Sundance surprisingly offered a bounty of theologically curious visions and intuitions, whether consciously or not. From day one, I infiltrated the narratives of an all-too human but forgivable Menashe, witnessed an attempt at divine marriage in Margaret Betts euphoric Novitiate, overheard the confession and repentance of the Crown Heights antagonists, engaged in uproar at a church gathering in Whose Streets, and zonked at the tallowed First Testament and baptismal references of The Yellow Birds. Heck, even the panel discussions alluded to a General Revelation whereby a spiritual breakthrough at the movies could remind us of a sincere and serious cultural curiosity about God occurring anywhere everywhere. These were Festival Films. Immediate. Important. Persuasive. Far more influential than they were flawed. This is the stuff that speaks, and speaks deeply.
But there was a movie that had the curious effect of flooring me straight to the ceiling, and trying to begin a review or response to it is like trying to eat soup with a fork -- because David Lowery’s A Ghost Story lures the inner-mystic more than the realistic. Nevertheless, I persisted, and into the unpredictable I a’went, squandering for some former narrative experiences for aesthetic cohesion until fully surrendering to this virtuoso achievement in storytelling. Midway through, I dropped my pen, having no idea what would happen from one scene to the next. All I knew is that I loved being on board with this vessel and its skipper, because A Ghost Story is everything I love about the movies. The first few scenes are strange, silent, lovely, and oh so peacefully creepy. You are asked to sit with scenes you may think are “complete”, and are further asked to sit with Casey Affleck’s character longer than you may want -- but for a purpose. The purpose becomes apparent as each scene builds on the next, adding up to a story about one’s perception of our place in time and our time in a place on the stage of reality we call life -- and the meditation of life after this life. Casey Affleck is a resurrected spiritual being that returns to his home after he has died in the flesh. He has become a Ghost with little or no words, and his Ghost doesn’t do much much at all but observe, but when either of these happen -- it is with gravity and purpose. Oh yes. Because once you change the way you see things, the seen things change. Consider the many times his Ghost turns his head in recognition of something in the next room or something yet to come, or the way he stands in a single space like a soul searching for something he’d lost in a former life, bearing witness to the events and modes of his wife’s wrestling with her ongoing grieving. His Ghost, shrouded silent, watches on, intent on staying the course of haunting and remaining in place, perhaps for years at a time -- mostly in secrecy and stillness, sometimes with ghastly familiar ghostly tremors and rumbles that’ll rustle your roots. The movie may lose its Hollywood appeal in it’s sometimes deliberate extreme long-takes, but I suggest you yawp a hefty clear “So What!” -- because the patience is the point, not the racing of Hollywood pacing. The pace of scenes can draw out and stop on a button, then return unto a larger rhyme and rhythm, then speed up, and slow down to turn back on itself and begin again. Like a Led Zeppelin epic tune that never seeks to waste your time. Oh yes. In Hollywood, you need permission to accomplish this. In Indie film, you don’t. So, soon as you know it, A Ghost Story shifts about half-way through because heck, the richest parts of our lives cannot be told in one-telling or one form or even at a single pace -- they're just too rich to be reduced.
Like 1968’s wondrous 2001: A Space Odyssey, the movie’s uber-clever elliptical editing allows an epic vision that somehow carries its intricate sensitive soundtrack of quietude along with a CalTech-worthy thesis on the concept of Space-Time. The Sundance audience sat silent with the nature of the movie in a certain sense onlookerism, as if we were waiting for something to come popping out of the polaroid-like corners. Indeed, sometimes things did! During a stage of silent suspense, the lady next to me jumped out of her chair and hollered at the mere turning on of a living room light. That got a jolly ol’chuckle from the congregation, er, crowd. I may have even whispered the word “Wonderful!” a little too loud. Oh, the things that sound better in our heads as soon as they’re said! Sitting there, one among uncounted shadowy shapes, I felt as a foreign as a Southerner snug in a Catholic cathedral, having sensed an overwhelming silence you think you feel sometimes. It had dawned on me that, from the passage of death that previously came calling, time itself for this Ghost is not the same as time as experienced by us in living our lives on Earth. There is an extraordinary sequence involving his Ghost passing through ages, yet stuck still in the grand canvas of all that is and is to come. He has become our Virgil, our prophet. And I came to think that sometimes, movies can serve as a kind of tool for self-awareness, birthing from the ethereal a change of a heart once chained in a desperate stage of weariness to a kind of enduring happiness in an often heavy harshhardened existence. His Ghost may indeed be growing, although in a very different way than we do, but yet still he stood there -- and I, though fully seated, began to stand beside him.
Maybe we both realized our existence in spacetime sempt so speck-like, soundless, veiled, yet explainable and essential, but the awe-inspiring vastness of heaven has not canceled out for us the preciousness of teeny tiny waterdrop wonderful moments. A Ghost Story takes us to a place where we can sit in the glooms of a lovely light to observe, to listen, to begin to question, and perhaps decide to reform. What does it mean “to have died”? Who is the more wounded, the dearly departed or the ones they’ve left behind? Who might we haunt once we’ve journeyed along? What is the next stage after all? Who knows these things? This was a movie that considered death as much more than mere death, but a life after such an event, a continuance into an existence in which the great teachers are silence and mystery, where finding the answers is not the end-all. And then perhaps, even that afterlife has a death of sorts, a caterpillar setting itself up for its own metamorphosis, awakening from a centuries long slumber to find another world strange yet recognizable, like a gigantic ancient book, to be of little use if not traversed further into. Thus, his story passes into history. I for one will remember the name -- David Lowery -- a writer/director of deep stories that cultivate deep thinking. Fifty years from now he may be a director that many of us will return to and admire all over again. Especially in light of those final 20 or so incredible minutes of A Ghost Story when, at the risk of losing myself, my soul seemed to lose its stone covering at the casting of wonder onto it, swooning into some nether world as uncertain and striking as the depth of the ocean. I’d had some kind of encounter with Epiphany that achieved a massive moment of transcendence somewhere in the vision that requires more than eyesight or earhear to fully fathom. In my wonder my worries withered away, and I for one would like to sail there again someday…