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Spirits Rise: A Ghost Film Series

by Mark Pizzato

Spirits Rise: A Ghost Film Series

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October 4, 2012

Spirits Rise: A Ghost Film Series runs for five Saturday afternoons this fall, Oct. 6 - Nov. 17, At ImaginOn and UNC Charlotte Center City. 

Cinema is a ghostly medium. Characters and scenes arise in spectators' minds as they watch shifting patterns of light and shadow on a two-dimensional screen. Whether watching a movie alone or with others in a theater, each mind conjures its own associations to fill in the gaps of editing cuts, to fly with the moving camera, and to extend the film world beyond its frame. A movie audience ghosts the ghosts on screen—as the “Other” to the characters—taking various points of view set up by the film's off-screen creators and technological powers. Yet this process only reflects in a new medium what humans have been doing for thousands of years: externalizing the inner world of fantasies, dreams, and memories to be shared with others in the theater and perhaps with a supernatural Other who may be watching.

In a sense, we are all ghosts, even while alive. The spirit of “Self” is phantasmal—a fictional image framed by social constructs, as we imagine how others see us and splice together clips of autobiographical memory. As children, we begin to draw an image of Self by recognizing our face and body in a mirror—and by the reflections that others give us, from family and friends to teachers, coaches, bosses, and others. But we never know exactly how others view us in the theatres of our daily lives. When we die, our personality lives on to some degree in the neural networks of those we've influenced, but that ghost is altered by their memories and feelings and their own Self associations.

Certain films directly reflect the ghostliness of theatre, cinema, and Self, along with other aspects of the spirits within us, through ghost stories on screen. On five Saturday afternoons this fall, UNC Charlotte’s College of Arts + Architecture and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library will explore some of those movies in Spirits Rise: A Ghost Film Series. After each of the five film screenings, audience discussion, led by the library's Sam Shapiro (The Innocents and The Ring), UNC Charlotte Distinguished Professor of Shakespeare Andrew Hartley (Macbeth), and myself (The Others and Hamlet), will examine the ghosts on screen, inside us, and between us, as both spectators and real-life actors.

The Innocents (1961), presented at ImaginOn, kicks off the series on October 6. Jack Clayton’s film adaptation of the famous Henry James novel The Turn of the Screw involves an orphaned boy and girl whose dead governess haunts them, along with the ghost of their uncle's valet, while they're living at his estate. Their new governess becomes shocked at the children's erotic manners and fears they're possessed by the two ghosts. She becomes their substitute nurturer and protector, reflecting the positive side of the primal (m)Other who shapes the neural circuits in each of us, prior to birth and in our early formative years. The governess struggles to save her wards from perverse spirits and prior role models, already incarnated in their minds.

The Others (2001), at UNC Charlotte Center City on October 27, also shows the influence of the Henry James novel. Two children on the small British island of Jersey, right after World War II, are trapped in a mansion with their mother (played by Nicole Kidman). She must hire new servants before her husband returns from the battlefield, because her former servants have strangely disappeared. She explains that her children have a terrible skin disease, causing extreme sensitivity to sunlight, so all the shades must be closed during daytime and the doors locked inside the house to prevent any light leaking in. But mysterious presences lurk in the darkness, causing childish mischief. The budding spirit of Self in each of the children, Nicolas and Ann, is turned by ghostly friends against their controlling mother—with the nurturing aid of their new governess. Eventually, the film reveals how "the others" haunting the mansion relate not only to the children and servants, but also to the mother, and to our “Selves” watching at the screen's edges.

Shakespeare's Hamlet, with its famous paternal ghost, has had many film versions. One of the most intriguing, to be screened at ImaginOn on October 13, was made by Michael Almereyda about a decade ago. Set in Manhattan and released a year before 9/11, it stars the slacker idol Ethan Hawke as the disenchanted son of the recently deceased CEO of the "Denmark Corporation." His Uncle Claudius has married his mother, Gertrude, and taken over the company. Hawke's Hamlet remembers his father and mother as a loving couple in the past, through video he shot of them together, while he ruminates on his own illusory identity through mass-media images, including Gulf War technology. His father's ghost (performed by playwright Sam Shepard) appears in the hallway of the high-rise where young Hamlet lives, vanishing into a vending machine, yet glimpsed on a CCTV security monitor. Such associations among mass media, war, and corrupt leadership evoke ghosts of business and government, whose acts of greed and vengeance still haunt today's audiences.

In Japan, there is a long tradition of nature spirits (kami) who haunt certain places, like the vengeful ghosts haunting houses or corporate headquarters in the West. The Ring (2002), an American revision of the Japanese film, Ringu (1998), will be screened at UNC Charlotte Center City on November 10. It presents a deadly female ghost who strikes at characters through a videocassette left in a rental cabin in the woods. Teens who watch the video get a sudden phone call and then die in seven days. But a female journalist, similarly doomed, seeks to uncover the story behind the killer video. She traces it to a vengeful ghost at the bottom of a well, an unloving mother, a guilt-ridden father, and spooked horses. Various spirits intertwine here – across cultures, technologies, natural energies, and evolving generations—to spook the movie audience, too, into a further awareness of how ghosts circulate between us and our environments.

Director Rupert Goold recently turned his staging of Shakespeare's Macbeth, starring Star Trek's Patrick Stewart, into a BBC-TV movie. Screening at Center City on November 17, it updates the play with cinematic elements to show modern warfare and Soviet-era costumes and settings. The haunted Thane of Cawdor and his wife and their violent will to power reach across half a millennium with this film, reflecting recent dictators and the sacrificial hubris of leaders in our own time, with our increasingly seductive and cruel technologies. Ghosts in this tragedy appear in various ways: as a betrayed friend, as his future progeny, and as a murder weapon and its bloodspots, which turn the spirits of the powerful inside out. All of these ghosts, along with those in the other films of the festival, may lead us to question the spirits inside us and in power over us, to become more aware of our potential for horror in real life.

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