‘20,000 roads I went
down, down, down…
and they all led me
straight back home to you.’
The Return of the Grievous Angel
– Gram Parsons
Johnny Ghost, directed by Donna McRae (Australia, 2011)
By Catherine Jessica Beed
This film came to me as a welcome surprise, a postpunk psychological drama with delicious elements of horror and a subject aching in itself. Composed around the term “cryptic incorporation”, this film breathes in layers; at the heart of it a woman in crisis, caged in a present intrinsically linked with a traumatic past. Cryptic incorporation here being refused mourning, an incompleteness of the grieving process. This was identified by Jacques Derrida, who also said, “The inhabitant of a crypt is always a living dead, a dead entity we are perfectly willing to keep alive, but as dead, one we are willing to keep”. Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok theorised that the construction of a ‘crypt’ occurs when a loss cannot be admitted as such. I found this applied distinctly to the core of the film where the ‘crypt’ would refer to the secret interior, and the inhabitant(s) there being the ghosts from the past kept intact. The central character Millicent is a woman struggling with confronting these ghosts and traversing the path of her grief. There is both refusal and acknowledgement.
Millicent’s memories occupy her every movement and she seems desperate to rid herself of her guilt through the removal of her shoulder tattoo. It becomes clear the tattoo represents the death of her loved one (Johnny) and her troubled youth, and in keeping it there it is a heavy reminder and also an avoidance of loss. The secret that dwells inside Millicent’s interior is indecipherable to her as a part of herself and manifests as tangible beings that represent the forms of the dead. She cannot move on and so they cannot. A constant haunting and a sense of disquiet permeate the film and there is a frustration of things not quite fitting into place. Through Laszlo Baranyai’s bleak cinematography (in its beauty it evokes Philippe Garrel) we are drawn into discomfort, seeping into every scene just as everything seems to be working against Millicent. She is a recovering alcoholic and her few encounters with others, an old friend, a stranger, are strained and difficult. There is no place she feels relaxed, the interior of her own apartment is shot in such a manner of disquiet (even inanimate objects start to become objects of fear) there is an expectation that something terrible is imminent.
Music is integral to the film’s being, Millicent is a musician and teacher of music and the performances we encounter seem to hold a dark undertone in their context. Alongside this, stretches of silence provoke a sinister disposition. It must also be mentioned that, with a brilliant postpunk soundtrack, ‘Johnny Ghost’ is a sort of rare treat for those of us still in love with that era of music and McRae seems to understand this well. At one intense moment we are shown classic footage of The Birthday Party live at the Seaview Ballroom in Melbourne (in this instant it works as a meaningful recollection). The music plays a part in communicating the unravelling of Millicent’s psyche and in connection with her ‘cryptic’ interior it’s fundamental in the film’s structural foundation.
“[This is] the mourning that is prepared and that we expect from the very beginning” Derrida, The Work of Mourning.
The loss of a friend becomes a loss of a part of yourself, “the death that thus always comes before coming”, because you know it’s inevitable. Another way into this, Heidegger’s existential analysis in Being and Time focuses on the ‘self’ wherein every person dies for themselves and owns their own death. One’s own death is not experienced in relation to others’. “By its very essence, death is in every case mine, in so far as it “is” at all.” In such a case as this, does Millicent think about her own being towards death in relation to those she lost or have they become so entangled with her being that they are inseparable? Should her life (or movement towards death) be so inextricably connected to Johnny’s death? In Millicent’s case, she cannot work through her grief in a ‘normal’ way and so it lives and warps her inside almost disease-like, breaking her down physically and emotionally. The road to her own destruction appears to be completely tinged with the effect of Johnny’s death however, and she is destroying herself because of it.
With a bold and austere performance, Anni Finsterer in the role of Millicent is so in tune with the character, her surroundings, her relationships with alcohol and music, the pain is discernible on her face; she is slowly but fervently coming apart. There is a distressing moment where she faces the camera and it becomes an almost touchable space between us. She is completely exposed, confronting that which has frightened and possessed her for so long. When the camera is turned on itself, the ghost of Johnny is revealed, though it is as if we are Johnny reflecting Millicent’s self back at her.
As a curious work born of the psychological horror genre (and yet it carves a place of its own), ‘Johnny Ghost’ is succinct and generates pathos in understanding of that which is so distinctly human; fear and loss, love and remembrance, grief’s natural progression.
Derrida, J. 2001. The Work of Mourning. Brault, Naas.
Heidegger, M. 1927 . Being and Time. Translated by J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson.