Heads up: this is personal. I don’t really like that I’m doing this, but I’m hoping it’ll feel redemptive in the end. This blog is usually (always) reserved for film review-type writing, but you’ll notice the description says “in which stories are explored as an exercise in curiosity,” which I believe gives me full freedom to explore one of my own stories as well. Last year, in 2015, I remember thinking on numerous occasions, “This is actually the worst year of my life.” Odd, because many people are now declaring 2016 to be “the worst year ever.” On a global level, I can see their point; on a personal level, 2016 may not have been the worst year for me, but it has truly been the most up and down, the most bizarre—which, as a story-obsessed writer-type, I can’t help but assume will also soon read as “most life-changing.” It’s Christmas Eve, and though I’ve felt scattered ever since the election, I’ve been feeling more scattered than usual this week for reasons entirely unrelated to the president-elect and changing political climate. I know later this evening my family and I will watch It’s A Wonderful Life, and I’ll cry, and I’ll be thinking about all these things and feeling them all at once and it will make me want to explode, so I’m trying to save myself a little bit by attempting to arrange (word vomit) them here first.
This time last year, I was trying my hardest to engage with my family and enjoy the holiday, and trying forget how sad I was. I never thought seriously about it until the last two years or so, and it wasn’t until this point a year ago, midway through my senior year of college, that I was actively trying to make myself better, wondering why I never had before. I was sad for a lot of reasons, but the final gut-punch, the cherry on top of the awful year that started with my return from being abroad in England, certain I would never feel at home again here or anywhere, was when I got a call from the education department at Clark the day before winter break telling me they just didn’t think I was going to be a good fit for the Master’s program at all. I was shocked and confused; I thought I had done everything right. I had chosen Clark all those years ago for this exact moment, choosing the opportunity to get a free Master’s degree in one year over my dream school, Sarah Lawrence, over the writing and publishing program at Emerson, over the scholarships and reputation of both schools and others. I’m not generally what people would call a “confident” person, but whatever shred of confidence I had left was shattered with that phone call, and although it’s been a year and it makes me feel like a child to admit it, I haven’t forgotten the feeling.
A lot has happened since then, and I know the education program thinks they repaired the damage by hastily offering me a spot in “whatever program I wanted” after conversations with President David Angel, and I know David Angel thinks I left Clark with less of a bruise by offering me a $2,000 stipend to assist my adviser with her book project. I was very resentful of these peace offerings at the time, feeling unable to accept the peer-pressured invitation back into the program after being so ashamed that, for all my hard work and good grades and hustling to ensure I had every requirement for both majors and negotiating which course would count for what so I could study abroad without wasting a semester of class time, I couldn’t even get into the graduate program for my own fucking school—so why would I expect to be accepted anywhere else? I felt betrayed and I was humiliated. My resentment towards Clark only grew when, after some investigation into the situation, David Angel informed me that I was cut from the program because I was deemed (in so many words) “not mentally strong enough to handle the challenges of the urban environment.” I was stunned by this, wondering if anyone else had been cut for the same reason. No, he said, this decision apparently stemmed from a meeting I’d had (and assumed was an informal, personal conversation) with one of the program directors in October—when I was heading down toward my lowest point, starting not to care about going to class or doing my work, testing medications that made things worse—and had a bit of a breakdown. Yes, but, didn’t they realize I still came out on top after all that? They judged me and deemed me unfit to study urban education because of one meeting? And after all that, didn’t they bother checking my grades and realizing that in my state of being “mentally unwell” I still aced my two capstone papers and managed B’s in my other classes, despite not showing up for half of them and putting in almost zero effort? I was furious, and I was hurt, and just last night I wrote an email to a professor saying I couldn’t imagine my feelings towards Clark changing anytime soon.
Then this morning, my dad slipped a letter under my door. He gets up early every morning to write and meditate, so this isn’t entirely unexpected. This one was long, though, about how proud he was of me etc. etc., parent things—then he mentioned something I haven’t thought about in years. When I was a kid, I played basketball. That was my thing. I liked it because I was good; I could shoot free throws, I was a point guard, I was important. I liked looking at my dad’s old pictures of him and his basketball teams, and thinking I was like him. I played for years, all the way from elementary school through eighth grade, and went to special basketball academies for dribbling and shooting. Then high school started; we had a different coach, we had to tryout, and I didn’t make the team. Just like last year, I was devastated and confused. I started dyeing my hair and I refused to go to see any games.
