Gamera Obscura: GHOSTBUSTERS and Why Your Childhood Should Be Ruined

columnist, critic; USA (@suddenlyquiet)
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Gamera Obscura: GHOSTBUSTERS and Why Your Childhood Should Be Ruined
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.
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KurtJuly 15, 2016 12:14 PM

Movies like Gremlins, Ghostbusters and Temple of Doom filled me with WONDER in 1984. Movies like Ex Machina, Neon Demon and The Nice Guys fill me with WONDER in 2016. My tastes have changed over the years, and that isn't a bad thing, nostalgia reminds me of what I fell in love with in the first place.

Kubrick, Hitchcock, Keaton, Weir, Wilder, Donen, Antonioni, Verhoeven, Spielberg and so many more will always fill me with WONDER, whether on rewatch or on discovery of a film of theirs I've just seen.

ZetobeltJuly 15, 2016 1:51 PM

I'm not going to see this movie. Not now, not ever.

Not because it has women. Not because the original movie. Only because I think is bad.

And no publicity campaign will change my mind.

Ben UmsteadJuly 15, 2016 1:56 PM

Wonder really is that bonafide magic in the movies. Peter, I love how you take us on a journey with this piece. There have been so many articles as of late that get in and around GB, including Matt Brown's excellent work. But yours is the first I've read to both aim wider and get deeper with some core metaphysics of moviegoing -- truly wondrous.

ryandschaeferJuly 15, 2016 3:40 PM

I gotta say man, this article talked me off the ledge. My knees were bent, ready to jump. My favorite movie has been remade and I thought there was no going back and yet, these words made it acceptable to refuse to accept the new as the norm. Thank you.

Dave BaxterJuly 15, 2016 4:29 PM

I think this is dead on. The one thing I in this op ed I would contest is the suggestion that a state of wonder is a matter of choice ("Your childhood is not partitioned off unless you say it is. Wonder, and the capacity for it, is ongoing -- part of who you are.") We didn't choose to be in a state of wonder when we were kids, we simply were, by whatever it was that put us in that state. And same for when we're adults - the things that made me marvel when I was 12 simply can't elicit the same responses from me these days. I got chills when I watched Jurassic Park and Independence Day, but I think the window for such blockbusters affecting me to that degree is well and gone. But that isn't to say NOTHING can make me marvel, it just means it won't be the kinds of films or the kinds of adventures that once did. I have no more choice in the matter of my wonder than I ever did. We know what thrills us when we encounter it.

Clever Username of Some SortJuly 15, 2016 6:36 PM

This kind of stuff makes me groan. If mainstream film making doesn't want its audience to fetishize their "childhoods," then maybe it starts with contemporary film makers. Oh, they can't think of anything else to sell you but your daddy's favorite brands, but they want you to pretend you're all engaged together in something that deserves a fresh take. They don't provide new "wonders" and blame you for bringing up old "wonders" in comparison. Meanwhile, the entire exercise is designed to reinforce the same-old-thing.

Frankly, Ghostbusters never appealed to me in the first place, thirty-more years ago. Explain to me, again, how my imagination must be at fault.

One-EyeJuly 15, 2016 11:06 PM

The one thing to keep in mind is that no matter what any of us think or say or do nothing is going to stop them from doing it, because all they care about is numbers on a chart. And if those numbers add up the way they want them to then that's what they're going to do.

Max Landis went in with a fairly compelling pitch for GHOSTBUSTERS 3. You can read it on his website. And he was VERY confident he had the job. Then it went cold and when he asked why he was told two words: Paul Feig.

Feig had the box office and had caught the cultural zeitgeist of female-lead comedy, so it went to him.

A man with a knifeJuly 16, 2016 1:01 PM

This is definitely better than hacks at Destroy.

KurtJuly 17, 2016 4:35 PM

Shocker: The film is pretty good.