“Moonlight”: A Canvas for Hyperbole

To me, the Oscars have always been an annoying spectacle: a meaningless, invented holiday that February is already lousy with (Groundhog’s Day, Valentine’s Day, the Super Bowl). For the past few years I haven’t tuned in, and rarely keep tabs on who is nominated for what. This year would have been no exception, until one high-profile nominee got me worked up.

Recently I went to see Moonlight, a film about a gay black man named Chiron who comes-of-age in the Miami ghetto of Liberty City. I went into the theater intrigued and open-minded, having only seen the trailer and the poster.

I found the movie to be plodding, underdeveloped, and flat. Consequently, I’m amazed by just how glowing and bombastic the rhetoric around this film has been. Take, for example, the opening paragraph of Robbie Collin’s review for The Telegraph:

Moonlight, the new film from Barry Jenkins, is a nuclear-fission-strength heartbreaker. It’s made up of moments so slight and incidental they’re sub-molecular – but they release enough heat and light to swallow whole cities at a stroke.

I often enjoy criticizing criticism more than I enjoy criticizing art. Art elicits opinions and emotions which critics seek to intellectualize and canonize, using references to Hart Crane and James Baldwin. Reading through many reviews of Moonlight, I noticed a not-so-subtle pattern: hyperbole is employed to the extent of betraying contradictions, if not deep confusion about the how the film succeeds and how it falters. My impetus for this piece was to wrangle with the disconnect I’ve felt between myself and the critical community.  As I navigate their misconceptions and follies, I intersperse my own thoughts on Moonlight and why I disliked it – I believe my reasons are as good as theirs (or, divesting modesty, better) but I’ll let you be the judge.

“Subtle” isn’t that subtle

 

The 3 stages of Chiron (from movies2watch.co)
The 3 stages of Chiron (from movies2watch.co)

Moonlight is a brooding, quiet film that divides Chiron’s story into three distinct episodes: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood.  Each chapter is titled after Chiron’s most salient identifiers at the time: “Little” then “Chiron” and finally “Black.”  Within the first few minutes a bold, minimalist title card – “i. little” – comes on the screen, effectively announcing this is the childhood section. Having the structure broken down in this way reveals the horizontality of the narrative – in the words of Slant Magazine’s Sam C. Mac, from the get-go Moonlight is  “a montage of life-shaping moments.”

After seeing the whole 110 minute sequence of moments unfold, I can affirm that the movie amounts to little more than Mac’s pithy description, though it aspires (and in a few cases, succeeds) to portray each curated moment with color, vitality, and nuance.

I kept waiting for the movie to surprise me – it never did. Altogether frustrated with Chiron’s lack of personality, I was continually annoyed by how over-directed and over-wrought many of the scenes are (why the legato string music? why the slow motion?). Most critics found these flourishes to be the film’s stylistic strength – I would chalk this up to an “agree to disagree,” if only they would stop declaring how damn subtle everything is. Here is Robbie Collin again, describing an early scene in which Chiron and his pal Kevin break off from an innocent game of schoolyard football:

And Little’s reaction to a play-fight with a friend has a subtly post-coital quality: he lies back on the grass, lips parted, breathless and fulfilled. Basically, the clues are there, and they’re conveyed with mesmerising subtlety and lion-hearted charisma by the young screen newcomer Alex R. Hibbert.

I still remember the analogy my sixth grade teacher used to explain what “subtle” meant. She explained that being subtle is lightly dabbing at your cheek with your finger to indicate that your friend has some leftover food or condiment on their face, while saying “you have something on your face” is not subtle. I’ve dwelt on this analogy for years, and realized that – while a great example for a curious fifth grader – my teacher was really describing tactfulness, not subtlety, since your subtle quest is merely a matter of pointing out – rather than saying – that your friend has shit on their face.

The brand of subtlety that critics are praising Barry Jenkins for is my teacher’s brand of subtlety. And when enough people say a scene is subtle, it can’t really be that subtle.  Hopefully you noticed that Collin takes some serious poetic liberty with the oxymoron “mesmerizing subtlety.” While I agree that the young Alex Hibbert is an able performer, the implications of the scene are very obvious: this is a coming-of-age tale about a gay boy, and we’re watching him playfully wrestle another boy. Yes, it certainly has a “post-coital quality” – what else could it be attempting to convey?

