Art vs. Artist
Does Casey Affleck’s Past Scandal Haunt ‘A Ghost Story’?
The Oscar winner’s first movie since sexual abuse allegations resurfaced is phenomenal. Should your feelings about his personal life affect that?
It is profound, peculiar, frustrating, frightening, transfixing, maddening, and, mostly, beautiful. It is also, as it were, the film in which Casey Affleck plays a ghost wearing a bedsheet with holes cut out for eyes, like a child’s Halloween costume.
That conceit both has nothing and everything to do with the film, which makes reducing a description of writer-director David Lowery’s work both unfair and also necessary. It begs the same question each frame of the film so evocatively raises: “What is going on here?”
Affleck plays “C,” who lives in an old, worn suburban Texas house with his girlfriend “M,” played by Rooney Mara. In the short time we spend with them together at the beginning of the film, we learn that M wants to move, but C is reluctant to leave a home that is awash not only in their memories, but the history of the people who had lived there before them.
The debate is cut short when C dies in a car accident. In a moving scene, we watch as M goes to identify his body, staring down at his corpse covered by a sheet before finally walking away. The camera lingers, though, until, covered by the bed sheet, C sits up with a start and himself, as a ghost, goes to leave the morgue.
Lowery lavishes in the framing and the stillness of each scene, which makes C’s eventual reanimation in the morgue all the more surprising, spooky, and humorous. The directing style has the same effect every time we see C in the bedsheet. The juxtaposition of the specter lurking in the most simplistic and juvenile of our culture’s depiction of ghosts is at once hilarious and horrifying.
C essentially becomes a passive observer, rarely interacting with M as he watches her grieve. It sets up an intrinsic electric undercurrent of terror—what the hell does he want?—that Lowery capitalizes on through static, long takes.
In one scene that has emerged as one of the film’s major talking points, Lowery focuses the camera on Mara for four full minutes as she devours an apple pie. As C watches in the corner of the screen—relentlessly absurdist in that sheet—you scan her face for emotion, his every movement for motive, and the entire frame for meaning in that space they once shared and which now fuels her suffering.
Lowery’s chamber piece of a film explores headier themes as it heads into its circuitous final act, but he never betrays the underlying intrigue of his film: What if we took something as childlike as a bedsheet ghost costume, and instilled it with the gravitas of adult loss and heartbreak?
Coverage of A Ghost Story has rightfully meditated on the cinematic cleverness of the costuming, Lowery’s elegant filmmaking, and, in the end, what it all means.
But, generally speaking, when explaining the film to people outside the industry, their visceral reaction isn’t to the bedsheet conceit, the tone, or Rooney Mara binge-eating baked goods. It’s a reflexive and typically disgusted, “Ugh! Casey Affleck!”
It’s almost too easy to metaphorically talk about the ghosts that haunt us in relation to Affleck’s first film since sexual harassment allegations made in two settled lawsuits against the actor resurfaced during his press tour and awards campaign for Manchester By the Sea, igniting a fiery debate over whether an artist’s private behavior or scandals about his personal life should impact opinion over the art he creates and the accolades he may or may not deserve.
While there were arguments on every side of the debate, suffice it to say that—as evidenced by the reaction to the mere mention of Affleck’s name in connection to A Ghost Story—the court of public opinion did not rule in the actor’s favor. (There’s a reason Brie Larson earned folk hero status for her refusal to clap for him after he won his Oscar.)
A Ghost Story first screened for critics and film journalists at the Sundance Film Festival, which, adding a fascinating layer to this conversation, took place at the peak of controversy over the resurfacing of the harassment allegations.
It was interesting gauging Sundance attendee’s reactions to A Ghost Story against that context: those who thought it didn’t matter at all, those who regretted that it might mar press coverage and opportunity for Lowery’s ambitious film, and those who even refused to see the film on moral principle—three stances that continue into the film’s summer release.
If nothing else, press for the film was borderline nonexistent, largely in an attempt to dodge controversy-related landmines that would dominate any conversation about it.
It is remarkable and often inextricable how an actor’s personal life can infiltrate how a piece is perceived. A reading of A Ghost Story as a chamber piece on loss and regret between lovers can suddenly transform into “scandal-ridden Casey Affleck stalks his ex-girlfriend wearing a bedsheet, how icky!”
The film’s release, however, comes nearly six months after Affleck’s campaign trail march ended with an Oscar statue in hand. The debate over whether a scandal that dominated nearly the entire awards season would harm his chances of winning Best Actor were finally laid to rest.
It’s also a fact of modern media that news cycles has whipped up to such a torrent pace that the half-life for scandals and controversies, particularly pertaining to celebrities, gets shorter and shorter. Before there is any impact, particularly when it comes to abuse allegations against Hollywood’s most famous and most powerful white men, the world has already moved on before there is typically any real career impact.
To that end, the truth is that A Ghost Story is so arthouse and boldly experimental—it will not receive much mainstream play nor will likely receive much awards attention—that it is probably an unreliable barometer of how public opinion of Affleck might affect a film anyway. The inverse is also true: this might be too small a film to use as a test case for whether a strong project might wipe away a potentially damaging controversy.
In fact, shrouding a problematic star in a bedsheet so that you may often forget it is even him on screen would seem like the world’s savviest damage control strategy, were A Ghost Story not already in the can before Affleck’s controversy really blew up.
So in the end we have this intriguing, worthwhile little film that needs championing, and an entertainment writer’s conundrum: the never-ending and heretofore unsolvable tension between championing a piece of art and dismissing or even condemning it because of the actions of the artist.
The only resolution we can muster is to refer the matter to the same court of public opinion that so passionately ruled on Affleck six months ago. You know the details of his controversy—which, to clarify, Affleck is legally barred from speaking about in detail—and you know our opinion of the film. The jury is set for deliberation.