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A Ghost Story (2017) – Dissecting a Bold, Beautiful, and Immersive Indie

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A GHOST STORY (2017)

Directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints; Pete’s Dragon; Old Man and the Gun). Starring Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo; The Social Network; Carol), Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea; The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), and Barlow Jacobs.

I watched this film for the second time last night. The first time, I was mystified and moved. This time, the same was true, but on top of that, every scene clicked into place. I finally felt like I could fully wrap my head around the ideas behind the film, and, in line with the film’s idea of doing what we can to endure, I am writing this blog post to preserve and perpetuate the ideas and thoughts I had while revisiting.

1.) Narrative ideas

I’ll lay out my idea of the film’s central meaning(s) first to provide context for my thoughts. The central arc as I understand it now is one of letting go, both of specific places and of control in general, in a cosmic sense.

i. exposition

In the opening vignettes, C (Casey) and M (Rooney) set up the central source of tension in their on-screen relationship: the ideas surrounding whether they should move or not. I will admit, this exposition is the only element of the film that ever-so-slightly confused me (not so much now, I’ll explain), although I know that there was upwards of 10 minutes of dialogue originally shot for this subject and it was a tricky balance with test screenings to achieve the right balance of things shown vs left unsaid. It would make sense that C is nostalgic and attached to the house – he is hesitant to move or disturb the old piano that came with the house, and also later on in the film M asks him what he likes so much about the place and he mentions “history.” M, on the other hand, surreptitiously looks up housing listings and is less attached/grounded/nostalgic. However, a few distinct moments complicated my understanding of this dynamic. First, in the opening scene on the couch, the following dialogue exchange occurs (or something close to it):

M: We used to move all the time, I’d write these notes, and I would fold them up really small, and I would hide them in difference places, so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.

C: Did you ever go back?

M: No.

C: See? That’s what I’m saying.

When I watched it, this indicated to me that C is making the point that there’s no need to be nostalgic / attached to the past. Thinking about it now though, I think when he says “That’s what I’m saying,” he’s actually making the opposite point. That when you leave a house, you never go back, and that’s why they shouldn’t move, because they’ll lose all the ties they have to this (at least to him) significant place. He’s grasping to hold onto the time and memories that are flowing so quickly away from him.

Second, when M asks if they should find movers for the piano, C says they could probably find a better one. Which seems to go against his character. But maybe he’s resigning to M’s stubbornness. Or maybe he’s trying to go along with her for once but secretly is in pain about it, that M isn’t as attached as he is. Bottom line, contradictions are essential to rich characters and although this point confused me in the moment, there is a landslide of evidence (without even mentioning the wall scratching) that C is grounded in that sense of place, and so I think it is made abundantly clear.

ii. C’s ghost journey – both physical and emotional

So C dies in an unexpected car crash, and as a ghost he is grounded in this strong sense of place, so much so that he either can’t or won’t leave the house even when M moves out. He and another grandma ghost interact about waiting for someone or something. And once he sees time jump forward and back and experiences this plot of land in all of its incarnations and then finally comes back to witness the very moments of his relationship with M as depicted in the beginning of the film, only then is he finally able to relinquish control and nostalgia, accept the flowing nature of time, and poof away. The meaning of this final poof is set up by the grandma ghost’s poof-away earlier in the film, prompted by the realization that “I don’t think they’re coming.” According to the rules of the film, ghosts poof away when they’ve accepted that there will be no grand resolution, they have no control.

Which brings me to my more-developed understanding of where C’s ghost mind is at when he poofs away in the end. I was reminded of the ending monologue of American Beauty — this part:

“It’s hard to stay mad when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once and it’s too much. My heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst. And then it flows through me like rain, and I can’t feel anything but gratitude for every single moment of my stupid little life.”

While this monologue discusses beauty, the version adaptable to A Ghost Story is on the subject of time and our lack of control over it — in line with Will Oldham’s speech in the party scene. C realizes that he is a speck in time and at some point he needs to move on and relinquish control, and in the end, when he sees their relationship play out and sees himself as a ghost (signaling that time has already come full circle and now it is tracing the same circle – he is in a rut because he’s ruminating in an unproductive and redundant way) and finally obtains M’s note he’s been scratching for, he can finally do so. He can finally be at peace and just be grateful for his little time alive in the wash of history.

iii. the ghost’s active character choices

So this brings me to the meatiest part of my narrative analysis – we’ve seen where C starts and ends the movie emotionally, but what does he do to earn it? Some would say that he is a rather passive, observational character. I initially was inclined to agree with that, but I now see a lot more depth.

First of all, I think there’s nothing wrong with the film being largely observation-based. For C to accept the enormity of time, he has to have an experience that no one alive could ever have – see time span periods longer than a single life. And see time extended from our lives into the context of forever, to overstay his welcome in the party of life to see that the party isn’t as lasting/meaningful as he initially had thought. So this largely passive realization is cathartic despite its roots in pure observation.

But also… C makes active choices as a ghost. Some obvious to me, some I had to think about more. He decides to “haunt” the Spanish-speaking family’s house, tipping over a photo and breaking the glass, and then violently lashing out and throwing kitchen ceramics at the wall, shattering them and freaking out the family. He also jumps off the building, which is the cause (as far as I understood) of him launching backward in time. And most importantly, the cut from the pioneer sequence back to ghost C observing living C and M’s relationship, is one that is unprompted by a clear cause. Which makes me suspect as a viewer that C chose actively to return to those memories. This to me hearkens back to the beginning of the movie when M talks about leaving notes and then wanting to go back to those places. C is doing just that – going back to their house to find the note in the wall. And also, on a deeper level, in a temporal sense, going back to the “place” that is their relationship, their place in time. So in the beginning he’s discussing the fact that people never go back, and in the end he finds peace by actually going back. Interestingly, he is only able to let go of the very nostalgia he carries by indulging it. And his relationship with M has a very satisfying payoff in that respect, with him joining her by being swept into the indifferent ever-flowing current of time which erodes everything.

