Eye of the Beholder

Can a piece of art ever exist entirely on its own, or is it always tethered to the context of its creation?

For instance, is it possible to listen to the Ring Cycle without remembering that Richard Wagner was an anti-Semitic prick whose music inspired the rise of Hitler?

Can one watch Manhattan—the story of a 42-year-old man’s love affair with a 17-year-old girl—and not be distracted and/or repulsed by the personal life of its writer, director and star, Woody Allen?

As a society, we’ve had a version of this argument many times before, trying to figure out how to separate the art from the artist, while also debating whether such a thing is even desirable in the first place.  (The answer to both:  “It depends.”)

Lately, however, this perennial question has assumed a racial dimension, compelling us to re-litigate it anew—this time with considerably higher stakes.

Here’s what happened.  Over at New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art, the curators of the institution’s 78th biennial—an exhibition of hundreds of contemporary works by dozens of artists—chose to include Open Casket, a semi-abstract painting that depicts the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African-American boy who was tortured and lynched in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white girl.  (The woman in question later admitted she made the whole thing up, but that’s another story.)

As a painting, Open Casket is arresting, with the oils so thickly layered that Till’s mangled face literally protrudes from the canvas, as if calling out to us from beyond the grave.  As a political statement, it fits comfortably into our uncomfortable era of police brutality and racial unease—a natural, even obvious, choice for any socially conscious art show in 2017.

There was just one little problem:  The creator of Open Casket is white.  Specifically, a Midwestern white woman living in Brooklyn named Dana Schutz.

Upon hearing that a Caucasian had dared to tackle Emmett Till as the subject for a painting, many patrons demanded the Whitney remove Open Casket from its walls, while condemning Schutz for attempting to profit off of black pain—a practice, they argued, that has defined—and defiled—white culture since before the founding of the republic, and should be discouraged at all costs.  The message, in effect, was that white people should stick to their own history and allow black people to deal with theirs.

In response to this brouhaha, the Whitney defended its inclusion of Schutz’s work without directly addressing the race question, while Schutz herself issued a statement that read, in part, “I don’t know what it is like to be black in America.  But I do know what it is like to be a mother.  Emmett was Mamie Till’s only son.  I thought about the possibility of painting it only after listening to interviews with her.  In her sorrow and rage she wanted her son’s death not just to be her pain but America’s pain.”

In other words:  Far from being exploitative or opportunistic, Open Casket is meant as an act of compassion and empathy toward black America from an artist who views Emmett Till’s death as a tragedy for all Americans—not just black ones.

Of course, that is merely Dana Schutz’s own interpretation of her work, and if history teaches us anything, it’s that the meaning of a given cultural artifact is never limited to what its creator might have intended at the time.  The artist Hannah Black, one of Schutz’s critics, is quite right in observing, “[I]f black people are telling her that the painting has caused unnecessary hurt, she […] must accept the truth of this.”

The real question, then, is whether offensiveness—inadvertent or not—is enough to justify removing a piece of art from public view, as Black and others have advocated in this case.

If, like me, you believe the First Amendment is more or less absolute—that all forms of honest expression are inherently useful in a free society—then the question answers itself.  Short of inciting a riot (and possibly not even then), no art museum should be compelled to censor itself so as not to hurt the feelings of its most sensitive patrons, however justified those feelings might be.  Au contraire:  If a museum isn’t offending somebody—thereby sparking a fruitful conversationit probably isn’t worth visiting in the first place.

Unfortunately, in the Age of Trump, the American left has decided the First Amendment is negotiable—that its guarantee of free speech can, and should, be suspended whenever the dignity of a vulnerable group is threatened.  That so-called “hate speech” is so inherently destructive—so wounding, so cruel—that it needn’t be protected by the Constitution at all.  As everyone knows, if there was one thing the Founding Fathers could not abide, it was controversy.

What is most disturbing about this liberal drift toward total political correctness is the creative slippery slope it has unleashed—and the abnegation of all nuance and moral perspective that goes with it—of which the Whitney kerfuffle is but the latest example.

See, it’s one thing if Open Casket had been painted by David Duke—that is, if it had been an openly racist provocation by a callous, genocidal lunatic.  But it wasn’t:  It was painted by a mildly-entitled white lady from Brooklyn who has a genuine concern for black suffering and wants more Americans to know what happened to Emmett Till.

And yet, in today’s liberal bubble factory, even that is considered too unseemly for public consumption and must be stamped out with all deliberate speed.  Here in 2017, the line of acceptable artistic practice has been moved so far downfield that an artist can only explore the meaning of life within his or her own racial, ethnic or socioeconomic group, because apparently it’s impossible and counterproductive to creatively empathize with anyone with a different background from yours.

