Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Ghost Story

A GHOST STORY                B                    
USA  (92 mi)  2017  d:  David Lowery          Official site

It’s sad how sad sadness is

A metaphysical experience, one might say, which offers at least one version of an afterlife that is compatible with the typical low-budget operations of indie films, where a ghost seen throughout the film is literally played by a guy under a white sheet with cut-out eyes.  While this may seem laughable and good for comedy, this is instead an outright drama exploring the various levels of grief, suggesting the pain diminishes but never really goes away, instead lingering out of sight, like a ghost, but still present, lurking just under the surface, continuing to be a reference point and a haunting reminder of the past.  Not nearly as novel or inventive as Larry Abrahamson’s 2014 Top Ten List #10 Frank or Tim Burton’s BEETLEJUICE (1988), films featuring a guy under a mask and a wacky spirit inhabiting a house, as what both of those have is superb writing, creating a deliriously enjoyable experience.  This, on the other hand, is a rather drab affair, largely wordless, relying upon the power of mood, atmosphere, and imagery alone to advance a story, much like the most recent non-narrative Terrence Malick films, even sharing a common actress, Rooney Mara, though without such an impressive world-renowned cinematographer.  Actually this is much more coherent than anything Malick has done recently, spending far fewer dollars, yet producing something that is provocative in its own right.  Ultimately this is a simplistic story of a man and a woman, played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara respectively, who are pondering what to do in the next phase of their life, as she wants to move, while he’s comfortable in their modest home in rural Texas and doesn’t want to leave it, where it appears they may have separate visions of how to spend their future.  Yet all evidence suggests they are close and intimate, bonded by a deep love and affection for each other, just unsure about what comes next.  One night they are awakened by a loud thud on the piano, yet they see no signs of an intruder, allowing it to remain a mystery, eventually returning back to bed.  Not long afterwards, on the next fateful day, the man is killed in a car accident just around the corner from his home, leaving the woman overwhelmed by agony and grief, where in perhaps the scene of the film, in one unedited shot, a private moment where the audience is forced to passively witness someone in the depths of mourning, she is seen in real time eating an entire pie (vegan chocolate) that a kindly neighbor left for her, where she is clearly lost and distraught, with tears streaming down her face, yet she continues to munch away, distracted and undeterred, until she makes a mad dash for the toilet, unintentionally making herself sick from the experience. 

Identifying the body at the hospital, the viewer also makes an identification of the remains along with the woman, as the shot is held long after everyone has left the room, with the body eventually rising under the sheet.  As we greet his new ghostly existence, the man draped in a sheet walks down the hospital corridor, out the door, finding his way back to his home where he remains for most of the film, as what we see is then entirely viewed through his perspective.  An existential ghost story, aimlessly wandering through time, much like the immortality of a vampire, the ghost is caught in another dimension, unable to affect the world he continues to see, where weeks and months of living are compressed into seconds as he inhabits the same space, but remains invisible, with no power to influence the world he left behind.  Despite the cheesy production values, the ghost remains the film’s central character, seen in the background when the woman returns with a new boyfriend, where the audience clearly identifies with his helplessness, as there’s little he can do about it.  Eventually she moves out, as she had originally planned, leaving him alone in an empty house, remaining a lonely and tortured soul.  When a new Mexican family moves in, with a mother and several small children, they speak exclusively Spanish, which is not subtitled, so it remains a foreign language to many in the audience and even to the ghost, unable to comprehend what they are saying as they joyously celebrate Christmas, and each passing day thereafter, mostly unable to relate to their experience, growing more aloof, perhaps even bored.  But he’s in for a surprise himself when the little boy can apparently see him, the only one on his family who can, sensing not only his presence, but a palpable fear at seeing such a ghostly figure at a young and impressionable age.  Perhaps angered by his remove, wanting to do something of consequence, he starts throwing dishes, which is viewed as a paranormal experience, smashing glasses and plates, and making the lights flicker, which has the effect of scaring the entire family, who quickly move away.  The intensity of his vanishing life with the women he loves forever comes back in flashbacks, reliving the experience all over again, as we see him hand the headphones to her, playing a gorgeously sublime song, heard in snippets over the trailer, A Ghost Story, Trailer (2:14).  The song is “I Get Overwhelmed” by Dark Rooms, sung by Daniel Hart, their writer and lead singer, who also composes the musical soundtrack for the film, yet the entire song can be heard in an interesting live appearance in Dallas - Fort Worth here,  Dark Rooms - I Get Overwhelmed | Sofar Dallas - Fort Worth - YouTube (6:01).  This music measurably changes the appreciation for the film, emotionally elevating the viewer experience, adding layers of profound depth and sorrow that wouldn’t otherwise be there, with a few brief comments about the song written by the director, Dark Rooms - A Ghost Story OST liner notes from David Lowery ....

