The Lighthouse: Prometheus’s Delirium Tremens

For sailors lost at sea, a lighthouse is hope; for Daniel Defoe and Robert Pattinson, however, the lighthouse is precisely the site of their shipwreck. The Lighthouse is a maritime nightmare, a descent – but descent is not the word: a fall, a spectacular fall off a rocky cliff – into madness. The two miserable protagonists drown in pouring rain and especially in alcohol, and we follow them closely, inebriated ourselves by the extraordinary cinematography, the hypnotising music, and the rabid editing.

Tom Wake (Defoe), is an old seadog kept ashore by a limp leg, condemned to spend his days on a black rock working as a wickie, the caretaker and operator of a lighthouse. Under his command is the newly arrived Ephraim Winslow (Pattinson), who was once a lumberjack and now does anything that pays. To his terrible luck, he has chosen this job.  He soon realises that he’s been hired not only as an assistant, but also as a housekeeper and buffoon. In fact, Winslow appears to be doing everything while Wake merely spends his time in the light chamber, often naked. The only truce between these lonely men comes at night, during dinner, when Wake practically forces Winslow to chat and drink a liquor that must have more in common with engine degreaser than with vodka. Wake and Winslow do come closer, little by little, but their interaction, even when funny or endearing, is always tense, as that of two prickly beasts who, at any moment, could rip each other’s throats with their teeth.

It’s quite impressive what these two actors have managed to do. The salty seaman, Tomas Wake, complete with hat, smoking pipe and (almost) wooden leg, along with his grunts and sea jargon, is a character that in the hands of a lesser actor could have easily become a cartoon. But Defoe is Defoe and with the clay handed to him he sculpts a man that at times resembles captain Ahab, at times Neptune himself. (To pull us back to earth, though, Eggers has given him one extra feature: constant farts). Robert Pattinson, on the other hand, solidifies his status as one of the best character actors of his generation (I know, who would have thought?) with his Ephraim Winslow who is at times enigmatic, at times vulnerable, at times a burning ball of rage, and always pure anguish.

Equally impressive is the script Robert Eggers and his younger brother, Max Eggers, have crafted. The Eggers thoroughly researched sea literature specific to that day and region, particularly through the works of Sarah Orne Jewett. The resulting dialogue that Wake and Winslow spew at each other is Melville, is Coleridge, and is rich enough in alliterations to give Shakespeare frisson.

A less ambitious, less talented director, would have made The Lighthouse as a perfectly adequate theatre-like film, because it fulfils all the requirements – a single location, two characters, first-rate dialogue – but Robert Eggers is interested in cinema, pure and hard cinema, so he has taken this elements and with a prodigious eye, he has followed the streaks and found gold.

Eggers turns again to cinematographer Jarin Blaschke and film editor Louise Ford, with whom he had previously worked in The Witch. Recorded in black and white, 35mm film, and with a 1.19:1 aspect ratio, The Lighthouse consciously evokes the cinema of Murnau or Lang. German expressionism has its clear mark here, with a light that examines grimaces, that searches for grotesque furrows in the faces, and projects ominous shadows in the crooked walls and ceilings. There’s also some traces of Andrew Wyeth’s paintings and Edward Weston’s photographs (especially that one of a seashell spiral which almost seems to be the blueprint of the lighthouse’s spiral staircase). The editing, meanwhile, is extremely modern, with a foot in Un Chien Andalou and another one in the future, as best exemplified by a masturbatory sequence that could easily produce a fainting spell.

Nevertheless, the most interesting occurs there where Eggers parts ways with his influences, for his movie has nothing of the distorted sceneries of expressionism. On the contrary, ever since The Witch Eggers has made clear he’s obsessed with authenticity. In The Lighthouse, for instance, filming took place in Cape Forchu, Nova Scotia, where the weather was just as horrible as the one on screen (three storms stroke the film crew); the clothes wore by Defoe and Pattinson are made with thick wool and pig skin according to literature from the era; and the lighthouse was built expressly for the movie. But for Eggers this historical accuracy is not a pathway towards realism, but a means to make the supernatural seem entirely and chillingly truthful.

