost Busters II (Reitman, 1989) graced the big screen, and I did not see it in full regalia (jumpsuit, proton pac, goggles,) primarily because I had embarrassed my parents adequately by parading around everywhere else like I was a paranormal eliminator. When my Dad asked if I would be scared of the ghosts, I held out my hand and said “Don’t worry, Dad. I’ve got my finger.”
But this doesn’t capture the extent I partook in the Ghost Busters discourse.
I watched the cartoon.
I owned the action figures (and the firehouse playset.)
I drank Ecto Cooler, even though, as anyone who drank Ecto Cooler can attest, Ecto Cooler is disgusting! And it also used to stain pretty much anything it touched.
Even when I was older and they made the “eXtreme Ghost Busters" cartoon show, with (I’m not joking here): a goth girl; a sarcastic Puerto Rican guy; a guy in a wheel chair (he’s the guy who’s lower half is missing in this picture;) and the token black guy (who if he wasn’t Winston’s son, really should have been;) and they were mentored by
So…yeah. I might be a little bit biased.
But that’s exactly why this is perfect for what I’m talking about. Ghost Busters, for my little child self was a language, a discourse. But what about?
Also, while we’re at it, unlike many of my favorite parts of my childhood, Ghost Busters stands up as a legitimate work. I watch Ghost Busters now and I feel nostalgic, and I can watch the movie now and I enjoy it differently (most of the jokes flew way over my head, although I knew Bill Murray had something intrinsically funny to him.) But, why the appeal? What made me so attracted to this show when I was younger?
It’s because I was terrified. I’m going to leave a lot of skeletons in the closet (where they mostly deserve to stay, and also, if I really get into it, I’ll start having to pay you exorbitant fees at an hourly rate to sit on a couch and nod when I talk,) but I have and had a lot of issues and fears. I was afraid of a lot of things, and ghosts were an easy point for me to transfix on and fear instead of those things that really, really, frightened me that I repressed. I had a ghostbuster’s Ghost Zapper:
That would project an image of a ghost onto the wall. When I was little I used the light this made to put up ghosts and make sure there were no real spooks, specters, or ghosts waiting to get me. I’d make a horrible pun about psychological projection here, but instead, I will just say I would and have you imagine it.
So, that’s reason #1: Ghost Busters provided me a discourse with which to discuss unrepresentable fears and anxieties. After all, even as a child I had the narrative expectation that the Ghost Busters would be able to vanquish those monsters they had unleashed in my childhood psyche.
In summation, Busting Makes Me Feel Good.
Now, you might be saying here, “But, Derek, you just proved why you liked Ghost Busters. What are its technical merits?” I’m glad you asked. (And, by the way, if you are that concerned with technical merits and aesthetics, I’d recommend you read any of the Neo-Formalists [David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, as examples.] That’s right up their alley.)
1) The Special Effects
Its easy in todays’ CGI world to dismiss the special effects, but, at the time, Ghost Busters was definitely pushing the envelope in terms of the effects. Sure, we savvy viewers can spot when stop motion puppets are used, or that the proton blasts are drawn onto the film. They’re still fairly convincing, especially barring contemporary referents.
Ivan Reitman has admittedly not had a directorial career that many would consider epic. (The fact that he counts three Arnold Schwarzenagger comedies amongst his directorial résumé [Twins, Junior, and, of course, the epic that is Kindergarten Cop] and some recent clinkers like My Super Ex-Girlfriend  and Evolution  might in fact inspire the opposite reaction.) However, he still displays some impressive craftsmanship regarding scene composition and construction.
For citation’s sake, I would like to reference the scene with Dana and Venkman are talking in front of the fountain (beginning 42:35 in, 3:35 seconds into Chapter 14, until 44:58/5:58.) This scene is pretty decently put together. Also, the sequence with Slimer in the Hotel is also great, and the subsequent success montage. He may not have made Citizen Kane but he is a confident craftsman and that demands notice.
I could go off on how talented Bill Murray is as an actor. But every performance here is pretty inspired. Akroyd’s almost ingratiating optimism, Ramis’ deadpan, Ernie Hudson’s straight man antics, Rick Moranis’ zany loopiness, Annie Potts as the beleaguered Janine, Sigourney Weaver as both Dana and Zul, and even William Atherton as the whiny EPA agent. Great performance after great performance.
The script to Ghost Busters is 9 kinds of amazing. It’s amazingly funny. As children many of the jokes might not be immediately apparent (“Hey, Egon, remember when you tried to drill that hole in your head?” “That would have worked if you hadn’t stopped me,” or “Dropping off or picking up?”) but man were they there. There is hardly a moment without some joke or gag, but still, despite that, the film manages to work as both a comedy and as a supernatural action film (which was definitely the part of the story I was drawn to as a child, as discussed earlier, the busting) and work effectively at both, oftentimes in the same scene, speaks volumes.
5) The Soundtrack
Say what you will about its similarities to “I Want a New Drug,” but the Ray Parker Jr. Ghostbuster’s theme is immediately catchy. On top of that, the actual score produces the proper mix of ambiance, suspense, and excitement.
Finally, I must admit this is something of a dodge or hustle (something the Dr. Venkman character himself would appreciate, after all, he was accused of such by his dean. Also he was called a poor scientist, whose theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, his methods sloppy, and his conclusions highly questionable. Hopefully all of those do not apply to me.) I definitely don’t think Ghost Busters is, in all actuality, the greatest film of all time. I’d like to think it’s good, for the reasons I’ve outlined above, but the point of this article boils down to this: in the discourse on film, or in any subject, a canon is selected of materials that are to be studied and respected and deferred, and material that is not judged worthy of the canon is pushed to the wayside. Some things are worth discussing, some things are not.
Personally, I think that is the dodge/hustle. The study of these sorts of discourses (art, English, music, films, language, what have you) are a study in the media, not a selection committee for what is good text versus what is bad text. So stop and look at something, anything. Ask why you like it. Or ask why you don’t. Or ask both. What is it that makes this film a success, what makes it a failure? And explore the cultural, ideological, social, aesthetic, dimensions of that film. That’s a lot of what I do here at “Son of Double Feature,” and the big secret is, with enough study and work, you could do it too.
Canons are meant to be blown up, anyway.