It was Martin Scorsese who decades ago introduced the philosophy of “one for them, one for me” as the way to maneuver a successful filmic career. These days, the filmmaker who seems most able to carry out Scorsese’s dictum is David Lowery, who segued from the artsy indie western, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” to making the animated “Pete’s Dragon” for Hollywood, then stepped back for the subtle, low-tech “A Ghost Story,” before undertaking an extravagant studio production. He’s set to direct the upcoming, super-budget, live-action version of ”Peter Pan.”
To move about they way he does, Lowery must be schizophrenic in his aesthetics. How can he endorse the Hollywood credo then make the deeply personal “A Ghost Story,” which, except for its stars, Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, is intensely anti- Hollywood in every conceivable way? And which seems eager to disappoint every genre fan boy and girl who, seduced by the title, will come to the movie expecting chills and spills and a pileup of bloody bodies?
What do they get instead? A thinking person’s philosophical film, willfully slow- paced, pensive, moody. And the finest American movie so far in 2017.
A thirtyish couple, C (Affleck) and M (Mara), perhaps married, move into an oddly gothic-ambient ranch house. He appreciates it far more than she does, attuned to what he feels is the house’s rich, deep-boned history. They hang around, he plays the piano which has been left in place by past owners; and one night something goes “bump” in another room and scares them. But there’s no chance for the couple to explore more, as he, C, is killed in a freak car accident a hundred yards from their home. We see him slumped over the wheel like the jolting death of Jack Palance and Brigitte Bardot in Jean-Luc Godard’s “Le Mepris.”
Lowery’s camera holds on C beneath a sheet in the hospital morgue. (The grieving M has taken off, leaving him there.) Suddenly, C sits up straight. A ghost! At this point, Hollywood would bring in a battalion of costly technicians and CGI experts to animate the apparition. Lowery’s anti-studio ghost is what a child would do on Halloween with no money for an actual costume. It’s a man wearing a white bed sheet with two crude cutouts for the eyes to look through. That is all. More, it’s not even a ghost you can plow through, some cool ectoplasm. Whenever a person is in the room with the unseen ghost, the person is directed by Lowery to walk to the side of the ghost, and the ghost steps back so there is no touching. There is no special effect of any kind.
This simple, simple ghost works beautifully and, yes, hauntingly. The white sheet is literally a tabula rasa, allowing the audience to project onto the spirit whatever emotion you believe it is feeling. The phantasm I watched registered (I swear) longing, loneliness, curiosity, jealousy, anger, melancholy. My movie going friend who accompanied me to “A Ghost Story” was convinced that Casey Affleck was under the sheet for the whole movie, not a stand-in, because the ghost was so extraordinarily expressive. Again, a guy with a sheet and holes for eyes!
Anyway, this ghost of C walks out of the hospital (nobody can see it) and across fields to his home, where he stands and observes M, his suffering love, though he is seemingly unable to make contact with her. David Lowery studies M too, filming her visage in Dreyer-like ravishing closeups. Meara has never been so gorgeous, her fine features and swan skin bathed in delicate camera light. The mourning M has no way to express her anguish. She does it obliquely, by devouring in one sitting a whole pie brought by a neighbor, before she regurgitates it. Like with an avant-garde Warhol movie, we watch the pie be eaten in real time, in one five-minute take.
I said the movie is philosophical, thus challenging the anti-intellectualism of today’s Hollywood. “A Ghost Story” starts to jump through time. C’s ghost watches his lover from right after his demise, when she is desperate for his presence, to a moment in the near future when she welcomes a new lover into the house, to an even later moment when M moves away. The ghost of C chooses his beloved house over following after M, who has betrayed his memory. He stays there through future owners, until the inevitable tragedy, when the one-story house is razed for high-rise apartment buildings. C travels back in time to a 19 th century Indian attack presumably on the same spot. And he stands by while one owner (Will Oldham) delivers the key gloomy soliloquy of the movie, declaring that after we die, all of us are eventually forgotten, and also our achievements. He demonstrates how even something as monumental and seemingly holy as Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony will someday disappear from the earth.
What chance for immortality has one obstinate ghost, C, who, through the years, won’t budge from the spot where he stands? Or lovely M who, as a romantic gesture as she abandoned her house, put a slip of paper with her name on it into a crack so somehow she will be remembered forever?
© FIPRESCI 2017