A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

Ghost Story

A Ghost Story (2017, Dir. David Lowery) is a bizarre experience.It’s a film which does its best to wrestle itself away from any genre conventions you might associate with it on first glance. Seeing the supernatural draws your mind to horror, but there is very little to be scared of here. Seeing the hype quotes around it, with words like cosmic” and another one I saw describing it as “meditation on the passage of  timemight prepare you for a mind bending cerebral brain melter, and while part of that’s true, a lot of the film is concerned with tiny, minute and gentle human motions, all very easy to grasp hold of.

That’s not to say any one element is better than the other, but seeing them combined together in such an unusual package such as this one, one which starts A-list actors spending most of their time simply being present rather than “Acting” in any traditional sense of the word. Seeing these elements in a film which inhabits a space much closer to still life photography than the frenetic technical wizardry of modern-day cinematography. It works together to make a film which is constantly forcing you to adjust to its rhythms, and re-adjust almost immediately again. For only 92 minutes, the structural and poetic complexity is honestly quite impressive.

I’ll try to break it down through its most noticeable element, it’s play with time. Much has been made of film’s ability to compress or extend time, it’s ability to make years, centuries or even millennia pass from one frame to the next, or to drag a single moment in time, a second or even a fraction of that, and drag it out to last seconds, minutes, even hours if you were bold/mad enough. A Ghost Story manipulates time for all it’s worth. There’s a very bold choice as we watch M (played by melancholic Rooney Mara) consume a pie in real-time for nearly 4 minutes, Lowery choosing to focus his lens on time which many other films would gloss over to focus on more “dramatic moments”. Or from one second to the next, an entire life flashes before C’s eyes (played by melancholic Casey Affleck under a sheet for 90% of the time). That’s messing around with structure, making the audience get lost and disorient from their usual understanding of time.

It does all sound rather cosmic when you start to write it down, but again lots of the film is devoted to very small, intimate details. C spends a large amount of time scratching at a nook in the wall where M left a note.  A beginning scene just involves C & M gently and sleepily kissing each other, which goes on for a while. There’s a lot more of these tiny moments, and each one adds up like tiny fragments of a shattered glass. And since so much of the film is image driven, the lack of spoken words drives the film into a territory where things are much more unfocused, but much simpler. It puts you in territory which is usually reserved for experimental films (which I guess this is anyway?), the territory of experience rather than precise understanding. You have to use emotional reasoning rather than logical processing here.

On it’s more surface levels, it’s still unconventional and produces strange effects. The film is framed by an aspect ratio which is something akin to looking through your camera’s viewfinder or as Lowery says here, like old photographs. Cinema screens have always favoured horizontal compositions over vertical ones (since the screen is usually wider than it is tall), so on one hand there are portions of the screen on the left and right completely unused, while on the other hand this also allows for what’s onscreen to be more focused, less distracted by the environment around it. It’s dialogue is often sound mixed into the orchestra, creating an organic soundscape in the film where music and dialogue mesh to the point where both are just as important, but also at times making dialogue difficult to hear. Honestly at times the film moves into music video territory, underscored by a serene but powerful score from Daniel Hart.

So too is the performances, muted and subdued and minimal to the point of going no further. I mean Casey Affleck as the ghost essentially becomes a blank slate for you to project onto in the second half of the film. Prevented from facial expression, and with body movement limited to only the barest, slowest movements, it becomes an intriguing and simultaneously frustrating experience. I don’t necessarily think it’s bad, but just the common film diet gives you so much more to chew on, characters with clear motivations and conflict and interplay between a whole big cast of people working for and against each other. This is so much leaner, the only way to reduce C’s role without annihilating it completely would be to prevent the ghost from moving at all, an even extremer choice which would have harmed the film more than it helped. Just in every way it’s mechanics are those often forgotten by more conventional cinema, the film requiring you to extend towards it a greater depth of understanding, a greater allowance and tolerance to idiosyncrasy.

It is a film about a guy under a sheet. There are moments where you laugh, where you laugh when you probably shouldn’t (I did that), moments where you are bored and wish it would hurry up, moments which instill you with melancholia, moments which are really quite profound. Really there’s just hundreds of different moments, fragments you could say, and once the film finishes you finally have a shattered glass which has been put back together again. It’s not perfect, but it’s deeply personal, and anything it lacks in conventional grace is made up for its unusual and deeply cared for mechanics.

-Alex

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A Ghost Story : Phantom Mechanics

The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The_Ghoul_UK_quad

I think it’s easy to forget three things in cinema.

1) Films are made by real people. Even though they often pertain to fictional events and involve a complex network of people who work in different departments who work to feed themselves or at the very least, be fed by the catering department, films are still spearheaded primarily by real people who have a significant stake in not just whether the film makes money, but whether its well received or not. They care is what I’m saying.

