Show Hide image

The existential masculinity of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story

In spite of the gendered history of the form, Lowery has produced A Very Manly Ghost Story.

David Lowery’s film A Ghost Story – which sees Casey Affleck as a ghost, under a sheet with two cartoonish eye holes cut into it – begins with a quote from a more traditional ghost story. It’s a line from "A Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf: “Whatever hour you woke there was a door shutting.” We get more quotes from this short story later, when some books fall to the floor. A glimpse of a sentence: “The wind roars up the avenue.” And another: “The pulse of the house beat.”

A Ghost Story follows a couple (Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, only named in the credits as C and M respectively) who argue about their Texas home. M wants to leave, C wants to stay. They are at an impass, until C gives in, and says they can move. Soon after, he dies in a car crash practically on their driveway. After M confirms his identity, we watch a very, very long shot of C’s body, on a gurney, beneath a sheet. Until he sits up.

For the rest of the film, we watch Affleck under this sheet haunting the house he was due to leave. He watches M grieve and eventually move on romantically, before she moves out of the house all together. New families move in and out, parties begin and end, the house is torn down, new developments spring up, the ghost moves into the distant future before being catapulted back into the distance past and watching the same sequence of events all over again. He is forced to confront the smallness of his own life in the wide expanse of history, and watch his transient legacy disappear into nothing.

This, to me, at least, is a quintessentially masculine film, and it’s interesting to me that opens with a quote from Woolf’s ghost story. Certainly, there are obvious parallels between these two stories. Both share a disarming compression of time. The key recurring motif of A Ghost Story is of M and a small, anonymous girl hiding notes in places of emotional significance – “so that if I ever wanted to go back, there’d be a piece of me there waiting.” C spends the film trying to unearth one of M’s notes from the walls of their Texas home. "A Haunted House" follows the ghosts of a relationship hunting for an unspecified “it”, a “treasure buried”: “Wandering through the house, opening the windows, whispering not to wake us, the ghostly couple seek their joy.”

A ghost story is arguably a woman’s story. From the 1800s onwards, the form was dominated by women writers. In her anthology of feminist supernatural fiction, Jessica Amanda Salmonson argues that as much as 70 per cent of ghost stories published in British and American magazines in the 19th century – the peak of the form’s popularity – were written by women. Many (male) critics have explained women’s prominence in ghost story writing by suggesting that the reliable popularity of the genre meant that it was the best way for women to make money. But the ghost story was also a form of considerable cultural impact, one suited to exploring ideas of isolation, claustrophobia and repression – and women’s liminal experiences in Victorian society.

Melissa Edmundson Makala, in Women’s Ghost Literature in Nineteenth-Century Britain, writes that “just as the spectral forces in their writings transgress the boundary between life and afterlife”, women writers used the ghost story to reject and “transgress the cultural boundaries of their day”. Vanessa Dickerson, in Victorian Ghosts in the Noontide: Women Writers and the Supernatural, argues that in the 19th century, “the act of writing a ghost story” was also “the creation of a public discourse for voicing feminine concerns”.  Unlike male-authored ghost stories, women authors of the time “truly treated the return of the repressed and the dispossessed” in their discussions of repressed desires, stifled ambitions and diminished, fading selves. In the Victorian era, “women were at some more profound level the real ghosts”.

The in-between experience is key to many ghost stories of the period. From Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to Mary E Wilkins Freeman’s “The Shadow on the Wall” to Margaret Oliphant’s “The Library Window”, there are a whole host of ghost stories that follow women who actively desire to transgress supernatural boundaries, or are consumed by them. In Ada Trevanion’s 1858 “A Ghost Story” a schoolgirl longs for the ghost of her beloved teacher Miss Winter. Female narrators yearn to go behind the wall or the library window or closed door to discover what ghosts lurk beyond; female ghosts ache for lovers left behind.

We can see this in Woolf, too. The academic Anne McConnell writes that Woolf’s short stories include liminal spaces that provide “a refuge, primarily for women, who suffer most significantly from the limiting aspects of social convention.” She notes gendered differences in language in Woolf’s short stories, which often feature an expressive, non-linear, musical narration usually associated with a female perspective. Male dialogue, by contrast, offers “dry, factual information that interrupts”.

