A Ghost Story: Photographs is a collection of Bret Curry‘s photographs, made on the set of A24 Films’ A Ghost Story (2017), written and directed by David Lowery and starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Now. I wasn’t aware of the film before ordering the book, and while it’s available on Netflix, I haven’t watched it yet (though I hope to before I complete this review). I think the book stands on its own, that it doesn’t need the movie to have some meaning or interest, but I imagine it probably has a different impact if you’re familiar with the film…
If you watch the unboxing, you may hear me chuckle, and my laughter may be inappropriate. (Edit: it is, sorta.) Again, at the time of unboxing, I hadn’t seen the movie, and the childlike ghost costumes amuse me a bit, especially the one in the flower-printed sheets like Grandmom had on the fold-out sofa bed in the Boy’s Room that I used to sleep on from time to time when I stayed over. An early image of a production assistant carefully preparing to install the eye holes in the sheet didn’t strike me, but when I hit the picture of the flowery ghost gazing out of the window (with the Affleck ghost in his solid white sheet looking out of a window on the facing page), I snorted a bit.
Was this inappropriate? Well, if you know the film (as I do now), sorta. The flower-printed ghost is in my mind the most tragic character in the film. Its few lines (subtitled, as in the world of A Ghost Story, ghosts can’t talk) are absolutely devastating. Still, I mean, look at them. They’re so childlike and funny, and to make a ghost costume out of anything but a white sheet makes it even more so…
The book begins with an introduction from Lowery, who meditates a bit on the physicality of film (I’d point him to Merleau-Ponty, maybe, if that gives you any idea of his general train of thought) and then says something absolutely true, but still rather strange. “Looking through these pages, you will see the faces of people you do not know and events you were not privy to. Each of these images is a memory that you do not have.”* Sure. This is true of most any photobook, right? Like “Candyman,” though, just invoking this sentiment added a layer of total irrelevance to the book for me. I was able to shake it off (walking away for two days helped immensely), and I expect most viewers flip right past the text. If you’re sensitive like me, though, I encourage you to spend time with the photographs, build some worlds with them, maybe watch the film too, so that you will, despite Lowery’s claim, have some sort of memory of the faces and scenes, some idea of the activities, and so when you hit Lowery’s strange claim when you finally come around to reading the text, maybe your third or fourth viewing through, you’ll discount it completely, rather than letting it color the rest of the book as I have.
And, anyway, I’ve seen Affleck and Mara before (Affleck many times, Mara a time or two maybe), and so I have some admittedly one-sided relationship with them, some memory of them. (What movies did I see them in? Allah knows…) Sure, I don’t know Casey Affleck or Rooney Mara personally, but I do recognize them and have some idea of them. I look at a portrait of Affleck looking pensive, and think “he’s gotten more handsome as he’s aged, good for him!” I see a picture of Mara and think “what did I see her in… something… that one with… no, that was whatshername… what was it?” I didn’t know what David Lowery looked like and so didn’t recognize him in the book, though once I looked him up, he’s obvious and, of course, that’s the writer/director. He looks like a writer/director sorta. Anyway, despite Lowery’s claim, the book has some relevance for me, if only as an amateur photographer and photobook collector, and I do have some memory of some of the people, if not from the movie, then from some other movie and maybe a tabloid scandal or something.
Should you spend time with the photographs, they do sorta tell a story. There are pictures from the production, probably close to film stills, in color and black & white, with many portraits of Mara and Affleck (both with and without his ghost costume on). There are some photos of the set, a clapboard, the foam head that maybe was the flowery ghost or that the costume people used to set the folds and everything on the ghosts, a group shot of assistants and whoever during an outdoor scene, a couple of pictures of Lowery. And then there are pictures sorta from the film, though not, strictly speaking, film stills. For several, it seems that Curry was something like stage right vs what we viewers saw, and looking at the book after watching the movie, I felt sorta momentarily disoriented.
