Posts Tagged ‘film analysis’

In her first guest post, my fellow cinephile, amazing writer, former flatmate, and good friend Nannina Gilder eloquently analyzes A Wrinkle in Time.

We need to stop dismissing the experiences and tastes of teenage girls as shallow and superficial. Isn’t it the kiss of death to a “serious” band, or actor, or book to say that its fanbase is young and female? Unfortunately much of the art created for young women is made by people who have never been young women, and is often cynically trying to cash in on the demographic without ever truly looking to understand it. The knee-jerk reaction to dismiss and diminish anything that reads as feminine means that when an artist with a firm grasp of the experience creates a work grounded in it, its craft, structure, and innovations often get shrugged off as unworthy of analysis. Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time has been reluctantly hailed as a disappointment, a kid’s movie with little to appeal to adults, a good-hearted brightly colored Disneyfied muddle. But that is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what DuVernay has done. How unique it is in its whole-hearted immersion into the head of a 13 year-old girl, and how that is a worthy and fascinating place to spend two hours of your life.

A Wrinkle in Time, as Madeleine L’Engle conceived it, is firmly rooted in the feminine experience and imagination, and Ava DuVernay’s adaptation visually brings this concept to life. At its core, emotion drives the film rather than action, and many people have criticized it for being full of sudden unexplained jumps and changes, but this ignores the fact that an adventure of emotion has a different pace and structure than the classic hero’s journey we are used to. Think of the wild mood swings of a preteen, how confounding the world can seem. The way L’Engle structured A Wrinkle in Time was not just shoe-horning a girl into masculine archetypes; there is not just one type of hero’s journey. In fact there are countless predecessors to Meg Murry in the folklore traditions of the world. Traditionally the heroine’s journey, like Meg’s, begins with loss; a loss of family or love, and she sets out to reclaim that part of her, tested over and over on her way. Each time she thinks she finds success she is given a harder challenge, and when she reaches her goal, it is marked by a deep betrayal.

Ava DuVernay understands that the way a filmmaker approaches this story should be fundamentally different, and she sees power in the things that the world tells girls are frivolous. In a change from the book, Meg Murry’s guides on her journey, Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit, do not look like eccentric tramps, dressed in a weird assortment of mismatched clothes, but are gorgeously arrayed in dresses that look like something that might have been doodled on the margin of a 13 year-old’s notebook in her sparkling jellyroll pens. Each time they travel through time and space, or “tesser,” their wardrobe and make-up are gloriously changed, flying in the face of criticisms that in order to be taken seriously a woman needs to reject self-expression through fashion. Though Meg’s own wardrobe of a flannel shirt and jeans could easily be worn by her friend Calvin, she is never coded as masculine. Her love of science and propensity to get into fights are not viewed as being at odds with the fact that she’s a girl, but intrinsic parts of her. She is allowed to be neither a girly-girl nor a tomboy, inhabiting a middle ground of femininity that many will find refreshingly familiar.

Like the Mrs. Ws’ fashions, the worlds Meg, her brother Charles Wallace, and Calvin travel to are deeply rooted in the feminine imagination. The first planet they tesser to, Uriel, has the heightened Technicolor extravagance of an animated film. Even the distant hills have a disconcertingly flat quality. Its excess can be overwhelming, and isn’t always appealing, but it has the feeling of a young girl’s bedroom, with butterfly flowers that undulate, speaking the language of color. Even the not entirely convincing form of Mrs. Whatsit after she transforms into a flying cabbage leaf are images that I have seen, either in my own childhood imaginings, or in the doodles and drawings of my friends. This is the world of Meg Murry’s mind. As are the amber balance beams of the Happy Medium, revealing Meg’s insecurity in very literal ways, and the ever-morphing evil planet of Camazotz, which deceives and changes at every turn, cutting into each person’s most vulnerable places with the goal of making them conform. It is not an accident that some of the surreal images on Camazotz, such as the use of bouncing balls, echo earlier scenes from Meg’s real life in school.

