When Benjamin Franklin opined in 1789 that nothing in this world is certain except death and taxes, he casually left out one more human certainty: flatulence. No matter one’s gender, color, class or creed, all mankind is united in spirit by a common gastrointestinal reflex. We all die. We all pay taxes. We all break wind.
But just as we each die in our own way, and we each pay taxes according to filing status, so too do we fart, from one toot to the next, for reasons entirely our own, reasons which only we can appreciate at the time of release. At nasal value, a fart is just a fart, natural but noxious effluvia expelled from the interior. “It’s better to fart and bear the shame than hold it in and bear the pain,” goes the old adage, and while this is true, farts are, put simply, gross.
They’re also surprisingly instructive. Farts say a lot about their titleholders, though they may not know it at the time of discharge. So goes the case of one Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe), the crustiest wickie to ever tend a beacon, who, within the first wordless five minutes of Robert Eggers’ latest film, The Lighthouse, leans forward and blasts his junior keeper, Ephraim Winslow (Robert Pattinson), square in the gob with a trumpet’s blare to shake the foundations of their ramshackle quarters. Thomas, as the audience is quick to find, is something of an asshole himself, a man so bereft of civility that it’s little wonder he favors a seaman’s life rather than make a career on society’s shores. There is, if not malevolence, a nonchalant disregard for Winslow’s sense of smell that translates to nonchalant disregard for Winslow’s humanity.
That’s in keeping with Wake’s quality as a man. He spends large stretches of The Lighthouse hazing Winslow: He burdens his subordinate with more work than one man can reasonably fulfill, keeps mum as Winslow pours a cup from the cistern despite knowing full well that the cistern ain’t clean, pulls rank on the most trivial of chores and errands, and generally treats the younger man as a housekeeper rather than a lighthouse keeper. He’s not abusive, per se; at times he’s downright convivial, though this is a side effect of too many tall tales told over too much rum in the dead of the loneliest nights. Sloshed, Wake is a hoot, even endearing. Sober, his farts rattle his and Winslow’s shelter quite like the mighty waves assailing its walls, and offend Winslow’s nasals like the salty scent of the sea. As The Lighthouse slowly unfurls and Winslow voices his objections to Wake’s expulsions, Wake only offers laughter in response—as devastating a riposte as a man can make when faced with the horrors of his vapors.
Then again, maybe the people farting in your general direction are using their farts as a tool of dissent. In Good Morning, Yasujiro Ozu’s 1959 post-war family dramedy, the brothers Hayashi, Minoru (Shitara Koji) and Isamu (Masahiko Shimazu), voice their disapproval over their parents’ (Chishu Ryu and Kuniko Miyake) refusal to buy a television set by silencing the elder voices entirely and replacing them with the miasmas of their digestive discontent. If they can’t watch TV, the brothers’ logic goes, then mom and dad can’t breathe easily, though Ozu doesn’t restrict Good Morning’s farts to the boys alone: Even dad can’t help but rip a couple of his own while getting dressed for work, each blat drawing the attention of mom, who mistakenly hears each fart as a summons.
Good Morning’s farts allocate the film a puerile levity unexpected of Ozu’s trademarked sobriety. But fart jokes for fart jokes’ sake isn’t the intention, not quite: Every fart breaks down lines of communication and either forges new lines or degrades traditional lines. Dad, for instance, farts in a baritone register. Minoru, Isamu and their pals fart like they’re letting air out of balloons. What’s more, they punctuate their farts with gesticulation, swinging their arms victoriously. (Woe to the one kid who can’t help sharting on command.) Protest, over time, mutates into the language of the young, and language signifies the rift separating strict older generations from their westernized offspring. There’s no shame in farts, just a cultural shift.
Shame, of course, is central to the Daniels’ (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan) Swiss Army Man, the movie starring Daniel Ratcliffe as Manny, a turgid, thunderous corpse, and Paul Dano, playing Hank, a man caught in a Cast Away situation. Hank can’t fart in front of other people, even when the other person is a dead man; he ducks behind trees to unleash. Hank considers farting a major social party foul. He’s terribly embarrassed at the thought of tearing ass within earshot of his fellow man. But Manny has a different take. “If my best friend hides his farts from me then what else is he hiding from me, and why does that make me feel so alone?” he ponders, such as a carcass can ponder anything, or be taken seriously when engaged in pondering.
Hank, who the Daniels eventually reveal as a total creepazoid lurking around in the woods behind his crush’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) home, takes the question to heart, and to fart. When cornered on the beach in Swiss Army Man’s climax, he finally banishes the gust building in his bowels, to the horror of the police, his crush and a local news crew. Only his dad, and Manny, receive the fart as the gift that it is: Hank’s confession of his every secret, of the chagrin and self-consciousness he’s kept buried inside himself. As farts grant sweet abdominal relief, so too can it grant clemency to the soul.
Sometimes, of course, a fart is just a fart, just like a cigar is just a cigar. In Blazing Saddles or Dances with Wolves, farts indicate crude character, the exact kind of communal faux pas that Hank fears. In Step Brothers, farts are equally crude, though the farter believes he’s doing himself a favor by way of farting, only for the fart to backfire.
The movies have understood farts as metaphor as well as proof of a man’s quality. A good fart can reinforce long-embraced cultural mores, or deconstruct those mores. It can teach audiences valuable lessons about openness between friends. (A fart can even bring the deceased back to life, as in Pedro Almodóvar’s Volver.) So the next time you hear the sound of gas passed, don’t write it off as rudeness. Think of it as a learning opportunity. Just remember to pinch your nose.
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.