I re-watched the 1990 film ‘Ghost’ with my wife around Valentine’s Day, noticing that it was now available on a popular streaming service I subscribe to. Warning: I am going to give some spoilers in this post, so watch the film first if you’ve never seen it!
I was reminded of the 80s power-dressing, of shoulderpads, of how boyish Demi Moore looks in the lead female role playing Molly Jenson, and of how computers have moved on.
But also I was reminded of what an excellently-paced film it is, with superb writing. When you start watching it, with three masked figures banging down walls with hammers, and then suited up cracking jokes in elevators, you could be forgiven for wondering what genre of film you are actually watching. But no particular mood of the scene lasts for long; it switches very quickly (but smoothly) and moves from episode to episode with extraordinary variety and logic for a 2 hour film. Tiny vignettes such as the ghost who was ‘pushed’ from a subway have searing power in their performance (played by Vincent Shiavelli). Similarly, in a faux seance setup that has suddenly become real since Sam has activated Oda-Mae’s awareness of the after-life, we see a cameo of a scratchy husband-wife relationship where the wife is determined to find out where the insurance certificate is from her dead husband. Great detail writing.
Perhaps the best example of the sweetness of the timing is that (spoiler alert!) Sam, the lead played by Patrick Swayze never says to his girlfriend ‘I love you’ – he always says ‘ditto’ in response to her offer. And he is cruelly snatched away from her even as they are discussing marriage. However, at the very end of the film, in a ‘ghost-like’ state, suddenly after not being able to see or hear the ghost of her boyfriend, she can hear him again, just before he departs for the hereafter. And there he says: ‘I love you Molly. I have always loved you.’ A killer moment. It stands alongside the ‘penny’ where Molly finally realises Sam is actually there…
I think that for many people when they first watched ‘Ghost’, the film did new things to you. It’s a thriller, a romance, a comedy (Whoopee Goldberg, not to mention Sam’s attempts to move things and Patrick Swayze’s perhaps OTT acting as a frustrated ghost at times), and also a moving treatment of grief and loss. It also holds that sinister question about what exactly IS waiting for people the other side of death: will you be called upwards in a shaft of light, or will you be dragged away by snickering, horrifying shadowy creatures? The lines are drawn pretty clearly in the film, and the tone of voice as Sam says: ‘Oh Karl’ at the end shows the sympathy. Some quite easy life lessons to draw from that, I would say. Don’t defraud your company of millions of dollars, and don’t get your best friend murdered, or try to get with his girl after you’ve done it.
A slightly less morally easy case to deal with Sam’s role as a ghost in revenge: the ‘actions’ he is able to effect, especially with Willy Lopez, which lead to his death, and yet don’t seem to impact him being called upwards at the end. And with Karl, where his gruesome end seems more of a mishap than Sam’s intention, who is protecting Molly and Oda May, after all. And all good moral guides will tell you that it’s the choices we make IN the body that matter, rather than the ones after it.
I’m reminded of the verse in Hebrews 9:27 ‘Man is destined to die once and after that to face judgement.’ I had forgotten a brief scene early on where Sam and Molly watch a plane crash and Sam winces at ‘how quickly’ life can be snatched away. A powerful foreshadowing for those in the know.
How is it that everyone seems to have forgotten that nowadays? That we only have one life to live, and that every day is a gift? They even seem to have forgotten that if it’s a long shot, that God doesn’t exist, that it might be a better idea to believe just in case (otherwise known as Pascal’s Wager – which you can read about in satisfying / confusing detail here). A cheery nod to the importance of the divine occurs near the end with a large sum of money and some rather nonplussed nuns – was that where the idea for Sister Act came from?
The film leaves you both with the lingering refrain of ‘Unchained Melody’ and the sense of completion and a good goodbye. With a sense of a pure life, if cut off early, at least with the ends tied up. It leaves life as a mystery and yet with a convincing sense that there is a force for Good that vies and fights with the evil that threatens to overwhelm everything we do. Agreed, it’s a long way from there to understanding the importance of the Cross, and what Jesus did for us. We have to take Sam’s essential goodness on trust, and it is almost a relief to be able to do that, considering the TV drama and characters we are served up with nowadays (think Killing Eve or Breaking Bad – both of course artistically far superior to ‘Ghost’).
‘Ghost’ is a light film and yet it raises disturbing questions and reminds us of what is most important in life. One observation Rubin, the screenwriter, made after the film played in cinemas, was that men held their wives’ hands differently afterwards. For more information about the impact of the movie see Why Ghost forever changed summer blockbusters
It’s worth a re-watch, if you’re looking for something easy but still moving.