Just because A Wrinkle in Time is rooted in the fantasy lives of young girls doesn’t mean that it is haphazard or uncontrolled. Ava DuVernay is an expert at centering her films on emotion and grounding their visuals in the feelings of her characters. From her first features, I Will Follow and Middle of Nowhere (dealing with grief and lives put on pause), DuVernay has deftly used close-ups and sound to both isolate and bring together her characters. In her masterpiece Selma she took an epic subject and, without removing its grandeur, grounded it in the intimate moments between the characters. This epic intimacy is turned up to eleven in A Wrinkle in Time. The way DuVernay frames her close-ups often gives room to reveal the distance or proximity of two characters in space. These shots emphasize relationships, emotion, and empathy and the inherent drama of these qualities, favoring them above action and physical conflict. This is a deliberate subversion of expectations for an adventure story, and says that the things women and girls are often belittled for can be their strengths. As Mrs. Whatsit says “Meg, trouble-problematic Meg. To you, I give the gift of your faults.”

Of course this doesn’t mean that the people and critics who don’t like A Wrinkle in Time are wrong, but what many of them aren’t getting is that it is an incredibly specific world, that wasn’t made for them. A Wrinkle in Time is a good movie, a beautifully crafted movie, an incredibly deliberate movie, and not everyone will like it. Not everything has to be universal (though trying to see the world through the eyes of others is a great exercise in empathy and the onus has been on girls to practice that far more than boys (and girls of color even more so)), but the fact that something isn’t universal doesn’t mean that critics get to dismiss specific works of art as small and inconsequential. Ava DuVernay has created something new, a sci-fi adventure in the mind and imagination of a girl, and in doing so has deliberately broken many rules in order to put new ones in place. I hope that it will find its niche that will allow it to be celebrated as the radical, feminine, beautiful, psychedelic cult classic it is.

-Nannina Gilder

Nannina is a screenwriter living in Western Massachusetts. You can get in touch with her via Twitter @NanninaGilder

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*Note: This is an analysis, not a review. There are spoilers for both Psycho and Phantom Thread. As I’ve only seen Phantom Thread once, this analysis may change over time. 

In a pivotal scene in Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson utilizes a visual reference to Hitchcock’s Psycho, drawing out the film’s Hitchcockian aspirations and establishing a parallel relationship between Alma/Woodcock and Marion/Norman. Alma has gone out to demonstrate her dress before Woodcock’s patrons, and Woodcock rushes to a peephole in one of the doors to watch her perform. The image of Woodcock’s eye lit by the peephole references a shot in Psycho, where Norman Bates watches Marion Crane undress through a secret peephole in the Bates Motel office. Woodcock’s visual association with Bates is not just a comment on him as psychopathic lover, but also an attempt to draw parallels between Woodcock’s act of voyeurism and Norman’s.

Norman’s act of voyeurism is presented as pathetic, a moment of perversion for a lonely young man. At the juncture in the narrative, the audience is unaware of Norman’s psychopathy and his behavior, while unnerving, is simply an act of voyeurism. What will happen to Marion is as yet unknown. As the camera takes Norman’s perspective, drawing close to the image of him at the peephole, the audience comes into visual sympathy with him – we see what he sees. The shot cuts to the image of Marion removing her clothes from Norman’s perspective, the frame edged with black as the camera mimics the view through the peephole. The reverse shot cut brings us into close-up with Norman’s eye, and then again cuts back to Marion as she moves toward the bathroom.

The act of voyeurism is not merely an act that Norman performs, but an act that the camera – and, by extension, the audience – performs with him. Pushed into sympathy with Norman whether we want to be or not, the audience is implicated in his act of voyeurism and all that it entails, up to and including the eventual murder. But Norman’s behavior is also tentative; his voyeurism slightly embarrassed, as though the act of looking is compulsive rather than wholly deliberate. What is more, he steps away from the peephole before Marion fully undresses—it is thwarted desire, perverted though it is, that compels him, and he doesn’t want to see it through to conclusion.

