first dates and sleepovers; frantic times and simultaneous time; The Leftovers, A Ghost Story, and what’s a hyperobject?
Eleven Years Ago:
I met a woman in a bar. Our first time face to face. The start of a long night.
The bar was on the ground floor of an art centre and was crowded and loud. But this was when hectic stuff didn’t matter.
I was early for the date and went and got a drink. I gave the barman my bank card. As he ran it through the machine, I got a text. In the corner, it said.
I didn’t turn around, but attempted to be cool. I wrote, be with you shortly.
Don’t call me shortly, she replied.
We’d already been emailing and texting for a week. She had us a table in the far left corner. Getting there meant negotiating clusters of lively art bodies. But once the two of us were sat together, the crowd dimmed and faded out.
We clinked glasses and smiled. First impressions were good – she looked like her photo on the dating site; she said I looked like my photo from the dating site. We talked easily as the switch from digital to actual passed smoothly. The wine went down quickly and that always helps. The mood was positive. The vital first minutes of the first real-life encounter went swimmingly. We were on our way to a second drink in no time.
I came back to the table with a wine for Daisy and a wine for me. She asked me a question. This was eleven years ago. I don’t remember the question. I remember that I looked at Daisy and said, that’s an interesting question. And I’m sure it was, because Daisy was an interesting person: bright, cultured and wrote beautifully. But an answer wouldn’t form in my head because I had other words there that had been building for the last few moments, blocking the verbal pathway, demanding to come out first. I said, I’m happy to answer your question and have that conversation. But…
But I think it would be better if we kissed.
Oh, she said. Bold. And tilted her head.
So that’s what happened. For several minutes – surrounded by all the art bodies. And then we finished our drinks – because, waste not, want not – got our coats and exited the bar.
The date plan of drinks, then meal, had been revised upwards, without discussion. We walked out onto the cold, sodium-lit street, and it was like a scene from a film as an empty black cab came towards us right on cue. I threw out my hand – because I have long arms. The cab pulled over, gliding smoothly to the side of the road, where layers of autumn leaves were pressed in piles in the gutter. We got into the car. I recited my address and off we went.
Our intimacy resumed as the taxi cut through the West End, before turning south and over the river. The emails in the lead-up to our first meeting had included not just flirty exchanges, but unveiled smut. Daisy had raised the subject of my penis in texts, and now she had her hand on it. (Through the trouser fabric.)
We were back to mine fast; and such an absorbing ride that I could barely keep my eye on the metre.
Inside the building. Up in the lift and into my flat. I said this is the lounge and there’s the kitchen. That my son’s room’s – he’s obviously not here tonight. That’s the spare room. This is the bathroom. And here, at last, is my bedroom. At this, the perfunctory guided tour was over, and we undressed and started to have sex. We were little more than an hour into our first get together.
Daisy had spent the first twenty five years of her life growing up in another country at the other end of the world and traces of her native accent lingered. She worked in international magazine publishing and made stained glass for a hobby. I knew this already. I also knew that she had a tattoo and that it was a blue spiral and was situated on her bottom. And now I was looking at her blue tattoo.
Those were the fast times.
|where is my brain?|
Eleven Years Later:
These are the slower times.
I’m washing the dishes before bed, staring out the kitchen window into the blue black night and thinking about that first date with Daisy. I don’t know why Daisy, memories just bubble up.
I tell the Annoying Son I do all my best thinking washing dishes. We went to the Gregory Crewsdon exhibition at the Photographer’s Gallery. I dragged him there before Dunkirk at the IMAX. All of Crewdson’s photos are staged and hyper real. They’re a bit unheimlich, I guess, as if the subjects just got back from Uncanny Valley.
And perhaps melancholy also. There’s a photograph of a woman stood by the kitchen sink staring into space. The kitchen window looks onto the frozen outdoors in a rural backwoods called Cathedral Pines. She is also frozen. Her face is a thoughtful puzzle. She looks lost. Or worried. Is that it? Absorbed with the waiting for the next stage of her life to begin, or by the struggle to get over the phase that’s just ended. You the viewer, you just don’t know, and that’s okay.
What do you think about, says the Annoying Son, when you’re doing the dishes?
No, I don’t say that. I tell him, quite blandly, how I think about everything.
The Annoying Son finds my answer dull – and it is. He drifts over to the next photograph.
