...the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life...

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

20. Ghostbusters

When I was a kid, my much older brother and a group of his buddies brought me to an afternoon showing of Ghostbusters. This was an event. People were lined up outside the mall where the theater was, and people were milling about the parking lot as we drove through it, looking for a spot, sitting in a massive mid-70s convertible El Dorado that was all primer and no top, AC/DC at volume emitting from the new speakers just behind the back seat. [1] 

We finally parked and went in and, whew, I lost it in there. I thought it was the funniest, most epic movie I'd seen--the jokes ("dickless," in particular), the special effects, all of it. I saw it again a bunch of times in subsequent years, and then it dropped away from me for over a decade, until about three years ago when the local theater showed it and my wife and I brought the kids to see it. [My younger son was freaked out by the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man; the ghost sex was, mercifully, lost on him.]

This past summer, our city showed it in a park, and my kids begged to see it again, so off we went. I noticed for the first time a massive incontinuity in the movie. I'm not the only one to have discovered it, as a quick perusal of the movie's IMDB page makes clear.

Here's the sequence of events:

1) Ray (Dan Aykroyd) and Venkman (Bill Murray) come back to headquarters, exhausted and burned out from their booming business busting ghosts. Murray says to Aykroyd, "You're not looking good." In fact, neither of them "look good": Their uniforms are filthy, their hair is mussed up, and, if I recall, they both are in need of a shave. Waiting for them in the office is Winston (Ernie Hudson), who has come to apply for a job. Ray is too tired to interview him; he just says, "You're hired." Venkman, meanwhile, retreats into his office.

2) Cut to a scene where Dana (Sigourney Weaver) is leaving an orchestra rehearsal in another part of the city, and waiting for her is Venkman, who is washed, shaved, and full of life, in part because he has a thing for Dana. The reason he meets her is because he has information for her regarding her haunted apartment. After sharing it, he cajoles her into agreeing to go on a date, and as she departs with a friend, the camera offers us a long shot of Venkman in the picturesque plaza where he remains, doing a few twirls of a dance, a la Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music.

3) Cut to the Ghostbusters office, where the villainous EPA representative, Peck (William Atherton), arrives. He meets Venkman in his office, and he wears the same dirty uniform and grimy sheen he was wearing in the scene prior to meeting Dana in the plaza. Peck threatens to shut down the whole Ghostbusters enterprise unless he's aloud to investigate it. Venkman refuses, and Peck warns that he'll be back. Downstairs, Ray is training Winston on the ghost-storage unit, and Venkman comes down to tell his co-workers, including Egon (Harold Ramis), about Peck's visit.

What's obvious to me now is that scenes 1) and 3) represent one, essentially unbroken sequence. At some point after principal photography, the filmmakers realized that they needed to insert a scene where Venkman and Dana flirt under the pretense of business, and that the flirting had to go both ways--e.g., she had to agree to the date--so that there's some emotional stake when she is, later in the movie, imperiled. [3]

This kind of thing happens in movies all the time, particularly in the practice of re-shoots, where insert scenes are filmed to provide "coverage." I'm always distracted when I'm watching an over-the-shoulder shot of two characters in dialogue, and the foreground character, whose face is mostly turned from the camera, is speaking in cadences not matched by the movement of his/her jaw. I think, "Oh, they had to re-write the dialogue there."

But this is a extended sequence interrupted by a very different sequence, as if space-time fabric were briefly ripped and patched by another section of the continuum.

This sort of thing happens all the time in composition. Think of the McCartney section of "A Day in the Life," or of the Benji chapter in The Sound and The Fury. There's this line in John Updike's A Month of Sundays: "All middle-aged men, we sit each at our table clearing dry throughts and suppressing nervous gossip among the silverware." At the bottom of the page is this narrator's footnote: "Meant to type 'throats,' was thinking 'thoughts,' a happy Freudian, let it stand." Or perhaps, in art, you think of someone like Robert Rauschenberg, or countless other cutters-and-pasters in a video, music, sculpture, whatever. . Making a poem means re-arranging stuff, so does writing an essay. But all these composed pieces either hide the seams or purposely leave the seams, so their evident constructedness becomes part of the visual/aural information. [4]

In Ghostbusters the audience is not supposed to see this constructedness. I didn't, for thirty years. One sentence cuts into another sentence, without transition, like a massive Twinkie landing in New York City.

[1] A facts-slightly-fudged [2] account of this incident is described in a poem of mine that's been rejected by fine journals everywhere.
[2] For example, in the poem, the movie's Ghostbusters 2, not Ghostbusters, a choice made for the sake of some internal rhyming. 
[3] Venkman had flirted with her earlier in the movie, but his interest in Dana wasn't reciprocated. 
[4] Scripture (and other ancient texts) contains passages, like the scene of the woman caught in adultery or the three or four "Isaiahs," that are dropped into the larger narrative or lyrical flow. That's an analog, I suppose, to what's being described in this post, though the process is obviously different.

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