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10 August 2017updated 06 Aug 2021 2:17pm

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.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

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.

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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”.

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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”.