Women Ghostbusting in Historic Houses and Buildings

Everyone who knows me knows that Ghostbusters (the original) is my favorite movie.  Bill Murray ranks high in my personal pantheon and features in my quasi-professional Twitter bio.  I can freely quote Saturday Night Live sketches featuring Murray and Dan Aykroyd that are now deep cuts to all but the right age group or an SNL superfan.  So I may not be a white dude nerd bro, but I am certainly a part of the audience that could be ticked off by a female reboot.  That is the history I took in with me to see the new Ghostbusters today, a remake, not a reboot, of the movie that means more to me than any other.

And I loved it.  Partially because of how it handles history, in general.

Image from the   Ghostbusters  website .

Image from the Ghostbusters website.

The now iconic introductory sequence from the original movie features an older librarian discovering a ghost among the stacks at the also iconic main branch of the New York Public Library.  In the new version, they've subbed a Historic House Museum for that library - in other words, they've subbed the only thing that could be more meaningful to me at this point in time.  I laughed and laughed as the tour guide, a young comedian known for playing a certain type of uptight nerd, leads a group of visitors through this historic mansion.  The house, with its luxurious Gilded Age interior, is a stereotypical Historic House Museum in every way and desperately in need of the Anarchist's Guide to Historic House Museums, for sure.  The tour guide seems humorless and the guests only nod in awe when he remarks, as if they are in the know, that the house's luxuries include a "face bidet" and an "Irish-only security fence."  Even as I was laughing at these "luxuries," it occurred to me that the security fence joke serves as both a smart invocation of the intricacies of Gilded Age racism and a nod to the frequently problematic nature of celebrating histories of rich families without truly evaluating why they're worthy of preservation.  Because the owner of this (fictional) historic house had an insane daughter and there is a macabre component to the history, the tour guide has also rigged a candlestick to fall over on command and startle his guests.  This is yet another good-natured nod to the fact that some Historic House Museums distort or spice up their history in order to please their visitors.  I. Was. Dying.

The other way that the new Ghostbusters handles history involves Leslie Jones's character, Patty. In the original movie, the African-American Ghostbuster, Winston Zeddemore (played by Ernie Hudson), served as the street smarts of the group while the other three were white scientists with academic credentials.  Whenever there was a problem, Winston would provide the practical advice while Ray or Egon, the scientists, would have the complicated knowledge.  Being black seems to equate with having street smarts in a way that I did not quite realize was problematic until I became an adult with a pile of degrees, but this is also a worry that many people expressed when it became apparent that Leslie Jones would be playing a transit worker who becomes a Ghostbuster.  But here's the thing: her character, Patty, has an equal share of the knowledge-giving.  No, she can't speak to the science, but, as she says herself, she knows New York.  And she means its full history, which she knows because she "reads a lot of nonfiction."  When they finally pinpoint a historic building that will be crucial to the film's outcome, it's Patty who can say why it's important in the present day and why it was important a hundred years ago and a hundred years before that.  As New York Times critic Manohla Dargis wrote in her review, "If this were a radical reboot, [Leslie Jones] would have played a scientist."  But, in a mainstream Hollywood movie, Jones playing a smart, funny transit worker who engages in a substantial life of the mind and who is critical at every turn of the plot is certainly something.

With these crucial moments, and the similarly subtle nods to New York culture and history that made the originals so great, this Ghostbusters pays attention to history.  They wrap it into their investigations, and their personal histories define them as characters in substantial ways.  Even beyond this, the new Ghostbusters is a tremendously funny film and one that goes further than Bridesmaids and other recent films ever could in making sure it's clear that women can be funny without also adhering to the standards for funny men.  It smashes the Bechdel test.  And for me, It meant more than I can ever possibly say to see smart women play wonderful versions of the characters that I have always held so dearly.