We Do What We Can to Endure

illustration by Tony Stella

Most films are made in prose, but a few work more like poetry. A good prose film—like, say, The Post—is easy to read: you know the words, understand its rhythms, and can anticipate the beats. But a poem often teaches you how to read it as you go along; you learn its language only by immersing yourself in it and giving over to the experience.

After seeing a prose film, you can usually talk about it quite directly; it can be discussed or written about or dissected in ways that often lead to a deeper understanding of what you’ve seen. But a film like David Lowery’s A Ghost Story is almost impossible to talk about without diminishing the experience. It does something to you that you realize you don’t quite have words for. In fact, at first, words are almost beside the point—the film is so simple and sparse as to be almost irreducible. Which is not to say that it doesn’t have weight, but rather that its weight is distributed, and felt, in different ways.

If we look at A Ghost Story in this way, as a poem of a film in a world full of prose, it becomes necessary to talk about it in a different way, too. Not as something that needs to be wrestled down and pinned to the ground with heady analysis, but instead as something to be experienced. Approaching it this way, it quickly becomes less interesting to try and explain what the film “means” than it does to try and understand how or why it’s doing what it’s doing.

Take, for example, the film’s most infamous scene. In one long, unbroken take, M (Rooney Mara) sits down on the kitchen floor and eats an entire pie in real time. Her husband, C (Casey Affleck), has recently died, and she’s nowhere near fine. The soundtrack is silent, the camera still. She devours the pie with her fork, attacking it, gorging on it, before finally running to the bathroom to throw up. C, now a ghost haunting their home, watches her the entire time, his spectral presence just outside the kitchen, and just inside the frame.

It’s one of the saddest things I’ve ever seen.

The reason it works the way it does, I imagine, is because of how fully it immerses us in the moment, a lingering that feels almost voyeuristic at first, before gradually opening up a kind of space for us to contemplate a whole host of thoughts and feelings. The camera holds on its single shot—M on the kitchen floor, eating pie—for so long that it forces us to experience the passing of time, too, and the ways in which M must feel the actual, physical weight of it. Since very little is happening on screen, once we get past our own internal restlessness—this is not, after all, how we’re used to seeing a scene play out—we are left to contend with our own projections.

It’s a disorienting temporal effect, but only one of the many ways in which Lowery plays with time throughout A Ghost Story. In his hands, time bends, collapses, and expands, before eventually circling around on itself again in the final act. Inspired by Virginia Woolf, whom he considers his “guiding light,” Lowery uses time as another character in the film—perhaps the main character when all is said and done, and the cosmic scope of his vision becomes more apparent. It’s this notion of time, and our relationship to its passing, that Lowery seems most intent on grappling with, if often in ethereal, mysterious ways. The long, gorgeous shots of C’s cartoonish figure—draped in a white sheet with cut-out holes for eyes, moving through a world that no longer has any place for him—feel a bit silly or disorienting at first, but in time they become both heartbreaking and oddly serene. Much like Billy Pilgrim, C has become unstuck in time, adrift but firmly attached to a geographical space, mutely observing a world that continues on around him, though decidedly without him.

Eventually, time speeds up, loops back, and loses its linearity; by the end of the film, the very construct of time itself seems to fall away. Still the lonely ghost remains, forever tethered to that little slice of land he once called home, unable to let go. But what does home—or anything, really—mean in the face of cosmic time and an indifferent universe?

*

From its opening frames, A Ghost Story begins teaching us how to read it. Its first shots are lowly lit and close up, an intimate eavesdropping on a couple’s conversation as they snuggle on the couch. Twice in these opening minutes we are also given shots of a night sky filled with stars, over swelling orchestral music. This opening juxtaposition—between intimate moments and cosmic ones—serves as a kind of microcosm for the film itself, moving as it does between the specific and the infinite.

We might not know it yet, but we are learning to read its language.

Shortly thereafter, Lowery introduces the first of what will come to be many long takes. In a single shot that lasts nearly two minutes, we watch as M drags a piece of furniture all the way across the front yard, leaves it by the side of the road, and then walks back home. It’s a quiet moment, and at first seems to serve no real purpose. But if we think of the film as functioning more like a poem, we can perhaps see a bit more clearly what it’s doing; we’re living in a moment rather than being led through it. A few minutes later, after something goes bump in the night, the film pushes things even further: a three minute take, the camera hovering just overhead as C and M lay in bed together, whispering, nuzzling, kissing, and then eventually, falling asleep. It’s so intimate as to feel almost unbearable. Later, in a hospital morgue, a static camera holds its single shot for a full minute during which not a single thing happens or moves on the screen.

And then, of course, there’s the pie scene, the longest single take in the entire film. Before A Ghost Story is even 30 minutes old, it feels like hours have passed.

