A Ghost Story, First Reformed and Hearts Beat Loud- A Cinematic Journey Towards Finding Hope in the midst of Grief

A few years back I wrote in this space about a class I took on what it looks like to navigate “the second half of life”. It was a class designed for those over 40, and in part it is what inspired this blog.

One of the big learnings I took away from this class was that loss, a benchmark for defining what it means to grow older, has many faces, some that are more obvious and easily recognizable, many that are not. And learning how to grieve well might be the most important part of the process, certainly when it comes to our ability to recognize and label these losses for what they are.

I also discovered that I am really… REALLY bad at knowing how to grieve. And given the obvious loss that has shaken my, our, lives over these past few months, this is a reality that has hit doubly as hard, a fact that has turned even more necessary to reconcile

Simply put, loss sucks and life is…

One of my favorite films of 2017 also happened to be one of the most striking reflections on the grieving process I have seen on film. Directed by David Lowery and starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck, it tells the story of loss, in this case the loss of a spouse, from a particularly unique perspective, that of the Ghost whom we see struggling to make sense of life on the other side of death as he stands helpless against the process of grief.

Lowery breathes into this process a timeless perspective. The haunting of a mere moment by a bed sheet with two holes in it for eyes gives way to a more expansive view of life that sees the cycles of grief playing backwards and forwards through the building and demolishing, the progress and the destruction, the construction and deconstruction of the land on which he stands. What is most striking about this panoramic picture is the way it connects this sense of time and place. For as much as the Ghost’s view of the world gains this brevity, it remains intimately tied to the place which gives it definition, a soul so to speak- the home, the people, the experiences, the memories of this place. There is something unfinished and unresolved that haunts the Ghost who is forced to watch the process of grief unfold, watching Mara’s character slowly coming apart, desperate to hold on and to remember and eventually moving on and letting go. We see the house itself being built, moved into and made into a home, and finally forgotten and demolished. And what centers this whole process is the symbolism of this singular note. A note that Mara’s character writes and sticks in wall, seemingly as a reminder of what we see fading from her own view. A note that captures all at once the complexity of their relationship in the years that they were given together. The regrets and the joys. The hurt and the love. This note comes to symbolize what haunts the Ghost as he is unable to gain access to it. And yet it seems to hold the key to this unfinished business. And what is stunning here is Lowrey’s choice to leave the contents of this note out of view, unresolved for us as viewers, even as the Ghost finally accesses it. We never get to read the words, only surmise about what it said, if anything.

Which for me is sort of like trying to make sense of life itself. Life is allusive. For me it is like trying to make sense of this loss. I feel the pain of regret and second guessing. The hole that now exists that seems like it will never get filled. The questions that will never be answered. And the memories of all the stuff that made that relationship meaningful and joyful and full of love.

Gone, in a moment.

There is very little dialogue in A Ghost Story, but there is one scene in-particular, occuring right in the middle of the film’s narrative, that appears to hold the film together on both sides of the grieving process giving it a degree of narrative force and direction that allow the visuals to become reflective in a more concrete fashion. It is a conversation that happens between a group of people, with a specific individual caught wondering about the nature of life in the face of loss. The big question that the film pulls out this moment is why?

Why does it all matter? What is the point?

As the character suggests, we die, others die, the world and the universe is one day going to die. And the only way to hold it all together for this singular moment, to give it meaning, is to in some sense give in to the lies that we need to tell ourselves in order for that meaning to take shape. The lies that say who we are and what we do matters in the bigger picture of that timeless view of life. This character’s questioning of it all then becomes a way of interpreting the Ghost’s perspective of seeing the grieving process unfold as a panoramic shot, of seeing how quickly things move forward and are forgotten.

This becomes the tension we are forced to carry from gaining such a sweeping view of the world, a tension that struggles to stay centered on that sense of place where meaning and identity and purpose can be realized. These are the places out of which grief flows and pushes back against, allowing the questions of our despair to take hold and challenge that sense of certainty. The only certainty to be found in these moments is that loss sucks, and life is…

One of my favorite films of 2018 so far also has to do with a similar question of grief, albeit from a slightly different perspective.

It tells the story of a priest whom, after dealing with loss begins to experience his own crisis of faith. Over the course of the film there is a relationship that then begins to develop between a widow named Mary, with these two characters representing the difficult place that lingers in this crisis between hope and despair. What disguises itself as a physical relationship emerges as a stark and surprising symbol of the spirit, with much of the imagery of this relationship imagining the moments of spiritual transcendence (the levitation scene for example) and transformation (being reformed) that is able to break through the despair.