While these ghost stories deal in questions of oppression, repression and transgression, Lowery’s A Ghost Story is preoccupied with what might be considered more masculine themes of roots, legacy, and remembrance. Of course, these are questions that women writers have grappled with just as much as male ones – but there’s a deeply masculine tradition of work concerned with inheritance, ancestry, legacy and posthumous laurels. Indeed, the promotional material for the film declares, “Our yearning for legacy is what makes us human.”

“What is it you like about this house so much?” M asks C, when she is trying to persuade him to give it up. “History,” he declares, before adding, “We have history here.” “Not as much as you think,” M shoots back.

Before C dies (and after, when he watches the events of their relationship play out again, as a ghost), we get a sense of his relationship with M. It’s not good. Though the pair have chemistry, we watch tired gender dynamics play out between them: M tries to push C into talking with her about their division over their home, C sulkily refuses. C is a musician (of course he is), and repeatedly priorities his song writing over these discussions with M – yet, when it comes to showing her his new music, it’s indicated that he wrote it for her. The song (Dark Rooms’s “I Get Overwhelmed”) seems to discuss the distance in their relationship includes lyrics like “Did she die in the night? Leave you alone?” and “No place like home / Just a fucking mess”. After M hears it, she leaves the room.

A much-distributed summary of the movie, “A passionate young couple, unexpectedly separated by a shocking loss, discover an eternal connection and a love that is infinite,” makes me wonder if the writer of this sentence and I saw the same film. A gulf exists between C and M long before death does them part. C is a man who is intelligent enough to be aware of this problem, but refuses to take on the emotional labour required to (at least partially) fix it, instead wallowing in more existential questions of human connection. C is every man who jokingly references their struggles to have a productive romantic relationship whilst refusing to confront their own inability to be vulnerable.

Of course, the casting of Casey Affleck feels significant here, too. In a piece for the New Republic also considering masculinity and A Ghost Story, Christian Lorentzen calls Affleck “the current avatar of American white male woe.” At Polygon, Ben Kuchera notes that Affleck personifies “everything terrifying about a culture of emotionally broken men in America”. Affleck was cast in A Ghost Story when he was fresh out of Manchester by the Sea, a film in which, according to the Junkee article "Boys Don’t Cry: The Masculine Melodrama Of Manchester By The Sea", his character “represents the distillation of uncommunicative masculinity”.

Accusations of sexual assault (including of cuddling a sleeping co-worker without her awareness or permission) and his refusal to verbally engage with them lends a pungent whiff of toxic masculinity to Affleck’s brand. (“People say whatever they want,” Affleck has said of the accusations, which he denied. “Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you respond.” Both claims were settled out of court in 2010). It’s hard to watch him – both dead and alive, seen and unseen –  protectively cuddle a sleeping Rooney Mara in this film without wondering why this actor, this body, specifically needed to be cast in this role (given he is under a sheet and only moving almost imperceptibly for the majority of the film). It seems the deeply masculine perspective extends to the film's context as well as its content. 

I think, again, of Woolf, and her thoughts on the ghost story. “It is at the ghosts within us that we shudder, and not at the decaying bodies of barons or the subterranean activities of ghouls.”

A Ghost Story is a dialogue-sparse film with one long, verbose monologue. A party held at C and M’s house, long after M has left, sees the musician Will Oldham (pretentiously credited as simply “Prognosticator”) delivering a drunken, self-absorbed rant on the impossibility of preserving a legacy. (It’s one we’ve all been forced to listen to at some point in our lives, only now we are forced to listen to it sober.) “It’s the heart of the movie, because it does lay bare the concept of the film,” Lowery says. “There is no way to get around the inevitability of … the seeming meaningless of everything when placed against the concept of time.”

“A writer writes a novel, a songwriter writes a song,” Oldham says in the film. “We build our legacy piece by piece.” He tells a long rambling story about how fragments of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may or may not survive an apocalypse. After a tectonic shift the Earth as we know it will cease to exist: Yosemite will blow, the oceans will rise, the mountains will fall, and 90 per cent of humanity will be gone. “This is just science,” he insists – the dry, factual information that interrupts. “You can write a book, but the pages will burn.” And yet, he concedes that we will we do it anyway.

“At the end of the day, that makes us men”.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon