If you’ve ever been to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ve seen a glimpse of the contrast between classic and contemporary art: You have your Spanish Colonial art, highly religious and its meaning highly obvious, but you also get some 21st-century abstractions, highly confounding and their meaning highly obscured. The latter is the kind that casual observers like to bully around: “How is this art? My kid could’ve done that!”
Most of us like our art to be upfront; we don’t want to think about it all that much: “Oh look, it’s a field and some wheat. Beautiful. Got it. Moving on.” That’s why contemporary, abstract pieces are uncomfortable — because they slow us down. But, as we know from many a parody of snobby art critics, these paintings can conjure up myriad meanings if only we would take our time with them.
It’s precisely because they’re so specific, unique and seemingly abstract that they can be applied to an eclectic set of interpretations. If you have a painting of a lady smirking at her painter, you’re confined to its frames; it’s likely you’re only thinking about what she may be thinking. Whereas, if you have a blue blob on a grey canvas, you can extrapolate many other meanings. It’s so specific, so detached from reality that it lends itself to different readings.
Forgive me for taking the scenic route. My point, which is quite paradoxical, is this: The more specific the art, the more universal the interpretations.
I’m vindicated by Wayne Federman, professor of comedy at USC and recent Foundations of Comedy lecture guest. Federman told our class that he found his hit sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” — which showed very specific, personal characters, behaviors and situations — resonated with so many people. Thus, he concluded by encouraging the class to write personal, unique characters; though they are abstract on the page, we may find they are more universal than we think.
As our world gets increasingly complex, our filmmakers strive to send some sort of universal message to a wider audience, an expression of their frustrations with the world. Most of the time, this is preachy or just too ambitious (like “Jojo Rabbit” or “Joker”); but, the intention is there.
In a world going slightly mad, an artist’s reflex is to emote and explain through their art. They can’t help it.
It’s already hard to make a movie; to make a good movie is even harder; to make a good movie that enlightens us with fresh, creative perspectives on the world … ever heard of Halley’s Comet?
This is why I doubt “your kid could’ve made that.” Making art that can be read in multiple ways requires a highly creative, highly insightful mind (nothing against your kid, most of us are in the same boat). It’s generally rare, but these past years have actually seen a number of these insightful movies. Here’s the thing: Our world is so messed up that even this rare type of film has been steadily produced. There’s too much to work with. It’s a creative playground that’s already yielded some of the best films of this year.
South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s “Parasite” and Robert Eggers’ “The Lighthouse” are very specific, creative movies. In “Parasite,” a lower-class South Korean family cunningly seeps into a rich family’s life after being hired as houseworkers. In “The Lighthouse,” two men work a lighthouse for several months, slowly succumbing to some peculiar sort of madness.
“Parasite” is one of my favorite movies of the year, and “The Lighthouse” may fall in the higher mid-tier. But, both are so specific in their premise, so unique in execution, that they merit appreciation if only because of the conversations they can start and the interpretations they can prompt. These movies are like parables: They tell a specific story that can be applied beyond the screen and generate truths about the real world.
Remember the paradox. What’s more specific than the first scene of “Parasite,” where our protagonists are roaming about their semi-basement home, scraping their phones along the ceiling to piggyback on a free Wi-Fi signal? The answer: Willem Dafoe blubbering “go make the coffee” in late-19th-century sailor speak as a chunk of scrambled egg projects out of his mouth onto his burly beard.
There’s a reason why critics fawn over movies like “The Lighthouse.” They give us so much to work with. In contrast to the ubiquitous superhero movies that don’t tell very specific stories — just generic ones of good versus evil — films like the latter two challenge us to think deeply and precisely because they seem so abstract and specific.
Yes, Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson are very acutely drawn characters, but you can read different themes onto them, and that’s my favorite part about this movie and others like it. It’s not the cinematography, acting or even the specific dialogue — though I’m as big a fan of 19th-century Captain Ahab-esque talk as the next guy — it’s the story and how it compels our minds to discern what the film might be saying.
“The Lighthouse” is about cabin fever, madness, divisions between young and old, father and son; it’s about brotherhood, marriage, love and lust, heaven and hell, flying too close to the sun, class divisions, guilt, greed, gluttony, wrath, mother nature, gods, superstition, truth, myth.
“The Lighthouse” is not the best movie of the year, but at this point I don’t even want to talk about “best” and “worst” movies; I just want to talk about movies and what they have to say.
And, any movie that allows my mind to play around in that grand list of themes is worth my money, my attention and my time, even if that’s just an extra second before moving on to the next superhero blockbuster.
Isa Uggetti is a junior writing about film. He is also the Arts & Entertainment editor of the Daily Trojan. His column, “All the World’s a Screen,” runs every other Monday.