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

Rosemary’s Baby

rosemarys_baby

When you watch old Horror films it is so easy to feel underwhelmed. What may have been scary for an audience in the 60s is now so far removed or normalised for a modern audience, all the actual scares will often just leave you cold to the effect that is talked about at length. Think of the scenes of Linda Blair in The Exorcist (1973, Dir. William Friedkin) and their (at the time) horrifying depictions of possession. All the head-spinning and vomiting may have been shocking to a naïve 70s audience, but in this age of realer than real CGI and more informed directorial shock tactics they can feel almost laughable to fresh viewers.

Whilst I do still feel there are scares to be found in the film and others like it, Psycho (1960, Dir. Alfred Hitchcock), being another prime example) the disconnect with the hysterical shocks remain an unfortunately unshakable barrier for me to actually recommend The Exorcist as a shockingly scary film any more (at least to a younger audience). This is not to say of course that all older Horror films lack impact and with Rosemary’s Baby (1968, Dir. Roman Polanski) we can see that through effective direction and mood that perhaps chills rather than shocks are the more lasting effect of some of these Horror classics.

The story focuses on Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and Guy (John Cassavetes), a young couple who move into a huge old townhouse flat and are greeted by a series of strange encounters. Firstly Rosemary meets a young woman who’s being rehabilitated from a junk habit by Rosemary’s new neighbours, the eccentric Castavets. Shortly after meeting the woman she kills herself, this is of course a surprise to Rosemary and yet they strike up a friendship with the elderly Castavets and things only get weirder for her from there.

To explain this plot further would for me be a disservice to the film as so much of the joy of Rosemary’s Baby is to be found in its hesitancy to reveal what is true and what is not. This is a total mood piece by Roman Polanski, as the story progresses both Mia Farrow’s Rosemary and John Cassavetes’ Guy play their parts with extreme conviction, Farrow in particular lending Rosemary a particular innocence which only serves to add to the mood of the piece even further. It is partially this innocence in Farrow but also the brooding detachment shown by Cassavetes that seem to mesh into this strange psychological chess game between the characters, however the game is often being convincingly won by the male characters in the story. These performances and the narrative arc of the film as a whole really do give off a very strange feeling for the viewer, whilst these two are meant to be in love, this strips away and although they do have sex in the film you cannot help but feel that already there is a sexless nature to the relationship as a whole. And yet Polanski often uses the men in the film to exert a particular dominance over Rosemary in a very creepy and unsettling way. The sexless nature of their relationship as the film progresses has the audience looking at the men in the story as bad guys even if they are seemingly innocent.

It is clear then from this that Polanski is far from aiming for a straightforward Horror film and as I mentioned before seems to be aiming for mood and chills rather than the grandstanding moments so often associated with the genre. Polanski is questioning relationships and friendships, continually asking the audience to distrust almost every interaction a person has with Rosemary. It is this disturbing psychological game that Polanski brings to the film that really makes this film stand so proudly in the horror cannon, the sense that just under the surface there’s a whole world of weirdness waiting for our heroine, if only she knew how to find out exactly what was happening to her and those around her.

The other main character that Polanski uses to create this suffocating mood is from the setting of the apartment itself. We see early on the couple refurbishing the space, from an old woman’s decrepit forgotten home to a modern light space. The lighting remains bright and flat in the apartment for much of the film and yet we rarely go outside, as Rosemary stays in the flat the tension rises and the camera slowly creeps in towards her. When the couple are in their housewarming stages the camera is often further back showing more of the flat but as their relationship diminishes in the story and Rosemary’s own journey takes over the camera will often just show Farrow grappling with her demons and her situation. The close-ups of Rosemary near the climax of the film even start to become unhinged with the director using a handheld style to both reflect the characters psyche but also just to bring this coiled spring of a film to an almost unbearable breaking point.

As you can probably tell I’m fairly in love with this film and if you haven’t had the time to see this or even better if you don’t know anything about it I really do recommend this as an alternative actually scary old horror film. A brilliant example of tell don’t show genre filmmaking with a compelling and creepy narrative and an iconic ending scene which gives me chills just writing this.

-Ed

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Rosemary’s Baby

Come And See

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Come and See (1985) is a descent into hell on earth the like of which I have never seen. I am saying this just to warn those of you who haven’t seen this film that it really is a heavy watch. This is possibly the hardest film to watch at points that I’ve ever seen, not because it’s bad but just because of the sheer weight of the events unfolding onscreen.

Now before I continue I must admit that it’s been about a month and a half since my first viewing of Come and See. Whilst this may seem like a long time to leave a film to review the film felt like it deserved more than a snap judgement of it. It is a film which commands and deserves respect, not only because of the artfulness of its direction or its value as a film, but also because of the attention it draws to a particularly overlooked event in the Second World War.

Come and See charts a young boys journey in the German occupation of Belorussia and the horrific treatment of people as the Nazi’s cleared the countryside’s small villages. This obviously dark and difficult subject matter which could easily be handled badly is handled with a level of care unprecedented in other war films. Instead of merely replaying the incidents on screen to show us what happened, Elem Klimov seems to try to put the audience in the events. This is just as uncomfortable and challenging as it should be, war should not always be handled lightly as it has been often. This is especially the case with the Second World War which has enough tales of heroism and scope to inspire a wide range of features from Inglorious Basterds to Schindler’s List, both arguably great in their own way. However Come and See stands in a league of its own in my mind. Instead of being bogged down by clear narrative form and character development, Klimov aims to just show the harsh reality of what war is.

Aleksey Kravchenko is absolutely astounding as the young boy who leads us through the landscapes of horrors that dot this film. He gives a performance both filled with emotion and also at points completely detached from events unfolding in front of him. One standout scene sees him climbing through a bog in an attempt to escape from the realities of what he has seen. This scene is etched in my brain, the despair that you can see on screen is palpable. Klimov choosing to frame the films ‘narrative’ (if it can even be called that) around a child makes the films aim even more pointed. This is what war does to people, these are the people that it effects.

This film is without a doubt the truest depiction of what war brings and how it feels to be within the midst of a human atrocity. There are many ways to pinpoint why it is that this is the greatest war film of all time. Instead of any kind of music there is just a low constant white noise throughout the film which grows and subsides with the events being depicted, the louder the noise the more horrible the scene. There really is no way to describe the experience of watching Come and See as it is a completely singular film in my mind. The discomfort you feel throughout just serves to add more to the films quest to depict these events, it’s as close as I’ve come whilst watching a film to just wanting it to end because of the heavy burden of human suffering forced at you.

Come and See is both surreal and brutally realistic, angry and sad, horrific and beautiful. The film defies genre as it is more horror film than war film. This may all seem very breathless and hyperbolic but I really do think this about Come and See. As soon as it was over I was sure it was one of the best films I have ever seen and it may seem like this is a film that you shouldn’t ever watch, and I can’t lie there really is no good time to stick on a copy of Come and See. However I would say that you owe it to yourself to watch this film because it really is enlightening despite how hard it can be to watch. Elem Klimov said of this film that it was his last because he had ‘nothing left to say’, a sentiment you totally understand after watching it. Everything from the plot to the characters to the cinematography feels like a filmmaker making their final statement. This film is undeniably a masterpiece.

-Ed

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Come And See