A Ghost Story (2017) [Revisited]

Directed by David Lowery

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I saw A Ghost Story only a couple months ago, so this is probably much too soon to write about it again.  But my backlog is drying up, and I rewatched it so here ya go.  First, I don’t remember what I wrote about it when I first saw it, but that’s the point.  I want to write about what I think of it now, and maybe there is something to be said for how your relationship with a movie changes over time or just with a second viewing.

I love A Ghost Story, still.  When I first saw it, I quickly considered it my favorite film of this year, and I think I still see it as such.  At the same time, I went into the first viewing wanting it to be my favorite film of the year.  I’m not sure why, but every year you kind of pick that one movie to look forward to and say, “yeah, this is it, this is my movie.”

Two years ago that was The Revenant, a movie I eagerly awaited for too long to adequately enjoy the movie.  Last year that was La La Land, a movie I really enjoyed but then felt like I shouldn’t have enjoyed quite so much when I started observing a lot of the backlash towards the movie: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/06/la-la-land-criticism-race-gender-jazz-awards

So I wanted to love A Ghost Story.  It felt like the type of movie you had to react strongly to.  You loved it or you hated it, and about twenty minutes into the movie I started to wonder if I hated it.  It becomes an almost painfully slow story, culminating in a now semi-famous long take of Rooney Mara eating an entire pie until she throws up while the ghost watches.

That moment is mind-numbing, but it’s incredibly important to the film.  This is a story about time and in many ways the way we process time.  A Ghost Story trains you to watch the film unfold in a certain way.  With the constant long takes, of scenes in which very little happens, we start to anticipate that the entire movie will be this way.

In one moment, Mara and her husband (played by Casey Affleck) lie in bed, affectionately cuddling each other.  The shot lasts a little too long, and it goes from feeling ordinary, to feeling incredibly intimate, to feeling like you’re a voyeur a la Rear Window.

And maybe that voyeur aspect is important.  When Affleck’s character dies and subsequently becomes a white cloth-wearing ghost, he suddenly finds himself peeking in on the lives of others, as they pass through the small Texas home he and his wife once shared.

“Voyeur” has a negative connotation, and it describes the way we watch movies like this.  As the film forces us to stare at these long scenes with very little going on, we end up watching the action like we’re the ghost.  We have no control over what happens, we just have to watch.  When the camera drifts, it starts to feel ghostly.  We are the ghost observing their lives, and pretty quickly the voyeurism wears off.

We get this mostly unimpeded glimpse into their lives, but it’s extremely unexciting.  Soon the husband dies, and time continues to really slow down.  It’s unclear if the ghost remembers who he is (though a later short conversation with another ghost suggests he has no memory of who he was, just a vague sense that his soul was attached to this place), and that possible lack of memory allows the ghost to simply observe the scene, with no emotional connection to what’s happening, kind of like a movie audience.

I mean, sure, of course we sometimes feel for the characters onscreen, but for the most part we observe with objectivity.  Even when we care about the protagonist, we know this isn’t real.  We watch character live through extreme joy and pain, adrenaline-fueled moments and pits of despair.  And we just sit there, curious as to what might happen.

After that pie eating scene, time suddenly speeds up.  In one shot we see what might be weeks or months pass by, showing the various ways Mara leaves the house each morning.  She starts to stand up a little straighter, further from this life-altering tragedy.  And the point is simply that time moves on, but the ghost doesn’t.

Soon another family moves into the house, and in the span of a few minutes, we cover what could be months or years in their lives.  The only indication of the amount of passing time is a Christmas tree.  Because the kids don’t dramatically age it might be a year in their lives.

Soon they’re gone, and the new tenants throw a house party, leading to a scene in which a guy drunkenly discusses his outlook on life.  The basic point is that nothing matters.  We exist and then we don’t.  Hopefully some people remember us when we’re gone.  It’s a moment that could be seen as Lowery’s thesis for the film, but I saw it as the opposite.  While this character describes the lack of meaning in life, I wondered what the ghost thought.  But the ghost, with his lack of expressions, offers no clues.  He’s a blank slate, and it’s up to you to decide how to feel about what the man says.

Does anyone remember Casey Affleck’s character?  The only connection he has to another’s memory, from what we observe, is through Mara’s character, but she leaves the movie pretty early on, as she moves on with the rest of her life.  And yet the ghost remains, because, the film seems to say, his soul is connected to his home.  This would seem to be the film’s real message, something about fate and destiny and souls that precede our own being.

After the man finishes his speech, the light flickers, catching his attention.  We know by now that the ghost can interact with certain objects, and it’s not hard to imaging that this is him trying to break through.  Does what the guy says anger or sadden the ghost?  We’ve seen him trash a kitchen already, implying the ghost has feelings.

This time, though, the light flickers, and we suddenly cut to the same bulb socket, years later, as the house lies in ruins.  The camera lingers on the decay, really forcing us to reckon with it.  We just saw this moment, we lived in it, and in the span of one cut, that moment is long gone, as if it never happened.  That guy from the party, he might have died of old age.  We don’t know.

It’s a striking juxtaposition, the lively party and the decaying home.  It’s a cut that works only because of how deeply shoved into the boring moments we were at the start of the film.  In some ways the increasing speed of time becomes a little frightening.  Pretty quickly we see this house bulldozed and even more quickly a skyscraper put in its place.  The music starts to swell, feeling more ominous, as the ghost ascends each floor of the building, looking out over a vibrant, frighteningly colorful city below.

