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Hole-y ghost, wholly ambiguous?

Have you ever become a ghost, haunting someone — or some place — that you loved?

I have. Once upon a time, I loved my office. It seemed too good to be true.

For several years, I worked in a space I had filled with artwork that inspired me. Even better, my standing desk was set against a floor-to-ceiling window, so I enjoyed a panoramic view of a garden alive with Japanese maples and magnolia trees. Behind it loomed the university’s clock tower. On a typical day, rivers of students rushed through the garden, hurrying to and from their classes. Between those parades, the garden rested, while woodpeckers, hummingbirds, squirrels, crows, and the occasional raccoon paid visits. In the blue dome of sky above, bald eagles circled.

The beauty of that place was good medicine for my head, heart, and imagination. And it influenced my work — I wrote better, edited better, thought better while I was there. One of the school’s teachers, a world-renowned brain scientist, once explained to me that this combination of practicality, personality, and perspective was an ideal circumstance for mental acuity and innovation. I had no trouble believing him.

And then, influenced by workplace trends, the supervisors decided to remodel everything. I was relocated to a corner, under harsh fluorescent lights, facing a wall. I still don’t understand why.

Bob Dylan once said that “Nostalgia is death.” If we strive to preserve or to restore something that has passed, we can do harm to ourselves and, worse, to others. I admit, I was probably not an ideal coworker in those last years of my work there. If I’d been wiser, I would have left that job, handing it over to those whose interests and priorities had no room for me. Instead, I stayed. I struggling to adapt. To be loyal. To survive until things improved. Things did not improve. And my appeals for some help fell on deaf ears. My creativity suffered and my spirits slumped. I struggled to avoid resentment. With chagrin, wondered if I would devolve into that grumbling oaf who gets assigned to the basement in the movie Office Space.

If this leads you to guess what I was like when my high school girlfriend broke up with me, well, you’d probably guess right.

When I love something, or somebody, I am not likely to let go easily. I am, you might say, easily haunted. Memories of good things that have passed, they torment me. And if I don’t find a way to move on, I become ghost-like myself, hovering over the ruins of what has crumbled.

*

I thought about that office while I watched the celebrated new film by director David Lowery, in which a man becomes so attached to his house for the memories it contains that he cannot let go of it. He can’t let go when his wife wants to move. He can’t even let go after death.

A Ghost Story is a moody and, yes, haunting film. In earlier films like 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and in last year’s remake of Disney’s Pete’s Dragon, Lowery established himself as an artist more inclined to crafting quiet, intimate, suggestive scenarios than big, explosive entertainment. This new movie is so hushed and meditative that it makes his previous work seem loud and busy.

To play out this heavy-hearted drama, Lowery has brought back his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stars: Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. They play another troubled couple, but this time we never learn their names. (End credits call them only “C” and “M.”) To viewers familiar with the highs and lows of long-term relationships, their highs and lows probably seem ordinary. He seems to be a recording artist, recording his longings in airy falsetto, while she… well, if the movie tells us what she does, I missed it. Their most memorable adventure happens one night when strange noises jolt them out of bed and send them sneaking about to find the source.

Casey Affleck is establishing himself as the Leading Man of Traumatic Loss. In A Ghost Story, his character resembles the one he played in Manchester by the Sea, even when he’s covered by a sheet.

Horror movie fans will have ideas about where this might be going. They’ll be wrong.

Eventually, M feels ready to move on, but C feels a strange connection to this address — a connection the film doesn’t entirely explain. And his opportunities to enlighten us are few. He dies suddenly, and for most of the film he is a silent ghost — manifesting as a Halloween caricature. (Shall we call him Hole-y Sheet? No? Okay.)

C-Ghost spends days, and eventually years, brooding in the rooms he loved, resenting and troubling others who try to make memories of their own there, and watching the tides of change advance upon his yard.

C-Ghost’s inability to speak to the living has much to do with the film’s most powerful strengths and its most frustrating weaknesses. It invites us into his long silences, to keep vigil during stillnesses during which “action” amounts to subtly shifting light which glimmers in sharp contrast to the apparent permanence of C-Ghost’s bitter resolve.

If, after one viewing, I was asked to say what I think A Ghost Story is about, I would suggest that many of the hints in this almost-silent, spacious film point to ideas about the corrupting nature of nostalgia, sentimentality, and fixating on — rather than grieving and surrendering — a lost treasure. C-Ghost strives and strives — as I did in my doomed quest to turn back the clock and recover the ideal working conditions that I had known — to keep the “glory days” from slipping away, a world that had fit him so perfectly.

It becomes fairly obvious that the problem with ghosts is an inability to let go, to accept time and loss, to open themselves to what the forces of change might bring. C-Ghost’s journey will involve a slow education in the early history of this property that he so fiercely desires. He’ll learn hard lessons in cruelty, injustice, and losses far more troubling than his own. The “real Treasure” is — as you can probably guess — not a house, not a scrap of land… but love, a fragile and delicate thing that happens in the Now, in tender exchanges, in openness and generosity and surrender.

That’s my best guess at what this film is about — at least for now.

*

While the film’s silences demonstrate Lowery’s willingness to challenge his audience, those silences also became somewhat frustrating for me. Many of my favorite films are similarly meditative, but quiet and confusion are two different things. You may have a different experience, but A Ghost Story took me on a long and circuitous journey that tried my patience.

