We Were Both Underwhelmed by “Moonlight,” but Disagree Why

SAM RUSSELL

Moonlight. What can I say. It’s hot right now. I have heard nothing but glowing things about this film, and for good reason. It’s a classy picture. It has a lot going for it- beautifully shot, designed, acted, written. All around excellent cinematic craftsmanship. It looks a candid look at stories often overlooked in mainstream media- poverty, addiction, queer people of color. We don’t frequently see stories from these perspectives. Even more infrequently does a film explore the intersections of all these elements so gracefully.

Similar to the rest of the world I don’t have anything negative to say about Moonlight. However somehow I am not as excited about it as everyone else seems to be. It was good. I appreciate it, and firmly believe it deserves all the praise it’s receiving. But it just doesn’t light a fire in my belly the way it seems to for so many others. Maybe it was my absurdly high expectations. Maybe it’s because I sat in the second row of a packed theater and my neck was sore for most of the viewing. Maybe it’s my privilege. Am I less interested because I don’t see myself represented anywhere in this film? If this is the case, that’s probably another plus for the movie- It’s not the same poverty porn white audiences devour with glee and shower with awards.

CHRISTOPHER MAHER

I actually had a similar feeling and internal debate – the movie didn’t connect to me, but I also sat there thinking that maybe it’s not supposed to?  But on an opposite note I have seen movies from other cultures (and in a lot ways this movie is from a different culture for all of the reasons you said above – just a culture much more immediate that I should strive to understand even more than all the other cultures I ought to strive to understand) that I’ve connected to more.

I’ll get this out of the way: coming of age stories are always problematic for me.  From a narrative standpoint they are faced with two challenges.  Either (A) they feel too disjointed, since they focus on such radically different time periods in someone’s life it is essentially different characters with different arcs, or (B) they feel like they’re too insular, and the person hasn’t changed.  I felt this movie fell prey to B more than A, but they’re both issues for me.  I just don’t think that focusing on three distinct people in three distinct circumstances, even if they are the “same person”, works.  Yes, background informs us, but most movies play that as subtext, and I feel that always works.  I would have been fine seeing part iii as a full length movie with part i and part ii nestled in as character motivation or dialogue.  I don’t know that we would have lost anything (other than Mahershala Ali’s terrific performance).

SR

I think that’s an interesting way to look at coming of age films. I think I would argue that while many movies play “background informs us” as subtext, that is just one way of doing things. A story taking large leaps through time can be equally effective and comes with it’s own advantages. For example, the third act works so well because we the audience know the events of the first two acts intimately. The brief scene between Chiron and his mother is effective because in the first act we experience her negligence and abuse. This is the first scene when she seems compassionate and remorseful. Without the context of their relationship, and seeing it play out in real live action, their relationship would be subtext. It might still serve the same function, but I don’t think it would be quite as powerful. For me this scene was a revelation- oh yeah, she is a victim. We knew she was a drug addict, but it’s hard to empathise with someone bullying a child. When we see an older, wiser, cleaner version of the character apologize, it clicks.

CM

But I think all the problems persist for me, even in that scene.  I agree that it wouldn’t quite be as powerful without seeing what she had done, but I feel we miss out on a better story.  Imagine if her quest for forgiveness had been detailed in multiple scenes.  As it stands we see her abusive and addicted, and then clean and begging forgiveness, and he grants it.  They both went through powerful emotional journeys to be able to ask for and grant forgiveness respectively, but we miss those.  We don’t need to see their demons to see that they are haunted by them.  Again, it’s sort of a silly thing to accuse Moonlight of, since I think it’s a fault with that whole “genre” of film.  Like I said in my review of Firewatch, life already gives us singular moments, stringing them together into a story is the challenge, and by cutting out moments of growth so we just see a series of products we lose the story itself.  It feels like we get to see three separate characters at static points, as opposed to one character go through a distinct change.

The better example I’d say would be the final sequence between Kevin and Chiron.  We only need to know what they say in that scene.  They discuss everything that happened between them either textually or subtextually within that scene (they discuss their previous physical relationship, their falling out is alluded to perfectly without detail [and how much more powerful would it have been to simply know that something had happened between them after their relationship that cost them ten years – who cares that it was a physical altercation or how exactly it fell out]).  Hell, that scene could have performed as a short film and wouldn’t have lost anything.