This is, admittedly, not everybody’s cup of tea, and Lowery knows as much. He knows that he is asking a lot of an audience—and that the pie scene, especially, serves as a litmus test of sorts—and fully expected a whole lot of people to walk out or, at the very least, to not understand what he was trying to do. He doesn’t begrudge those frustrated by the film but he also feels, on an intuitive level, that these scenes need to play out exactly as they do. “It really is remarkable how quickly you can feel like you’re trapped somewhere or that you’re being forced to look at something,” Lowery said last year. “These shots are not that long in the grand scheme of things, but within the context of a 90-minute movie, you just feel like you’re stuck in this one moment for an eternity—and that discomfort is incredibly appropriate for the film.”

A Ghost Story also works by largely eliding the moments we’d most expect to see in a story like this, continually focusing on smaller moments instead of larger, more obvious ones. We never see M discovering C’s death, or learn how she reacts in that awful moment; no medics rush in to try and save him; a funeral, if it happens, is never shown. We are left, instead, with a stripped down version of events: a long, static shot showing the aftermath of a car accident just outside their driveway, followed by a scene in the hospital morgue, where M looks briefly at C’s ashen face, before an attendant draws the white sheet back over his head.

After M leaves the room, the camera holds on C’s lifeless body, still lying on the table. For a full minute, nothing happens—to the point where we can decidedly feel nothing happening.

And then, C sits up. Still draped in the white sheet, he walks out of the hospital, and makes his way back home.

*

When we think of “haunting” we often conjure up frightening scenarios, but the origin of the word is actually something quite different. Haunt appears to derive from hanter, an Old French word, itself derivative of the Old Norse heim, or “homewards.” Hanter doesn’t imply anything scary, spooky, or even supernatural—it simply means “to frequent, to abide in one place.” In other words, to haunt means only to return home, and to stay there.

In that sense, then, A Ghost Story is most definitely a film about haunting. For most of the film, C abides in the exact same place—first as a living being, and then, after he dies, as a ghost. At first, we think he must be haunting M, silently observing her as she continues on without him. He watches her cry, eat, sleep, leave for work. He looks on while she slowly rebuilds her life, meets someone else, finally sells the house. But then one day, M packs up everything but the piano and moves away, leaving C behind.

A new family moves in, speaking only Spanish, which he can’t understand (and which the film leaves untranslated). C watches as they fill up his house with their bodies, their things, their busy lives. He stays silent until he doesn’t and, briefly, all hell breaks loose, Poltergeist style. It turns out he was never haunting M at all, but rather the physical space they once shared together; save for a handful of flashbacks, we never see M again, and for the remainder of the film, C never leaves the house—even once the house leaves him.

The moment when C finally loses control in the kitchen and more properly “haunts” the house—smashing up dishes and throwing things across the room as a terrified family sits at the kitchen table—marks a huge shift in the film, both tonally and temporally. The camera, mostly static for the film’s first 45 minutes, begins to move more freely, and the edits begin to shift their cadence. Similarly, the film itself begins to loosen its grip on time; it becomes more fluid, passing by more quickly than before. A Ghost Story opens up and transforms into a different kind of film—a more expansive meditation on time, meaning, attachment, and the nature of existence—while still remaining a decidedly singular experience. A ghost story instead of a ghost story.

*

“When I was little and we used to move all the time,” M tells C in the film’s opening scene, “I’d write these notes and I would fold them up really small and I would hide them in different places, so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.”

On the day she leaves their house for good, M notices a crack in the doorframe. She finds a pen and some paper and writes out a note. C watches as she slips the note into the crack and then paints over it. After she’s gone, he scratches at the wall, trying to get at the note, to see what she’s left behind, to have a piece of her still for himself. He rubs at the wall gently, through his sheet, to no avail. As the film goes on, he scratches harder, clawing at the wall vigorously, year after year.

At one point, he sees another ghost in a neighbor’s window. She tells him she’s waiting for someone too, but can no longer remember who. If it wasn’t clear already, it becomes clear in this moment that the ghosts in Lowery’s world are in a kind of purgatory—unable to let go and thus, unable to move on.

And for someone like me, who has trouble letting go of just about everything, nothing could be more frightening.

*

I guess this is where I should probably tell you, I have no idea how to write about A Ghost Story. It destroyed me, in the best possible way. The minute I finished it, I knew I had to write about it. But for the past month, I struggled mightily to do so. It wasn’t that I couldn’t find ways to talk about it, but rather that words seem almost entirely insufficient; much like C, eternally scratching at the wall, I wrote and I wrote and I wrote, but I never really got anywhere.

Only much later did it occur to me why I was having such a difficult time of things: A Ghost Story is ineffable, irreducible—everything that needs to be said about it is already right up there, on the screen. The more I wrote about it, the further away I got from the experience.  And with a film like this, the experience is the entire point; it tells you everything you need to know.

“Genuine poetry,” T.S. Eliot once wrote, “can communicate before it’s understood.”

*

After centuries of scratching at the wall, C finally reaches the note. He reads the words M wrote all those lifetimes ago, the final piece of herself she left behind.

And then, at last, he lets go.