The Light Moves and Changes Everything; or, the Quantum Mechanics of Memory in the Afterlife
A film conversation between Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles
Teresa K. Miller
She says all this stuff about ghosts is rubbish – and then she expects us to believe everything written in the Bible.
– Anne Stewart
More than once, my maternal grandmother went to a Seattle fire station for aid, certain she was having a heart attack. She stopped seeking that particular remedy after one of the firefighters asked her to breathe into a paper bag. She’d never felt so insulted – couldn’t they see she was dying, not experiencing mere anxiety?
When she was a child, she had rheumatic fever and heard the doctor tell her parents she was going to die – imminently, not at eighty-two, her actual age when she passed, having outlived her husband, her three siblings, and all of their spouses. Fear coloured her extended life, manifesting in phobias – of airplanes, freeways, elevators, being alone in a house for even five minutes, even in broad daylight.
Couldn’t they see she was dying, not experiencing mere anxiety?
Little wonder, then, that my grandfather’s bout with cancer before I was born sent her into high panic. They became regular churchgoers, and when he recovered, they – mostly she – had a deal to keep with God.
So it was intolerable to her when she asked my parents about the plans for my baptism and my dad told her if I wanted to get baptised, I could make that decision for myself when I was old enough. Around kindergarten, my forehead still heathenishly dry, she admonished me to persuade my parents to arrange the rite. Didn’t I want to see her in Heaven?
The threat of living out eternity in not-Heaven troubled me, but even so, I didn’t lobby my parents or feel a strong desire of my own to get right with church. She made me pray out loud before going to sleep when I stayed over, which felt embarrassing and insincere. I could not have explained the nuances of guilt and coercion at the time, but I felt their effects.
My mother suggested I just go through with it and put the conflict to rest – it was only some water, she said – which struck me, even as a child, as bad advice. I held out in the absence of a sign that never came. Policing others’ faith appeared to be one more symptom of my grandmother’s mental illness, which the adults around me acknowledged but enabled. Belief or personal desire felt irrelevant as we dutifully marched to church with her and my grandfather on Christmas Eves and Easters (making us “Chreasters” in the eyes of the judgier devout) – and as we fielded her shrieking protests when we mentioned flying somewhere on vacation or chose to spend fifteen minutes on the freeway to get to her house rather than creeping along surface streets.
I held out in the absence of a sign that never came.
What she clung to for comfort – the existence of God, the promise of eternal life – seemed not to quell her suffering but to increase it. Whereas spirituality might offer the chance of a deeper and more nuanced relationship with oneself, others, truth, and the universe, too often the strand of social control in religious systems proposes an impossible list of standards, stoking the existential angst religion purports to assuage. Anxious or misguided followers may then have social cover for inflicting their torment on others, in the name of converting the unsaved or rearing God-fearing children.
Whether or not they were raised Catholic or even Christian, I imagine many viewers feel a flash of recognition in the dynamic between Grace Stewart and her children, Anne and Nicholas, in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others (2001). Not unlike in my grandmother’s case, the interplay of religious dogma and emotional disturbance drives Nicole Kidman’s character, and the two women also bear an uncanny resemblance as blue-eyed blondes styled in the fashion of the forties.
Grace’s rigid piety leads her to commit small cruelties and everyday tortures upon her kids, from scaring them with the threat of Hell and children’s Limbo to making her daughter endlessly stand on the stairs and read aloud from the Bible for refusing to deny her real glimpses of “the others” – the ghosts who are actually the living. The family comes to find, however, that their memorised stories of the afterlife have no bearing on reality. The situation turns Pascal’s wager on its head: it’s actually worse to have lived as if God existed. It seems he does not, but the dead haven’t just disappeared into oblivion. Instead, Grace’s wielding of Catholic doctrine has served only to make her the constant, frightening centre of her children’s world.
The situation turns Pascal’s wager on its head.
Whereas those in The Others lose a lot by dying – namely the freedom to adjust course or change their surroundings ever again – the dead in Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life (1998) have the chance to gain clarity and lighten the load of their lives to a single positive moment. Most of what they did has no bearing on eternity, in the best possible way. Iseya, who died young – perhaps of an accident or overdose, given his impulsive character – asks, “All that stuff about going to hell if you’re bad – not true? Everyone’s here?” The troubled businessman who chooses a memory from the age of five marvels, “I’ll be able to forget everything else? That really is Heaven.”
