I go over the entire film in this analysis, so it’ll both be a long article (5000 words) and a spoiler-filled one. But by now you should’ve seen the film, if not, go watch it; it’s my favorite film of 2017. Also, keep in mind that this is my interpretation of the film.
A Brief Introduction to the History of the Philosophy of Time
In the history of philosophy, the subject of time was widely discussed. There was a Greek nature philosopher, for example, called Herakleitos, who said that everything was constantly in motion, like water, so time as well, would constantly be moving forward. Herakleitos’ theory was busted a couple of centuries later by the one that Plato fabricated. He said that time could not exist. Plato believed in dualism, in which one had the observable world, but also an idea world. In this idea world, everything was perfect, while in the perceivable or observable world, we can only see imperfect projections of those perfect things. Since time is constantly in motion and therefore constantly changing, it can’t be perfect and thus can’t exist. However, time can exist in the perceivable world, just not in the idea world. Following Plato, there was Hume, a Scott who lived in the 18th century. Hume claimed that we could only be certain of the fact that we got impressions of the things we perceived with our senses. We couldn’t be sure if the things we perceived were correct or not; the only thing we could be certain of was that we’re able to get impressions of them. From this, we can deduce that we cannot be sure if time actually exists since we don’t have any senses to observe it. We can only see time’s consequences, but never time itself. A Ghost Story merges some of these theories into one, rejects the other, makes up its own and adds a slightly less philosophical idea to the mix: how we experience “time” when we’ve deceased.
The General Visualization of Time in A Ghost Story
David Lowery, the director of A Ghost Story, already showed that time would be a prominent subject in his film by the usage of an odd aspect ratio. This aspect ratio would be 4:3, where the edges of the frame would also be rounded, which mimicked early photographs out of the beginning of the 20th century. Because this frame was only used when film was recently introduced, Lowery gave the film a very timey atmosphere. Nowadays you don’t see a lot of films using the 4:3 aspect ratio, let alone one that also has rounded edges. In the 20’s this aspect ratio would be interchanged by the now more frequent 16:9, but as years passed, we would get wider and wider aspect ratios. More than once you’ll see a film at the cinema that utilizes one of 2.39:1.
I do believe that time wasn’t the only motivation to go for such a small frame. Lowery also chose this aspect ratio, to visualize the inner feelings of C, the protagonist of the story. The small frame represented the isolation and frustration C was feeling, by not being able to escape earth, due to his inability to let things go. He was searching for the satisfaction that he’d only get by reading the note left by his wife, but more on that later.
Because the script was merely thirty pages long, visual storytelling was essential to this film. It’s an extremely difficult task, but one that Lowery was able to nail incredibly well. Often enough, he just placed the camera somewhere, once in a while with a slow dolly, so that the viewer was able to soak up all of the tiny details shown on screen. There’s a saying that goes as follows: “An image can tell more than a thousand words”, which is a saying that Lowery followed up closely.
By showing us the subject from multiple perspectives, the film was able to convey its own view of what time exactly is to us. While C’s the protagonist of the story, there are multiple instances where scenes are portrayed out of M’s perspective, his wife. The film, therefore, treats time as something subjective, something that’s bound to a person. Not only that but the way we perceive time is also bound to the situation we’re in. When one’s sad, time can crawl by, while when one’s happy, it can feel as if time’s flying. Lowery visualized the perception of time with the use of multiple techniques. I will describe these techniques by telling the story of the film in its entirety and where necessary, I’ll write an explanation.
A Detailed Description of the Story and How A Ghost Story Utilized Time
The film opens with a still shot, on which we can see C, still alive at this point, who, while cuddling with his wife, is having a conversation with her, as they’re both laying down on the sofa. His wife, M, looks back on her youth and tells C that when she was eleven, she often had to move to different places. She found a certain difficulty in leaving their house behind, so when they had to leave, she’d go and hide a piece of paper on which she’d written something so that even though she’s gone now, there’s still a piece of her there.
In the next scene, there are a handful of shots of C and M in their daily lives; M, who’s planning their move, C who’s writing a song and who’s not too happy about the fact that they’re moving, by which C’s inability to let things go is already established.
