Watch: What Makes GHOSTBUSTERS a Classic? A Video Essay

Watch: What Makes GHOSTBUSTERS a Classic? A Video Essay

One thing that became resoundingly clear after the death of Harold Ramis was that the films he was involved in–‘Ghostbusters,’ ‘Animal House,’ ‘Groundhog Day’–had an undeniable solidity to them, regardless of what you might say about their degree of refinement. This video essay by Bob Chipman, who also calls himself MovieBob, digs into the particular solidity of ‘Ghostbusters,’ a film which would appear on the surface to be light entertainment, but which reveals itself, under the eye of this sharp, dense, and fast-moving analysis, to be a complexly conceived and brilliantly executed project, on several levels. One important and interesting point the piece makes is that the film’s three central characters don’t undergo tremendous changes during the film–there’s no apparent character arc. The movie resists, as well, tried-and-true developments such as a switch from disbelief in ghosts to belief in ghosts. Additionally, Chipman discusses the fact, all too true, that the film grew out of–and commented on–a ghost craze that swept American film during the late 1970s and early 1980s, notable examples of this trend being ‘Poltergeist’ and ‘The Exorcist.’ And capping off this elaborate examination is a serious look, without too much fannishness, at the extent to which the movie looks at questions of mortality and faith through the lens of Sumerian mythology. Chipman assigns Ghostbusters a fair amount of profundity, signing off with a rousing coda and ending with "Ghostbusters is really. That. Good." This is the first in a series, in which Chipman will delve into classics and determine why they endure.

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

Talking with Ted Melfi About Saints, Compassion, and Survival in Hollywood

nullTed Melfi has been in the movie industry for years. He’s worked in
commercials, produced shorts and started Goldenlight Films, a production
company, with his wife Kimberly Quinn. St.
Vincent,
though, is his first major feature film. He snagged Bill Murray as
his lead after finding him through a 1-800 number and, soon after, the
Weinstein Company came on to produce. The cast is incredible, the story is accessible,
and, from my experience, the audiences are responding. Watching St. Vincent at the Grove Theater in LA
on a Friday night, no one left during the credits. They rolled, Bill Murray
danced to Bob Dylan, and everyone stayed put, in awe. I whispered to my friend,
“People love this movie.”

Bill Murray plays
Vincent, an unemployed drunk in Brooklyn who loves to curse and make other people
feel inferior. When a single mother, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her son
Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, Vincent takes the opportunity to
make some extra cash by babysitting Oliver. Although Vincent is initially
distant, surrounding himself with gambling, booze and a Russian prostitute Daka
(Naomi Watts), he and the boy soon form a bond. When Oliver is asked to pick a
saint at school, he insists that Vincent, who most view as a nightmare, is
actually a good guy, even a saint.

I met with Melfi at the Weinstein offices in LA. Walking
into the conference room, surrounded by hit movie posters, stiff chairs
and a massive glass table, I was immediately comforted by Melfi’s warm smile
and firm handshake. He was vulnerable right off the bat, confident but sincere.
I soon was convinced
that if I were Bill Murray, I’d say “yes” to this guy too.

Melfi got his start producing in a way that is both
unlikely and believable. He worked in an
Italian restaurant in Studio City. A guy walked in one day and started talking
about a story he had: “It’s about this African American kid back in the Midwest
trying to find himself as a writer.” Melfi was compelled by the story. The man offered Melfi
his script and asked if he had produced. He said, “yes,” with an apron on. Melfi had never produced before.

Thankfully, LA is about faking it till you make it. He spent
the next few months raising $600,000, and they were shooting the film weeks
later. Melfi knew,  “This is what I’m
going to do with my life and I’m 23.” 