But because I didn’t make the team, I had time to audition for the musical that year--Beauty and the Beast, one of my favorite stories ever. Because I was in the musical, I met Mr. Mullen, a legendary theater teacher and director known for being outrageous, disruptive, and life-changing. Because I knew Mr. Mullen, he convinced me to join the speech team, and because I became part of the speech and theater communities, I made friends of a different caliber I never would have known had I continued playing basketball. I became familiar with being in front of audiences of all sizes, became better at public speaking, studied pieces of literature, theater and film that exposed me to worlds beyond the ones I would normally choose, beyond the ones we studied in school. I became a performer, learned all aspects of the stage, and helped our school win awards for sound design, original music, ensemble cast, humorous interpretation, original writing, storytelling, acting like a silly priest bird—I was important.
In my dad’s letter this morning, he reminded me of all these wonderful things that came about in my life because of what I learned doing theater, and he asked me if I had forgiven the coach for cutting me from the basketball team. This was something I had never considered before: forgiveness (can you imagine?). He asked me, if I had, if I could also find it within myself to forgive Clark for causing the same pain, humiliation, and self-loathing I felt in ninth grade. Because of the debacle with the education program, I found myself after graduation with nothing to do, with no ideas about how to proceed with my life but penciled-in plans to move to New Mexico with my cousin in January. Then two weeks ago, I got an email out of the blue from Chaz Ebert, asking if I was still interested in being considered for a fellowship I had applied to last year—a fellowship for film criticism that would send me to Sundance Film Festival to write for Roger Ebert’s website. A few days ago, I found out that I had been selected—for something I didn’t even apply for (this year, anyway), a total dream come true, that I was only able to accept because I had refused to stay in a program I felt didn’t really want me there, leaving me with infinite time on my hands.
I don’t really know what’s going on here, but it’s not nothing. After formally deciding to give up my goals of teaching for a bit to, instead, pursue the far less practical field of cinema and media, I was willing to force myself down a very narrow path, which even my professors and advisers admitted. Now, the only thing that could have possibly made a significant difference in the plausibility of achieving the dream of becoming a film writer has actually happened. Clark has reached out to me since asking for an interview, which in my mind initially read as: “Even though we stabbed you in the back and screwed up your life for a second, is it okay if we sell your success and benefit from this accomplishment we enabled by rejecting you?” That was cynical, I’ll admit, but the honest truth about how I felt until reading my dad’s letter this morning. I’m still not sure I’m willing to become a poster child for alumni success, which is difficult to confront because I know I owe so much to the students and faculty of the English and Screen departments, and I want to help bring them as much positive attention as possible, so I’ll just say here: I owe every bit of whatever amount of success I’m entitled to by this fellowship to people like Mr. Mullen and my dad but especially now, to the members of the English and Screen programs. I see these departments as separate entities outside of “Clark” who were there for me unconditionally even when I was at my lowest low, being a piece of shit and literally doing nothing but locking myself in my room and crying or staring at the ceiling. But as much as I want to distinguish English and Screen from the monster Clark I imagine betraying me, I know they are limbs of the same body, and if I am proud to have been a part of the English and Screen communities, then by the Transitive Property of Pride, I must also be proud to have been a part of Clark.
