Issue 9 - 2022 (1)

Temporal Ghosts | David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story”

Enrique Saunders (University of Reading)

David Lowery’s 2017 exercise in aesthetic realism is aptly titled A Ghost Story since it regularly leaves sensory afterimages in its wake, particularly during moments of extended slowness.

The quotation from Matthew Flanagan that reads at the end of this audiovisual essay highlights this project’s interest in the qualities and effects of slow cinema: understatement, emphasis on the mundane, and especially the long take (2008). These characteristics are intrinsically present throughout Lowery’s film, such as during the infamous pie scene in which Rooney Mara unwaveringly eats a chocolate pie to the point of physical repulsion. 

Contemporary thought on the long take and its effects has been drawn from John Gibbs and Douglas Pye’s The Long Take: Critical Approaches (2017). Gibbs and Pye contextualise the long take with Bazinian historical analysis and a focus on the significance of the culmination of movement, depth, complexity of mise-en-scène, and of course, duration. By contrast, the pie scene in A Ghost Story is relatively minimalistic in its slow cinematic technique—there are no camera movements, feats of blocking, nor any discernible technological tricks used. The shot is a static window into Mara’s performance and although there is movement in it, it is mostly unceremonious until the scene’s proverbial breaking point. It is an example of a long take that is characterised by physicality, both from Rooney Mara’s eating and Casey Affleck’s extended stillness in the background. 

The long take can simultaneously act as an immersive tool and one that draws attention away and to the filmic process, intentionally or not. This is not a strictly inevitable paradox, as different examples will indicate. For instance, James MacDowell (2017: 147) highlights Richard Linklater’s attempt to completely and unobtrusively immerse the audience by use of long takes throughout the Before trilogy. 

Nevertheless, the excerpts from David Lowery heard in this video essay indicate that the pie scene does illustrate the long take’s paradox. It is intended to both cause discomfort and reflection on the duration of the experience as well as incite some physical immersion with the events on screen. Extended discomfort amplifies the perception and heightens the significance of Mara’s own act of physical endurance.  

Formalistically, “Temporal Ghosts” is mostly concerned with how this perception of time reveals and draws attention to the physical connection between the film and its audience. This audiovisual essay is constructed around the inherent reflexivity induced by the long take: like the spectator sitting still in a cinema, it stares back at the audience using physical, intimate slowness. The concept of the mirror is incorporated extensively in this video essay to highlight this phenomenon.  

This project is also interested in the meta-construction of audiovisual essaying itself, adopting an implicit and poetic approach to convey its ideas in spirit with the characteristics of slow cinema present in A Ghost Story. Most of the guiding research from which this project was conceived is absent from the main video essay content, although Lowery and Flanagan remain as guiding authorities. Any apparent ambiguity behind the formal techniques outlined below is crafted to leave viewers with a strong impression of their motivations, but still allow adequate room for individuals to reach their own conclusions regarding their significance within discourse surrounding the film, slow cinema, or any related audiovisual essays.

These specific alterations to sound and image attempt to externalise what it feels like to watch a long take. The primary visual device is the temporal mirroring and superimposition of footage from the film, producing a unique double-image of the scene in its entirety. This is accompanied by a reversed version of the scene’s audio which is heard in tandem with the original. Multiple impressions of the scene occur simultaneously. Mara’s positional consistency creates a ghostly tracing effect as if she were followed by a delayed echo of herself, aided by the fact that there is almost no other movement in the scene. 

The sequence overlaps momentarily into a single image at the midpoint and then continues in reverse. By now the scene has technically played out in its entirety as two simultaneous halves, and it is easy to lose sense of which version of Mara is the original. This temporal redundancy is important to this project’s interpretation of how different audiences might experience a long take.

Much like how it is impossible to escape one’s own reflection, the long take demands an unavoidable continuity of time and space. The physical relationship between the film and its viewer may deepen the understanding of primordial concepts which are integral to A Ghost Story, such as grief and existentialism. To make personal sense of concepts such as these, both Lowery’s long take and this audiovisual essay attempt to serve as mirrors into physical realities from which meaning can be drawn.

Works Cited

  • Flanagan, Matthew (2008) “Towards and Aesthetic of Slow in Contemporary Cinema.” 16:9 (in English), 29.
  • Gibbs, John and Douglas Pye, eds. (2017) The Long Take: Critical Approaches. London: Palgrave MacMillan
  • MacDowell, James (2017) “To Be in the Moment: On (Almost) Not Noticing Time Passing in Before Sunrise (Richard Linklater 1995)” in John Gibbs and Douglas Pye (eds.), The Long Take: Critical Approaches. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 147-162. 


How to cite this article: Saunders, E. (2022) Temporal Ghosts. David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story”. Tecmerin. Journal of Audiovisual Essays, 9(1). ISSN: 2659-4269

Other videoessays in this issue:

Coloniality, the Backstage, and the Long Take
Márton Árva (Eötvös Loránd University)

Police Force(s)
Edurne Larumbe Villarreal (UPF) & Abraham Roberto Cea Núñez (USC)

With the Voice Present: "Imperfect" Video-Essays during Quarantine
Michelle Leigh Farrell (Fairfield University)

Student Showcase

Classic and Modern Avant-garde. Surrealism
Elena González Janot, Leire De la Peña Aoiz & Natalia Bermúdez Pérez (UC3M)

The voice in film
Alejandro Torres Almendros (UC3M)

Santiago Gómez Chacón, Daniel Guijarro Hernanz, David Ildefonso Trabada & Verónica Antoñanzas Martínez (UC3M)