He went on to write and shoot projects with his wife
Kimberly Quinn with their production company Goldenlight Films. Melfi completed
seven indie movies where he produced and wrote, but he refrained from
directing.  Meanwhile, he was writing
things on the side and trying to get agents all over L.A. All of his films were
released, but in today’s industry, that doesn’t mean you’re making a good
living. After eight years of producing, Kimberly said he had to get a real job.
She suggested commercials, having worked on a plethora of them as an actress.
Eventually, Melfi made specs and got lucky with MTV. He made a commercial
starring Ron Jeremy about pizza and porn and shot it for $1,200.  MTV bought the commercial for $10,000, and it
launched his commercial career.

Melfi doesn’t proceed to make fun of his Ron Jeremy venture
or discount his work in commercials, as many “artistic” filmmakers might. “I
love commercials,” he says. “I love telling stories in a short amount of time.”
He’s working on about “two a month” at this point in his career and assures me
“they all have their good spots.” Once Melfi established a life with a
consistent income for his family, he decided to get back to his first love, writing.

After completing a few screenplays, all praised by his
agents but none landing, Melfi wrote St.
Vincent.
The story has an extremely personal origin for Melfi.  His brother passed away at 38 with an
11-year-old daughter–the mother was not around. “My wife and I adopt her and
take her from Tennessee to Sherman Oaks, California. She gets this homework
assignment in her world religion class: find a Catholic Saint that inspires you
and find someone in your real life that mimics the quality of that saint and
draw a comparison.” Similar to the saint Oliver chooses in the film, she
chooses Saint William of Rochester, and then chooses Melfi himself. “It was,
like, healing for our family.” Ted couldn’t stop thinking of it, but knew it
would transform into the characters that soon became Bill Murray and Oliver.

Coupled with the personal experience of his daughter, Melfi
chose to base Vincent on his father in law. “My wife’s father was a Vietnam
vet, drank too much, smoked too much, gambled lied and cheated.” He stopped
talking to Kimberly when she was 9 and never spoke to her again. One day, she
decided to write a “Dear Dad” letter in attempt to re-connect.  Sure enough, he called soon after and they
talked for hours.  “He became her saint,
she became his saint. They reunited and became father and daughter for the last
10 years of his life. He realized he had value through her, and that’s what
Oliver does for Vincent.” Right there is the kernel of the project for Melfi, “It’s
about value.”

Upon learning the project is so personal, I’m curious how
Melfi actually approached writing the script. “The drawing board for me was to
sketch out the general structure and then to back away from it as far as I
could.” Vincent is 70, creating a generation gap between the drunken veteran
and Melfi, resembling Kimberly’s father more closely. Ted doesn’t write with
actors in mind, but people. 

“I think that the
most connected writing in the world is connected to something true and honest,
no matter what that is. Every character I write is based on something, some
personal part of me, someone I know, someone I’ve met. It just makes it clear
to my mind.”

Getting back to the crux of the story, value, I wondered
what was unresolved here. Was Melfi writing this as a form of catharsis, was it
out of a need to tell his audience, or perhaps himself, that they possess
worth? Melfi describes his experience with Jeff Kitchen, taking classes with
the screenwriting guru and learning a specifically helpful technique. “You
start any project with a question: what do I want to leave the audience with?”
With St. Vincent, it’s “every human
being has value.”

Melfi describes drawing arrows down from that point: how
will that happen? “You start to go backwards in time and all the sudden you get
to the drunk meets the kid.” After
the movie’s release, Ted has received many texts, tweets and emails, all saying
the same thing: “I cried.” He’s seen it for himself. He realized that perhaps
the reason they’re crying is because that last element landed. “That technique
has some value! He references Paul Thomas Anderson, saying that with all his
films he has an intention, whether or the movie is your taste or not.

You can fuck it up
shooting it, writing it. We fucked a lot of things up but we didn’t’ fuck that
concept up. It’s the intention that you have as a writer or director that made
that so.”

Still, Melfi hasn’t answered my question: did he need to
tell himself he had value? “Yea I
think everyone does. I think I’m a pretty good person. I’m in my forties, it
kind of happens later! Your value gets chipped away over time and the next
thing you know, you’re 65.” Melfi points out that everywhere people wonder is this it? They’re seventy, living on
retirement or social security, their kids are gone, what’s left with life? He
admits he’s thankful for his wife and family and feels valuable, but I wonder
about Kimberly’s father. “He spent his life trying to find his value and
ultimately I think life can be a lot for people. It was so much for him that he
bailed out.”