A couple of scenes later, night has fallen upon our characters. C and M are lying together in bed when they’re suddenly awoken by a loud piano tune. C immediately gets up to see what had happened. He heads off to the living room where the piano’s located, but there’s nothing to see. When he’s done looking around, they both crawl back into their bed. Once they’ve repositioned, the camera hangs above them. It stays there for some time until the characters finally fall asleep in each other’s arms after about three minutes. This is one of many scenes in this film that lasts longer than average. A lot of filmmakers would’ve cut away after a couple of seconds but Lowery lets us look at the couple in their bed until they’ve finally dozed off. With these lengthy scenes, Lowery wants to make it clear to us that time will be a very prominent subject of his film since this shot makes the viewer aware of the passing of time. While you’re looking at the still image, you’ll start to think. One of the thoughts that might go through your head might possibly be “man, this shot lasts really long”, which is exactly what Lowery wants you to think. He wants you to become aware that he’s taking his time before cutting away and he wants you to become aware of the passing of time as a whole. Not only that, but it also makes you more conscious of your perception of time. For me, time can pass fast when I’m having fun, but more than once it’ll feel like time goes too fast when I’m making a test. Both recall emotions, though emotions on opposite sides of the spectra. One recalls happy thoughts, while the other stressful ones. Same goes when you experience time slowly. Time can crawl by when you’re bored, but when you’re enjoying the moment, it can feel as if time has suddenly stopped. The latter is what Lowery’s showing us in this scene.
After this shot, they cut to one of their house. The camera starts to turn to its right, to slowly reveal us a car accident, the one that’d end C’s life. In the next scene, we’re located in a hospital, where we’re able to see M, who’s saying goodbye to her lover for one last time. When she’s done doing that, she goes on to put the blanket back over C’s face to then leave. We’re left alone with C in the hospital room and we’re looking at him through a door opening, as he lays there with a blanket covering his body. This shot lasts for a full minute before there’s some movement again; C stands up, this time as a ghost. From this moment on, C’s ghost story can really start.
C starts to dwell around the hospital until he bumps into a wall. This wall opens up a portal for him, a portal to the afterlife. However, he isn’t ready to enter the portal, because of his inability to let things go. He isn’t ready yet to leave his wife, his house, earth… all behind. The portal closes in front of him, after which C leaves the hospital and heads home again.
Once he arrives there, he sees that their house owner had left a pie behind for M, as a “hope you get well”-gift. From this point on in the film, C’s perception of time somewhat starts to disappear, because when the homeowner has left their home, not even five seconds pass before M enters, while in reality a couple of hours should’ve passed. M sees the pie, takes it with her to their kitchen island and starts to devour it over there. She’s overwhelmed by her emotions and slides down the cupboards onto the ground. Already sobbing, she continues to eat the pie while C’s standing there helplessly looking at his mourning wife. The scene comes to a conclusion when M scurries to the bathroom to throw up.
During M’s pie eating scene, the camera stands still for five minutes, while we look at M, who sobbingly eats a pie. Despite the fact that this scene, just like the one where she’s hugging C, lasts unusually long, I don’t believe it doesn’t have the same reasoning behind it. The length of this scene’s there to place us in M’s shoes and it lets us soak up all of her emotions. To M, time moves as fast as a snail can crawl and by having the scene last for a couple of minutes, Lowery helps to visualize this. M’s grieving. It’s a process everyone has to go through at least once in their life. It’s a terrible period and when you’re in it, it feels as if time can’t pass by any slower. This scene places us right next to M and it lets us soak up her emotions, let’s us reflect on our own, and helps us become more aware of the passing of time and what dangers it holds.
This whole bit is also in contrast to how C experiences time. Shortly after he’s died, time slowly starts to move faster and faster, as if he’s losing his grip on it. Later on in the film, time will slowly but surely become a new dimension to him. Lowery illustrated his perception of time in a lot of beautiful ways, but there’s a very notable one quite early on in the film where he shows us how C’s sitting in a leather armchair as the light that falls upon his garb changes from day to night in just a couple of seconds.
After this, we cut to M whose preparing herself for her first (?) night alone. She lies down as C enters the room. He slowly moves next to her and tries to comfort her, but as he puts his hand on her shoulder, he notices that M can’t feel him touching her. He’s sitting there hopeless, once again, looking at his mourning wife.
Following this scene, we get a whole sum of shots in which we can see C looking after his wife as she goes through the grieving process. We see him watching her going through the tough times, and how she slowly but surely gets over it and starts to go out more. When M comes home from her first date after the death of C, the passing of time’s shown in a more subtle manner. C looks from a distance at M saying goodbye to her date in the door opening and immediately as she hugs him to say goodbye, a bunch of emotions hit C like a punch in his gut. For the first time in the film, it’s shown to us how C’s emotions can manipulate his environment. While he’s looking at their goodbye, lights around him start to flicker and books start to fly. When M goes to rearrange these books, she’s wearing different clothes as she was a couple of seconds ago, which shows us that time passes faster for C, than it does for M. To C, the light flickering and book falling lasted for mere seconds but to M this took place over a couple of days. It’s a small detail, but it tells us a lot.
