That's Something You Don't See Every Day, Chauncey

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All-Time Top 20 Favorite Movies, #7: Is it just a mist, or does it have arms and legs?

Posted by kozemp on January 29, 2013

GhostBusters_Poster_Large

I’ve talked in the past in a number of places about my father’s, let’s call it, checkered history with age-appropriate entertainment.

Does it surprise anyone that he took my sister and I to see Ghostbusters in a movie theatre? I was 6. My sister was 5.

My abiding memory of that first viewing at the old Cinema Alley in TR – my only memory of it, really – is the library ghost scaring the living shit out of me. After that, maybe something with a dog, but that’s about it. But seriously, that fucking ghost at the beginning was all I knew of Ghostbusters for a long time.

I can’t remember when I started to realize that it was a supremely great movie – I don’t recall having it on VHS as a kid, or anything like that – but it must have happened because Ghostbusters is one of three movies where I can recite every word of the screenplay from memory.* (Three that I know of, at least.) Somewhere, I’m guessing in college at some point, I watched Ghostbusters so excessively that I memorized it.

Let’s start talking about the movie itself there, the screenplay, because it might be the most amazing thing about this movie.

It’s made up.

The commentary track on the Ghostbusters DVD (the only one I know of in the amusing MST3K silhouette style) reveals something that knocked my socks off when I heard it: most of Ghostbusters is improvised. To this day I can scarcely believe it. It’s not just that the movie is funny, really. For all the talk that comedy is hard, well, comedy is at the very least slightly less hard when you have a lot of very funny people together. But a lot of that comes from work and repetition and refinement and editing and getting your material JUST RIGHT over iteration after iteration after iteration.

Ghostbusters – the highest ranked comedy on this list, at the least, and for my money one of the three or four funniest movies ever made – was done on the spot. Off the top of their heads.

It is ASTONISHING.

And it’s not astonishing because they’re funny. Murray and Ackroyd and Ramis on their own could be funny without breaking a sweat. And if you’re as funny as these guys are – hell, if you’re 1/100th as funny as these guys are – doing pure improv that came out funny would be pretty easy too.

No, it’s astonishing because it’s NOT improv. It’s not a collection of scenes with broad, wacky people and escalating situations. The Ghostbusters are real characters, solid and round and very, very tight. There isn’t a cheap joke in the whole movie. Not one instance where one of the actors moves so much as an inch out of character to get the laugh. As someone who has, in the past, had to be funny on cue I can tell you that ignoring the urge to do that is almost impossible WHEN YOU HAVE TO FOLLOW A FUCKING SCRIPT! And these guys flew by instruments for an entire movie!

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The sheer force of will it took to do that would make a Green Lantern look at his ring and wonder if he’s in the right line of work.

Much like I mentioned earlier that as we get near the top of this bizarre little countdown it will get harder to turn my pure enthusiasm for the movies into anything coherent, we’re also getting to the point where the movies themselves are so good it’s becoming harder to accurately explain why. The closest I can come is to point to the scene at the end, when they arrive at the apartment building. There’s a bit when they’re working the crowd and Peter calls Ray, “the heart of the Ghostbusters.” And the brilliant thing is that HE IS! Ray Stantz (and Dan Ackroyd) are absolutely the heart of this movie, and not only is that one of those things that is just so, so right even if you can’t pin down exactly how, but it’s so hard to do in a movie; to make a character be something like that and not shove it down the audience’s throat.

There are a couple things I can pin down, though.

Sitting down to watch it with a critical eye, or as critical as I could get, for really the first time ever, I was struck by a few observations that don’t deal with how amazing it is that the movie is improvised, primary among which is this:

Ghostbusters, for everything else, is an almost unbelievably weird little movie.

For starters, when the title card came up, I paused the Blu Ray player and thought, “you know, that’s actually a really dumb title.” 30 years ago the word “ghostbusters” wasn’t cultural shorthand for “brilliant, paradigm defining piece of comedic cinema.” It was just a weird word, smooshed together from two other words, and taken on a purely objective level is strange, and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.

One of the main characters hardly ever talks, and when he does it’s mostly incomprehensible technobabble. Egon Spengler is almost like what you’d get if you made a comedy and one of the main characters was a sullen Geordi LaForge.

It has bizarre little supporting characters who float in and out of the movie for frankly no reason whatsoever – like the hotel concierge, and Walter Peck, and the Mayor, and Janine – which normally is a sign of lazy writing. They’re buoyed by really funny performances, but still, shit like that shouldn’t work.

And – we are so inured to this now, after almost 30 years of watching it, as a brilliant comedic stroke – the final comedy/action setpiece involves a GIANT MARSHMALLOW MAN. I must have succeeded a bit in my attempt to watch the movie with a critical eye, because when Sta-Puft first showed up on the screen I actually let out an involuntary “what the FUCK?!” The movie works so hard during its whole running time to keep everything grounded in a reality – one with ghosts, sure, but it’s still realistic – and then in the last scene, and I must again emphasize just how off the wall this is, is a GIANT FUCKING MARSHMALLOW MAN. It’s off-the-charts strange-o.

2

All of this going against it and the movie is still brilliant! Not to mention something that this past week, on what must have literally been at least my 30th viewing of the movie, I just realized:

Gozer is an Elder God.

Not only is Ghostbusters a comedy landmark, not only is it one of the most quotable movies of all time, not only is it essentially a once in a lifetime paragon of perfect craft – I once called Bioshock “the Ghostbusters of video games” because despite attempts to do so its perfect alchemy could not be recreated – not only is it all of those things and more…

Ghostbusters is a successful HP Lovecraft movie.

That, truly, is its most daunting accomplishment of all.

JLK

 

 

* The Big Lebowski and the next movie on this list.

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