Alex Hibbert & Mahershala Ali (from smh.com.au)
Alex Hibbert & Mahershala Ali (from smh.com.au)

The scene that critics doted on the most takes place in the third act: a twenties-something Chiron, now a beefed-up Atlanta-based drug dealer, gets a call from Kevin – their first contact in ten years – and drives down to Miami for an intimate reunion in his old friend’s soul food diner. I found this scene verysappy (Kevin grins while stirring a pot of black beans – the “chef’s special” – to the tune of a cello sonata) but critics describe it as and “almost too much to bear,” a “spiritual communion,” and “quite simply a perfectly crafted scene.” Weirdly, though, the scene action on screen more evocative than I (or even Jenkins) could have imagined:

Here, again, the film calls attention subtly yet sharply, in a few lines of dialogue, to appalling realities of warehoused black male bodies, of the prison-industrial complex. “I got sent up for some stupid shit,” Kevin, grinning, tells his old friend as they’re catching up in the diner where he now does double-duty as a waiter and cook. “Same stupid shit they always put us away for.”   Melissa Anderson, The Village Voice

Clear situational intention is muddled by over-analysis to produce “subtlety.” Yes, Kevin admits to spending time in jail, and yes, black men represent an inordinate proportion of our prisons’ populations, and many of them end up there on petty drug charges. But no knowledge of that social reality is necessary to appreciate the drama of the scene, or even the weight of the film as a whole. For whatever reason, natural and believable on-screen behaviors – a wide-eyed sigh after a play fight, or a black character mentioning his prison sentence in somewhat off-hand terms – are being lauded by critics as masterful examples of “subtlety” when really what we’re seeing is competent screenwriting and competent acting. Obviously, the wheels would come off if Kevin were to say “I went to prison for selling a little weed,” or if young Chiron were to – after his “subtly post-coital” sigh – utter “hehe, I feel kinda tingly.”

Comments like Anderson’s have led me to that critics have reached a troubling consensus:

In contemporary cinema,
representation > characterization

Chiron in the third act (from artpluszcinema.hu)
Chiron in the third act.

Chiron might not be the most boring protagonist I’ve spent two hours watching, but he is definitely the most boring protagonist ever featured in a movie that is up for multiple Academy Awards and is repeatedly referred to as a “character study.” Not only does he barely speak, but Chiron barely demonstrates any behaviors or choices that are indicative of traits beyond victimhood and suffering. Here is how Bret Easton Ellis puts it, in his uniquely critical analysis of the film:

The movie keeps asking us to endure Chiron’s pain. And yet: why? There’s nothing to love about Chiron, there’s nothing at stake except his sadness and pain. He’s not into anything—he’s not into music or poetry or comic books—he’s a cipher.

Ellis’ argues that the mute, perpetually pining and suffering Chiron is thoroughly uninteresting in a dramatic context. Such an argument runs counter to the logic of our current standard of identity politics, which have made Moonlight into a landmark film due to its featuring a gay black lead, as well as an entirely black cast.

I am not claiming that Moonlight’s praise derives solely from the skin color of its cast.  However, nearly every review of the film has pointed to the all-black ensemble as an integral component of its greatness, independent of the story itself:

Chiron is poor, black, and gay (though the last of those isn’t something he seems comfortable saying aloud), and one could mount a case for Moonlight on grounds of representation alone: rarely does American cinema even address this kind of character, let alone with such poetic grace.”  A.A. Dowd, The A/V Club

Like James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain — or, to take a more recent example, like Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me — Moonlight dwells on the dignity, beauty and terrible vulnerability of black bodies, on the existential and physical matter of black lives.  A.O. Scott, The New York Times

Jenkins’ long-awaited follow-up to 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy is a lyrical meditation on identity – racial identity, masculine identity, and sexual identity – that asks what it means to be a black man who’s gay. Or, in the case of Moonlight, what it means to be Chiron.  Chris Nashawaty, Entertainment Weekly

Though meant in praise, Chris Nashawaty’s summary spells out the underlying failure of the film: good storytelling and compelling characters take a backseat to its “meditation on identity.” When reading reviews of Moonlight, I feel as though critics have forgotten that it’s possible (and, in my opinion, preferable and more subtle) to intimately explore real social and cultural realities through convincing yet larger-than-life characters and plots: that’s why I love movies like Uptown Saturday Night or My Own Private Idaho, and shows like The Wire and The Sopranos.

Omar from The Wire.
Omar from The Wire, the seminal gay-black-sorta-Shakespearean badass.

Moreover, when a film’s primary mission is representing the underrepresented, it is bound to offer a very limited and perhaps inconsistent interpretation of “what it means to be a black man who’s gay.” Indeed, Chiron’s development into an adult is oddly pathetic: he spends time in the penal system and emerges tough enough to run a mid-level drug trade in Atlanta, yet not tough enough to have acted on his desires in the interim – we learn by the end of the film that Kevin’s handjob is the only gay sex Chiron has experienced.

Yeah right. I have a hard time believing a handsome, muscle-bound man like Chiron wouldn’t be able to satiate his desires, if only in the shadows, in prison or on the outside. Again, I found a champion of this opinion in Ellis:

I kept thinking: wouldn’t it have been a more progressive view that Chiron had defeated his victimization and this big and beautiful black guy could have easily found so much physical intimacy and affection and maybe even love on the down low—maybe dissatisfied, maybe unhappy, but that would have been a dramatic progression. Instead he is just a man-child who has not had sex since that hand job and Moonlight wants us to believe that the most chaste hand-job in the history of movies stunted this stud into celibacy (if the boys had given each other blowjobs I doubt the movie would have been as wildly acclaimed.)