By this standard, Kathryn Bigelow should not have directed The Hurt Locker, since, as a woman, she could not possibly appreciate the experience of being a male combat soldier in Iraq.  Nor, for that matter, should Ang Lee have tackled Brokeback Mountain, because what on Earth does a straight Taiwanese man like him know about surreptitious homosexual relationships in the remote hills of Wyoming?  Likewise, light-skinned David Simon evidently had no business creating Treme or The Wire, while Bob Dylan should’ve steered clear of Hattie Carroll and Rubin Carter as characters in two of his most politically-charged songs.

Undoubtedly there are some people who agree with all of the above, and would proscribe any non-minority from using minorities as raw material for his or her creative outlet (and vice versa).

However, if one insists on full-bore racial and ethnic purity when it comes to the arts, one must also reckon with its consequences—namely, the utter negation of most of the greatest art ever created by man (and woman).  As I hope those few recent examples illustrate, this whole theory that only the members of a particular group are qualified to tell the story of that group is a lie.  An attractive, romantic and sensible lie, to be sure—but a lie nonetheless.

The truth—for those with the nerve to face it—is that although America’s many “communities” are ultimately defined by the qualities that separate them from each other—certainly, no one would mistake the black experience for the Jewish experience, or the Chinese experience for the Puerto Rican experience—human nature itself remains remarkably consistent across all known cultural subgroups.  As such, even if an outsider to a particular sect cannot know what it is like to be of that group, the power of empathy is (or can be) strong enough to allow one to know—or at least estimate—how such a thing feels.

As a final example, consider Moonlight—the best movie of 2016, according to me and the Academy (in that order).  A coming-of-age saga told in three parts, Moonlight has been universally lauded as one of the great cinematic depictions of black life in America—and no wonder, since its director, Barry Jenkins, grew up in the same neighborhood as the film’s hero, Chiron, and is, himself, black.

Slightly less commented on—but no less noteworthy—is Moonlight’s masterful meditation on what it’s like to be gay—specifically, to be a gay, male teenager in an environment where heterosexuality and masculinity are one and the same, and where being different—i.e., soft-spoken, sensitive and unsure—can turn you into a marked man overnight, and the only way to save yourself is to pretend—for years on end—to be someone else.

Now, my own gay adolescence was nowhere near as traumatic as Chiron’s—it wasn’t traumatic at all, really—yet I found myself overwhelmed by the horrible verisimilitude of every detail of Chiron’s reckoning with his emerging self.  Here was a portrait of nascent homosexuality that felt more authentic than real life—something that cannot possibly be achieved in film unless the men on both sides of the camera have a deep and intimate understanding of the character they’re developing.

Well, guess what:  They didn’t.  For all the insights Moonlight possesses on this subject, neither Barry Jenkins, the director, nor a single one of the leading actors is gay.  While they may well have drawn from their own brushes with adversity to determine precisely who this young man is—while also receiving a major assist from the film’s (gay) screenwriter, Tarell Alvin McCraney—the finished product is essentially a bold leap of faith as to what the gay experience is actually like.

Jenkins and his actors had no reason—no right, according to some—to pull this off as flawlessly as they did, and yet they did.  How?  Could it be that the condition of being black in this country—of feeling perpetually ill at ease, guarded and slightly out of place in one’s cultural milieu—has a clear, if imprecise, parallel to the condition of being gay, such that to have a deep appreciation of one is to give you a pretty darned good idea of the other?  And, by extension, that to be one form of human being is to be empowered to understand—or attempt to understand—the point of view of another?  And that this just might be a good thing after all?

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Moonstruck

The first time I saw Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight was at its first public screening in New England—an event so well-attended that at least a dozen people ended up standing behind the last row, unable to find a seat but unwilling to ask management for a rain check.  (They were all still there when the end credits rolled.)

By contrast, the second time I saw Moonlight—about a month later on a Friday afternoon—I had the entire left side of the 300-seat auditorium to myself, with maybe four or five other souls scattered about here and there.

Without question, those were the two most memorable movie-going experiences of my year, but if I could only save one, it would be the latter.

As a rule, of course, going to the cinema is a fundamentally communal experience—an occasion for hundreds of total strangers to gather in front of a giant screen and draw energy from each other’s presence.  For any film that demands an audible reaction from its audience—say, a comedy or a horror flick—the power of the crowd is essential to one’s overall enjoyment and cannot be replicated in any other milieu.

Moonlight is not that kind of film.  As a piece of drama, its effectiveness is in no way dependent upon how many eyes are watching it at a given moment, and its cumulative impact on one’s consciousness is at once so violent and so personal that you almost cease being aware that you are in a public place.  It’s an out-of-body experience for which no other bodies are required.

