Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Ghost Story

Director: David Lowery
Country: U.S.A.
Year: 2017
Duration: 1.32
    Motto from: Virginia Woolf: "A Haunted House" (1921).
    DCP at Cinema Lapinsuu [not at the Big Top as originally announced] at Midnight Sun Film Festival (MSFF), Sodankylä, 13 June 2018

MSFF: "A man (Casey Affleck) and a woman (Rooney Mara) buy a house that is haunted. One day, however, the man dies in a car accident. After the body has been identified the man, wrapped in bed sheets, returns to the house as a ghost, to live as a bystander meanwhile the woman fights a way forward in her sorrow."

"A Ghost Story is a metaphysical love story Kieslowski style. The outline is simple but the thematic gives the film an unbelievable depth. With ease it handles the basic existential questions: of sorrow, time and death. It exudes a melancholy beauty and explores the bittersweet struggles of life."

"Shot beautifully on 35 mm film, the uncanny elements are the 4:3 aspect ratio and the rounded corners. However, this is not any shallow stylistic twist but a visual interpretation for how a ghost is stuck in his own house, a prisoner in a non-linear limbo."

"The story’s male protagonist / ghost was a musician in his former life, thus the movie’s soundtrack has a central role in the film. The song “I Get Overwhelmed”, by composer Nick Hart’s band Dark Room, works as the male protagonist’s composition as well as the woman’s gateway to their common memories, a way to connect with her husband. Hart’s original music is textural and emotionally potent, just like all the other aspects of the film." (Otto Kylmälä)

"The Texan DAVID LOWERY (born 1980) has directed four feature films, one documentary film, a plethora of short films, and some episodes of TV series. His debut feature Deadroom (2005) was an episode quartet by four individual directors, limited to one-room discussions. The almost dialogue-less coming of age description St. Nick (2009) received awards i.a. in his native city of Dallas. Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck of A Ghost Story already starred in the romantic crime drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2014). It was selected for the Cannes Critics’ Week and became an international review success. At the time Lowery listed the films by Claire Denis, Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, and David Fincher as his influences."

AA: I was an avid horror film buff in the 1980s, and together with my brother Asko Alanen I even wrote a book, the first Finnish book on horror, called Musta peili ["Dark Mirror"]. During the 1980s my interest in contemporary horror waned.

In my opinion there have been two major waves in the history of the horror film. The first great wave was from the end of the First World War to the mid-1930s. Another great wave was that of the 1960s and the 1970s. (Of course outstanding single works have kept emerging outside waves). Now we seem to be experiencing a third wave. New talents emerge, original works are created. (While sequels and remakes remain popular.)

Some of the new wave horror films belong to the body horror tradition. Many works reinvent a more subtle legacy. This new wave approach has been recently discussed by Jason Zinoman in his article "Home Is Where the Horror Is" (The New York Times, 7 June 2018).

David Lowery's A Ghost Story is one of these new wave horror films. It starts with a Virginia Woolf motto, and it has affinities with the ghost stories of Henry James, but it is a modern and original piece.

A Ghost Story, with Andrew Droz Palermo as the director of photography, is image-driven. It proceeds as a series of visions, first chronologically. After the ghost's jump from the skyscraper in a megapolis there is a time warp back to the Wild West pioneers in 19th century Texas. The ghost is a silent witness to many kinds of scenes at homes. An original feature in the film is the use of distant views to convey the ghost in epic landscapes and building-sites.

The cinematography is subtle and eloquent. In the beginning I was thinking about Rudolph Maté's dusk lighting in Vampyr, and his sense of dust and smoke, but many other modes are also in evidence here. The aspect ratio is Academy. There is a penchant for the long take. A Ghost Story belongs to the cinema of duration.

A Ghost Story is a poetic vision of cosmic loneliness, a meditation of sadness and longing. From ephemeral reflections to stardust this is communicated via reflections.

A recurrent motif is a hidden message. When the ghost finally manages to retrieve his widow's note hidden in a crack in the wall he disappears.

