A disastrous theatrical experience of David Lowery’s latest conceptual meditation leaves several confused and one viewer steaming with boiling rage.
“Hey, buddy, why don’t you shut the hell up?” I shouted from my third-row seat at the raving film goer fleeing David Lowery’s A Ghost Story on Saturday Night. It was an 8 o’clock showing and the theater was full; packed with couples looking for that perfect feature to accomplish a satisfactory dinner and a movie date night. Or at least that was the intention of my wife and myself. We had already seen Spider-Man, War for the Planet of the Apes, Baby Driver, The Big Sick, and The Beguiled. For us, A Ghost Story was simply the next film up on our Summer Movie checklist. We were not expecting to go to war with a mob of outraged patrons, but there I was…shouting.
When I purchased our tickets earlier, the employee staffing the box office seemingly condescended to us, “You do realize that this is not a horror film, right?” My wife gave him a pointed look, “Uh, yeah.” Who does he think we are? We’re not just a couple of rubes. We don’t stumble into a theater and see whatever movie is playing next. At the very least we can see the poster over the employee’s shoulder and recognize that Casey Affleck’s bed sheet ghost is not there to terrify our nightmares. David Lowery does not make genre schlock solely designed to send your skittish significant other into your lap. He’s the type of filmmaker that encourages critics to label his films with words like “meditative,” “affecting,” and “conceptual.” So yeah, we know what movie we’re paying for. Duh.
However, just a few minutes into A Ghost Story, and I totally understood the box office’s warning. Obviously, he had been assaulted from infuriated guests already and was simply attempting to spare himself from further grief. I’m not sure how most people choose the movies they go to see in the theater. I’m a movie maniac. If you’re reading this site, you’re a movie maniac. We try to watch all the trailers. We keep abreast of the festival circuit reactions. We obsessively consume the entirety of our favorite filmmaker’s canon. That’s the life. So, of course, we want to see A Ghost Story.
IMDB describes the film this way: “A singular exploration of legacy, love, loss, and the enormity of existence, a recently deceased, white sheeted ghost returns to his suburban home to try to reconnect with his bereft wife.” That certainly sounds meditative, affecting, and conceptual. I’m in. Not to mention the fact that I’ve seen Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and Pete’s Dragon. I kinda already know what I’m in for. A Ghost Story is not going to be a Blumhouse production. It’s not going to be Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore, and a pottery wheel. It’s going to devastate.
The dinner and a movie set though? They haven’t done a lifetime as a glutton for cinema. They haven’t spent their lunch breaks at work scrolling through Twitter, quote-tweeting Sundance reactions with their own snarky witticism. They’re just there to see a movie. Maybe A Ghost Story was simply the next showing after dinner, a gamble with cinematic Russian roulette. Maybe they enjoyed that very particular type of emotional torture experienced by Casey Affleck in Manchester By The Sea and they’re looking for that next Oscar contender. Maybe they thought this was a remake of the Peter Straub spooker of the same title. I don’t know. What I do know is that, for at least half the audience, the ghost story they got was not the ghost story they wanted.
It’s totally cool if you don’t connect with a film for whatever reason. Just don’t be an asshole about it. The crowd started to turn on A Ghost Story almost immediately. It’s a deliberately paced experience, and Lowery’s camera spends the majority of the film quietly observing the actions of its characters. Early on, very little is said between Affleck and Rooney Mara. You barely catch the minutia of their conflict. In the stillness of the theater whispers transformed into grumbles, sounds of popcorn munching malformed into belligerent exhalations of breath. The introduction of the bed sheet ghost garnered chuckles and at least one not-so-quiet, “What the hell?”
Rooney Mara’s nine-minute pie eating sequence set the crowd ablaze. I can understand it as a moment where you’re either going to join this film for the remaining running time, or you’re going to head to the hills. After her realtor leaves her a pie in the wake of her lover’s death, Mara collapses on the kitchen floor and begins to devour it. It’s single static shot in which Affleck’s ghost helplessly observes Mara succumb to excruciating emotion. This is meant to be agonizing; it’s meant to feel interminable.
The first hateful outburst from the crowd occurred when Mara tackled the crust of the pie, “Oh my God! She’s gonna eat this pie for another five minutes!” Had this dude already googled the infamy of this scene, or did he hop online from his seat? Either way, the man was done, but the crowd’s returning laughter only spurred him on. As he and his girlfriend stormed down the aisle he continued, “We’re getting the hell outta here, this is ridiculous.” That’s when I turned around in my seat with my own, “Hey Buddy, why don’t you shut the hell up?” I got a massive “Shhhhhhh” from all sides. The funny guy left, a few more followed behind him. Over the next ten minutes, at least a third of the audience retreated.
From that point on they never silenced. Phones came out, emails were checked, Instagram was managed. I have no idea why those that stayed did. The crime of it all was that my wife and I loved the film. A Ghost Story is purposefully artful. It is haunting. It is sorrowful, laborious, and raw. It’s also painfully relatable and true to the nature of human relationships. When the final moment revealed itself, my wife was brought to tears. The woman sitting to her right, maybe thinking she was unseen in the dark, pointed to her and laughed. “That lady is crying,” she actually chuckled to her date. What. The Actual. Hell?
All of us bring our own baggage into a movie. That’s how art works. The way you feel about a film is based not only on all the previous films you’ve digested but also on just where you are in your life in that particular minute when you sit down in the theater. An office conflict can shift your mood, heartburn can add a veil of disconnect between you and the screen. Preconceived expectations can definitely destroy a film’s chances to win your heart.
Not every film is created equal. You shouldn’t approach Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 with the same viewpoint you would 2001: A Space Odyssey. They don’t have the same goals. One film aggressively panders to your base instincts while chastising the disastrous potential of our stunted culture, and the other is a philosophical exploration of humankind’s potential. Both are awesome. But if you’re looking for a sci-fi lark with a splash of T & A, and you venture Beyond The Infinite with Dave Bowman instead, well, then you’re going to be dissatisfied with the intellectual trip supplied by Stanley Kubrick. You might cry “Boring!” and I might brand you a philistine.
I’m trying not to succumb to hate for that Saturday night crowd. The way you behave in a theater is often decided upon by the mood of the audience. Comedies need people to chuckle along with. Oscar bait weepies need the sympathetic to share tissues between. The Rocky Horror Picture Show needs a herd of feet to jump to the left, then step to the right. When the crowd turned on A Ghost Story maybe we should have joined along or gone looking for a group more like-minded. Still, I want to know what those outraged members of my theater thought they were getting into when they purchased their tickets. The guy at the box office certainly understood the situation he was in. He was just another underpaid retail warrior desperate to spare himself from savage insults from a confused clientele.
Movies aren’t cheap anymore. This night out cost the wife and me $27. If you’re going to drop that money down, and you discover early on that it’s not to your liking then leave. Fine, exchange this film for another. But don’t assume everyone around you is experiencing your disgust. Fight the urge to be selfish. Don’t be a dick. I will tell you to shut up. I am willing to get my ass kicked for a movie.