Embodied Spectatorship in “A Ghost Story” (2017)

Short Response for Film Theory. Minor Spoilers ahead.

A man suddenly dies. We see his wife look at his dead body for a long time. After she leaves, he gets up, covered in a hospital sheet that also (humorously) doubles as a Halloween costume. He slowly walks back to his home. Unable to do or say anything, he stands and observes his grieving wife. Then, she quietly lies down, gently caressing the bed sheet, almost wanting to feel her deceased husband’s presence there. Next, director David Lowery cuts to a close-up of a hand tenderly reaching out to console the wife’s shoulder.

Looking at this particular moment in A Ghost Story [0:45-0:47] through Vivian Sobchack’s embodied spectator lens, we can discern how the reflexive reaction of the body (or flesh) produces an unfiltered (“carnal”) sensation before conscious reflection. In other words, how we sensually feel what happens on screen before we reflectively think about it. Here, I can “objectively” see the wife crying , and the ghost’s distance from her. However, the moment he lifts his hand up, I feel a tingling sensation on my shoulder. The hand has not yet (literally or metaphorically) touched his wife’s shoulder. The mere close-up of it, accompanied by Daniel Hart’s aching background score, makes me gently slouch my body. As the hand now reaches closer to her body, I very briefly rest my jaw closer to my shirt’s cotton fabric.

For Sobchack, these somatic responses, not initiated by reflective thought, are key to experiencing cinema. It is not that I am directly identifying with the ghost or wife’s character on the screen, for it is impossible for me to literally feel the figural gesture. What I am doing is using my lived body – positioning of my shoulders, movement of my jaw – to “enhance” that sensory experience that is happening on the screen.

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