I can’t imagine the last time I thought of Daisy, or the era of multi-dates and sleepovers. Time is a jet plane, it moves too fast, wrote Bob Dylan. But if it moves too fast, perhaps it can also come back quickly. Eleven years is a long way away. Almost fifty years is much, much further still. Nevertheless, I woke up in bed this morning facing on my front, spread diagonally across the mattress, and I lay there and started to make a shadow play with my bare ankle, using the sunlight coming in at the bottom of the bed. I used to do this a lot when I was five or six years old. Shapes and silhouettes, dark flickering ghosts on the silver wallpaper above my brother’s bed. And for an instant, it didn’t seem as if the two early mornings were almost half a century apart, but both happening now. It was some kind of spell and actually I hadn’t grown up, and all the events in-between didn’t matter, or hadn’t happened – not yet. Everything lay ahead of me still. And then I blinked and the suspension collapsed. I was simply fiftysomething again, and no longer also a child.
Time isn’t a constant phenomenon. We think of time as a constant, but it isn’t. Einstein suggested that actually time is an illusion. This may be accurate, but it doesn’t sound true. Famously, Einstein also described time as relative, varying between observers, and depending on their speed of movement through space. Not just space space – you know, the moon, the stars, the planets up above – but any kind of space. In this equation space might be thought of as a three-dimensional phenomenon offering travellers such location co-ordinates as length, width and height. Time provides an additional coordinate: direction.
The convention is that time only moves forward. But not at a constant rate. Time can go slow; usually when I go slow – stood at the kitchen sink, or flexing my ankle in bed in the morning light. And at this point, time stops moving directionally. Instead the temporal becomes lateral because of my point of view, due to my angle of approach. And in this way, fleetingly a multiple, simultaneous time feels possible.
Some evenings I notice the digital photo frame sat next to my TV. But most evenings I don’t. It’s loaded with photos from The Annoying Son’s early years. They flip by at three-second intervals. And every so often, ever so rarely, I switch from being inattentive towards the random slideshow facing me, and become hooked by this river of emotional cues from the past. I concentrate. I fixate. I really watch carefully, and all those shots of him as a toddler, and as a young boy pulling stupid faces, gather a momentum, and for a while, the era of his younger selves don’t feel simply, straightforwardly buried under piles of years gone past, long since done and departed. Rather, they continue on in the here and now. And in this way, briefly, my son continues to be both a toddler, as at the same time he is a young adult who is six foot two and shaves – the two states are happening in parallel, on the same temporal plane. ‘Every possible series of events is happening all at once,’ suggests sly Little Finger in Game of Thrones.
But then I blink, or think again, shake the shavings from my brain, and with it the photographic illusion ends. The normal time sequence reasserts its dominion and it is bye bye to the toddler son as he recedes into the past.
|the city is a funny place|
The dish water is tepid and grey. A plane goes over the building. A police siren follows after the plane and then a helicopter lands on the roof of the hospital. And finally it is quiet again. I’m alone. The Annoying Son isn’t here much these days. He needs, he says, a single undivided ‘crib’ at this point in his development – and one with garden access. That’s not what we have here.
The washing up is done, but I remain where I am and stare out the window at the building opposite. My eyes move over the brick elevation, across the windows and balconies. Most of the flats are already dark and gone to sleep. I rise up to the top left-hand flat, and track across to the third window, where there’s a soft glow behind the curtain. I focus on this window. There, this window, that’s the one, that’s the room where me and Daisy fucked eleven years ago. And now I’m stood here with dishwater hands, glancing across at me back then.
It’s true. The actual window, the specific room. I lived in the flat opposite for two and a quarter years. And then I moved out. And several years later, when I turned single again, not just through a lack of imagination, but because of other pressures and concerns, I returned to the same set of buildings. But this time I bought a flat in the middle block. Which means every time washing up, if I feel like it, I can gaze over at a physical reminder of my past – back to the Annoying Son’s Gameboy years (remember, together we conquered Scooby-Doo 2 Monsters Unleashed, from start to end titles?), or the fast times of hectic dating.
After we’d completed in bed, Daisy and me moved to the front room, where we sat and had more wine and talked. We agreed we were due more wine. She said, I like your son’s art, pointing to the pictures by the table, and did I like her text in the bar – over in the corner? I said it made me smile, a bit noir, and I could see she liked me saying that.
