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.

All That Jazz

Damien Chazelle’s La La Land is going to win Best Picture at this Sunday’s Academy Awards.  That’s not a prediction:  That’s a fact.  As Oscar wagers go, this is a slam dunk to end all slam dunks.  No ’bout-a-doubt it.  If you enter an office pool this year, go long on La La.

We know this for two reasons.  First, Chazelle’s movie is unabashedly about Hollywood’s all-time favorite subject:  itself.  And second, it’s a live-action musical propelled by an original soundtrack—something Hollywood seldom even thinks of doing, let alone executes with passion, charm and finesse.  As with 2011’s The Artist—a black-and-white silent film bubbling with cheeky nostalgia about the glory days of the old studio system—La La Land is a once-in-a-decade novelty whose very existence is such a miracle of ingenuity that the Academy couldn’t ignore it even if it wanted to—and why on Earth would it want to?

That said, La La Land was not the best picture of 2016.  Nor, for that matter, is it the most deserving among the nine nominees in that category.  To be sure, this will hardly make a difference:  By my estimation, the Academy gets it right about once every five years, and since it did exactly that 12 months ago, we can expect quite a long wait until it happens again.

And I’m totally fine with that.  After 15 years of taking movies seriously—and obsessing over the Academy Awards in the process—I’ve come to realize that the Academy’s opinions needn’t align perfectly with mine every year.  Just as I learned to live with (and vote for) a presidential candidate with whom I agreed “only” 90 percent of the time, I don’t need my tastes in cinema validated by 6,000 anonymous industry professionals in order to achieve inner peace.

In truth, I’ve flirted with this I-don’t-care-what-the-Academy-thinks attitude for a while now.  Indeed, if I had any sense, I would’ve thrown in the towel a decade ago when the Academy chose Crash over Brokeback Mountain—a decision that looks even dumber in retrospect than it did at the time.

My problem is that I’m a natural elitist who believes the Oscars should mean something and should reflect some sort of objective truth about what constitutes cinematic greatness.  That such a thing doesn’t actually exist has never prevented me from wishing otherwise—just as the inherent worthlessness of paper money has never prevented anyone from using it to buy a Volvo.  The value of golden statues is like God:  It exists because we say it does.

As far as I’m concerned, the true purpose of the Academy Awards is simply to highlight a handful of terrific films that most American moviegoers probably wouldn’t have discovered on their own.  If cinema itself is a window into the lives of others—a “machine that generates empathy,” as Roger Ebert put it—the Oscars are the most visible means of pointing people in the right direction.

The best movie of 2016 was Moonlight, an intensely personal project that, by dint of its miniscule budget and largely unknown cast, could easily have opened in 20 theatres for one weekend and then disappeared forever.  If its eight (!) Oscar nominations lead another million people to seek it out—in addition to the $21 million in revenue it has generated thus far—I will consider the Academy to have done its job with gusto.  Same for the Best Actress nomination for Isabelle Huppert in Elle, a demented tour de force that most Americans wouldn’t have touched with a 10-foot pole but now might give a fair shot.  And ditto, especially, for the trio of masterpieces in the Best Documentary field—Raoul Peck’s I Am Not Your Negro, Ava DuVernay’s 13th, and Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America—all three of which deserve the widest audience possible and whose inclusion in Sunday’s telecast is entirely to the benefit of both Hollywood and society as a whole.

Of course, the Academy can’t get everything right, and this year was no exception.  As ever, the list of unjust omissions is longer and more enticing than the list of worthy nominees, and if your only interest is to bitch about Hollywood’s perennial wrongheadedness, you have plenty of material to work with.

What I would prefer, however, is not to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and to accept that a gang that gives eight nominations to Moonlight is not entirely irredeemable.

For context, allow me to present the year 2002, which I consider the genesis of my life as a semi-serious film buff (and the first time I watched the Oscars).  For whatever reason, 2002 was an extraordinary year for cinema, producing such visionary, enduring works as Minority Report, Spirited Away, 25th Hour, Adaptation., and City of God.

Of those five modern classics, how many were nominated for Best Picture?  You guessed it:  Zero.  The Academy was offered an embarrassment of riches and it chose to embarrass itself.  Provided a golden opportunity to embrace any number of challenging, thoughtful, innovative films, Oscar voters decided to turn their backs and play it safe.

