Considering David Lowery’s A Ghost Story Alongside Boyhood and The Tree of Life.
“I often conflate the domestic and the cosmic on a daily basis,” says writer and director David Lowery when I ask him about how he comes to encompass such a wide perspective within a single movie.
We’re talking about A Ghost Story, his new release that takes time as both a subject and the building blocks of the entire experience. Of course, he’s neither the first nor the last filmmaker to play around with this concept on screen. But Lowery’s film feels of particular kin with two other recent releases with which it shares a regional backdrop: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. (He shared some brief thoughts on the latter film, praising Malick for “seeking after something that can’t be contained in mere narrative.”)
All three films use Texas not so much as a character, as the popular phrasing goes for location-specific films, but as a spirit from which they can draw history, mythology and weight. The state’s vast and multitudinous expanses offer a natural setting to ponder the tension between the supreme importance of a given moment and its relative insignificance on a cosmic scale.
Time is an ingredient baked into each of these film’s productions. Malick famously took years to whittle down The Tree of Life into its final edit. Linklater took over a decade to film a journey from childhood through adolescence in real time with Boyhood. Lowery shot A Ghost Story quickly and furtively in a summer between larger studio projects. An understanding of time is elemental to their creation. But each director goes beyond that surface relationship, depicting time as a force both antagonistic and awe-inspiring. The main conflict in all three films is one against time, either trying to hasten its speed, fend off its advances or stop it altogether. By considering our human mortality and utter helplessness in the face of this uncontrollable power, they provide an opportunity to consider how we maximize what precious little time we have.
Time is the literal narrative engine of Linklater’s Boyhood. What changes the characters is seldom any event we see on screen but rather the simple ebb and flow of a year’s passing. The twelve years of grade school for Ellar Coltrane’s Mason are marked with change – different homes across many regions of Texas, a revolving door of abusive step-parents, new passions, and interests – but the progression of moments into memories into a lifetime remains a rare constant. In the film’s emotional climax, Patricia Arquette’s matriarch breaks down and declares, “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that – this series of milestones…” Yet the film speaks to precisely the opposite experience of time: it’s these tiny yet revealing happenings that ultimately come to define our brief existence. What we think of as nothing turns out to be everything.
A similar contradiction also occurs in The Tree of Life, Malick’s spiritually-inclined opus that devotes 20 minutes of its runtime to depict the birth of the universe. “Where are you?” a character inquires of God in voice-over narration to introduce a sequence spanning from the Big Bang to dinosaurs. Perhaps the better question is, “When are you?” The divine hand seems readily apparent when pondering the vast evolution of life yet largely absent in its modern passages. God is invoked, discussed, prayed to – but only indirectly perceived, and certainly in a diminished magnitude from the creation sequence.
The Texas-dwelling O’Brien family all tries to reconnect with that spirit of the past, both in their mid-20th-century rural community and in the sterile steel environment of a modern urban downtown. It’s mostly Emmanuel Lubezki’s free-floating camera that captures the ethereal notes of grace peeking through the apparent mundanity of their day-to-day interactions; the characters themselves rarely grasp this presence. Protagonist Jack embodies our popular shifting attitude towards time, spending youth trying to escape the oppressive thumb of his rough-hewn father and adulthood attempting to regress back an imagined simpler utopian past. The dichotomy is ultimately not something that he reconciles in his own lifetime, instead making peace in a time after time (which some – myself included – interpret as an afterlife) where the past and present versions of his family can reunite.
A similar break from temporal continuity to find peace defines A Ghost Story. A car crash outside his Dallas home removes music producer C (Casey Affleck) from the land of the living, relegating him to linger at his place of residence as a specter laden in a thick white sheet. He can make his presence felt through various interventions, but he cannot be seen. Doomed to dwell in the space, he witnesses the anguished departure of his widow M (Rooney Mara), the occupancy of residents ranging from a Hispanic family to jaded yuppies, the bulldozing of the vintage home to construct a new skyscraper-dense metropolis … before looping back to early Texas with Native Americans, pioneers and ultimately his own sojourn in the house. If the ghost has any goal, it’s to retrieve a folded-up note that M leaves in a crack in the wall before painting over it. But, time and again, the impermanence of time thwarts his simple quest for knowledge.
While Boyhood is strictly secular and The Tree of Life contains a clear religious dimension, A Ghost Story cuts down the middle with a take on time that’s more nebulously spiritual. Lowery does not look up to the firmament so much as he looks down to the firm, fertile ground beneath his feet. I asked him if he felt there was something transcendental about the Texas land, and he answered affirmatively.
“I feel that about the houses I live in. There is a palpable sense of history in the homes that I choose to occupy. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate towards old homes, I really like that sense of history and that sense that I am one step in a very long process that trails out in both directions around me. Before me and ahead of me.”
That sensibility, while certainly possible to obtain from other areas, strikes me as a particularly Texan attitude. Lowery embodies it, as do Malick and Linklater. Whether one grew up a Texan or just got here as fast as they could, building bridges between the past and the present is a necessary component of compiling an identity. We’re used to piecing together competing ideas and finding something resembling harmony.
Texans pride themselves on their rich library of cultural archetypes from the cowboy to the oil baron, a mythology made possible by the plentiful land’s ability to accommodate such a wide range of personas. Though the concept of six flags over Texas now recalls the amusement park chain, the name speaks to an ingrained history of changing regimes and occupants from the unsavory (Confederacy) to the prideful (Republic of Texas). It makes Texans aware of how temporary and fleeting any arrangement can be – not to mention prideful and resilient no matter what the circumstances. This history, checkered though it may be, forged a character that could both exist within and stand apart from the rest of America. Anyone from Texas will quickly let you know that our state flag is the only one allowed to fly at the same height as the American flag; Lowery himself called it the best metaphor for the state in our interview.
But, as a recent New Yorker headline put it, “America’s Future Is Texas.” Many of the key fault lines in the country – diversifying demographics, migration, urbanization – are already beginning to rupture across the reach of the state. “Because Texas represents so much of modern America—the South, the West, the plains, the border, the Latino community, the divide between rural areas and cities—what happens here tends to disproportionately affect the rest of the nation,” writes Lawrence Wright in the story. Embracing the pluralistic future’s changes without erasing pride in the past is key to understanding how the state constructs its identity today. There is not one Texas but many, and just as its residents melded the six flags into one spirit centuries ago, a new consensus will emerge.
But that takes – you guessed it – time. As the battle for the state’s soul rages on, these directors are using time in the one way they can manipulate it: in their work. In Boyhood, Linklater literally takes time as his clay, shocking us with how much a year can erase baby fat or change someone’s disposition entirely. The Tree of Life juxtaposes the eternal with the ephemeral constantly, both in the narratives it intertwines and within single shots; a match cut in the concluding section shows a hand kissed by Jessica Chastain’s Madonna turn from a wrinkled old one to a smooth young one. And in A Ghost Story, Lowery constantly bends time to his will, compressing days into a single shot or massive chronological leaps into a single cut, while also making us aware of its duration with compelling static tableaus.
“We’ll look back at what’s happening now in the state and hopefully recognize that this particular chapter in Texas history is not the best one,” Lowery opined. But he is hopeful that with time comes wisdom and clarity, if not tidy resolution, as each of these three films suggests. “[Texas] history is rich and vivid and angry and beautiful and sad – and has a spirit to it that is undeniable. I think that is what appeals to me about Texas above all else. It has this almost unquantifiable spirit that is both political and personal […] in that rambunctious, upstart spirit, I find a great deal of personal satisfaction.”
Lowery added: “I don’t like where it leads all the time, on a political and personal level, but I like what’s behind it.”