A Ghost Story Will Haunt You in Deep Ways


Directed by David Lowery
A24, 92 minutes, R (for no good reason whatsoever)

We often use the words "film" and "movie" as synonyms. They can be, but film is actually the medium and is more versatile. When film is used to tell a story, we call it a "movie," but that's inadequate for something like A Ghost Story, which is filled with non-linear imagery, alternative realities, and eschatological questioning. It does feature a ghost, but its spooky qualities are far beyond that of garden-variety horror movies. We're talking the sort of haunting that will leave you shattered. Director David Lowery tackles the scariest thing imaginable: What happens when we die?

Actress Jeanne Moreau may not be your idea of a philosopher, but she once uttered these wise words: "It's just as idiotic to say there is no life after death as it is to say there is one." Gaze into the sky and tell me why humankind is special. Alternatively, how does one reconcile the concept of eternity with assertions from physics that at some point, all suns, stars, and galaxies will vanish into black holes? What if the Buddhists are right and Nirvana is a state of nothingness? Meaning is on trial in A Ghost Story, a film in which the characters don't even have names.

A Ghost Story will remind you of films such as The Tree of Life; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Melancholia; Wings of Desire; and even Truly, Madly, Deeply, though our ghost can't comfort the grieving lover he leaves behind. The film stars—more in a celestial than a celebrity sense—Casey Affleck, who spends most of the film wordlessly wandering under a shroud. We first meet him living and breathing in bed next to Rooney Mara, where they cuddle in near silence avoiding discussion of another one they did not have earlier. Suddenly the living room piano emits a loud discordant sound, though no one else is in the house and nothing visible has fallen on the keys. If these things sound meta, add to the list that Mara's skin is pale, luminous, and cadaverous, but it is Affleck who the next day lies in the morgue. His sheeted body—or is it his spirit?—rises from the gurney, walks down the hospital corridor toward a bright light, but pauses and the portal closes. Then things get really weird. When we next see him, his spectral self stands in his kitchen watching Mara angrily stab and devour an entire pie in an attempt to strike at her consuming grief. The scene is drawn out, silent, poignant, and simultaneously grotesque and beautiful.

Is Affleck in purgatory? Maybe, but the film raises questions about ante and postmortem existence, themes expounded upon later in the film when a future party pooper (Will Oldham) delivers a lecture on the inevitable demise of the cosmos. It's the only part of the film that has more than a few words of dialogue. Some party-goers listen; others continue to make merry. After all, what more can be said about a void? The ghost witnesses this scene, as he does other inhabitants and events that take place in the house after Mara departs it. Is it because he is tethered to this plot of land? Is it simply that because time is irrelevant to a spirit, or something else? Many readings are possible, but it put me in mind of Einstein's discovery that time and space bend. An offshoot of that is Eternalism, the postulate that past, present, and future coexist—perhaps in other dimensions, perhaps in repeating loops. The film itself is circular in construction and moves from present to future to past, and back to the present. A dimensional shift is suggested in the meta of all meta scenes in which Affleck's ghost momentarily sees his own ghost in a room with his living self.

What are we to make of all this? That's probably up to you. You could put a Buddhist spin on it, but you can also make the case for everything from existentialism, nihilism, and Cartesian dualism. There are also hints of the African concepts of sasha and zamani that assert that the dead exist in limbo as long as anyone alive remembers them, then they move on. Or maybe it's all just a matter of physics. Just two things are clear to me. First, though death is universal, this is not a film for everyone. To appreciate it you need to put on your hard thinking caps and be prepared to confront Lovecraft-like unseen fears. If you're not willing, join the merrymakers and tune out impending doom.

Second, A Ghost Story is visually astonishing. Director James Lowery and choreographer Andrew Droz Palermo provide new angles from which to contemplate big things—literally. Tight shots combine with slow zoom outs to create heart-rending moments such as the folds of Affleck's shroud and his twisted figure melding seamlessly into Mara's sleeping body entwined in sheets. In another, Mara lies on her back, stretches, and her fingers inch upward across the floor, where they almost touch the hem of Affleck's spectral garment. Later, high and low angle shots combine to make scenes cramped and claustrophobic from a human point of view, but wide open and expansive from a ghostly perspective. Others induce vertigo; still others skew normal perspective—such as having the ghost fall upside down from a skyscraper, yet with the grace of a bird in flight.

