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Are ghosts white?

Marek Sullivan

A Ghost Story
Dir. David Lowery, 2017
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Light slants through David Lowery’s A Ghost Story like the soft signal of a fading universe asking for love. It’s like Marilynne Robinson’s Home without the home—a melancholy meditation on universal homelessness and the frail bonds that weave our life in common. It turns a magnifying glass on the tiny scrap of space and time allotted to us, and the tragic necessity of finding purpose in a universe without destiny. It is also a highly problematic portrayal of American history and white America’s confrontation with race.

AGS looks a lot like a music video for The Staves, Keaton Henson, or Iron and Wine, particularly when Casey Affleck’s character, C, performs the film’s feature song in his home studio. It’s quite easy to imagine that song strung out over the whole film, and it still conveying the same feeling of brittle connection, fatality, and loss. Like 21st-century American folk, AGS also trades in a set of images indebted to small-town America’s faded antebellum grandeur: it’s there in the timber-clad house, in the setting sun and peeling paint. There is a sense of lost order, but perhaps also of found nature—the American pastoral in late bloom.

A curious aspect of this film is the way it flips between pathos-filled meaning to soulless destruction. Early on we get a long shot of M (Rooney Mara) dragging a large wooden box out of M and C’s house and dropping it at the end of the drive, with the garbage. It’s hard work. The box is big enough to hold a body, and indeed, this seems to be the point. M’s struggle with an empty coffin prefigures her long journey coming to terms with C’s death—the weightless air inside, like the sum of their memories, has its own oppressive force that must be redeemed.

Yet there is a strange meaninglessness to this action, too, since the box ends up in the unplaced and unplaceable category of trash. (Contrast this secular gesture with the highly physical journey of redemption travelled by Addie’s rotting body ­­in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, a body which must be buried in Jefferson.) When M identifies C in the morgue, she lingers there for a couple of minutes, then suddenly strides away without looking back, which is not to say that M has finally “disposed” of C—on the contrary, she has only just begun the long process of writing herself out of their shared story—but that the film constantly plays with our expectations of fullness. This is a universe in which meaning lingers temporarily, disappears, but might resurface later as a form of haunting.

Lowery is adept at conjuring a sense of historical depth and significance exactly where he wants them. C and M begin their story cocooned in meaning. We rarely see them outside the house. M tells C that she used to hide diary notes around her childhood home, literally covering her world with memories. So much is remembered here, it’s almost overbearing.

C’s transformation into a ghost, however, brings about a crisis of meaning, not just because C is isolated by his muteness and invisibility, but because he—and we—suddenly gain a God’s-eye view of his position in absolute time. As an incorruptible spirit, C is condemned to haunt the earth across generations, making the small world he shared with M suddenly seem very small indeed. In this brave new non-world, C is alienated from everything that made him him. All that was solid has melted into air or been crushed by diggers that go through walls like butter. Hence a search to recuperate the only thing that can give himself back to himself: the note left hidden by M in an architrave of their living room.

So far, so tragic. But there is a deeper dimension to all this, one not immediately visible to the naked eye. C’s return to meaning and ultimate redemption underpins the film’s difficult engagement with race and America’s troubled history of violence against non-white bodies—a history that, here and elsewhere, speaks loudest through what it does not say, or does not show. Who are the real ghosts of AGS? And how might a colour-sensitive reading bring up the bodies?

For a film dealing so sensitively with the diffraction of light—sunlight into coloured spectra, the natural into the supernatural—AGS is weirdly monochromatic. The principal characters are either white or (in order of appearance) obedient, incomprehensible, silent, and invisible. Take the first PoC in the film: the nurse or doctor who escorts M to the morgue. After standing with M for a few moments, she starts walking away, but M asks her to wait, which she does. A few seconds later, M tells her she can go, effectively ordering her body across the screen in a series of what retrospectively seem like arbitrary demands. M does not look at her once.

All this is understandable, in a way. M is operating with the unquestionable authority of the bereaved. But it is striking how often the same theme of nonrecognition or misrecognition occurs specifically in relation to non-Americans or PoC. When M moves out and a Spanish-speaking family moves in, their dialogue is deliberately left untranslated, suggesting a radical gulf of anonymity separating C from the occupants. Not only is he not seen (except by the young boy, who does not speak), but he does not understand what is being said. His reaction, one of the only direct contacts between him and the world of the living, is violent: like the poltergeist of Poltergeist, he throws plates from the cupboards and tears up the kitchen.

C does not apologise (as he could, since we now know he can interact with the world) but continues to linger around in a cryptic way. He stares at the mother who gathers the broken pieces, either in sorrow or in resentment, we never know. And crucially, C never has to explain, since these people are not owed an explanation. Unsurprisingly, they move out.

