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.”

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Fifty Years Fab

Dig up Eleanor Rigby and hop aboard a yellow submarine:  It was 50 years ago today that the Beatles released their greatest album, Revolver.

To be sure, declaring any Beatles-related product “the greatest” is just asking for trouble.  Four-and-a-half decades after the Liverpudlian quartet broke up, debate still rages about every last detail of their miraculous eight-year run as the world’s most famous band.  Is “Lucy in the Sky” really about LSD?  Was Yoko Ono the main cause of the group’s ultimate disintegration?  Did Paul secretly die in 1966 and get replaced by a doppelgänger?  On these and many other subjects, we may never know for sure.

The “greatest album” question—applicable to all musicians—is uniquely futile when it comes to the Fab Four, as you come to grips with how mind-bogglingly diverse their output was—how dramatically it evolved in such a short period of time.  Indeed, play their first and last albums back-to-back in the presence of a young listener, and he or she will probably assume they are the work of two completely different bands.  In a sense, they are.

Accordingly, to attempt any kind of comparative qualitative analysis of their dozen-odd studio albums is a largely apples-and-oranges affair.  (Considering that they released much of their latter-day work through Apple Records, that analogy is almost literally true.)

Yet we analyze it all the same—attaching an objective value on an inherently subjective object—because, hey, we all need to argue about something, don’t we?

And so, if we’re forced to pick one Beatles album to rule them all—on this of all anniversaries—it might as well be Revolver.

Among rock ‘n’ roll critics and historians, the Fab Four’s August 1966 release has long been a favorite, for reasons those experts could doubtlessly explain better than you or I.  As a non-critic and non-historian, my argument for Revolver is based on what you might call the Sweet Spot Theory of Rock ‘n’ Roll.  You could also call it process of elimination.

Viewing the Beatles catalog panoramically, the first thing to note is that their first several albums weren’t really albums at all.  Between 1960 and 1963, John, Paul, George and Ringo were essentially a club band—busing all over England and Germany, playing hundreds of gigs a year with a combination of covers and original material—and when they went into the recording studio, they simply churned out their current set and pretended it was an album.  (Their debut, Please Please Me, was recorded in a single 13-hour session, hence John’s hoarseness on the final track, “Twist and Shout.”)

As it happens, the last album they released, Let It Be, was recorded under vaguely similar circumstances.  After tossing around ideas amongst themselves for a month or so, the boys reassembled on the roof of their London recording studio and—to the delight and confusion of random passersby—performed that new material for the first and only time in public, which they eventually spliced together to form the finished product.

But of course, in between those old-school skiffle bookends, the Beatles spent the balance of their time together in the studio reinventing the rock ‘n’ roll wheel, with each successive album building on the innovations of those that came before.  If the appeal of the early records was in the sheer joy of four talented musicians having the time of their lives, the later output was marked by the excitement of having created something entirely new and different—of the possibilities of rock ‘n’ roll being pushed and expanded in front of our very ears.

With nearly a half-century of hindsight, we can see that this spirit of freewheeling experimentation did not always completely work.  The White Album­—their sprawling, 30-track behemoth from 1968—contains flashes of sublime beauty, but also moments of extreme indulgence.  Same with Magical Mystery Tour, also from 1968, whose overt quirkiness is charming and limiting at the same time.  Abbey Road—a perennial fan favorite—includes some of the band’s most polished work, although that very maturity and technical finesse can also create emotional distance in spots.  But maybe that’s just me.

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—the other usual candidate for Greatest Album Ever—has a theatricality and exuberance that the above occasionally lack.  However, it also contains an alarmingly disproportionate prevalence of Paul:  Of the album’s 13 tracks, only four were written by John—and only one by George—amounting to the greatest creative imbalance in the group’s entire oeuvre.

Then there’s A Hard Day’s Night and Help!—soundtracks to the band’s two finest films—which, to my ears, are practically perfect in every way, except for their being not quite inventive or daring enough to be considered the best of the best.

Which brings us, then, to the pair of Beatles albums that transcend all the roadblocks we have established so far:  Rubber Soul and Revolver, released just nine months apart in 1965-1966.

Many fans tend to think of these two records in the same breath—George Harrison once said, “They could be ‘Volume One’ and ‘Volume Two’”—and in many ways it’s hard to distinguish one from the other, both in style and in quality.  Taken together, they represent the exact moment the Beatles decided—whether consciously or by accident—to move beyond their Cavern Club roots and take a big, bold leap into the musical unknown, writing lyrics, playing instruments and fiddling with studio equipment with an imagination and audacity that could scarcely have been predicted from anything they had produced up until then.  (Then again, they hadn’t ingested cannabis or LSD up until then, either.)

Heard today, the songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver provide hints of the full-blown weirdness yet to come, but not the weirdness itself.  They are melodic yet sophisticated, deep yet accessible—a harmonious blending of the finest elements of their early work with the finest elements of their later work, without the shortcomings or excesses of either.  They are the complete package—the flowering of the Beatles’ creative talents long before they began to wilt.

I haven’t said much about the songs themselves.  Since the whole of the Beatles catalog is worth more than the sum of its parts—more so, perhaps, than for any group in history—it seems somewhat beside the point to compare and contrast individual tracks from one album to the next.  You can never have enough Beatles songs in one place at one time, which means that any single album of theirs will never be completely satisfying—an unfortunate fact that gives us one more reason not to indulge this silly exercise in the first place.

Suffice it to say that neither Revolver nor Rubber Soul contains a single dud—no small achievement, even for them—and that the argument for Revolver as the stronger album rests largely on nitpicking:  It’s a little more inventive, a little more adventurous, a little more exciting and, therefore, a little more historically significant.

And it plays just as well today as it did on August 5, 1966—just as well as anything else they ever created.  It’s still being played and still being heard.  Here, there and everywhere.