Daisy stayed over. And the next morning, over coffee, she told me this wasn’t the first occasion lately that she’d gone to sex on the first date. It was the third time in six weeks, in fact, since she’d broken from her long term partner – who she plainly didn’t like any longer, given the way her lips tightened when she said his name. I nodded and told her about a bus leaving from down the hill that went all the way to her work. I was quite excited to have found such a convenient service as Daisy was very north London and dismissive of life south of the river. See, it’s actually good down here, I said. Great bus routes!
We stood in the kitchen and I pointed through the window down to the stop she needed. She said, you have a nice kitchen. I said, well, my kitchen is your kitchen. She said ok, I’ll come and cook you dinner soon. I laughed and she looked embarrassed. So, we’re going to meet again? One of us said that, but I don’t remember which one.
I couldn’t leave for work at the same time as Daisy. It was too early. But also I had stuff to do at the flat. I was getting The Annoying Son straight from work that evening – he was very mini back then, only six – and this was my sole opportunity to clear away any traces of adult recreation.
Later that evening, with the mini Annoying Son finally tucked up in bed and asleep, I changed the sheets on my bed. I stashed them in the washing machine, where another bunch was already ripening.
I took the boy out next morning for a ‘fun in the city’ day. On the train, I texted Daisy. But also another woman, called Chloe. Towards the end of the afternoon I passed the boy over to his mum in the middle of town – in Cavendish Square, into the back of the car he went. Then I turned and walked up Portland Place. To a pub near Regent’s Park, where I meet Chloe for the first time.
We arranged to meet a week ago. I’m quite early, but she’s already sitting there. She stands up to say hello. Her profile indicated that she was tall, and she is. The pub is plain and a bit depressing – often pubs feel sad on a Saturday afternoon, waiting for the football results before the evening can get started.
I immediately get on well with Chloe. This was happening a lot with dates. I think somewhere, somehow, I got my flow. In the early months progress had been awkward and slow, often non-existent. But now it was rapid. Chloe is interesting and funny in a self-deprecatory way. We have two drinks and then we leave.
We get a cab. (It’s a costly business headlong dating!) Progress is similar to two days ago. But today, it’s still daylight – although the November afternoon is closing fast; and this time it’s Chloe, not Daisy.
We go back to mine. We do things. Chloe sleeps over. Next morning, Chloe tells me about another first date from a month ago, where she went to bed with a man having only just met. They downed three drinks and got a room at a hotel near Old Street. And after the sex, the man clammed up; and then he shouted at her. And she left quickly.
I cook breakfast. (I remember it was a Spanish omelette.) Chloe tells me about her work. She’s an ex-artist who, for now, teaches GCSE and A-Level art to secondary school boys just north of London. She loves the job. She used to live in Chicago with her husband and was part of an art co-operative. They had a live-work space in a refurbished warehouse loft in a bohemian quarter close to the centre of the city. But that was then. Now, she’s in her early thirties and divorced and has temporarily moved back in with her parents in Hertfordshire. She tells me she likes very much the films of Miranda July, and thinks that I would like them too.
And then it’s time for Chloe to leave. She’s got some marking to finish for lessons tomorrow. I make a joke about her parents having her on a curfew. I think I made a similar joke last night. I walk her to the train station. When I get back home, I clean the flat. I change the sheets and finally put a big load on to wash. I text Chloe later that I like her, but I don’t see a future. She tests back saying, I know.
Then I email for a while with a woman I’ve already slept with twice. Aaja is an academic and has been away for a ten days in America. She returns to the UK on Friday and we agree to meet on Saturday evening. I had it planned to meet Daisy Saturday, but that proves switchable to Thursday. And then I’m also supposed to be seeing Carla during the week. Carla and me dated for several weeks in late summer. And then we stopped abruptly, but recently we resumed. So much laundry.
What was I doing? Yes, lots of laundry. But what else? How did I tumble into rampant compulsive simuldating, with everything so urgent and express? It was reckless and shitty. (I found out later Carla and Daisy were doing the same.) What was I thinking behaving in this way? Where was my compass? I look back at this singular, singularly hectic and blurred period in my life with confusion. And, when I do, the lyrics from a song by Drake come to mind:
I heard they just moved my grandmother to a nursing home
And I be acting like I don’t know how to work a phone
But hit ‘redial’, you’ll see that I just called
Some chick I met at the mall that I barely know at all and
Plus this woman that I messed with unprotected
Texted saying she wished she would have kept it
The one that I’m laying next to just looked over and read it
Man, I couldn’t tell you where the fuck my head is
It’s not often I identify an overlap between my grubby escapades and the rampant lifestyle of a global hip hop phenomenon. But, that was the time of compulsive dating. A brief period from the past that leaves me puzzled.
