Modern Ghosts of the Coast: ‘Bait’, ‘The Lighthouse’, and Contemporary Thresholds
The ocean is intrinsically cinematic. It is constant motion; a body of great and untameable power. It is an unwalkable desert. It is entirely unpredictable — often violent, sometimes at peace, but always chaotic. In the eyes of the Romanticists, it is the ultimate figure of man’s humility to nature. Captured on early film stock, as it was by Birt Acres some 125 years ago now, the ocean becomes an abstract ceaseless monster. In this logic, Rough Sea at Dover is amongst the first horror films, tongue-in-cheek as it may be to suggest. The Lumiere’s Train Pulling Into A Station could also hold that facetious title, but where a train is a feat of humanity and their monstrous technologies, the ocean — in form and action — is the antithesis of that human control. Indeed, the ocean retains the power that humans have long sought for in technology. The ocean is beyond us— it is within all its unknowable power that it becomes a mythological plain.
And yet the ocean must meet land: the domain of humans. A remarkably still place, cast in soil and stone — and there are few greater symbols of permanence than stone. Land as the great wall upon which humans can sit and watch the ocean persist its slow but assured domination. We project onto it stability, and with such a projection in place, a threshold is born. The sea as chaos, the land as order. So what of the coastline? In this view, it is an entirely liminal space. Rock’s permanence dare not speak of sand and pebbles; reminders of their true ephemerality. Is it any wonder then that the cinematic beach has become such a strong visual locale — a place on the threshold? Transition and instability? That it lends itself to the uncanny and traumatic imaginations of human thought? Its a sentiment shared across culture — in literature from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) to Andrew Michael Hurley’s The Loney (2014), as much as in cinema from Jonathan Miller’s Whistle and I’ll Come To You (1968) to, dare I say, Disney’s Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. Mati Diop’s Atlantics (2019) is one contemporary reworking of the coast as this haunted threshold, used here as a reflection on the contemporary refugee crisis. The sea as the ultimate unknowable place, a literal Styx between the world of the living and the dead, where the gambles of its chaos are far more promising than the exploitative certainties that come with land’s (Senegal) perceived order. The spirits of the sunken dead channel themselves through those alive to remember them, and where the ocean speaks not of its dead, the coast becomes the domain of the supernatural — a link to the unknowable place.
But where Atlantics’ crisp and glowing digital camerawork evokes a ghost story for the contemporary moment, now we look to the worlds of its cine-contemporaries in Bait (dir. Mark Jenkin, 2019) and The Lighthouse (dir. Robert Eggers, 2019) whose formal concerns are strictly in the past. The Lighthouse evokes the wide-eyed chiaroscuro-horror of European expressionist pictures of the inter-war period: Lang, Murnau, Pabst, and Epstein. Bait, however, while undoubtedly borrowing somewhat from these expressionists, is far more indebted to — as director Mark Jenkin points out in an interview with The Skinny — the likes of Sergei Eisenstein and Nicolas Roeg; faith in the transcendent power of the edit. These creative desires are not necessarily conflicting, yet in the case of these two films, their images and ideologies of the coast are rendered within these different desires— what it means to be within proximity of the sea; the ideas that are presented through image and form that speak to this mythology of the coast as a threshold.
