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2017’s Best movie moment is in Lowery’s A Ghost Story

Twenty-two minutes into David Lowery’s film, A Ghost Story, Casey Affleck — the bearded and introverted Hollywood signifier of perpetual little brotherhood and purported sexual harassment — stands in obscurity beneath a white sheet of halloweenesque spectrehood. He is dead, a ghost trapped in a good old fashioned earthly purgatory, spatially and temporally connected to the house he shared with his wife. He is reading a note placed next to a pie wrapped in tin foil (He’s also quite possibly fondling his new best actor Oscar, or maybe just stroking his beard, we can’t really know under that massive sheet). 

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“M,” says the note, “I’m so very sorry. Please call me if you need me. Love, Linda. P.S. Let me know when it would be good to send over a painter for an estimate.”

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Linda’s little note stands as the unofficial thesis for Lowery’s whole film: “Here is an exploration,” it shouts, “of the painful and and ugly and beautiful juxtaposition of sorrow and practicality, the weight of remorse and the pressures of the quotidian” (it’s also a movie that desperately wants the sort of unnecessarily dense language that just got smooshed onto it, apologies if it’s gag-inducing to read).

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This baby thesis of a note is unnecessary for the viewer, however, because the pie that sits beside the note will soon do far more powerful work in representing what happens when the abstraction of grief clashes and combines with the concrete realities of human life, physical needs, etc…

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A disclaimer. The pie, of course, is not doing the work in the next scene, Rooney Mara is, along with Lowery’s stationary camera and the screen’s boxy and claustrophobic Academy ratio (1.375:1), which encloses Mara inside her newly silent home and her remorse for her recently deceased husband.

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25:07: Mara– the girl with the dragon tattoo, the woman in Carol who isn’t Carol– notices the pie on her kitchen counter. She removes its foil covering, crunches the foil into an imperfect ball. Pauses, turns, and grabs a knife and fork from the sink behind her. The pie, you notice, is pumpkin.

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Fork and knife are put to work carving a neat triangle, which Mara starts to poke at. She takes her first bite. Sniffs. Gulps down her first bite loudly. “Dear God,” think you the viewer, who happen to abhor seeing people eat things, “I hope this scene doesn’t go on too long.”

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A second bite. Mara’s fork scrapes against her teeth. A third, and now a fourth; she is building a rhythm. The viewer looks around at his fellow theater goers. “We’re intruding on something, aren’t we? Are we being rude?” This is a thought that seldom crosses your mind, despite (or because of?) the hundreds of naked bodies, bleary eyes and brutal moments that you’ve seen at the movies over the years.   

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A pause. Mara, who has been standing at the counter, grabs the pie plate and makes for the stove. As she sits, the camera finally cuts to a new angle. She is center framed now, with outstretched legs that line up with Casey Affleck’s stationary position in the far right corner of the image. She takes another bite.

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26:55- Mara, shifts a lock of hair behind her ear. You (it’s me, ok, I’m ‘you,’ let’s not pussyfoot around here), is screaming out for a soundtrack, for a moment of dialogue, for Mara to stop scraping the pie pan so fucking loudly. In your memory later, the viewer will see Mara eating with  her hands, associating her trauma with a more visibly raw refusal of decorum. But in truth Mara remains measured throughout. Her grief is in her fork-work– a ridiculous phrase, perhaps, but accurate– as she repeatedly jabs against the pie in her lap, struggling to get a suitable bite speared on her silverware.

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There are nervous titters in the crowd of Canadians watching the film with you. Later you will be united in your polite discomfort with the high kids who have wandered in and started to make jokes about ghost sex. For now you are unified by your simultaneous disquiet and half conscious fear that the next bite will be the scene’s last- you’re all in this together now. Well, you, and the Canadians and Casey Affleck, who is still creeping in the corner.

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Mara releases the kind of shimmery exhale of sadness that must take years of work to master as an actor but takes only moments to perfect when you’re a 7th grader who’s just been dumped by your girlfriend of six excruciatingly awkward days. You’re trying to figure out just how much pie Mara has consumed; you lost count a while back of how many bites she’d taken, and frankly the counting was getting a little bit weird. Regardless, you’re impressed.

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You can’t decide if David Lowery is a genius or an asshole for making you watch this, for making Mara eat so much pie in one sitting, for-

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Mara drops the half eaten pie onto the ground where it clatters as she stands up then springs to the bathroom in the background. The camera remains, and so does Affleck, as Mara heaves up her meal. She can no longer hold in all her grief, and, more importantly, she can no longer hold in all that pie.

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It’s a moment that’s easily lendable to the sort of, “Wow, 2017 really sucked. We’re all fucked” allusions or analyses that are so easy to make these days, but in truth Mara’s pie scene is far more powerful than any sort of half-assed social or political interpretations I’m tempted to throw at it. Like a Fassbinder melodrama, it’s a scene that bravely skirts the absurd in order to reach for a moment of the sublime, and for several minutes it comes closer to that goal than anything else did in 2017. It’s a scene that haunts you, all ghost puns intended, and you hoard its rare and unrefined energy for yourself by describing it in detail (and thereby ruining it) for anyone and everyone that will listen.

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