Maybe turning single, following years in a long term relationship, caused some internal wiring to temporarily go askew – madness plus new technology equals trouble. Or now we’re the authors of our own ethics, it’s possibly too much to expect that we will always get it just right. (No, that sounds specious and glib.) Is it also facile to point out that plainly many people I encountered were doing the same, simultaneously shuffling different bed partners? (Yes, it is.)
Of course, the manic period didn’t last long. I couldn’t keep pace and predictably things got messy. But we won’t scrape up the details.
I think the descent into behaving badly happens in small drops and tiny pieces. A minor swerve from normal conduct can quickly lead to a second minor swerve. The first misguided swerve is vital, but not always noticed until later. It’s when we look backwards we realise how the want of a nail proved so consequential; as the ancient ditty elaborates:
For want of a nail, the shoe was lost;
For want of a shoe, the horse was lost;
For want of a horse, the rider was lost;
For want of a rider, the message was lost;
For want of the message, the battle was lost;
For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
There often is a compound interest. But an alleged chain of cause and effect is not recognised as a plausible legal defence. When events go askew, they have a tendency towards self-locomotion. Things gather pace. You can feel ganged up on, even though it’s your fault for first setting the wagon rolling down the slope. You want back control. But sometimes things need to play out to completion.
|put ’em in a Tupperware|
Lately, I think about manic, hectic spells because of pills and TV. (We are now shifting from the anecdotal opening of this blogpiece to the cultural section.) The Leftovers is an American TV drama about the sudden disappearance of 140 million people – 2% of the world’s population – on October 14, 2011. The HBO series ran for three seasons and is an intense viewing experience. There’s a memorable episode in season two where the lead male suffers an supremely manic day. We’ll get to that shortly.
The cause of the simultaneous departure of 140 million people is not understood. People just disappeared – from cars, shops, pavements, restaurants, prams, planes, office buildings, breakfast tables, motel bedrooms… even the womb.
The Leftovers begins three years after the departure, in an America that’s cracked, anguished, exhausted, because mourning’s hard work, and unable to move forward. Many of the leftovers need regular hugs. The country is flush with newly sprung millenarian cults offering not only hugs, but shysters and bromides to staunch the pain. Traditional religion can’t keep step with the public mood. The cults and quacks and charlatans are running amok. People’s brains aren’t working like before: all certainties departed with their loved ones and now they don’t know what to think. (As Public Enemy once said – if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.)
|the Guilty Remnant on a fag break|
The most blatant cult of the bunch doesn’t offer hugs. Just fags. The Guilty Remnant dress in white and are mute and nihilistic. Their members chain smoke as a blunt, silent declaration that life is without value since the departure. The Remnant commit terrible acts to press their case that nothing matters, and ATFEC (the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, Explosives and Cults) is coming to get them.
In a small town in upstate New York, police chief Kevin Garvey is struggling to keep his local community intact. Kevin’s also battling with a broken family and a full-size addiction to prescription pills. The pills are because Kevin sleepwalks – a lot. Some mornings, he wakes up with blood on his hands and no recollection of what he did in the night. (often, pretty bad things.)
Kevin quits his job and he and the family move to Texas. To Miracle National Park, which encloses the one town in the US where nobody departed three years ago. Miracle is the last stand for American exceptionalism. But Miracle is struggling to keep from going under, with human wreckage camped at the park gates and earthquakes in the night.
|you saved me, you gave me a second chance|
Kevin’s fast chaotic episode comes in the middle of series two. His conspicuously bad day starts early when he wakes up handcuffed to the bed. His partner Nora ties Kevin up at night to keep him from sleepwalking – recently he tried to throw himself in the pond with a breeze block roped to his ankle.
But today’s first headline surprise is that Nora walked out on Kevin early this morning. She left him because last night he confessed that he regularly talks to a ghost. Only Kevin sees this phantom – the ghost of a woman he tried to kill sleepwalking in the woods. The ghost mocks Kevin and he argues back. Just like Kevin’s dad talked to voices – before he had a meltdown and was locked up in a secure unit.
