Sunday, August 6, 2017

The tree of knowledge


At times, I know, it's almost a parody of an art film, but it's hard to name too many movies that earn their asininity the way A Ghost Story earns its.  It gets to where it needs to go, and a high-concept, low-affect meditation upon the awful, beautiful futility of life was, in the end, the most direct way it could have taken.

Written and directed by David Lowery
With David Pink and Casey Affleck (The Ghost), Rooney Mara (The Woman), and Will Oldman (The Prognosticator)

Spoiler alert: moderate

A Ghost Story isn't "Malickian," though that is the word getting thrown around in discussions of the film.  And, sure, I get it.  The film's prodigious scope, its flatter-than-flat characters, above all its steadfast refusal to glue itself together with even a tiny bit of narrative connective tissue—these are the hallmarks of Terrence Malick's style, and it's known that director David Lowery would indeed like to be called his successor.

I'm guessing it ultimately comes down to some crossed wires: Terrence Malick is obtuse and pretentious and, yes, can be accused earnestly of being boring. A Ghost Story is likewise obtuse and pretentious; it is, for a long time, almost objectively boring.  This is the movie where a camera fixes upon Rooney Mara for four straight minutes, watching, unblinking, as she incorrectly consumes a whole pie.  (When you learn from the gossip rags that Mara claims to have never eaten a pie before or after this scene, you are inclined to believe her.  You are inclined to believe she'd never seen a pie—it takes three of those four minutes before she appears to realize that crust is an edible material.  You may also legitimately suspect she'd never held a fork.)

The thing is, if Malick is boring, and Ghost Story is boring, they arrive at being boring in radically different ways: Malick movies, whatever other sins they encompass, still move.  And A Ghost Story does not, to the extent that when it finally "picks up" halfway through, and approaches the plot-point-per-minute pace of a normal film, it frankly feels like breakneck acceleration.  (Meanwhile, "Malickian" would tend to suggest the implication of the existence of a higher power, or at least a meaning to things; and Lowery's supernatural fantasy maybe does that least of all.)

So Ghost Story is slow, and it's contemplative, and it's dour, and it's so quiet you can hear the tiniest of your fellow film patrons' farts.  Its potential for dullness is, perhaps, scientifically quantifiable.  One could implement a study: just count how many pixels change their values over the course of this film's 93 minutes in comparison to 93 minutes of almost literally anything else, including most security camera footage.  It is aggressively minimalist.  It is stridently devoid of so much as a score for its longest stretches.  And it demands your patience with some of the most bullying long-takes you'll ever see outside of Solaris.  Somehow, the worst offender isn't even the pie-eating scene.  This actually arrives much earlier: that's when we watch Mara haul some junk from her house out to the curb, and the camera stays and stays and stays upon her (without ever nudging itself along the z-axis to follow her).  It stays upon her as she walks back to her house; it stays upon her as she enters the door; and it stays upon her a little while more, as she walks across the frame of her living room window.  (This movie loves frames within frames.)

And still it's another ten seconds or so before the cut.  Actually, now that I think about it, the pie-eating scene isn't even the runner-up: that's the one where Casey Affleck is supposed to be D-E-A-D dead, but the intensity of Lowery's gaze far outlasts Affleck's ability to hold his breath.  It's of a piece, I suppose, with all the very careful blocking which conveniently allows the supporting cast to consistently avoid walking into a character who is, supposedly, invisible, and whose costume makes him occupy twice the space he normally would.

But if A Ghost Story did move fast, it would be a terrible betrayal of what it's set out to do.  I'll be damned if it doesn't do that almost perfectly.  Even the awful, ridiculous overindulgence of Mara taking out the trash winds up meaning something in the end.  If Lowery does seek the crown of the Artwanker King, he's definitely put himself into contention.

Lowery's film concerns itself, initially, with a man and a woman.  They're so interesting in their specifics that they don't have names.  They live together, and we get the sense that while they're not exactly happy together anymore, they must still love each other.  Unfortunately, their ambivalence is soon rendered moot ("soon," in this context, being an obvious rhetorical flourish), when the man meets his end in a car accident right outside his own driveway.  Naturally, he becomes a ghost, and, when he takes a left turn away from the light, he wanders back to his estate, drawn by his memories of his partner.  And there he stays, watching, and waiting, but it's not clear, probably not even to him, what he's actually waiting for.

The plot is basically a premise, but Lowery gets almost everything he could out of it, and not just in terms of his glacial long-takes: what we're watching winds up encompassing a great many things, and one of its more interesting elements is just how effectively it tells the origin story of a haunting, specifically from the perspective of the one doing the haunting.  It is still a horror movie, whether it's conventionally scary or not—indeed, whether critics prefer to call it one or not—and it is likely the single best of all of the films to have come out of our current art-horror wave.  (Which, I've often said, has been a rather consistent disappointment for a "wave.")  But, no, it isn't scary, exactly: it does have one jump scare, which is an overt joke; when the score actually exists, and when it points toward a horror-style cue, this is clearly meant as a subtle joke.  The one slice of "proper" horror is confined, more-or-less, to a single small vignette—though it is a vignette absolutely ripe with tension, and, in the moment, anything could happen.