To look and be looked at returns again and again in Psycho, especially during the pivotal lead-up to the shower sequence, and the scene itself. When the camera gives us our first real glimpse of Mother, backlit by the sheer white of the bathroom, the shot is from Marion’s perspective. The peephole shot of Norman’s eyes recurs in its mirror image of Marion’s dead eye, the camera spiralling from it following her murder. Just as the audience has looked at Marion from Norman’s perspective, so do we see Mother from Marion’s, and finally ourselves, her eye looking back at us. The dynamic of looking and being looked at, and the violence and violation that is a part of the look, returns throughout the film, implicating the audience as well as the characters in its varieties of voyeurism and violation. (This scene, by the way, becomes even more complicated once we understand that Norman is Mother and that is it Norman’s initial act of voyeurism that eventually awakens “Mother’s” homicidal tendencies.)

Phantom Thread utilizes this dynamic as well, but the peephole shot here is one of the more blatant uses of another film’s imagery to draw the act of voyeurism into focus. Where Norman moves tentatively to observe Marion, Woodcock’s observation of Alma is breathless – he practically flings himself at the peephole, even though he’s standing in a room full of other models and seamstresses. Alma, meanwhile, is fully aware that Woodcock is looking at her. Unlike Marion, who is a passive and basically innocent victim (her greatest crime, vis a vis Norman, is trying to be sympathetic to him), Alma is a performer in her own objectification. However, the film does not therefore give her greater autonomy than Marion. She is performing as a model, and is therefore only present to be a passive object of the look. That Woodcock extends this objectification to his own form of rather sexless titillation further complicates the referentiality in using the peephole shot – he is looking, and the object of his gaze knows he is looking, and thus performs for him. But she also has no choice but to perform – she is a victim as well, because her professional role of a model enforces on her a passivity removes any choice that she might have. He will look and she will be looked at, no matter what. The way that Woodcock looks at her is not particularly a mark of his perversion, because that is literally her role.

The other marked difference in the shot as used in Phantom Thread is the lack of audience perspective/sympathy in conjunction with Woodcock’s voyeurism. Where Psycho forces the audience into visual complicity with Norman, including all that comes after, the audience is not forced to be complicit with Woodcock. He flings himself against the door, but the next image we see is not associated with Woodcock’s gaze. We briefly observe Alma returning his look as she glances at the door, knowing he’s watching her, but the camera itself does not take Woodcock’s perspective. The lack of POV distances the audience from the character, but also does not force us to interrogate our place in Woodcock’s voyeurism. His obsession, such as it is, is more an aesthetic one. While Norman’s vision is both intentionally titillating and intentionally disturbing, complicating the audience’s ethical standing in terms of the characters and in terms of the eventual murder and its solution, the scene in Phantom Thread makes no such demand of its viewers. Rather, Woodcock’s obsession forms a sort of aesthetic romance that the camera reinforces by declining to truly represent it as voyeurism. Where Hitchcock attempts to draw his audience into uncomfortable proximity with his obsessive character, Anderson allows the audience to remain distant and thus not particularly culpable. Looking and being looked at is a matter of aesthetic appreciation, not of perversion.

Yet Anderson chooses such a clear and deliberate reference to Psycho, in the midst of a film that is very much about looking and being looked at. This referentiality, while somewhat incoherent, is a mark of Anderson’s attempts to draw the viewer into the film vis a vis Hitchcock, to imply that we are, at least partially, to understand Woodcock’s relationship with Alma as having a corollary in Norman’s voyeurism. This is not particularly carried through to the rest of the narrative, however, and the Psycho reference gets lost in a pattern of referentiality and aesthetic fetishization. Phantom Thread’s treatment of voyeurism in general, and the presentation of the peephole shot specifically, avoids making the audience culpable in the interplay of dominance and submission, violation and control, that makes up so much of Phantom Thread’s narrative. We are asked to understand voyeurism from afar, to appreciate it aesthetically, and, much like Alma, to never really question our participation in it.


*Note: this is an analysis, not a review. I spoil everything.

One of the earliest arguments to originate from the Mediterranean basin is the male/female dialectic of the woman providing the flesh and blood of humanity, the man the soul. Espoused by Greek philosophers, eventually translated into Jewish and then Christian doctrine, this element of the woman as the conveying vessel for humanity – evident even in the concept of the Virgin Birth – has had the effect of reducing women to the corporeal, of making the importance of women existent only in their ability to bear children. A barren woman is a hollow husk, devoid of her most basic function, while a fertile woman is reduced only to the function. This simultaneous valorization and dehumanization of motherhood has informed Western thought and art for centuries, so it’s hardly surprising that a contemporary film should enthusiastically reflect the same dialectic.

