Mind ‘yer brasswork, we’re watching The Lighthouse in isolation
Who doesn’t want their own private island? The one in The Lighthouse may not correspond to a real place—it’s a mythic rock, an existential black box—but it has a pull just the same. I recently wanted badly to get away like this, to dip into solitude. It didn’t have to be far, or in a breathtaking locale, just a span of days long enough, in a place remote enough, to sit and think. Then one day you learn you’re getting that peace and quiet after all, just not the way you wanted. And it’s not so quiet, with sirens surging up and down your block. And peace—good luck with that.
If you’re lucky, you discover something small that cracks everything open, and you think you’ve found an out. For me it was in the end credits of The Lighthouse, hidden in a song called “Brasswork: The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lament.” At one point in the film, Thomas (Willem Dafoe) sings it as a little ditty. More often, it inspires a refrain he uses to keep Winslow (Robert Pattinson) in check. “Mind yer brasswork,” he snarls when he thinks Winslow is slacking.
The song is based on a poem that chronicles a lifetime of keepers’ complaints about polishing brass. The metal was cheap and it never rusted—but it could tarnish overnight in the salt air.
The devil himself could never invent
A material causing more world-wide lament,
And in Uncle Sam’s service about ninety percent,
I dig, scrub and polish, and work with a might,
And just when I get it all shining and bright,
In comes the fog like a thief in the night:
Spend enough time home alone and you start to suspect they used brass just to keep the men busy.
The first time I saw The Lighthouse was last fall, with two friends in New York City. We left the full theater for a longish walk to a wine bar. It was a November afternoon just after the marathon, so the streets and bars and subways were crowded with runners in their crinkly metallic capes. At the wine bar a very young, friendly waiter poured us glass after glass as we unpacked the film: I remember we talked about the aspect ratio, the sometimes-unintelligible diction, and the sexual charge of seeing Winslow walk Thomas like a dog. Months later now, and more than a month into isolation, The Lighthouse has a different flavor. Now I notice how time telescopes when you’re taken out of circulation. How you fixate on things you can’t have anymore and never even wanted before. How Winslow’s frequent, furious masturbation doesn’t really seem so over the top after all.
Mostly though, I think about brasswork. That is what Winslow has signed on to do during his four-week stay on the island (funny how four weeks can seem like an eternity or a short sentence, depending on how long you’ve been home). Winslow is there to chalk the cistern and cart the coal, whitewash the walls and stoke the furnace. He does everything, really, except keep the lamp lit and cook the meals (the first is Thomas’ obsession, the other is his hobby.)
Sanity is a question of busywork. You go through the motions, you keep the lamps lit, and you’ll make it through okay.
For a while the two wickies, as lighthouse keepers are called, really do keep things ship-shape. But when their standards eventually plummet—when the rotgut starts pouring, and the windows burst in, and the chamber pots overflow—so do their minds. It’s impossible to tell which decline causes the other, but I read it as a cautionary tale. So after my first few days of quarantine, lazily pulling on a baseball cap for Zoom meetings and ordering takeout, I started making my own routines. Exercise every other day, during the hours I would normally commute. Cook three meals a week, setting aside some leftovers for lunches, some to freeze and guard against the worst. I shower every morning and put in contacts. Do my hair, moisturize, lay out fresh clothes and put them on.
There’s something calming about keeping busy, or even watching others do it. I like watching Winslow huff around that unnamed island, battling entropy. I like watching him the same way I like watering my virtual succulents on the My Little Terrarium app, the way I imagine thousands of people like furnishing their homes in Animal Crossing. Thomas likes keeping Winslow busy too, giving him long lists of chores and letting him perform a few extra feats that don’t need doing at all. He is brutally matter-of-fact after watching Winslow haul a veritable keg of oil up the narrow spiral staircase to the top of the tower where the light is fueled. “Tired?” he asks, before tossing his assistant a handheld brass can. “Use this next time. Save you a helluva lot of trouble… Then bring that drum back down the ladderwell where you found it.” This after Thomas has spent 15 minutes listening to Winslow wrestle that drum without saying a word. Is he punishing Winslow, sending him like Sisphysus back to the foot of the mountain? Is he teaching him that hard work is its own reward?