The Spanish family is followed by a bunch of late-twenty-somethings, whose house party frames the metaphysical centrepiece of the film. Here the camera zooms in on a late-night roundtable about the purpose of life. A verbose and eminently comprehensible white man dominates the conversation, reeling off a Nietzschean discursus on the meaninglessness of human endeavour in deep time. The speaker is gently challenged by another man (also white) and by C, whose very presence is an affront to the speaker’s secular nihilism. C’s discontent is registered by flickering lights, but no flying plates.

This brief meditation on temporality sets the scene for the following section, in which C the ghost, having lost the feel of time, travels first to the future then to the past. Both dimensions are revealing.

In the first, C travels to (or survives into) a soft-dystopian future in which huge corporate buildings have taken over the little plot of land previously occupied by his house. He initially wanders around the grounds of a massive building site, then through the brightly lit, antiseptic corridors of a skyscraper office building—a stark contrast to the peeling paint and richly memoried context of C and M’s old house. Crucially, almost every person in this building is a PoC, including the people he crosses in the corridor and a black man chairing a company meeting, into which C shuffles aimlessly. Here his failure to connect is total. Trapped in the building, he bangs on a sealed window and ultimately throws himself off the top.

Instead of dying, however, C goes back in time to the series of events that will lead him to himself. At this point we realise that time has effectively collapsed for C. Not only can he travel anywhere in the future, but he can go backwards, too. Suddenly the entirety of history has become available.

John Lardas Modern writes that “Life is, and has been for a long time, a haunting process in which one’s actions are acted upon by others from a distance” (2011). “Distance” here should be understood as much in a temporal as a spatial sense. Modernity is haunted by its constitutive outside: by the lingering presence of the premodern in space (the non-West) and time (colonial and pre-abolition history). The past must return as a necessary condition for the exaltation of contemporaneity and the materialisation of meaning in the present. But it can only return so much, since an overgenerous commitment will drag up things we would rather forget.

The problem with AGS is that, like the quintessential modern subject, it forgets at least as much as it remembers. Note where David Lowery situates the beginning of C’s story in deep historical time. What should in fact be arbitrary (does the story start when their plot of land is covered in dinosaurs? Or sea? Or at the big bang?) is highly determined. C reappears at the moment a white settler family stakes the ground of their future house—the house C and M will later occupy—with four posts driven into an otherwise flat and arid landscape (standing for absolute time). Lowery fixes on this family just long enough to portray some affectionate domestic scenes—a fireside meal, the child drawing a picture and putting it under a rock, in anticipation of M’s hidden notes—before having them despatched by Native American savages. The latter’s savagery is rendered by a kind of second-order invisibility (unlike C’s ghost, they never even enter the screen) and their fading war-cry as they ride away from the murdered family. Native Americans are (un)represented as mere surrounding effects on the family, like the weather, or the landscape. Their personhood is nil.

Why does Lowery concentrate on this event as the foundational moment of C’s story? Why is this the cut-off point for the history of C’s relation to that particular plot of land? Why not go further back (even a day) to the time when this land “belonged” to Native Americans? And where are their ghosts?

It is of course possible that all this is ironic, that AGS is a kind of meta-commentary on the meaning-making proclivities of whiteness. If so, Lowery’s approach is subtle beyond belief. Race is not explicitly thematised at any point in the film. Even key opportunities to do so—the party scene, where different bodies might have competed—are left untaken. Regardless of the actual point, and perhaps despite Lowery’s best intentions, we never stand outside of the story white America has told and continues to tell about itself, and nothing about the film suggests we should.

Many universal themes cross through this film: our search for love and meaning, the gigantism of the universe, the impermanence of things (C’s lingering gaze over decaying corpses incidentally recalls the South Asian Buddhist practice of asubabhavana—a meditation on death that requires staring at rotting bodies). But like so many attempts to speak in universals, AGS draws up short when it comes to race. Lowery’s film is tainted with nostalgia for a pastoral America that never was. Not only does history begin with white colonialism, but the degeneration of C’s meaningful universe is concurrent with the encroachment of non-white others on America’s hard-gained soil. In a landscape traumatised by centuries of settler violence—a landscape that should, if anything, be overrun with the dissatisfied ghosts of Native Americans and slaves—there is a curious refusal to engage with anything other than white history. In this sense, AGS reads like a cliquey autobiography of the white West, what might more accurately be called An American Ghost Story.

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Marek Sullivan is reading for a DPhil in Theology at Balliol College, Oxford.