I don’t know if I can wholeheartedly say I (gulp) forgive Clark for the way I feel my situation was handled yet, but I can definitely say I forgive Coach Roberts for cutting me from the basketball team. It feels like a long time ago that I cared more about who was the starting point guard than how the fuck are we gunna build a barn set in under five minutes, so I can only assume it’s a matter of time before I care more about—what? What will I be worrying about in five years, or eight, or ten? How to get a review in by the deadline, or whether to relocate to grimy Los Angeles?—than why, for a moment, I didn’t think I was strong enough to be a teacher. Now it’s almost noon and I know I need to get downstairs to help hurriedly clean the house before our family and friends start arriving. I am still partially satisfied/relieved to be able to demonstrate that I haven’t been totally wasting my time in the aftermath of their rejection, but I’m glad this exciting venture won’t feel so much like a revenge trip anymore. I’m fully aware of Clark’s role, in all its forms and variations, in nudging the universe into sending that email from Chaz Ebert, and I’m grateful. Now that I’m starting to let go of all the resentment and bitterness leftover from last year, I can fully focus on the new and exciting anxieties of deciding which movies to see, which conferences and meetings to look forward to, how the fuck I’ll be able to look Robert Redford in the eye and not melt, and how to move forward in a life where it looks like I might actually be able to succeed in doing what I love most—AND I AM NOT THROWING AWAY MY SHOT!
2016 was a bad year. The worst ever, some say. The temptation to stay connected with news of the ghastly modern world is constantly combatted by a desperate desire to escape it all, and there is no happy medium. Our collective need for diversions, entertainment, and comfort is at an all-time high, and the titles alone of the two most highly-acclaimed films of the year indicate as much. Both Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle, director of 2014’s Whiplash) are reflections of the struggle to reconcile the harsh reality of our environment with the harmonious reverie of our own unique dream worlds. That time between night and day, the space between sleep and consciousness, the jarring separation of the present world and fantasy—both La La Land and Moonlight seek to take us there while we watch our heroes slip and fall in and out of this space, and both succeed spectacularly.
Based on a college thesis play entitled In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight tells the story of Chiron in three stages (with three fantastic performances in three chapters of his developing identity, “Little”, “Chiron”, and “Black”) as he grows up in War-on-Drugs-era Miami and copes with his toxic home life, relentless bullying, and the growing awareness that he is gay. Only a few moments of light find their way into Chiron’s largely wordless intake of the world and characters around him, and this defining trait of reticence further underlines his dissociation from them all. The film’s silence is as crucial as its dialogue (perhaps more so), leaving as much emotion and intelligence in the space between spoken words as in the words themselves. Two beams of peace penetrate Chiron’s disconnected world: the welcoming home of Juan (Mahershala Ali) and Teresa (Janelle Monáe); and the friendship of Kevin (also played by three different actors) as the two boys grow up together in similar situations but vastly different outcomes.
The film succeeds in some ways that only a film could—with effective use of editing, effects, score, etc.—but knowing the film’s theatrical origins, it is not difficult to discern its relationship with theater. The performing self and philosophical significance of pretending to be someone else, to become a different person, is of the utmost importance in the theory of acting and in Chiron’s story, particularly in the “Black” chapter when Kevin sees what kind of person Chiron has made himself in order to avoid repeating pains of the past. While the film’s supporting roles (Ali as father-figure Juan, and Naomie Harris as Chiron’s drug-addicted mother) have garnered significant awards attention, Moonlight’s ensemble cast is a pillar of its all-around success as it drives home the relevance of the story’s onstage origins—the stakes at hand for every performer in any live performance, the spectacle of assuming roles for an intended audience. The high strings, bass and piano of Nicholas Britell’s classical score elevate the gray urban landscape, enhance the movie’s natural grace, and make Chiron’s painful youth into something beautiful, almost in such a way that suggests the story might be best told as a ballet or opera. At its most dreamlike, Moonlight makes exceptional use of low-light, shadow, music, and color. Pinks, purples, and greens make up some of the movie’s most beautiful shots, heightening the quiet underwater sensation we are often left submerged in, while the significance of black and blue (in relation to race, nicknames, the title, and the unseen bruises—physical and emotional—of Chiron’s childhood) is not lost on us.