Blade Runner 2049 makes use of this dialectic in rendering women the conveying vessels of the humanity of replicants. But female bodies are more than just baby-machines – in Blade Runner 2049, they are also the repositories of male desire, sexual, religious, cultural, and social. The film indulges in the fragmentation and destruction of female bodies without bothering – or apparently desiring – to restore them. Women are robots, holograms, and advertisements; the only human female, Madam, is deliberately de-sexualized, her humanity reliant on her lack of (visual) femininity that also makes her easy to eliminate. In the commodification of the female form and image, there is hope for subversion, a questioning of the patriarchal superstructure that forces women into the “hollow vessel” role. Perhaps the film is setting up a vision of a world in which that commodification becomes the source of rebellion?

Perhaps not. The women of Blade Runner 2049 continue to be (at times literally) pulled apart, their bodies the repository of male desire with no hint of human autonomy – or soul. This is not merely a result of the actions of the male characters, but of the camera eye itself, which consumes women and fragments them, emphasizing their physicality and discardability. When the new designer of replicants Wallace witnesses the “birth” of a new replicant, he bends to caress her, the camera tracking his movements as he strokes the naked body of the young woman. The woman stands, shivering, and the camera eye itself focalizes through Wallace, sweeping up her body, dwelling on the curves of her ass, her stomach, and her breasts. Finally, Wallace stabs her and blood pours down her thighs – a visual reference to both menstruation and miscarriage, created by the male villain. But because the camera has taken Wallace’s perspective, and participated in the sexualization of the newly born replicant, any deliberate subversion is undercut by its evident participation in the replicant’s violation. The violation of the female body is made to seem horrific, but it is still the violation of a symbol, a symbolic rape and dissection that renders the existence of female humanity itself moot. Wallace caresses and then punishes the female body, and the camera participates in that punishment.

Wallace is the villain, and so his efforts at dehumanizing his creations might very well be indicative of his villainy. The same cannot be said for the film’s protagonist K, a replicant police officer in the mold of the original film’s hero Deckard. K might be a replicant existing within the system, and so absorbs all the system’s beliefs. But the film never provides him the opportunity to break free of those beliefs, instead attempting to provide him with a “love interest” in the form of a hologram program named Joi. At no point does he truly break free of that system or question the role of women – or female figures – within it. Joi is something that he has purchased and that he wishes to make “more human.” She eventually inhabits the physical body of a prostitute Mariette – herself a replicant – to provide the physical connection that K desires. But the film never makes it clear if Joi herself needs or wants that physical connection, because her programming means that she only acts on K’s desires. Joi is missing a part of herself – she is only an image, a thing that K can modify (literally upgrade) according to his needs, whims, and desires. Her personhood does not exist because it cannot; she can only ever be “half” a human being, the other half – the all-important physical body – provided by a woman who sells herself.

The frank attempt at eroticizing this scene, at stating that this is something that Joi wants, falls flat in the images we have of K modifying and altering Joi as he sees fit, in order to provide for himself that emotional and, eventually, physical catharsis. Joi cannot give consent any more than the prostitute can, because she has no external will – it is only K’s will, and Joi can only, at best, act as a symbolic repository for his desire. Her value is physical – any emotional or psychological connection the two share is treated as secondary. Her “gift” to him is to try to inhabit the physical body of Mariette, and it is a gift that he accepts, largely as his due. The film figures Joi as not being enough for K until she becomes physical – another devaluation of female existence down to the simple fact of the physical body.

Again, this division of the image and the corporeal might have provided sexual and gender dynamic commentary, but Joi once again is forced to occupy a symbolic space. Her union with Mariette is about providing K with a connection to his humanness, the sex act establishing him as more human than robot. While some emphasis is given to their emotional connection, the relationship between K and Joi is not really codified until Joi becomes momentarily corporeal. Her existence as a female image with artificial intelligence is not enough – there must be a female body for K to sleep with. Afterwards, Joi discards the body, telling Mariette “I’m done with you.” Joi herself can only find value in her existence when it becomes physical – and K is more than willing to accept the “gift” of a prostitute in order to achieve physical catharsis. Joi’s greatest act of personal autonomy is in the purchasing of a female body for her “husband.” When she is finally destroyed, Joi tells K that she loves him – but the film never spends any time investigating Joi’s potential humanity, and her “death” is primarily figured as a symbolic loss for K.