This sense of isolation compares to a moment in the film [spoiler!]
where Vincent sits next to his wife, who at this point, is just a box of ashes.
He’s broken, and when Oliver offers comfort, Vincent pushes him away with wit,
then anger. Melfi suggests, “The instinct is to push away because no one wants
to feel vulnerable, because if the dam breaks, the river is going to flow. And
it does not stop.”

This avoidance of vulnerability is fueled by Vincent’s
history as a veteran. “War is disgusting and disturbing and they’re there for us.” But when these veterans get home
that “one man’s life means nothing” doesn’t quite translate. Behaving in battle
like your life is meant for sacrifice, but having a family tell you they need
you can be confusing and propel one into that same isolation Vincent gravitates
towards. Melfi admits that our country and culture don’t take proper care of
veterans.  They’re the “bravest men and
women on the planet.” The audience may write Vincent off in the beginning of
the film, as do the characters surrounding him in the story. He’s crude, rude
and mean. But he’s also a war hero.

“You peel back the skin of the onion and start to go, this guy is amazing.” It’s the same
situation with Maggie, who Melissa McCarthy plays with both strength and palpable
weakness. She’s a hardworking mother stuck between work, a divorce and an
innocent son. “That mimics most closely to what life is. You don’t know a shit
about anyone. One day something will happen and you’ll go [makes a gibberish
noise and shakes his head in stupor].”

Melfi believes this compassionate philosophy, believing
people are more than they may appear. He still, though, must function as a
filmmaker in a town where not many are willing to let their appearances
crumble. “Los Angeles is a tricky town. I’m from New York, and in New York ‘Fuck
you’ means ‘Fuck you.’ A New Yorker will sit down and tell you his whole life
story.” LA, on the other hand, is about separation. “I don’t know how I survive
here. I have a family and I get out of here as much as I can.” Melfi is able to
pull back those layers of the people around him, eager to get his hands dirty.

“I’m an instigator
and an aggravator. I ask questions people don’t want to ask. I’m fascinated
with people. I think it’s what we’re here for.”

He believes we’re all one; his favorite film being It’s a Wonderful Life. St. Vincent has
the same message, telling people they do
matter; they can make an impact.
Recently, Melfi noticed two ladies talking outside a screening. One of them
says they cried, which was a marvel, given she’s on anti-depressants and can’t technically shed a tear.

“God forbid, there’s an emotion in a movie! It’s sentimental
and schmaltzy! What the fuck are you going to a movie for? If you don’t want an
emotion just go see action films…even Spiderman,
they have emotions! Go see those movies because you have lost sense of what art
is.” 

“Art is a catharsis. You
are supposed to go and get fucking mad and laugh and cry and have every
emotion. Otherwise, there’s no point to art. We might as well make network TV.”

He and I agree that much of that type of programming isn’t
connected to anything real. It’s a product. As much as St. Vincent could be called the same, released by the Weinsteins
and with a Hollywood cast, it’s not. If it turned out to be, that clearly wasn’t
Melfi’s intention.

“My generation and everyone below is now in a world that’s
disconnected. We have this illusion that social media, Twitter, texting these
things are connecting us more. Instead of dealing someone on the human level,
we don’t have to do that anymore. Human beings were designed, from the earliest
days as cavemen, to read faces, to fall in love with someone, to fall in
hate…to get them. We’re not emotionally connected. Entertainment has followed
suit. It has very little humanity.”