And what sort of movie did they ultimately choose for Best Picture?  A musical!  Specifically, an adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s Chicago, directed by Rob Marshall and starring a group of A-list actors with minimal experience in musical theatre.  Why did Chicago win?  Presumably through a Hollywood consensus that appreciated the novelty of a movie musical—then, as now, an exceedingly rare event—and was understandably dazzled by the catchy songs and hypnotic choreography.

As they say:  The more things remain the same, the more they remain the same.  Given the choice, the Academy will err toward fluff when something much more daring is called for.  The good news is that, outside of the movie industry itself, the recipients of these eight-pound gold trophies ultimately do not matter in the grand scheme of cinema.

The Oscars come and go, but the movies are forever.

Best Pictures

By my count, I experienced roughly three dozen new movies in the year 2016.  While that qualifies as a personal best, it’s also maybe 15 percent of a full-time critic’s annual diet.  So it’s possible I missed something good along the way.

In any case, the following films were—and are—very much worth two (or, in one case, eight) hours of your time, assuming your brain operates on the same emotional wavelength as mine.  I highlighted my top four early last week.  I include them here, as well, because they bear repeating.

MOONLIGHT

A man, a woman and a young boy sit around a dining room table.  The boy says, “My name’s Chiron.  But people call me Little.”  The man smiles, thrilled that the kid has finally opened his mouth, and responds, “OK, Little.”  The woman, not smiling, interjects, “I’m gonna call you by your name, Chiron.”  She understands the importance of not allowing others define who you really are.  It will take Chiron another 20 years to figure that out for himself.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

When O.J. Simpson was found not guilty for the murders of Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman in the fall of 1995, a poll found that 73 percent of white people believed Simpson had committed the crimes, while only 27 percent of black people believed the same.  Ezra Edelman’s five-part documentary traces the source of this profound disagreement as far back as the Watts Riots of 1965.  One could just as plausibly argue the O.J. verdict was forged aboard the first slave ship bound for Virginia in 1619.

ELLE

George Carlin once got on a stage and asked if rape can ever be made funny.  His answer—broadly speaking—was that anything can be fodder for laughs if approached from the right angle, and Elle seems content to proceed from this same premise.  Not that director Paul Verhoeven and actress Isabelle Huppert are making light of sexual assault, per se, so much as suggesting that a rape victim can spin a traumatic experience to her advantage if she plays her cards right, and that this can make her heroic and villainous at the same time.  Coming soon to a women’s studies course near you.

KRISHA

The feature-length debut of director Trey Edward Shults, adapted from his autobiographical short film of the same name, starring members of his own family playing versions of themselves (or each other).  All of which helps to explain the intense, eerie way this sketch of a Thanksgiving dinner gone awry crawls under your skin and overwhelms your senses, as the family’s titular black sheep teeters on the edge of the abyss while trying as hard as she can to claw her way back to solid ground.

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA

A portrait of three lonely people in parallel states of grief:  The man who committed a sin that dare not speak its name, the woman who can neither fully blame nor fully forgive him for it, and their teenage nephew whose sarcastic, stoical reaction to his father’s death is the glue that oh-so-precariously holds everyone else together.  A story to make you sad in a year when most of us struggled to feel anything else.

THE HANDMAIDEN

From Park Chan-Wook—the Korean wild man who gave the world Oldboy—emerges this ravishing and progressively convoluted adaptation of Sarah Waters’s novel Fingersmith, about a petty thief hired to cheat an heiress out of her inheritance by becoming her trusted maid.  Simple enough, until the two women fall madly (and unexpectedly) in love, generating complications that neither of them is quite prepared to deal with.  Come for the palace intrigue; stay for the twist ending and hardcore lesbian sex.

THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN

Hailee Steinfeld at her spunky best as a high school outcast slapped with a double betrayal when her older brother hooks up with her best (and only) friend—a crushing development that leaves her smartass history teacher (Woody Harrelson) as her sole, unhelpful confidant.  That is, until she embarks upon a relationship of her own by way of the most spectacular text message in the history of smart phones.  Remember, kids:  Think before you send.

EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!!

