Summer of ‘90: Ghost

Above all of the more modest achievements in structure and casting looms Zucker’s garish comedic sensibilities.

Summer of '90: Ghost
Photo: Paramount Pictures

At first glance, Ghost appears designed as a manipulative crowd-pleaser, employing a dim-witted explanation of an afterlife, racial stereotyping as a means for lowbrow accessibility, and violent comeuppances for its villains that neglect to explore how eye-for-an-eye motivations could be viewed as standard procedure for heavenly prosecution. The movie’s view of death is perhaps “chintzy,” as Jonathan Rosenbaum says, and it’s easy to tell early on that Carl (Tony Goldwyn) is responsible for the botched robbery that leads to Sam’s (Patrick Swayze) death, which is a gripe that Janet Maslin had. However, neither of these perceptions account for director Jerry Zucker’s remarkably fluid narrative pacing, nor how impeccably cast all of the major roles are, with Swayze and Demi Moore, especially, acutely portraying beacons of idyllic, white-collar romance with physical, blue-collar appeal.

Above all of the more modest achievements in structure and casting looms Zucker’s garish comedic sensibilities, which weave their way in and out of the film’s fairly corrosive and immediate sense of death, where a gun blast prompts Sam to run after his assailant, only to return to see himself, being held by Molly (Moore), who weeps and wails for help. All of this would be merely bargain-basement melodrama if it weren’t for the curious notes that follow, as a light pines to Sam’s ghost from the heavens, attempting to lure him upward, which is followed by a series of his own nightmarish visions, including waking up next to the deformed statue of an angel in bed rather than Molly. These are serious moments as Sam bleeds out, which can be heard off screen, in voiceover, but it’s an altogether odd and estranged moment, as Sam’s loneliness is made immediate, extracting him from the scene of his own murder.

An instance like this could go unnoticed, primarily because its immediate relevance to the film is not so clear. However, upon repeat viewings, it’s the kind of beat where one locates Zucker’s knack for melding a sense of pop forlorn with an underlying pathos that’s not so insistent upon its own urgency and significance. A lesser film would milk the image of Sam dying for all its worth; Zucker abandons it as soon as he possibly can. In a similar vein, once Sam discovers his murder came at the hands of Willie (Rick Aviles), he stumbles into a “spiritual advisory” parlor where he discovers he can make contact with Oda Mae (Whoopi Goldberg), a psychic who, up to this point, has been feigning her abilities as a medium to exploit grieving family members.

The script by Joel Bruce Rubin plays privy to its own possible shortcomings—that it could be seen as exploiting death and pain in order to score a quick buck. Thus, Oda Mae anchors the film as a character designed to simultaneously address and resolve queries against diagnosing its allegedly unthinking, cheap assemblage. When Oda Mae finds out where Willie lives, she says, almost in an aside to herself, “That’s my neighborhood.” She’s alarmed, but not visibly out of sorts. When Carl visits said neighborhood, he’s a sweaty, nervous mess, which subsequently accumulates as he’s increasingly unable to weasel his way out of significant debts. Carl is thwarted at the hands of Sam’s ghost and Oda Mae’s proficiencies as a con artist, but the larger implication is that Carl is undone by both his own greed and, more importantly, a sneaking suspicion that he’s incapable of being the stealthy chameleon he fashions himself to be.

In turn, Ghost modestly warns against indignant attitudes toward class status, where yuppie types scour the ghettos for a hired gun, serving as modern-day colonizers in a manner that closely parallels the core narrative of Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl. While Zucker and company are far from offering philosophical class critiques or even a class-consciousness that steers clear of stereotyping (Oda Mae and Willy are, in the end, affectations of ethnic pigeonholing), there’s a rather poignant plea for embracing the immediate moment that, despite the film’s religious overtones, hit within a particularly secular register. After all, Sam and Molly appear to be agnostics, absorbed with cultivating a comfortable life for themselves and not much else, despite a passing interest in travel and theatre. The film only superficially seems xenophobic through its fears of upper-crust neighborhoods compromised by violence crime, because it’s far more adamant that deliberate exploitation of poverty ridden areas by those with the capital to effect progress constitutes the true culprit of socio-cultural ruin.

Clayton Dillard

Clayton Dillard is a lecturer in cinema at San Francisco State University.

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