The surreal mix-up on Oscar night has enshrined “Moonlight” as one of the biggest upsets and flubs in movie history. But that giant shocker on live television resulted from many more intimate moments experienced in theaters across the country — viewers feeling surprise that a movie with a tiny budget, a low-profile cast, and a doubly marginalized protagonist could speak to them so personally and profoundly. That “Moonlight” could prove so unexpectedly universal is a testament to Barry Jenkins as a director, and perhaps more specifically, to the immensely powerful images he created along with cinematographer James Laxton.
As seen in this new video essay, many of the lyrical visuals of “Moonlight” are seen not just once, but recur and echo throughout the three segments of the film, giving a sense of continuity and added resonance to the themes expressed in those images — the struggle for acceptance, the forging of identity, and the emotional distance that separates people except in rare, indelible moments. Through restaging key images and motifs, Jenkins is able to do in more traditional filmic methods what Richard Linklater achieved with his 12-year shoot of “Boyhood”: to give shape to the drives and desires that form an entire life’s story in a way that feels organic and comprehensive. It also helps that Jenkins is a clever student of some of the international masters of visual poetry; he particularly cites as an influence the director Wong Kar-wai and his ability “to take interiority and translate it to the screen.” This trait is crucial to “Moonlight,” as Chiron is shy and verbally withdrawn, but with a deft eye for gesture and body language, Jenkins is able to tell the audience things about Chiron that the character himself might not be able to articulate.
This video essay is a great start to understanding the ingredients of the “Moonlight” success, but if anything, it’s only scratching the surface of recurring imagery in the film. “Moonlight” deserves multiple viewings to appreciate how the three different glimpses of Chiron interweave to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Watch the video below. And by the way? “Moonlight” should surpass “Ex Machina” and “The Witch” to become the highest grossing A24 film in the indie studio’s history. Not too shabby for the little film that could.
Bonus: here’s a cool look at the influence of Wong Kar-Wai on Barry Jenkins from The Criterion Collection.