So, Nora’s walked out, but Kevin can’t find the key to the cuffs. They’re actually under the cushion on the bedroom armchair with a sign saying Keys. But Kevin can’t see the sign, because the ghost is sitting in front of it. So he tells his teenage daughter Jill to fetch the bolt cutters from under the kitchen sink. And Jill cuts her dad free from the bed. (No teenager should have to help dad with his manacles.)
But the other cuff is still fixed to Kevin’s wrist and it’s chaffing. So he drives to the local hardware store. However, the owner won’t remove the cuffs until Kevin proves he’s not a criminal on the run. Kevin drives onwards, to Miracle fire station – because the fire chief is his neighbour; and sort of a friend; and also they’re bound to have excellent tools.
At the fire station the chief is preoccupied with other matters. Just the other night, during a mini earthquake, the chief’s daughter disappeared. The only evidence they have is a palm print found on the young woman’s abandoned car. The vehicle was found next to the same pond somnambulant Kevin tried to drown himself with the breeze block. It’s Kevin’s palm on the car. The fire chief asks Kevin to give a sample print. You know, just as a formality, because everyone else is giving one… Kevin prevaricates, shrugs, obliges and heads for work.
Next, Kevin runs into Michael, who is Kevin’s daughter Jill’s sort-of boyfriend, and also the very religious son of the fire chief. (Are we getting all of this?) Because of Jill, Michael knows all about Kevin talking to ghosts. He tells Kevin his grandfather Virgil can rid him of his ghost problem. He takes Kevin out to the woods to meet Virgil, who makes wild-sounding claims concerning the after life. Their conference is interrupted however when Kevin gets a call from his first wife, Laurie.
Laurie was a senior troublemaker with the Guilty Remnant. Until she went freelance, hawking her confused teenage son as a holy man. But mother and son argued and he took off. Laurie turns up at Miracle without warning, hoping somehow her ex can help. But Kevin is on tilt – his voice, tone and faceology are fevered, scaring Laurie away.
As the busy, busy day wanes, Kevin finds a moment to have a major argument with Jill, then tears round to speak about it with Laurie at her motel. Laurie used to be a qualified therapist before she became a quack (no jokes, please), and swiftly diagnoses Kevin as psychotic.
Kevin agrees that he’s got some issues. But doesn’t have time for the talking cure. He finally makes contact with Nora, who’s been binning his calls all day. Nora tells him she’s only coming back to the house if Kevin can fix his delusions – it’s her or the ghost, basically.
Kevin plumps for the nuclear option. He hurtles over to Virgil’s trailer in the dark, humid woods. Virgil pours a salty potion to rid Kevin of the ghost. The only problem is that the potion will also kill him. But that’s okay, because Kevin has the innate gift of reincarnation – says Virgil. And so long as Kevin does the right thing while dead, then he should only be deceased for a short while, and will be able to come back to life again, no problem.
Kevin doesn’t hesitate or fuss with the small print. These are Kevin’s fast times. He grabs the potion and necks it. He falls on the ground in a fit. He writhes and wriggles, sweat flooding off his face, froth spuming from his mouth. And after a while, he goes rigid. Kevin’s dead.
Unfortunately, so is Virgil. The grandfather who was supposed to remain onsite to monitor Kevin’s comeback, has decided this would be a good time for him to finally atone for his sins, for the many bad acts he’s done as a man. And so Virgil puts a gun in his mouth, pulls the trigger and checks out.
So, now who’s going to assist Kevin getting back from the land of the undead after he’s slayed the ghost? How will Kevin get Nora to move back home if he’s dead? And is Kevin’s guilty palm print a big issue?
This is why we race forwards to the next episode. And before you know it, another night you were supposed to catch up on your Japanese poetry, or bake a sourdough, just didn’t happen. There’s little time to breathe or to reflect with precipitate viewing. No space to tease out the nuances; or think twice about the lurches or gaping holes in the narrative.
But plausibility issues versus binge viewing were the least of my concerns. I faced a more fundamental problem. I started watching The Leftovers during a time when I elected to self-modify my sleep pills. I was bored of waking at 4am, on the carpet, trying to strangle the reading lamp. I needed my own pharma handcuffs and ramped the medication accordingly. And as a result, each morning I couldn’t wake up. My eyelids felt like someone had glued them together in the night. They ached and didn’t want to stay open. I couldn’t walk straight, couldn’t write. All I was good for was coffee and haphazardly gathering things for work, thinking am I safe to cycle? But cycling anyway.
