A Ghost Story: Love in the Time of Death

**** (out of 4)

Anyone who’s been through childhood knows how it goes. In the middle of the night, somewhere in your house or apartment, something abruptly creaks or thumps. You turn the lights on, maybe check locks if you’re paranoid – but nothing turns up, no matter how hard you look. By the time you’re an adult, these moments usually mean little, and they’re easily forgotten. But if you really did have a childhood, you at some point probably came up with some kind of theory to explain all those noises away, whether that entailed bogeymen, mice, ghosts, or a combination of all three.

In A Ghost Story, writer-director David Lowery supplies his own explanation for the source of such noises: they’re movements of those spirits who cannot bear to abandon this world. Continue reading

Obit: The Nostalgia of Death

*** (out of 4)

When it comes to selecting a career, the post of obituary writer probably isn’t anywhere even close to the top of your list. It lacks the prestige and name recognition of a job as a critic or columnist…and given what the position entails, you wouldn’t think it exactly invigorating. Yet as anyone who even glances at the back page of The Economist soon realizes, good obit writers easily defy the stereotypically morbid limits of their genre – to the point that they’re often more fun to read than anything else in whatever publication they’re working for. In many ways, a well-written tribute to a dead person can be the exact opposite of what you’d expect: an unabashed celebration of life.

In its best moments, Obit, a Page One-esque documentary about the obit writers at The New York Times, succeeds in translating the surprising vibrancy of the obit-writing world to the screen. Continue reading

A Quiet Passion: Emily Dickinson and Solitary Transcendence

**** (out of 4)

Towards the end of Terence Davies’ A Quiet Passion, a new “biopic” of the poet Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon), there’s a shot in which Dickinson is shown lying on her bed. The mood is not a relaxed one; she’s just been struck by a debilitating series of seizures, and in the next scene, she’ll end up passing away for good. What’s striking about this moment, however, is the combination of the anguish on Dickinson’s face, the foreshortened way her legs stand out in the foreground, and the way the bed fills the center of the frame: taken together, the whole image provides a very close imitation of Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna’s famous depiction of a dead Jesus in Cristo morto. It’s almost as though Dickinson, like Christ, has reached some form of transcendence through death.

Alas, if there’s just one thing Davies’ take on Dickinson teaches you, it’s that this transcendence is only attained after a lifetime of emotional and spiritual agony. Continue reading