This scene’s followed by a flashback woven into the scene that takes place in present day. It’s representative that C’s starting to lose his grip on time. To him, time doesn’t have the meaning it once used to have. It means so little to him anymore, that he can be at different points in time at the same time. The shots in the past carry a warm color pallet and it makes use of warm lighting, which hints to comfort and a more love-filled atmosphere. This is in contrast to the shots taking place in present day, which makes use of a colder color pallet and thus also of cold lighting, to visualize the coldness M feels inside due to the passing of C. In this scene, it’s shown to us how C let M listen to his self-made song in the past and how M listens to this once again, this time in present day, alone and lying on the parquet ground. In the past, M isn’t really impressed by C’s lyrics, she’s even a bit offended by it, while in present day, she cherishes the song, because it’s one of the only this of C she can hold on to. To use the terms “past” and “present” in the context of this film’s relatively difficult, as time’s not really that relevant anymore to C, due to which the line between past and present has faded away. Even using the word “time” has become difficult, because what really is time? Time’s merely a sticker we’ve placed on a concept. It’s a concept that we use throughout our daily lives to indicate something, which rules basically everything we do. Said concept’s made to indicate the length of a certain period in a certain period of a certain period. But how long does such a period really last? We’re used to saying that one second lasts exactly one second, but we all know that one second can sometimes really feel like two, and what makes that less true? I don’t know and nor do you. Time’s just an idea, a concept. Time isn’t something you can feel or touch; it’s something that solely exists inside of our heads. And even if we’re able to see time, even then, we wouldn’t be sure whether or not it truly existed. The only things left by time that we can see are its consequences, like age, but what withholds us of thinking like Hume and saying that even those images might not be true? We can never be sure of what time really is because we’ve put it away inside of a box and once we’d done that, we’d shut it so that no one will ever be able to change it.
This scene’s also my favorite scene out of the film, because it holds so much emotion and because the song sang fits extremely well with the scene. Lying there, M stretches her arm out over the floor and it comes to a halt, right in front of C’s robe. It’s a visual representation of M wanting to reach for C, but just not getting there.
Following my favorite one, there are a handful of scenes in which we can see M packing things and repainting the house; she’s preparing herself and the house to move. While she’s painting, she notices this small groove in the door frame; the perfect place to leave a piece of herself, so that something of her still remains in the house even when she’s gone. She heads towards the kitchen island, where she starts to look for a tiny piece of paper and subsequently writes a tiny message on it. This note is then put inside of the slot and like a seal on a letter, M puts a coat of paint over the groove so that the note becomes trapped in this make-shift cell. M locks her note away, just like we put the concept of time inside of a metaphorical box, which made me wonder if the note might represent just that, and that the satisfaction that C’s looking for, was knowing what time truly was. Time is something that goes over all of our heads. We can give our own interpretation of the subject, but never will we come to a firm conclusion. A Ghost Story tells us that time’s subjective and thus bound an individual. In the film, we’re able to see how different people experience time and how their perception thereof differs from one another. Their feelings have an impact on how time affects them and in A Ghost Story, it’s explored if your state of life – alive or dead – can impact this as well. According to the film, time will lose its grip on you after you’ve passed away. Firstly, you’ll roam the world, looking for that last bit of satisfaction, and while you’re doing that, the one thing that’s been bothering you from the start of your life will stop paying attention to you.
The little piece of paper left by M will be the reason for C to vagabondize around the house even when she’s left. He’ll try to free the note from its cell day in and day out. Only when he’s been able to do that, only then, will he have the satisfaction that he was looking for and will he be able to leave earth once and for all and head towards the afterlife. But, before he reaches that point, a long journey still awaits him.
A couple of seconds after M has left, C starts to work on his new purpose in limbo (I guess?) and starts to scratch the paint away from the door frame until he suddenly hears voices. He gets up, slowly strolls through the house, and notices children running around; there are already new tenants. While he’s slowly wandering around, seasons pass by quickly. One moment is summer, and the other, when he turns the corner, it is winter. Every room that he enters is located in a different point in time, but to C it feels linear as if barely any time has passed. Notice how Lowery uses warm lighting again, this time to accentuate the warm familial feeling that the Hispanic family carries.
