A Ghost Story (2017)

A Ghost Story is mostly dialogue-free in its slow, insular reflections on the vastness of time & the universe, so it’s strange to me that the one scene its most fervent fans seem to pick a bone with is its sole monologue. After watching a ghost solemnly haunt a single home in silence for, presumably, decades, the film pauses to allow Will Oldham/Bonnie Prince Billy to pontificate about the nature of time & the human condition in an uninterrupted, minutes-long diatribe. In the middle of a house party, Oldham’s unnamed, beer-swilling philosopher explains that, because of the impermanence of the human race & the enormity of time, all art is ultimately insignificant. A great artist might be remembered for the merits of their most substantial work generations after their death, but since humanity & the galaxy that hosts it will ultimately collapse, it’s a temporary impact at best, a complete waste of time at worst. For me, this one speech that seems to be aggravating so many otherwise-enthusiastic audiences is one of the only interesting, honest ideas presented in A Ghost Story. It was one of the few scenes that actually made me perk up in my seat. Unfortunately, its nihilistic worldview also positions the movie as a solidly convincing argument against itself. If all art is ultimately insignificant because of the impermanence of humanity & the destructive forces of time, why should I waste my life watching somber, existential reflections on stillness & regret like the one A Ghost Story presents? It seems like I’d get more out of cheap, immediate thrills like Arnold Schwarzenegger delivering ice pun one-liners or Tom Green swinging a baby above his head in a circle by the umbilical chord. At least I’d have more fun while waiting to be crushed & forgotten by an uncaring universe that way.

Rooney Mara & Casey Affleck star as a visibly dour romantic couple whose main argument seems to recur around Affleck’s deep devotion to their lackluster home. Early in the first act, the poor sap dies in a car wreck mere yards away from the shit hole property he loves so much, then spends the rest of the film silently observing (as a ghost) the ways the home evolves as several different generations pass through it. He watches as Rooney Mara gradually processes her grief & learns to move on with her life. He throws a hissy fit when an eye-rollingly superstitious Hispanic family moves in to replace her, chasing them out of their home. He becomes even more bitter listening to the aforementioned Will Oldham speech, then sorta gives in to his despair as society moves on to bigger & “better” things. While time folds in on itself in the cyclical way the universe tends to go about its business, he’s still left standing in the same spot, stuck, and possibly forgetful of why he stayed behind in the first place. This is obviously a mostly visual narrative. A Ghost Story‘s square frame, with its rounded-off corners (recalling Instagram or an old-fashioned Viewfinder toy), commands much more power & attention than any of its traditional story beats as the centuries roll on and the same drab, Active Child-riffing song loops endlessly on the soundtrack. The still, intimate conflicts of its early scenes eventually evolve into decades-spanning sweeps in later sequences, suggesting a kind of narrative progression in a vague sense, even while Affleck’s ghost remains a fixed point. Excepting Will Oldham’s bloviating at the house party centerpiece, the movie doesn’t do much to perk up its audience outside the strength of its imagery, which is interesting, but never interesting enough.

Besides its 4:3 aspect ratio, A Ghost Story‘s main visual hook is the look of its titular ghost. Casey Affleck’s ghostly visage takes a page from the book of Beetlejuice, adopting the old-fashioned Halloween costume look of a white bedsheet with two cut-out eyeholes. Great costume design detail is paid to the folds & draping of that bedsheet and it’s honestly welcome to have a break from gazing at Affleck’s sexual harasser, Boston bro face for the majority of the movie, but the choice doesn’t amount to much more beyond that. There’s a Tumblr account I follow that adds ghostly bedsheets to old photographs via layers of white-out that does a lot more with this visual conceit in a single frame than A Ghost Story does in an entire feature. It even has the added bonus of not employing a known movie industry creep who seems to be falling upwards in Hollywood right now despite his entitled, abusive misbehavior. Affleck’s presence in the film is most effective when his inherent creepiness is actively put to use, like when he hides in children’s closets or smashes a Latina single mother’s dishes in a temper tantrum. Outside of a couple jump scares, this is no more of a horror film than Personal Shopper or, going further back, Ghost, but there’s still some potential here in the idea of Casey Affleck tormenting PoC families & the women in his former life from beyond the grave that I find more amusing & worthwhile than any of the film’s philosophical ponderings. It’s a shame neither Rooney Mara nor the nameless single mother were afforded as much uninterrupted dialogue as Will Oldham was in his single scene appearance, since their interactions with the ghostly Affleck were much more prolonged & substantial.

