Friday, January 12, 2018

A Ghost Story

A couple are living in the suburbs of Dallas on the edge of the hilly countryside. The husband, Casey Affleck, is pretty content out here in the middle of nowhere. He's a song writer and this is a nice quiet spot for him to make his minimalist slightly dub steppy piano music. The wife, Rooney Mara, an artist, wants to move into the city to be closer to the craic. She moved around a lot as a child and every time she would move she would leave a secret note in the house on the day she left as a way of saying goodbye. It's ok to move she says. They debate the issue and the husband reluctantly agrees. One night, they hear a creepy bang on their piano but cannot find the cause. (This is explained in the third act.) The husband gets up early one morning, heads out and is killed in a car accident near his home. At the hospital, his wife views his body and covers it with a sheet. The man awakens as a ghost covered in the sheet, and wanders through the hospital, completely invisible, to the doctors and most of the patients. He's in this old fashioned Halloween ghost costume the whole time. He sees a door of light but refuses to go in and the door vanishes. He leaves the hospital and treks back to his house where he watches his wife grieve over the coming months. She eats an entire pie in what has become a famous scene for its stillness and patience. Eventually the wife moves out but before she does so she leaves a secret note buried in the wall. The ghost tries to get it but can't. Time passes. Another family moves in and after putting up with them for a while the ghost terrorises them out. The ghost sees another ghost inside the house next door and telepathically the ghost tells him that she is waiting for someone but it's been so long she has forgotten who she is waiting for. Time passes. The now ruined "haunted" house becomes a place to hold parties and raves. Time passes and the house becomes derelict. The ghost waits. . .
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This plot summary covers, I think, the first half of the movie. There's a lot more to the story than this but you really should watch the rest for yourself. This is a supernatural film but it is not a horror film. There are no jump scares or gross out scenes or anything like that. This is Bergmanesque mediation on love, death and time. Some reviewers I've read have complained about the film's slow pacing but I thought quite a lot of stuff happened - perhaps you have to be in a certain frame to mind to appreciate it. I don't know, it does require patience and attention but that attention is duly rewarded and I certainly loved it. I suppose the major underlying theme to A Ghost Story is entropy. It's a question that's been asked by a lot of writers and philosophers over the years: in the face of death what's the point of doing anything. And by death here I don't mean your own personal death which is bad enough but Death with a capital D which is the death of everyone that knew you and the ultimate death of every possible contribution you could have added to the culture in your lifetime. In 1000 years people might possibly still remember Shakespeare, Beethoven, Orson Welles etc. But in 10,000 years? 100,000? 1,000,000? Unlikely. In two or three billion years from now the sun is going to become a red giant and swallow the Earth before it dies. In a few trillion years all the stars are going to die. Eventually all the atoms are going to decay into protons, neutrons and electrons and according to the Georgi–Glashow model, protons transition into a positron and a neutral pion, which then decays into 2 gamma ray photons. Estimates put the half-life for protons at 1.29×1034 years which is a long time but only a blip really in the vastness of infinity. Unless there is a big crunch the future of the universe is going to be an endless void of black nothingness with the odd random photon floating past. This is not a cheery prospect to me and it's rare these days to see a film tackle this idea that entropy must maximise and will eventually conquer everything. (Isaac Asimov considers this in his classic short story The Last Question which you can read for free here at the Princeton Physics Dept web site.)
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So what then do we do when we know that everything we attempt here is for naught? Again a lot of philosophers have discussed this over the centuries. If you believe in God well then you're fine you don't need to think or worry about this anymore but if you don't believe in God then the subject becomes more interesting. Epicurus didn't know about the entropic heat death of the universe but he did know that life is short and death is long and he said that we should Live Now in the moment, enjoying friends, family, music, food, art. Epicurus prefigures contemporary mindfulness thinking and he dismisses the idea that we should build for eternity. Forget eternity, he says, try to live in the extended moment. The Stoics also rejected gods and the afterlife. Their picture of existence is a little less rosy than Epicurus. Life is hard they say but it can be borne when you compare it to death. Things can always be worse, more painful, more miserable and death is the worst worse of all so try to bear it if you can. Stoicism and Epicureanism are two sides of the same coin really and we don't get another entirely original solution to the entropic question until Schopenhauer comes along in the nineteenth century. Schopenhauer looks at life, finds it appalling, full of pain and suffering and recommends that we reject convention, social norms and all that bullshit and, to quote Philip Larkin, "to get out as early as we can." Suicide will end the constant striving, the torment of 'time's whips' and the endless suffering we see around us. After the publication of Schopenhauer's The World as Will and Representation there were in fact a raft of suicides by convinced Schopenhaurean readers and disciples while Schopenhauer himself lived a rather nice life as a famous author and university lecturer. Hmmmm. 
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Modern pessimist philosophers lament the evolution of consciousness and the knowledge of our own death and they too advocate suicide as a way out from the torment, but they're wrong. Suicide is not the answer unless you are in unremitting physical pain. Suicide is what the fucking void wants and I think we're here to stick a middle finger up to the darkness and show a bit of courage. Yeah we know entropy wins in the end but we're going to build that sand castle on the beach anyway. Why? Because, that's why. What are you gonna do about it?  Albert Camus in his Myth of Sisyphus urges us to laugh at the meaninglessness of existence. Thomas Nagel has critiqued Camus as being unnecessarily theatrical but I don't know if that's such a bad thing myself. We're all playing ourselves in the movie of our lives. We're all embedded in narratives of our own making. The philosopher Alasdair McIntyre in his brilliant book After Virtue urges us to cultivate the Aristotlean virtues and to be cheerful in the face of annihilation. Be like the heroes of the Icelandic Sagas or the Spartans making jokes at Thermopylae. Treat death with cool disdain and sang froid. We don't all have to live like Mad Jack Churchill but we can try he says. There's something to this. 
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The movie A Ghost Story does not provide any answers to the problem of death and the contemporary existential dilemma but it does raise some very interesting questions. Written and directed by David Lowery with a score by Daniel Hart and cinematography by Andrew Droz Palermo it's a film worth checking out.