Art and Film: Ghost as witness

Casey Affleck as the tragic ghost who haunts a patch of Texas land in A Ghost Story

Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / George Eliot said, wisely, that “our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.” For the great and infamous, it’s a prescription for immortality. As to more ordinary people, the sentiment can be cloyingly anodyne around the moment of a loved one’s death – it was viciously sent up on Seinfeld after George’s fiancee Susan died from licking wedding invitation envelopes – but it grips harder and deeper as time goes on and whoever’s been lost keeps looming in the memory of the survivors. In his brilliantly unorthodox, cinematically audacious, and achingly melancholy A Ghost Story, writer-director David Lowery blends metaphysics and existentialism by turning this idea on its head: it’s the ones who have died – or more precisely the undead – who are remembering and assessing those who are left behind.

 Unlike other movies involving ghosts – examples include Ghost and Truly Madly Deeply – this film involves those who actually wear sheets with eyeholes. That may seem silly until you realize that Lowery is aiming to visually plant the idea that some kind of spiritual witness and appreciation arises when somebody dies. He suggests that the ghost-as-witness may traverse kindred generations and absorb their pain as well, expiring only unpredictably and perhaps arbitrarily. In this aspect, the movie shares some ground with Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But it unfolds like a time-lapse art installation: with time the sheet becomes stained and dirty, its contours more rumpled, the hollow black eyes droopier. The sheet’s inhabitant is worn down by the misfortunes and betrayals it sees. If the ghost is a voyeur, it is a pained and guileless one, though there’s one act of compulsive mischief. The viewer empathizes, and wishes those left on earth would at least fail better.

Another key theme is the elasticity of time – the way certain moments course strongly and perpetually through life while great spans of time seem to evanesce quickly. The epigraph of the movie is a quote from Virginia Woolf, for whom this was also a preoccupation. For a survivor, another’s death is one such moment. Rooney Mara, a fine actress with an old-world face at once stoic and fragile, conveys the notion wonderfully in a scene that could become a staple of acting classes: for this exercise, eat a pie while grieving.

She and Casey Affleck, playing her doomed husband, definitively project character and emotion using very little dialogue. The process is subtle and cumulative, but skepticism should still yield to immersion within about twenty minutes. By the end of the film, the Affleck character’s ghost has acquired a tragic mien from what it has witnessed. When the sheet collapses and the spirit presumably dissipates, the audience too experiences the pain of mortality, until then postponed, with a shuddering gulp. Even if you believe in ghosts, sooner or later they die, too.

A Ghost Story, written and directed by David Lowery. Starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Distributed by A24 Films.

Related posts:
Art and Film: The life and death of a cinephilic boomtown
Art and Film: Kelly Reichardt’s stoic women
Lucio Fontana’s ghost: Amy Feldman, Maximilian Schubert, Alan Wiener at 11R

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