Not everyone in the film, titled “Wonderful Life” in Japanese, wants to erase a painful past. Some have trouble choosing because they can’t recall a moment of happiness, while others have an abundance of good memories. Many come to realise the single scene they select may encapsulate all manner of knowledge, from a long and contented marriage they once took for granted to the simple, open pleasure of childhood. While at the “centre” – a bureaucratic, branded place where the dead go to be processed – they rest in a kind of limbo until they choose their memory and move on, but the pause focuses on making meaning, not suffering or atoning.
The pause focuses on making meaning, not suffering or atoning.
The limits and imperfections of the centre are integral to the logic of the world, where finding enjoyment in doing the best you can with what you have represents the whole point, in life and in death. After Life requires the semi-analogue constraints of the nineties. On the cusp of a digital age, it exists in an era of physical film that relies on location-scouting and creative workarounds. The compromises and substitutions in recreating a memory would make no sense in our environment of near-constant filming, photographing, and posting of daily life, when almost seamless CGI and the dawn of deepfakes have displaced the tactile charm of shaking cherry petals from a wicker basket to mimic spring or rocking a stationary trolley car to give the illusion of movement inside.
Another lovely, dated, Oulipian constraint lies in the existence of VHS tapes documenting each person’s entire life, but only as neutral observations. The centre workers caution Ichiro Watanabe that the tapes are simply for reference and might not match his memory. For instance, we later hear crickets in the actual footage from his wife’s life and then in the created clip from her memory, and the sounds are wholly different. Her contentment as an adult remembering also differs substantially from her apparent nervousness and timidity in the original clip. But in the world of the story, the objective documentation holds less value than the emotional memory. I’ve long ached for footage of people I’ve lost, a desire the film gently argues is not at all the existential point.
Recently, my best friend from childhood texted me actual documentation – an unidentified photo from her phone, a pretty but unremarkable pano of a small lake with a mountain and blue sky behind it. I’ve taken similar shots in Utah, Oregon, and California, but I immediately replied, “Oh yeah, that was the lunch lake.” Four years earlier, we’d sat on a log at its edge to have lunch halfway through a more than twenty-mile day hike of Washington state’s Wonderland Trail.
I’ve long ached for footage of people I’ve lost.
Nothing in particular happened at that location – we refuelled and chatted about how far we had left to go. Even so, I’ve thought about that exact scene dozens of times over the intervening years. There are many “happy places” I might go in my memory, but so many are tinged with bittersweet emotions or a sense of not having been fully present at the time. In that one, though, I was both tired and focused, completely there in that place and moment with someone I love. The view was nice but not as dramatic as others we saw that day; still, it became a kind of wonder of my inner world, a simple but significant spiritual experience I carry with me.
Given the violence, cynicism, exploitation, and intentional sacrilege both imagined by filmmakers and documented in real life, I periodically forget and then feel surprised again by how many Americans remain “convinced God exists” – around two-thirds as of 2019. Regardless of individual religious beliefs, the notions of judgment, Heaven, Hell, and penance are baked into our society. A punitive justice system as vengeful as the Old Testament God – one that, until 2012, gave mandatory sentences to teenagers of life without parole – makes After Life seem impossible in the US context.
The film presents a state of forgiveness without a forgiver. Those who lived well and kindly have more to enjoy remembering during their weeklong limbo. Those who did not receive no external punishment or banishment from the process; instead, they must decide what from their choices and circumstances is worth saving. Some, like the centre workers, did not finish the work of their lives while living and may stay in the in-between for half a century while they tease the meaning from their existence or try to stay in contact with the people they regret leaving behind, such as their children. The choices mortals make unfold with natural consequences rather than the need to earn or receive absolution.
Nothing in particular happened at that location.
What’s the point of all our work? Recreating memories of the dead.
– Satoru Kawashima
What terrifies me about ghosts – which, in spite of my peculiar desire for their existence, I have never actually seen or heard or felt – is the heart-wrenching banality of their smeary, residual afterlives. A ghost is a stain, like the lampblack smudge left by the suicide in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (2001), or an abjectly passive witness to generational change, like the sheet-covered afterthought of the C spirit in David Lowery’s A Ghost Story (2017).
