David Lowery’s A Ghost Story: A Meditation on Impermanence

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As a lover of film in the present moment we are constantly drudging through the convenient subjectivity of categorization to try and make sense of the state of the film industry. Originality is the desire of any great filmmaker and yet the measure of critical success often relies on comparisons to the influences and inspirations of each artist. I will take the side of Jim Jarmusch any day when discussing originality but I still think it’s unnecessarily applied to many new filmmakers as they begin their careers.

When David Lowery first entered the scene with Ain’t Them Bodies Saints he was immediately compared with Terrence Malick because of his poetic narration and gorgeous cinematography. In my opinion it’s unfair to compare him with Malick simply because it doesn’t give him his due for the originality of that film, though I can of course see the influence of the great director. As we have chronicled previously he was one of the many indie directors who were shifted from their smaller budget successes with the opportunity of a studio level venture with Pete’s Dragon which was made for $65 million and is near $150 million in worldwide box office revenue. By today’s studio standards this almost seems like a modest success which is incredible to think about. He managed to do this while creating a classic children’s film that was a completely original offering and wasn’t bogged down by trying to recreate the antiquated original which is a fate that has found many of the reboots studios are attempting.

This brings us to his newest offering A Ghost Story which is the story of the experience of M (Rooney Mara) after her lover C (Casey Affleck) is killed suddenly in a car wreck. C proceeds to ‘haunt’ the living world dressed in a bed sheet just like a classic child’s Halloween costume which could have been an opportunity for this narrative to come off as comical but yet it works splendidly. The film is a sentimental journey where we are both experiencing the grief and pain of loss through M, and the pain of being disconnected from a world you can never return to through C.

In the theater I was a witness to one of those most profound and affecting experiences in my life as a lover of film. There is a protracted scene after the death of C where M sits on the floor of the kitchen eating a pie brought by their realtor and crying with very visible crystalline tears suspended briefly from her cheek before falling to the floor. There has always been great debates about scenes that challenge you in their length and silence, challenging you to live in the scene and truly experience it from the point of view of a character. I’m reminded of the Tarkovsky penned scenes in Solaris with the car leaving the city and Nostalghia with the candle that mean so much to the core of the film but are certainly difficult in their very nature. This scene is importantly lengthy and tense because it needs to set the tone for the grief that we have to face when dealing with death and loss. Once you started to feel the tension build in the room after this extended period of near silence and nothing but the sight of Rooney Mara gorging on a pie while crying, I started to hear the creak and moan of these worn theater seats as people began to shift in the weight of the moment. Then I noticed that I was literally surrounded by people crying in the most heart wrenching and honest way possible because of the sheer power and beauty of the moment. It’s not necessarily impressive in the reaction of those around me but in the seemingly open space that everyone was given to experience the power of those experiences.

The score was powerful but spare and managed to create a layer of tension that doesn’t culminate until later in the film but also respected the minimal but important tone of humor in parts of the story. The cinematography was absolutely stunning and the writing was similarly impressive. Will Oldham’s philosophical speech is one of the most well written and executed I’ve seen in a modern film in a while. For all of the praise that Everybody Wants Some received this speech took Willougby’s and politely schooled it behind the gymnasium before inviting it to listen to some records.

I conclude with a similar message as the speech itself. Art is what we can leave behind because ideas can be proven wrong but art will never be proven wrong. As Will Oldham states, art can potentially live forever. As long as someone is there to whistle the 9th symphony, Beethoven will always exist. Ideas and beliefs can potentially be proven wrong, or fall out of favor, or simply become unprofitable, which is a death sentence in itself these days. If you create a great piece of art you have that chance to live forever. However, you then realize that what you created can still be at the same physical mercies as an idea or belief. The heat of the sun will consume the earth and so that which we create here has a shelf life as long as we do. However the pursuit of something lasting such as a great work of art that comes from your soul is as admirable as any act on this earth.