Note: This post is part of my on-going “hauntology project” series. You can find all posts in this series using the category “hauntology.”
There is a feeling I get after watching some movies. It is a simultaneous desire to not only immediately rewatch the film, but also to never see it again. It is hard to describe, but it stems from how the movie has so thoroughly torn me down to my bare essence, laid bare all my thoughts and emotions, and caused me to examine that which I work so hard to cover up and ignore just to get through life on a daily basis. My reaction is one of raw feeling. I want to see these movies again because I long to better understand my reaction, and, in the process, understand myself. But at the same time, I never want to see them again because I am afraid of my reaction to them. I am afraid of what the film exposes, and I am afraid of what it might say about me.
These are films that linger in my mind long after I exit the theatre or hit stop on my remote. These are films that haunt me.
And it is time for me to go back to them and examine why I am haunted by them.
* * *
The first time I consciously realized that I was haunted by a film came in 2011 when a series of three films all had a very similar effect on me: The Tree of Life, Another Earth, and Melancholia. Tree of Life, in particular, had one of the most profound effects on me that a film has ever had, but the two subsequent films deepened that haunted feeling and the sense lingered on for much of the year and into the next. This could have been a side effect of beginning my formal dissertation writing, but I believe there were other forces at work.
How these films worked together in the milieu of that year-in-film is something I have wrestled with during the subsequent years in order to explain my reaction to them. I have written down beginnings of thoughts on how these are all “apocalyptic” films in one way or another and wondered aloud why they had clustered together in a single year. Was it somehow a reaction to the never-ending state of war that we were/are in? Was it a growing sense of environmental disaster? Maybe a reaction to the disconnect between our society and the world at large? Our growing alienation from one another? All trends that have grown in the subsequent years. But why was my reaction so strong then? What about how I was/am oriented within culture caused my specific reaction to them? I remain uncertain, but these films still haunt me.
However, I do know that my reaction to Tree of Life has much to do with identifying my own family history within its narrative. My entry point was the parallels between Brad Pitt’s character and my maternal grandfather, a man I never knew and have only heard stories about. A man whom I have been frequently compared to intellectually and emotionally by family. However, I also recognize aspects of my mother’s relationship with her father in the film. Recognizing these and then moving outward to examine the film’s exploration of our relationship with family and the larger universe partially created my very personal, very haunted reaction to it. To say that the film devastated me on an emotional level is an understatement. I was practically weeping as I drove home.
But, upon further reflecting on filmic hauntedness, I realized that I have been haunted by films before 2011, most notably by many films from my undergraduate years. In this recognition, I sense that so much of the haunting has to do with a specific time in my life, how a film reflects my concerns, fears, hopes, and dreams at a particular moment. This, I believe, is what lays the foundation for a proper “haunted” film.
* * *
The term hauntology bubbled up in cultural studies and literary criticism in the mid-2000s though I only recently became aware of it. Like so many trends, I am about a decade behind the times. The best summary I can find of the term as it is used in cultural studies comes from the late Mark Fisher, who wrote much on hauntology as it related to electronic music. In the Fall 2012 issue of Film Quarterly he wrote:
What haunts the digital cul-de-sacs of the twenty-ﬁrst century is not so much the past as all the lost futures that the twentieth century taught us to anticipate. The futures that have been lost were more than a matter of musical style. More broadly, and more troublingly, the disappearance of the future meant the deterioration of a whole mode of social imagination: the capacity to conceive of a world radically different from the one in which we currently live. It meant the acceptance of a situation in which culture would continue without really changing, and where politics was reduced to the administration of an already established (capitalist) system. In other words, we were in the ‘‘end of history’’ described by Francis Fukuyama. (16, emphasis mine)
I believe it is this sense of a “lost future” or, another way he put it, “the failure of the future,” that is behind some of my hauntological reaction to these films. They force me to look behind my immediate day-to-day and ruminate on my past, present, and future, and perhaps specifically on who I was, who I thought I wanted to be, who I currently am, and who I might one day be. And with all that, also face the failure of the future on both a personal and a global scale.
I am a person who grew up on the science fiction ideal of inevitable human progress. The vision of the future promised by Star Trek: the great potential for humanity, not only in exploring the stars someday, but also that we could overcome all our petty human differences and unite in the face of the truly massive global issues and conquer them. That the problems of nuclear disarmament, climate change, poverty, disease, war, etc., were nothing once humanity would collectively get together and realize we are all one people on one planet—that we inhabited Carl Sagan’s “pale blue dot,” just a speck on the truly enormous scale of space and time. But none of that has happened. If anything, we have fallen backwards into tribalist nationalisms and are further away now than we were in the mid-90s when hauntology was first devised as a response to the end of the Soviet Union and the triumph of capitalism over socialism.
