3.07.2017

The Beautiful, Awful Stink of Humanity: On Barry Jenkins' "Moonlight"

I started this essay after first seeing Moonlight, months ago. But I hesitated as the film left me wanting to remain silent, its overwhelming will to kindness hushing my own will to understand and articulate.


In John Cassavetes' Faces — an astounding, confounding film — plot and character disappear as we're left with this teem, this torrent, of affect. It's unsettling, to say the least. His characters are tornadoes more than they are people. And while Cassavetes is often associated with a certain human reality, that just doesn't seem right to me. Cassavetes gives us affect that runs through the human, undoing the human — real, sure, but not human. His people are drips of affect on celluloid canvas — intense and bold and careening. Faces is a Jackson Pollock.

Barry Jenkins' Moonlight leads with affect, too. The plot is secondary to the affect of the film (perhaps that's an overstatement; let's say the plot, while essential, doesn't drive this film). But Moonlight is up to something very different than Faces. If Faces is affective but inhuman, Moonlight is so devastatingly, exquisitely, achingly human.

I use that word "human" cautiously and purposefully. I'm suspicious of it and, frankly, a bit repulsed by it. It's used as a generality that effaces the differences between me and you, the differences between cultures. I think of the famous "The Family of Man" photography show from when I was a kid (I had the book which held a certain weight for me on two counts. It had a photograph by my namesake, Dan Weiner, my mother's cousin who died in a plane crash before I was born. And the book had pictures of topless women, African if I remember correctly, which needless to say I found quite intriguing).  The suggestion is we're all human, aren't we? That we all have families and loves and poops so we're all united.

What's ironic is that using human in this way is dehumanizing. What makes the human interesting, what makes it a vital, living and breathing force is our differences. We live through our horrors and joys, bear and wear them this way and that.

I want something else from this word "human," then. I want a phenomenology that doesn't reduce us to either bodily functions (we all shit, eat, fuck) or bourgeois desires (family, love, a house). I want something that doesn't unite us per se but becomes a principle of our differentiation. (An example of such a principle is "do the right thing." It's always different, depending on circumstance and perspective. This is what I want from my use of the word human: a principle that fosters and proliferates difference.)

The affective teem of Faces makes sense to me. Cassavetes makes films in a world I understand — a decentered world, free of concepts. It's all a play of collisions and collusions, momentary conspiracies coupled with fray, decay, dissolution, madness. In many ways, this is how I've reckoned life: I participate in the transhuman affect of it all, the cosmic flow, the transcendent planes that run through this world. The human is often just too human for me. I've shunned it, choosing to participate as best I could on another plane. My best friends are clouds.

Moonlight gives us something else all together. The affect it proffers is distinctly human. It is the affect of childhood, of being so small and scared and confused and alone. It is cultural discourse and the expectations of what it means to be a man (or be anything, for that matter). It is the affect of memory, the way we live with the things that have happened to us. It is the gestures of regret and forgiveness. It is living this life with other people and just wanting someone to touch your face, to hold you, even if only for a moment. This is the beautiful, awful stink of humanity.

These are such wonderfully horrible aspects of living life as a human being. We live through these childhoods — all these different childhoods ripe with fear and loneliness— and bear these experiences. We are haunted, all of us, by memories and by expectations and desire. And we each make our way as we do.

I've tried to avoid so much of the human, flippantly dismissing the horrors and agony of my youth as I've attempted to surf cosmic planes, making light of romance and friendship, disdaining the social and its exhausting demands. But my past is part of me; my childhood is part of me. I may not be defined by all these memories but all these memories live in me, as me, with me. And here I am, a man in this world who longs to be desired, to love and be loved, to be held and touched. Despite my best efforts, I remain this all-too-human body, this frail and strong creature, this impossible amalgamation of forces and words, of desires and tics, of memories, dreams, and events, of skin and love.

And this is what Moonlight presents with such aplomb. But the genius of this film is that it never raises any of this to a generality. Yes, we all face the affect of childhood, its horrors and joys, but Little and Chiron's experiences are theirs. Yes, we all face the various cultural constructs and their insidious expectations — of gender, job, love, life — but Black's reckoning is his. He is located in his particularity even while we recognize the negotiation of all the factors that define his particularity — his race, class, his gender performativity, his mother, his school, his friends, the moisture of Miami.

What we all share, Jenkins tell us, is that we are an intersection of all these things. We are all particular assemblages. Our particularity isn't outside of this confluence of forces; we are this confluence and their point of inflection. The humanity here is that we all have a set of relations we negotiate and that this set of relations is always different and that we each negotiate it differently. In this way, the film at once gives us radical particularity and a certain strange generality — a generality that will never have been a generality.

And Jenkins makes one more radical move:  within this human teem, he proffers a breadth of ethical acts — forgiveness, bearing witness and, above all, kindness. Jenkins doesn't offer us a way out of the human; there is no transcendence here. What he gives us are these achingly exquisite human gestures — forgiving a mother, touching a man's face, holding him in your arms.

Barry Jenkins' humanity is the most generous humanity: it is made of infinite difference rather than unity or reduction. He doesn't suggest an underlying or overarching unity. He simply, incredibly, gives us the beautiful, awful stink of it all — and the all-too-rare and hence radical gesture of kindness.