At the office, I stared at the computer screen and tried to focus. In the vicinity of my desk colleagues were conversing, but their voices sounded far away. I jumped up and immediately felt dizzy. So I sat down again.
And then slowly the veil lifted. Each day at some point I would realise that my brain was back to working order, with the side effects finally burned off. I felt normal again. And, let’s hear it for normal.
The rest of the day would roll past smoothly. And if I wasn’t going out, then after dinner I’d read a little before settling down for another episode of The Leftovers. But this was where the memory problem presented. Every occasion I started a new episode, my brain was blank about what happened last time. The memory file wouldn’t load, had gone missing, or just didn’t exist. I was sure that I’d watched the previous episode last time. Watched it properly, carefully, and all the way through. I wasn’t drunk and hadn’t fallen asleep, and historically, my whole life, that’s always been enough for me to cognitively absorb a narrative.
But not with this show. The combination of the hot weather we were having, the pills, the tiredness, plus the surreal elusive tone of an apocalyptic drama mixing wild plot-lines with multiple, multi-layered dream sequences, while featuring a co-lead character suffering from pill abuse and acute amnesia – all of this had apparently coalesced and left me no longer able to make, or retain, new memories. Was this a condition? Had Kevin’s chaotic amnesia leaked off the TV screen to infect me?
Each night, my only recourse was to reach for the iPad and read over the synopses on Wikipedia.
|Manchester by the Sea|
The Leftovers is ostensibly a drama about failing to surmount something catastrophic and life changing. But at a more fundamental level, arguably The Leftovers is a big, sad saga about baby boomers quaking at the fact that we’re all going to die. Didn’t you realise? Dead! Even those people born somewhere between Elvis, Woodstock and Live Aid must die. (The series is noticeably fixated on the story arcs of the Boomers and Generation X; with Millennials and Generation Screen barely getting a glance.)*
The film Manchester by the Sea is also a story about not getting over trauma. Similarly Personal Shopper is a recent film from France about a young woman (Kristen Stewart) who finds herself haunted by her dead twin brother as she struggles to come to terms with his demise. Maybe it’s the things I choose to watch and read, but the culture currently feels stuck on stories where people are arrested in despair and can’t move on. (And to be fair, getting over madness, apocalypse, death – clearly, it’s not easy.)
And here’s another one. A Ghost Story is a film about a departed male who apparently can’t get past the fact he’s dead. The film is on a very different plane to The Leftovers. The tone is eerie and meditative, with the oblique narrative progressing calmly at a languid tempo. At a preview screening the director David Lowery introduces his new film by offering two pieces of advice: A Ghost Story is very quiet (so really, do mute your phones); and although this is a story about ghosts, it’s okay to laugh.
A Ghost Story opens late one evening in the semi-rural home of a young married couple known as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara). The couple are curled up on the sofa, in the thick of a heavy conversation about their future plans, when briefly a small patch of exterior wall buckles and blurs, emitting a spectral plasmatic glow. M doesn’t see it. While C perhaps does, but choses not to say anything. Or maybe he fails to properly process due to the weight of their discussion. The couple are divided: the woman yearns to move to the city, while the man prefers to stay put. He feels an attachment to their current house that he can’t explain but nonetheless feels unseverable.
During the night, the couple are woken by a loud noise in the living room. C thinks the sound may have come from the piano. The piano that came with the house, that C adores, being a composer.
Next day, C dies in a car crash directly outside the house. The circumstances of the crash are not shown or described or explained.
The deadman’s corpse is taken to a morgue and draped in a sheet. But after a long pause, C rises up and climbs off the slab, as the white death sheet turns into his ghostly shroud.
C is now a full-time ghoul. He returns home to the house to which he feels so profoundly connected, moving slowly across dull green and brown fields, sodden from a heavy rainstorm, the white sheet dragging along the ground.
|I wandered lonely as a cloud|
The ghost dissolves back inside his beloved home and stays there. And watches. That’s what he does, mostly, he just stands there unseen, and observes.
At first C haunts his wife. But discreetly and largely with care. M continues to live in the house. Perhaps as a gesture of solidarity. Or because she struggles to get over the terrible loss. As the months and the seasons pass, her husband’s ghost watches as M quietly engages with her grief. She eats too much pie and throws up. She listens to a song C recorded shortly before his death. M repaints the interior of the house, getting it ready for market perhaps. She writes a note and folds it up really small and hides it in the painted door frame. (We never get to see what the note says.) M does all this and the ghost observes.
