a ghost story

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: how a powerful 2017 film helped one writer grapple with tragedy. This post contains spoilers for A Ghost Story.)

People watch movies for all kinds of reasons. For entertainment, for work, just to kill some time. Sometimes, though, the magic of a great movie can work as comfort for pains big and small, like a cinematic salve for what ails you. Whether you’re fighting the flu or missing a loved one, the right movie can do wonders. A funny comedy, a mindless action movie, an all-time favorite – my personal go-to films in these situations run the gamut from Broadcast News to Slugs, and they never fail to get my mind and spirit back on track.

Well, almost never. I’m a generally chipper guy (with a side of cynicism and a dash of indifference), but while the world at large seems more and more intent on beating us down these days, I can typically push forward and weather the storm unscathed. An exception was born over the past few years, though, and it’s only becoming more common. News of particularly horrific mass shootings just devastates me. A Parisian concert hall, an Orlando night club, a Lafayette movie theater – I grow simultaneously furious, numb, and helpless in my grief for lives cut down in moments of joy, and attempts to distract my thoughts with “entertainment” fail miserably.

So instead of going high, I began going low. Instead of tossing in Big Trouble In Little China to remind me of life’s great things, I found myself spending hours in YouTube death spirals – it’s okay, you can laugh at how silly it sounds – of natural disasters, animal attacks, traffic accidents, and genuine human carnage and tragedy (Now don’t you feel terrible for laughing?). YouTube’s “Up Next” sidebar would grow progressively darker and more disturbing until watching uncensored videos of a woman hit by a speeding train or a man mauled by a sun bear in Malaysia had left me temporarily desensitized to human suffering.

It’s admittedly not a great system, but it works for me.

All of which is a roundabout way of getting to last Monday and news of the nightmare that unfolded in Las Vegas. I was once again left broken by a tragedy, but instead of going online, I decided to watch a movie I’d successfully avoided at three film festivals this year. Nothing I knew (or thought I knew) about A Ghost Story appealed to me, as I was no fan of the previous collaboration between writer/director David Lowery and actors Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Talk of a forty-five minute pie-eating scene wasn’t helping its case either. I put the Blu-ray on, expecting to be bored, underwhelmed, or irritated, but instead I found one of the year’s best and most-affecting films.

A Ghost Story is ostensibly about a young couple in a small house who are separated when C (Affleck) dies in a car crash and M (Mara) is forced to go on living without him. Our focus stays on C, though, after he rises from the cold metal slab and his death shroud becomes a ghostly sheet. A shimmering gateway opens up before him, presumably to the afterlife, but he chooses instead to return home. We watch as he watches M grieve and live over the next several days, weeks, and months, and when she eventually brings another man home, C’s ghost causes poltergeist-like damage in his silent disapproval. She moves out, but not before writing an unseen note, securing it in a crack in the wall, and painting it over. He attempts and fails to reach the note, and he remains – through another family’s arrival, through the bulldozing of the house, through the construction of a high-rise, and beyond.

The ghost is stuck in space – he walks around, but it’s within the same general vicinity – but he’s set loose in time. Some experiences, like seeing M suffer, feel like an eternity to him, while others pass by in an instant. Months to the living are both moments and years to him. It’s no linear path, though, and his move into the future eventually brings him to a prairie where he’s made witness to settlers arriving on a horse-drawn wagon. Life, death, creation, destruction, he sees it all, and eventually he watches a house built and a young couple moving in – he’s seeing M and himself – and now he’s haunting his own life.

I’m giving more detail here then I would in an actual review, but I’m still hesitant to share too much. The film is at times sweet, suspenseful, humorous, and heartbreaking, and it’s filled with small moments of recognition, both in events and sensation, but it’s also a sedately-paced and meditative journey through grief, love, and our innate resistance to change and loss. It’s hard to let go, but the film suggests it shouldn’t be impossible to move forward. We will lose things and people along the way – that’s guaranteed – and many will be taken from us in ways well beyond our control or understanding. The trick is holding on to them without walking endlessly in place.

The ghost doesn’t speak, but Lowery includes an exchange halfway through the film that, while brief, packs both levity and a haunting weight into just a few moments. The ghostly C stands at the window at one point and looks to the house across the street, where he sees another ghost staring back. The two wave greetings and proceed to have an extremely short dialogue via subtitles. The neighbor ghost says they’re waiting for someone, but they don’t remember who. It’s that simple, and then the camera pulls back and the movie moves on, but in those few seconds we see the futility of holding so fiercely onto something that the act of resistance alone supplants the memory itself.

Affleck approached a similar theme from a more traditional viewpoint in the recent Manchester By the Sea – he plays a man left behind after his family’s death to grieve their loss – and he’s doing almost the same thing here, albeit with less dialogue and face-time. The difference, though, beside the obvious ghost angle, is that he’s left trying to hold onto more than just the memories of others. He’s struggling to confirm his own existence and worth. The living mourn the dead, but could part of our resistance to letting memories fade be a fear that one day we’ll die too…and be forgotten?

We all want to believe that we’ll be missed after we’re gone, and his journey through time here serves both as his quest for affirmation and the universe’s reminder that it simply doesn’t give a damn. Life moves on, with or without us, and it’s up to us as individuals, lovers, families, friends, and strangers alike to make each day count for ourselves and each other. It’s a cliche that tragedies are typically followed with reminders to call your loved ones for you never know what’s around the corner, but it’s no less true for its frequency. We want to know we matter, but we can’t forget to let others know they do too.

There’s no denying that A Ghost Story isn’t a film for everyone or for anytime, and I’m admittedly curious how a re-watch will fare sometime down the road when I’m not reeling from a recent mass shooting – if such a time will even exist – but for last Monday at least, this was undoubtedly the right movie at the right time. And that’s no small thing.

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