The combined effect, crowned by Mark Korven’s music, crowded with horns that bring to mind the grave bellow of the ships, is a mesmeric journey which is certainly horror, but a horror always ambiguous and that deep down is nothing but a human horror – and specifically male. The fear that haunts lone men when confronted with themselves, with their ghosts, their hunger for power, their lust. Particularly their lust. Because in The Lighthouse, as in the horror stories found in folktales and myths, fear is bound with guilt and sexual desire. Sex (or the lack thereof) is mixed like taint and blood in the liquor Winslow and Wake drink desperately.

That is why the plot is so sparse – not because it is superficial, but rather because just a couple symbols, just a few scattered references to Greek mythology and sea-men superstitions are enough for us to follow the roots of this story and find they dig deep, down to the strata where archetypes sleep.

There are scenes in The Lighthouse (one in particular) that will remain with me as long as I have memory.

Parasite: A Furious Fable

The mysterious Mr. Bong Joon-ho gives us in Parasite a razor sharp fable about class conflict that is part dark comedy, part thriller, part horror movie and part tragedy, and that is also the most enjoyable movie of the year. There are extreme sports that elicit less adrenaline than Parasite.

Kim Ki-Taek (Song Kan-ho), his wife Chung-sook (Jang Hye-jin)  and his children Ki-woo (Choi Woo-shik) and Ji-jeong (Park So-dam) live in a miserable basement in a poor neighbourhood in Seul, where they spend their hours folding pizza cardboard boxes and looking out for the local drunkard who often urinates outside their window. One afternoon, an old school-friend comes to visit Ki-woo and asks him to substitute him as English tutor for Da-hye, the eldest child of the wealthy Park family. That same friend gifts the Kim family a green rock that is supposed to bring fortune. For the Kim siblings, who are ambitious and fiercely intelligent, this rock is both a sign and a licence, and the small summer job a slit through which they will attempt to slip all the clan. From here on (and we’ve been through scarcely fifteen minutes of film), we will enter a mirror labyrinth full of trapdoors where Bong Joon-ho will fool us with the virtuosity of a seasoned magician.

For those who aren’t familiar with Bong Joon-ho’s cinema, this will be an ideal entry point. For those who are already acquainted, this will be the main course in the already generous feast the director has produced. Not only this South Korean filmmaker has an extremely personal vision and the talent to realize it, but he is also one of those artists who arrives at their craft with a desire to tear down walls and rebuild. The walls he is most preoccupied with, are those of genre. If already with The Host – a monster movie which is also a political thriller, comedy and family drama – the critics struggled to classify Joon-ho, with Parasite the director has challenged himself to go to the edge and then jump.

The film starts bubbly, like a social comedy, but that humour slowly but steadily becomes darker and darker, and we keep laughing just as – if not more – keenly; and then, suddenly, someone cuts the lift’s cables and we are falling dizzily into a sort of horror. But then we open our eyes and we find ourselves in scenes that have a tension, a hold-your-breadth-edge-of-your-seat quality usually reserved for the Mission Impossible franchise. And there are still tones and emotions that Joon-ho has stored for us. And what is most impressive is how seamless it all is, how smooth the surface of this film, which makes it impossible to notice when and how it was that our heart started beating to another tune. There’s people who can’t manage to master a single genre, but Bong Joon-ho braids them with the skill of a composer weaving themes in a symphony.

And speaking of music, the music by Jung Jae-il follows the serpentine path of the plot with a faithfulness that leaves one stunned.

Parasite is not all twists and turns, though. Its core is pristine, heavy and it’s burning. Rage over economic inequality is the engine that brings to life this marvellous machinery. There’s a brilliant scene where the Kims have to leave the Parks house during a storm, at night, and they must run across the city to get home. This journey is literally a descent into hell. The camera shows them diminutive, making their way down through a landscape that changes like the earth’s strata, going from a gentle blue night to a red neon light ocean of poorly lit slums. Upon arrival, they realize their house is flooded with sewer water and they pointlessly try to salvage something from their belongings. While a defeated Ji-jeong decides to sit atop a filth-spewing toilet, up in their heights, the Parks enjoy the rain falling on their beautifully illuminated garden, safe inside their mansion built by a famous architect.

