' ' Cinema Romantico: The Lighthouse

Monday, November 18, 2019

The Lighthouse

“You sound like a goddam parody.” This is what Ephraim (Robert Pattinson), a lighthouse keeper, says to his superior, Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), after the latter delivers his umpteenth purple sermon about one thing or another. Do you know what it takes to have such confidence in your own sense of craft, as director Robert Eggers does here, that you feel comfortable (cocky) enough to audibly acknowledge how your own movie is drifting toward the edge of parody? It takes brass balls. I’m sorry, what was that uncouth? Well, what did you think “The Lighthouse” was going to be about? The painstaking efforts to clean the lens? No, the lighthouse in this context, situated on some deserted rock off the coast of Maine, is less about serving as a traffic light to ships and more about its phallic symbolism, denoting the two-hander to come in which this pair of loutish males are driven to ostensible madness. I say ostensible because despite some truly scintillating sound design, an omnipresent foghorn suggesting an air raid siren on some island during the Pacific Theatre of WWII more than an Atlantic watchtower, the sense that these squabbling, drunken dufuses are going mad never comes across when the production is so finely tuned. Ephraim’s surname is Winslow, for God’s sake, as in Winslow Homer, the seminal American painter from the northeast marine landscapes clearly inspired Eggers, the sort of referential moniker that, pardon me for again being uncouth, is no less subtle than that lighthouse thwacking us in the face.

This epitomizes the sensation that Eggers obsessed over every detail, like the dialogue, for which Eggers and his co-writer, brother Max, studied the work of famed 19th century authors Herman Melville and Sarah Orne Jewett to get the salty slang just right, as well as the photography, the old Movietone, A 1.19:1 aspect ratio emphasizing height rather than width, and filmed on Kodak Double-X black and white to truly make it feel out of time. Even so, there are occasional flourishes betraying a modern attitude, like the almost mystical instigation of a massive weather event when the camera tracks hard to the left and then up the full breadth of the lighthouse to find the weather vane at the top ‘suddenly’ changing direction. Rather than evoking a supernatural sensation it feels like filmmaker insistence that, for all the movie’s presupposed ambiguities, like its conclusion, not to be revealed (even if we did…), feel as deliberately calculated as the aesthetic, a nominally haunting image with nothing behind it, not so much rising out of the movie as jerry-rigged by it with a mishmash of mystical and occult slumgullion.

To Eggers’s credit, he’s at least discerning enough to let some of the air out, most notably in the character of Wake, aided immensely by the performance of Dafoe, who both seems to be in on a joke and not playing to the idea of a joke at all, a shrewd actorly decision that takes his character down a peg even when he’s looming in tall close-ups. His soliloquy, of sorts, in ode to his cooking ends with an adolescent worry that Ephraim doesn’t like his lobster, a line Dafoe punctuates with a truly needy facial expression of hurt. It’s incredible, the huffing and puffing of his oration all at once giving way, like a gale that suddenly dies, laying bare all the bluster in his heart and the movie’s own, the phallic symbolism of the Lighthouse coming to stand for something less than the madness in the hearts of men than the dumb drunken urges you’d probably find lurking beneath Harvard’s Eliot House Tower.

This simple exhibition of machismo is furthered in Pattinson’s performance which doesn’t come across like a descent into madness so much as a pre-existing irritability. His first shot in the movie, upon arriving at the lighthouse, finds him looking directly into the camera and already appearing agitated, as he is later attending to chores. Though his tee-totaling nature suggests someone trying to keep a lid on something, Pattinson is more evocative of someone who just likes to pick fights, reminding me of no less an authority than Ishmael himself observing that “it is the easiest thing in the world for a man to look as if he had a great secret in him.” No matter how many stately bells and whistles “The Lighthouse” proffers, all its secrets come up dry.

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