I’ve actually never read any of the online screeds, purportedly penned by middle-aged nerdy guys, about how the new Ghostbusters was bound to “ruin their childhood” -- I know only that catchphrase. But since I’m a middle-aged nerdy guy, I thought I’d chime in.
Not about Ghostbusters, though, because I don’t have much to add to the broader conversation around gender, audience, and movie franchises. Besides, the whole notion of nostalgia and its corruption isn’t just about Paul Feig’s new film. It’s about movies generally and the way we look to them for redemption in ways both tender and pathetic. I’m just not sure if the correct word order is “tenderly pathetic” or “pathetically tender.”
Of course there are countless reasons why the idea of a new release ruining a childhood is ridiculous on its face. My favorite is probably reflected in this anecdote Stephen King likes to tell
about a college newspaper reporter who interviewed James M. Cain:
This young man began his time with Cain by bemoaning how Hollywood had changed books such as The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Before he could properly get into his rant, the old man interrupted him by pointing to a shelf of books behind his desk. “The movies didn’t change them a bit, son,” he said. “They’re all right up there. Every word is the same as when I wrote them.”
In other words, no beloved playground was torn down in order to build a shopping mall with Feig’s signature under it. The playground is still there, and in the case of the 1984 Ghostbusters, you are free to lay flowers at the well-deserved memorial to Harold Ramis that now stands at its edges.
Oddly, though, the patent absurdity of feeling the opposite -- that something really has been demolished, has been irrevocably lost -- isn’t what makes that feeling so problematic. Because under that absurdity is an emotional truth. In fact, it’s something most of us feel in relation to some movies, and perhaps feel implicitly regarding all movies. That’s because the tug of nostalgia isn’t for a particular era and its media products. It’s always nostalgia for ourselves, for the person we were, that makes the fhe feeling so acute.
And in terms of how TPTB leverage this potent strain of nostalgia is concerned, let’s recall that we’re dealing with a live-by-the-sword/die-by-the-sword dynamic. After all, the idea that a childhood can be ruined -- well, it’s really just the same idea, flipped, that’s at work when the feel that a childhood can be validated, as with The Force Awakens.
Of course it’s not childhood per se that's under attack: it’s still there, standing tall in the past tense. Rather, it’s the affective construct we call “childhood” that we feel is under siege. In this sense, Star Wars fans were right to be upset not so much by The Phantom Menace, but by Lucas’ infamous tinkering with the original trilogy. In that instance he really was tearing down the playground and putting up subpar CGI and questionable dramatics in its place.
That’s not what’s at stake with Ghostbusters, though, and its hordes of preemptive detractors. Here we have something more like the spate of horror remakes from a decade or so ago. What chafes at the soul is the way that a studio can simultaneously mine nostalgia for all its worth in its marketing campaign and blithely “disrespect” what was so cherished about the original.
The reason that some have been so reactive -- reactionary even -- regarding Ghostbusters is that they don’t want the name or the status of a franchise to be somehow sullied. We can set aside the issue of fanboyish sexism for the moment, but not out of charity -- but because it’s worth nothing that all of us harbor this protective tendency to some degree. We just don’t allow the casting of all-female leads to push our buttons. But for those who do, it’s not only like defending a matter of family honor, it’s exactly like it. The same proprietary forces are at work.
My family. My fandom. My memories.
However, by making it all about you, you actually lose what’s special about any work of art—that’s it not about you. Or rather not only about you. In movies especially, there’s an appeal to a wider collective, a cultural consciousness, if you will. Sure, you as an individual respond to a movie. But that’s because it reaches out to you and makes you a part of it through your experiencing of it. And often we so long to re-experience that transporting movie experience of being-at-one-with-screen that we attempt to re-create it through talismans. The posters, the action figures, the steelbooks, the adaptions into other media, the fan-art and fanfic. They’re all meant to re-trigger something that’s always at risk of receding into a permanent yesterday.
And I indulge in fannish metaphysics as much as anyone I know. Nothing wrong with it. Let’s just be mindful of what we’re buying into, though.
You see, the thing about your childhood is not that it was so wondrous. It’s that you were completely open to wonder, so when it struck, it struck you to your core. But you can be that way now. It’s not closed off. By yearning too strenuously for the past we become stuck in a limbo that is neither fully past nor fully present. Were the early 1980’s really more filled with wonder than now? If we think about the summer movies of 1982-1986 it certainly seems so, but I have to stop and realize that that’s because my personal filter would have it no other way. What if you were born in 1955 -- or 1995? Then I venture that Kubrick’s 2001 or Rami’s first couple of Spider-Man’s imprinted you with awe. In short, the enthrallment we experience is never, ultimately, about any specific movie… but about the movies.
My recommendation, then? Kill your childhood off by understanding that you have access to it now.
Wait, even that’s wrong. It’s not a matter of access. Your childhood is not partitioned off unless you say it is. Wonder, and the capacity for it, is ongoing -- part of who you are. That’s why I’m hoping the next Star Wars movie panders to me less, reminds me less of the 1977 flagship entry as much as I enjoyed all the echoes and reunions. Instead, take me by surprise. Captain America was probably my least favorite Marvel hero growing up, but at times the last couple of flicks dazzled me like it was 1978 and I was watching Superman for the very first time.
So please have the best years of your childhood today, and consider that the only way you can ever truly destroy the past is by calling it “the past.”
Gamera Obscura is a column about the ill effects of seeing too many movies over too many years. Peter Gutierrez also writes the Blockbuster Central column for Screen Education, and can be hunted down on Twitter @suddenlyquiet.