While I appreciated the moody rooms, the delicate prisms and reflections on the walls, the affecting lead performance by Rooney Mara, and the gutsy gimmick of the Halloween costume haunting a hospital, a house, and a history, I found myself increasingly confused and confounded with the movie’s startling turns in the second half. It feels like it would have worked better as a short film, sticking to the modest strengths of its first half, before the tangents in the second half that seem to be straining to Say Important Things. I never quite tuned in to what its second half wanted me to discern. And in the culminating scene, when a big secret is revealed, it doesn’t help me at all.

I’ll try to avoid specifics, but the conclusion reminds me of the famous mystery at the end of Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation — the famous “What does he whisper in her ear?” moment — but blown up to a feature-length mystery. In Coppola’s film, the whole rest of the movie provides hints and suggestions about what that private exchange might mean. Here, most of the movie remains ambiguous, creating a constant implied refrain: “What do you think?” And that leaves me grasping for a credible interpretation of its conclusion.

So, if a college sophomore tells me in class that <i>A Ghost Story</i> is great because “It can mean whatever you want it to mean” … I will cringe and admit that, “Yes, its ambiguities are so huge that it really is a big-screen Rorschach test.”

But ‘Openness to Any Interpretation‘ is not a quality of Great Art.”

I can throw some popcorn onto a tabletop and call it art because, well, it’s “open to interpretation.” That doesn’t mean I’m right. Real art, on the other hand, invites us to discover meaning by studying relationships between elements within a frame, and the more observant an interpretation, the more connections we can make between the details we’ve been given to support that interpretation. Blade Runner, back in 1981, confounded audiences; as years passed and viewers began connecting dots and speculating about the Why of its refusal to follow a formula, its meaningfulness was revealed. Interpretations gain credibility over time, as more and more “readings” reinforce it, revealing the integrity of the work, the sense that nothing is extraneous or unnecessary.

That doesn’t mean “weaker” interpretations are useless. Our interpretations tend to reveal things about us as well as the work itself. We bring our own particular questions, experiences, and interests to the table, and that will influence our relationship with a work of art. So, what we experience watching a movie like A Ghost Story might be both meaningful even if it is more about us than the work itself. I have no doubt that many viewers will embrace this film as meaningful in the way that their assumptions about the movie fill up its spaces. And that’s fine.

But does the movie itself support those interpretations? Is there enough evidence within it that others will come to those same conclusions, and we’ll begin to see more clearly some particular truths in the midst of these mysteries?

I go to art for the opportunity to encounter a truth too big for words, one that lives in mystery and metaphor, one that can be shared. Like climbers who approach a mountain from different directions, we might see it differently, but there is still a growing sense that we are climbing the same mountain, that there is a “there” there. It may be that a subsequent viewing will help me find something more substantial here. But if I were to hear Lowery, say, “No, your student’s right — the movie doesn’t have a truth of its own; it’s whatever you want it to be” … well, thank you, but I want my money back.

So when Josh Larsen and Adam Kempenaar of the Filmspotting podcast talk about the ending of this film, and one finds it particularly hopeful and the other doesn’t, all I can do is shrug and say, “Who can say?” If there is evidence in the film to incline us one way or another, I sure didn’t see it.

*

Still, I don’t want to give the impression that I’m dismissing the film. I’m just saying that, as someone deeply familiar with grief and loss, I was surprised to find myself unaffected by a film so widely celebrated as a masterpiece.

I admire how A Ghost Story favors restraint over the sound and fury and busy-ness that qualifies as entertainment for most American moviegoers. I don’t share the opinion of the the moviegoer who, sitting next to me, huffed and puffed impatiently through the first 20 minutes and, during the already famous Pie-Eating Scene, wheezed, “Okay, okay, we get the point. This is ridiculous.” This is not a movie about “getting the point.”) Here’s a film characterized by humility and restraint in the presence of unanswerable questions.

I just think that, after my first viewing, the film may value the power of ambiguity a little too much. It drapes beautiful images of shadows and light over questions that seem important. I’m just not at all sure what those questions really are. Whatever mystery I’m supposed to meet there just stares blankly back at me, out of reach.

*

 

Note: I read with amazement that the movie’s much-discussed Pie-Eating Scene represents the first time that actress Rooney Mara ever tasted pie in her life. Wow. For me, that is a more particular and interesting revelation than anything in the movie itself.

Also: Speaking of Mara… after making a strong impression on me in Carol, and doing such great work this year in A Ghost Story and Terrence Malick’s Song to Song, she is making an extraordinary career of playing characters whose speak through emotions (those eyes!) rather than words. Now I want to see her in a Coen brothers movie so I can see how she handles actual dialogue.

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Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet

Novelist and critic Jeffrey Overstreet teaches writing (Seattle Pacific University) and film studies (Northwest University and Houston Baptist University). He's written a memoir of moviegoing and faith (Through a Screen Darkly, Baker, 2007) and a fantasy series that begins with Auralia's Colors (The Auralia Thread, Random House, 2007-11). He's worked since 2001 as a film critic and columnist at Christianity Today, and he's been a regular contributor to Image, Paste, and Christ & Pop Culture. His writing has been recognized by The New Yorker and The Seattle Times. He regularly speaks at universities, conferences, and churches in the U.S. and abroad. Want to invite him to teach or speak? Email joverstreet@gmail.com.