To see Jenkins’s film in a packed house, then, is itself a singular phenomenon—not a shared journey among 300 individuals so much as 300 separate journeys occurring simultaneously in the same room.  Because Moonlight has so little in the way of plot—because its hero is so soft-spoken, its agenda implied rather than explicated—you emerge from the theater realizing that no other person in the hall saw the exact same movie you did, just as a great painting looks slightly different from one patron to the next.

As I left that opening night screening—probably the heaviest concentration of African-Americans and gays that I’ve ever encountered in a movie theater—I hadn’t the slightest idea what anyone else was thinking.  As the movie played, some would occasionally chuckle at a not-especially-funny line, and there was a fair share of hooting and hollering at the shocking development at the end of Act 2 (the one involving a chair).  On the whole, however, the abiding response from that crowd was silence—both during and after the feature—as if their inklings of what this film is about were still gestating in their minds as they made their way to the exit.

Driving home—both shaken and stirred—I realized I wasn’t entirely sure what I thought of Moonlight, either, so why should I expect it from anyone else?  While I was confident that something fairly extraordinary had happened and that it would be quite a while before I fully recovered from whatever the hell it was, only later was I able to fathom the degree to which Jenkins and playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney had all but reinvented the wheel of storytelling—at least when it came to blackness and masculinity—and only then could I begin to account for the sheer intensity of feeling that the movie aroused in me as few movies ever have.

In truth, it was only when I saw Moonlight again—with four weeks of reflection in between—that I could be sure, beyond doubt, that my initial impressions were not a figment of my imagination—that, if anything, they weren’t enthusiastic enough.  Sitting in that barren theater—just me, Chiron and a whole bunch of empty space—I found myself elevated to a realm of higher consciousness that only the most transcendent films can take you.  For 111 minutes, the rest of the world seemed to disappear and the only thing that mattered was what would happen to Chiron next.

To be honest, I’m still a little nervous about examining my unconditional love for Moonlight too closely, out of fear that deconstructing the reasons why the film works will somehow cause it not to work in the future.  Having fallen hard for small, independent movies in the past, I am preternaturally wary of the moment when I suddenly snap out of it—when all the original passion drains from my body and I am left to wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place.  (I am told many relationships operate in more or less the same way.)

If there is any single reason to believe this will not happen—that Moonlight will shine like a beacon for as long as people watch movies—it is that every last frame is, in some way, an act of love.

In scene after scene, we are presented with moments of pure human compassion that rarely make their way into commercial cinema:  The love of Juan (Mahershala Ali) in rescuing Chiron from bullies and teaching him how to swim; the love of Teresa (Janelle Monáe) in providing Chiron dinner and an extra bed whenever his mother isn’t up to the job; the love of Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) in whisking Chiron to a beachside rendezvous that will change both of their lives forever; and, eventually, the love of Paula (Naomie Harris), in trying to atone for a lifetime of parental neglect that she knows, deep down, cannot be completely forgiven.

The great tension in Moonlight is how nearly all of these acts of kindness are counterbalanced by acts of enormous cruelty—sometimes by the exact same individuals—and it is in these moments that the film itself becomes Chiron’s guardian angel, always perched over his shoulder, regarding him as a scared, vulnerable child of God who demands dignity and respect but who, through a series of genetic accidents beyond his control, is consigned to a life of fear and dehumanization from which, at the end of the film, he is still struggling to be freed.

And yet he is a man and he deserves to be loved, and as he settles in for tea with his long-lost friend Kevin, we are given reason to hope that he may have finally found himself after a lifetime of being lost.  While we cannot know precisely how he might proceed in righting the ship of himself, we can take some comfort in the fact that Chiron, while fictional, is a rough composite of Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney—two men who grew up in similarly harrowing circumstances—surrounded on all sides by drugs, poverty and despair—yet who somehow survived, persevered and went on to make the best picture of 2016.

The Beautiful Struggle

In a year of ugliness, hatred, division and dread, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight arrives as a bulwark of beauty, love, compassion and hope.  Following a presidential election in which the forces of deceit and bigotry prevailed—calling our whole national creed into question—here is a movie about a boy (and, in time, a man) who struggles against those very same forces to understand his own identity in a universe that seems determined to make him someone else.

Truly, there has been very little in 2016 to assure us there is any beauty left in the world.  At my family’s Thanksgiving dinner—an affair that was largely (and blessedly) politics-free—we agreed that, through the darkness of the next four years, a great deal of light is likely to come from artists—a community of eccentrics with the boldness and optimism to create outsize the box, allowing us to escape our narrow window of existence and be exposed to different points of view.

Great art doesn’t always make us feel better—often, by design, it makes us feel worse—but it does expand the parameters of what it means to be fully human.  Outside of religion and science, it is our only mechanism for achieving transcendence.