First Reformed is, in many ways, an ode to transcendental filmmaking that flows out of the director’s intent to write a film that can contrast or be set in conversation with the films which inspired it- Ordet, The Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light. Set against these films we have an idea of redemption, or of life and resurrection, set against the bleak and threatening reality of suicide, world weariness and defeat. The gradual deconstruction of Hawke’s character’s faith over the course of the film is given a rather striking resonance through the subtle polluting of the whiskey glass that mirrors his physical deterioration. The ending then, in the director’s own words, arrives as this sort of intervention of the spirit, a picture of a necessary grace that meets us at the crossroads of this struggle between hope and despair. It doesn’t necessarily answer all of the questions that this crisis of faith brings to the surface, but it is nevertheless transformative as it embraces the shape and form of the crisis itself.

I think it is, like A Ghost Story, this willingness to sit in that space in-between, in the sort of ambiguity out of which our questions and uncertainties seem to persist with the spirits transformative work, that is also able to give voice to the films larger concern- can God ever forgive us? Can God ever forgive me? This is not so much a question of sinfulness in the film as it is a desperate need for grace in what feels like a desperate, persisting and helpless condition. When we look out ourselves and then look out at the world with all the war and sickness and death and struggle, is it fair to suggest we are broken beyond repair, or is there hope and joy to be found in the mess of it all? In the process of grief, through the anger and the questions and the pleading and the doubting, the answer we find in the films final picture of its main characters I think is yes, yes there is hope, but it is a hope we can see only when the spirit invades our space and transcends our brokenness.

In interviews the Director suggested that he toiled over where to take the films ending. A part of him wanted it to end in a picture of ultimate pollution, of that whiskey glass becoming poison and suicide overtaking notions of faith, capturing that sense that even when hope is in our grasp it remains allusive. The truth that often times despair seems like it will and often does have its way with us and our world, sometimes to tragic effect, is a brave picture to confront. This lingering decision to confront this is felt in the film’s narrative force, and it allows the tension to remain real even as the director allows the idea of hope and resurrection to transcend the human experience. This is not an easy conclusion to what is a heavy and difficult film to embrace. Nor is facing and walking through the overwhelming emotions of grief and loss and struggle. Hope is allusive. Life is…

Some have considered this to be a movie about finding yourself, a family drama about a child coming of age and a parent needing to learn how to let go.

For me this is a movie primarily about grief and the ways in which loss can isolate us from the places and people that define us rather than pull us together. It is, on the surface, a sweet, affecting family drama that proves music, a universal language, can speak louder than words and be an incredibly effective narrative device through which to tell a story. Underneath it is a drama that proves with the right script, the right direction and the right performances, a movies heart can beat even louder than the music, breathing into this universal language a degree of meaning that actually transcends and transforms the song itself.

And transcends the human experience that defines this movie’s heart and rendering of the grieving process.

At the heart of the film is a father-daughter relationship, both of whom are attempting to navigate life on the other side of the loss of their wife and mother. What holds them together through this loss is a shared love of music, music which acts as the thread weaving into their own process of grief the memories of this loss and the struggle to make sense of this loss in the present. The reality is that life continues to move forward whether they want it to or not, like a song intent on writing itself, and it is the way they are able (or unable) to submit themselves to this process that gently form their journey towards each other in this film.

With its use of music the film shows that there is a certain poetic presence to the way grief works to isolate the different notes of our lives and to bring these notes together in song, and it is this subtle and growing isolation that can sometimes blind us to the fact we do not perform this song alone. Our notes can only become a song when performed in the context of community, and it is here where Hearts Beat Loud emerges as the true family drama that it is.

Through the music it considers the idea that however messy the process of grief can be, it is in the context of family and community that we are given the means to give it words and definition. Grief only means something if it can be expressed against the joy it has stolen, and the best way to find that joy again is to allow it to push us back, and with more intention, into relationship where it can once again emerge. But it takes courage to sing the songs we need to sing and perform in front of others on the best of days. In times when those different faces of loss threaten to steal our voice, it takes more than courage, it takes desperation. And yet at the heart of this film is the idea that desperation can push us forward and allows us to heal even when we think it is pulling us apart. Desperation is what can form in us that lost desire to learn how to perform again when life seems to be forcing us to leave our songs behind. And that power comes from the melody of others. And ultimately for me from the gift of a truly transcendent other.

There is nothing flashy or complicated about the direction of this film. It is the simple nature of its approach, largely stripped down, that allows the performances and songs to do the hard work of bringing us in on the journey. And in this sense Hearts Beat Loud offered me one of the most compelling and meaningful cinematic experiences of this year. In this present moment it offered me something even more powerful-hope. The tension is still there. Just the other day I told someone in my life that I am not sure I am ever going to come out on the other side of the loss we faced in the past few months. But as I considered the perspective of A Ghost Story and the hopeful transcendent spirit of First Reformed, Hearts Beat Loud gave me a picture of what it looks like to actually step into life again, even if in my moment of grief I remain unsure of what that is. I am reminded of the promise that somehow, in someway it is still worth embracing in the midst of the process.






Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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