One night, she brings another man home. They’re headed for the bedroom. But this the ghost cannot accept and throws a tantrum – making the lights flicker while tossing random books on the floor. The camera fixes upon the mess. I scan the titles for subtextual reference, but the volumes seem average to me, and with all this amnesia lately I’ve forgotten them anyway.
Eventually the widow decides she’s had enough of this lonely, haunted home and packs up and leaves. But C doesn’t follow. He holds up inside the house. He’s become part of the furniture. C haunts all who come to live here. A woman and her two kids move in and find happiness in their new home. Too happy for the ghost’s liking. All that singing and laughter and contentment rattles him. He smashes up some china in protest. And the mum and kids move on.
A group of young adults, students maybe, take over the property. They throw late night sessions with beer and bongs and profound conversations on time. The ghost watches on.
When the occupants are out at work during the day, the ghost stands by the window. The next house along another ghoul does the same. Mid point in the film we watch as they wave to each other. Neither phantom can speak, but their gestures are subtitled, suggesting that the dead have a language of their own. ‘I’m waiting for someone,’ the second ghost says, or signals. ‘Who?’ asks C. ‘I don’t remember,’ says the other ghost.
When once asked if she believed in spooks, the 18th century philosopher Marie Anne marquise du Deffand replied: ‘No, but I am frightened of them.’ However I’m not sure if she would be frightened any longer after watching A Ghost Story. The viewer actually feels kindly towards the undead – sorry for their vulnerability, sympathetic concerning their apparent lostness as they linger on in their scruffy white shrouds.
Casey Affleck was interesting in the lead role in Manchester by the Sea, playing an inarticulate blue collar male trapped inside a long-range grief over the death of his kids. Affleck’s reward for Manchester was an Oscar, and getting to spend much of A Ghost Story under a white sheet.
Affleck does wonderful work with his white sheet. (Who said he was a one-trick pony? Oh yes, that was me.) He doesn’t even get to use his eyes. Although the white shroud has eye holes, the camera chooses not to come up close to capture Casey staring back. Which begs the question, is it always Casey under the sheet? Does it need to be? Was it always Michael Fassbender inside the giant head of Frank Sidebottom in Frank? Were there days on set when Affleck called in sick and a stunt ghost took his place? Following the screening, there was a Q&A with director Lowery. That was my question – was the ghost 100% Affleck? I had my query all lined up. But unfortunately I didn’t get to ask because I had to go to the toilet instead.
In Broken River, a new novel by J Robert Lennon, a couple are brutally murdered in their rural home while a ghostly unexplained Observer watches from inside the house.
I think describing Broken River will prove a useful digression for this piece. Broken River, like A Ghost Story, hooks into the folk story tradition of the uncanny house. The Observer watches the couple pack up in a hurry, having suddenly realised they’re in mortal danger. But too late – their mystery assailants nab the couple just outside the house and kill them. The Observer watches the couple’s young teenage daughter as she stays on in the house following her parent’s slaughter. She looks after herself for a bit; and then leaves.
The Observer watches as the property becomes a police crime scene, and then a neglected, forgotten family home. And then an abandoned hulk, used as a derelict hang out by local youths and hobos – before even they give up on the place, as it slides into deeper neglect as a chilly broken-down refuge for wildlife and infested with vermin.
Still the Observer remains inside the house, watching. Time slips by. But eventually the property gets a new lease and things start to perk up. It becomes an investment opportunity, a refurb project for a financially venturesome couple. The builders descend. Also designers and decorators, and later estate agents; and there are lots of viewings with people milling around. But no sale.
As the weeks pass, the eerie Observer continues to observe, as the house fails to sell. And eventually the defeated investors give up, and the ill-starred house is abandoned once more and slips back into decline and decrepitude – and with this, more teenagers, stoners, hobos, wildlife, vermin; the gradual ingress of the elements, rain, leaves, snow; leading to broken fittings, spalled masonry, snapped floorboards.
And more time passes. And the Observer looks on.
