The place of ‘A Ghost Story‘ in a curious canon of existential despair.
The first time I watched Synecdoche, New York, I cried. An hour and a half into Charlie Kaufman’s many layers of many other layers, I had already gotten lost figuring out exactly how many reenactments deep we were, but I can still remember that perfect and overwhelming wasteland blankness that confronts Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) in the movie’s final setup. We watch him from a distance, stumbling, almost alone, through society’s remains. It is in these scenes that the movie transcends the romantic desperation or fatherhood anxiety that trogs the movie’s central plot around. It becomes, in those moments, a movie about death.
David Lowery’s latest film, A Ghost Story, belongs in this curious canon of existential despair. They resist the mold of the serious indie, so often about the metaphorical ghosts that haunt us, affixed to some personal tragedy that is being grieved over and meant to appeal to those who have been there. From the protracted climax of Ordinary People, a movie about an off-screen death that occurs months before, to the ghostly flashbacks in more indie fare like Ava DuVernay’s I Will Follow or Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester by the Sea, wounds occur in the past and are lived with. And, at first, it appears that Lowery is playing at the same game that got Affleck his Oscar: A Ghost Story opens on a couple, played by Rooney Mara and Affleck, who suffer a sudden catastrophe and, this time, it is Affleck who is grieved over instead of performing the grief. This is done with exquisite diligence: Mara presents a version of pain more earnest and relatable than Affleck’s macho grunting in Kenneth Lonergan’s bitter seaside pill. She does not avoid people but spends time alone. She is prone to sudden fits of crying. And, in one now-famous, single four-minute take, she consumes an entire chocolate pie and then vomits. And then, she moves on.
It is here, midway through a passionately downbeat indie drama about mourning, that Lowery’s movie becomes something else entirely. Mara leaves the film, its remaining top-billed character has been stationed under the wraps of the title’s ghost, an aesthetic choice both eerie and cute like the cover of an M83 record. The film’s sense of time and narrative fall away. Lowery’s last indie effort, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which also starred Affleck and Mara as lovers, accomplished this on a minor scale, passing by the occasional decade in a Terry Malick-esque blink of a very chatty eye, but it’s the silence that gives A Ghost Story its mournful bite. Undisclosed centuries are ultimately skimmed, the press materials try to prepare us by referring to it as “a cosmic journey through memory and history.” It’s a journey you might be able to prepare for by revisiting the celebrated comic strip “Here,” written by Richard McGuire, and originally published in 1989 in Raw (later expanded into a worthily vivid 300-page graphic novel in 2010). In it, McGuire riffs on the history of a corner of living room across centuries, nay, millennia. It is a place where children play in the same box where dinosaurs walked. We recall the Ice Age ice and await the strange oceans of our future waterbound apocalypse, human life long in the rearview.
Lowery’s designs on time are more modest and more affecting. After Mara’s character never referred to by name and in the credits only as “M,”, leaves the house, she is replaced by a Hispanic family, with children running around the house. Affleck’s ghost takes to haunting them, a gesture that puts one in mind of that couple in Beetlejuice. But imagine if Adam and Barbra didn’t have each other! Lonelier than grief is the true solitude of death, the real horror that most dramas about mourning are not solipsistic enough to contemplate. There’s a reason both Homer and Dante’s hells are populous places. The haunting, Lowery’s sole use of the supernatural tropes that the title of his movie seems to promise, is brief, and his long takes give them the feeling of being able to watch the malicious and unseen monster in those Paranormal Activity movies at work. The house is haunted, the family, more reasonable than any in a horror movie, simply move out. Kids party in the now-abandoned household and Affleck, totally over it, doesn’t even bother.
“I’m frequently terrified by how quickly the years fly by,” Lowery has said. Place, as McGuire’s comics attempt to testify, is an eternal space—there is comfort in imagining daily garbage as messages in bottles waiting to be collected in the hereafter, to be held by other people. It is a kind of connection fetishized in cinema, a place where fathers are constantly found in unlikely places and cult classics are mostly movies loaded with references to other movies. One of Lowery’s inebriated colligate ravers, played by Will Oldham, known to most as Appalachia’s answer to Nick Cave, vocally objects to the safety of this narrative and launches into a long bull session diatribe about the sun eventually swallowing the Earth, so what’s even the point of Beethoven’s Fifth, man. It’s a dab of silly nihilism, but Lowery gives it the full weight of his long-shot attention, preventing us from shrugging it off like one of those things some guy says in a Richard Linklater movie, evoking, instead, the feeling of complete despair that discovery of earth’s ultimate end has on the elementary school student who learns it for the first time and is horrified. This, too, passes. The ceaseless passing, without comment, reflects a more abject existential horror, oft-present in animation, where grief is less important than smallness, which is easy to draw. See: It’s Such a Beautiful Day, the latter and more interesting half of Anomalisa, certain downbeat episodes of “Futurama” (“The Late Philip J. Fry,” “Overclockwise,” etc.).
Grief requires a performance, a series of gestures that can be judged for believability. Loneliness need only be observed, which is the genius stroke of wrapping Affleck in a heavy cloak. It makes him a sort of animated figure, Casper the unhappy ghost hanging over the children’s proceedings. The future, which McGuire’s room gives us as a tease and Lowery’s house shows us the smallest snatch of, is bleary: a grey metropolis whose metallic arms are infinite. Affleck doesn’t even stick around to watch the apocalypse. The absence of drama, of intimate close-shots, makes the setup even more painful, long shots that feel like they encompass the world and there is nothing else there. Death, which is so often related as merely painful—merely painful because anything painful will eventually fade away or become consummated by something else—becomes the ultimate abandonment, a lack of presence which cannot avoid being experienced.