Top 20 Films of 2017: #15- A Ghost Story

This is clearly a counter-intuitive way to start a review. It was the first idea to cross my mind when I finished my second viewing of the film four days ago, and I told myself right there and then that I could surely come up with a better point of entry for discussing this worthy film. More than that, I could certainly come up with an opening sentence less likely to achieve the exact opposite of its intended effect. Alas, after five days of thinking about it, I have thought of no other way to begin. So I will now open my review by firmly asserting that David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is not a pretentious film. However, I first watched the film with my fiancé, who insisted early and often over the lean 92-minute runtime, that it was in fact a very pretentious film. Now, I have no desire to turn this review into a referendum on my fiance’s excellent taste in cinema. Her reasons that A Ghost Story did not work for her are well-reasoned and valid. I am not here to call out anyone who liked, loved, hated, was confused by, or slept through this heady little piece of art cinema. But I am here to settle an old score with the word “pretentious”. I am tempted to say I loathe the word, but that is not entirely fair. I do not hate “pretentious” when the word applies, but I do hate it for how liberally it is misapplied. To me, pretentious films are films that purport to mean more than they actually do. A pretentious work is that old line about sound and fury signifying nothing; a great commotion of superficial flash or pedigree, disguising an empty, or at least relatively meager, core of meaning. Again, it is well and good to call something pretentious if that is what you actually mean. I will crow for the rest of my days that Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is a pretentious film because what I mean to say is that it makes a great fuss without saying much of value. It would be wrong to use that word if all I really meant was that Birdman is a loud, grandiloquent film, or that it sermonizes too sanctimoniously, or that it has makes too many self-consciously idiosyncratic choices. To be fair, those are all quibbles I have with Birdman, but none of them are what makes it pretentious. Yet that seems to be what the word “pretentious” is metastasizing into: a dismissive term to call out a work of art for being too ambitious or arty. And I’m not calling out this misuse just to be a vocabulary fascist. I am not simply annoyed that a word is having its meaning distorted. Specifically, I find this zombie version of pretentiousness to be dangerous and oppressive to what art should be allowed to do. It is a valuable part of artistic discourse to critique a work of art when it takes a bold shot and misses its target. But the tendency I see nowadays is to use “pretentious” as a means of attacking bold shots in general, regardless of whether they actually hit their marks. And that, from where I stand, is death to Art. Art needs to be free to take risks and pursue ridiculous flights of fancy. It needs to be permitted the hubris to attempt new things and wrap its arms around difficult subjects and risk biting off more than it can chew. Artists should be encouraged to make breathtaking, idiosyncratic, indulgent, imaginative works because those strange, overreaching works of art can help us better understand, appreciate, or even change our own reality. And we jeopardize that when we rush to label any work that is surreal or highly stylized or maybe a bit self-regarding as pretentious. In the world of cinema, this word has become a way of superficially fast-tracking judgment of a film based on its aesthetic, when what we should be doing is discussing what the film is trying to do or say.

 

