The life lessons of Ghostbusters and Harold Ramis' passing
Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis. These three men are fully responsible my comedic temperament and general outlook on life and Ghostbusters is undoubtedly the fulcrum of the rube goldberg influence machine they represent. Blues Brothers, Caddyshack, Animal House, and Groundhog Day are films I respect and revere, but Ghostbusters is the film from that selection I'd grab in a space capsule escape pod situation. Seeing as I was two-years-old when it was released in 1984, I have no memory of my first viewing experience, or what exactly drew me in at the time, but I do know its impact was life changing.
Assuming I first saw the film when I was three or four the material may not be considered age appropriate (being quite sexual and quasi-frightening), but I'd argue the sum of the film's parts should be required viewing for young children.
Consider how an adult absorbs the following plot points versus a child:
- Turning the situation of getting fired into doubling down on your dreams.
- Wading into the untested waters of the supernatural and paranormal.
- Hiring a black coworker and ostensibly making him one of the gang.
- Helping a woman (and a man) who is "under the influence."
- Being bureaucratized, persecuted, arrested and released on condition.
- Battling a creature from another dimension and a 500 foot monster.
Having just re-watched Ghostbusters the trials of Venkmen, Stantz, Spengler and Zeddmore carry altogether different meaning for a young child and a 31-year-old married man. Allow me to break down the plot list above with a fresh perspective, but leaving the hiring of Winston for last:
- Getting fired to an adult is life-altering experience which requires self-examination of goals and professional execution, to a child following Venkmen's plan of going into business for themselves seems like the only logical choice.
- Dealing with spectres and apparitions would be heart-stoppingly disturbing, kids believe inherently believe in otherworldly.
- When Dana becomes possessed and throws herself at Venkmen, the dialogue is very adult and if Venkmen were lesser man he would have taken advantage of her state. A child understands none of the sexual humor or situational weight and the closest mirror to Peter and Dana's relationship they can understand is their parents so they just see Peter as a guy doing the right thing.
- In a film being investigated, persecuted and arrested are simply rising action obstacles but for actual adults it would be trainwreck of a life experience. The closest life experience children can draw as a parallel is being put in "time out" or being grounded. Children see the Walter Peck as the bad guy and don't know what the Ghostbusters have done wrong. Not the best lesson to color authority figures as villians, but almost all parents teach their children that lying only makes punishment worse and honesty is the best policy. Venkmen may persuade the Mayor a little, but Spengler and Stantz are nothing but honest in the situation and it saves their skin.
- Finally the battle with Gozer, great action scene that carries the weight of existence. Absurd on its face, but playing to a base level fear of eternal damnation for many adults. Children see none of this, Gozer and Stay Puft as bad guys.
Now to Winston. U.S. racial politics of 1984 and 2014 may be different, but not so different where introducing a black man into a wholly white group is nothing. Adult audiences might view it cynically as simply adding a token character, or see it as symbolism of equality and inclusion. As a child I had no conscious thoughts about the racial differences between the three primary characters and Winston, but subconsciously I now believe that little move was monumental.
For many midwesterners, diversity was practically non-existent in the 1980s and while I was born in Chicago and had certainly met and interacted with other races, none of those experiences were as regular as my viewing of this film. My brother and I watched Ghostbusters so many times we could recite the entire movie verbatim like a comedy routine and we were both under the age of eight-years-old. To a kid who couldn't even read, watching and re-watching Winston being integrated into the Ghostbuster crew –with his surface-level differences being a complete non-issue– was basically akin to brainwashing. This laissez-faire filmmaking decision was way ahead of its time and visually portrays something parents, teachers, priests and politicians fail to convey everyday; Winston skin color may be different from his coworkers, but recognition of that fact alone is not something that should inform your actions of how to treat him or anyone else.
Every year it seems someone writes a 4000 word essay on the brilliance of Bill Murray, his comic timing, acting choices and general raison d'etre. Sadly it seems it took Harold Ramis' passing for the man to truly receive his due. Much has been said and written on his brilliance and hopefully my personal relationship with and analysis of Ghostbuster added something. It seems all projects where Mr. Ramis was involved carried a sense of style: absurd, yet realist and friendly with a pie in the face. As Murray receives a ton of credit for basically rewriting his dialogue and improving his portrayal of Peter Venkman, Ramis deserves mountains more for reworking Dan Aykroyd's initial story of a futuristic paranormal cop force that battles other-dimensional spooks and monsters into a modern day send-up of science, skepticism, dogmatic belief, and authority.
If I were to point to my favorite moments outside of Ghostbusters to exemplify Ramis' work, for acting I'd choose a deleted scene from High Fidelity. Ramis played John Cusack's father, basically the same role as his appearance in Judd Apatow's Knocked Up. but not as heartwarming. I would embed a video however it appears not to be online. And considering Ramis was held in much higher regard for his writing and directing, I leave you with my favorite scene from Groundhog Day, the only other Ramis film I would even debate grabbing over Ghostbusters as I jumped into my escape capsule.