An interesting digression in a party scene is about the concept of legacy. When we devote our work and life to God we sense permanent value. What is the meaning of legacy in a world without God?

A humoristic current emerges from the meetings of ghosts, each mourning their private sorrows. We cannot hear them, but David Lowery lets us read their remarks via subtitles. Time is circular in A Ghost Story, and in the finale the ghost meets his double when the narrative repeats itself, now in the presence of a ghost previously invisible for us.

I copied the titles of new wave horror films mentioned by Jason Zinoman in his article "Home Is Where the Horror Is" (The New York Times, 7 June 2018) and put them into chronological order:

Hereditary (Ari Aster, 8 June 2018),
Revenge (Coralie Fargeat, 11 May 2018)
A Quiet Place (John Krasinski, 6 April 2018),
Pyewacket (Adam MacDonald, 8 Dec 2017),
M.F.A. (Natalia Leite, 13 Oct 2017),
A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 27 July 2017),
It Comes at Night (Trey Edward Shults, 9 June 2017),
Raw (Julia Ducournau, 15 March 2017),
Get Out (Jordan Peele, 24 Feb 2017),
Don't Breathe (Fede Álvarez, 26 Aug 2016),
The Witch (Robert Eggers, 19 Feb 2016),
It Follows (David Robert Mitchell, 27 March 2015),
Goodnight Mommy / Ich seh ich seh (Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz, 8 Jan 2015),
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 22 May 2014)

"Das Unheimliche" ("The Uncanny") is the title of an essay by Sigmund Freud, in debate with Ernst Jentsch over E. T. A. Hoffmann's horror story "Der Sandmann". The term "das Unheimliche" Freud adopted from Jentsch, but Freud revised and expanded it essentially. Freud's insight was that "das Unheimliche" is simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar. During the period of German Idealism "Das Unheimliche" had been discussed by Schelling in his Philosophie der Mythologie in the context of the repression of the uncanny in Homer.


A musician lives with his wife in a small house in Dallas, Texas. She wants to move, but he does not. One night, they hear a bang on their piano but cannot find the cause.

The man is killed in a car accident. At the hospital, his wife views his body and covers it with a sheet. The man awakens as a ghost covered in the sheet, and wanders through the hospital, invisible. He comes to a door of light, but turns away, and it closes. He returns to his house and watches his wife grieve over days and weeks. He sees another ghost inside the house next door; wordlessly, the ghost tells him that she is waiting for someone, but cannot remember who.

When the wife comes home with a man, the ghost hurls books from the shelf and turns lights on and off. The wife listens to a song written by the man when he was alive. She decides to move out; before she leaves, she writes a note and hides it in a gap in a wall. The ghost picks at the wall but cannot retrieve the note.

A family moves in. The ghost watches them eat dinner, play piano, and celebrate Christmas. The children are bothered by his presence, and the family moves out after he hurls plates from the kitchen cabinet in anger. At a party thrown by the next occupants, the ghost listens to a man describe how people try to create a legacy, but everything is ultimately destroyed. The partygoers notice the lights flicker.

The house becomes abandoned and derelict. As the ghost manages to remove a piece of the wall concealing the note, bulldozers level it and the house next door. The second ghost says she no longer thinks whoever she is waiting for is coming, and vanishes.

The man's ghost watches as a skyscraper is built on the land. On the roof, he views a futuristic cityscape. He jumps from the edge and is transported to the 19th century, where a family of settlers are building a house. He watches as the family's young daughter writes a note and hides it under a rock. After the family is killed by Native Americans, the ghost watches the daughter decay into the grass.

Decades later, the ghost watches as his past self and wife move into the house. They argue about moving out. After the man tells his wife that he is ready to move out, the ghost sits at the piano, striking the keys and causing the noise that wakes the couple. As the wife moves out, the ghost sees his earlier ghost watching her leave. He manages to retrieve the note from the wall, reads it, and vanishes.

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