Moonlight is great art, which is a rarity even among great films.  In his New York Times review, A.O. Scott wrote, “From first shot to last, ‘Moonlight’ is about as beautiful a movie as you are ever likely to see.”  I’ve now seen it twice, and Scott was not exaggerating.  You could play Moonlight with the sound turned off and still be unable to look away.  Indeed, you could print and frame dozens of randomly-selected screenshots and wind up with the most galvanizing photography show in New York.  Setting aside plot and character, Jenkins’s movie is an aesthetic triumph—a marvel of visual virtuosity.

Yet, in the end, you can’t separate the film’s beauty from its subject matter any more than you can separate the beauty of “Imagine” from John Lennon’s fantasies of socialism and world peace.  To experience Moonlight—specifically, the travails of its young hero, Chiron—is to be elevated to a level of consciousness about other people’s lives that only movies can attain.  Roger Ebert famously described the cinema as “like a machine that generates empathy,” and it has been quite some time since a film has lived up to that lofty ambition as deeply and as movingly as this one.

How so?  First, by adhering to the No. 1 rule of storytelling:  “Show, don’t tell.”  Second, by showing us exactly what we need to see, and nothing more.  And third, by providing us a leading man whose existence is at once unfathomably complex and wholly, tragically comprehensible.

For point of reference, consider Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which followed its protagonist, Mason, from age 6 through the end of high school.  By the end of that journey, we felt more or less like we knew everything about Mason, even as we conceded that a great deal of the movie consisted of fairly mundane events—going to a ballgame, getting a haircut, etc.

The audacity of Boyhood was its very conceit:  It was filmed piece-by-piece over a period of 12 years, so that the actors aged in concert with their fictional counterparts.  Arguably the film’s greatest flaw—although many considered it a strength—was the relative ordinariness of Mason himself, a middle class heterosexual white man whose cumulative coming of age was more compelling than any particular moment along the way.  Mason wasn’t exactly the poster child of white privilege, but nor was he particularly deprived, as far as American childhoods go.

Not so with Chiron (pronounced “shy-RONE”), the centerpiece of Moonlight, who through a series of genetic accidents begins life as everything that Mason is not.  Born and raised in a depressed, heavily African-American section of Miami known as Liberty City, Chiron is a diminutive, moody, soft-spoken outcast with no siblings, no father and a mother largely dependent on the friendly neighborhood crack dealer.  To complicate things, that very same kingpin, Juan (Mahershala Ali), takes a liking to Chiron and, with his wife Teresa (Janelle Monáe), becomes his de facto guardian angel.  By the end of the movie’s first act, it falls to Juan to confront Chiron’s unexpectedly pointed question, “Am I a faggot?”

The answer is yes (in a manner of speaking), and the implications of this realization—namely, that he is young, black and gay in a cultural milieu that cannot abide all three at once—sows the seeds of doom for the remainder of Chiron’s adolescence.

I shan’t say anything further on the details of that painful sexual awakening, other than to note how—as with Boyhood, in its way—the details are everything.  How extreme tenderness in one moment leads, inexorably, to extreme cruelty in the next.  How one wrong word, look or impression—propelled by centuries of repression, prejudice and fear—can irreparably alter the course of a person’s life, and there’s not a damn thing you can do about it.

However, sometimes there is.  If the first two-thirds of Moonlight are a slow-burning human tragedy about the price and meaning of black masculinity in 21st century America, the final act suggests that if you manage to survive the crucible of your teenage years, there’s an outside chance you can begin life anew with whatever scraps are left over.

This is not to say that Moonlight is principally a film about hope, or about the inherent moral rightness of the universe.  There is much more to a fulfilling life than simply not getting shot or overdosing on cocaine.  No one with an upbringing like Chiron’s would (or should) ever consider himself lucky—and certainly not grateful for whatever Valuable Life Lessons those hardships might’ve imparted.

Barry Jenkins, the director, is not about to let us off that easy:  Along with his co-creator, Tarell Alvin McCraney (Jenkins adapted the screenplay from McCraney’s original stage play), he understands that a hard life is undesirable on every level, and Moonlight is finally about the struggle that awaits every gay black man who dares to carry himself with honesty, dignity and pride—and, most of all, the awareness that mortal peril exists on both sides of the closet door.

It is to the credit of everyone involved that such an ugly ordeal has been made into one of the most achingly gorgeous movies of our time.  In this political moment—as we find ourselves staring into the abyss in search of the tiniest shred of humanity to get us through the next thousand-odd days of America life—Moonlight provides cinema’s first answer to how the darkness might be endured, and it’s the same answer W.H. Auden gave in 1939, on the eve of another global cataclysm:  “We must love one another or die.”