A Ghost Story (2017)

Written and Directed by: David Lowery

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In my last entry I discussed the supposedly emerging genre of “highbrow horror”: a description for horror films that: a) receive critical acclaim and b) often avoid depicting visually scary monsters, opting instead to portray invisible and/or human antagonists. David Lowery’s Ghost Story takes the cinematic development a step further. Not only does he avoid depicting an outwardly scary ghost (he goes for sheet-with-hole minimalism), but he throws out the concept of horror all together.

Viewers are thus left with a movie like no other. The ghost’s minimalist-Halloween-style garb makes it instantly loveable, yet eerie, nonetheless. How come this character who appears just to be a man in a sheet can’t just take his sheet off? He is so close to being alive, yet absolutely dead. Simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling the ghost is neither Casper nor [insert name of actually scar ghost here]. Rather, it is the protagonist of Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.”:

 

If you could read my mind/What a tale your thoughts could tell/just like an old time movie/bout a ghost in a wishing well/in a castle dark/or a fortress strong with chains upon my feet/you know that ghost is me/for I will never be set free, so long as I’m a ghost that you can’t see.

 

It would be hard to say more about Ghost Story’s plot without spoiling the narratively simple film. What I can say is the work finds its beauty in it simplicity. Death is tragic, and Ghost Story simply reintroduces us to this tragedy by showing it from the perspective of the dead in addition to the perspective of the mourner. From there, viewers are given a lot of leeway to read the story is a more or less detailed manner. Lowery’s conception of ghosthood is as a temporary state. Not all of the dead (necessarily) return as ghosts: only those who have unfinished business. The central ghost, however, does not seemingly have a profound objective to attend to such as righting a wrong he has done or fighting some force of evil. Rather his unfinished business seems to be coming to terms with never getting to see his wife again, and the sadness he felt about her desire for them to move out of their house. As someone who can feel deep nostalgia for spaces (houses, streets, shops, etc) I could particularly appreciate that this was the unfinished business the ghost had to attend to. For other viewers, the particulars of the ghost’s objective may be less important, but the underlying emotions behind the stories should prove just as captivating.

To see a grown man walking around dressed in a sheet is to see the boy-in-the-man. To see a figure permanently clad in a sheet is to see something terrifying. To watch a man die, seemingly come back from the dead, but to have this miracle be for nought since no one can see him is heartbreaking. Ghost Story gives viewers a chance to be mesmerized by profound sadness, eased down with the teaspoon of sugar that is the ghost costume. Whether you seek such emotional stimulus or whether you simply want to experience innovative art, Ghost Story is absolutely worth seeing.

Carol (2015)

Written by: Phyllis Nagy, Directed by: Todd Haynes

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Carol, one of the most praised films of 2015, tells the story of a romance between two women (one upper class, one class-ambiguous) in 1950s New York. Based on the semi-autobiographical novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith, the film’s selling point is no doubt that it’s an LGBT story set “back in the day” (“There were…like…lesbians back then….woahhhh dude!!!”). While it can certainly be argued that simply making a film like Carol is important, given Hollywood’s under-recognition of LGBT-centric cinema, the film’s greatness stems from its execution, not its premise.

 

Carol shows homophobia in a light many viewers may not anticipate. Had Hannah Arendt not already coined the term to refer a situation far more sinister than what is depicted in Carol, I would describe Carol (Cate Blanchett)’s struggle as being against a banal evil.

 

Carol does not live (what by modern standards would be considered) an openly gay lifestyle. She speaks with refined posh-ness, and her public dates with Therese (Rooney Mara) are not outwardly romantic. On the other hand, Carol’s “closeted” mannerisms, can also be understood as the refined affect of a high society, 1950s New York woman. To put it simply, it is hard to tell when Carol is mundanely living a suppressed existence, and when she is mundanely living a lavish one.

 

Furthermore, by the standard of her era, Carol is not all-that-closeted either. Amongst those who know her, her sexual orientation is an open secret. Viewers might expect Carol to be chastised by Jerry Falwell-type preachers or to be regularly subject to slurs and revolted stares. Carol, however, is victim to no such behaviour. Instead, homophobia only rears its ugly head when the legal system is brought into play. Carol’s orientation comes under scrutiny because it allows her legal opponent (whose identity I will not reveal) to invoke a “morality clause” against her. Even then, the clause is introduced and discussed calmly. Rather than being an expression of true “moral” revulsion, it is used as a tool for the assertion of misogynistic (more than homophobic) domination.

 

Carol’s sexual orientation causes her hardship, but it is not the kind of hardship viewers will anticipate. Carol does not suffer as a result of having a sexual orientation that society refuses to accept. Rather, she suffers because her sexual orientation is something that society seems nearly ready to accept: but nearly is far from good enough. Her opponents may not denounce her, but still nonchalantly marginalize her as “immoral” when it is convenient to do so. For instance, when Carol and Therese discover that of one of the film’s secondary antagonists has been spying on them to expose their relationship, he makes no righteous tirade about how they are living in sin, but instead makes an empty apology, explaining that he is doing his job and he wishes them no ill will.

 

Hate speech and violence are nasty parts of history that have defined many bigotries including homophobia. Carol, however, challenges viewers to look at another element of systemic bigotry: the dispassionate, banal evils of people using the law and “doing their jobs.” This “toned down” analysis of marginalization allows Carol to engage in deep social criticism, while still telling a strong narrative that’s not overwhelmed by its ideological ambitions.