Film Review: “Ghostbusters” (2016) and the Deconstruction of Masculinity

From the moment that it was announced, the reboot of Ghostbusters attracted all of the vile misogyny that has taken root in that nebulous, noxious space we call the internet. Everywhere you looked there were the usual suspects decrying the film because it dared to cast women in the lead roles, because heaven forbid we allow women the opportunity to headline an action comedy. It was, truly, one of the ugliest and most unpleasant internet spectacles I’ve seen.

Well, as I like to say, fuck the haters. Ghostbusters is a surprisingly clever, funny and, dare I say it, nice film, and that is something of a pleasant surprise. I won’t spend too much time rehashing the plot (since, let’s face it, we kind of know already), but let’s just say that it deftly interweaves the action and the comedy, with some genuinely funny and eye-popping moments.

While the plot slips a little too easily into the sort of blockbuster, CGI-fest that has become all too familiar in today’s Hollywood, the performances are what really help the film hold together. I actually think it was a good choice to have Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig tone down their usual over-the-top or excessive performances, as this allows both Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones some room to shine. There is definitely a great deal of chemistry among the four leads, and there is a lot of room for growth if the (hopeful) success of this film leads to further productions in the franchise. One can definitely see how they could build upon these relationships to make some truly great (or, well, great for this genre) films.

What really fascinated me about this new iteration of Ghostbusters, however, was its relationship to masculinity. The primary antagonist is a (unsurprisingly entitled) misfit named Rowan, who embodies all that’s wrong with that particular type of self-important, self-aggrandizing masculinity. What’s more, there’s a particularly potent image at the end involving a non-so-symbolic moment of castration (which I won’t reveal because of spoilers). The film invests a great deal of narrative energy in revealing to us not only how ridiculous masculinity can be, but also how easily it can be punctured and rendered (relatively) harmless.

And then, of course, there is the overt sexualization of Chris Hemsworth. Of course, this was bound to happen, as he has sort of made his career out of being a beefcake, but it also reveals the extent to which he seems to be consciously aware of his star text. As one of my students pointed out recently, it seems Hemsworth has reached a point where he has begun to poke fun at his own male body persona. It’s kind of refreshing in a way, though of course it does come with its own set of problems. But, I will say, there is nothing quite like seeing Chris Hemsworth dancing; who knew that he had such good moves?

Is Ghostbusters a perfect film? No. But it is enormously entertaining and genuinely (if not uproariously) funny. Don’t get me wrong:  there are many moments of genuine humour in this film. It’s just that they aren’t of the gut-busting sort, and for me that’s totally fine. What’s more, it’s a film that seems to have a good heart, and in that sense, it is a very sincere film, and there are, in the final analysis, worse things to see during the summer film season. It has a little bit of something for everyone, and it hits most of the notes quite well.

And, on the political end of things (because really, isn’t everything political in some form or other?), can I just say how great it is to see an entirely female-led film in the summer season? Even if I absolutely hated this film, I would still recommend that others go see it, if only so that studio brass would finally realize that women can actually lead a film. One would think that the success of Bridesmaids would have made that fact plain, but we all know that Hollywood is notoriously slow to adapt to change and include any form of diversity. So, if you care about such things, and if you want to see a pleasantly entertaining film in the bargain, then treat yourself to a night out to the movies and go to see Ghostbusters.

The Great Golden Girls Marathon: “Transplant”

In today’s entry, Blanche has to make the terrible choice about whether she should donate her kidney to her sister Virginia. Though it might seem like an easy choice for most people, the issue is complicated by the fact that Virginia and Blanche have long had an antagonistic relationship, exacerbated by the fact that Virginia ended up marrying the man that Blanche once loved.

It’s always amazed me how Blanche manages to be such a compelling and even likeable character, even though she is certainly one of the most self-centered characters to ever emerge in a sitcom. I mean, what kind of a woman has to think about whether she will donate her kidney in order to save her sister’s life? Yet before we condemn Blanche too vociferously, I think it’s worth dwelling on why Blanche would appear in such a way. I would make the case that she is an expression of our own collective desire to exhibit the kinds of behavior that she does. We all, whether we acknowledge it openly or not, secretly have a very selfish part to our personae, and Blanche allows us to vicariously indulge in precisely this sort of selfish behaviour from the safety of our living rooms.