The Lighthouse is painted for us, in no uncertain terms, as Gothic misery. Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson) and Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) are the keepers of a lighthouse just off the coast of New England. The two keepers harbour their mysteries, and in their continued isolation, madness surfaces and erupts. As the film rolls on, what land the island boasts loosens and crumbles, and all notion of a liminal coastline is violently eroded as a great storm gradually swallows the island — implied to have been a curse brought on by Winslow’s bloody destruction of a one-eyed seagull bent on harassing him. There exists a conflicting earthly binary within the characters themselves — of land’s presumption of stability and the ocean’s destructive unstoppable mystery. Ephraim Winslow is a former timberman, and for him, this foray into this new line of work as a wickie is nothing more than that — another job. Yet here is Thomas Wake, a man versed in and birthed through the creeds of the sea. In image and in character, Wake is a by-numbers caricature of a sailor. He does not take kindly to Winslow’s naivety, nor does he much care for his aggressive foolishness, as well as his disrespect and contempt for the new threshold upon which he is forced to occupy. Wake is a man who understands the ocean as a behemoth beyond us all; a behemoth to be understood and respected. Winslow is not the man that Wake hopes him to be: he does not understand and refuses to respect the lores and codes of the briny blue (or in the film’s case, grey). This vision of the ocean offered to us is born of Winslow’s ignorance. Even at its most tame and serene, we cannot trust the waters. As the film opens, Winslow watches his boat leave from the shore — the ocean is conquered by mist; the sky is grey; the atmospheric strings are a harmonic slog. None of this for Winslow is pleasant. He is more than an outsider — on this rock, he is an enemy. This island upon which the lighthouse stands, all coast, will spill out the consequences of his ignorance.
Cinematographer Jarin Blaschke frames The Lighthouse through an orthochromatic lens — that hazed and rigorous black-and-white capture so synonymous with early bespeckled monochromatic photography. The implication of this style is of time-and-place; to capture the rough sinews of pre-war visual technology in all their crumbly glory. Yet The Lighthouse’s orthochroma is clean — and that about sums up my qualms with its relationship to the art of the past. Its maritime influences operate as little more than borrowed flavour — and while I always enjoy such messy cinephilic indulgences, The Lighthouse does little to examine those roots. The Melvillian pomposity channelled through tone and dialogue is mostly affectation. Herman Melville was a more grounded writer, far more enamoured and fascinated by the sea, than both the film and Eggers’ presumes. It operates the language of Melville as a simulacra; an aesthetic brand. For this reason, the film’s machinations of the sea as a place of sexual demonic carnality are difficult to read as Melvillian at all. The words of Moby Dick read:
“These are the times of dreamy quietude, when beholding the tranquil beauty and brilliancy of the ocean’s skin, one forgets the tiger heart that pants beneath it; and would not willingly remember, that this velvet paw but conceals a remorseless fang…” (ch. 114)
“But as in landlessness alone resides the highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God — so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!” (ch. 23)
For Melville, this “indefinite” Truth — whether or not we choose to understand this as God as Melville did — is something to be embraced. Even with that mind, Moby Dick is a cautionary tale on man’s unstoppable will — that even with all of one’s knowledge, experience, spirit, and determination, there still lies the unknowable and uncontrollable flux of reality. Something not to be feared, but to be respected. One cannot understand the ocean within such narrow margins — and even if we were to channel Moby-Dick through the character of Thomas Wake, there is little to suggest that this is the view the film takes as it does little to frame the sea as anything but purely antagonistic. The film’s mystery of the ocean is not born of the uncanny — and while it is quite rightly a terrifying realm, in the view of The Lighthouse, it is only that. Its maritime ghosts and monsters that haunt the island exist purely to haunt; their existence beyond that is neither implied nor explored. The Lighthouse it seems is only half-hearted in its charming liminal Gothicism.
Bait understands the Gothic. Actually, Bait is the more Gothic-adjacent of the two — by comparison, The Lighthouse is superficially suggestive rather than reflectively evocative. Bait brings us to a small fishing village on the Cornish coast, where fisherman Martin Ward (Edward Rowe) attempts to keep his industry alive as the village around him succumbs to the desires and pretences of neoliberal modernity. Old dockside cottages, decorated with repurposed nautical gear, have become the holiday homes of upper-middle-class inlanders; local pubs now close during the tourist off-season; and old trawlers are repurposed as party barges. Mark Jenkins’ captures the Cornish coast with rough 16mm film on a hand-cranked Bolex camera — the result is a visual grit that feels far more physically-present than The Lighthouse’s pristine pseudo-orthochroma. The film also relies on ADR sound engineering, given the limitations of the Bolex as purely a motion-capturing device, which lends well to its rough aesthetic tangibility. Most significantly here however is ADR’s inherent uncanniness, that disembodied “oneiria” of a voice not quite matching up to its speaker. Alongside its brackish celluloid, the film suggests a haunting — ghosts; a film of memories made painful by the present and things-left-behind.