I imagine one in a closet that hasn’t been used for forty years, inside which dust settles and disperses with decades of subtle room draughts – except at one spot on the wall at chin height where the spectral aerosol of the apparition’s breath gently weights it over time into a dark, tacky substance, motes joined together with the suet of ectoplasm. On the floor of the closet: a wire coat hanger, a discoloured shoe box full of unused holiday cards, a silverfish wedged between baseboard and floor reading the presence of the revenant just intelligently enough to avoid exposure. On the shelf above the warped cedar clothing rod: a bronzed medal awarded to a young boy for excellent academic performance in eighth grade, twenty-three years before he died at thirty-six and found the aftereffect of his mundane life stagnating in a closet underneath the most meaningful and remarkably forgotten emblem of his corporeal existence, an acknowledgment of accomplishment he can’t see or touch or even quite remember, only feeling its presence in a nebulous emotional way like the pulse of a faint heartbeat. The dark closet reeks of cured must, a tang of complete dejection, but no one living will smell it quite as starkly, because opening the door releases the trapped air, diluting it into something less hopeless, all encounters between living and dead frustratingly reinforcing an insurmountable barrier.
The aftereffect of his mundane life stagnates underneath an acknowledgment of accomplishment he can’t see or touch or even quite remember.
The afterlife would be dreadful if we were aware of being forgotten, and most of us will inevitably be forgotten, as soon as within a couple generations. While alive, we are mostly surrounded by the recognition of others, even if that recognition consists of being avoided on a subway car or chased from a homeless encampment by a police officer. But profound oblivion awaits, much to the dismay of those who work tirelessly to impress themselves in the collective consciousness of the internet. The awareness of this irrelevance is what being a ghost is all about: understanding the self as dandruff, flyspeck, dryer lint, a single particulate of exhaust soot on a blade of drought-resistant grass along the median strip of an interstate. The body decays ignominiously, so we invent the spirit and glorify that instead, testifying to the mystic self as a wilful, independent force – but the spirit is as disposable as a wisdom tooth, and the presence or idea of ghosts reminds us of this.
Ghosts in their liminal fix also populate a formal panel rejecting the dichotomous valorisation or damnation of the Abrahamic human spirit: neither the perpetual orgasm of rapturous, heavenly bliss nor a hell of physical pain administered with close attention by demons – rather, an insular bureaucracy without meaningful interactions aside from the occasional grievance that can never be communicated adequately beyond a shriek, a stuck piano key, a slammed door, or a cracked mirror, more often driving away those propitiated or appealed to (the living occupants who still have faith in tidy endings) than resolving any intractable problem left over from the spectre’s ephemeral life.
The body decays ignominiously, so we invent the spirit and glorify that instead.
Being a ghost is tantamount to being stuck forever at a misnomered Department of Human Services, with all the aridity that implies: flickering, anaemic fluorescence; water-stained acoustic ceiling tile; discarded paper forms; inkless pens with broken ball chains; and proximity to equally disenchanted, mute, or muttering strangers. One might say this permanently unexplained and unresolved vision of the afterlife is like Josef K’s predicament, except agents contact the protagonist in The Trial for unknown reasons related to the omnipotent State, whereas one’s condition as a ghost is mostly a matter of indifference to anyone living or dead (perhaps our terror of spiritual contact is just irritation at the accommodation it requires), just as one’s presence in line at the DHS makes exceptionally little impact on anything at all. (One could also attempt to compare this post-mortem dilemma to Sartre’s No Exit, except one spirit is not necessarily the source of another’s misery.)
It is therefore surprising that After Life considers the spirit world as benign bureaucracy, a government-like agency in which human lives are foregrounded rather than forgotten, gathered in a drab building where they’re processed with care and attention before they can escape peacefully into the captivity of a single pleasant memory, requiring first its re-enactment on film with charmingly practical effects on a small set: cotton clouds on a wire pulled across a blue backdrop, for example. The audacity of this fantasy is in its conceit of spirits assisting other spirits to approach a satisfying resolution – the ever-elusive “closure” that people also invoke on behalf of victims to justify capital punishment – a resonant capstone of one memory preserving, even through mechanical reproduction and infinite repetition, the affective aura that Walter Benjamin assumed would be lost.
Escape into the captivity of a single pleasant memory requires first its re-enactment on film with charmingly practical effects on a small set.
The way station between life and afterlife is a draughty office building, but workers and clients are manifestly cooperative and compassionate. This department defies all the lowest expectations we have for bureaucratic agencies: the employees are like bodhisattvas who have delayed their own apotheosis for the sake of their clients, except their status is the result of indecision rather than altruism. The caseworkers have been unable to choose a memory they could comfortably live with in perpetuity, and their indecisiveness has made them doulas for other confused spirits caught in the gentle purgatory of self-reflection. Like Clarence trying to earn his wings in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), the conflicted spirits hope to gain clarity, self-realisation, and release through their assistance with others’ problems.
