Last night boasted a double feature, courtesy of the illustrious Tantek. My dear friend Diana hasn’t seen a sizable number of important films, due to a Mormon upbringing and a lack of free time in high school. (She did, horrifyingly, sit through Larry Clark’s Kids at a Unitarian Universalist sleepover, which makes me seriously wonder about this whole UU thing.) So we set out to educate her. This being a group of nerds, however, our choices weren’t exactly Rules of the Game or Seventh Seal-caliber.
This was because, despite growing up in the 80’s, Diana had never seen Ghostbusters. On the upside, her system probably doesn’t still contain remnants of Ecto Cooler. On the downside…well, can you imagine life without Ghostbusters?
This was the first time I had seen the film in over a decade. It was a favorite in the house when I was a kid, but most of the dick jokes and sexual overtones obviously went over my head. (What was that ghost lady doing with Dan Aykroyd’s belt?) There are some plot holes in the film that are a mile wide– most notably, the fact that the titular busters are so broke that they need to take out a mortgage on Aykroyd’s childhood home, yet can equip their firehouse-turned-office with top-of-the-line furniture and their own secretary before first customer Sigourney Weaver even walks in the door. But it’s a fantasy film, predicated on the existence of magical ghosts, so I’m willing to forgive that much.
What was interesting to me, however, was the pacing of the film. It was slow. Almost painfully so. This was 1985, so MTV had been around for a few years, but its visual style doesn’t seem to have infiltrated the film at all. In fact, for a movie about ghosts and ghost-trapping machines and other strange sights, the film has surprisingly little visual humor. Instead, the better part of the laughs are derived from Bill Murray’s mugging and one-liners; I remember Harold Ramis being the film’s straight man, but Aykroyd mostly fills that position as well. It’s mostly Murray’s show, and even if his job in the film couldn’t really be called “acting” per se, it’s still monstrously funny.
The laxity of Ghostbusters (and especially Murray’s role in it) seems to indicate, for me, the saturation point of Saturday Night Live‘s grip on the culture. The slack pacing makes the film feel oddly off-the-cuff, but for every inch of scruffy charm, there’s a mile of overacting that seems to have been beamed down straight from the Rockefeller Center studio.
I didn’t grow up watching much SNL, and when I was last at home, my parents and I happened to catch Mike Myers’ best-of special for the show (timed to promote his execrable The Love Guru.) I had heard most of Myers’ sketches referenced before, so I knew what I was in for, but I was surprised how lazy a lot of them were, how reliant they seemed on catchphrases and repetition. “Talk amongst yourselves.” “Touch my monkey.” “Party on, Garth.” I’m sure there’s a certain potency to these lines that I’ve missed by not seeing them when they first emerged, but I found them almost painfully unfunny. They seemed like pre-packaged memes, with giant arrows pointed to them screaming “PLEASE REPEAT ME.” This didn’t keep my parents from roaring with laughter, but I wonder how much of it was just nostalgia.
For better or worse, that era is now over. In some ways, that’s wonderful; I think movies like Knocked Up will hold up better than many people think, in part because the humor speaks to a much more real and consistent part of the soul than Bill Murray making innuendoes and cracking wise. There’s more acting in them, and less stand-up. If Ghostbusters were made today, there’s no way a director would let Murray shoot off a line like “We’ve been going about this all wrong. This Mr. Stay-Puft’s okay! He’s a sailor, he’s in New York– we get this guy laid, we won’t have any trouble!” It’s funny, but it just wouldn’t be believable in the context of, you know, being attacked by a giant, sentient marshmallow.
But maybe that’s not the right path for every comedy. If we’re still going to have comedies fronted by personalities who are comedians first and actors second, why tie them to any vestige of believability? Adam Sandler is always pretty much playing the same man-child; why make him jump through the hoops of having that character be an Israeli or Satan’s spawn? (Okay, maybe that last one isn’t so much of a stretch.) Obviously, this isn’t always going to work, especially if the comedian in question isn’t all that funny. But some unique comedic talents working today might still benefit from having a film that’s little more than a showcase for their unadulterated personalities (and their best lines), without necessarily aiming for the lowest common denominator. Man cannot live on stand-up concert films alone; this hybrid model brings in the best of both worlds.
Disagree? Well, back off, man. I’m a scientist.