Melfi is taking a risk painting religion in a positive light,
if making a film that’s sentimental as opposed to cynical wasn’t enough. “My uncle
was a priest. My aunt was a nun. My mom was a nun.” He reveals a scandalous
love affair between his aunt Patty and uncle Tom who fell in love, got married,
and then were kicked out the church. It’s been 50 years now.  “Tom is the coolest mother on the planet.
He’s kind of the inspiration behind Chris O’Dowd’s character and a new look at
religion.” O’Dowd plays Brother Geraghty, Oliver’s teacher in school.  “I wanted a positive depiction of what an
honest Catholic priest would be today, where he has to embrace every religion,
and no religion, and try to get people to understand that God is whoever you
want him to be at this point in your life. If you find my particular God, okay,
if you don’t, okay, but you should learn the values of being a good person and
living some of your life for others.”

Melfi is encouraged about Pope Francis: “He’s going to make
it tangible for other generations who have shunned it. “ Melfi believes this action
is developing the view of religion and encouraging a freedom to find a personal
relationship with God. “I personally have seen enough of the Catholic Church
getting beat up. Everyone does a big ‘X out’ on religion because they have an
experience. Most people nowadays haven’t even had an experience; they have a
perception. They have no idea.”

Melfi’s mission is so pure; I wonder how he preserves it. It
is Harvey Weinstein after all. “Everything you do in life is a collaboration.” Although
Bill came with the project, Weinstein wanted a second and third big star in the film. Melfi
fought for Melissa, she even volunteered to audition, and Weinstein convinced
Melfi to make the prostitute Russian and cast (poor guy!) Naomi Watts. “I
fought when I needed to fight, and you collaborate when you need to collaborate.
Be open to being wrong. Directors get stuck in I’m an auteur, this is my baby, this is my vision. To some degree
that’s a trap. I come from the script is
the boss
.” Melfi was once a stage actor, which could explain his dedication
to text. 

“When the script is
good, the best thing a director can do is get out of the way.”
 

Melfi has multiple scripts about children seeking father
figures, a subject matter that also ties into St. Vincent’s quest for value.  It’s not until the last minutes of our conversation that Melfi reveals, “My dad disappeared 19 years ago and I never saw
him again. There’s a deep part of me that will always wonder what happened to
him.” Melfi goes to therapy, and he explores his own personal life outside art.
He’s no Lars Von Trier, who openly puts his painful, demented catharsis on
screen. Melfi just wants to create stories. “My favorite filmmakers are
personal filmmakers, Alexander Payne, Spike Lee, Frank Capra, even Steven Spielberg.
He’s telling great stories.”

Meredith Alloway is a Texas native and a freelance contributor for CraveOnline, Paste, Flaunt, and Complex Magazine. She is also Senior Editor at The Script
Lab. She writes for both TV and film and will always be an unabashed
Shakespeare nerd. @atwwalloway

CRUEL SUMMER: STRIPES (1981)

CRUEL SUMMER: STRIPES (1981)

In this series, frequent Press Play contributor Aaron Aradillas will analyze a significant movie from each year of the 1980s. The previous installment: The Blues Brothers (1980).

When Bill Murray came on the scene at the start of the 1980s, he represented a fundamental shift in comedy. He specialized in an utter emotional detachment from any and all situations. His fans claimed he was deconstructing the absurdity of whatever predicament he found himself in. The famous Saturday Night Live sketch of Murray as a lounge act performer singing about Star Wars was funny because he knew how pathetic the guy was. Murray did nothing but asides and put-ons. Some critics praised him as a Groucho Marx type, but if you looked closely, some of his lines had a nasty streak; while Groucho took the air out of a tense situation, Murray made you tense.

Performers like Jack Nicholson, Richard Pryor, even Eddie Murphy in 48 HRS., specialized in upsetting the status quo, speaking up for those who couldn’t speak, and expressing suspicion of those in power, Murray spoke for himself, suspicious of everyone. The most courteous thing he would do is not remind you that he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s almost impossible for Murray to do sincerity. His worst scene as an actor? His plea for goodwill toward your fellow man at the end of Scrooged. He’s like a bully telling you to be kind to others or else.

