A GHOST STORY - Morgan Meis
Every ghost story that has ever been told has its roots in existential panic. It is a panic we’ve all experienced at some time or other, generally in the wee hours when the mind turns to fear and death. The secret truth is that the ghost stories we tell later, once we’ve calmed down, are really a form of consolation. The stories serve to forestall our root fear by means of spooks and scares. The idea that there are spectres out there, many of them malevolent, is preferable to the alternative, which is that there is nothing “out there” at all. An evil spirit is, at least, confirmation of an afterlife, if an angry confirmation.
The scariest ghost story imaginable, then, would be a ghost story in which there is no ghost, in which there can be no ghosts, because there is only the abyss.
David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story flirts at the edge of such an abyss. In the film, a young man (Casey Affleck) dies in a car crash, leaving his young wife (Rooney Mara) to mourn him. The young man, whose name we never learn, comes back in the form of a ghost. We know he’s a ghost because he is wearing a white sheet over his head. The white-sheeted ghost proceeds to “haunt” the house in which he previously lived. Eventually, his wife moves out. But the ghost stays. New tenants come and go. The ghost stays. The house is demolished and a giant office is built in its place. The ghost stays. The ghost is thrown back in time (just go with it) and experiences events at the same spot long before the house was built. Still, the ghost stays.
He stays all the way until the living version of himself comes to occupy the house he’s been haunting. Time has doubled back on itself. Very early in the movie, the young man and his wife hear bumps in the night. We now learn that this was, in fact, the young man’s own ghost doing a retroactive bit of haunting. If these details seem confusing, no matter. The point is that the haunting of A Ghost Story becomes self-reflexive. We are shown a ghost in the act of haunting himself. A deeper truth is revealed therein. All hauntings are, at their root, self-hauntings. We are haunted, primarily, by the spectre of our own death.
The ghost of A Ghost Story, then, can be seen as the part of us that cannot accept the idea that our role as subjects on earth is profoundly temporary. By becoming ghosts (the idea goes), we can extend our subjectivity indefinitely into the future, perhaps infinitely.
But the idea collapses, alas, into its own absurdity. That’s because “being us” is so rooted in time. Our “self” is tied to the particulars of our specific bodies, tied to a specific time and place, to the people we know and love or hate. The fantasy at the heart of all ghost stories is that we can somehow continue “being us,” even past the disappearance of our own bodies and everything that makes us who we are. Thus, the true horror of David Lowery’s ghost story comes from the exploration of what would really happen if we stuck around after our own death: Everything that made our lives meaningful would slowly fade away. Our world would die as we watched, helpless and impotent to intervene. The thought experiment of the “ghost” reveals to us that subjectivity can’t exist in the abstract. There is no “me” or “you” that can be plucked out of context and extended into infinity. What we think of as our essential “me-ness” is, in its essence, a finite thing, a thing shaped and bounded by the contours of a brief span of time.
Thus the sad beauty of A Ghost Story. Its triumph as a film is to show the collapse of the typical ghost fantasy, to let it disintegrate before our eyes. The more the ghost tries to hold on to the life he once led, the less real he becomes.
As the movie progresses, the initially playful (verging on silly) conceit of having the “ghost” wear an actual white sheet takes on a greater resonance. There is something visually stunning about the looming presence of this human-sized white sheet, silently watching life unfold in the house where he once lived. Lowery heightens this effect by presenting the film in 1:33 aspect ratio (in which the height of the screen is almost the same as the width). We are used to seeing films in the wide screen format. A Ghost Story is almost a square. The aspect ratio gives vertical space for the standing ghost. The ghost is always there, taking up territory on the screen.
And yet he is not there. He is presence without presence.
This internal contradiction is accentuated by the fact that the ghost is played by a famous actor, Casey Affleck. The filmmakers insist that it really was Affleck under the sheet throughout the filming. You might consider this is an immense waste of actorly talent, especially since Lowery directed Affleck to move under the sheet in a non-Afflecky way, to behave as if it could be anyone under that sheet. In fact, this ghostly anonymity serves a deeper purpose. The immense presence of Casey Affleck is negated by the giant white sheet that hides him. That which is present is also absent.
There’s a crucial scene in the middle of the movie where the present-but-absent ghost observes a late-night party at the house (long after his wife has moved away). A man (credited as “The Prognosticator” and played by Will Oldham) gives a drunken soliloquy. He explains that we are all doomed in the long run. In the vast sweep of cosmic time, no act of creation, no work of art, nothing can outrun the obliteration that is eventually to come. The universe hurls ever outward into dissolution. What then, one might ask, is the point of doing anything?
It is a question that David Lowery, a man engaged in making works of art that tackle questions of the meaning and purpose of life, has asked himself more than once. Lowery has described himself as “an atheist.” But he is also the son of a Catholic theologian. He was raised in a milieu in which art was discussed in relation to the deepest philosophical and theological problems.
The upshot of A Ghost Story, whatever one’s theological commitments, is that we have to take our finitude seriously as finitude. We have to understand death as a real and genuine end. Meaning must be found within that context, under the eyes of a death that cannot be escaped. If we touch upon eternity, if we touch upon God, we do so precisely in terms of that finitude, as creatures who actually and really die. The punishment for not taking death seriously, for atheist and religious alike, is that our lives become ghostly. We enter a realm in which eternity is purchased at the cost of anything substantial, anything real. As the ghost of A Ghost Story finally discovers, the only way truly to have our brief existence is to let it go.