However, C’s not able to endure the fact that a happy family’s living in the house that once used to be his, and he scares them away by doing the cliché things a ghost does in a haunted house. He throws plates, makes the lights flicker, and he opens and closes doors. After the family’s left the house, time really starts to fly by and suddenly we find ourselves amidst a party. With a Kesha song playing in the background, C’s standing there, looking at a man who’s preaching to his friends about time, our existence and its purpose. He isn’t the most optimistic guy as you’ll see.
“Well, here’s how l break it down. A writer writes a novel. A songwriter writes a song. A symphonist writes a symphony… which is maybe the best example because all the best ones were written for God. So, tell me what happens if Beethoven’s writing his Ninth Symphony and suddenly he wakes up one day and realizes that God doesn’t exist. So, suddenly all of these notes and chords and harmonies, that were intended to, you know, supersede the flesh, you realize, “Oh, that’s just physics.” So Beethoven says, “Shoot, God doesn’t exist, so I guess I’m writing this for other people. It’s just nuts and bolts now.” He didn’t have any children, that I can recall, but if he did…”
“He had a nephew.” one of his friends says
“He had a what?”
“A nephew, he had a nephew”
“Okay. Great. So he-he writes it for him. Or Immortal Beloved. Yes. Or for whoever that was. But let’s leave love out of this and let’s wrap this all up under the blanket of someone thinking, “This is something that they’ll remember me for.” And they did. And we do. And sure enough, we do what we can to endure. We build our legacy piece by piece, and maybe the whole world will remember you, or maybe just a couple of people, but you do what you can to make sure you’re still around after you’re gone. And so we’re still reading this book, we’re still singing the song, and kids remember their parents and their grandparents and everyone’s got their family tree, and Beethoven’s got his symphony, and we’ve got it too. And everyone will keep listening to it f… for the foreseeable future. But… that’s where things start breaking down, because your kids… Do you have kids? Wait, who here has kids? You? Your kids are gonna die. Yours too. Yours too. Hey, just sayin’. They’re all gonna die, and their kids will die, and so on, and so on. And then there’s gonna be one big-one big tectonic shift. Yosemite will blow and the western plates will shift, and the oceans will rise, the mountains will fall, and 90 percent of humanity will be gone. One fell swoop. This is just science. Whoever’s left will… go to higher ground and social order will fall away, and we will revert to scavengers and hunters and gatherers, but maybe there’s someone… someone who one day hums a melody they used to know. And it gives everyone a little bit of hope. Mankind’s on the verge of being wiped out, but it keeps going a little bit longer because someone hears someone else hum a melody in a cave and the physics of it in their ear make them feel something other than fear or hunger or hate, and mankind carries on and civilization gets back on track. And now you’re thinking you’re gonna finish that book. But it won’t last. ‘Cause by and by, the planet’s gonna die. In a few billion years the sun will become a red giant and it’ll, uh, eventually swallow Earth whole. This is a fact. Now, maybe by that point, we’ll have set up shop on some completely different planet. Good for us. Maybe we’ve figured out a way of carrying with us all these things that matter. They’ve got a photocopy of the Mona Lisa out there, someone sees it, mixes a little bit of alien dirt with some spit, paints something new, the whole thing keeps going. But even that doesn’t matter. Because even if some form of mankind carries some recording of Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” all the way into the future, the future’s gonna hit a brick wall. The universe will keep expanding, and it’ll eventually take all matter with it. Everything you’ve ever strived for, everything that you and some stranger. On the other side of the planet share with some future stranger on some entirely different planet without even knowing it, everything that ever made you feel big or stand up tall, it’ll all go. Every atom in this dimension… will be pulled apart by force as simple as… Gravity. And then all these shredded particles will contract again… and… the universe is gonna suck itself back into a speck too small for any of us to see. So, you can write a book… but the pages will burn. You can sing a song and pass it down. You can write a play and hope that folks will remember it… keep performing it. You can build your dream house… but ultimately none of that matters any more than digging your fingers into the ground to bury a fence post.”
This monologue really encapsulates everything that the film tries to get across with C’s storyline: everything we do, even if it’s something big, doesn’t matter in the long term. Eventually, time will catch up to us and everything we’ve achieved will have been for nothing. It’s inevitable and it’s a scary thought. It’s something we all fear: pointlessness. It might seem as if there’s nothing but negativity in the man’s speech, but there’s some kind of beauty. Even if we don’t matter in the long term, it doesn’t mean we don’t matter in the short term. You can still make the best of it, be nice to people, or don’t be. It’ll affect them right now and that’s all they’re aware of. No one lives forever, so if you are forgotten in the future, it doesn’t really matter, because why’d you care? You’re dead. Everything that matters to you should be happening right now and not in the distant future. You can make plans, you can have worries, but the fear of being forgotten is irrational because everyone will be forgotten, even the now well-known people roaming the earth. They’ll be remembered longer because they have left a bigger footprint, but all in all, that doesn’t matter.