In his 25 years as a writer-director, Richard Linklater has never shown a more profound indifference to plot than in this so-called “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused.  A weekend-in-the-life of a Freaks and Geeks-like gang of college baseball players in the final days before classes start—a period during which they do little more than philosophize, party and not get laid—Linklater’s follow-up to Boyhood is his most laid-back movie to date and—perhaps for that reason—his most enjoyable.

FENCES

Viola Davis and Denzel Washington in a play by August Wilson—need we say more?  Washington is a former Negro League star who has turned into a drunk, proud, embittered garbage man, while Davis is the generous, strong-willed, tactful housewife who has suppressed a lifetime of frustrations that may or may not ever see the light of day.  Both actors won a Tony Award playing the same roles on Broadway in 2010.  Seems only fair to give each of them an Oscar as well.

EYE IN THE SKY

Barack Obama has been the most ruthless terrorist-killer in the history of U.S. presidents.  However, most Americans do not appreciate this fact due to Obama’s preferred method of execution:  drone strikes.  This British production—featuring Helen Mirren and the late Alan Rickman, among others—explores the deep moral conundrums involved in bombing Muslim extremists from the sky—particularly if there’s a little girl just a few hundred feet from the target who’d have only a 75 percent chance of surviving such a blast.

ARRIVAL

Roger Ebert used to wonder why movie aliens are so hell-bent on destroying all life on Earth:  Why go to the trouble of crossing half the galaxy just to burn everything down when you get here?  Denis Villeneuve’s film, starring Amy Adams, respects the majesty of space travel—and the audience’s intelligence—by presenting a story of a close encounter that assumes both sides might want to actually learn something from each other, rather than just blowing each other up and declaring cosmic victory.

HELL OR HIGH WATER

I’m not sure there was a funnier moment at the cinema this year than when Texas Ranger Jeff Bridges and his partner sat down for lunch at a low-rent steakhouse somewhere in West Texas and were informed by their surly octogenarian waitress, “I’ve been working here for 44 years.  Ain’t nobody ever ordered nothing but T-bone steak and a baked potato.  Except this one asshole from New York tried to order trout back in 1987.  We don’t sell no goddamned trout.”  And then her face when Bridges’s partner tries to order his steak medium well.

LA LA LAND

Damien Chazelle’s third film is, in certain ways, a companion piece to his second, Whiplash.  After all, both are soaked in an unapologetically romantic longing for classical jazz and a bygone era in which America’s singular musical invention still reigned supreme.  The two films are also both about the obsessive need to prove your mettle to anyone who might doubt you or stand in your way, as well as the enormous interpersonal costs of seeking eternal greatness.  You’ve got to hand it to Chazelle:  He sure knows how to stage a wild finish.

13TH

Ava DuVernay’s infuriating documentary about our country’s prison-industrial complex reveals the most essential hidden truth about America:  Slavery did not end in 1865 so much as assume a slightly more roundabout—but no less sinister—visage.  Stipulating that involuntary servitude would cease to exist “except as a punishment for crime,” the 13th Amendment inadvertently (or not) ensured that so long as the legal system could be manipulated in just the right way, African-Americans would continue to be systemically subjugated and dehumanized for as long as their white countrymen allowed themselves to get away with it.  As we still do to this day.

HAIL, CAESAR!

After Jeff Bridges and the T-bone, the biggest laugh of 2016 involved a singing cowboy—played by 26-year-old Alden Ehrenreich—being shoehorned into a stuffy costume drama by a foppish Ralph Fiennes, who exhausts every atom of his patience to get the kid to nail his line reading, “Would that it were so simple.”  Because this is a Coen Brothers movie, the punch line doesn’t arrive for another hour or so and, when it does, it somehow involves Frances McDormand being nearly strangled to death by her own neckerchief.  It’s complicated.

Sweet ’16

We might agree that 2016 was nobody’s idea of a good time.  Certainly, any year that sees the death of Snape and the rise of Voldemort lends credence to Ross Douthat’s recent quip that “history has become a fever dream from which we are struggling to awake.”

However, in the spirit of holiday cheer—and in defiance of the natural urge to swallow a cyanide capsule or play Russian roulette around an empty table—I will close out my year with a reflection on the handful of people who made 2016 bearable.  Some of these were virtually unknown to me before January 1, and yet today I cannot imagine my life in their absence.  It just goes to show that every 12-month period, no matter how depressing, contains certain hidden pleasures that, in the fullness of time, add up to something resembling a life well-lived.

