MONDAY, FEBRUARY 6, 2017
Part 1—Abandonment and abuse: Is the widely-acclaimed (but little seen) feature film Moonlight depressing?
On Saturday afternoon, we saw the Oscar-nominated film for the second time. We pose our question for two reasons, stemming from the experience we had the first time we saw the film.
We saw Moonlight for the first time one week ago. In was a low ticket price Monday matinee. Few people were in attendance at the slightly weird old Senator, John Waters' current home court.
(Remind us to tell you about the time we opened for John Waters!)
Before the movie began, a group of 60-something women were discussing which Oscar-nominated films they'd already seen. One of the women said her friends hadn't wanted to come with her to see Moonlight because they'd heard, or at least had the idea, that the film is "depressing" (her word).
That was before the film began. When we actually watched the film that day, we found it very depressing.
In a nutshell, here's why. We won't be avoiding spoilers:
We're not sure when we've seen a character in a film subjected to so much brutality, abandonment and abuse. Fleshing out our report, the character in question is 9 or possibly 10 years old when Moonlight begins.
Already, he's virtually catatonic. Very early in the film, we start to see the sources of his apparent traumatization.
The abuse, and the results of same, remain on vivid display throughout the course of the film. That extends through the film's widely-praised closing scene or scenes, when we learn that the character, who's 26 or 27 by now, seems to have had one intimate sexual experience in the course of his life.
Rather plainly, that seems to be one result of the endless, extreme mistreatment we've witnessed for the previous two hours. Did we mention the fact that this person is only 9 years old at the start of the film? That he already carries himself like a deeply traumatized child?
We don't know when we've seen so much abandonment and abuse visited on a character. We found this portrait deeply depressing, in part because it made us think of how many actual kids presumably suffer from similar forms of mistreatment.
We found Moonlight quite depressing the first time we saw it. When we saw it again this weekend, we basically enjoyed the film.
We were glad that we'd seen it again. Largely because we understood, coming in, what we would be seeing, we were able to view the film as exposition and argument, as the work of fiction it actually (pretty much) is.
Why did we go to see Moonlight again? Largely from a sense of puzzlement.
You see, after seeing the film the first time, we came home and read a string of major reviews. We were struck by the observations and accounts which didn't appear in these rave reviews.
Had any of these major reviewers watched the same film we had? None of them seemed to have any sense of the amount of abuse they'd seen portrayed in the course of the film. To the extent that they did understand what they'd seen, they seemed perhaps disinclined to describe it.
We went to see the film a second time out of puzzlement at these reviews. We wanted to compare the events on the screen to the accounts of the film we'd been reading for several days.
The second time around, we didn't find Moonlight depressing. That said, the events it portrays were still horrific, unless you possibly maybe think that certain small children don't count.
Little that we say this week will be meant as a criticism of Barry Jenkins, the talented person who wrote and directed Moonlight. We aren't cineastes or film critics here, but we're inclined to agree with a universal judgment among those who are:
Barry Jenkins, writer/director of Moonlight, strikes us as a very bright person who's also highly skilled.
That said, Jenkins didn't write the reviews of his film. (We're prepared to assume that the film's press kit may have helped.) Our nation's top-ranking film critics wrote the reviews of this film.
We remain fascinated by those reviews, which almost seem to work from script even more than Jenkins' talented actors did. In our view, the things those reviews said, and didn't say, may tell us about the shape of our journalism, and maybe possibly just perhaps about the shape of our tribe and our world.
Tomorrow: Live and direct from the 1960s:
"Stephen is eight years old...tiny, desperate, unwell."