Film Review: Light From Light
Written and directed by Paul Harrill. US, 2019, 82 min.
Brattle Theatre, Fri 2.28-Sun 3.1 (see brattlefilm.org for showtimes). 35mm.
Seeing it for the first time in years last Halloween, I was struck anew by the immense sense of cultural ennui foregrounded during the opening reel of Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist (1982)—a ghost story that shares with Light From Light a number of fairly superficial but nonetheless relevant similarities. At its start, Poltergeist spends a good 20 minutes simply documenting the domestic life of its protagonists, a nuclear family living in a planned community in California; the camera restlessly moving across their home to cover all its prefab glory, panning across rooms laden with branded merch (much of it eminently recognizable, including various shouts to Star Wars) while various television sets provide advertiser-sponsored background noise. Whether or not Poltergeist is totally “about” colonization, certainly it at least begins with a depiction of it—the colonization of the American home by the corporate forces selling all this shit to the people living inside them.
What Light From Light shares with Poltergeist, as mentioned already, are various superficial narrative elements: Both films depict the mysterious presence of a supernatural being, presumed to be a ghost, that is manifesting itself physically within the (mal)functions of a domestic space; both films introduce a semiprofessional ghost hunter, a woman, who’s brought in to sort things out; and both films place a large emphasis on the children who are, by association, inevitably drawn into the situation and who also, even more so than the adults, serve a role that’s more symbolic or metaphorical than simply literal. In this case, the investigator is Sheila (Marin Ireland), who is eventually aided by her 17-ish-year-old son Owen (Josh Wiggins) and his “friend” Lucy (Atheena Frizzell) in monitoring the home of the recently widowed Richard (Jim Gaffigan), who believes he’s begun to feel the presence of his late wife (although he’s more than willing to just chalk it all up to stress).
What Light From Light very pointedly doesn’t share with Poltergeist—or many other American films, or even, I suspect, all that many American lives—is that sense of a domestic culture which has been fully bought, sold, and branded by corporate owners: Instead Harrill’s Knoxville-set film—which is not by any means a horror movie, to be clear—takes place in just a few locations total, nearly all of which (save two workplace spots) are outfitted with decor and objects that clearly have real, tangible meaning to the characters they belong to. The film is so bereft of modern cultural signifiers that, were it not for the use of a few computers, phones, and other technological equipment, it could pass for taking place in just about any period after the 60s.
This seems to me to be of high relevance while describing Light From Light, which presents one of the most dignified, humble, and perhaps even aspirational visions of American life I’ve seen in a movie for quite some time. Which is not to say the characters live without struggle—far from it. But they maintain a certain integrity, and quite emphatically so, from start to finish—or at least they’ve been presented that way for the sake of the story, which rather plainly works to invoke the presence of the metaphysical and the philosophical as much, or really far more, than concerns of the physical, financial, professional, or even carnal varieties. On that last note, there is of course some romance here—but when one younger character alludes to the pair of adult protagonists potentially hooking up, it’s not foreshadowing so much as it’s a self-aware joke about the kind of movie you’re watching: Maybe that’d be the case in most films, but not in Harrill’s.
To begin with, following nearly a full minute of introductory landscape imagery, Harrill’s film cuts to a well-balanced medium shot of a seated Sheila, who’s in a studio talking to a radio host about her past experiences with prophetic dreams (as a child) and paranormal investigations (as an adult). Ireland’s character gives an emotive but clearly well-practiced monologue about her encounters with the supernatural—you can imagine she’s given it many times before, with the same body language and everything, which tells you as much about the character as the dialogue itself—and the film stays in that medium for the better part of a few minutes while she does so, only cutting to the host on the occasion of her interruptions. This first dialogue scene in many ways sets the template for the film to come, not only on a dramatic and narrative level but also on a purely formal one: A large portion of Light From Light plays out under these exact conditions, in minutes-long scenes that depict relatively level-headed and perhaps even “well practiced” (but nonetheless revealing!) conversations held between two characters who are for the most part left isolated in their own frames throughout.
The dramatic momentum of Light From Light, for the most part, comes from the back-and-forth dynamic that eventually emerges between Harrill’s even keel dialogue exchanges (which are usually between Sheila and Richard, Owen and Lucy, or Sheila and Owen) and the sequences where Sheila or Richard walk through his warm, tastefully decorated, messy-but-inviting home (in scenes that adopt and even smartly reframe the visual language of haunted house movies into a more natural context). But no matter the kind of scene playing out, whether the characters are talking or working or roaming, everything is framed up to focus on the bodies, and mostly the faces, of the performers: Harrill’s blocking and composition ensures they are consistently the sole focus of the screen, whether in close-up or not, to an extent that’s almost classical.
Light from Light therefore depends entirely on its small cast of performers, who complicate the film quite far beyond what was ostensibly on the page. Playing the character beset by a more unguarded trauma, Gaffigan is always engrossing within those long takes; and Ireland, similarly, is constantly suggesting whole layers of drama and conflict that are hardly even present on the surface of the film, until her wordless gestures and behavioral nuances bring them up there. For instance, there are many crucial yet brief nods in the screenplay pointing toward the working class-specific stressors that Sheila, a single mother, is currently dealing with—like a subplot involving the affordability of certain universities for Owen—but for the most part those particular anxieties are made present in the frame entirely by the physicality of Ireland’s performance, which is so rich with telling details that clearly articulate the character’s inner concerns (take for example Sheila’s reaction when she receives an important phone call while at her job behind a counter—you can pretty much glean the entire dynamic of the workplace just from the moment of hesitation she takes before accepting it). Rigorously competent as a mother, as a professional, and even just as a social being, Sheila is played by Ireland as a woman so hardened by experience that she rarely if ever betrays her true reactions—and so when she does, like when Richard asks her a certain question on his porch, or during some of the movie’s final moments, the clear shift in manner becomes genuinely beautiful.
Although produced with digital cameras, Paul Harrill’s Light From Light will be projected from a 35mm print at the Brattle Theatre, which feels rather appropriate given the subject matter. A ghost story situated in the present day that concerns recurrent cycles of love and loss across generations, and that is framed up with direct and studious clarity to an extent that’s all but fallen out of fashion, the film indeed calls back to the artistic and cinematic rhythms of works from past eras moreso than ones made in the present. And yet! That seems to me to be a falsehood, an answer that comes a little too easily—just as I think it would be a falsehood, another easy out, to ascribe the film’s lovingly-dressed sets and unblinkingly tender characterizations and its general sense of a warm human touch to the region in which the film is set (as many have), when those qualities so clearly emerge more directly from the creative personalities responsible for its making. While hardly sensational, the path that Light from Light carves is entirely organic: The film is led not by movies or cultural signposts of the past or present—save a crucial few, mostly literary—but more by the performers and characters, who make it their own.