Mostly he just doesn’t want Winslow to lose it. The keeper claims he’s already lost one assistant to madness, and he believes that sanity is a question of busywork. You go through the motions, you keep the lamps lit, and you’ll make it through okay. He says as much over dinner one night: “What’s the terrible part of a sailor’s life? ‘Tis when the work stops when ye’re twixt wind and water. Doldrums. Doldrums. Eviler than the Devil. Boredom makes men to villains…”
When work stops working, when there’s nothing left to clean and routine becomes an affliction instead of a comfort, there’s nothing left to do but burn it all down.
Brasswork may be tedious, but it dulls the mind when it’s too early (in the day, in the duration of your confinement) to turn to stronger drugs. My kitchen sink, for example, has never been cleaner. Not just empty of plates (they barely hit the sink now, moving swiftly from hand to faucet to drying rack). I mean the sink itself has been scrubbed with steel wool, and the fixtures too, and the little beveled edges where the fitting meets the countertop. I’ve started vacuuming in the infomercial style—not a cursory push around the rug, but a full, extended nozzle glide along cornices and baseboards, behind the couch and across the grate under the fridge. Today I flipped my mattress and boxspring, swept and sifted the drifts of dust beneath my bed, and despaired a little because I couldn’t think of where to take the dustpan next. I hit each surface with disinfectant too, of course, but all this cleaning isn’t to kill germs, it’s to kill time.
Routines confer a certain control. Order reassures. Even when Thomas and Winslow argue over their chores, there’s comfort in it. Take their cabin floor, which Thomas claims is poorly swabbed even though Winslow promises he’s mopped it twice. Thomas disagrees, and when Winslow averrs again his boss unleashes a sadist’s tirade both devastating and exquisitely detailed:
“If I tells ye to pull up and apart every floorboard and clapboard of this here house and scour ‘em down with your bare bleeding knuckles, you do it. And if I tell you to yank out every single nail from every mouldering nail house and suck off every speck of rust ’til all them nails sparkle like a sperm whale’s pecker and then carpenter the whole lighthouse station from scrap, and then do it all over again, you’ll do it and by god and by golly you’ll do it smiling lad.”
This isn’t so much a fight as a ritual, an assertion of authority so comforting Winslow might welcome it, even if he’d never admit it. How nice to be told what to do now. Imagine getting clear instructions from someone you trust.
“Aye, sir,” Winslow says, cowed.
In the next shot, Winslow is polishing more brasswork.
It doesn’t last, of course. After a certain duration (five weeks? two days?) all the scrubbing, the sweeping, the brasswork won’t hold you together anymore. When work stops working, when there’s nothing left to clean and routine becomes an affliction instead of a comfort, there’s nothing left to do but burn it all down. Even clean floors, lit lamps, and tasty lobster feel like a burden when there’s no end of it in sight. Any change becomes welcome, even a change for the worse.
So you start to understand why those men drink themselves stupid. Why they break things, and then each other just for the thrill of it. Thomas describes Winslow’s agonized masturbation as “ritual self-abuse,” and the phrase is old-fashioned but apt. He is hammering away at himself, but at least it gives him some release. I’ve felt the same pull lately—to PornHub, sure, but also towards a little destruction, just for laughs. To let the sink pile up with dishes. To let the food rot in the fridge and live off beer and whisky. To spend one day in bed, and then the next, because another pass down the hall with the mop would be too pathetic to bear. We’re each on our own islands these days, if we’re lucky, and knowing things are far worse past our front doors doesn’t necessarily make our private storms any easier to weather.
“This place is a sty,” Winslow says the morning after a night spent chugging rotgut and beating his chest. There’s an axe buried in the table, a few feet of seawater laps against the walls, and it’s looking like his four-week stay will stretch on forever. “I wish I could go for a walk,” he says. I’m saying it, too, these days. Some movies become alien in quarantine—all those people touching their faces, congregating, dating. Others begin to feel prescient. It was a thrill to watch The Lighthouse in a packed theater last November. Watching alone now, it feels like a preview of coming attractions.