Category Archives: Historical

Movie Review: “The Lighthouse”

2015’s “The Witch” was a strange and mesmerizing little film—an exceedingly slow burn set in Puritan New England, haunted by stern religiosity, madness, and the ever-present specter of the supernatural. With “The Lighthouse,” director Robert Eggers turns his talents to a different facet of the American experience: the world of smoky oil lamps, windswept islands, and ramshackle buildings hanging over the turbulent sea.

As the film opens, young drifter Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) joins old salt Thomas Wick (Willem Dafoe) to maintain an unnamed lighthouse somewhere far from shore. The two men do not take kindly to each other: Wick proves to be a stern taskmaster, chastising Winslow for the smallest infractions and demanding ever-higher standards of obedience. Above all else, Wick demands that Winslow never ascend to the summit of the lighthouse, where the lantern burns day and night. And Wick is prepared to enforce that rule with violence if necessary. (Mistrust, rage, and possible insanity follow.)

From an acting standpoint, this is superb work from both Pattinson and Dafoe (I never knew how much I wanted to see Dafoe as a gruff old sailor—particularly one who tosses around some of the most creative nautical curses I’ve ever heard). The sound design is suitably unsettling, and the film’s 1.19:1 aspect ratio and black-and-white cinematography further evoke the surreal. It’s not exactly the most accessible movie I’ve ever seen—if you thought “The Witch” was slow-paced, “The Lighthouse” is positively languid—but it’s nonetheless effective.

It’s hard to call this genre horror; on a thematic level, both “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are in some sense deconstructions of American history. Both films tap into iconic aspects of the American story, narratives previously immortalized in prior works: if “The Witch” unfolds against the backdrop of Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter,” “The Lighthouse” channels the ethos of Melville’s “Moby-Dick.” In that spirit, “The Witch” was suffused with concepts of purity and sin; “The Lighthouse,” in turn, wrestles with man’s response to the incomprehensible.

But where postmodernity sees deconstruction as as a disclosure of hidden human structures of power and oppression, Eggers’s deconstruction occurs on a deeper level. Rather than simply re-narrating the stories we tell ourselves, Eggers questions whether they were our stories in the first place. His movies are about the otherworldly forces creeping around the edges of experience, the liminal spaces where the human order blurs into the wild and pagan. On this view, it’s the story of civilization that’s actually aberrational; the eerie is the “natural state of things.”

As I’ve written before, this is a very old—one might even say premodern—view of the cosmos, one in which human ingenuity has little purchase. Indeed, “The Lighthouse” squarely sets up this dilemma: Wick is a man of ritual and superstition, and Winslow is a man of procedures and “reason.” Only one of them ends up vindicated.

Like the cramped cottage rooms it depicts, “The Lighthouse” is the sort of thing that some will observe and wonder what kind of person could find it appealing. It’s vague, ambiguous, and full of sturm und drang. And to be sure, this is indeed  a movie for a very particular sort of person—one willing to endure long stretches of strange imagery and atmospheric world-building in the hope of an effective payoff. On that score, though, it really does succeed tremendously. 

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Posted by on October 17, 2019 in Historical


Movie Review: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

There are a lot of things one could say about Quentin Tarantino’s movies, but “formulaic” is not one of them. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” isn’t a taut, densely plotted thriller like “Pulp Fiction.” Nor is it a sprawling historical epic like “Django Unchained” or “Inglourious Basterds,” or a locked-room mystery like “Reservoir Dogs” or “The Hateful Eight.” It’s something else altogether.

Set in 1969, “Hollywood” follows the adventures of western TV icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as Dalton attempts to transition from TV into film. As the two men drift from opportunity to opportunity, they cross paths with their actress neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who positively exudes joi de vivre.

At first blush, it’s hard to grasp what the idea of this movie is, because most of the film’s extended runtime is comprised of seemingly disconnected vignettes: Booth brawls with Bruce Lee in a Hollywood alleyway; Dalton contemplates his career decisions on the set of a TV pilot, with some help from a spunky child actress; Tate goes to a movie theater to watch herself in a comedy flick; Booth stumbles into the lair of the murderous Manson Family; Dalton and Booth head to Italy to star in a series of “spaghetti Westerns”; and so on.

As a result, “Hollywood” comes off as a leisurely, reflective sort of movie, an experience steeped in California cool. Here, all of Tarantino’s best filmmaking tendencies—and few of his worst—are on display. “Hollywood” has plenty of crackling dialogue, creative cinematographic moments, and high-tension sequences without ever lapsing into “Kill Bill” levels of bloodshed or “Django”-esque fourth-wall-breaking.

But that’s not to say, of course, that this is a family-friendly film—or that it’s ultimately pointless.

(Spoilers follow. Read on at your own risk.)

As is Tarantino’s wont, the film’s closing minutes veer into ultraviolent alternate history. When Manson Family killers come for Tate at the film’s climax, Dalton and Booth spring to the rescue. Booth employs his stuntman training to demolish two assassins, while Dalton retrieves the flamethrower he used in a World War II flick and uses it to incinerate the remaining killer. It’s an explosive denouement that comes almost out of nowhere, and yet somehow it serves as the fulcrum around which the entire experience turns. And more interesting still, it doesn’t feel like the kind of exploitation-flick homage for which Tarantino is well known. Something else—something deeper and more thoughtful—is going on in “Hollywood.”

There have already been some good takes on what “Hollywood” is really trying to say in its coda. Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan reads the film—in particular, Pitt’s heroic stuntman character—as a defense of traditional masculinity against its contemporary critics. Theologian David Bentley Hart makes a good case that the film’s ending is a kind of spiritual eucatastrophe, a glimpse into a Kingdom of Heaven where evil is decisively vanquished and history’s sins are made right. I have to admit, though, that those of us who didn’t live through the Tate murder or its aftermath—which is to say, my whole generation—can’t really relate to the observations made by Flanagan and Hart.

It’s taken me a long time to write this review, because I’ve spent a long time puzzling out my own thoughts. After much pondering, I tend to think that in large part, “Hollywood” subverts—and even inverts—the old maxim that violent cinema inevitably corrupts the moral sensibilities of those involved with it. Throughout the film, one watches Dalton and Booth feature in numerous pulp Westerns and low-budget action pictures. And when the time comes for them to be truly heroic in the real world—to defend the innocent Tate against pitiless killers—they rely on the dispositions, skills and tools cultivated in their roles as actors (that is, bravery, karate moves and a flamethrower) to defeat real monsters. They embody, that is, the heroism and talents of the characters they played onscreen.

Put a different way, Tarantino suggests that to the extent that actors’ and moviegoers’ moral dispositions are formed by the cinema, the cinema ought to depict the virtues that are actually necessary to confront and defeat evil. Movies can thus be a kind of laboratory for at least the four cardinal virtues of classical thought—fortitude, prudence, justice, and temperance.

There’s an old G.K. Chesterton quote that comes to mind here: “Fairy tales do not give the child his first idea of bogey. What fairy tales give the child is his first clear idea of the possible defeat of bogey.” And that latter—the idea of the possible defeat of the world’s wicked forces—is the moral core of “Hollywood.” 

In short, if you’re a film buff—even if most Tarantino films aren’t your speed—“Hollywood” is absolutely worth seeing. (It’s probably the film that’s haunted me the most all year.) And in an cinematic season of endless reboots and sequels, it’s a nice reminder that thoughtful moviemaking for grown-ups isn’t quite dead yet.

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Posted by on August 25, 2019 in Historical

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