Before watching the movie, I wondered if the photographs appear in shot order, or in film-narrative order, or if Curry (and others) sequenced them in some way unique to the book (I suspected the latter). In any case, the sequencing works, and knowing what I know about the movie (the Affleck ghost apparently unmoored in time and floats around the property for a century or more), the shifts in location, from family home, to derelict property, to prairie homestead, to office building, and back make sense. Without that basic knowledge—and I didn’t even know that much on my first couple of viewings of the book—the images and the sequencing seemed somewhat more haphazard.
Ok. Ok. So I made my darling, adorable wife sit and watch A Ghost Story with me night before last (October 29, 2021). I more or less enjoyed the film, and loved and understood the ending, though I’ll say I still don’t really appreciate the way it arrived at the ending it had. It’s almost as if Lowery had the ending, and sorta had to free-associate till he got there, and it didn’t quite work (from a physics standpoint or a religious standpoint, both of which tend to posit that time moves one-way, either toward the heat death of the universe or toward the Day of Judgement). There were a couple of scenes—the rather tragic pie eating scene; the poltergeist scene: no spoilers: go watch the movie—that I thoroughly enjoyed, great filmmaking, those. And the God-proving monologue (if you didn’t get that out of it, watch the movie again) and brave inclusion of that single scene that earned it the R-Rating (no nudity, and, again, no spoilers) just screamed Sundance Official Selection, and, indeed, A Ghost Story was a Sundance Official Selection in 2017, and the movie was, overall, very Sundance-y.
My wife didn’t like it, but, then, she missed the poltergeist scene, which had me nearly rolling on the floor, guffawing and stomping and knee-slapping, for real, though. And in retrospect, someone other than me could easily point out some racism and sexism in the various portrayals and the underlying story, though none of that has anything to do with the book, and I really should get back to the book review…
So there’s a picture of the pie, and a picture of a glass of milk hovering above a table, and a picture of Mara standing by some some boxes she just put out on the street, with the little dolly track they used to film her putting the boxes out on the street and then standing by them stretched across the road. And the sequencing does make sense with the film, though it’s particular to the book and works on its own (the book does, as does its sequencing). The photographs strike me as sorta different, less specifically film-still-ish, and more like hanging around with buddies than, say, Inge Morath’s work on The Misfits. It’s probably more the 2017-ness of it that I notice, of course: Morath shot on film in black & white, 67 years before Curry took his pictures on the Ghost Story set, and given a) Instagram, etc., b) digital imagery, and c) all the various photo schools that have come since 1960, no wonder Curry’s pictures look different from Morath’s.
The book itself is fun, with a glittery black cover featuring Affleck’s line drawing of Ghosty, and Curry’s photographs work. If you’re a fan of the film or of Affleck and/or Mara and/or Lowery, no question you should pick up the book. Without the film, the book does stand on its own, though the film adds a huge amount to it, and now that I’ve seen the film, I can’t really separate the two clearly any more… Maybe I should’ve watched the film after finishing (and publishing) this review. Oh well.
Overall, A Ghost Story: Photographs rates 3.7 stars.
At time of writing, A Ghost Story: Photographs remains A Ghost Story: Photographs remains available direct from Temper Books, and A Ghost Story, the film, is available on Netflix. If you’re a fan of the movie—or of Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, or even David Lowery—the book is a no-brainer. And go check out Curry’s website. He’s really quite the photographer, and he’s worked on some interesting-looking motion stuff that’s worth a look too.
Now. Full Disclosure: some weeks ago, Temper Books reached out and asked if I would be interested in a few review copies of their books. I took a look at their offerings (at time of writing, 3 books + 1 on the way) and bought two of them. They sent me a third (and promised the 4th) as review copies. A Ghost Story: Photographs is one of the books I paid for myself, and so I don’t think there’s any conflict of interest or anything, but you should be aware. If not for Temper’s email, I sorta doubt A Ghost Story: Photographs would’ve hit my radar, and it would’e been my loss. So huge thanks to friend-of-the-blog Noah Kalina for pointing them my way, and look forward to reviews of their other books in the coming weeks.
* Lowery, David. “Introduction,” in Bret Curry A Ghost Story: Photographs. Temper, Denver CO, 2021. unpaginated.