Thursday, July 30, 2015

I Am A Ghost: Samsara

samsara (noun)

1. Buddhism. the process of coming into existence as a differentiated, mortal creature.
2. Hinduism. the endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths to which all beings are subject.

I’m sort of surprised this never occurred to me before, because it’s hardly a revelation - if we consider especially the Buddhist idea of samsara, the idea that suffering is the product of attachment to earthly things, well, you’re basically talking about ghosts at that point too, aren’t you? Films dealing with ghosts and hauntings talk all the time about the spirit being unable to let go of something from their life. Attachment to worldly things is the cause of suffering, and ghosts, by their definition, suffer. They are trapped between. I feel like I’ve stumbled onto something everyone else already knows here. 

But anyway, I am here to talk about I Am A Ghost, which is an impressionistic, understated story of one person’s attempt to free themselves of earthly suffering, experienced as, essentially, an endless series of births, deaths, and rebirths.

The film begins with an excerpt from an Emily Dickinson poem - “One need not be a Chamber / to be Haunted / One need not be a House / The Brain has Corridors / surpassing Material Place”, which neatly summarizes the central elements of the film in a few lines, but I’ll get to that in a bit. This and the title card are followed by a series of static shots of a large, old house, accompanied by an underlying ambient hum, which establishes a certain tension. The emptiness is tangible and pregnant with its own disruption. You wait, and wait, and wait for something to happen. Something has to happen any second now, to break the absolute emptiness and stillness.

When it is broken, it is not by anything horrifying, it is broken by Emily, who is a prim young woman in a white dress reminiscent of an earlier, more modest time. Emily goes about her day - we meet her making her breakfast, as the radio plays old, old news reports and music, she tidies up, goes grocery shopping, and the next day she wakes up with a yawn to do it over and over again, the exact same actions, the exact same way, slotted in a different order. Even within this sort of iterative, permutated Groundhog Day, it soon becomes clear that something is a little off - the oddly menacing way she raises her butter knife at the breakfast table, throwing up at the bathroom sink, her hand bleeding and bandaged.

The thumps and groans coming from upstairs, the voices calling her name.

As it becomes clear, this house, and the things that happen within it, are the limits of Emily’s life, and they occur and reoccur in different orders and variations, one or two new things showing up gradually. Like the poem says, there’s a person, a house, and a mind. Like I keep restating in most of my reviews of haunted-house stories, houses can be haunted, and so can people. Eventually, we begin to discover why this is the case, as Emily begins talking to an unseen woman named Sylvia, and what has been a series of statements and restatements starts to take on new value as we begin to see those familiar scenes from unfamiliar angles, as Emily begins to talk, as we get new pieces to fit into the puzzle, as the picture slowly becomes clearer. Emily is in this house, and there’s something very special about Emily in this house, the way she inhabits its rooms, and as we come to discover, something equally special about Emily’s mind. 

The pacing is interesting - long takes, very understated music and little to no dialogue for the first half of the film, and it’s just the same collection of scenes over and over again, in different rhythms, with variations in order, the occasional new scene inserted. It’s a very artificial approach, but it pays off, because the early tension of the opening dissipates under this relative familiarity, the same things over and over again, and it is only as we first get new bits of information introduced that we started to feel uneasy again. It has the effect of lulling us into a false sense of security and as we find out more about Emily, as the truth is revealed, the tension comes back with a vengeance as the place that has become so familiar is made threatening again by the new revelations, and this makes the endgame a much different experience from the rest of the movie. Just as you begin to wonder whether or not this is actually a horror movie, it kicks in with an almost Lynchian purity and primitiveness. This big, old house suddenly becomes claustrophobic because there really is nowhere to run, for the characters or the audience.

The filmmakers do a lot with very little - the film is almost entirely carried by a single actress, it’s set almost entirely in a single location, and so shot composition and editing (along with the tasteful deployment of split-screen and some unobtrusive effects) do most of the heavy lifting instead of gratuitous musical stings and gore and a lot of screaming. The majority of the film gets over on mood and setting alone, and so when it does branch out into something less restrained, it’s almost cathartic in its intensity. In lesser hands, its premise would have been a complete shambles, the sort of thing that makes me roll my eyes so hard they end up in someone else’s eye sockets, but by staying focused and presenting us with just what we need to know to understand what’s happening, it brings it into clarity.

It’s almost a horror film as haiku, distilled to its essential elements to tell the story of one woman’s attempt to break the cycles associated with memory and denial and flight from the truth. Houses are haunted, people are haunted, and when we hold onto something because we don’t want to let it go, or to let it free, we suffer. And when we suffer, we can’t move on. Samsara is the wheel of suffering borne of attachment to earthly things, and until Emily reconciles her earthly attachments, she cannot be free of suffering. Even in the end, which deftly avoids cliché, it isn’t made clear whether or not she truly is freed at all.

Unvailable on Netflix

No comments:

Post a Comment