There’s a loss of control here.  We were so stuck in the individual moments early on, and though it may have been boring, you at least had a grasp on where the story was headed.  Suddenly you have no sense of how far we’re going or even how far we’ve already gone.  It’s like being stuck in a casino, unable to see the light or darkness from outside and clueless to the time because there are no clocks on the walls.  You walk outside anticipating night only to find it’s 11 am, and you haven’t slept in 28 hours.

That’s how this movie started to feel.  And then the ghost throws himself off the building.

Does he die?  Who knows.  Suddenly it’s the past, and the ghost observes a young family out on the dangerous frontier.  They pray, they cook dinner, and suddenly they’re freshly dead, impaled by a series of arrows.  A few seconds later, the dead girl’s body is a rotting skeleton, and soon after that it’s easy to lose the body among the growing brush.  The world swallows her up like everything else.

By this time, none of this surprises us.  We’re forced to reckon with how insignificant Affleck’s character is and how small we are as well.  The ghost continues to observe this with no discernible emotion, again making us decide how we feel.

And then Affleck and Mara move into the house.  Time repeats itself, and we find ourselves back at the beginning of the story, only now we clearly see the ghost that was implied to have been there the entire time.

It’s not really about the movie logic of this scene or time or even how the ghost perceives it.  Why does the ghost seemingly die and then remain in the same location, years in the past?  The suggestion is that the ghost is always and has always been there.  But then the ghost, seen through the kitchen outburst, the glowing lightbulb and the leap off of the skyscraper, has a character arc.

Though mostly a blank sheet onto which we can project our own feelings, the ghost has his own.  It’s one of anger, then perhaps hope, then death.  And yet he remains.  The movie allows us to feel whatever we want, but it suggests that we should feel a little melancholic about all this.

And then the ghost finally reads a note Mara left in the house before she moved out, following her husband’s death.  We don’t know what the note said, but we know the ghost has been after it, scratching away at the walls where she hid it.  The ghost reads the note and disappears, his purpose evidently fulfilled.

And I think that’s what’s fascinating to me most.  The ghost is a blank slate, and we’re led to believe that the ghost has always and will always haunt this house.  That implies a sense of fate.  Affleck’s character was drawn to the house because his ghost (or soul) had been there already.  But when the ghost finally vanishes, does that mean… well I don’t know what it means.  Is this a belief that time is cyclical?  Or is this some kind of Groundhog Day nightmare that the ghost finally escapes from.

It doesn’t really matter, though.

This is a film all about emotion.  It matters so much that you feel what Lowery wants you to feel.  Most films encourage you to identify or empathize with their characters.  You’re meant to like them, hate them, find them attractive, funny, despicable, etc.  You’re meant to feel an active emotion that dictates how you look at them throughout the rest of the film.  But with A Ghost Story, none of that matters.

Who cares if you like Mara and Affleck?  Just understand that they have their own lives that matter to them.  We’re a neutral observer, like the ghost is with the subsequent tenants of the home.  The point is never what happens to Mara or even to Affleck’s ghost, just that we get a sense of how impermanent this all is.

Which is obvious, I guess.  We are the ghost.  We are observers, and I think there’s value in just observing.  We don’t need to feel all these things about movie characters because those feelings are really just projections of how we feel about ourselves, right?

Sure, an 80s action movie might set up a cartoonishly villainous character that we hate, but why do we hate that character?  Like Severus Snape or Darth Vader, we’re meant to root against certain people, but even if that’s the filmmaker’s intention, we’re ascribing some kind of negative value to that character.  It’s no different that how we feel about the ghost here, it’s just more transparent.  We feel about the ghost’s existence the way we feel about our own, I think.

This film is only 90 minutes.  It’s surprisingly small and grand at the same time.  The first time I saw the film I didn’t think I’d ever see it again, and if I did, not for a long time.  It’s so simple, with little to potentially discover on a rewatch.  But I loved it again.  It’s like a meditation.  You just experience it like you experience a… I don’t know, something nice, you know?  It’s both haunting and reassuring, and I’m still not sure why.  It just was.

It’s like Lowery, himself an accomplished storyteller, knows all the shortcuts to make a film entertain an audience.  This time he got rid of all the tricks that tap into our psyche and just tapped into our psyche himself.  A Ghost Story is lean and affecting.  But not everyone will think that, and that’s okay.

It’s just a nice film.  You can’t point to any one aspect of the filmmaking and say that that’s why it worked.  The acting is nice but nothing crazy.  The cinematography is beautiful, but you’re forced to look at certain shots for so long that you start to forget the filmmaking component and observe it like you would something in your own life.  The music is beautiful, and I take it back, it’s enjoyable for the experience and because it’s a technically beautiful movie.  I’ve listened to the soundtrack so many times.

A Ghost Story is so remarkably profound and lean (again, just my opinion if I haven’t already made that clear), that it makes most other types of movies feel useless, especially the types of stories I want to write.  When I tell a story that involves demons and time-travel or anything out of this world, I think I’m really trying to get at something I personally feel or have felt.  The point is to reveal something, even if it takes high concept ideas to get there.  But A Ghost Story just gets rid of all that and showed me how much a film can make me feel with some very simple techniques.  Just know when to keep the camera rolling, know when to cut, and combine a beautiful image with the right music.  Everything else is fluff, good fluff but still fluff.  The right juxtaposition of images or joint use of image and sound can stir up some very strong feelings.

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