Saturday, August 12, 2017

A Ghost Story and Dunkirk: Failed Experiments

Casey Afflect and Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story.

A Ghost Story is an experimental film embedded in a commercial feature. An unnamed couple (the credits list them as "C" and "M"), played by Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, lives in a house that appears to be haunted; as they’re about to move out, C (Affleck) dies suddenly. The rest of the picture is from the point of view of the ghost who rises from his body in the hospital morgue. The movie’s subject is time, and we experience it as the ghost does, hovering in the house (in the classic mode of a specter in a sheet with holes for eyes) as M grieves and then takes up her life again and departs; as another family – a Hispanic single mother and her two young children – move in and then, spooked by the ghost’s announcement of his presence, move out again; as the house becomes dilapidated and is razed to the ground (along with the one next door, inhabited by its own ghost); as the land is taken over by an office building and the neighborhood becomes a gleaming cityscape. Then time reverses itself, taking us, with the ghost, back to the first settlers in this (unspecified) area, a farmer and his family, who are killed by Native Americans. Eventually the movie catches up to itself and we return to the first scenes between C and M, only now we see them from the perspective of the ghost, who has been there all along. (The noise that alarmed them in bed and brought them into the living room at the beginning of the picture turns out to be the sound of the ghost plunking on their piano.)

David Lowery, who also wrote and edited A Ghost Story, has been making movies for nearly twenty years, both shorts and full-length pictures, but his first commercial outing wasn’t until 2013. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is an offbeat gangster film that feels like a Western (Bonnie and Clyde is clearly a source of inspiration) in which a convict (Affleck) breaks out of prison to get back to his wife (Mara) and see his child for the first time, sealing his own fate. The script (by Lowery) is a little wayward, but the movie is memorable for its lyrical plaintiveness. I missed it on its release but made a point of seeing it after his remake of Pete’s Dragon came out last year. My colleague at Critics At Large, Justin Cummings, wrote eloquently about Pete’s Dragon and there’s no need for me to echo his sentiments at length. It’s a knockout, from the opening scene where five-year-old Pete survives a car crash that kills both his parents and is rescued from ravening wolves by a dragon. Elliot, as Pete names the dragon, becomes his playmate and surrogate father, hewing to the key convention of the kind of coming-of-age movie (The Black Stallion is the most luminous example) in which the child hero, usually after losing a father or mother, makes a special connection to an animal of extraordinary – or even (as here) magical – qualities. When the dragon extends his enormous paw and scoops up the newly orphaned boy, Lowery focuses on Pete’s face, which is astonished but retains the marks of his tears; as much as I loved those initial images of the dragon, it was the balance of wonder and sorrow that convinced me I was watching the work of a genuine moviemaker.

A Ghost Story is obviously much more ambitious than either Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or Pete’s Dragon. Visually it’s exquisite: Andrew Droz Palermo’s cinematography is misted over, as if shot through a soft veil of tulle, and he and Lowery manage to imbue the shots of the ghost under its sheet drifting across fields and then over the lawn to his house with a sense of longing and loneliness. A little later we see M standing at the window looking out, unaware of the ghost’s presence, and the landscape is reflected dimly on the glass. The close-ups of Mara – a feast for any camera – are tactile; Palermo brings out the glow in her cheekbones. When we see the city, lit up at night, from the office building erected on the site that once held their house, it looks hallucinatory, and there’s a mournful, oneiric image of the ghost leaping off one of its balconies and plummeting silently to the ground. When the ghost communes with the other (female) ghost at the next window, their tacit conversation is relayed in subtitles, and their befogged patience – both know they’re awaiting something but they can’t remember what it is – is strangely affecting; after caterpillar tractors level the walls that shelter them, the second ghost admits, “I guess they’re not coming,” and deflates. These moments are remarkable.

I understand that Lowery had to come up with his own, unpredictable tempo to express the passage of time as a ghost might perceive it, alternately slow and speeded-up, but the languid pace of some of the sequences is maddening as often as it’s effective. Lowery lingers – and lingers – on shots that don’t yield much after the first few seconds, like one of C and M in bed and another of C’s shrouded corpse on the morgue stretcher; it seems to take an eternity for the ghost to sit up under the sheet. A friend brings by food for M and leaves it on her kitchen counter with a sympathy note; when she comes home, she grabs a fork and, standing at the counter and then propped up against a wall in the corner of the room, attacks the pie, digging in with ferocious, single-minded conviction until she makes herself sick. Mara’s acting is terrific in this scene, and we see the relationship between grief and her compulsive eating, that she’s trying to fill the gap left by C’s death. This isn’t a new insight: a sequence in Suzana Amaral’s 1986 Hour of the Star where the heroine, played by Marcelia Cartaxo, shoves food in her mouth to try to deal with a broken heart, explored the same idea, and other scenes in other movies have too). Still it’s affecting – for a while. But the scene goes on and on, long after we get the point, and we wonder why Lowery wants us to watch M eat almost the whole damn pie.

The problem with this sort of material is that it’s always in danger of going over the edge into pseudo-profundity, and A Ghost Story definitely has its Tree of Life side. The low point is a scene where, at some locus in the history of the house, one of a crew of twentysomethings at a party drones on in hipster-slacker style about time wiping out everything and the ineffectualness of our efforts to make our mark through art. But the movie isn’t silly; it doesn’t invite mockery, even with all those shots of a ghost in a sheet. And particularly if you’ve seen Lowery’s other movies, you keep hoping that he’ll find a way to bring the film to the transcendent state he’s working toward. He doesn’t get there, but I want to see his next movie. 

Fionn Whitehead in Dunkirk. (Photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Warner Bros.)

Dunkirk, written and directed by Christopher Nolan, attempts to dramatize the story of the Battle of Dunkirk as a series of sensory experiences, intercutting men on shore trying to get themselves evacuated, men on a ship being attacked by the Germans, a pair of English bomber pilots under siege, and the owner of a small craft who, with two teenagers, is among the locals along the British sea coast answering the call to help with the rescue. The movie, shot by Hoyte Van Hoytema (who worked with Nolan on Interstellar), looks spectacular: the colors are as fresh as poster paint, especially in the opening sequence, where a young soldier, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), walks along the beach and the immensity of the turquoise-tinted sea and sky is overpowering. The film contains moments of gripping suspense and terror; I’m sure I’ve never been made more acutely aware of the way it feels when you’re in the bottom of a ship as bombs burst holes in the side or when you’re fighting desperately to get out of a downed plane being swallowed up by the sea.

This is certainly the most sophisticated piece of filmmaking Nolan has turned out, and I admired a lot of things in it. But though nothing in his previous work is up to this level, what he wants to do here is beyond his capabilities as an action director. He doesn’t situate us; I had trouble figuring out where the different parts of the narrative were taking place in relation to each other, so I kept getting lost in the action. The visual confusion is exacerbated by the fact that the dialogue is poorly recorded and unnecessarily challenging to decipher because Peter Albrechtsen, in charge of sound recording, is more interested in reproducing the powerful aural experience of the men as vehicles of war converge on each other. And the screenplay Nolan has matched to the bigness of the movie is puny. There’s very little in the way of character. Cillian Murphy has a pretty good role as a shell-shocked soldier rescued from the drink by the small seacraft owner (Mark Rylance), and he discharges it efficiently; the fresh-faced young actors who make up most of the cast seem talented, and a few moments here and there individuate them. But not enough. Rylance doesn’t get much to play, and Kenneth Branagh and James Wilby, as a naval commander and army colonel overseeing the evacuation, get next to nothing. One of the subplots, about a French soldier (Aneurin Barnard) who pretends to be English to get aboard a ship heading out and is accused of being a German spy, harks back to John Ford’s adaptation of the Eugene O’Neill sea plays, The Long Voyage Home, and it and another, where Murphy accidentally injures one of the boys on board Rylance’s boat, are slices of melodrama that feel like intrusions in a movie that is intended as a piece of stark historical realism. 

Dunkirk is impressive in small pieces and frustrating as a whole because you’re continually having to work out how those pieces fit together. A fire at sea looks amazing, but I kept thinking about comparable sequences in The Black Stallion and Life of Pi where I felt not knocked over by the sights and sounds but drawn in by them and engaged deeply in the narrative because the directors (Carroll Ballard and Ang Lee respectively) led you through it, moment to moment. I’m happy to see Nolan, a director whose movies I usually can’t stand, trying for something worthwhile. But he still doesn’t know how to tell a coherent story or create three-dimensional characters who burn through the action rather than getting upstaged by it.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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