Instead, by turning the perspective around, this frightless horror movie about a ghost turns out to be a very effective horror movie about ever having been alive in the first place.  If it fits into any proper subgenre, I guess it's cosmic horror; or you could call it philosophical horror, a category it shares with Altered States, It's Such a Beautiful Day (it shares a lot with It's Such a Beautiful Day), No Exit, maybe In the Mouth of Madness, and not a whole lot else.  What began as a middling movie about individualized grief becomes something much more compelling; the turning point, perhaps, is when the ghost looks out a window at a neighbor's house, and sees another ghost staring back.  It sounds like nothing much, but it's supremely clever—the ghosts in this film are completely mute, but they do still talk—and it's at this point that the film starts delivering on its promise of an emotional journey of actual significance.  By the end, I even came around to respecting the galling slowness of its opening half, for it clearly exists to evoke the perception of time as it is lived—and time is what begins to collapse as we get further and further away from the moment of this ghost's death, until it ceases to have any meaning for our viewpoint character entirely.

Ghost Story's ghosts are, one guesses, only an echo of what the person was.  The heartbreaking part is how addled they become as the days (and years) pass by, until eventually they're left with nothing but an impulse to hang onto their shadowlike existence—even when the actual objects of their desire disappear.  (Along the way, it becomes upsettingly clear just how incapable these ghosts are of even the most rudimentary rational thought process—they might have the I.Q. of a cat—and this only gets much sadder before the end.)

But while Ghost Story has been neither too involved, nor too involving, when it came to its core story of being a quasi-romantic tale of two people separated by death, this is where aesthetic of the picture finally, triumphantly comes into its own, from its alternation of claustrophobia and emptiness within its excellent Academy ratio compositions to its gorgeously-disorienting editing scheme, which happily spans decades in a single cut without ever quite losing the thread of its story.  And one especially appreciates the simplistic decision—hell, the outright goofy decision—to render Ghost Story's restless souls as actors wandering around in bedsheets with some eyeholes cut out.  (And the best little decision with the sheets is to make those eyeholes completely black, while shaping them with such incredibly nuanced melancholy.)  Like a cartoon or a doll, the ghosts become objects of almost total projection: those black eyeholes offer a human perspective to a sweep of time and circumstance that no actual human could have.  The film becomes something completely, thrillingly different as the woman heals, and the dead man cannot, and he's inevitably left alone to float through an endless succession of disconnected moments whose meaning is lost to him.  Omnia mutantur—et omnia interit.  Even ghosts don't live for ever.

The film smashes you in the head with this, its most salient theme, and I can't speak to whether it was a completely good idea to do it the way it does, with a gigantic monologue delivered by a stranger—a monologue that must contain more words than every other line in the film combined—but it is executed as well as it possibly could have been, as the arthouse equivalent of a massive exposition dump.  (Besides, the most important questions are the obvious ones.  They persist because there is no way to answer them without sounding like a dipshit stoner.)

Ultimately, the biggest problem with A Ghost Story is the way it oversells what it's actually capable of pulling off.  (A movie with this premise that mentions a dying sun should have a dying sun.  I mean, The Fountain did.)  The magical mystery tour it provides is rarely less than amazing, really—this movie gets very weird, in some astoundingly wonderful ways—but you do leave positively certain that its nuclear-powered Theme Module exists, primarily, because Lowery felt a desperate need to compensate for the fact that Tree of Life had a much larger production budget and It's Such a Beautiful Day was a cartoon.  I'm not sure to what extent it deserves to be punished for this failure, but the most unanswerable flaw of the whole film is just how lazy and uninspired its vision of the further future turns out to be—that Warner Bros. cartoon with the singing frog had a better handle on how technological progress shapes the world around an immortal being.

The good news is that A Ghost Story can survive being cheap.  (Cheapness is part and parcel to its biggest charms, after all.)  Everything else is close to perfect; even the things that seem like glaring problems are solved by the end.  It is an impossibly poignant film—almost literally impossible, at least given how very little one is likely to care about its "characters," as such.  If you told me I wouldn't be able to give the first shit about Mara's grieving process or Affleck's post-mortem attachment to her, but that A Ghost Story would still make me cry anyway, I'd have called you nuts.  But it did.

Obviously, it offers no new solutions to the great problem of death—nor, if we're being real, does it offer any genuinely new observations, either, about the cosmic unfairness of being an animal who knows for a fact that all things must end, but can rarely, if ever, truly accept that they shall.  But Ghost Story does offer an exceedingly fresh perspective upon that terrible awareness.  So: for the kind of viewer who adores mystical journeys through warped realities, and who possess an excessively morbid view of life, and who can summon up the herculean patience this movie's comically-slow brand of allegorical storytelling demands, A Ghost Story might well be the very essence of cinema.  But then, I myself only meet the first two criteria—and I'd still almost be willing to call it a masterwork.

Score:  9/10

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