Just as importantly, this storyline also showcases the ways in which the relationships between siblings (especially sisters) are often full of viciousness and snark, even as there may well be a kernel of genuine affection. Of course, the relationship between Virginia and Blanche will continue to be strained, and the breach will reopen when the latter returns home to mourn their father. Families are made up of messy individuals, and The Golden Girls is not afraid to show this fact in all of its ugliness.

What I find especially striking about this episode is the way in which Sophia acts as a sort of conscience. When Blanche expresses her uncertainty about whether she will in fact donate to Virginia, Sophia pithily remarks that she’s glad Blanche is not her sister, a stinging reminder of the selfishness of Blanche’s behavior, as well as a reminder of the different ways in which families work.

No review of this episode would be complete without praising Sheree North’s depiction of Virginia. She brings a certain measure of class, refinement, and even vulnerability to this role. Though many people probably would not recognize the name, North was quite an accomplished television actress and actually made appearances in a number of television series (including the great Gunsmoke). She certainly puts those abilities to good use in The Golden Girls.

Next up, the women face the greatest challenge yet to their friendship, in the person of a flirtatious suitor.

 

“Outlander” and the Gendered Branding of Starz

There has been quite a lot of buzz surrounding Starz new series Outlander, based on the bestselling series of historical/fantasy/science fiction/romance novels written by Diana Gabaldon (the question of genre is a vexed one where this series is concerned). Anne Helen Petersen of BuzzFeed and Willa Paskin of Slate have both pointed out that the series, unlike other high-end cable productions, actually seems to cater to a female spectator.  This is no small thing in the cable world, which is regularly saturated with fare that, while offering some pleasures to women, is very obviously created for and consumed by an assumed (straight, white, middle-class) audience.  At the same time, however, Starz’s executives and the series’ showrunner have also made it clear that they want to appeal to more than just the female components of the audience, with a concomitant desire to distance this novel from the romance appellation into the more esteemed (and less critically derided term) “great drama.”  Heaven forbid that we have a series that is a straight-up historical romance (one need only look at the critical reception of CW’s Reign or Showtime’s The Tudors to see what happens when a series does that).

And this desire to make a great drama, it seems, poses somewhat of a problem for Starz which, along with Showtime, has always occupied the enormous shadow thrown by the heavyweight HBO.  Few of its original series have lasted more than a season, two notable exceptions being Da Vinci’s Demons and Spartacus (both of which, it should be noted, focus heavily on male exploits and gazes).  For all that Spartacus was a ratings success for the network, it never quite managed to get out of the trap of being largely derided as low-brow, frothy entertainment, due in no small part to its pandering to the perceived lowest common denominator through a great deal of explicit sex and violence.  It would seem, then, that Outlander is Starz’s attempt to harness a presold commodity and, utilizing its own branding efforts, finally break free of its low-culture efforts into the genuine realm of quality TV.

These discussions, particularly the commentary from the executives at the network, also highlight the ways in which TV remains a highly-gendered medium, both in terms of the stories told, as well as in how they are marketed and understood by the executives who approve them.  Almost every major TV series that has gained the distinction of quality–Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Fargo–has focused on the alleged trials and tribulations of white men, and the networks on which they are found, AMC, HBO, FX, have also accrued a reputation for catering to male audiences.  With rare exceptions, it is only when series and networks cater to the fears and anxieties of an assumed male audience that they are able to break away from the low-culture stigma that continues to cling to the medium.  To dare to focus on female subjectivity, still less to make a woman the central character of the drama, threatens to alienate male audiences in a way that focusing on a male character does not, it seems, run the same risk of alienating female spectators.  As we continue into the alleged golden age of TV, it’s worth noting that, in that age, it is men who, at all levels, get to call the shots.

Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Starz, in its attempt to solidify its brand identity and create a competitor for Game of Thrones, has decided to cater to this male audience, especially by making such public statements about its desire to draw in those same viewers.  This is, of course, no surprise, considering the desperation with which Starz wants to reach the same level of cultural esteem of its competitors.  What better way to do that than to try to cater to both the built-in female audience for Gabaldon’s work and also the allegedly pickier male viewers that certainly won’t tune in to watch a woman’s story, no matter how compellingly or lushly told.  Now, if there were boobs and political intrigue involved (Game of Thrones style), then presumably they would.