2) That by the time a film reaches distribution level, the creators behind it have often been sitting on the film for at least 1-3 years, pre-producing, actual production, and long periods of incubation in the edit. By the time it comes round to a director’s Q&A such as the one I attended when seeing this film,  the sparks which set off the idea are long since gone, resigned to the past. Film is always about creating a space and a time which doesn’t exist in reality, but it’s also important to remember that it often has a different relationship to the artist that you might immediately assume from the outside.

3) Almost every artistic choice is influenced by financial availability. Every acting performance, every part of a film’s mise-en-scéne, every camera motion and every cog it’s machine is in some way affected by the amount of money they have to play with. Things in films which can on first glance seem aesthetically motivated, choices by the director on how to convey this world, can often be simply issues of there not being enough money to do it any other way.


These three things informed my watching of The Ghoul (2017, Dir. Gareth Tunley),  as of writing a brand new low budget British independent psychological thriller. Attached to the project is Ben Wheatley as an executive producer, a name which surely helped to get the film’s status get above the water line of thousands of micro-budget produced features each year. But this is not Ben Wheatley’s film, and according to the Q&A he came onto the project at a much later date in the film’s lifetime, so let’s put that to bed right now.

The Ghoul is on first glance, a horror movie about a riddle which can’t be solved. By the end of the film, it is still that. Just in a very twisted, disorienting and unexpected fashion. See, The Ghoul is also about psychological issues, about people who construct realities around them, realities which become true to them. For example, if a person constructs a reality where they believe everyone really is out to get them, and then they find some evidence of that,  it reinforces that reality, it becomes more real. A chain of logic begins to develop, it’s just that logic can be at odds or it might fit in with what’s happening around you.

When you see someone who is mad, it is always hard to imagine “how” they can think like that. How someone can really think the whole world is made of eggplants, or that their own son is actually a secret service plant who also is an exact double of their son (thanks Human Traffic, 1999, Dir. Justin Kerrigan), or even those opinions I might find difficult to understand, like people who believe the Earth is flat or people who believe global warming is a myth. What I can never see, is the logical (but not necessarily correct) chain of events leading up to how that person can think in that way. The Ghoul is a class in how that happens, and at times it’s a very disturbing class. So it’s a film about madness.

But then, it’s also a film about dealing with issues. The main character spends large portions of the film in therapy, talking with those who engage with the mind in all manners of ways, psychotherapy and later mysticism and the occult. It’s concerned with those draining and intense psychoses which follow so many people around, cling onto them and build pressure inside their brains, feeding into our unconscious minds. And how to deal with them, and how to battle them, and the very scary fact that sometimes we could potentially lose. That not everything is a celluloid dream, sometimes it can be a nightmare. So it’s a film about psychotherapy, the unconscious and recovery.

But then, it’s also a film which has other film DNA in it. If you wanted to be mean and glib about it, you could say it’s a lo-fi and weaker Lost Highway (1997, Dir. David Lynch). None of the style, and half of the substance, but the themes and the structure and the content mirror each other in extensive respects. It’s also aping the detective genre, paranoid and nebulous mysteries to be revealed or perhaps not, like The Big Sleep (1946, Howard Hawks). Dangerous and confusing labyrinths which while desperately trying to sort out its pieces, only get more and more blurred together. So really it’s just a film about remixing old films.

But then it’s also a micro-budget film. So it has scenes where the seams come through. Portraying depression is always a filmmaker’s nightmare, because you have to convey someone doing nothing and somehow make it not boring. Sometimes The Ghoul gets away with it, sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes the production details hold up, and sometimes they don’t. And I felt the acute sense of pain that must come with every film made on a shoestring budget, as the director and producer discussed the fact that honestly there was so much which had to be parred back, shaved off and cut down just so the film could get made, let alone get made well. Entire scenes, production designs and even time when filming, which affects everything else, all the mechanical cogs in the production machine. So just due to financial restrictions, the film is about people because they didn’t have a bigger budget.

All these perspectives are ways of looking at the film, and all of them make some good points but fail to capture any of the other ways of looking at the film, all equally valid in some respects. I like the film a lot, its intelligent and thought-provoking even if its ability to do so is restricted by real world problems. But that’s what marks out filmmakers, those who can at least work around their restrictions to create something. What marks out good filmmakers is getting around those restrictions and making something that doesn’t make you feel like you’ve wasted your time.

The Ghoul did not waste my time. For the sum of its parts, its a grounded and creepy genre film (kind of) that had moments of genuine dread. It may not have an unending legacy, but it was a film made by real people who did it with practically no money and have spent years trying to piece it together. And it was good.