But Boong Joon-ho is not a Manichaean. The Parks are not evil. In fact, as admitted by the Kims, they’re nice people. “If I were rich, I would be nice too”, says Chung-sook: “Money is like an iron, it smooths all wrinkles.” Because of their position, the Parks can´t help but talking about others as mere objects in a world made for them. Smell, for example, is a powerful element in the film. Mr. Park tells his wife that Mr. Kim’s scent annoys him and she inquires: “How does he smell?”, “You get that smell in the subway sometimes”, he replies. “It’s been so long since I rode the subway”, she says pensively. From this moment on, each slight contraction of the nostrils will have the terrible weight of a slap across the face. And in spite all of this pushes us to the side of the Kims, they’re not “good” people, strictly speaking. They’re selfish and manipulative and they don’t seem to care much about the people they trample – who, by the way, are also poor.

Parasite is also Bong Joon-ho’s best movie technically speaking. Here, with the help of cinematographer Hong Kyun-pyo and editor Yang Jin-mo, the director guides us through the corridors of his story with a brain surgeon’s pulse, and from the get-go is clear that every single image and movement counts. During any conversation, for instance, we have the classic shot/reverse-shot, but when something crucial is said or left unsaid, the camera highlights it with an elegant panning or tilting. These minute formal choices prepare us for what’s to come. Just as Hitchcock, Joon-ho knows that suspense in cinema must always come from what is seen, not from what is said. Also like Hitchcock in Rear Window, Joon-ho had his own world built for the movie. Production designer, Lee Ha-joon designed and built both the Kim’s hovel (and entire street) and the Park’s dream house.

Parasite is such a great film, so rabidly funny and so tragically frightening, so original and ambitious in its imagining and so perfect in its execution, that I could go on raving about it for days. I will limit myself to saying one more thing: the story starts with Ki-woo and Ji-jeong looking for an open wifi they can use freely, therefore planting the seed that gives sense to the movie and its title, but once the seed germinates, the plant shows a complex pattern. There’s not one clear parasite, but many. Like a chain of leeches, they’re all sucking blood, and the film’s conceptual triumph is showing which leech is fatter and with whose blood.

Jesus Shows You The Way to The Highway

An African Batman with a foot fetish, Stalin playing chess against himself, a ninja named Spaghetti, a xiaolin monk charged with the task of protecting the Ark of the Covenant, giant flies that shoot killer laser beams, a drag queen paratrooper, and a Joe Ramone look-alike who might just be Jesus are some of the things you will see in this acid trip disguised as a movie called Jesus Shows You The Way To The Highway.

Written and directed by Spanish filmmaker, Miguel Llansó, this Estonian-Ethiopian-Lithuanian-Romanian-Spanish production doesn’t have a drop of normal running through its veins. Not since Léo Carax ‘s Holy Motors had I encountered a cinematic experience as the one I’ve had with this bizarre Frankenstein made up with parts retrieved from Film graveyard. And by that I mean the sheer joy and awe of watching a film where the anchor of logic is lifted and one sails off into the unknown where truly anything can happen.

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The plot – for lack of a better term – follows CIA special agent DT Gagano (Daniel Tadesse) on his last and most daunting mission: eliminating the Soviet Union virus infecting program Psychobook. Along with his partner, agent Palmer Eldritch(Agustín Mateo), Gagano goes into this virtual reality universe and is sadly trapped, his conscience is transferred to Beta-Ethiopia, and in the meantime, in the physical world he enters a state of coma. From this moment on, Gagano will do everything he can to complete his mission, escape the simulation, recover his body, rejoin his wife, Malin (the Baltic amazon Gerda-Annette Alikas), and finally retire to fulfil Malin’s dream of having her own boxing gym, and his own dream of owning a pizza parlour by the beach.

