Bustin’ Makes Me Feel Good!
By Rebecca Cleman
From Metrograph Vol. 6, Winter 2017.
A reevaluation of the politics of the 1984 comedy classic Ghostbusters through the lens of its relation to underground movements in early TV news.
In the election year of the original Ghostbusters, both the Democrats and the Republicans appropriated the indelible “no ghosts” logo to mark the opposing candidate as something to be busted. The Republican “Fritzbusters,” a reference to Democrat Walter Mondale’s nickname Fritz, gained particular attention for their T-shirt campaign and choreographed routines. As for the politics of the film, the predominant interpretation today is that it harbors Reaganite views, featuring as it does the triumph of private enterprise over Big Government, exemplified by the subplot involving an uptight Environmental Protection Agency official whose meddling nearly brings about the apocalypse and, more importantly, the destruction of New York City, before it is saved by the plucky self-starters. So the release of Paul Feig‘s remake could not have happened at a more fitting moment, reintroducing Ghostbusters iconography in an election year that echoed the Reagan Era to a grotesque extreme. When the Empire State Building was lit up garish red to acknowledge Trump’s victory in the New York primaries, more than one observer recalled the slime eclipse scene in Ghostbusters 2.
But there is a very different model for the Ghostbusters themselves drawn from the past of several of the movie’s key players that hasn‘t been given proper consideration. In the 1970s, Harold Ramis, Bill Murray, and Dan Aykroyd participated in and were friendly with a counterculture movement that organized itself around equipment bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Ghostbusters’ Proton-Packs.
When the two-piece Portapak was first released on the consumer market in the late 1960s, it gave individual filmmakers access to video for the first time, a format with an unprecedented capacity for immediate playback that connected the camera operator more directly to broadcast, conceptually and tactically. Like the Proton-Pack, the Portapak had one trigger-operated unit, the camera, that used a focused beam of subatomic particles, and another unit, worn over the shoulder or on the back, which held storage canisters and a power- source. Someone armed with this gear, a novelty at the time, would have been a startling presence in public—they might as well have been suited up for ghost- busting.
In 1971, Ramis‘s college friend, Michael Shamberg, published ”Guerrilla Television,” a manifesto of sorts for the grassroots Porta-pak movement. Referencing the theories of Marshall McLuhan and Buckminster Fuller, Shamberg urged readers to be aware and take charge of the impact consumer technology has on society and human evolution. He focused on the Portapak as a device that could inspire a constructive relationship to television, transforming a monolith into a decentralized, process-oriented social tool.
When the two-piece Portapak was first released on the consumer market in the late 1960s, it gave individual filmmakers access to video for the first time, a format with an unprecedented capacity for immediate playback.
Building on the principles of his book, Shamberg and friends Megan Williams, Allen Rucker, and members of media collectives including Raindance, Ant Farm, and the Videofreex, formed Top Value Television, truncated to the more logo-friendly TVTV. Their story, vividly described by Deirdre Boyle in ”Subject to Change: Guerrilla Television Revisited” (1997), is that of an independent enterprise achieving through technology what bigger operations couldn’t. Boyle distinguishes TVTV from the first wave of alternative video collectives as having structured itself, albeit playfully, like a legitimate business—guerrilla television posing as commercial television production.
Their first projects, Four More Years and The World’s Largest TV Studio, covered the 1972 Republican and Democratic Conventions, respectively. The group had gotten proper press credentials and their cameras and van bore the TVTV logo, but they were clearly outsiders, treated with withering condescension by the network crews who balked at their long hair, casual attire and relatively rudimentary gear. But what TVTV lacked in professional-grade equipment they gained in independence. While their uptight network counterparts toed the corporate line, the TVTV crew taped whatever they wanted, recording scenes that would never make it on to mainstream television. Their mission was to capture the raw reality lurking like a gassy green apparition behind the veneer of commercially sanctioned media spectacle.
Central to TVTV’s approach was the use of irreverent and critical humor to disrupt/bust these spectacles intended to lull the public into a complacent stupor, a tactic against the “psychic straight-jacket of broadcast-TV,” as Shamberg put it. TVTV later crossed over into fiction in the vein of Second City TV and Saturday Night Live. Ramis worked with TVTV on a PBS series of satirical shorts about the history of television called Visions, directing and appearing in one episode featuring John Belushi and Gerrit Graham as two video guerrillas who take on the world’s largest TV network, a playful jab at Shamberg’s vision of “alternative television.”
The Ghosbusters are easily relatable to TVTV and the ethos of ”Guerrilla Television,” albeit from the burnt-out perspective of the 1980s. Like many of the early media collectives, the Ghostbusters live communally in a converted downtown space, cluttered with monitors, image processors, and closed-circuit feed systems (incidentally, the nonprofit Downtown Community Television bought a firehouse for its offices around this time). From the outset, they are presented as unruly instigators, wreaking havoc in institutions that expect a reserved decorum. Uptight men in suits—what the counterculture would have called “straights”—greet them in the New York Public Library, at Columbia University, or a tony Manhattan hotel, wringing their hands at the sight of their stained jumpsuits and hulking gear.
The priggish EPA agent, Walter Peck, is the ultimate version of the straight, reminiscent of the television network men who sniffed their noses at TVTV‘s rogue set up. He is a comical representation of the authority figure Shamberg warned of, who protects his power and control by maintaining “the estranging mythology of technology as something to be operated and therefore controlled by an elite.” His attempt to shut down the Ghostbusters is thwarted by a liberal mayor, who acknowledges their important civic role.
As New York City quakes under threatening skies and the apocalypse looms, the Ghostbusters arrive in a parade of sirens to vanquish the ultimate ‘80s elitist: an evil Mesopotamian deity dwelling in a penthouse off Central Park West. There they are cheered by a crowd representing the city’s eclectic citizenry, who have embraced the group as their folk heroes. Hot-dog vendors, businessmen and women, college students, nuns, and punks together chant the Ghostbusters‘ name and thrust their fists in the air as if at a political demonstration.
Up in the penthouse, the evil Gozer asks the Ghostbusters to choose the form of humanity‘s final destructor. Clued in as the parapsychologist Peter Venkeman (Bill Murray) is to the horrors of the subconscious, he warns them to clear their minds, lest the destructor take the form of whatever is lurking there. He’s too late. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) has already summoned a monster. Thundering through the streets, crushing innocent bystanders beneath tens of tons of sickly sweet artificial flavoring, comes a colossal brand icon, the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, a sinister symbol of gross American consumerism if ever there was one.
Is the satisfying vaporization of Mr. Stay Puft in a fury of psychedelic beams an illustration of how consumers can “manipulate the myth system” of commercial advertising with their Portapaks? Shamberg did not think that the demons of Media America—his term for the postwar media-saturated landscape the television generation was raised in—could ever be totally dissipated. ”Guerrilla Television,” certainly still relevant, is more a survivalists’ guide than a call to arms, inflected with the McLuhanistic view that individuals must remain alert to how the myth of progress can disenfranchise them.
Framed this way, Ghostbusters is not an outdated Reaganite fantasy at all, but a hero story more suited to our time than any of the Marvel Comics: the focus is on what ordinary people can accomplish when they adapt technology to their own ends, to record and prove what might otherwise be denied. As more and more strange somethings happen in our neighborhoods, we know who to call. •
Rebecca Cleman is the Distribution Director of Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), NY.