Both Joi and Mariette are things that K has purchased to fulfill his desires, but it is Mariette who is able to gain some agency outside of the human/replicant, male/female dialectic. But even her apparent autonomy is short-lived. She is given a voice as a prostitute, mocking K for his “love” of Joi and Joi for her holographic emptiness, but once Mariette joins the replicant rebellion, she becomes faceless, another female body among many female bodies, acting as a single entity. She is used as a medium of exchange, her body providing a connection between K and the rebellion, to draw him in and introduce him to Freysa, who provides further plot exposition about K’s assignment in the rebellion. Freysa, in her turn, is merely a conduit for information to K and to the viewer. The total trifecta of the “good” female replicants/AIs are as conduits, vessels, and sources of information for the male protagonist.

Blade Runner shares a few affinities with the contemporary Bond franchise, among them the use of a female henchman for the villain. Tortured and likely abused by Wallace, Luv exists to reinforce the patriarchal structure as Wallace’s slave who becomes as evil as the man who abuses her. As K drowns her, the camera brings us up close to her suffering, indulging in her contorted face until she finally dies. This might be moving, even pathetic, were the film interested in summoning up more than a cursory interest in her psyche. Rather, it becomes simply the destruction of a villain by the comparative hero, another instance in which the female body and face is made to undergo cleansing pain in order for the men to, finally, go free. Luv hints at a deeper characterization, but the film never follows through on it, instead turning her into an abused woman who gleefully abuses others, a relatively banal character type whose violation is turned inward, transforming her into a monster. Wallace himself is never particularly punished for his treatment of his replicants, including Luv. K’s anger is enacted against the female body; it is female suffering that gives meaning, and catharsis, to the male.

The other female character who could have potentially complicated Blade Runner’s view of women is Madam, K’s human superior. There are undertones of S&M dominance in Madam, down to her name and the deliberate representation of her physicality as largely androgynous. Her costuming and behavior renders her largely sexless – as the only female character possessed of autonomy, she must also not be seen as feminine. Madam is not an object of desire and therefore is human, but she is also disposable – she sacrifices her life for K’s, eliminated by Luv in yet another exhibition of female suffering, this time in defense of the male protagonist. While Madam has a character name, Lieutenant Joshi, she is rarely referred to as such, her being reduced to a title that recalls a dominatrix, a woman operating for male pleasure.

The crux of Blade Runner 2049 does indeed offer up women as the salvation of the replicants, the proof of their humanity. But again, it is only the physical female body that is important here; female replicants remain soulless. Rachael’s only presence is as literal bones, a total fragmentation of her body and her image. The imprint of birth on her body – a mark from a C-section on her pelvis – confirms her ability to bear children and thus her humanity. The question of her having a soul is fairly moot – she is merely a vessel to convey salvation into the world, a symbol of replicant humanness. Moreover, the question of Deckard’s humanity further complicates an understanding of the child that has been produced. If Deckard is human – and I think there’s a good argument for that – then what has been proven is that a replicant woman can carry a human child; but even more than that, it allows Deckard to provide the humanity, the soul, to the replicant body. The film’s unwillingness to answer the question of Deckard being a replicant – at least with any degree of clarity – muddies the waters of cinematic meaning. If Deckard as a human can produce a child with a replicant woman, then all that says is that female replicants are capable of child-bearing. If Deckard as a replicant can produce a replicant child, then there is greater flexibility for understanding that relationship.

The importance of female physicality is once again emphasized as Deckard refuses Wallace’s offer of a “new Rachael,” because her eyes are the wrong color. With a single word, a supposedly human figure is destroyed because the physical body does not match male desire. While the film uses this as a source of horror, it does not follow through on it – once again the female body is merely the site of male need, important only to evoke a sense of horror in the viewer. The destruction of the feminine, the horror of watching a female body rendered, is meant to evoke a quick emotion, to impress upon the viewer the evilness of Wallace and, perhaps, the coldness of Deckard. But those bodies are still dehumanized; once again, the female body is a symbol of exchange and bargaining, not a living, autonomous thing. Rachel is executed and the film moves on, confident that it has made its point.