The film’s aesthetic matches its story in craziness. Taking its cues from the B movie canon: 007 rip-offs, Filipino exploitation cinema, Turkish mockbusters and other genre atrocities, Jesus… is generous in ultra cheap special effects, jarring cuts, uber vintage camera movements and angles, and a ton of transitions; all accompanied by hard bop experimental jazz and high-pitched video game music. Isn’t that enough? Ok: all the voices (parodying Italian films from the 70s) are recorded in studio, not in situ, and the pairing is deliberately bad. Still want more? Alright: the scenes corresponding to Gagano and Eldritch’s mission in Psychobook (during which, by the way, they’re wearing Robert Redford and Richard Pryor paper-masks, respectively) are in stop-motion – not stop-motion with puppets, stop-motion with humans.

Reactions to this film will be varied. There will be those who will leave the cinema (probably mid-movie) having found in it nothing more than a provocation; there will be the hipsters who will twist the tip of their moustaches in delight, amused by the kitsch feast before their eyes; and last there will be those who will see through this chaotic mix and find, or believe they’ve found, an intense truth about of our times. They will all be right and all wrong.

Miguel Llansó is the first to make fun of his work. When asked what he wanted to explore in his second feature length film, he said he wanted to include kung-fu. When introducing Jesus… in Tallinn, he used the adjective “stupid” on at least five occasions. And though this will to not take itself so seriously is fundamental to save the movie from sinking under the weight of its pretentious ambitions, Llansó also knows that what he’s made is no joke, that it  has a lot to say and that it might actually be really good.

Because though Jesus Shows You The Way to The Highway makes no sense, its lack of logic is – like that of Dada or the theatre of the absurd – infused with meaning and that meaning is corrosive. The laughter it provokes speaks volumes about how entertainment (in its most Horkheimer-Adorno sense) and new media are intermingled with the authoritarian populist regimes taking over left and right (left and right used both literally and politically). It’s no coincidence that the villains in this movie are constantly changing masks: Stalin, Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, etc., but the face beneath is always that of a cat, the almighty deity of viral content.

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It comes as no surprise, then, that Llansó pinpoints Philip K. Dick as his main source of inspiration. Dick, that paranoid addicted to hallucinogens and amphetamines who predicted the future better than anyone. Just like Dick, Llansó is interested in how pop culture, and even garbage, reflects our context much better than “high culture”; and also like Dick, Llansó is sceptical about utopias and dystopias, and rather focuses on entropy. In Jesus… we witness the entropy of globalisation as experienced in the margins – and by reverberation in the centre -: technological waste, a grotesque cybernetic cemetery coming to life, a deranged carnival of alienation where we laugh just to keep from crying.

Jesus Shows You The Way to The Highway is destined to become a cult film, a bonfire around which the feverish cinephiles of the underground will gather. I hope, however, that in the process of cultification, it won’t lose its radical vein, its dark destructive power.

Retrato

No estoy confesando que yo lo hice; eso todos lo saben y hay testigos. Estoy confesando que lo hice con alevosía, que fue premeditado y que el motivo fue el odio. El odio que nace de la envidia fraternal, que es  el odio más duradero, más intenso y ciertamente el que cuenta con más abolengo. Pero también me motivó el amor. Qué triste que la suma de dos sentimientos tan puros, al resultar en un crimen, se transforme en las lenguas y mentes de quienes juzgan sin entender en algo tan burdo como “celos”.

¿Tenía celos? Sí. Claro que sí. ¿Quién no los tendría en mi circunstancia? Forzada a mirar siempre, eternamente, cada día de mi vida, a mi amo, al dueño y razón de cada una de mis acciones, preferir en todo a mi gemela; esa otra discípula idéntica a mí que por puro azar y no por mérito fue elevada a compañera indispensable. Oh, mi sufrimiento ha sido profundo y demasiado largo: desde los primeros gestos fue claro que se me hacía a un lado en favor de ella. Pero mi mayor dolor llegó cuando – ¡tan temprano en nuestras vidas y sin darme una sola oportunidad de mostrar mi valía! – la eligió para colaborar en su primera obra. La obra es intrascendente, de pobrísima concepción y aún más paupérrima técnica (interesados podrán hallarla aún, amarillenta e incomprehensible, en un fólder preservado por razones sentimentales en casa de sus padres) cuya única relevancia – fatídica para mí – fue determinar de una vez y por siempre la díada creativa de la que yo quedaba excluida, reducida al humillante rol de lacayo. 