Jacques Derrida first coined the term hauntology in his 1993 book Specters of Marx, and one of his touchstones in that book was Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the titular character’s line that “time is out of joint.” This is part of the feeling I get from these films. There is an atemporal sense that comes over me while watching them, that I have been shunted outside of the normal flow of time while viewing and am now seeing my life from a point outside of myself. I see my past and future stretch out before me and am forced to consider the long view. My existence within time is literally “out of joint.” And as I reflect on my past, the past of the world in which I exist, and think about who I am and where I am going, I am pulled further “out of joint” with time until something snaps me back. However, the feeling, the disjointed temporal sense, remains as an otherworldly presence, haunting me.
* * *
By and large the films that haunt me come from the genre of science fiction because, both then and now, it is the genre in which I consume the most media. Since I was a kid, it was sci-fi that drew me in, that captured my imagination and set my mind free. The way these films painted an optimistic, hopeful future for humanity instilled a belief in inevitable human progress for the better. And while many of the films I will examine have that hope, it is hope layered with grief and pessimism. However, if there is something else that draws all of the works here together even more, it is a lyrical quality to them.
What does that mean, though? How does one define a “lyrical” quality? To me, it means a sense of gentleness, a quietness, a stillness. There may be moments of excitement, danger, thrills, but the overall feeling that one gets from these films is a meditative quality that is like a quiet song.
There is also a stunning beauty to them. Long, sweeping shots of vast landscapes, still close-ups of rooms that dissolve into one another, and dialogue that is both philosophical and rhapsodic. A great score also helps, but it must be used well.
A lyrical film has all parts working together and against the bombast that might otherwise typify so much cinema. It is a quiet film. A thoughtful film. This is not to say that it cannot be a “blockbuster” film, there may even be one or two lyrical films on my list that fall into that category, but they transcend such definitions and reach towards something much more. It might use some of the conventions of the blockbuster, defy others, and, in the end, transcend any simple genre label. These are films that do not bombard you in order to distract you. They cause you to meditate on their themes and ideas. They challenge you.
And these films also have some common themes between them: hope and love, memory and despair, loss and rediscovery, endings and beginnings. Many times the characters themselves might be haunted by something. Be it a death, someone left behind, the past slowly catching up to them, and they can only be free of their hauntings through confrontation. There might be a despair that hangs over them the entire film, and sometimes it never lifts and the film turns from hopeful to tragedy. Or maybe they must sacrifice something for “the greater good.”
* * *
I believe that the best media—be it a book, a film, a painting, a poem, a video game, or a piece of music—always forces one to turn inward and reflect. Maybe that is just a sign of our postmodern, death-of-the-author age in which we focus not only on the work itself, but also on how we individually react to and reflect upon a work, but I feel strongly that how we engage with art and culture is as important as the work itself. So of course, then, the best pieces or art and media, in my opinion, are those that most cause me to look within myself to the point of haunting me like a specter. It brings the unease to the surface, clearing away the detritus of the day-to-day.
I intend to reexamine these films that haunt me, and some other haunted works, and reflect on why they haunt me, some a decade or more after my first encounter with them. They are not all great works of art, some are even considered bad, but they all haunt me for various reasons and I want to interrogate why. It could occur that, upon a second or third viewing, the specter has lifted and I am left to ruminate on why it haunted me then and why it doesn’t now. But, in this reexamination, lay the chance to discover more about who I was at that moment in time, a dive into my personal past and possibly the chance to exorcise some ghosts from it.
I, like most people, am haunted by my past. Haunted by decisions made, chances not taken, questions of what if. We are always second guessing ourselves. It is part of what makes us human. In making a decision we have to guess about where paths may lead us, project the past into the future, and if it somehow fails to live up to expectations we are left to wonder if we made the right choice. However, hauntology goes deeper than that, as do these films. This is the feeling of a ghostly presence of the past that lays over my present, the past creeping into the future. This is a lament for a future promised and not delivered, on both a global and personal scale. A deep regret or sense of being betrayed. A ghostly eulogy for all the promises left unfulfilled, the better tomorrows that never came. The dreamers who created towering cities in their minds only to see them crumble under the weight of a society and culture not up to the task of realization. But those towering, gleaming arcologies still exist in the mind’s eye, a reminder of not what could have been, but what should have been.
This is perhaps the crux of this feeling, at least for me. It is not a “would of” or “could of” but rather a “should of.” It is the specter of a promise broken, perhaps by the failing of society or the failing of myself, but a promise broken nonetheless. And in facing this head on, maybe it will lead to an overcoming. And if not to an overcoming, then at least to the brokering of a peace. A resolution. A detente.
~end part i~