The child, likewise, is merely symbolic – she cannot ever move outside of the world that she creates for others, and her major connection to the story is in providing her own memories to the male hero – completely removing a part of herself and injecting it into his psyche, because she cannot act on her own memories or desires. Both Rachael and her daughter are symbols of humanity without having humanity themselves; they are devoid of autonomy neither are fighters, soldiers, or rebels, and their eventual role in whatever replicant uprising that is about to take place will, again, only be as symbols. Rachael, because she is dead, and her daughter, because she can never move from outside her confines.

While Deckard’s daughter does indeed inject elements of humanity into the replicants, she can only ever act as a symbol for their humanity, because she has no autonomy outside of that. The ending of the film “gives” her to Deckard, as K tells him to “go see your daughter” – she is his possession, a thing that he has created (though he never participated in her life), and that is there to prove the humanity of the replicants, to act as their symbol for the coming age. She is merely a cog in the male narrative, seen through male eyes, and given importance via male desire.

To subvert patriarchy, a film has to do more than simply represent it. And patriarchy, in Blade Runner, is neither positive nor negative – it simply is. Wallace might be the villain, but it is the camera that fragments and assaults the female body. Female value is formed only through women’s ability to act as symbols for a male-driven narrative. It is the male that is most fully human, the woman a simple vessel for his needs and desires, a physical proof of the human/robot dialectic. To make child-bearing the sole mark of humanity – the indication of the soul – means to reduce female existence to the ability to have children. Female autonomy, emotions, desires, needs, are nothing in comparison to being a symbol for the progress of humanity/replicancy. The female body is merely a vessel to convey information, a thing in which the male can implant information. The backwards nature of such a foundational plot element renders Blade Runner 2049 into something viciously, insidiously anti-woman, an argument that turns female bodies into corporeal vessels, repositories, things to be controlled, mutilated, or venerated, but never to be understood as autonomous beings. The men provide the soul, the women provide the body…and nothing more.

Part II

gatekeeper

Femininity and sexuality figure into the film in a similar complicated manner.  Dana (Sigourney Weaver) essentially plays the ‘straight man’ to the three Ghostbusters, particularly Peter.  Again taking the Marx Brothers comparison, she is Margaret Dumont or Thelma Todd.  Peter pursues her, erotically, flirtatiously and even in a somewhat predatory manner.  He maintains control of sexuality and the male/female binary until the evil spirit Zuul possesses her.  Her possession transforms her first into a libidinous and sexual character, then into a demon dog.  When Peter arrives at her apartment, he is confronted with not the somewhat reticent woman who has resisted his slightly sarcastic and lascivious advances, but a full-blown sexual creature, complete with make-up and wind-blown hair.  His reaction is discomfort, if not downright terror.  Still, the relationship is not as simplistic as it first appears.  What disturbs Peter is not only Dana’s suddenly intense sexuality; it is also that her sexuality is uncharacteristic of her.  It does not necessarily represent a danger to him, but a danger to her.

Dana: I want you inside me.

Peter: OK.  No, I can’t.  It sounds like you’ve got at least two people in there already.  Might be a little crowded.  C’mon, why don’t you just quit trying to upset and disturb Dr. Venkman and just relax?

Unwilling to take advantage of the situation and actually sleep with her, he rejects her advances and asks to ‘speak to Dana.’  Peter, who makes sexual advances to almost any female throughout the film, is at a loss and disturbed when met with a manifestation of feminine libido.  Simultaneously, however, he acts in the kindest, most moral way possible.  He declines to take advantage of her, recognizing that the woman clinging to him is not Dana at all, but a spirit inhabiting her body.  He finds recourse to jokes, as he does throughout the film, but the scene takes on a new level of discomfort and nervous energy.  Far from the playful tone of sexual innuendo that has been exchanged between them from the beginning, Dana now makes almost violent sexual advances towards him.  Peter, for all his talk, is not a sexual predator.  His reaction is to try to get help and locate the ‘real’ Dana within the false one.  Their relationship will return to a masculine/feminine dialectic in the end, but I would argue that in this case Peter succeeds in recognizing the ‘real’ Peter that would not take advantage of a possessed woman.  His sexuality, despite his lasciviousness, does not extend to actually engaging in illicit or dangerous sexual acts.  He can only make jokes.

