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

Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 10: Wendy and Lucy (2008)

EPSON MFP image

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Wendy and Lucy (2008) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 64 of the first edition hardback, Ebert reminisces about his childhood dog Blackie & all of the cinematic dogs he’s fallen in love with over the years. He writes, “Every time I see a dog in a movie, I think the same thing: I want that dog. I see Skip or Lucy or Shiloh and for a moment I can’t even think about the movie’s plot. I can only think about the dog. I want to hold it, pet it, take it for walks, and tell it what a good dog it is. I want to love it, and I want it to love me. I have an empty space inside myself that can only be filled by a dog.”

What Ebert had to say in his review: “The people in [Wendy and Lucy] haven’t dropped out of life; they’ve been dropped by life. It has no real use for them, and not much interest. They’re on hold. At least searching for your lost dog is a consuming passion; it gives Wendy a purpose and the hope of joy at the end. That’s what this movie has to observe, and it’s more than enough.” -from his 2008 review for the Chicago Sun-Times

“You can’t get an address without an address. You can’t get a job without a job. It’s all fixed.”

Ebert was onto something when he mentioned in his review of My Dog Skip that certain movies, particularly movies about dogs, exist outside of critical language. The pathos of a pet owner’s relationship with their dog is strong enough in its sentimentality that a movie doesn’t have to do much to get by on that emotion/nostalgia alone. My Dog Skip skated by in this way as a passably okay movie. It’s not particularly well made or interesting, but its sappy love for canines was sufficient enough on its own to escape any pointed criticism. Shooting the movie down would be like criticizing a birthday card from your grandmother for its lack of literary ambition.

Wend and Lucy has no such tendency to rely on that dog owner sentimentality for easy drama/emotional provocation. A dirt cheap drama starring Michelle Williams years before she was a recognizable name, Wendy and Lucy tells the story of a down-on-her-luck migrant worker traveling to Alaska in hopes of landing a seasonal gig at a cannery. While on her way the titular Wendy finds herself near broke, friendless, and without a vehicle in small town Oregon. Worst yet, her only companion, a dog named Lucy, goes missing. Instead of the broad, overly sentimental strokes My Dog Skip paints with, Wendy and Lucy finds tonal devastation in subtle details. The film’s tendency for narrative understatement threatens to alienate the audience from caring about or fully understanding Wendy’s plight, but the feeling of having lost your dog/your entire world is such a universally recognizable gut punch that her predicament is all too relatable from the outside looking in.

Besides employing the universality of human-dog companionship to clue the audience in on where Wendy is in life, the movie also relies on recognizable hallmarks of an economy in shambles to introduce us to her struggle. She’s plundering pocket change for dog food, sifting through highway litter for recyclable aluminum cans, shoplifting, and relying on word of mouth from train-hopping crusties (including Will Oldham among them of all people), who are dog magnets in case you were unaware, just to scrape by. Wendy is recognizable to the audience because she’s every poor soul who’s been left behind by a cutthroat economy that has no room for them. This is the kind of character for whom $50 could make or break their entire life. Wendy’s background & motivation don’t need to be any more specific for the film’s emotional stakes to land. We know who she is & we’re invested in her success.

A lesser film might’ve crafted some kind of explicit metaphor out of Wendy’s lost dog/lost place in the world, but, again, this is not the same kind of drama as the on-the-nose (er, snout?) emotional manipulation as that of My Dog Skip (or, more recently, White God). Wendy and Lucy’s overbearing sense of dread & imminent danger is more of a tone than a blatant provocation. The vulnerability of Wendy being alone in a strange place, not having a place to sleep, and resorting to the nerve-racking tactic of tying Lucy up when entering places of business (Lucy is a good girl, but that always makes me nervous) all combine to make for a terrifying atmosphere. The stakes are relatively small here compared to a summer blockbuster where a CGI threat from another dimension might crush an entire city, but that small scale specificity only helps the emotional weight feel significant. One of the saddest shots in this film is a dialogueless pan across all the jailed dogs’ cells at a local pound. One of the biggest offenses committed is a character coldly spitting, “If a person can’t afford a dog they shouldn’t have a dog.” I’ll admit that some of the drama here is dependent upon the audience’s sentimental affection for dogs in general (this particularly hit home for me when Wendy refers to Lucy as “Lou”, which was the name of my first pet, a cat), but that sentiment was a starting point, not an end goal. Wendy and Lucy moves in small, calculated stabs at heartbreaking drama that makes that jumping point necessary, but the tenderly sad payoff of the end more than justifies the means.

EPSON MFP image

Roger’s Ranking: (3.5/4, 88%)

threehalfstar

Brandon’s Ranking: (4/5, 80%)

fourstar

Next Lesson: Shiloh (1996)

-Brandon Ledet