After the man’s finished saying what he had to say, a lamp starts to flicker due to the emotions the man managed to evoke in C. The shot of the flickering lamp is quickly replaced by another shot of the same lamp, this time it’s broken and we’re a couple of years in the future.
C’s still standing in the same place, but the people around him have disappeared. He looks around and notices that his house has aged severely; windows are broken, walls are caving in and have holes in them, lamps are thrown to the ground, lizards are crawling around… For the umpteenth time does C move towards the doorframe that withholds the one thing he desires and he goes back to work.
The piece of paper finally starts to get loose, but right when C’s able to reveal a tiny bit of the paper, the roof of his house gets destroyed by a working machine. A yellow CAT excavator lashes out to the building and makes its walls fall down. C looks up and powerlessly he watches as his house, the house with which he has a connection, gets obliterated right in front of his eyes. With the loss of his house, the note also gets lost. The camera starts to zoom in on C’s face, after which it zooms out again to reveal a new backdrop. Once again, we’ve traveled through time and where once stood C’s small yet charming house, is now a wharf. With a broken heart and without any desires to keep on “living”, C starts to walk. During this sequence, we’re able to notice that time starts to go faster and faster for C. Before he’s able to realize it, he’s no longer walking in a wharf, but on the first floor of an office building that’s still under construction. With each floor he passes, a few years have passed as well. On the second to last floor, there’re already people working and giving presentations to their peers. A few instances later, he’s reached the roof on which he’s able to see the skyline of a hypermodern city. C heads towards the edge of the building and as we watch over his shoulder, he consciously takes one step too many to fall to his “death”.
Opposed to actually falling to his death, he gets sent back in time to the origin of his house. He stands there, looking at how one of the earliest pioneers of America demarcates a plot of land on which later a house would be built.
From this point on, the film’s tempo really starts to speed up. Not much later, the family of the pioneer arrives at the place where C’s house would come to be, but before you know it, you’re looking at the aftermath of a battle with Native Americans, in which the pioneer and his family lost their lives. Suddenly C’s ghost is standing next to M and C as they’re buying their house. We get to see a montage. One of C and M’s marriage and their connection to the house, how they found the house, how C dies, how he as a ghost helplessly looks at the past version of himself as a ghost who also helplessly looks at his mourning wife. We get to see how he, as a ghost, pressed the piano note at the beginning of the film. We get to see him look at his previous attempts to rescue the piece of paper from the groove. Then, he – not his past version, but the one we were following from the start – tries to get hold of the note. He gets down to his knees and starts scratching the paint off, once again. After an unknown period of time, he’s able to grasp the edge of the paper. C pulls it out of its cage, gets up and opens the note, after which the door of his house flies open, to symbolize his freeing from this world, because after the door’s flown open, he looks down to the piece of paper, reads it and disappears since he’s gotten the satisfaction he needed. With a shot of C’s empty gown this beautiful, yet immensely sad ghost story ends.
What Does A Ghost Story Really Think of Time?
To bring this article to an end, I’ll try to summarize what A Ghost Story thought of the concept of time. In the context of the film, time does exist. Or at least, there’s something we can call “time”. A Ghost Story saw the term as something very loose. Time was more something inconsistent. One moment time could go by slowly, while at others it could fly by. It’s something unpredictable. It’s bound to an individual. But, what happens if we die? How will time affect us then? When you’ve passed away, then time will lose its grip on you, according to the film. Time won’t be linear as we know it right now and you’ll “float” through it. You’ll be at two points in time all at once, or you might even be thrown into the past. It’s unpredictable and much like you can’t control time, time can’t control you.
M: What is it you like about this house so much?
5 thoughts on “A Piece About Time, Philosophy, and “A Ghost Story””
Fantastic read – so much meat for my happy brain to gnaw and digest.
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Thanks! Glad to see that you enjoyed!
Tremendous read. Loved it. I saw this film and met David Lowery afterwards. So much went into the conception of this film and you pick up on so many cool things about it.
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Thanks a lot! So cool you got to meet Lowery. He’s quickly become one of my favorite directors. I’m really excited for “Old Man and the Gun”. I’d love to meet him one day.
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