¿Qué habré hecho en otras vidas? ¿Qué pecado irredimible pesa sobre mi alma para merecer las injurias de las que fui víctima? Una cosa es ser rechazada y retirarse viendo a otra elegida, pero otra mucho más trágica es ser rechazada y al tiempo forzada a quedarse para observar, y peor, para ayudar a florecer y atender a ese amor vedado para mí. No sólo ninguno de los muchos y tan admirados frutos de ese jardín son míos, sino que mi minúsculo papel en la gestación de cada uno de ellos, francamente podría haber sido encargado a un mueble.

¿Por qué pintura? Me he preguntado a veces. Pregunta inútil, como las que tiende a hacer una cuando se hunde en la desesperación. ¿Por qué no música o escultura? Mi contribución seguiría siendo ligeramente menor, pero protagónica; el amor no equidistante, pero casi. O ¿Por qué no fotografía o cine? En ese caso ambas, mi gemela y yo, seríamos relegadas al segundo plano.

Nada de esto es importante. El punto es que no debería sorprender a nadie lo que hice. Debería sorprender que tardé tanto en hacerlo. Hasta la fecha él se interroga, en sus horas de peor amargura: ¿Por qué blandí el martillo con la mano izquierda? Pues ya, ahora tienes tu respuesta. Fui yo. Yo elegí tomar el martillo – intercambiar sitios para una tarea al menos –, yo apliqué esa fuerza desmedida. Y el rasguño horroroso de tu grito, que tanto, tanto me perturbó escuchar, fue contrarrestado por el crujido escalofriante proveniente de mi hermana y por su estampa retorcida que me llenaron de placer.

Primer, segundo y tercer metacarpianos destrozados, cirugía, advertencias sobre posibilidades de total recuperación, yeso durante seis semanas, fisioterapia otras tantas. Si en algún momento sentí remordimiento, fue en éste. Presenciar el dolor físico y sobre todo el anímico de mi amo; sus penurias diurnas y sus terrores nocturnos; la frustración constante por su presente entorpecido y la ansiedad subyugante por la posibilidad de un futuro sin pintura. Ah, pero era fácil olvidar mi culpa cuando mi recompensa era tan dulce. Nunca en las casi cinco décadas que llevamos juntos recibí tanta atención como en esos días. Hasta las tareas más nimias – aquellas que la otra daba desde hace tanto por sentado – eran para mí un obsequio de incalculable valor. Pero algo a parte de la culpa enturbiaba mi alegría. La esperanza de él – el retorno de la compañera pródiga – era mi miedo.

La suerte estuvo de mi lado. Aunque darle crédito a la suerte es errado. Más bien mis cálculos fueron correctos. Oh, amo, si hubieses visto el asco y el horror que se apoderó de ti una vez que el yeso cayó y develó los tristes restos de la que una vez fue tu favorita. Del que una vez fuese un dorso a la vez varonil y terso, quedaba ahora un pálido simulacro deformado por nudos óseos asomando bajo la piel; y los orgullosos y ágiles dedos pulgar, índice y medio eran ya unas torcidas ramas mustias. Y el hedor, la pestilencia nauseabunda emanando de las franjas de piel muerta y humedecida, que no desaparecía por más cremas y alcohol que te aplicaras, y que ahondaba la sensación espantosa de cargar con un cadáver descomponiéndose.

A la tercera semana de fisioterapia, el dictamen confirmó lo evidente: era inútil. Reducida a garra vergonzosa, mi hermana fue al fin vencida.

Mi triunfo se vio levemente ensombrecido por el estado de auto-conmiseración absoluta en que cayó mi amo. Perdí la cuenta hace mucho de la cantidad de píldoras antidepresivas que me hizo darle y el número de licores que le llevé a los labios. Este estado, afortunadamente, duró poco. Luego entró en una catatonia imperturbable y se aisló casi por completo, despidiendo a su agente, y recibiendo cada vez a menos colegas y amigos. Sólo su mucama quedó en la casa. Mejor para mí porque fue, finalmente, casi enteramente mío.