And then another couple arrives, from the big city, grabbing with both hands the real estate bargain of the year. They ask no questions. They get cracking. The architect, the builders, the plumber, the electrician; a crew of carpenters and decorators. The house is kitted out with optimal fixtures and fittings. And eventually it’s move day. And furniture and boxes arrive and the new couple and their daughter settle in. And unwittingly, in doing this, they cause the curse of violence and brutality to rise up and start all over.
I sat in the cinema watching A Ghost Story, next to a film critic who kicked me three times for some reason, watching the ghost watching the world go by, and I thought of Lennon’s spooky novel, which I’d only just finished reading; and was obviously struck by the many similarities shared by the two fictions; and wondered, not for the first time, about the circulation of ideas in the culture, of coincidences and overlaps in artists’ work – things that we have no choice but to file away as curious emanations from the zeitgeist.
Lennon’s novel is darker than A Ghost Story, more grounded, less metaphysical. Lennon’s story sees violence beget violence; while Lowery’s ghost slowly, and then rapidly, follows through to completion some rambling version of the cycle of time specific to him and the house. First, C travels forward into the future, and then he reaches way back into history, into the era of the white settlers with their wagons, braces and hipster beards, to watch over them trying to stake a claim in the wilderness, but failing and dying.
It would seem that the ghost must travel backwards in order to return, as somehow the wheel of life rotates full circle. And with this, at last C can go free, becoming untethered from the house, to be released finally just as he arrives back to the moment when he and his wife first encountered the property. And onwards to that very night of the inexplicable noise from the piano, the night when he couldn’t explain why he felt so attached to their home, the night that C’s own ghost arrived to haunt him on the eve of his own demise.
At the end, the ghost’s transcendence of his long term stuckness comes in a surprising form. The viewer may feel underwhelmed. Or perhaps they may feel quietly satisfied. That the film has an open narrative is not a surprise, as life after death is a pretty speculative proposition. That said, the way C is delivered from his watchful purgatory feels nice. Yes, nice is the word. You leave the cinema warmed at his release, albeit a little wary of feeling this fluffy. The big questions may remain unanswered, but for once this uncertainty isn’t a bother, or the cause of howling despair. This isn’t cinema by Bergman.
In contrast, The Leftovers is the saddest TV show I’ve ever seen. With what has to be the most tears in screen history. The drama plausibly depicts a whole nation depressed, trapped inside an enormous inexplicable tragedy and unable to move along: because, when you’re depressed, it is difficult to see a future.
The Leftovers was originally a novel by Tom Perrotta. The show was conceived and adapted and mostly filmed pre-Trump. So, thankfully it’s not that allegory. The meaning of the departure remains largely unspoken and unknown – what was it, why, and where did the departed end up? Who knows?
The departure could be classified as one of modern existence’s ‘hyperobjects’. The hyperobject is an obscure term from computer science appropriated by the English writer Timothy Morton as a wider designation for massive, extensive and complex events. Inspired by Björk’s single Hyperballad, Morton repurposes the word Hyperobject as a means for describing systems or phenomena that are vast and complicated and everywhere.
Morton is specifically concerned with the ecology. But the notion of hyperobjects can be extended to include the mind-bending intricacies of the money markets; quantum physics; bird migration; or the daunting nexus of technological singularity, artificial intelligence and how we propose to work with the robots after they take over.
Hyperobjects are things we can’t get our heads around. They’re too big. The hyperobject demands our understanding, but will never allow it.
Some personal details, names etc were changed in the production of this piece.
* Perhaps, after all, the take away message from The Leftovers is not just a baby boomer fear of dying. Maybe the leftovers are depressed because ever since the 1990s and the ‘end of history’ our political culture has become haunted by a fear for the future. Terrorism; populations on the move; nuclear escalation; the collapse of the ecosphere, or perhaps of the financial system. Superbugs vs antibiotics. Wall to wall surveillance. Brexit. Trump. Winter is coming.
Such catastrophic change trickles down to the local, individual level of our lives with its many tests and challenges: careers and families and homes to run, wage stagnation, household debt. Job interviews, fit-to-work tests, schools, exams, student debt, pensions, ageing parents, squeezed middles, longevity, relationships, perma colds, Lyme disease simply for doing the gardening, sugar, gluten, alcohol, pills, screens, distraction.
It has been called ‘the privatisation of stress’. With many of the old parameters knocked out, or on their last legs, we must find our own way. In a globalised, deregulated era of precarity, we know that we must shape our own future, while often feeling that the future is beyond our control. What fun!