A Ghost Story is a weird, audacious film, but let me relieve some of the build-up by saying that it is also, at heart, a relatively simple story, at least where plot is concerned. David Lowery’s title prepares us for the fact that we will likely see a ghost, and indeed we do. What it does not prepare us for is the fact that the ghost in question is our main character, and will be the one consistent, visible presence throughout almost the entire film. And, most of all, it does not prepare us for the fact that this ghost will be played by Casey Affleck, completely covered in a plain white sheet with two oval-shaped eyeholes cut out of it. This ghost was once a man living in Dallas in a small, one-story house with his wife (Rooney Mara, in a performance no less terrific for being right in her moody, pensive wheelhouse). The couple is in the process of moving and an early conversation reveals that the man is reluctant to say goodbye to this place and the memories that reside within its walls. One night the couple is woken up by something striking the keys of their piano. They walk into the family room to investigate, but find nothing. Then they go back to bed a little shaken, and try to soothe each other back to sleep. In the next scene, possibly the very next morning, we see the man dead at the wheel of his car, the victim of a small but fatal collision. His wife goes to the morgue to identify him, places the sheet back over his body, and sadly leaves. Then a few beats pass and the man’s shrouded head rises from the table. He is now a ghost, though the exaggerated black eye holes mark him as being closer to what a small child would dress as for Halloween than some menacing horror movie spectre. In his unadorned way, he is quite simply the saddest, most despondent ghost I have ever seen in a film. Covered in his sheet, he trudges uncertainly through the hospital. He goes completely unnoticed. He walks on to the end of a hallway until a kind of glowing, cosmic doorway opens up on one of the walls. He stands in front of the portal, stares at it blankly, but refuses to go through it. Instead, he walks out of the hospital into the cool dawn air and begins walking toward something he knows. He moves silently through the muddy, green Texas fields and over the quiet two-lane highways and back into the small, one-story dwelling he once called home. And then he just stays there. His wife mourns and putters around in a daze and, in perhaps the film’s most instantly iconic scene, eats an entire condolence gift pie in a single, four minute long-take. And the ghost stands about and watches her grieve. Then life begins to pick up speed again. The wife starts to live again and leave the house. She goes back to work. She even starts to seek companionship. We watch her painstakingly move on from her tragedy, while also watching, somewhere in the background of every shot, the restless, pitiable apparition that refuses to move on. Eventually, the wife summons the courage to move out and leave this tomb of memories behind. But this drab, lost ghost refuses to go. Even as a new family moves in. Even as time races on and even as the very building he binds himself to falls into disrepair, this sad, stubborn being cannot seem to leave this place behind. A Ghost Story is, first and foremost, a reimagining of the haunted house film as a kind of bittersweet tone poem. It is a reclamation of the ghost story as something more sad than scary, and all the more haunting for trading jump scares for melancholy.

 

And if my aim is to convince you that there is nothing in the least pretentious about A Ghost Story, I guess the next sentence will make my case more difficult. You see, A Ghost Story is all about its own sense of mood. It’s a difficult thing to create a film where tone and ambience do the heavy lifting. The shallows of film history are littered with the wrecks of indulgent pictures that fatally prioritized crafting a heady, introspective reverie above all else. Many sensitive, poetic filmmakers have doomed themselves by following what we might call the siren song of Terrence Malick. But A Ghost Story happily avoids that sorry fate, partly because it does have a lot of other things going on aside from a dreamy tone: engaged performances, skillful camera work, cohesive snippets of narrative always running through the ghost’s mournful fugue state, and one of the year’s most devastatingly sublime scores. I also have to say that, when it comes to mood, the proof is in the pudding, and David Lowery really has whipped up a delicious pudding. Part of the thrill is how he takes something like the haunted house narrative and recontextualizes it as something wise, tender, and bruisingly sad. That tender, eerily heartbroken sense of mood that Lowery focuses on is there for a purpose. It forces us to see an old narrative with fresh eyes. When Affleck’s ghost starts whipping plates around the room to frighten a Mexican single mother and her two young children out of their new home, we are getting a new perspective on something we have seen in countless spooky films. But this time we know exactly what is going on and our reaction is not terror. We are sad because we feel the ghost’s anguish and pain and we are also frustrated by him. He is not some fearful, unknown phantasm with hidden motives. He is just a despondent spirit, petulantly taking his grief out on small children, and he should know better. A Ghost Story strikes a deft balance between sorrow, small glimmers of joy (as when we see Rooney Mara tearfully but triumphantly leave her old house behind), fear, fragility, and even the odd bit of levity. If you let A Ghost Story wash around you as a purely emotional experience, what you get is a pitch perfect symphony of mortality, the ache of loving and then having to let go, and the sting of remembering that we are all falling rapidly through time and out of the Earth’s memory.

 