Placed next to a dramatic film as serious, artful, and heartbreaking as Moonlight, it is somehow both surprising and not surprising at all that La La Land is the other major cinematic success of this year. The two top Oscar contenders have already received or been nominated for a huge number of awards, sharing praise for excellence in direction, screenwriting, cinematography, effects, editing, and music, with La La Land attracting a bit more attention for their leading actors, costumes, art and production design, and Moonlight critics focusing on the outstanding ensemble cast and supporting actors. The differences are obvious: Moonlight is a profoundly moving coming-of-age drama, while La La Land is a vibrant attempt to revive the style of early Hollywood musicals; Moonlight’s cast, setting, and story is comprised entirely people of color and the LGBTQ community, while La La Land pays tribute to an undeniably white and heteronormative era in film history. At opposite ends of the cinematic social spectrum, the two films are complementary in a way, two sides of the same coin (which, if I were willing to go off on an extended metaphor tangent, I would say is “America,” or something like that). When seen as one entity of exceptional storytelling in modern film, these two wildly different movies work together to establish broader themes of what is shared among audiences everywhere, no matter what kind of story they relate to, or what kind of movies they see—themes of humanity, escapism, and the importance of the individual in such a big, aching, beautiful world as ours.
La La Land makes no secret of its theatricality. Allowed by the nature of its chosen genre to make loud and bold those elements of spectacle quietly present throughout Moonlight, the musical romantic-comedy is starry-eyed and lavish, knowingly sentimental and lovely in its excess. Following the narratives of aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) and nostalgic jazz pianist Sebastien (Ryan Gosling), there is no shortage of classic movie winks and nods to make abundantly clear the deliberate onstage and even stereotypical quality of its performance. Sebastien takes Mia to see Rebel Without a Cause (Nicholas Ray, 1955) at one point, cementing its open Hollywood infatuation and binary gender norms, while Stone’s singing is reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe—breathy and in-tune, but secondary to her radiant physical presence. The movie is centered in that dream-state of imagination that renders hardship tolerable, that fosters hope in even the most hopeless of ambitions—and what better setting to serve as the backdrop for stories of those foolish, faithful dreamers than the urban embodiment of these contradictions, the real, physical L.A. L.A. Land itself, Los Angeles? The opening number (“Another Day of Sun”) affectionately introduces us to the character of the city in a traffic-jam song-and-dance which notably lacks appearances from either of the leading stars, following a tradition which may confuse and annoy newcomers to the genre, but surely delight those familiar enough with the rituals of musical theater to recognize the vast number of influences in the huge crowd opener, full of anonymous voices from people of the city clad in full primary-color costumes, dancing dreamily and dramatically out of and on top of their cars.
As in Moonlight, light and color play essential roles in La La Land’s successful depiction of people in the real world attempting to live in fantasy. Bright, solid colors represent those young hopefuls like Mia and her roommates as they try to make themselves stand out in a sea of other people trying to make themselves stand out. As Mia’s story and development as an actress transition from naïvely optimistic to serious and productive, so does her costume scheme change from intrepid blues, reds, and yellows to more mature blacks and whites. The association between dreams and water exists strongly in both films as well, with the same twilight hues of pink, purple, blue and green, often in low-light, to suggest without ever explicitly depicting (aside from Chiron’s meaningful experience learning to swim and float with Juan) feelings of floundering, drowning, being stuck inside a fishbowl or able only to peer into one from the outside. The camerawork in both movies is similarly remarkable: in Moonlight, for the simultaneously human and heavenly mix of handheld shots and stunning slow-motion; in La La Land, for the near-constant smooth movement of the camera, gliding up, down, and around our two young stars as they sing and dance through their story. The planetarium scene shows the film’s unabashed dream-state more clearly than any other, as Mia discovers she can step into the air towards the stars, and Sebastien neither hesitates nor looks terribly surprised as he lifts her higher and joins her in the simulated sky for a silhouetted waltz.
It was mainly the impending awards season that motivated me to try and write about what seemed to be the most widely-praised films in America this year, but I now find myself convinced of a genuinely meaningful relationship between La La Land and Moonlight and their overlapping critical acclaim. There is something to be said for a pair of films which can appear to be so different, so unrelated, so—literally—black and white in comparison, but which actually coexist in the same dream world, born in the same human imagination doomed to deal with what is often a cruel and bleak reality and find some way to escape it. Granted, La La Land is slanted more towards imagination while Moonlight is more firmly rooted in reality, but their inverse narratives almost strike a balance; Moonlight ends on a note of hope and contentment, while La La Land finishes with an unexpected disappointment. Both endings, however, are earned and fitting, each confronting the reality within the dreams that kept our heroes away from both delusion and despair and steered them, instead, into a constant state of possibility.