LIN-MANUEL MIRANDA

For reasons mostly beyond my control, I haven’t yet seen Hamilton live at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in New York.  Indeed, I haven’t seen it anywhere except through bootleg clips on YouTube and the PBS special Hamilton’s America, which aired earlier this fall.

But I have heard Lin-Manuel Miranda’s visionary historical epic more frequently than any album this year (if not ever), and I think it’s fair to say that after 30 or 40 rounds of the rap battles, R&B ballads and other assorted musical revisionism that comprise this singular cultural behemoth, one has “experienced” Hamilton as deeply as humanly possible short of shelling out the thousands of dollars required for an actual goddamned ticket.

In any case, the influence of Lin-Manuel Miranda on my life in 2016—possibly the greatest of any nationally-known individual—was not just the show itself, but all the treasure hunting that Miranda’s sublime lyricism inspired.  In addition to teaching me more about rap and hip-hop than I’d ever known (or cared to know) before, Hamilton sent me to the history section of the library with a ferocity I wish I’d possessed in college.

Plowing through the Ron Chernow epic that got this whole trouble started—followed by Chernow’s equally magisterial 2011 biography of George Washington—I progressed to Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers and Revolutionary Summer, followed by the likes of Edmund Morgan and Annette Gordon-Reed and others, and before you knew it, I felt I understood America’s founding generation almost as well as the average middle school student from the Bronx whose class gets to see Hamilton for free on a Wednesday afternoon.  What a country.

TA-NEHISI COATES

Apart from anything else, 2016 was the year I became officially embarrassed to be a white man in America.  If the election of Trump was the final straw—and it was—there is no overstating the impact of The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates in laying the historical foundation for why America still hasn’t solved racism more than 150 years after the end of the Civil War.

One answer to this—long argued by Coates and others and seemingly proved by the rise of Trump—is the enduring assumption of white privilege.  Without batting an eye, white people can spend 400 years denying black people life, liberty, voting rights, decent housing and access to basic municipal services, but at the first mention of “affirmative action” or “Black Lives Matter,” suddenly the country is engaged in a race war and white people are the most oppressed group in America.

It’s enough to make a cat laugh, and reading Coates—as breathtakingly beautiful a stylist in prose as Miranda is in poetry—has removed any possibility (if one existed) of my embracing this white supremacist fantasy at any point in the future.

For me, this began with Coates’ essay, “The Case for Reparations,” published in The Atlantic in the summer of 2014, continued with his bestselling memoir, Between the World and Me, and culminated just this month in his newest Atlantic piece, “My President Was Black,” which tries to reconcile America’s continued institutional racism with the fact that Barack Obama was elected president twice.

Just as important—as with Lin-Manuel—were the myriad works by other writers that Coates’ own writing forced me to seek out—particularly those of James Baldwin, whose novels Another Country and Giovanni’s Room were among the most pleasurable reads of my year and whose essay collections Notes of a Native Son and The Fire Next Time were among the most illuminating.

WESLEY MORRIS AND JENNA WORTHAM

A late adopter of virtually everything, I still haven’t fully assimilated the concept of podcasts to my day-to-day life.  However, early in the fall, I stumbled upon “Still Processing,” hosted by the New York Times, and I haven’t missed an episode since.

The podcast is a weekly conversation between Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham, two young-ish feature writers for New York Times Magazine, with each installment examining some aspect or other of contemporary American culture, be it music, film, TV, sports, politics or—as is often the case—the intersection of all the above.

As with other great cultural commentators, the appeal of Morris and Wortham hinges on their impeccable taste, their engaging conversational style and, most of all, the outside-the-box manner in which they each view the world around them.  (In 2012, as a Boston Globe film critic, Morris was recognized with the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism.)

In “Still Processing,” this gift manifests itself through either discussing subjects that no one else is paying attention to, or discussing popular subjects through a unique and unorthodox lens.  In the 16 episodes to date, Morris and Wortham have tackled everything from transgender identity to the new Smithsonian Museum of African-American History to O.J. Simpson to Moonlight to the social history of the black penis to the feminist supernova that is Beyoncé.