In the commentary, Lowery says that each third of the movie has its own arc, and this is something I’ll have to think of it more. Right now I’d divide it into 1.) C and M living relationship, 2.) C remains in the house and sees time progress, and 3.) C goes back in time and sees things come full circle and lets go. But i have other ideas and need to reflect more.

2.) Supporting Choices

I want to spend a bit of time below outlining little details and craft choices I observed that bolster the themes/ideas discussed above.

i. craft 

  1. I loved that especially in the first third of the film, there were a lot of transitions where it would cut to black in between scenes and linger on black, to wash off each memory to history and help to show us that nothing lasts and establish a sense of transience.

  2. When Linda delivers the pie, we see a little glow/hot spot of light on the wall in between the living room and kitchen, indicative of the ghost’s presence in the real world. There were times when hits of haze/smoke would underscore the ghost’s presence too.

  3. I learned in the commentary that a lot of ghost-human two-shots/OTSs etc were sometimes shot separately in each setup and then composited later, and sometimes the human and ghost within a shot were shot at different frame rates. I think I saw this especially in the shot of M standing by the rainy window and ghosty C dirty in the foreground. I think that instance was a different frame rate but it could have also been a slower shutter speed for M’s portion than for C’s.

  4. This is pretty obvious I’d imagine to anyone who watches the film, but the lingering-longer-than-usual nature of the shots adds to our perceptions of time and of the ghost’s point of view / observational experiences. I love in particular the wide dolly shot of M taking the wood object out of the house onto the street. It lingers on the house for a long time to show a moment of peace before their relationship unexpectedly comes to an end.

  5. I appreciated the discipline with which the filmmakers discerned what belonged in the final cut and what didn’t. In the commentary it’s discussed that there were some fancy dolly shots that felt more about the shot and less about what was happening in the shot. Also, apparently they shot more than one in-camera real-time day-to-night lighting transition, but obviously only the one in the chair made it into the final film.

  6. I loved how when time starts to move quicker, the DP Andrew Droz Palmero brings out the zoom lenses and then the Movi and we really viscerally feel time accelerating. It’s beautiful.

  7. Using the element of the bedsheet in unexpected ways. Like when C dies, and he’s covered in a white sheet. And then the transition that is punctuated by Rooney removing a white fitted sheet from a bed. Those things contribute to the fabric and world of the movie. It reminds me of the fiction courses I’ve taken, where I learned that the best metaphors / literary devices draw from the fabric of the story instead of being random references. Like we read a story that was about a boat, and all the metaphors/similes had to do with the sea and water etc. Or like, I played jazz saxophone for 13 years, and Tom Finn, an instructor I had at Litchfield Jazz Camp, would tell me that improvising was more complicated than just building on the chord progression of a given song. I had to stay true to the tonality and musical fabric of the specific tune I was playing. Which was a surprisingly affecting lesson to learn about the process of creation.

  8. From a writing perspective, I’m thinking now for the first time about how the nature of C’s death adds to the story. Why did he have to die unexpectedly, young, in a car crash? I realize now that it’s because he’s nostalgic and clingy and never wants to depart, and he departs the world sooner than he’d like. In a way, dying in the way he did is the first step on his journey to relinquish control and completely accept the nature of time.

  9. Yeah, so, the music is just utterly dope. Theatrical and emotional and comforting and powerful.

ii. a few smaller details

  1. I LOVED that the girl in the pioneer sequence is humming “I Get Overwhelmed,”  the song C writes and M listens to earlier in the film. NBD but proud to say I noticed this. Apparently the girl was humming a random song and someone asked if she was humming IGO, and the filmmakers thought that was a good idea we should do that (!) and later replaced the humming later in ADR with her humming IGO. Things like this, which were sometimes just happy fortunate things they stumbled on, contribute to how tight the film is and how every element comes back (this humming is reminiscent of Will Oldham’s speech section dealing with someone humming the symphony in a cave).

  2. I love that before M eats the pie she throws something out and stares into the trash can and its like looking into the black void of nothingness, both in her heart and in terms of the meaning of life.

iii. humor

This movie is surprisingly funny. I love when the ghost is chucking plates and cups, and he chucks one mug in particular and it hits the wall hard but doesn’t break. That’s hilarious. And then obviously the subtitles are beautifully entertaining.

3. Final thoughts

I would recommend listening to the commentary track with the key creatives. It’s amazing and covers everything from VFX tattoo removal for Casey Affleck’s back, to funny jokes, to production logistics like delaying demolishing of the house a few days to get a few more pickups and also the DP traveling out to quieter parts of Texas to get time lapses of starry skies, which to my understanding were also used later in VFX to create the cosmic depictions. Apparently in Rooney’s scene with Barlow Jacobs, the guy who kisses her in the doorway, before every take you can hear Barlow in the dailies trying to get Rooney to laugh with jokes, and some were really good but she never laughed at al. Which I found hilarious.

I think David Lowery and his team deserve a tremendous amount of respect not only for executing this film so well but for venturing to make this sort of story in the first place. With its magic-hour moods, elegantly draped ghost character (almost Star-Wars-reminiscent in the cloaky nature of it), and ethereal score, the world of the film is hypnotic and immersive. It’s a truly bold and fresh kind of film and is singular and specific in its exploration of time. And I love it 🙂

#AGhostStory #DavidLowery #SailorBear #Sundance