Ghostbusters on Film

The first movie I truly loved was Ghostbusters. I watched it at least forty or fifty times before I finished elementary school. If I was home sick from school (which I made sure to be at least once or twice a month), my go-to movie was Ghostbusters. At the time, I didn’t get how funny it was, because to a child ghost busting was pretty serious business. Except for Venkman, of course, but that’s because he didn’t take anything seriously except Dana Barrett.

My point is that I know Ghostbusters by heart, and have since I was little. I hadn’t seen it for several years, but when I learned that it was playing at the revival theater in Harvard Square, I knew I had to go. I feared that I might know the movie too well to really give myself over to it, but I wasn’t about to pass up the chance to see a new print on the big screen (although that’s not exactly an accurate description of the screen at the Brattle).

It turns out I needn’t have worried. Yes, I knew the movie backwards and forwards, but so did the rest of the audience on Monday night. People knew exactly who was going to say what and when, and they burst into roaring laughter almost before the beats. I was surprised at how fresh Ghostbusters was after twenty-five years, and the movie delighted me more than ever. In fact, I felt like I was seeing the movie for the first time. Seeing this classic with an audience around me enhanced the experience more than I thought possible, and reminded me of how even a good home theater system doesn’t really bring home the magic of a packed house.

More importantly, however, is the way the film looked on the screen. The Ghostbusters of my memory is from a VHS or DVD copy, and I was completely caught out by how gloriously rich the colors were on celluloid. Furthermore, I was noticing details in each shot that I’d never noticed before, because the larger format makes things obvious that are almost invisible on a TV set. It was just a much, much richer visual experience that I could have expected.

Ghostbusters also serves as a pointed reminder of just how rich movies could be in a world of limited CGI. There are some obvious matte-paintings in Ghostbusters, and the models never seem to inhabit the same reality as the actors (especially when they appear in the same shot). However, I also saw how evocative those techniques were, and how Reitman worked around technical limitations with clever shot composition and editing. Modern movies tend to wallow in the special-effects Uncanny Valley, overusing glossy-looking CG sequences that strike the mind as discordantly false. By contrast, the matte-painting we see of the top of Gozor’s tower is immediately identifiable as a fake backdrop, but then we all accept it into the movie’s reality.

Furthermore, the actors might be staring at a painting, but they’re also standing on a well-designed set, and earlier we’ve seen them on the streets of New York. The special effects sequences might not be quite as realistic as we’d expect today, but the normal shots are vastly more convincing than anything we’re likely to see in a modern summer blockbuster. Ghostbusters is full of regular-looking people, speaking with the right accents and wearing the right clothes, and the camera never has to shy away from wooden performances in front of a green screen. There’s an intimacy to Ghostbusters that used to commonplace in American film, and which has become depressingly hard to find. Where I used to feel like the fifth Ghostbuster, or the fourth Goodfella, I now feel like a spectator watching an amusement park ride go past. It’s little wonder I find modern gaming much more interesting than most modern film.

Still, watching Ghostbusters with an audience including everyone from teenagers to 60 year-olds, I was reassured that we’re all still here. People weren’t just there on a nostalgia trip, but were there to enjoy the kind of movie they still love, even if the film industry no longer knows how to make it.

    • Jay
    • October 22nd, 2009 10:31am

    Agreed; I wish I lived somewhere that had Ghostbusters on the big screen. Also, here’s hoping Ghostbuster 3 in 2012 manages to keep the love alive. I’d hate it if they r–ed our childhood like so many other franchises.

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