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The Guilt-Inducing Ghost Wife Haunts the Movies

The Guilt-Inducing Ghost Wife Haunts the Movies (photo)

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The AV Club‘s Nathan Rabin coined the term “Manic Pixie Dream Girl” to describe characters like the one played by Kirsten Dunst in “Elizabethtown,” ebullient, impulsive types who’ve apparently waited all their lives to meet and instantly imprint on subdued male protagonists.

I’d propose there’s a counterpart to the MPDG, though I don’t have nearly as catchy a name. That would be the guilt-inducing ghost wife, filmed in ethereal late afternoon light, fragile, frequently desexualized, a specter of memory and failure haunting our tortured, widowed heroes — why couldn’t I save her — in visions, flashbacks or more fantastical set-ups.

Idealized and resented, ghost wives are both saint and tormentor, instrumental to the plot, spurring our mourning hero on to seek revenge, redemption or resolution. Like the MPDG, there’s a distinct subjective quality to their characterization — they’re along for the ride, but they don’t get to tell the story. Unlike the MPDG, being dead, the best they can hope for is to be banished or joined in the afterlife.

Here are six examples from the last decade. Spoilers follow for “Inception,” “Shutter Island” and other films on this list.

07202010_inception_mal.jpg“Inception” (2010)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

To call Mal, played by Marion Cotillard, the main antagonist in “Inception” is skirt the fact that she only exists in the mind of Leonardo DiCaprio’s master dream thief Cobb, who is actually his own worse enemy. Cobb’s tormented by the loss of his wife, whose death he believes he’s responsible for, though at first we don’t understand why. And so his guilt congeals in the form of a ghost in the machine, with Mal bursting into Cobb’s carefully planned extractions to gum up the works.

The press notes describe the evening dress-clad Mal as a femme fatale (her name even means “bad” in French), but that implies she has agency and an agenda of her own, instead of being an acknowledged pale shadow of someone long gone, an especially fleshed-out projection. Even as an apparition, she’s only half adversary — the other side manifests as a prisoner of Cobb’s regrets, trapped in the basement of his subconscious, where he can visit and brood until forced to choose between her (and death) and moving on (and life, or at least a choice that represents it). For all of her initial mystery, Mal turns out to be mainly a figure of pop psychology.

07202010_shutterisland_delores.jpg“Shutter Island” (2010)
Directed by Martin Scorsese

Mourning a late spouse has become a new specialty of Leo’s — in Scorsese’s most recent film, he plays US Marshal Teddy Daniels, whose investigation into the vanishing of a patient from an isolated hospital for the criminally insane is hampered by visions of his departed wife Dolores (Michelle Williams), who despite having died in a fire appears suspiciously damp in these hallucinations. Dolores highlights another not uncommon aspect of the ghost wife, which is that their supernal air can disguise considerable personality complications or flat-out craziness.

There’s no doubt that there’s a trauma at the heart of “Shutter Island” — all of the imagery, even the flashbacks to the Holocaust, are just shadows cast by it. But given how wracked with guilt Teddy is, isn’t the ultimate reveal of what set everything in motion is a little… anticlimactic? That was Dachau back there as some sort of metaphor, wasn’t it? His shouldering the culpability for what occurred carries a whiff of melodramatic martyrdom or even condescension. Ultimately, Dolores, like Mal, is a broken doll, who required protection from herself.

07202010_solaris_rheya.jpg“Solaris” (2002)
Directed by Steven Soderbergh

More so than the Tarkovsky version, Soderbergh’s take on Stanisław Lem’s story puts the relationship between its central psychologist (played here by George Clooney) and his late wife (Natascha McElhone) ahead of everything else. The alien ocean planet of the title seems, like the subconscious panoramas of “Inception” and the visions of “Shutter Island,” to be at heart an in-between place where memory can be made flesh — “we don’t want other worlds, we want mirrors,” as Kelvin’s friend Gibarian puts it in a posthumous video message.

Literal flesh, in this case — Rheya, who committed suicide years ago, appears like a dream to Kelvin in his sleep, after he arrives at the space station to investigate what’s apparently driven everyone stationed there mad. Unlike a dream, though, she’s still there when he awakes, a being created by alien forces from Kelvin’s memories of the woman he lost. And, because she’s just (and only) as Kelvin remembers, she’s desperately in love with and in need of him and just as desperately unstable and unhappy. He finds himself trying to atone for his abandonment of her the first time around just as she finds out what happened to her early incarnations and prepares to let the past repeat itself.

07202010_thefountain_izzi.jpg“The Fountain” (2006)
Directed by Darren Aronofsky

While she also appears as a vision in other sections of “The Fountain,” in the present-day storyline Rachel Weisz manages the rare accomplishment of being a guilt-inducing ghost wife before she’s even dead. As Izzy, Tom’s (Hugh Jackman) beloved cancer-stricken spouse, she has the celestial glow that only a cinematic terminal illness can give you. She’s still there, trying to savor her limited time left, but Tom (Hugh Jackman) is so consumed with saving her, with finding a cure, that he’s essentially already arrived at the same state as the obsessed, isolated protagonists in the films already mentioned.

You can make a strong case that both the conquistador strand and the far future one are fictions with the world of the film — not just because of their visuals, how they echo off textures and tropes of the present day story, but also because they’re elements of the story that Izzy is writing, one that starts in Mayan times but ends in Xibalba, the dying star, the underworld. Izzy asks Tom to “finish it,” and whether he arrives at his peace by completing her story or by living for eons and traveling with a magic tree in his space bubble, it’s clear that resolution can be found only in his accepting mortality — for her, and for himself.

07222010_theroad4.jpg“The Road” (2009)
Directed by John Hillcoat

The character of the wife/mother (who, like the two protagonists, is unnamed) was beefed up for John Hillcoat’s adaptation of Cormac McCarthy, likely to provide breaks from the film’s oppressively grim post-apocalyptic present as well as to up Charlize Theron’s screen time. The result is classic ghost wife — Theron’s character is glimpsed in the blissful, honey-colored past, asleep on the grass, or smiling at a concert. The man (Viggo Mortensen) wakes from dreaming of her and weeps — she embodies the whole world that’s been lost, a better time when people weren’t, you know, eating each other.

As, in the flashbacks, things fall apart — rioting outside, the weather getting colder, electricity failing — Theron’s character retains her slightly otherworldly quality, that sheen of memory, even as she grows pensive and sad and asks “what kind of life is this?” It’s as if she’s tied to the past and fading along with it. And she is — she chooses death, and there’s an implied censure to her abandoning her husband and son to this terrible world, though by the film’s end, she looks like the smart one.

07202010_memento_wife.jpg“Memento” (2000)
Directed by Christopher Nolan

What can I say? Nolan’s a fan of the ghost wife.

Jorja Fox’s unnamed character, glimpsed only in Leonard’s (Guy Pearce) not entirely reliable flashbacks, even looks a little like “Inception”‘s Mal, haircut-wise. And since we only ever see her as filtered through Leonard, she’s just as subjective a presence as Mal, an idealized, slightly fuzzy remembrance of a woman who might have died in a violent confrontation, or might have committed suicide by brain-damaged husband.

Is Leonard’s wife the one from the Sammy Jenkins story, asking for insulin again and again in hopes of jarring her love from his psychological troubles? If so, she’s not just a figure to inspire vengeance, and Leonard’s endless self-created quest to find her killer. She’s one of guilt, one to escape, because in the end her death came from the fact that he wasn’t able to become what she wanted — the man he was before the attack.



Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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GIFs via Giphy

Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”


IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?

Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!

Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.

Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 


IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.