And the fact that A Ghost Story can capture that sense of mortality and human frailty just through its tone and things unsaid turns out to be a huge achievement, because the finiteness of life and the pain of accepting our insignificance is also what the film is getting at on an intellectual level. David Lowery manages to craft a tone poem that coherently aligns its undulating, poetic emotions with its themes and ideas, which gives A Ghost Story a welcome sense of rigor. The difficulty of letting go is smartly set up from the beginning, as we meet a couple with very different feelings about leaving their old house behind. That conflict culminates in one of the year’s most phenomenally moving moments: the wife wistfully but resolutely driving away from the home and her dead past, with the ghost trapped in the frame of the house’s front window and swiftly receding in his wife’s rearview mirror. The film comes to a place somewhere between sympathetic understanding and matter of fact disagreement with Affleck’s ghost. Life is beautiful and sweet and having to finally leave it all behind for the unknown is a gutting thing. You really can’t blame anyone for finding it hard to say goodbye. But, on the other hand, even if you had the choice to never leave your life, would staying around indefinitely not also suck something vital out of you? Sooner or later, the places that were familiar to us and with us, be they our homes, our towns, or our planet, go on existing without us. One day, the Earth will become a high school that we graduated from five years ago. The last freshman student who knew us will have finally left. At that point, what value could there be to continually going back there; to staying there and walking the halls? In one scene of the film, the ghost watches the house’s newest tenants throw a party full of people in their thirties. A man, played by celebrated indie musician Will Oldham, gives a long, intoxicated rant on the folly and futility of creating things to preserve our legacies, be they songs, books, or children, when we know the Universe will one day implode and start all over again. It’s a polarizing scene that some critics have called didactic. Personally, when it came, I found some relief in hearing a human voice speak at length for the first time in many minutes. But it is true that the Oldham character is just saying what the film itself says with every fiber of its being. It makes the same point more succinctly just a moment later. This room full of humans is reveling and the party is in full swing, when the ghost suddenly causes the kitchen lights to flicker. Then we instantly cut to the house abandoned and neglected. In an instant, many years may have just passed by and all the human faces who were celebrating in that house just seconds ago have scattered to continue along their own separate paths.

 

The lesson, both upsetting and strangely life-affirming, is that life’s value does not come from a place. What gives life its character is the fleeting minutiae and the ephemeral joys. And above all, life is the people we meet and learn about and love, who are all just as frail and impermanent as we are. What the ghost learns eventually is that, without all those little passing details, time hurtles forward like a bullet train. The sad, strange, stirring truth is that everything that ever made us feel anything and everything we ever assigned meaning occupies a very small space and an equally miniscule pocket of time, and that all confirms the plain fact that our lives are tiny and fragile. Without all that lovely, evanescent bric-a-brac; without music, memories, parties, food, sex, and people, the buildings and towns and time periods we occupy are just empty spaces. The big expanses of space and time that surround our lives look a whole lot smaller without all those little, fleeting details inside of them. I have stood in enough apartments on moving day to feel that intimately. I have walked down enough old streets in neighborhoods where I used to live to grasp the bittersweet truth that life is about context, and most of that context comes from things that are not meant to last. A Ghost Story is about mustering the grace and the courage to leave things behind, be it a former hometown or a past life. Knowing you must say goodbye is the right attitude to have, not only because it is emotionally healthy, but also because, as Rooney Mara’s character says early in the film, there really isn’t any other choice.

 

A Ghost Story just says too much, often with no more than a canny piece of editing or a perfect bit of body language, to ever call it pretentious. It is too rare to find a film this hauntingly atmospheric that also speaks with such eloquence. It captures so much of the soulful throb of being alive and knowing that nothing lasts forever. And it accomplishes all of this with great beauty and empathy, and all in a tight hour and a half. Still, this is the very kind of film that needs to be defended from accusations of pretentiousness. It is, after all, a quiet, reflective, relentlessly moody Sundance film that spends most of its running time watching a man wordlessly wander a single location donning a bedsheet with cartoonish eyeholes cut into it. And it does not present any of that jokingly. It has the audacity to ask, softly but sincerely, for your serious, hushed attention. And I understand how saying, “This is Casey Affleck in a bedsheet. Please take this all very seriously.”, might produce some peals of laughter. And the thing is that is all totally fine. Because one can laugh at the dizzy extremes that serious, heartfelt Art sometimes goes to, and still learn something from it. Art can be absurd, ludicrous, overreaching, silly, and even self-serious, and be no less vital for all of that. It can often better push boundaries, present new ideas, and provoke beautiful thoughts because of its very willingness to look preposterous. In the end, a word like “absurd” leaves room to feel gobsmacked by the wild wooliness of a film and still leave ourselves open to its message. And in the end, it is okay to cry foul when a film undoes itself through its own idiosyncrasies. It is okay to criticize films that put so much effort into looking and sounding like grand, meaningful statements that they forget to actually be meaningful. But dismissing a film outright just for daring to be off-kilter or bombastic or self-serious? That is, in a word, pretentious.

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