Sexuality continues to be a central concern of the film.  The Ghostbusters are associated with a strictly masculine paradigm, represented in the plethora of phallic symbols and innuendo.  The guns they use to capture ghosts, the ever-present PKE meter that Egon likes playing with, and lightly comic jokes about Twinkies and ‘crossing the streams’ punctuate moments of sexual humor throughout the film.  At the same time, Ray and Egon are fairly clueless about women—Ray has one sexual fantasy about a ghost, and Egon cannot seem to recognize it when their secretary Janine (Annie Potts) flirts with him.  Peter, as the only Ghostbuster who has any real heterosexual relationship, nonetheless becomes terrified at the first sight of a truly sexualized woman.  In all of this, however, the film manifests an awareness of the tropes it plays with.

gozer1

The apocalyptic narrative of the film comes into play through the realm of sexuality.  Gozer, the one who will bring about the apocalypse, can only be summoned through the sexual union of the Gatekeeper and the Keymaster.  The Gatekeeper in this case is a woman, the Keymaster a male, calling attention to the sexual puns inherent in those titles.  The Keymaster controls the phallic; the Gatekeeper controls the feminine.  This references the familiar euphemism for female genitalia as a ‘gate’ that needs a phallic male ‘key’ to unlock it.  Films such as The Devil’s Advocate (Warner Bros., 1997) and Rosemary’s Baby (Paramount, 1968) found their apocalyptic ideology within the necessary joining of masculine and feminine, resulting in the end of the world or the coming of the Anti-Christ.  Ghostbusters subverts these recognizable tropes of the apocalyptic by making them comic.  Even before the appearance of Mr. Stay-Puft, the apocalypse is something to laugh at.  The coming together of the hypersexual Dana as Zuul and Louis Tully (Rick Moranis), the nebbish accountant, as Vinz the Keymaster is a humorous image.  Dana stands head and shoulders above Louis; she literally sweeps him off his feet.  Their embrace is extremely stylized; as they kiss the wind blows, the music swells and the camera swirls around them.  The shot has a self-conscious camp aesthetic, although it avoids total parody.  What in other films is a terrifying, erotic moment becomes a piece of comedy.

Although Winston and Ray engage in the most serious elucidation of the coming apocalypse in their brief scene, the full explanation for what has happened in Dana’s apartment is given by the most intensely intellectual figure in the film:

Egon: It’s not the girl, Peter, it’s the building…The architect’s name was Evo Shandor; I found it in Tobin’s Spirit Guide…After the first World War, Shandor decided that society was too sick to survive.  And he wasn’t alone; he had close to a thousand followers when he died.  They conducted rituals up on the roof.  Bizarre rituals, intended to bring about the end of the world, and now it looks like it may actually happen!

Peter (singing): So be good, for goodness sake! Somebody’s coming…

The scene occurs in a holding cell after the Ghostbusters have been arrested.  Surrounded by prisoners, Egon gives a speech about the sickness of society and the ritualistic desire to bring about the end of the world.  Despite the seriousness of his speech, he keeps a steady smile on his face as he speaks.  The smile, the apparent enjoyment he has out of explaining the coming apocalypse, elucidates the strange festivity, the comedy of death.  The world is going to end; Egon smiles and Peter sings.  When they appear in the Mayor’s office, they again perform a comic apocalypse:

Ray: Real wrath of God type of stuff.  Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies.  Rivers and seas boiling!

Egon: Forty years of darkness, earthquakes, volcanoes!

Winston: The dead rising from the grave!

Peter: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together, mass hysteria!

