Some spoilers here!
Moonlight is haptic cinema. It touches the senses, immerses you in an embodied, tactile experience; it moves you, not just in an emotional sense but physically too. The swirling camera in the opening sequence is dizzying in its construction; it is a mobility that is disorienting and signals from the outset the director, Barry Jenkin’s, intent to destabilise us, to undermine our assumptions about character, race, sex and family.
Andrea Arnold’s films come closest to what Jenkins is doing here. Her films immerse us in the world of her characters too: extreme close-ups; a mobile camera which hugs its protagonists so that we barely leave their world; shots fading in and out of focus; ambient sounds pushed to the forefront of the audio mix; static shots of space which are filled with our own embodied memories and experiences. All this is present in Moonlight. In an early scene, Juan’s immersion of Chiron in the sea is incredibly tactile, the waves lapping over the camera help us to share in the emotional bonding. No long shots required – there is no need to situate the two characters in the wider contexts of time and space: all that matters is the now – the ‘to be-ness’ of the moment.
Heightened sound evokes our own embodied memories and experiences: the hiss of the night-wind through the trees, for example, the waves caressing the sand. The poetic use of soundtrack (Nicholas Brittel) also draws us emotionally into Chiron’s experiences – eschewing what might be seen as any tired cliches, Jordan uses a pared down, orchestral score (see here: http://pitchfork.com/thepitch/1377-director-barry-jenkins-on-the-music-that-made-moonlight/) that questions and also subverts what we (me? white, male, working-cum-middle-class heterosexual) might expect in a film about gay black men. Jenkins employs the technique of ‘chopping and screwing’ which results in a slowed tempo that also contains an edge which foreshadows Chiron’s own character arc. Then there are the moments when sound is lost – Chiron’s mother’s (Paula, played by Naomie Harris) voice fades away during one of her verbal tirades; his head teacher’s ineffective – if well-meaning – advice lost as the camera slides towards Chiron’s feet, as cowed and defeated as Chiron himself after his beating by Terrel and his gang.
Laura Marks’ use of the term “caressing gaze” is important in our understanding of haptic visuality and its conveying of texture and tactility. The word haptic derives from the Greek word haptein meaning “to fasten” suggesting proximity between the perceiver of the image and the image itself. The haptic look, for Marks “tends to move over the surface of its object rather than to plunge into illusionistic depth, not to distinguish form so much as to discern texture. It is more inclined to move than to focus, more inclined to graze than to gaze” (Marks 2000, p.162). This is what happens when you experience Moonlight. The texture of the film, the body of the film itself is foregrounded. And there are some incredibly haptic moments – the touch of sand across skin is one that stands out for me but there are also quite visceral moments – Terrel’s beating of Chiron, for example – whilst Jenkins also captures the body’s own, and sometimes spontaneous, reactions to trauma and memory. Everything in the film is there to be tasted, touched, felt, experienced (including Kevin’s ‘chef’s special’ (“your ass eat, your ass speak’)).
According to Laura Marks, haptic visuality is a “baffled vision” a form of defamiliarisation which is designed to “discourage the viewer from distinguishing objects and encourage a relationship to the screen as a whole” (Marks, 2000, p.72). This is what Jordan is asking of us as we experience his film – we cannot passively engage with Moonlight – to do so is to dull the experience and to distance oneself from the vitality of the film’s body. In a haptic cinema, we are, according to Marks, asked “to contemplate the image itself instead of being pulled into the narrative” (2000, p.163). Although narrative is important, it is Chiron’s world that we are asked to speculate on, to question, to engage with. Here is a drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), but what is he doing taking the lost Chiron under his wing? Helping Chiron to understand that a “faggot” is a disrespectful term for a gay person? As Steven Thrasher states: “Juan embodies some of the hardest masculinity in the film and is also a model of gay acceptance, slaying the canard that black people are more homophobic than white people.” (see https://www.theguardian.com/film/2016/oct/29/moonlight-movie-barry-jenkins-black-gay).
Ashton Sanders (who plays the teenage Chiron) embodies perfectly his character’s sense of alienation. Cowed by the incessant and brutal intimidation at the hands (and feet) of Terrel, Sanders’ gait and facial expressions capture the emotional turmoil that he is undergoing. His emergence into the older, muscular Chiron could be seen as falling into another stereotype – Chiron is himself selling drugs – but Jenkins again immerses us in Chiron’s world. The scene with his mother in the rehab centre might be the only approaching-mawkish moment in the film but the fact that she prefers to stay in the centre rather than risk the outside denies us, thankfully, that cliched fully-blown redemptive moment.
We often say that a film has moved us, that we have been ‘touched’ by it. Moonlight does just that. When we leave the theatre, our lives have changed – only so slightly perhaps – but part of Chiron’s world has also become part of our own.
Laura U. Marks – The Skin of the Film (2000)