It is the fundamental crisis of every life: in its beginning is the beginning of its end. Every relationship, every project; everything that is built, created, or born has within it the seeds of its own death. In Light from Light (2019, for rent here), it is like a refrain: everything ends.
For Shelia (Marin Ireland [who is excellent and, apropos of nothing, exactly two days younger than I am]), Richard (Jim Gaffigan, expanding his emotional range alongside American Dreamer, Them That Follow, and Troop Zero), Owen (Josh Wiggins), and Lucy (Atheena Frizzell), Light from Light unfolds relatively slowly within its spare 82 minutes. I am sure that reviews will abound with words like “subtle” and “understated.” And it is both, to the extent that the humanity and truth at its heart may easily be missed.
At the level of characterization, Shelia works at a car rental agency and Richard works for the local fish hatchery. Their jobs aren’t narrative devices as they might be for a lesser screenwriter. They are part of the reality and authenticity that fill out the substance of what makes up a life. The entire movie is punctuated by writer/director Paul Harrill with human touches that are perhaps “unnecessary” from a purely utilitarian film-making perspective, but those touches make characters into people.
The first variation on “everything ends” comes from Owen, Shelia’s son, as he tells Lucy that he doesn’t want to take her to the homecoming dance. What if their relationship takes a serious turn and then she goes to college, and then it’s over? There’s no point in going to a dance if you know already that the relationship is going to end, he tells her.
Especially in a culture like ours where romantic relationships are taken about as seriously as what clothes to put on in the morning during a stay-at-home order, Owen seems to be far overestimating the significance of a high school romance. But what Owen says to Lucy shifts and expands throughout the film as one way of viewing all of life. It’s not that Owen is wrong; it’s that he hasn’t realized that if he holds to that position, he will never venture anything with anyone. In the earthly sense, all love ends in one way or another.
It’s not just Owen who’s struggling with beginnings because of their endings. Richard enters Shelia’s life because the (Episcopalian?) priest who married him and his wife hears an interview with Shelia on the radio and reaches out to her. He says that he doesn’t seem to have the right words to counsel Richard, but that maybe she can help Richard deal with the loss of his wife. (When Shelia asks whether the priest believes in ghosts, he says, ridiculously, that “some might say” that after Jesus rose from the dead, He was a ghost. While the disciples feared that He was a ghost, Jesus does everything to bury that misunderstanding.)
When Shelia comes to Richard’s house, he tells her that his wife, Suzanne, died in a plane crash, but he can’t get past the feeling that her ghost might still be present in the house. He says he’s seen keys move on the counter and lights flicker in the bedroom, and he’s felt a pressure on his arm like his wife’s hand. Shelia agrees to investigate, using thermal imaging and setting up cameras and voice recorders with the help of Owen and Lucy.
The movie is shot like it could turn into a horror, with characters turning around, looking in mirrors, and pausing before walking in and out of rooms. If you’ve seen any ghost stories, you expect to see transparent women in night gowns or shadows flicking in and out of shots. However, Harrill undermines our horror-movie expectations to give us something more significant and more fundamental. What will it mean for either Richard or Shelia to find evidence of Suzanne’s ghost or evidence that it is all in his head? Will it mean the end of Richard’s hope or the beginning of moving forward in his life? Shelia and Owen debate whether to reveal what they’ve found on the video of the house, because it might take away from Richard the one thing to which he’s been clinging.
While the film shifts our perspectives on beginnings and endings in the various contexts of relationships and grief, it also asks us to consider the substance of happiness. In the pivotal moment of the film, the pages of a book—a book that Shelia had earlier knocked off the shelf—move as if someone is turning them. She reads to Richard the first few sentences of the page (from Anna Karenina):
Anna looked at Dolly’s thin, care-worn face, with its wrinkles filled with dust from the road, and she was on the point of saying what she was thinking, that is, that Dolly had got thinner. But, conscious that she herself had grown handsomer, and that Dolly’s eyes were telling her so, she sighed and began to speak about herself.
“You are looking at me,” she said, “and wondering how I can be happy in my position? Well! it’s shameful to confess, but I… I’m inexcusably happy. Something magical has happened to me, like a dream, when you’re frightened, panic-stricken, and all of a sudden you wake up and all the horrors are no more. I have waked up. I have lived through the misery, the dread, and now for a long while past, especially since we’ve been here, I’ve been so happy!…”
Because we’ve been looking for evidence of a ghost, this could be what Suzanne wants to say to Richard. But with what we know of how and with whom Suzanne died, those words would make her that much more of a horrible person. She lies to Richard about where she’s going, she’s continuing an affair, and now she’s awake, happy on the other side of death?
But what if we read those words from the perspectives of either Richard or Shelia? How can Richard “be happy in [his] position”? How can Shelia, who seems to be aimlessly living out an unfulfilled life? And yet, happiness is a slippery, sometimes indefinable, concept in the midst of a life. We may notice our unhappiness while we are in the middle of it, but happiness is often felt after the fact. Ah, I was happy then.
When the camera shows us Shelia’s hand on Richard’s arm (echoing Richard’s interpretation of earlier physical sensations), we catch a hint of something that cannot be captured by our facile and superficial definitions of happiness. Even with Suzanne’s betrayal, unanswered (and unanswerable) questions, and his grief, we hear Richard say two things very faintly through the closed door: “I love you too”(!) and “I forgive you.”
To love is to open oneself up to be wounded. To love is to grieve. To love is inexplicably—and, as far as human reason is concerned, unjustifiably—to bear another’s failings, and to forgive. Light from Light is the inverse of David Lowery’s A Ghost Story. That film explores the place of a love in the vast space-time before and after it. Light from Light takes time and love and death and pushes them into the confines of individual lives, giving abstract ideas their concrete contours.
Maybe it’s not Suzanne’s literal ghost, as in her disembodied spirit, but we all live with the “ghosts” of those we’ve known and loved. So of course it would be a book in which Richard finds meaningful words, because, as he had told Shelia, Suzanne was always trying to get him to read. Our memories, our experiences, our pasts are not really gone; they haunt us even as we try to live in their wreckage. Maybe the best we can do is live like the weeds and vines that grow over and around the plane cabin, seats, tires, and unidentifiable metal and plastic—life, but life shaped by both our happiness and the end of that happiness.
And what of the reference to the Nicene Creed (in some translations): “Jesus Christ…begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of/from Light…”? There is no direct reference in the film, but the idea of the Creed is that Jesus is God-in-flesh without division of the Divine essence. There is no diminution of light by its shining. And if God is Love, then human love is, at best, a reflection of its source. And that means that though our specific human loves end, love itself is not diminished or lessened as it is given. It also means that when love is given to men and women and children who fail, sin, and grieve each other, it is given unconditionally or it ceases to be love. Does it cover over a multitude of sins or does it not?
I love you. I forgive you. And one day we will wake up and the horrors will be no more. We will have lived through all the misery and the dread, and (if there is any sense of time in the new creation), we will find that we’ve been, for a long while past, so happy.