Thursday, February 16, 2017

Moonlight first-acters vs. Moonlight third-acters

Finally getting a chance to feature possibly my favorite movie poster of 2016 on my blog.

There's no consensus frontrunner for best picture at the Oscars this year. Some favor timeliness in terms of our country's current social ills (Moonlight), while others predict Hollywood's ever-reliable tendency to congratulate itself (La La Land). (Not to mention a number of Oscar nominations tied for the most ever with three other films, all of whom ended up winning best picture.)

But the most universally liked film of 2016 seems clear. It's Moonlight. While some people hate La La Land -- like, really can't stand it -- it's only varying degrees of like for Moonlight.

And that's what I want to talk about today: the levels of like people have for Moonlight, and what factors may contribute to them.

If you want to separate Moonlight's fans into two categories, it's easy enough to do. They seem split between those who like the first chapter the best, and those who like the third chapter the best.

Interestingly, the second seems to be the consensus second-best episode. No matter your thoughts on the first and the third, you seem to think the second is the next most effective. The second has that scene on the beach. Everybody likes that scene. Well, maybe not homophobes, but I don't consider their opinions on this movie -- or anything, really -- to have serious merit.

The fact that everyone likes the middle chapter tends to mean the two categories of Moonlight fans are kind of diametrically opposed to one another. If you like the middle act the second-best, it means you like the other side's favorite chapter the least.

Remember, though, we're talking about degrees of like here. There are no bad chapters. Only less good ones.

Those who like the first chapter groove on things like the performance of Mahershala Ali, the introduction to this world, the most harrowing moments involving Chiron's mother, the swimming scene, and the poignant denouement.

Those who like the third chapter like ... boring conversations between two men, I guess?

I'm kidding, but I'm also tipping my hand. I'm a first-acter, loud and proud. And I'll give a real answer why people like the third act: the performance of Trevante Rhodes, and a quiet, melancholy, yet perfect resolution to this character and his unresolved issues.

And here's another thing I think I've determined.

If you like the first act the best, you have a healthy respect for the movie. Or you even love it, but you don't LOVE IT love it. Like me. It was my #10 movie of the year, but was almost as low as #13.

If you like the third act the best, on the other hand, Moonlight is like your flipping favorite movie of all time.

It seems like any time I encounter someone and we have a disparity between our affections for Moonlight, they always love the way the movie concludes. Like, it blew their mind.

And so I feel a bit defensive about my own position. I feel like if I didn't love the way the movie ended, I don't -- can't -- "really" love it. I feel like I am "appreciating Moonlight wrong."

And maybe they're right -- "they" being a hypothetical set of Moonlight snobs who probably do not actually exist. But if they're right, they're right not because I'm interpreting the movie in an invalid way. Rather, it's because any time a movie ends better than the rest of it, you are likely to love that movie all the more. It's rare that a bad movie redeems itself in its final third, but a good movie can become a great one. Sticking the landing is a huge factor in how much we like a movie. It's the last impression we are left with.

The reverse is of course also true. My last impression of Moonight was too much on the shruggy side for my liking. So yeah, of course I'm going to like it less than those who felt it ended with a sense of overwhelming catharsis.

Why was I underwhelmed, just a little bit? I get into it here, if you want to listen to the latest episode of The ReelGood Podcast. But as a summary, I felt two unshakable cNn feelings: 1) that Chiron, having taken a certain control of his life at the end of act two, would not have failed to further explore his sexuality for the next decade; 2) that Kevin, having played a comparatively small role in his life, would not somehow end up as key to a moment of personal revelation Chiron needed to have. I don't want to downplay the importance of Chiron's first sexual experience. But it was essentially one act of passion and one act of betrayal, surrounded by a bit of convivial friendship. Not the makings of a lifelong cross to bear. (UPDATE: Only eight hours after posting this, while listening to the film discussed on a podcast, did I realize Kevin was actually present in the first episode. I thought he was a new character in the second episode. Duh.)

But I'm not here to debate plot details. I'm more interested in determining the ineffable aspects of the film that seem to have drawn some of us in in radically different ways. And in some ways I guess that does come down to plot.

Interestingly, though, I'd say that the middle chapter is the most plot heavy. That's where the two biggest "scenes" occur, or possibly three biggest -- the beach scene, the scene where Kevin is goaded into repeatedly punching Chiron, and the scene where Chiron breaks the chair over the back of the bully. It's more plot per pound than any other part of the movie, while the others tend to be a bit more like a Terence Malick movie, or what I've seen of David Gordon Green's George Washington.

Still, the first episode and the last episode are fairly dissimilar, and it does come down to a left brain-right brain type of thing. The first episode appeals to me in a concrete, left brain-dominated way. Oh yeah, I appreciate James Laxton's camera encircling the characters as much as the next guy, but the first chapter does appeal to the part of me that likes things explicit. Here is our introduction to this world, to these characters. Here is the detail about this world. Here are the events that start to shape our young hero. Here is a riveting fight between a drug dealer and our hero's mother. Here is a perfect scene in which two imperfect people reveal the things they are ashamed about.

There's plot here too, but more than anything, I think there are conventional narrative payoffs. That's something I need, most of the time. I've acknowledged that and try not to be ashamed of that myself.

The third act appeals more to people who considered themselves more right brain, the part that doesn't call for the explicit and that indulges more in creativity. Separating myself from this group pains me because I feel like I am very in tune with my own creativity, but I know I'm not as in tune with abstraction. Abstraction characterizes that final scene, comprised mostly of conversation between Chiron and Kevin, with what isn't said being as important as what is. It doesn't give us big moments or predictable narrative beats. It ends with a whimper not a bang, but for the people who "get it," it's the most beautiful whimper they've ever seen. They like it because it's a whimper.

When asked how I would end the movie, though, I can think of no better answer. It's not that I don't like that last chapter or consider it a useful scene, a scene that's important to both characters and is all the more truthful for its life-sized scale. I would not want the movie to become a melodrama all the sudden, or end with a big gesture, either of love or of violence. And so I like that ending fine, it just does not have the emotional impact on me that I feel it should.

But that's okay. I still love you, Moonlight. You were my 10th favorite movie of the year, out of 151.

And since many of you probably haven't clicked on that link to listen to that podcast, I'll tell you that I find myself in a similar position to the one I was in two years ago, when Birdman and Boyhood were vying for top honors. I liked Birdman slightly better than Boyhood, my #1 vs. my #8, though a second viewing of each has left me close to reversing my preference. But I still rooted for Boyhood to win best picture, since it said more about what I wanted the movies to be.

The two movies vying for best picture this year are extremely similar to those two in terms of subject matter: one is a movie that celebrates the craft of acting and making movies/entertainment, while the other charts the coming of age of a young man. And again, although La La Land finished slightly higher on my year-end list -- #5 vs. #10 -- I'm rooting even harder for Moonlight to take the evening's top prize. It says more about what I want the movies to be.

Another similarity: I suspect an eventual second viewing of both -- which will be coming, I assure you -- will flip these preferences as well.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant analysis of the relative impact of the first and third act, and the reasons some people prefer one to the other. Now I know why I felt slightly underwhelmed by the ending of the film, despite my best wishes. Yet at the same time I really enjoy abstract, (largely) non-narrative cinema, so perhaps the third act just wasn't great in general...

Derek Armstrong said...

Thanks Max! Much appreciated. I wonder if maybe people are talking themselves into getting more out of the ending than they really did, just because the movie is so great in general but they want it to be perfect? I need to see it again. It's certainly a very intentional choice, not botched execution ... though to even describe it that way is ungenerous because it's done well, just not as well as I thought or hoped it could have been.