' Cinema Romantico: A Ghost Story

Monday, August 07, 2017

A Ghost Story

“A Ghost Story”, made on the cheap by director David Lowery for $150,000, is a testament to what movies can do, a reverie of DIY, taking nothing more than a bare bones child’s Halloween costume, a white bed sheet with two cut out eyeholes, and wresting all manner of meaning and aesthetic magic from it. The film opens with the unnamed central couple, played by Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, wrapped up in each other’s arms on the couch, a stolen moment between lovers, and segues not much long after to a moment of the two discussing a move that she wants and he doesn’t. Lowery sets this shot with Affleck, a vaguely defined musician, wearing headphones at his computer, in the foreground with Mara out of focus in the background, not only conveying the emergent dissonance in their relationship but speaking to how Lowery moves forward in time and evinces huge chunks of emotion in the simplest of frames. Soon after, Affleck’s character is seen slumped over the wheel of his car, dead, involved in a car crash we never see, because, after all, this A Ghost Story and ghost stories are always most concerned about what comes after.


We see his ascension to the afterlife, or the in-between, which is where the movie gets a little ambiguous, which is not to its detriment because Affleck’s character himself seems not to quite know where he is, in a long take at the morgue where he has been laid out on a gurney beneath a white sheet. Mara’s character confirms it’s him, is left alone and then leaves. Time passes in an unbroken shot. Suddenly, the sheet sits up, mirroring a moment in “The Mummy” where Tom Cruise does the same. That moment was played for laughs, and this moment feels kinda funny too, especially when Affleck’s character climbs off the gurney and strolls out of the frame. It feels kinda funny because it is rendered without music so as not to cue your emotions, allowing for the inherent awkwardness to burble up. Moments later music does appear, tipping you more toward an eerie poignancy, but it’s a helluva thing getting there.

The ghost wanders through the living, unseen, and then returns home, where he is apparently confined. This is when Mara’s character returns to find a pie left by a friend for comfort. She eats it; she eats the whole thing; she eats the whole thing in two shots that last four minutes with no music; she eats the whole thing in two shots that last four minutes with no music while the Ghost stands in the corner of the frame just watching. Lowery is sort of daring you to stay with the movie, sure, but he is doing so much more.

He is defining how the apparition can only observe, not interfere, at least not in any useful way, forced to see the person he caused harm hurting and left with no recourse to help, a specter in his own life, looking at it from the outside, left merely to observe, not participate. This is just as acutely brought home in a later scene of her listening to a song he wrote. Though Lowery places she and the Ghost in the frame together, by also flashing back to the first time she heard the song in the midst of this moment Lowery makes clear the chasm that still exists; she feels her deceased spouse in the past, not the present, though he is there and can see her, which simply makes the pain of what he misses that much greater.

Lowery also uses this moment to define the film’s sense of time. Days, years, decades, perhaps even centuries will pass by as “A Ghost Story” progresses, which, for obvious reasons, have to be conveyed in jump cuts, which are not explicitly explained though details in each new scene evoke where we are and how far we have moved. And so Lowery uses this scene to make you feel the unbearable weight of time, and the way that its passage will essentially render us ghosts in the places we once inhabited.


What might be most remarkable, however, is how Lowery, who also edited, makes you feel the emotion of this sheeted specter. Despite the eyeholes, you can’t see Affleck’s eyes, preventing his emoting, and while he moves his body this way or that, and sometimes goes for short strolls, his varying emotions are evinced through directorial choices – angles, tilts, zooms. You see the immovable ghost at a distance, simply looking on, in the pie scene and the melancholy is palpable, while a later moment, when he listens to a speech, a purposeful zoom in on the ghost from a low angle as he moves forward conveys the rising fury. This speech, delivered in a walk off cameo by Will Oldham, who is wearing overalls so as to communicate his existence as a Blowhard as much as the bedsheet communicates Ghost, concerns the meaningless of making art, of doing anything in a universe where time eventually renders all people and things as forgotten, sort of a hipster’s interpretation of Alvy Singer refusing to do his homework because the universe is expanding.

Lowery could be out to rebut this notion, seeing as how he scores the scene to Beethoven’s ninth symphony, suggesting some things do transcend time. And the film itself could also be argued as the refutation given its quality. But ultimately the meaningless seems less overcome through artistic intent than emotional peace, which is not easy to find as “A Ghost Story” illustrates, which, without spoiling too much, suggests something more like its own ethereal imagining of cyclical time, an endlessly looping journey to achieve understanding, an understanding of and a peace with the fact that no matter what we do, no matter what we accomplish, no matter what we leave behind, one day, in more ways than just the physical, we will simply be…..gone.

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