Murray became a comic hero pretty quickly. He gave the genial summer-camp comedy Meatballs a groovy anarchic charge. Along with Rodney Dangerfield, he was the highlight of the surprise hit Caddyshack. But it wasn’t until the release of Stripes in the summer of 1981 that Murray became a star. A service comedy that was surprisingly reverential toward the military, Stripes was the kind of anti-Establishment comedy that appealed to audiences. It was safely subversive but not offensive.

Directed by Ivan Reitman and written by Len Blum and Dan Goldberg, along with Harold Ramis, Stripes had the kind of anti-authority attitude that even conservatives could get behind. Rather than trashing institutions like the military, the movie just made the individuals in power look comically foolish. This was a big change from the thinking of just a decade earlier. At that time, young people questioned the nature of long-standing institutions far more aggressively. (It’s interesting to note that Stripes was originally conceived as a vehicle for Cheech and Chong. They truly didn’t trust institutions.) Now, it seemed, a compromise was being reached as Stripes predicted the coming onslaught of pop militarism in American movies. Just six months before the release of Stripes, Goldie Hawn had scored a hit (and an Oscar nomination) with the post-feminist service comedy Private Benjamin. Now we had Stripes. Throughout the 1980s, a whole series of movies did a brilliant job of allowing us to forget the trauma of Vietnam. Uncommon Valor, An Officer and a Gentleman, Missing in Action, Firefox, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Heartbreak Ridge, Aliens, Iron Eagle, Top Gun, RedDawn, Platoon Leader, and Commando all suggested, in one way or another, that Vietnam was a winnable battle. A lot of these movies were outrageously entertaining. They were also cinematic recruitment posters. (Oliver Stone’s Platoon would single-handedly provide the antidote to Hollywood’s love affair with war.)

The opening of Stripes indicates it’s going to both play with and poke gentle fun at images of authority. The first image we see is a commercial for the Army playing on a television. Murray’s John Winger views the commercial with a mix of skepticism and (possible) curiosity. Murray’s trademark ironic detachment surfaces with his first line of dialogue. (“I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy.”) Winger is so blasé about life that when his girlfriend leaves him, he looks as if he is just going through the motions of being hurt. When Winger says, “Then, depression,” we laugh: If a Murray character is depressed, that would suggest he was once happy.

(Murray aficionados will no doubt know that Joel McHale’s character on Community is an homage to the stock Murray character. The difference being is that McHale’s Jeff Winger genuinely does care about his studymates.)

Luckily for the movie Murray’s coolness is tempered by Harold Ramis as his loyal best friend Russell. When Winger decides to join the Army because, frankly, he has nothing else to do, Russell accompanies him almost for the intellectual exercise of seeing where this will lead them. Or, in the parlance of Animal House, one stupid gesture deserves another. What gives the movie its zip is the comic spin given to standard basic-training scenes. There’s a less abrasive National Lampoon/MAD Magazine quality to some of the gags. There’s also a surprising sense of reverence toward the military, particularly in a shot at dusk where the platoon is going through an obstacle as they sing a recruitment song. Bill Butler’s crisp cinematography makes it clear this shot is not meant to be ironic. On the other end of the shot is the famous scene of the men marching and singing Manford Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” as a cadence. (It is said that after the release of Stripes this became a popular cadence.) What you get with that bit is the acknowledgement of rock & roll’s place in the military.

Sgt. Hulka gives the movie’s situational comedy some weight. It was a masterstroke to cast Warren Oates as Hulka. He represents authority, but not totalitarian authority. He has Winger’s number the moment he sees him. He understands the impulse to question people in power. (He does it himself.) But he also knows that some semblance of order is needed to sustain life. Murray’s best scene is when Sgt. Hulka calls him out on his bad attitude and the audience ultimately comes to side with Sgt. Hulka.

