Ed’s Note: This was originally a comment sent in to the Next Picture Show Podcast. It was originally read in a condensed form on Planet of the Apes with the promise that the full letter would be posted to Facebook. Because I’m impatient, and I feel that this topic is somewhat important after the Charlottesville Horrors, I’m presenting a slightly edited version of that letter. Spoilers within.
There is an underlying theme in A Ghost Story that maybe David Lowery didn’t even intend but is nonetheless very present: a lament for the disappearing importance of the straight white male.
This meaning doesn’t present itself at first blush. At first, C’s ghost feels like a metaphor for M’s grief – that way a loved one can haunt your memory after their death – but then M moves on, and C’s ghost has to become about something else. Those who are more romantic at heart may see it as a story of everlasting love and regret for the one true soulmate across space and time. Others may see it as a story of denstiny and being trapped by your limited surroundings. Regardless of David Lowery’s intent for A Ghost Story, the subconscious message of the film is a mourning of the dominance of white men in American culture. Throughout the film, several different scenes completely pulled me out of the movie and made me think about the racial connotations of several sequences.
In the beginning of the movie, C is killed in a car accident though we have no idea who is at fault (nor do I believe we ever see the other driver). But, in the hospital morgue, the doctor presiding over his dead body is a black woman (played by Kenneisha Thompson). This black woman, a symbol of otherness, presents C’s white male dead body to M before M completely dismisses the black doctor into the background with the curtest of responses.
As the movie goes on, Lowery shows C to be a milquetoast musician who made the whitest of white shoegazing indie music. I get the feeling that Lowery loves this music. Lowery and the film realize, with much regret, that the last of C’s “genius” is going to exclusively be heard by his unappreciative girlfriend. C’s music will die in that house, leaving no trace beyond M’s iPod (who can only appreciate C’s genius after his death). This lack of a white man’s legacy is echoed in the long rambling speech by Will Oldham during the second half of the movie.
Perhaps the most damning sequence is the impoverished Spanish-speaking single-mother Hispanic family who moves in after M finally moves on. This movie, about white people who can’t move on after their death, proceeds to terrorize the Mexican family through C’s Poltergeisting their glasses and plates at dinner. The only reason this minority family is terrorized is because some white dude is upset his girlfriend moved on and left him behind. I should also point out that the ONLY people to be terrorized on screen is this Mexican family.
This is unfortunate because the person who deserved to be terrorized was Will Oldham’s blowhard proselytizer who gives big speeches about how Beethoven never liked or cared about his legacy and that everybody is going to die and forget about you and that nothing really matters. It’s hard not to see this scene as anything but a white man saying that the white people’s legacies are in jeopardy because we’re all gonna die. It’s just another lame white man dominating a party by lamenting the lack of legacy left by straight white men in American culture.
The skyscraper future that follows changes the world completely. The skyline now has a multi-national landscape of futuretech billboards in a variety of languages. The corporation that owns the building C now haunts is now headed by a black male CEO even as a sad lonely white dude haunts the halls. The dominance of the white man is over, so C thinks it is appropriate to kill himself because he can’t deal with the new reality.
There’s one last scene meant to glorify the legacy of thevwhite man, and that’s the pilgrim scene where a bunch of white interlopers place a stake on undeveloped American soil and are mysteriously killed by a marauding gang of unseen Native American tropes. The message of the scene is that these pilgrims were innocently setting up their white homestead and shockingly killed by the unknown…even if they were actively taking the land from the Native Americans who were defending their own homestead. David Lowery isn’t brave enough to confront the racial reality of the scene, choosing to completely avoid depicting the Native Americans while presenting the death of these white pilgrims as a tragedy or horror.
In the final scenes of the film, Lowery finally shows C in his truest colors. C is a dominant jerk who annoys the piss out of everybody. He regularly steamrolls his girlfriend and annoys the piss out of the female real estate agent. Not to mention, even his girlfriend doesn’t like the crappy music he makes. Yet Lowery remains resolutely sympathetic to C and his problems. He doesn’t see C as a monster; just as an assertive white guy. By having C’s ghost watch these scenes, I get the feeling that C’s ghost has no remorse for his follies. C’s ghost looks on with longing for the past, not regret for his misdeeds. All of this adds up to an unconscious or unintended effect that Lowery has been mourning C’s death and, subsequently, the death of the white man’s legacy. It even dares to suggest we’ll regret losing the dominance of the white man. You may hate his shitty indie rock now, but you’ll love it when he’s dead. You may hate the white man taking land now, but look what eventually happened with it!
Considering how “woke” so many critics tried to be after the racial implications of Get Out earlier in the year, I’m surprised there hasn’t been a significant reading of the racial implications in A Ghost Story. But, then, I didn’t get much out of A Ghost Story, feeling very detached and removed from the conceit and characters. It looked pretty, but the story almost felt like C was a bad ex-boyfriend who stalks you after a breakup and watches your every move even if you wanted him to go away. It was kind of gross trying to empathize with a person who just wouldn’t leave. Instead of connecting with the movie, I’m left with this reading of racial regret.