Regardless, the film falls victim to my (B) critique more, in that it feels too connected considering the amount of years that pass.  The world in part i feels more expansive than the following two parts.  Are we really supposed to believe that this kid keeps his one childhood friend as his only friend… ever?  Until he’s what, twenty-something?  And that his mother is the only other constant in his life?  My mother (who I saw the film with) argues he wouldn’t have many connections because of how quietly he was raised and how much trouble he had, and I’m inclined to agree with her, but it felt like the world shrunk instead of expanding as he grew.  The drug dealer on the street corner in part i feels like he has more of a varied life more prone to change than any character in part iii.

SR

I think what you’re asking for is a different movie. Maybe the scene in the restaurant could stand alone as a short film. I think you can say that about many scenes in this movie. I don’t think a film being episodic is necessarily the wrong choice, or the lesser choice. The restaurant scene works well on it’s own. The beach scene, when Chiron has his first sexual encounter, could probably also stand alone as a short film. Both are incredibly well crafted scenes, they work on their own, but I don’t think they are worse for coexisting. They don’t feel redundant to me. They communicate different ideas, share very different experiences.

Sure they both don’t need to exist for the other to work. But I don’t think a film always needs to be a house of cards, where if one card is removed the whole house falls apart. A film can be a deck of cards, each card placed neatly next to one another on a table. Ya know?

I think what you’re advocating for is in the spirit of traditional Hollywood story structure. Moonlight plays more in the tradition of international art cinema.

CM

I actually totally disagree with the notion that Moonlight is like international art house, and would argue it actually rings much closer to all the “Oscar worthy” films that fit the Hollywood narrative.  Lots of talking, lots of “powerful” scenes that are too isolated – essentially a series of big scenes, as opposed to small scenes that add up to something big.  And I agree, almost every scene in the film is well crafted, but I do think a film should feel like every scene is necessary.  International art house is just as structured as Hollywood – better structured than Hollywood, most of the time – but better at hiding the strings and offering chances for meditation.

Take for example The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-Hsien, 2016), which was one of my favorite international films last year.  It feels a little loose, and it certainly has breathing room.  You could probably edit out minutes worth of “moments”, but each scene still has to be in the movie for it to work.  Lots of quiet slow moments, but every scene necessary.  This movie felt like a lot of powerful scenes without coalescing into something more.  But again, I think that’s an issue for the whole genre, not just Moonlight.  I don’t think that movies have to be direct lines from A to B, necessarily.  There are absolutely other forms that can work.  But the coming of age fractured moments with the connective tissue cut out doesn’t cut it for me, because it’s lots of big emotional scenes without the back work.

But that’s my final word on it, because like I said right off the bat I just don’t think the genre itself works.

SR

Moonlight has plenty in common with international art cinema. Like I said the structure is episodic and elliptical. The protagonist isn’t driven by a singular goal that he achieves by the end. There’s less action, the narrative is more about Chiron’s interior, psychological growth. I think your alternative categorization is an iffy argument to make because it’s not very specific. Put Oscar-baity movies and art cinema next to each other and it’s a venn diagram with plenty of overlap. The two categories are far from mutually exclusive.

When you watch movies you watch them as a writer. You’re always thinking about the narrative functionality and efficiency. And this might be a controversial opinion, but I think you’re overvaluing narrative. Narrative is important, but it is far from the only element of cinema. Cinema is experience, atmosphere, aesthetics. Story is just one of many tools used to communicate ideas.


You talk about how The Assassin could lose moments and still work, but it can’t lose scenes. I would argue that Moonlight is the inverse. It’s more about experiencing moments with this character, and together this builds a cohesive experience, which powerfully and effectively communicates this intersection of identities. I think, while you’re correct that Moonlight isn’t perfectly structured narrative (at least when judged based on a very specific tradition of storytelling) it doesn’t need to be. It’s strengths are elsewhere.

CM

This film lit six out of ten moons for me.

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