In accepting that all art is inconsequential outside its in-the-moment entertainment, the best I could hope to find in A Ghost Story was some sense of novelty. A few stray images like a prismatic reflection on a living room wall transforming into a galaxy or a sheeted Affleck floating through a massive office building were temporary reliefs, but mostly the movie felt like slightly more trouble than it was worth. In A Ghost Story‘s sole moment of true novelty, Rooney Mara attempts to suppress her grief by aggressively eating an entire pie in a single, unbroken shot before inevitably puking it up. I appreciate the dedication in forcing the audience to stew in the discomfort of that moment, but it’s difficult to not feel disappointed that she doesn’t even eat the whole pie before her body gives up. That kind of 75% follow-through corrupts the entire act of watching this film for entertainment in the first place. This is especially true once Will Oldham’s big speech rattles around in the air, questioning the point of watching something like this at all when you could be having cheap fun instead. It’s all meaningless & temporary anyway, so we might as well fill our time with the kind of pictures where, metaphorically speaking, Rooney Mara eats the whole pie.

-Brandon Ledet

Carol (2015)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

Todd Haynes is a genius filmmaker. Sometimes his genius is readily recognizable in its grand scale spectacle, like with the glam rock opera Velvet Goldmine. Other times, it’s  a more subtle kind of genius, like in Far From Heaven, a period drama about forbidden romance. Haynes’ latest, Carol, is firmly in the latter category. Carol has been topping a lot of Best of 2015 lists (including Britnee’s) & generating early awards-season buzz for its two stars (Cate Blanchett & Rooney Mara), but as is the case with the human-captivity drama Room, the buzz surrounding Carol might be working somewhat to the film’s detriment. At heart, Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary ammount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.

The titular Carol (Cate Blanchett) is a wealthy 1950s housewife undergoing a messy divorce with a husband who refuses to accept her homosexuality as a natural aspect of her personality. The much younger Therese (Rooney Mara) is a shop girl going through a similar romantic struggle with a young beau she knows she should be smitten with, but simply isn’t. At these romantic crossroads, our two heroines fall for one another at first glance. Unable to express exactly what they’re thinking in the public eye, they speak merely through a socially-acceptable customer-saleswoman dynamic until they feel free to push the boundaries of where they’ll allow their desire to take them. It isn’t until the two discover freedom through travel on the open road that their yearning reaches its tipping point, leading to all sorts of emotional & legal fallout thanks to the uncaring world that sees their passion as a question of poor morality & mental illness. The power dynamic of their relationship (with the learned, elegant Carol tending to mother the girlish, just-discovering-herself Therese in an uncomfortable way) also strains what feels like a wrong place/wrong time, but ultimately meant to be romance.

Haynes handles the delicate nature of Therese & Carol’s passion with a surgeon’s precision, expressing their unspoken desire through intensely focused looks at details like the nape of a neck, the curve of a lip, the fetishistic exploration of a pair of gloves. He matches the obscured way they express their desire by filming the couple through windows like a voyeur so that they’re one step removed, especially in the stretches where the film functions as a travelogue. He also directly nods to the very medium he’s working in, making a big to-do about Therese’s interest in photography & having a moviegoer explain directly that you have to pay close attention to what characters say vs. what they actually mean. Blanchett & Mara obviously deserve much of the credit for making the film work in its small, under the radar way. It’s incredible that they can communicate so much desire through body language & low, guarded voices while still selling humor in lines like “Just when you think it can’t get worse, you run out of cigarettes.” As a trio, Blanchett, Mara, and Haynes construct a deeply romantic, emotionally trying, and at times damn sexy narrative seemingly without ever lifting a finger.

Carol deserves each & every one of its accolades. If I had seen it before the year had ended it may have very well made our Top Films of 2015 list (distribution schedules are a cruel, confounding beast). It certainly would’ve been included with my 2015 Christmastime Counterprogramming list if nothing else. I don’t think that the film needs to be championed in that way to get its full due, though. It’s almost better that it can exist under the radar, hidden from the awards season glamour, much how like its characters’ homosexual subculture is a secret world in plain sight. Carol is an elegant, understated gift that needs to be handled with care. I’m hoping its longevity as a work lasts much longer than the end-of-the-year roundups & trophy distributions. Thankfully, Haynes’ career is fascinating enough as a whole that it most likely won’t be an issue. I look forward to revisiting this one in the years to come.

Side Note: Whoever negotiated Carrie Brownstein’s credit in the opening scroll deserves a raise. I don’t know if her part was cut down in the editing room or what, but she barely even makes an appearance. So, you know, don’t get too excited about spending time with her when you see that opening credit. There’s not much of her part to go around.

-Brandon Ledet