What makes Starz an especially interesting case, however, is the way in which it also utilizes history as a means of granting to itself the gravitas necessary to elevate itself to the upper echelons of premium cable programming.  The representation of history itself has a vexed relationship to quality and to masculinity–one of the key ways in which historical films and TV series are denigrated by the critical public is by branding them melodramatic, a sinister and sly way of denigrating femininity–so it should come as no surprise that Starz has attempted to beef up the first few episodes of Outlander by focusing more on the politics and scheming, in addition to the aforementioned emphasis on female subjectivity.

It remains to be seen whether Starz’s experiment in genre-blending will succeed in its desired goals of gathering in a male audience and setting the brand apart from, or at least being able to meaningfully compete with, that already established by HBO.  Even if it fails to draw in the male audience, if it manages to woo the female (and, I might, add, gay male) audience demographic that makes up so much of Gabaldon’s fan base, that should still garner the series’ enough ratings to make the adventure worth it.  Given critical predilection for male-centered dramas (and general dismissal of romance, especially its historical strain), it remains somewhat less certain that it will manage to gather the same accolades (Emmys and whatnot) that have been showered upon its male-drama counterparts.  One need only look at the continually-snubbed The Good Wife to see what happens to series that dare to focus on women rather than men.  Hopefully, however, Outlander will be a game changer in more ways than one.  If we are lucky, we might finally get a top-notch premium cable drama that is not only quality, but also manages to remain tightly and insightfully focused on the historical subjectivities and experience of women.

“Maleficent”: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

I debated for quite some time over whether I wanted to post a review of Maleficent.  Having been thoroughly underwhelmed upon first viewing, I wasn’t sure that it would be worth my while.  However, after some greater thought, I have decided to corral my scattered thoughts about this very scattered film.  Let me state at the outset that I was very excited to see this film as I, like many others, have always thought Maleficent was Disney’s most brilliant and compelling villain.

The Good

As other critics have noted, there is a great deal in this film for both feminists and queers to enjoy.  From the film’s central message about the primacy of female bonding and the dangers posed by psychotic and unrestrained masculinity to the obvious queer appeal of Maleficent (as channeled through Jolie and her costumes) and the story’s emphasis on alternative families, there is much, thematically, to like about this film.  It forthrightly pushes up against all that we have come expect from Disney, and that’s definitely a good thing.

The Bad

However, there were some quite noticeable shortcomings that undercut my pleasure in the film.  If there was one thing that I found signaturely lacking in this film, it was a truly deep awareness of its animated predecessor Sleeping Beauty.  Lush in both its visuals and its sounds, this is a film that well-deserves its place as one of the most aesthetically mature and complex Disney animated creations.  Unfortunately, much of this beauty is either lost or left under-utilized by Maleficent.

Take, for example, Maleficent’s entry to Stefan’s castle.  In Sleeping Beauty, the entrance is as exciting as it is visually well-executed, and Maleficent (voiced by the inimitable Eleanor Audley) manages to alternate between languorous sarcasm and biting venom with aplomb.  All of this seems to have been lost on the writers and director of Maleficent who, while keeping some of the lines and the general gist of the events, subdues everything to the point of blandness.  All of the sound and fury of the original animated film is here reduced to something bordering on the banal.

The Ugly 

There are also some truly cringe-worthy moments in this film, as well as some definite missteps in terms of visual design.  Among the latter, perhaps the most egregious is the decision to have Maleficent possess wings.  While I can understand the aesthetics that this enables–her joyful flight through the Mores is visually spectacular–to me it felt strange and even somewhat ridiculous (especially the earlier scenes).

Perhaps worst of all were the three fairies whose names, I might add, were needlessly changed from their earlier iteration.  Flora, Fauna, and Merryweather, three of the most dynamic characters in Disney animation history, here become bumbling fools who barely manage to keep Aurora alive.  And they’re not even cute bumbling fools but are instead cardboard cutouts that, while intended as comic relief, end up being annoying distractions.

While I remain disappointed in many aspects of Maleficent, I am still glad that it was made.  When we take into account the recent phenomenal success of Frozen (which has some of the same themes), it would seem as if we may be witnessing a watershed moment for Disney and perhaps for Hollywood as a whole.  However, I have my fingers crossed that the studio’s live-action adaptation of Cinderella, featuring Cate Blanchett as Lady Tremaine, will do more justice to its villain-turned-hero than this film which, ultimately, does not live up to the reputation of its title character.