Ultimately a story about life, death, love, and regret, where the past and present are all interlinked and interconnected through time, with memories and emotions that remain part of the grand scheme of human existence.  Do we exist even after we’re gone?  For how long?  These kinds of philosophical questions remain at the heart of the Alain Resnais masterwork, Last Year at Marienbad (L'Année Dernière à Marienbad) (1961), made more than half a century ago.  In this film as well, there’s an abrupt shift to a house filled with party revelers, where Will Oldham, the central figure in Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy (2006), resurfaces with a mind-blowing dissertation on our fleeting existence, explaining where we all land in the grand cosmic plan, “We build our legacy piece by piece and maybe the whole world will remember you or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone,” suggesting no matter how hard we try to leave a lasting impression, it will all come to naught as the universe will eventually collapse upon itself.  This is the closest thing to a theme offered by the director, as it’s clearly the most extended dialogue, standing apart from the rest of the film which is more of a silently curious observation.  It’s a bit surprising that the ghost leaves the home, like a time traveler wandering through different time dimensions, becoming a ghost of Christmas future and past, finding himself standing in the midst of a modern metropolis, built on the land where his house used to be, or going back in time and re-appearing on the prairie during the settling of the American West, where the frontier (where his home would be built) is a vast expanse, filled with brutal turning points, as history is fast-forwarded, eventually finding himself back inside his home again, with a rush of memories returning, replaying the man and the woman back at the beginning, when he was alive, which he watches intently.  This time we can understand the loud piano noise in the middle of the night, as it was caused by the ghost, a warning sign, perhaps, as he was emotionally distraught by their inconsequential relationship disagreements and clearly unsettled by what was about to happen.  The film places our lives, and the precious moments we share, in context, as we inevitably waste so much time and energy quibbling over things that in the grand scheme of things don’t really matter.  The film recalls the recent Olivier Assayas ghost story, Personal Shopper (2016), which explores many of the same things, while also paying tribute to the brilliant supernatural dream sequences in Carlos Reygadas’s 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux.  Like those, this film tends to divide audiences, some immensely moved by the ultimate tragedy of it all, while others find it a weak substitute for real drama.  Following twelve attempts to get a film to play at Sundance, this is finally the director’s breakthrough film, with editing assistance from Shane Carruth, the writer/director and driving force behind PRIMER (2004), though perhaps casting Sundance founder Robert Redford in his previous film, the Disney distributed PETE’S DRAGON (2016), might have swung the deal.  Nonetheless, despite a glacier pace throughout, designed to prolong the parameters of time, this film does explore pertinent issues, like what happens when the people you love move on, perhaps even forget you, and you can’t interfere, leaving you alone and out of the picture, “trapped in a box for eternity,” as the director indicates, explaining his reasons for using the boxed 1:33 aspect ratio, intentionally creating a congestion of claustrophobic space, where ultimately the enveloping sadness of the film is realizing that the futility of the ghost’s efforts are literally inconsolable, especially when you can’t compassionately reach out and touch the ones you love any more, which only fills the emptiness of time with unending misery and gloom.      

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