The idea that one comforting memory can repeat infinitely and satisfy an eternity of experience is not reassuring to me personally as a viewer, especially as these memories are reproduced in a shabby film studio, without the quintessence of the original memory that made it so special. After Life suggests that memory is insufficient as comfort without this instinct for reproduction. One of my fondest memories is operating a floor light for a belly dancer at a neighbour’s fiftieth birthday party. I was maybe nine years old, but something about the moment appealed to a need for having mechanical responsibilities, for participating in extravagant performances, for normalising playful sexual expression without embarrassment, for blending inconspicuously with older people who were enjoying themselves – the food was good, too. I can imagine an eternity of contentment sourced from this memory, but I would be disappointed and discouraged to have it cheapened through reproduction.
The way station between life and afterlife is a draughty office building.
But then what am I doing when I remember except to reproduce what is lost? I listen now to music recordings I’ve made, and while I understand that my reception often depends on the mood with which I receive them, I am more often than not disappointed by the recording, which seems to lack the stubbornly inimitable sine qua non that made the song worthwhile in “the first place”.
Jim Jarmusch once complained to Tom Waits that filmmaking is an unnecessarily elaborate magic lantern show that merely rehearses Plato’s allegory of the cave, lacking the immediacy of a live performance that conjures sights and sounds undeniably present for an audience. In this allegory of an allegory, Jarmusch is the complacent sophist chained to a wall, and Waits is the philosopher who has broken his bonds and discovered the sun. While a film or an album is trapped in its past moment as a record, the live performance is responsive to the moment, to the presence of auditors, to the acoustic semantics of space, to the adornments of light, temperature, and mood. Accepting and involving these elements defines a true performer – a condition I could rarely access while on stage, a failure to make peace with the present moment.
An unnecessarily elaborate magic lantern show merely rehearses Plato’s allegory of the cave.
In the case of Kore-eda’s film, time – whether past, present, or future – is genially disregarded as a quirk of the living, defeated by the interconnectedness and relatability of spirits from distinctly different generations. We learn that young Takashi, one of the indecisive assistants, was once engaged to the wife of the elderly man Ichiro Watanabe, whom the former has been assigned to help. Takashi was killed in action during the Second World War, and Ichiro came along later to marry her. Takashi is caught in youth, while Ichiro is caught in old age. The anachronistic technology of videotapes helps Takashi to discover this connection, a time-specific device that has somehow captured the spirits’ lives before VHS cassettes ever existed.
This Brechtian rupture, an indifference to history as narrative, productively highlights our failure as living viewers to accept the compression of time where sequence is useful only as a mnemonic device. The artifice or shabbiness of each memory’s filmed reproduction is irrelevant, because the significance of reproduction has been annihilated along with time itself. Time is nothing in the afterlife, and life has become the puncta of memories across a featureless board, ordered only according to the pleasure they may or may not elicit. As soon as we die, sequence explodes, and we are left with reactions to displaced moments.
The moon is fascinating, isn’t it? Its shape never changes, yet it looks different depending on the angle of the light.
– Kennosuke Nakamura
Two years after my grandfather died, my grandmother lay in a rented hospital bed set up in her living room, drowning in her own fluid as congestive heart failure overtook her. In one sense, she’d been right all along: her heart would give out and kill her. In the meantime, her long life had passed by. Sedated and on painkillers, she gestured more than once to an empty chair and asked her caregiver to make my grandfather a cup of tea.
At the end, she was not lucid or even fully conscious – she seemed to be half-awake, half-dreaming, moaning and flailing in in her blankets. The last time I visited her, I sat beside her bed and prayed silently to a god I didn’t know to let her die. That night, she did.
I’d like to believe no life is wasted or only valuable as a stepping stone for the next generation. Even so, my grandmother’s seems more notable for its missed opportunities of everyday peace than its accomplishments or truly happy experiences. A sense of foreboding and concern over what others, including her God, would think shaped almost every decision, leaving me with mere glimpses of her undistorted self. I don’t believe she intended to terrorise children, first my mother and then me, but she did.
In the afterlife, what would she make of her effect on the people around her and what would she choose as her best memory, the one she admitted to herself rather than performed? Somewhere are photos of my grandparents dancing at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration, a grand affair including friends from their various social clubs. She wore a gold dress, and we wrapped quilting hoops in gold foil to look like wedding rings. Handmade nut cups she’d laboured over adorned each table, an idiosyncratic accessory she believed signalled membership in high society, her aspiration as the daughter of a poor divorcée during the Depression.