That’s really important.

-Alex

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The Ghoul: A Tale of Divided Surfaces

The Beguiled : Fading Magic

The Beguiled

So in a recent episode of one of my favourite film discussion shows, Welcome to the Basement“, they briefly discussed the film Marie Antoinette (2006, Dir. Sofia Coppola), a Mr Craig Johnson declares the great theme of Sofia Coppola’s work to be “poor little rich kids”. I haven’t seen enough of her work to agree with this statement, but I can say this does run through The Beguiled (2017, Dir. Sofia Coppola).

Taking place in an etiquette school for “Southern Belles” (upper class Southern American girls), a deserting and wounded Yankee soldier, Cpl. John McBurney (Colin Farrell) is taken in by hardened headmistress Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman). Staying in the house is the softer teacher Edwina Morrow (Kirsten Dunst), and a variety of students, key to them is the precocious and trouble starting Alicia (Elle Fanning), and the young student who first finds McBurney, Amy (Oona Lawrence). A handsome man, in a house full of women, things begin to get heated as the subtle competitions for affections kick off.

But this isn’t just an erotically charged drama. As the cauldrons boil over, and McBurney becomes grievously injured, his  arousing demeanour collapses and the sense of tantalising danger he presented is turned inwards, onto the girls. The big focus in this remake of the novel and 1971 adaptation (Dir. Don Siegel) is the presentation of the film from the female perspective, and so we witness McBurney from the outside as the women plot to deal with him, their fears and their conversations. The fluidity of this adaptation very well done, as I only found this information out after watching the film, and did not realise the roles had been somewhat reversed.

Honestly while I saw the film I was intensely caught up in the slow bubbling drama. The first half in particular for me, draws you in with a rope around your neck as you seek every single subtle hint, every glance of the eyes or subtle smile, the film becomes something of a Chinese plate spinning act and the tension builds and builds in this luxurious Southern chamber of a house. Combined with the impending sword of Damocles hanging over McBurney as his wound heals and the threat of being forced back into war, and you have a sleepy fire which is really absorbing.

The technical choices on display also work to convey a very tight if subdued style. The colour palette is one of sepia and pink tones, of dry suns and candle-lit oak rooms. So too is the watchful, voyeuristic camera which peers from corners and darkened spots to observe the comings and goings, the tiny verbal confrontations and competitions everyone is having. The editing too, builds at a steady rhythm, the cuts slow and precise and giving just enough time to be unsettled, to reflect on the possible motivations and outcomes of each power play.

Honestly reading this back there’s a lot to like about this film, and I can say for sure that while watching it I was pretty entranced, caught up in its action. And then in its last moments, I suddenly snapped out of trance and realised; I didn’t like it. Now liking or not liking a film is not a new phenomenon, but I think what was different about this was how rapidly the house of cards began to collapse in my mind. There’s serious pacing issues in the second half (and to a lesser extent the first half), characters make choices without really having enough of a relationship to justify their actions, the film’s droning score is ambient without setting a lot of atmosphere. Just it fell apart in my head from being a unified whole work to being parts of a puzzle which didn’t quite fit together.

I think one of the things I often forget about cinema being an adult is that it’s mainly a lot of technical choices, a lot of creative choices, and a little bit of magic. Cinema is magic because it casts a spell on you, makes you believe in worlds which don’t exist, makes you understand people who never existed, makes you believe that hundreds, thousands of different images made at different times in different locations are all part of one single linear world. And I think with The Beguiled I experienced both the spell, and the accidental reveal of the trick. Like a magician who accidentally reveals the rope behind the curtain, the whole thing drops to a level of mechanical functionality which you can never get back.

If you can see the strings, it can still be excellent, it can still work, but it’s never magical again. I had to write an essay for my university course last year deconstructing the cinematography in another of Sofia Coppola’s works, Lost in Translation (2002), and even through an extensive deconstruction process, I never once lost sight of it being anything but a film I believed in.I know that seems a messy distinction, but its hard to define this kind of feeling since its so mysterious and nebulous, so I’m doing my best. Furthermore I’d still recommend a watch, because a film like this, of a director with a distinctive style whose films are neither shining masterpieces nor grubby trash, work which can be both enjoyed and/or criticised, is what makes up the interesting middle ground of cinema.

I was beguiled by The Beguiled I will confess, in that I was charmed and enchanted by it. I was totally caught up and drawn into it’s world. But it’s almost a victim of its own success in that respect, because, like the characters in the film itself, you can’t be beguiled forever. Eventually you see through the masks we wear, you see the natures and real faces underneath, and once you’ve done that it never quite looks the same. The mysterious aspects disappear, and so does some of its’ magic.

-Alex

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The Beguiled : Fading Magic