He de admitir que nuestra relación no tuvo el carácter idílico que yo anhelaba. Él no me tenía paciencia ni con las minucias del día a día; gruñía y hacía rabietas por un poco de vino derramado, un traste roto, unos minutos de más abotonando su abrigo o atando cordones. ¿Pero qué esperaba de mí? Tras cuarenta y nueve años de abandono no podía exigirme destreza. Era claro que el pincel estaba aún muy lejos de mí, pero no me importaba. Yo tendría la calma necesaria por los dos.

Finalmente, transcurrido más de un año desde el incidente, durante una noche insomne, el momento tan largamente deseado e infinitamente postergado llegó: mi amo se levantó del sillón donde llevaba horas mirando el fuego en un trance etílico y se dirigió a su estudio trastabillando, pero con una decisión que juro no haberle visto desde su juventud. Recuerdo la sensación fría del metal del picaporte al girarlo y la capa de polvo que se adherió a mí, y recuerdo el escalofrío que me recorrió como una descarga eléctrica erizando los vellos en mis nudillos al abrir cajones y sacar óleos y paleta y pinceles, y las cosquillas de anticipación en mi palma al descubrir un lienzo y prepararlo. El pudor y un resto de decoro me obligan a censurar una descripción detallada de lo que experimenté cuando tomé el pincel entre mis dedos, lo mojé en la pintura y tembloroso lo guié por la blanca tela.

Así, en un constante éxtasis, interrumpido sólo por paréntesis de embeleso total, vivimos veintitrés días y sé que el gozo intenso fue mutuo; estoy segura. Nunca, no desde sus primeros cuadros, lo vi tan sobrecogido por la energía creativa, poseído por algo mayor, más alto, trascendental. Mas lo que me intensificó mi satisfacción es que nuestra relación no era un calco de la otra; no. Un alma por completo diferente nos daba vida y la prueba era nuestra obra. Esta pintura parecía hecha por otro: alejada por completo del neo-expresionismo  que lo había hecho destacarse y lanzado de cabeza a un abismo que pareciera lirismo abstracto y del que un crítico dijo: “Si el lenguaje del dolor es cromático, ésta es su sentencia más desgarradora”.

Curioso, porque lo que yo sentí mientras pintábamos era lo opuesto del dolor. El desgarro vino una vez terminado el trabajo, cuando tu ex agente llegó de emergencia a la casa a ver el milagro y entre sollozos de emoción preguntó: “¿Y tiene título?”, y tú respondiste orgulloso después de dar un trago triunfal a una copa de cognac, y al escucharte yo me sentí morir y quebrarme en más pedazos que la copa que solté en mi sorpresa y desconsuelo, y el eco del cristal estallando parecía repetir y multiplicar las palabras que se me enterraban como dagas.

Una vez dicho, no había manera de no verla. Sugerida apenas, como un galeón naufragado a través de un mar embravecido, sus contornos enterrados por el tiempo, enredados en marañas de color y furia, pero más bella y definitiva que nunca en su tragedia: mi hermana. Y yo; yo que nunca jamás me vi tan reducida, tan ínfima, tan vejada; viendo el motivo de mi felicidad más auténtica revelándose como mi humillación más grande, y el talismán de nuestro idilio transformándose en el símbolo de mi derrota final.

“Retrato de la mano derecha por la mano izquierda” se vendió en una subasta por quince millones de dólares y está ahora en la colección permanente del museo privado más importante de la ciudad. Ninguna de sus pinturas ha tenido la celebración de la crítica ni el impacto en la escena del arte que tuvo ésta. 

En la cima de su prestigio, con dinero para vivir cómodamente para siempre y sin nada qué decir pictóricamente, mi amo se retiró de la pintura y escribe ahora sus memorias. Como si mi castigo no hubiera sido ya excesivo, ahora paso horas aplastando teclas. Podría pensarse que este giro me beneficia pues me da un trabajo en el que no soy segunda de nadie y en el que he adquirido cierta pericia. Pero es que a mí la literatura me aburre a morir.