I don’t believe she intended to terrorise children.
She loved my grandfather in a true though clinging way, and he loved and stood by her despite her disruptive and draining behaviour. Still, I wonder if her secret best memory might pre-date him. Her nieces and nephews use the demarcation her sisters and brother taught them: they often refer to “before she got sick”. That lighter period appears to me as a hand-tinted photograph from her early childhood. She wears an old-fashioned wool bathing suit and looks confidently at the camera as she wades into Puget Sound, not a church or fire station in sight.
The light must be contained as if it were water, by opening and closing the doors.
– Grace Stewart
The Others begins with Grace narrating the opening chapter of Genesis like a children’s story, not in the language of King James but in the bowdlerised rhetoric of authorised affability smuggling an unyielding moral – as controlling parents are wont to do. In this more traditionally Edwardian ghost story (redolent of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood), the architecture of liminality is not an office building full of soft-spoken civil servants but a Victorian mansion on the Channel Island of Jersey.
In reality, the stone house’s exterior is far from Jersey – the Palacio de los Hornillos in northern Spain – but the Cantabrian estate was built in the late nineteenth century to emulate the British picturesque, an architectural movement that, among other things, attempted to harmonise structures with their natural settings. We see little of the surrounding hills in the film because of a constant fog that isolates the house on an island already isolated in status and location – Jersey being a dependency of the British Crown, yet only a few miles from Normandy, France, and reeling from a five-year occupation by Nazi Germany. Intruders are on the mind of the mistress of the house, and she shields her two children from natural light and the counternarratives that abjure Catholic belief, usually submitted sharply by her bold daughter, Anne, who has a keen sense of outrage when it comes to adult contradiction and hypocrisy. Oddly, this rational attitude is better aligned with the supernatural reality of the family’s condition; accepting the truth is to accept one’s status as a revenant.
A constant fog isolates the house on an island already isolated in status and location.
The “light” in this film is – stupidly and conventionally enough – the truth as well: Grace smothered her children and blew her head off with a shotgun. Ostensibly a fatal threat to the children’s anaphylaxis, Jersey’s natural light, although dimmed by fog, fights around the edges of heavy damask curtains hung across every window. Whosoever dies in this house (presumably) remains in this house; the servants of a previous generation – taken by tuberculosis – return to perform a service of slow reckoning to resistant Grace, acting like cagier versions of the spirits in After Life in their capacity as midwives to the mother in denial, an obstetrics of trauma relief.
The curtains will fall, and the dead leaves will scatter from the headstones with their irrefutable inscriptions. Being named and placed in time through the written word, literally carved in stone, is coincident to being seen in a photograph, albeit as corpses dressed and posed like the living in that short-lived, eerie Victorian practice of making tableaux vivants of the dearly departed.
Like Poe’s Roderick Usher, Grace is also sensitive to noise, but eliminating it only provides a clear, static-free bandwidth for the activities of the living that threaten to irrupt into her tenuous world. Along with the suppression of light, the baffling of sound strips their environment, leaving the schematic armature of the mansion, a perfectly identical setting in different periods of time.
Whosoever dies in this house (presumably) remains in this house.
When Bertha finally confesses that she has worked in the house before, Grace replies that she must then be intimately familiar with its floor plan. The servant agrees, adding humorously, “That is always assuming that the walls haven’t sprouted legs and moved in the meantime” – to which Grace seriously answers, “The only thing that moves here is the light,” an unconscious, metaphorical admission of her own pathological avoidance of the violent truth and perhaps, more broadly, the nightmare of subjectivity when you have ceded self-understanding to a conceptual monolith who is less likely to meet you halfway than an elderly medium with cataracts during a séance.
The Victorians’ instinct for preservation – through the photographs of their recently dead, through the hubris of permanence in their overbuilt edifices, through the unchanging Platonic form of their Christian God – lingers sadly into the mid-twentieth century, desperately fighting the quantum mechanics of an objective place modified by the inhabiting subject’s dire condition.
“The only thing that moves here is the light.”
Screenshots, taken from Afterlife (1998) and The Others (2001), are included here under principles of fair use for the purpose of commentary.
About the Authors:
Teresa K. Miller and Gregory Giles have jointly written eleven pieces in this conversational series on film for Berfrois to date – including one on horror film treatments of melting permafrost in Berfrois: The Book (Dostoyevsky Wannabe, 2019). They graduated from the Mills College MFA and MA English programs, respectively, and live near Portland, Oregon. @TeresaKMiller @gcgiles