Casey the Nietzschean Ghost

A Ghost Story (David Lowery, 2017)

Your response to this film will depend on whether you can buy its central conceit: when a husband dies in a car accident he haunts his wife in a white sheet. In the next house along there is another ghost, in a rather more fetching design. The cumulative effect is it is not certain how seriously you are meant to take the film — is it a comedy, a tragedy, a bitter sweet comedy, a comedy with tragic overtones? Much of the film is in silence, the husband staring, first at his wife, and then at the various later, or perhaps earlier, inhabitants of the house. The cynic is me suspects that they could only afford Casey Affleck for a couple of days, and a stand in plays the ghost, but apparently it is him.

One of the incomers, present at a party, has a speech longer than all the other dialogue put together. Oddly, when a Spanish-speaking family move in, they are not subtitled — perhaps the ghost does not understand them — but the dead neighbour is.

Lowery works within an almost square ratio, something like 4:3, the same as used in silent films, and this adds a sense of voyeurism to the proceedings. The Curzon’s policy of not closing curtains — maybe there are no curtains — to cover the blank screen draws attention to the empty space outside the restrained diegesis. The ghost is often at the edge of the frame, just in view, with the camera held on the tableaux for longer than we are used to and certainly more than is comfortable. I was reminded of the great southern American photographer, William Eggleston, with his focus on the determinedly mundane. It is ordinary, but there is a beauty in it.

Whilst in Manchester By the Sea delayed the final revelation of what the trauma and guilt at the heart of the film was, this is more circumspect. There is tension between the married couple, over whether they should move or not, the chain of tragic events is less laid out for us. Whilst that film denied us catharsis, this one is even more frustrating of audience desires. The pace is glacial at first, but slowly builds, never less than watchable even as it toys with us. The mourning wife, Rooney Mara, binge eats a chocolate pudding, in spoonful after spoonful after spoonful and I hope this was achieved in a single take for the sake of her waist line.

It is not clear whether it is told in linear time — in a sense it isn’t, as we have flashbacks — but the years that the house lies empty should be stretching out from more or less the present, even as a modern metropolis encroaches on the house. They have laptops. Mobile phones. And we also loop back to pioneers. The film’s epigraph is taken from a Virginia Woolf story, “A Haunted House”:

”Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting. From room to room they went, hand in hand, lifting here, opening there, making sure — a ghostly couple.”

and Woolf repeatedly plays with duration in her work.

On a couple of occasions the husband loses patience with his squatters and haunts them — exploding light bulbs, throwing books around. We see some of the titles: A Farewell to Arms, some Nietzsche. They mean something. Probably. You may lose patience. You may surrender to the film. You should probably cry.

Neither Uncanny Nor Fantastic

Is it too soon for spoilers?

L. Frank Baum, The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904)

I’m unclear how many of the Oz books I’ve read, but I was bought this for Newtonmas something like thirty years ago and I did read this. I suspect it is heresy to say, but I think it is a better book than The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, if only because it isn’t overshadowed by the film. Whether it is true or not that the first book was the first American fantasy (I don’t believe this), or is it first for kids?, it was clearly popular enough that Baum was pressurised into a sequel.

The whole point of the first book was to get Dorothy home — having got her to marvellous Oz — and so returning her is a tough gig. The supporting characters got their brain (Scarecrow), heart (Tinman) and courage (Cowardly Lion), so everyone has what they want. Baum elects to bring back the Scarecrow and the Tinman, mainly in support roles, and gives us a boy hero, Tip.

There’s gratitude to all the Dorothies who wrote letters.

Tip is a mysterious orphan, mistreated by the wicked old witchlet Mombi, who decides to play a trick on her by making a scary dummy with a pumpkin head. Mombi responds by bringing him alive. Tip and Jack — a Scarecrow variant — run away to the Emerald City and en route create a living sawhorse and meet a large intelligent beetle (who I suspect was more amusing when I was twelve).

Then comes revolution — a girl’s army is fed up of slaving away and march on and take over the city. The Scarecrow, Tip, Jack and so forth escape, in the hopes of finding Glinda to rescue them, but mainly so that we can have a series of marvellous episodes to show off the weirdness of Oz. The resolution is more interesting than assuming there’s a satire of suffragism going on. Glinda points out that the Scarecrow is only leader because he took the city over on the Wizard’s departure, and the Wizard, who we had been led to believe built the city, usurped someone else. But there is a daughter, hidden away somewhere in safety and so the Force is safe. We also learn — thanks to the various pills and potions that run through the the story (and I get the sense that Baum trapped as liberated by variations on the three wishes trope) — that the Wizard had rather more magic than he pretended.

Did the Wizard in fact get out of town ahead of the coming revolution?

I note that all the characters are abject and marvellous — the living scarecrow, the animated squash, the giant beetle, the cyborg, the sawhorse, the Gump — and so it should be no surprise that Tip is rather more complex than we’ve led to believe. But the restoration of a matriarchal rule is also a restoration of a blood line — and Baum is perhaps not as generous to the army as his character Glinda is.

Apparently Baum had been involved in theatrical productions of Oz and pantomime — and in a world of dames and principal boys, a certain gender bending is not unexpected.