From that point on, Murray’s performance picks up. The scene where he takes the guys to a mud wrestling contest has a playful three-ring circus quality. (The sequence is helped tremendously by John Candy’s wonderfully light comic presence.) When Murray is called upon to deliver an inspirational speech (a staple of 80s movies), he makes it off-kilter enough that he almost sounds convincing. It’s a jingoistic speech with a little sting. (“We’ve been kicking ass for 200 years! We’re 10 and 1!”)

The movie climaxes, of course, with an action sequence, as Winger, Russell, and their MP girlfriends must enter enemy territory (Germany and Czechoslovakia!) to rescue their fellow soldiers. Like the parade finale of Animal House, this sequence is about destruction, but it ALSO works as an action set-piece. Stripes toys with AN anti-authority stance but ultimately adheres to tradition. And at the center is Murray, thumbing his nose at everyone and everything. In recent years. a generation of filmmakers have found interesting ways to utilize Murray's limited range of emotions. John McNaughton located Murray's capacity for menace in the brilliant Mad Dog and Glory, while Wes Anderson maximized Murray's deadpan detachment by turning him into a terrific supporting actor in Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums. (When Anderson forced Murray to play a front-and-center character who had to care about others in The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, the result was both compelling and uneven.) But in the beginning, with Stripes, Murray's what-me-worry cocky arrogance turned out to mirror both the audience's and American movies during the 1980s.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.

CANNES 2012: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

CANNES 2012: Wes Anderson’s MOONRISE KINGDOM

nullMoonrise Kingdom is a great success, both within the context of Wes Anderson's body of work and as a work unto itself. Initially, however, its Wes- Anderson-y-ness is almost off-putting. At the start of this very mature children’s romance about two pre-teens, the camera tracks through almost every room of a house; the separate but equal nature of each of the house’s various inhabitants is matched with a song from a child’s record, explaining how an orchestra's sections come together to perform a piece by British composer Benjamin Britten.

The aforementioned sequence is a table setting scene, establishing the film’s main conceit. Similarly, in successive scenes, Anderson’s mise en scene characteristically consists of various objects which stick out like sore thumbs, such as different types of fishing tackle hanging on a wall, or old mailboxes arranged on a shelf behind a telephone switchboard). These objects draw attention to themselves, but, in Anderson’s eyes, they function as parts of a whole. Thankfully, Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola (CQ) demonstrate how difference creates mass unity as the film goes along. No matter how discontent Anderson's latest film’s protagonists might feel, they are always in concert with the people who care for them.

Moonrise Kingdom is about the cascading repercussions of young love in the small community of New Penzance Island. Sam (Jared Gilman), a talented but “emotionally disturbed” member of the island's Khaki Scout troop, loves Suzy (Kara Hayward), a self-possessed but “troubled” singer, the only girl in her family’s brood of five children. Suzy’s emotionally estranged parents, Laura and Walt (Frances McDormand and Bill Murray) and Scoutmaster Ward (Ed Norton) are beside themselves when they learn that their respective charges have fled. But the search for Sam and Suzy eventually involves almost everyone on New Penzance, including a local Island policeman (Bruce Willis) and a mysterious narrator (Bob Balaban). Every character is an equally important member of Anderson’s wild bunch, even if not all of them are created equally (as in the case of one poor eye-patch-wearing Khaki scout).

That being said, Anderson and Coppola do fully explore the group dynamic aspect of Suzy and Sam’s relationship. Scenes like the one where Laura and Walt talk obliquely about their marriage woes nicely illustrate how it’s possible for Sam and Suzy to be alone together and also with their various friends and surrogate family members.

Anderson typically champions his protagonists’ eccentricities as the means by which they define themselves. But his characters are also often unified by the understanding that excluding each other is pointless, as everybody brings something to the group’s collective table. Even the crueler Khaki scouts learn this lesson in a hilarious scene built around a polemic from a pint-sized (former) bully.

The use of song cues, especially those from Britten’s Noye’s Fludde and Camille Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, subtlely establishes that characters defined by their difference and unhappiness are always an integral part of the film’s whole. In fact, the characters' quirks and unhappiness only further embellish Anderson’s comedy of power dynamics. 

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.