Coupled with the Biblical imagery are the comical aspects of ‘dogs and cats living together.’  While the apocalypse does not seem a completely banal occurrence in this scenario, the comedy of the situation, the gallows humor of laughing at the end of the world, permeates the entire scene.  The subversion of the usual somber tone of apocalyptic films and imagery transforms the apocalypse itself into a farce, something not to be taken seriously.

ghostbusters

The final sequence of the marshmallow apocalypse brings together the manifestations of the repressed, libidinal impulses, and the dialogues of phallicism and gender into a final festival moment of comic destruction.  Supported finally by the establishment (including the Army, the Police, the Fire Department and the Mayor’s office), the four working class figures arrive to stop the end of the world.  The crowd that stands to greet them and cheer them on is a multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-classed crowd, come together in festival to watch the Ghostbusters save the world.  Gozer manifests itself initially as a woman, played by supermodel Slavitza Jovan, a deliberately sexualized figure who threatens to destroy the Ghostbusters.  Recovering from her initial attack, the Ghostbusters return to (comical) phallic symbolism:

Peter: Got your stick?

All: Holding!

Peter: Heat ‘em up!

All: Smoking!

Peter: Make ‘em hard!

All: Ready!

The deliberate phallicism of the dialogue again relates the ‘wands’ of the Ghostbusters proton packs to not terribly subtle phallic imagery.  They attack Gozer, but fail to conquer her.  Instead, she demands that they name the ‘form of the Destructor,’ making the choice about what it is that will destroy them.  Here the sexualized figure, un-subdued by phallic masculinity, turns to a chosen apocalyptic image; only the chosen image is a marshmallow man.

Mr. Stay-Puft is the final and most potent manifestation of the repressed libidinal psyche, actually coming from the mind of one of the Ghostbusters.  Ray justifies his choice by saying that he tried to think of something that ‘could never destroy us.’  The apocalypse, then, is going to be wrought not by a sexualized supermodel, or a prehistoric demon dog, but a walking wad of puffed sugar.  The apocalypse thus manifests itself as an empty figure of fun, a sugary concoction that stomps around midtown Manhattan.  The ironic nature of the apocalypse becomes humorous and painful:

‘Sometimes it’s hysterical irony and sometimes it’s a painful irony.  Life has all of these contradictory feelings and contradictory results…We’re always shut off from pure joy’ (Ramis, as qtd. in Spitznagel 4).

The festivity of the apocalyptic scenario in Ghostbusters acts as a manifestation of painful irony: the world is about to end, but how ironic that it will end in a rain of marshmallow.  Mr. Stay-Puft is also a corporate logo, a symbol of consumerism, and therefore a post-modern construction within the cinematic milieu.  Ray does not think of just any harmless character, but a harmless corporate character.  The film proposes destruction based around a literally rampaging consumer product.

The Ghostbusters defeat Mr. Stay-Puft by doing what has already been stated as dangerous—they cross the streams from their proton packs, apparently reversing the polarity of Gozer’s door and destroying Mr. Stay-Puft.  If we carry through the phallic symbolism already related, the Ghostbusters comically and sexually unite, establishing a homoerotic masculine paradigm that ends with the destruction of first the sexualized Gozer (who is nonetheless also asexual—she need not be male or female), and the freeing of Louis and Dana back into ‘normal’ sexuality.  Mr. Stay-Puft erupts in a rain of marshmallow, covering everyone below.  There is no denying the apparently orgasmic and masturbatory imagery this scene involves, as the four Ghostbusters combine their phallic instruments, resulting in an explosion of white foam that covers them all from head to foot.  Emerging from death, the Ghostbusters establish a new, highly masculine paradigm that nonetheless allows for comic rebirth.  The city and the world are saved through an orgasmic explosion of male sexuality.

This is the ultimate transformative moment of comedy, as the bringer of death appears in a comic form, and death itself explodes in an abject bodily function.  The ending of the world is satirized through Mr. Stay-Puft.  The film satirizes the union of sex, death and destruction through the establishment of a figurative male union and a New York covered in sugar/semen.  Although the images and thematics of Ghostbusters are exceptionally serious, taking on the end of the world, the problems of normative sexual relationships and the eruption of the chaos world in the form of enjoyable but damaging libidinal excess, the comedy of the film subverts the tropes from within, by acknowledging their terror, but also their humor.  In the end, Mr. Stay-Puft explodes and the Ghostbusters save the day, destructors themselves from within the system.  The marshmallow apocalypse is averted, but we are all still covered in sugar.

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