Friday, September 07, 2012

Rulebook Casefile: Reversible Behavior and Polarized Ensemble in Ghostbusters

So as you might have noticed, I didn’t post yesterday. I’m only committing myself to Monday-Wednesday-Friday posts now that I’ve returned, but on the other days, I might have a full entry, or nothing, or something inbetween, such as more Casefile pieces.  I’d meant to have one of these run yesterday, but here they both are today, completing what has now become Ghostbusters Week.

Reversible Behavior
Another interesting thing I noticed when re-watching Ghostbusters was how muted and subtle the character arc was.  Our hero, Bill Murray, never has a midpoint disaster or a spiritual crisis. He never seems to doubt himself or get humbled.  He seems like the same cocky rogue all the way through…or is he?

He does in fact change quite a bit, and it’s set up very nicely through reversible behavior.  In the very first scene, Murray’s paranormal researcher is sabotaging his own ESP experiment just so that he can hit on the test subject.  He doesn’t truly believe in or care about the supernatural, he’s just using it to get dates.  
This scene is neatly reversed two thirds of the way in, when the new object of Murray’s affections, who has so far resisted his advances, throws herself at him.  He’s very tempted, but instead he forces himself to admit that she’s possessed, and he now values solving her problem more than scoring with her.  It’s not played like a big moment, nor should it be.  By subtly contrasting this scene with the first, the movie allows us to notice the difference for ourselves, whether consciously or subconsciously. 

Polarized Ensemble

Watching the movie with my recent criteria in mind, it became readily apparent that the founding Ghostbusters fit very nicely into the trichotomy of head, heart and gut (Ramis on the commentary says that his character was described in the script as a “new-age Spock” so he decided that he would never fully smile.) 

But what about when Ernie Hudson joins the team?  Ramis admits that they didn’t quite know what to do with him, which only makes sense, since the original trio already represented the three-part self, but I think they actually came up with a neat solution to the problem: Hudson comes to represent a fourth element hovering above the other three: Faith. 

Incidentally, this got me thinking about other four-way-polarized groups.  Where do they fit that fourth person in?  One interesting example is “The Fantastic Four”.  It’s pretty clear that Reed Richards, Sue Storm, and the Thing represent a classic head-heart-gut trio, but where does that leave Johnny Storm, aka the Human Torch?  He certainly doesn’t represent faith! 
 I realized that the FF has sub-divided the “gut” category.  A character like Murray’s in Ghostbusters runs the full gamut of “gut” traits (cowardly, crude, horny, self-serving, etc.) but the FF has two “gut” characters.  The Thing loves eating, smoking and playing pranks, but he’s literally neutered, so Johnny gets to be the cocky fast-cars-and-faster-women playboy. 


Jeff Moskowitz said...

Great to have you back!

Beth said...

Very insightful! I've been wondering how your heart/head/gut thing works with a 4 person cast. How does it apply to Scooby-Doo? Obviously Shaggy and Scooby are Gut, and Velma is Head. But what about Daphne and Fred? If they were written well, which one would be Heart and which one Faith?

Matt Bird said...

Good question... I would say that Velma and Fred are both head (he did *occasionally* help), Scooby and Shaggy are clearly gut, but Shaggy occasionally provides a little heart as well. That leaves Daphne who is... legs?

j.s. said...

Just a suggestion about naming the fourth element in any given polarized ensemble. Maybe consider "spirit" instead of "faith" since it might fit better with the other three which are less abstract and more localized human parts. Faith is an aspect of spirit -- as love is to the heart, intellect to the head, and instinct to the gut. And gut feelings/instinct could sometimes be somewhat analogous to "faith" but probably not so easily conflated with "spirit."

Matt Bird said...

I dunno, I would want to avoid the other meaning of spirit, such as "he's got spirit".

Mark said...

OK, some other foursomes:

Tinman, Scarecrow, Lion are obvious. So is Dorothy Faith? I think that's pretty good

I admit I don't remember much about these but:
Athos - head
D'Artagnan - heart
Porthos - gut
Aramis - most definitely faith

Matt Bird said...

Wow, I hadn't even considered how archetypical Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion are for this model.

As for Dorothy, I go back to Dr. House, who pointed this whole thing out to me when he was stuck on a plane and had to assign three passengers to give him head, heart and gut advice: In cases where you've got one lead getting advice from three supporting characters, then they represent the externalized internal voices of that main character.

The way I see it, Dorothy and Dr. House are both three-dimensional characters who have head, heart and gut, but don't know which one to trust, so they debate each issue with their three friends, who are the personification of each.

j.s. said...

I suppose I agree that "spirit" isn't quite right either, though that doesn't sell me on entirely on "faith." Could a Buddhist character or somebody else from a non-Western tradition have "faith"? What about an atheist? (Here is where I remember that my favorite film is Bresson's A MAN ESCAPED, perhaps the premiere cinematic example of purely existential secular humanist "faith" propelling a protagonist forward.)

Mark said...

@ j.s. - I absolutely think that a non-Western religious person or an atheist could embody "faith". I think the key to this part of the schema is that we have covered the major animal instincts - gut and emotion - and the major human one - intellect - so if we add a fourth dimension it needs to have some sort of metaphysical aspect. Perhaps you'd be more comfortable with that term?

Mark said...

@Matt - of course you are right that Dorothy is House. I had momentarily forgotten the original template. But I still think the 4 Musketeers are a good example.

Ruth said...

So interesting to come upon your Head Heart and Gut triangle. As a songwriter, I always said that songs had some combination of Head, Heart, Gut, and/or Groin. And now I'm musing on whether there are characters who embody groin more than they do gut...