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.

Review: A Little Chaos

The movie A Little Chaos initially sets out to do the impossible: sex up a story about André Le Nôtre, the seventeenth-century garden designer responsible for the meticulously curated landscape of the Palace of Versailles.  It does this by imagining a scenario in which it was not Le Nôtre who designed a small, cleverly cascading Salle de bal at Versailles in the early 1680s, but a female landscape architect named Sabine de Barra, played intelligently by Kate Winslet.  The movie itself embraces the visual precision of the best British period dramas, with each detail of manner, setting, and costume carefully calibrated on a level to match the expansive historical setting.  The tone, however, is peculiar—it’s much more fanciful (the lush emotional whimsy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream kept coming to mind) than its designation as a period drama would suggest.

The plot of A Little Chaos attempts the kind of historical fiction that I find most intriguing—it inserts a plausible fictional character into a universe of famous historical figures whose philosophies and behaviors may be illuminated by presence of this new actor.  The creation of Sabine de Barra further serves another master by seeming to expose previously hidden narratives that embrace modern sensibilities.  A woman of middling social class, who, when pressed, answers honestly that she has “no blood” to speak of, skillfully executing projects in a male profession during an era where only the wealthiest women truly possessed a measure of freedom in their social dealings—what could go wrong?  How could she not attract the appreciation and, eventually, romantic love of the stoic master Le Nôtre?  The one true factual accuracy in the movie is that romance was in the air when Louis XIV held court at Versailles.

A confrontation between Sabine de Barra and Le Nôtre early in the film both exposes the trends in design philosophy that governed the creation of the gardens and presents a subtle realization of gender politics that I wish it didn’t.  When Le Nôtre inspects the plans that Sabine de Barra submitted as a job application, he asks her, “Are you a believer in order?”  She evades the question by answering, “Well, I admire it.”  Pressed further, she continues: “Order seems to demand we look back to Rome or to the Renaissance.  What I’m saying… surely there is something uniquely French as yet not celebrated by us which needs the rules of order to attain it.”  Le Nôtre interprets her statements as an insult to his life’s work and gruffly dismisses her from their meeting.  On the face of it, she does challenge Le Nôtre’s claim to fame, his celebrated ability to impose rigorous order on living landscapes prone to disorder.  Mme de Barra’s designs, in contrast, consistently incorporate a modicum of chaos—one planter out of place in a complex concentric layout, creative structures that allow living plants room to alter the landscape as they grow.  As Le Nôtre and Mme de Barra grow closer together, he ably tames her emotional troubles, which I shall not spoil here, in the same way he tames the wild foliage in his gardens.  She serves his slightly wild inspiration, and he is her stabilizing benefactor. 

The kernel of truth in the plot developments outlined above is that order was, indeed, Le Nôtre’s guiding principle.  I cannot speak for the history of gardening, except to note that English gardens, even those designed by men, prized the disorder preferred by Mme de Barra.  However, in the long history of landscape painting, assigning gender roles followed crisper lines.  The landscape painter—characterized as virile, focused, inherently male—tames the landscape—unruly, unprincipled, feminine—through fixing its image on canvas.  Doctrines suggesting that landscape painters adhere to celibacy and travel alone in the name of expanding their abilities to exert power over the wilderness held sway until far into the nineteenth century.   Le Nôtre lets the “little chaos” that Mme de Barra represents into his life as a man would agree to marriage—a philosophical union that will forward his greater goals.  Recognizing these fault lines of masculine/feminine and order/chaos in their discussions of gardens probably remains reserved for art historians familiar with landscape theory, but the film exposes these divisions further when Mme de Barra arrives at court in Fontainebleau and is spirited away by the wives and mistresses to a room where the women sit alone and talk.  As the other women question Mme de Barra about her past, they begin to commiserate about the losses they’ve experienced—and which the king forbids them from discussing at court.  Grief and sadness are clearly viewed as unruly emotions that should be confined to women’s spaces, while order reigns in court.  It’s more upsetting that A Little Chaos cloaks this dichotomous position in a narrative that seems, on the surface, to celebrate a woman’s skill and intelligence.

It’s not like A Little Chaos is a movie that revels in facts.  For example, re-envisioning Le Nôtre as a strapping, long-haired, dreamy-eyed man in his prime ignores the fact that he would have been sixty-nine years old in the year the narrative begins.  Though it’s not entirely impossible that enough stars could have aligned for a woman, through unorthodox means, to attain a position in Le Nôtre’s orbit, this movie seems to deliberately evade suggestions of prejudice regarding gender or social class that someone like Mme de Barra probably would have faced.  The courtiers treat her as a curiosity they can collect for her merits, and even that potential condescension is soft-edged here.  The only malicious intent comes in the form of Le Nôtre’s wife, who functions as almost a cartoon villain—confronting and sabotaging, but never surpassing the level of “women’s” squabbles.  The fact remains that, though Mme de Barra is pure fiction, there are movies like Martin Scorsese’s Hugo that operate similarly between fact and fiction and maintain the historical truths of the setting in furthering the story through newly created characters.  A Little Chaos needed to choose between adhering to facts or proposing a truly fantastical history anchored in a familiar universe, instead of presenting a harmfully gendered, yet ultimately toothless drama that disappoints in its lost potential.