Sunday, March 27, 2011

I Believe It's Magic

Sometimes one stumbles onto diverting/cute/inconsequential discoveries but has no longer piece on any related topics in the works where they might be deposited. Rather than lose this one to the wind, I present a nice little flourish from Ghostbusters (1984, Columbia Pictures, dir. I. Reitman). Or is that "Ghost Busters," as the opening titles would have it? I usually defer to what is onscreen, but this is plainly incorrect. Moving on then. This is really just about an interesting cut-on-action and as it entirely involves movement and cutting, the illustrations below aren't particularly attractive or, well, illustrative.

The context, as you surely recall, is that Consolidated Edison, under orders of EPA jagoff Walter "Wally Wick" Peck, have shut down the 'Busters' containment grid and released all manner of spookums. In humorous-eerie montage set to a jittery remix of "Magic" by Mick Smiley, several of the emancipated phantoms rush to indulge in those specifically New York City experiences they must have pined for in captivity. After shenanigans with subways, taxis, and mouthfuls of street hotdogs, we're back to our key players.

Fig. 1

Whoosh! Here's a view looking out from the apartment window of one Dana Barrett, lately possessed by Sumerian demigod Zuul, Gatekeeper and minion of Gozer the Gozerian (I type these things because it looks funny, not because you don't already know all this; sadly, we both know all of this by heart).

This sequence is rather on the cusp of the second and third acts, and designed to pull into position the relevant players who have been scattered to the wind. Namely, at this point the stage is set for the ritual union of Gatekeeper Zuul and Keymaster Vinz Clortho, but Vinz is off scampering around TriBeCa — they can't find each other.

This is followed by a brief reaction shot of Zuul!Dana, distorted through the window glass and then...

Fig. 2

Fig. 3

The idea here, as explained by Dr. Stanz, is that the building itself is constructed to serve as a massive antenna for PK energy. Hence, a good number of the pink energy balls zip straight toward 55 Central Park West. Those that don't crave hotdogs, anyway.

Before (F.2) and after (F.3) images are offered purely to communicate what is happening in this shot: the wall explodes out, sending a cloud of gray dust and debris straight at the camera. Match cut to:

Fig. 4

A flock of pigeons suddenly taking flight in the foreground. They rise up and exit frame at the top and reveal Vinz Clortho in Louis Tully's clothes staggering around in the middle distance, watching them go.

Observations, mercifully brief:

-The student of editing clichés may know that a sudden cut to birds taking wing is not entirely unprecedented. Such theoretical birds are often reacting literally, metaphorically, or both to some kind of violent shock, e.g.— echoing gunshots and a cut to startled birds escaping Dealey Plaza punctuate the opening sequence of JFK (1991). HOWEVER! While "motivated" by the PKE-charged explosion, the Ghostbusters pigeons are different in essence. Again, no screencap quite captures kinetic release of this cut, but suffice to say the effect is that the wall explodes into a cloud of pigeons.

-This sequence is a chain of motion, where flocking chunks of energyball/brickwork/birds fly at the spectator. This is also part of an image system throughout the film in which, well, special effects fly at the camera. Obviously, in the twenty-six years since, this is an increasingly typical gimmick, and it was not really new in 1984. Rather than make a case for visual innovation or uniqueness here, I just wish to point out that this bit combos an optical effect (F.1) onto a pyro stunt (F.3) onto real live birds (F.4) to convey several story points.

-As the music cuts out, the final puzzle piece is laid, completing the story concerns driving this bit. Besides the ghostie hijinks, this sequence is about Zuul moving to the window in anticipation, sensing the arrival of Clortho. Vinz has been wandering the streets and looking to the skies, finally drawn to Spook Central by the swarming spiritual turbulence. The pigeon cut signals the moment that he knows exactly where to go. Now what is interesting? poignant? weird? to me about this story thread is the screenwriter's-delight irony surrounding Louis Tully. The Gatekeeper/Keymaster gag is memorable enough that it garnered a nod in one of those "Sex in Cinema" pieces in Playboy. As the paperback novelization puts it, "She was the Gatekeeper and his key was ready. They sank down in the embrace that had been foretold and blew the roof off the building." Good one, Richard Mueller.

What the film does not play up explicitly is the character dimension to this, in which the lovesick nerd has universe-ripping sex with his dream girl while they are both under the influence of demonic possession. There is a fair amount of this sort of understated irony in Ghostbusters, right down in its foundational concept. The film is set in a world beset by real supernatural menace but the protagonist, Peter Venkman, is the sort of sham parapsychologist that skeptical investigators like to make examples of. The point being only that the core jokes of Ghostbusters are somehow those that get the least attention in favor of, say, smelly ghosts eating ten hotdogs.


Adam Ross said...

This scene is a great example of how Ghostbusters successfully balances the line between silly and scifi. We see Slimer eating hot dogs and the skeleton taxi driver, but the pink and purple paranormal energy is a terrifying design that really makes you wonder just what the hell Gozer has in store for us. I also admire the slow reveal of the building's sinister architecture, how we get several looks at the structure early on, but when they ask "where do these stairs go?" You really have no idea either.

Another understated (or undeveloped) subplot I like is what Egon's Twinkie Speech could imply -- that their gathering, storing and releasing of that ghostly energy was all part of Vinz Clortho/Gozer's grand plan.

quinn said...

Well, we know where the stairs go...they go up.

Stangl, this is awesome.