Surfaces turn, find their places. In time,
The rhythm could not be simpler.
—David Wright, "Altar Piece"
The desire to leave a record of ourselves is among the most reliable of human impulses. From cave paintings to monuments to grave markers, we want to make sure that people will remember us, that some part of ourselves will remain for future generations to observe. In the digital age, this impulse manifests itself in petabytes upon petabytes of internet text, photos, and videos, all secreted away within hard drives or invisibly navigating the Wi-Fi-saturated air. We document personal events for the benefit of presumed audiences—friends, descendants, even a future version of ourselves. Accumulate enough such recordings, and the shape of a life begins to reveal itself.
Of the many reasons to treasure David Lowery’s new film A Ghost Story, one of the biggest is the way it outlines the shape not just of one human life, but of human life in general. With its round-cornered, boxy aspect ratio—familiar to anyone who’s ever used a slide projector or watched a home video on Super 8 film—A Ghost Story offers us a cosmic home video of sorts. The lives of one married couple fold into the lives of the people who come after them, which then fold into the eternal, which in turn encompasses and contextualizes the lives of the husband and wife we started with.
This may sound like the concept for an abstruse philosophical epic, but the miracle of Lowery’s film lies in how it teases out these connections through the simple act of observation. Under the patient gaze of Lowery’s camera, the ordinary becomes extraordinary, and vice versa. The cosmic and the commonplace are woven into a single fabric, like the white sheet that shrouds the eponymous ghost.
This ghost belongs to a man (played by Casey Affleck and identified only as “C” in the end credits) who, early in the film, is killed in a car accident and separated from his wife, “M” (Rooney Mara). Returning to their house as a specter, C becomes an observer of everything that happens there. At first, he merely watches M carrying on with her life, but as a spirit with one foot in eternity, his grasp of the sequential progression of moments and days slackens. He is tethered to a place but not to time. People come and go. Structures rise and fall around him. The ghost maintains the steady rhythms of his vigil regardless.
Lowery is keenly attuned to the cinematic possibilities inherent in these rhythms. The Russian master Andrei Tarkovsky wrote in his memoir that filmmaking is the art of “sculpting in time,” that finding certain visual rhythms flowing through each shot can result in entirely new ways of experiencing the time’s passage. Tarkovsky favored lengthy shots rather than the quick cuts of montage to give shape to the temporal: “It is rhythm, and not editing, as people tend to think, that is the main formative element of cinema. … Rhythm in cinema is conveyed by the life of the object visibly recorded in the frame.”
Lowery seems to have taken this philosophy to heart in his film. Again and again, he lingers on activities and events long after another director might have cut away. In the film’s most buzzed-about scene, the camera holds steady on Mara as her sorrow-stricken character devours nearly an entire pie in one go. The shot lasts for minutes on end, and the effect is hypnotic. It asks us to dwell with M in her desolation, not permitting us to skate over the surface of these feelings or to skip ahead once we’ve “gotten the point.” We must bear witness to the full measure of her grief, feel its rhythms.