Sometimes a Lighthouse is just a Lighthouse: The New Old Weird Part 1
Updated: Mar 8, 2020
By Sam Stoeltje
I went to see The Lighthouse with a big group of grad students who were very excited to talk about it afterward. Kudos to Robert Eggers on making a film that can provoke conversation. Not to get all Scorsese or anything, but it’s true of most Hollywood films that they just aren’t really worth talking about these days.
That said, The Lighthouse has at least one significant problem. It is a film very centrally, very phallocentrically, about cis-male autoeroticism. Hetero- and homoeroticism, yes, but most of all, autoeroticism. It is thus both ironic and predictable that the film is also, kind of, well, masturbatory. (Snare-drum.)
I guess this is not necessarily a criticism; Eggers gives us enough indication that he’s got masturbation on the brain, what with the overt depictions of, well, masturbation, the bizarrely graphic mermaid fantasies, and of course, the lighthouse itself, the giant phallus that hangs over most of the film’s action.
If I were trying to make a charitable, approving interpretation of the sexual-political “statement” of the film, it would run something like: Eggers depicts the self-destructiveness of a masculine libido that cannot permit homosexual desire. Dafoe and Pattinson’s characters, cooped up inside their lighthouse, drawing closer and closer to each other, finally dancing in each other’s arms, nevertheless cannot cross the threshold into admitting their desire for each other, but must instead spiral downward (get it? Like lighthouse stairs?) into an increasingly violent exchange of physical and psychic cruelties, culminating in murder/suicide. (Okay, if not exactly suicide, certainly self-destructive behavior).
Kind of obvious, but as the subtextual “argument” of a horror film, this is not too bad; horror films must abject something, and they can do worse than abjecting homophobic socialization (such as abjecting, say, queer people.) Here, though, I’ve run into the inherent problems of the conditions of possibility that govern the genre of horror, which is kind of a dead end, but maybe worth reflecting upon. If, as adrienne maree brown tells us, “what you give attention to, grows” (and the kind of metaphysics I like tend to reinforce this contention), then horror films, with their dwelling upon the things that inspire fear, horror, disgust, etc., have a certain self-defeating aspect. This is the problem of horror, but also of tragedy and satire, of Death Grips and American Psycho and yes, even the Onion and the Colbert Report; it is the problem of abjection-as-entertainment in toto. And here we might note that horror and comedy are not as mutually exclusive as they seem; Wikipedia calls The Lighthouse a “black comedy [hate that term] psychological horror.”
But I’m not going to insist that The Lighthouse deconstruct the conditions of its own possibility. We’ll leave that to Nanette and Neon Geneseis Evangelion (the latter of which, it turned out, was also about cis-male autoeroticism).
Instead, in the spirit of Paracultural inquiry, I’m going to focus on the film’s fitful representation of the maybe-supernatural, maybe-hallucinatory which makes it part of a subgeneric argument I will playfully make, about what constitutes a “New Old Weird” in recent U.S. film, specifically the work of Eggers and Ari Aster. Aster and Eggers are, as it seems, two of the most acclaimed new voices of artsy horror (the third being of course Jordan Peele), and their films interrelate and perhaps even comment upon each other, in interesting ways. By “New Old Weird,” I want to identify a departure from the kind of media we associate with the “New Weird,” a term reserved for a certain strain of science-inflected speculative stuff whose signature example is Jeff Vandermeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy. A “New Old Weird,” by contrast, is a contemporary expression of the “weird” which gestures back, or at least, not forward, to non-scientific or non-normative or let’s go ahead and say non-rational metaphysics. This includes but is not limited to that generic space we call “fantasy.”
In this post, I’ll start with The Lighthouse, and in later posts talk about my exemplars of this “New Old Weird” in reverse chronological order, including also Midsommar, Hereditary and The Witch.
Now then: One of the major intertexts involved in how The Lighthouse represents the supernatural is certainly the work of number one xenophobic-imaginary architect H.P. Lovecraft. This current finds its apotheosis in the scene when Winslow (Pattinson) and Wake (Dafoe) are engaged in mortal combat, and Dafoe’s character, for a few brief moments, is framed by the whipping tentacles that issue, out of shot, from his lower body. After much foreshadowing, he has at last become the weird Kraken-man that Winslow has imagined him to be. This is near the film’s conclusion, when both characters have long been mired in a kind of shared sense of unreality, apparently abandoned by the rest of humanity on their lonely rock, getting blitzed on paint thinner and accusing each other of murder.
Without getting too granular, I would suggest that there is a general trajectory in The Lighthouse, a steady escalation in delirium as things get more tentacular and the epistemological “ground” of the film (what exactly is going on, what is and is not real) becomes shakier and shakier. To me, this is Lovecraftian; Lovecraft’s monsters are spectacles of non-human difference (analogous in his toxic mind with racial difference and “miscegenation”; why don’t we always keep that word in scare-quotes?), and the closer we draw to them, the more we perceive, the more we risk losing our sanity.
(Massive bracket: Which makes Lovecraft, and The Lighthouse, representative of what I think maybe the principal object of horror in modernity, the idea of becoming “insane”; I should come back to that later...)
The other major intertexts of The Lighthouse are Moby-Dick (there was an audible gasp in the theater when Ahab finally scored a name-drop) and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Generally, it’s a very literary, very long-nineteenth century kind of movie, and therefore a great starting point for my argument in favor of the existence of a “New Old Weird.” If this were a real academic essay, I would probably want to dig more into these other correspondences, but this is a blog post so I don’t have to. The film could have stood to engage more substantively with Melville than merely borrowing dialogue from his seadog ethnographies, Melville being someone who thought with a lot more complexity about race than Lovecraft; and there are definitely lots of interesting places to go vis-à-vis birds, bird-killing, omens, the classical world, and Coleridge’s Romanticism. Which would also take us back to the fear of insanity.
If I were to try to return to my generous, affirmative reading of The Lighthouse, I would follow Wikipedia’s impulse in describing the film as a black(-and-white) comedy. If both genres, horror and comedy, are premised upon abjection, it makes a certain amount of sense that they are so easily capable of “flipping over” into each other (cf. Jeffrey Kripal, possibly). And The Lighthouse’s ability to, I think, become a little over-the-top and produce occasional fits of laughter in the audience demonstrates that it does have some kernel of self-deconstructive genre-consciousness of the kind I was getting at above.
For me, this was most evident when Dafoe’s character, upset about, if I recall, a slight to his cooking, unleashes on Pattinson’s character a seemingly endless, comically elaborate string of salty sea-curses. It was fun to see that guy’s epic face contort with rage and say old-timey things about Neptune.
This toe-dipping into the waters of satire is something The Lighthouse has in common with the picture I’ll talk about in the next installment of The New Old Weird: Ari Aster’s head-splitting Midsommar, about which I will, for mostly political reasons, not be quite as kind. There I want to also come back to The Lighthouse and think about how both films deal with the supernatural, or choose not to deal with it, giving special attention to each film’s final shots.
Image Credit: Universal Pictures