This is one the longest movie reviews I have ever posted in part because of the subject matter, and in part because I haven't stopped thinking about this the film since viewing it. Perhaps what I've written strikes you as a lot of incoherent mumbo-jumbo masquerading as art. It might be, but I think it is a near masterpiece marred only by logical inconsistencies in it that have nothing to do with its irresolvable subjects. The ghost isn't seen by the living, yet it's inferred one small boy does so. Why? If the ghost is non-corporeal, how can he hurl dishes around a room, scratch at door frames, or turn doorknobs? Why would a ghost even use a door? But given that he does, why is he stuck to this one place? Why does he defy some laws of physics but conform to others? Why choose just one moment to be malevolent?

Maybe these are the wrong questions to ask. Perhaps the point of making a near-silent film is to force us to contemplate the ineffable without the clutter of words. Do we know what's under our own shrouds? Is it a new light in the cosmos, just stardust, or nothing at all? This is a strange, quirky, ambiguous film that back in the 1960s would have labeled a "mind-fucker." Wait for the end. Is the reveal satisfying, or the most terrifying thing you can imagine. Work it out for yourself. This is a film, not a movie.

Rob Weir


In a Still Small Voice: Cortese, Bragg, Bombara, Plett, and Bush

A cheesy TV show tells us that America's got talent. If only forging a music career were as easy as a few moments of instant fame under the camera's glare. The music industry can be especially brutal for women, only a handful of whom break through past the age of 30. (Debbie Harry, Rachel Platten, and Lori McKenna spring to mind.) Let's be blunt: there's an oversupply of female vocalists with "pretty," but small voices. How does one break away from the pack before the fullness of one's vocal patina oxidizes? Here's a sampling of female singers handling that question well.

Laura Cortese is another superb talent from Boston's Berklee School of Music. She's also something of a vet by now—a cofounder of the Hub's Celtic Music Festival, has performed with mighty lineups (including Band of Horses and Uncle Earl), and has just released California Calling, her seventh album. She fronts a very cool band called The Dance Cards: Jenna Moynihan (fiddle, banjo), Valerie Thompson (cello), Natalie Bohrn (bass), and Sam Kassirer (keys). Collectively they evoke the harmonies of The Wailin' Jennys, but with more adventuresome instrumentation. Cortese's leads are noted less for their clarity or virtuosity than for their emotional power. The bluegrassy "Low Hum"—bronzed by Moynihan's banjo—is both ethereal and drone drenched; those such as "Skipping Stones" and "If You Can Hear Me" are reverberant in the way voices sound in a sparsely furnished room. The title track has echoes of Enya, though the overall piece is hipper and Thompson's cello infuses nervous energy. Other standouts include the rhythmic "Stockholm," the soulful "Pace Myself," and "Rhodedendron [sic]," with vocals appropriate for a gospel choir. ★★★★

Mary Bragg also shines by fronting a band, in her case a gritty one: Rich Hinson (electric/pedal steel guitar), Jimmy Sullivan (bass), Bryan Owings (drums), and various guests with whom she co-wrote the ten songs on Lucky Strike. Before landing in Nashville, Bragg left Georgia to spend some time working in New York City soup kitchens where, as the expression goes, she saw some things. Many of the characters on this album are on the wrong side of life's margins: a young woman who fled her emotionally abusive preacher father ("Bayou Lullaby,"), vagabonds ("Drifters Hymn,") those who can't move on "(Isn't It Over Yet,"), and—a personal favorite, the robust "Wreck and Ruin," a whole town full of people who've been kicked in the teeth: Left—nobody gets left in this town/Everybody here has already done all their letting down. It was co-written with Becky Warren (as were three other songs) and it's not a song for terminal optimists: We've given up giving a damn about broken hearts. The title track is like that too; in Bragg's words, it's a "sarcastic poke at hopefulness." She sings … looking for a lucky strike/To pull me out of the back of the line. Don't hold your breath! Another favorite is "Wildfire," which she penned with the talented Liz Longley. It's about dangerous attraction: Wildfire, there's nothing like a wildfire/Feeling that you can't put out/Loving that you can't turn down…. Bragg's songs are mostly in the country rock/country folk side of the musical ledger, but don't let her dulcet tones fool you; she's tough as nails.****