Chiron is not proactive: he is a character who is acted upon.  The only time in the film he makes a truly hard choice is when he breaks a stool over the head of his long-time bully, Terrell.  We then see him folded into a cop car, a worried Kevin looking on.  Cut to black, and suddenly it’s ten years later.  Leaps like this betray a lazy fatalism: the most interesting development of the film – Chiron’s transformation from a nervous teen to a muscle-bound drug dealer – happens in the dark, leaving the viewer to construct the trajectory themselves.  This might have worked if the Chiron that emerges in the third act was markedly different from that of the first two – tough, no-nonsense, callous, cruel; or even just more charismatic, more open.  But he’s not: the differences are merely cosmetic, and the movie honestly wouldn’t change much if the third act opened up to him shelving DVDs at a Best Buy. This, to me, is a problem.

However, critics have a good way of apologizing for flaws like this:

In the absence of drama, “poetry”

A.O. Scott is particularly effusive in his praise of Jenkins’ film, putting it on a pedestal with the work of James Baldwin, Ta-Nehasi Coates, Kehinde Wiley ­– and Hart Crane:

Every moment is infused with what the poet Hart Crane called “infinite consanguinity,” the mysterious bond that links us with one another and that only an alert and sensitive artistic imagination can make visible.

I don’t know if I’ve ever read a more pretentious description of – what, exactly? As pretty as some moments were, I was not sitting in the theater, thinking, “oh, this is what Hart Crane was talking about!” and I kinda don’t think A.O. Scott was, either. Comparing film to poetry usually correlates to slow, meandering scenes and plenty of rack focusing, which is the preferred mode of D.P. James Laxton. Indeed, Scott continues from this indulgent name-drop to lauding Laxton’s cinematography.

Moonlight features a gorgeous, rich palette and a handful of smart, graceful scenes (Chiron’s first swimming lesson could be its own short film) but about 80% of the film is shot in close or medium shots with a super-shallow depth-of-field. My girlfriend said this made her woozy; my complaint is that the emphasis on faces and expressions over-mediates most of the scenes. The characters are divorced from their surroundings by way of bokeh. This myopic blurriness intensifies isolation in a film where all the characters (and their actions) are already so brutally isolated. Strangely, The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday applauds Laxton and Jenkins for “wide open shots” that, to my eyes, were fairly rare.

 

A super-shallow depth-of-field is the preferred mode of Moonlight D.P. James Laxton – unlike Ann Hornaday, I did not see many "wide open" shots over the course of the film.
A super-shallow depth-of-field is the preferred mode of D.P. James Laxton – unlike Ann Hornaday, I did not see many “wide open” shots over the course of the film.

Although I hesitate to call Moonlight “poetic,” it certainly evokes the stereotypes associated with poetry: moody, brooding, opaque.

Moonlight is so sobering, even excruciating, as it bears witness to his search for identity that it’s difficult to convey the particular kind of joy it possesses.  (Hornaday)

I agree. Watching Chiron’s incessant victimization was sober and excruciating, and his subsequent self-discovery was needlessly joyless and humorless.  So I ask:

Does Otherness always lead to good art?

Movies like Moonlight challenge our understanding of the responsibilities of good cinema and good art.  Ann Hornaday calls Jenkins’ effort a “perfect film” because of its “capacity for empathy and compassion” while A.O. Scott wraps up his bombastic praise with the odd assertion that “knowing Chiron is a privilege.”

Absent from these accounts is any mention of entertainment value, or dramatic tautness – instead, critics praise the film for being “poetic” and for featuring faces and bodies that Hollywood doesn’t usually offer. Sure, there is great value in representing the underrepresented – and movies aren’t only meant to entertain – but why can’t we have both? Isn’t the gift of fiction its ability to create people who are more interesting than us?  Doesn’t the miracle of drama involve our capacity to shape compelling situations that challenge characters’ (and our own) sensibilities and consciences?  What about Chiron is so compelling, other than that he’s poor, black, and gay?  What makes knowing Chiron a “privilege,” besides his Otherness?

Critics love Barry Jenkins for his undeniably lush, rich vision of poverty and adversity: he is more Jacob Lawrence than Jacob Riis, more Delacroix than Dorothea Lange, but he falters as a dramatist and a storyteller.  All filmgoers are intrigued by Otherness, just as much as they are won over by characters and scenarios they can relate to.  What makes or breaks any story – no matter who or what it’s about – is how it’s told, and my frustration with the response to Moonlight is rooted in how little attention has been devoted to what I see as flagrant failures of plot and character development.

This is my challenge to critics: can you praise Moonlight without using the words “poor” “black” “gay” or “poetic”?

And A.O., can you do it without **any** references to modernist poetry or post-colonial painting? (I know, I know, that’s too much to ask.)

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