As you can tell from that list, certain themes have a way of popping up again and again, which tracks with Jon Stewart’s great insight—adopted by Larry Wilmore upon creating The Nightly Show—that “every important story in America has either race, class or gender hiding underneath it.”  To the extent that we knew this all along, 2016 might go down as the year we officially stopped pretending otherwise.

Elsewhere, Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone provided the foul-mouthed gonzo political reporting that has long made him the most deliciously readable commentator in cyberspace.

On late night TV—still the most blissful way to fall asleep without heavy drinking—Samantha Bee became the inner consciousness of American liberals that saw what was happening in the news every day and ran outside to scream into the night.  It’s a shame Bee’s blistering program, Full Frontal, only airs once a week, and that Larry Wilmore’s Nightly Show was cancelled.  In the absence of responsible cable news outlets, Bee, Last Week Tonight’s John Oliver and The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah are, collectively, television’s last best hope in explaining to ordinary citizens just what the hell is going on.

(Incidentally, The Late Show’s Stephen Colbert and The Late Late Show’s James Corden are, for my money, the most purely enjoyable late night hosts in the game.  However, in their pitch for middle-of-the-road mass appeal, they are not quite as pointed as their aforementioned rivals—although Colbert has leaned more in that direction since the election.)

Finally, there was Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!  A weekly, hour-long comedic news quiz show on NPR, Wait Wait has been a public radio staple since 1998, but—again, thanks to my tortoise-like reflexes to my cultural surroundings—it was only just recently that it became a regular part of my week.  Hosted by Peter Sagal and featuring a rotating panel of three underemployed writers and comedians cracking jokes about current events, Wait Wait provided a desperately-needed catharsis at the end of each jaw-dropping week of this historic year, making hay of serious world events while going full metal gaga over the silly ones.

Admittedly, by the end, it became awfully hard to tell the difference.

Life Itself

I’ve seen more new movies in 2016 than during any single year of my life—and there are still 12 more days to go.  Selective consumer that I am, I have enjoyed nearly all my filmgoing experiences to date, and have had enormous difficulty cramming the best of the best into a traditional top-10 list.

As I continue reflecting on all the wonderful moments the cinema offered in an otherwise wretched year for the human race, I offer some fleeting impressions of my final four—a quartet of films that burrowed deep under my skin and never really found their way out.  Four singular conceptions that—in radically divergent form—satisfied (or nearly satisfied) Roger Ebert’s definition of a truly great film:  “It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us.  It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

MOONLIGHT

“You can pick from the menu.  Or I can give you the chef’s special.”  So says Kevin, the chef, to his childhood friend, Chiron.  Now in their late 20s, the two men haven’t seen each other for more than a decade.  In all probability, they would’ve remained strangers for the rest of their lives, except that Kevin recently phoned Chiron in the middle of the night to ask what he’s been doing with himself.  And now Chiron has driven 700 miles from Atlanta to Miami—materializing in Kevin’s diner, unannounced—to provide him some semblance of an answer.

Why?  Because, for all their time apart, he and Kevin share a secret that can never be reconciled until they are in the same room at the same time.  Their history—forged in one rapturous, terrifying moment many years ago—is at once totally alien to the society they inhabit, yet absolutely essential to understanding who either of them truly is.

The circumstances of their upbringing—namely, being poor and black in America—have prevented them from facing this complicated truth head-on, and so they have both chosen to suppress it—albeit in strikingly different ways.

And yet, on this night, in this diner—as Kevin prepares the chef’s special—there is suddenly the prospect of a reckoning—an echo of John Adams’s plea to Thomas Jefferson, “You and I ought not to die before we have explained ourselves to each other”—and with it, the possibility of love, happiness and inner peace.

O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA

In the greatest legal circus of the 1990s—The People of California v. O.J. Simpson—Mark Fuhrman was supposed to be the prosecution’s star witness.  He was the LAPD detective who found the pair of black gloves linking O.J. Simpson to the murder of his wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and Ronald Goldman.  One glove was recovered at Nicole’s house, the other at O.J.’s.  Both were splattered with the DNA of all three individuals, as were the driveways of both homes and the innards of O.J.’s white Ford Bronco.

In short, it was a slam dunk:  With a veritable orgy of both direct and circumstantial evidence, it was obvious to any fair-minded person that Simpson—an NFL hall of famer, actor and all-around celebrity—had committed double homicide.  Game, set, match.

And then Fuhrman took the witness stand, and everything fell apart.