Speaking of grit, St. Louis-based Beth Bombara isn't afraid to sing about the depths because she's plumbed them. Her latest, Map & No Direction is the product of two years of battling with depression. "Sweet Time," which honors her husband's role in helping her through, is evocative of retro Sam Cooke, but with a softer cheek-to-cheek slow dance feel. Don't get used to this—most of Bombara's material has a harder edge. The title track is edgy and urgent and arranged rootless roots style, by which I mean it opens folky and melodic but slides into bold and crunchy. Apparently part of Bombara's recovery involves kicking out the jams. "When I Woke Up" and "Made For Now" are no-frills rock with drums pounding and guitar licks slicing the seams. "I Tried (Too Late)" also rocks and parts recall Jackson Browne. Every song on this recording is a winner but—as much as Dylan devotees will spew venom—her cover of "Blind Willie McTell" surpasses the original. Bombara draws comparisons to Aimee Mann, though a St. Louis newspaper called her a "bourbon warmed Neko Case." I can't top that, so let's go with it. ★★★★

Canada's Melissa Plett serves country twang with folk and soul seasoning. Although there are contemporary elements, Ghost Town features time-honored country recipes: broken hearts, strong drink, bad times, revenge, and death. Even the waltz tempo "Stay" begins like a lover's supplication, but it's actually about missing her mother. Plett's titles alert us to look for the dark amidst the light: "Sunshine and Liquor," "Gone," "Handle of Whisky…."  (I've got a handle of good whisky/Don't got a handle on my heart.) The old valentine is also an issue on "Sideways," in which she walks away from temptation, but isn't sure if that's wise or regrettable. "Mexico" warns of the perils of seeking miracles, and the piercing sting of "Trigger" has a chilling resolution. Plett's voice is, at turns, vulnerable, husky, and emotive—often with a catch that stops just short of a yodel. Occasionally, she pushes things too close to the top of her range, but this project has appealing throwback vibe that redeems—even if Plett is skeptical of that sort of thing. ★★★

A quick word on an older release that recently came to my attention. Molly Bush hails from Texas and lives in Nashville, but her 2016 From a Year Ago, Forget About It is suggestive of what someone with folk sensibilities can do with musicians who know when to lay back and when to lay it on. Bush has a lovely, clear voice and I was impressed by how she switched from the simple and sweet ("Letter Song"), to shimmery ("Sailboats"), to let-it-rip ("Spirit"). Maybe next release I'll catch her in the same calendar year!

Rob Weir   


Old Salt Union: October Album of the Month

Old Salt Union
Compass Records

I was impressed the first time I saw Old Salt Union back in 2014. Since then this Belleville, Illinois quintet has done nothing except get better. Their new self-titled release—the band’s third full LP, but debut on Compass—is testament to their rise to the top tier of working bluegrass bands. Like others in that august company—such as The Steep Canyon Rangers, Mumford and Sons, Union Station, Railroad Earth, The Avett Brothers, and Trampled By Turtles—OSU fuses the traditions of classic string bands with ingredients such as classical music, jam band experimentation, rock, folk, and pop. Fiddler John Brighton was actually trained as a classical violinist and he displays a few highbrow riffs on “Where I Stand,” and eases them into fast and gritty passages that would do proud someone the likes of Darol Anger. That song also includes a line that grabbed me: A dollar and a broken heart/Didn’t seem to get me very far. A tune titled “Flatt Baroque” speaks for itself once you know it’s Lester that’s getting the longhair treatment—mostly on mandolin.

OSU’s versatility stuns. Consider that guitarist Rob Kindle holds a jazz degree, that mando artist Justin Wallace loves both stripped down bluegrass and pop music, that chief vocalist and banjo player Ryan Murphey trained as a horticulturalist, and that bass player Jay Farrar is also a hip hop producer. Now imagine all those interests somehow come together. “Feel My Love” is pop catchy and barn dance old at the same time; “Tuscaloosa” is one part 40s string band, another part retro jazz. You can also hear the balladic “Bought and Sold;” the moody “On My Way” with its frenetic bass lines, tight harmonies, and fiddle/banjo duels; and the hard-driving “Here and Off My Mind.” Then circle back to the dramatic “Hard Line,” which simply obliterates boundaries between bluegrass, folk, jazz, and classical. For pure fun, tough, it’s hard to top Justin Wallace taking the vocal lead for a killer cover of Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al.” 

“To salt” is an old infinitive verb the references the placement of a ringer employee in a workplace with the sole purpose of organizing a union. I don’t know if that has anything to do with the band’s name, but if we think metaphorically, a lot of different experiences came together to form the united body that is Old Salt Union. Power to the union!  

Rob Weir