For Bait, the coast is not simply one threshold but many. We cannot chalk Bait’s depiction of the coastline down to a singular outlook like The Lighthouse’s blanket maniacal doom. Bait looks out upon the waves from its rough stone harbour, a place of dereliction and decay — but there is also life and purpose. There are ghosts and violence, but there is no terror and there are no monsters. Had Eggers taken over Bait’s helm, the Leigh family would make perfect substitutes for his Ephraim Winslow — outsiders, like an inner-M25 Torrance family — encroaching into a haunted space where the locals and the monsters they harbour hold no passion but to see you destroyed. But no— this is a story about the Thomas Wakes. Martin Ward and his locals and family are a community built upon and by the threshold — they understand and respect it; both it and structures of their communal and personal selves are simultaneous. A village built around fishing; around generations of knowledge and industry of what it means to live with the sea — not just next to it, not to conquer it, and certainly not to fear it. Around the village, Martin sees visions of his deceased father — he was a fisherman like him: weathered with age, strapped in his waders, with a look of observant pride and empathy that glows from him. It would be incorrect, and perhaps disrespectful, to dismiss the presence of his father’s ghost as sorrow for the past — a sentimental goodbye to old times. Bait does not weep incessantly for the lost, but instead channels this anger through anti-modernity; a strident suspicion towards false ideas of progress. It sees no inherent value in the future, or at least, the future as defined by a force outside of itself. These coastal hauntings are not born from terror but from displacement — the insistence that something here is out of place, as if the very film itself were convulsing to the touch of an outside force; attempting to reassemble itself. Temporal cross-edits highlight the irony of neoliberalism — middle-class diners eating their “local”-brand fish with a Waitrose-stocked fridge, while the locals sit down to eat an otherwise simpler meal. For Martin, the coast rips behind him as he lays his net out across the shore and throws his lobster pots into the ocean. For the young son of the Leigh family, the ocean is a scuba-diving expedition — a place for him to break apart Martin’s lobster pots and claim it as his own catch. The harbour, through the Leigh-family lens, becomes coded within the industries of service, of tourist fetishism, and of “local” as a brand divorced from socio-cultural reality. That pulling tension — between modernity and tradition, between proletariat and bourgeois realities, between distanced liberal alienation and local frankness — shows up in that imagery. It becomes the uncanny; the haunting presence of a familiar reality left inaccessible and unexpressed. Close-up lobsters are familiar creatures lensed as devils; reflections of ghosts on shattered porthole glass; modern needs through tattered nitrate. The coast as a violent threshold, re-imagined for the age of Brexit.
That both films lens their maritime messages through visual insinuations of the past remains intriguing, even if their values remain altogether rather different. Both suggest that neoliberal malaise — a cultural nihilism, channelling a creative depression brought on by a literal post-modern condition. To reference a familiar source for me, writer Mark Fisher talks of “the slow cancellation of the future” — a 21st century that has yet to start; a creative environment “oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion” Thus, from our artistic exhaustion, we turn to the past. The Lighthouse seems perfectly content with this, as its evocation of the coast owes to an older aesthetic — a hyper-collection of borrowed images and tones that, with all its faded-photo flamboyance, adds up to little more than a misunderstood pastiche. Its threshold is a Todorovian fantasy: a potentially ‘marvellous’ at times and rarely ‘uncanny’ rendering of the ocean. Yet in never really succumbing to either, it remains ‘fantastic’: hesitant, sceptical, and afraid. Meanwhile Bait’s coastal threshold signifies a creative embrace towards time becoming meaningless. It looks parallel, backwards, forwards, and even repeats itself. It commits to the ‘uncanny’ in accepting fear as ultimately tethered to the real, yet it remains haunting nonetheless. A threshold respected versus respect under threat. The restless ocean as a place to remain unconquered and never feared; to admire and appreciate, but never to underestimate.