To the defense team’s delight and the prosecution’s unending chagrin, Fuhrman turned out to be a scumbag:  A crooked, racist maniac with a long, proud history of brutality against LA’s black community.  Having bragged about his bigotry and deceitfulness on tape, he became Exhibit A in the defense’s theory that the O.J. evidence may have been planted—a narrative of institutional racism that jibed perfectly with the actual history of the LAPD, to say nothing of the nation as a whole, then and now.

In Ezra Edelman’s documentary, prosecutor Marcia Clark muses, “The only reason I know [Fuhrman] didn’t plant the evidence is because [he] couldn’t have.  Otherwise, I’m with them.”  Therein lies one answer to how a clearly guilty man could be acquitted by a jury of his peers:  Because after 400 years of white people in America getting away with murder, maybe it was time—if only just this once—for a black person to do the same.

ELLE

Michèle Leblanc has been having a very strange week.  Her son is moving into an apartment he can’t afford with a fiancé he doesn’t love who’s carrying a child that (probably) isn’t his.  At work, her underlings are fomenting a rebellion against her take-no-prisoners managerial style.  Elsewhere, her sort-of divorced mother is carrying on with a lover half her age, while Michèle herself is fooling around with her best friend’s husband and—for good measure—growing very flirty with her married next-door neighbor, Patrick.

Oh yeah:  And on Thursday afternoon, a mysterious man in a ski mask entered her apartment, wrestled her to the ground, savagely raped her and left.

By all outward appearances, that last item was the least-distressing moment of Michèle’s week.  Apart from a quick doctor’s visit, she doesn’t bother telling anyone about having been assaulted until dinner on Saturday evening—and even then, she hastens to add, “I feel stupid for bringing it up.”  When her flabbergasted dining companions ask why she hasn’t called the police, she shrugs, “It’s over—it doesn’t need talking about anymore.”

Is she in denial?  A closet masochist?  Just plain nuts?

As Rick Blaine would say:  It’s a combination of all three.

Played by Isabelle Huppert, Michèle is shown, in the fullness of time, to be a woman ruthlessly in pursuit of her own happiness—a process that, in her case, has a curious tendency to rob everyone else of theirs.  Like a wilier version of Selina Meyer in Veep, she is a fundamentally rotten specimen—a textbook sociopath who derives all earthly pleasure from making others squirm—yet somehow emerges as a compelling, magnetic—perhaps even heroic—femme fatale, prepared to turn any setback—up to and including sexual assault—to her advantage and assume control of her own destiny.  What a nasty woman.

KRISHA

It’s the morning of Thanksgiving.  The house is bouncing with activity, inhabited by at least half a dozen adults, another half-dozen twentysomethings, one newborn and an indeterminate number of dogs.  All is well—if a bit chaotic—and then Krisha walks in.

Who is Krisha?  In one sense, she is the person for whom the phrase, “There’s one in every family,” was coined.  She is the sole dinner guest who seems out of sync with everyone else around the table:  The one you don’t engage in direct conversation, for fear of what she might say, do or drink.  A reigning expat from the Island of Misfit Toys.

But no more:  She’s here now.  She’s sobered up (allegedly).  She wants to help out with the cooking and reacquaint herself with her kin and be an all-around better person.

And everyone present is thrilled to hear this.  They miss her, they know what an unholy wreck she had become, and they’re willing to give her every chance to earn her way back into the fold.

Except…not really.  Yeah, sure, if she’s serious about turning over a new leaf, then she has their unwavering love and support and blah blah blah.

In truth, Krisha’s family knows her better than she knows herself, and it all boils down to one unshakable fact:  There is no real hope for her in the end.  She has burned too many bridges—neglected too many responsibilities—to start over again from scratch.  Whatever forgiveness she wants for her sins—indeed, for her entire history to be cast into the sea of God’s forgetfulness—she cannot summon the strength to concede what can be neither forgotten nor forgiven.  When push comes to shove, she would just as well have another drink.

Trey Edward Shults’s film, drawn from his own life experiences, is a testament to the notion that life doesn’t always offer redemption.  It is altogether fitting that it would be based on real events and be released in 2016, since its portrait of a woman teetering on the edge of the abyss is a perfect metaphor for the blazed, desperate nation that produced her.

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.”