Camilla Long Is Wrong About “Moonlight” 

I imagine that Camilla Long, film critic at The Times, is likely spending today licking the wounds she incurred after the thorough dragging she recieved on Twitter this weekend, following her callous, racist, and embarrassing review of the films Moonlight and Hidden Figures. And righftully so! Her review is easily one of the most absurd and offensive things I’ve come across in 2017 that wasn’t from the White House, and Long should be ashamed of herself, both as a person and a “critic.” In the interest of full disclosure, I should mention that I haven’t seen Hidden Figures yet, so I shall reserve my opinions on Long’s opinions on that film for another time. However, I did see Moonlight, and, aside from being particularly unsettled by the overt racism of Long’s piece, I also disgreed with her non-racist criticisms. She’s wrong about Moonlight. 

The most obvious offense in the piece is Long’s claim that Moonlight could not possibly be “relevant” to an audience she conceives of as mostly “straight, white, and middle class.” The immediate emotional response, of course, is “Fuck you.” The more measured and thoughtful response, though, is to point out just how dispicable this position is. Make make no mistake: this is a racist ideology, and Camilla Long is a racist for espousing it. This is the exact ideology against which last year’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign railed. This is the exact ideology that has left us with a preponderance of movies about white characters of all stripes, which are often lavished with critical praise despite the actual strengths of their merits (here’s looking at you, La La Land) and a disheartening shortage of equally varied depictions of people of color. That Long apparently considers “being relevant to white people” some sort of requiste for cinematic or artistic accomplishment only further articulates her own racism: such a perspective seems impossible to maintain outside of the lens of white supremacy. That is, Long’s big gripe with Moonlight is that, unlike practically every other movie ever made, it isn’t about affirming whiteness.

Of course, one might expect Long to deny that any such imbalace between the represenations of whites in film (especially Hollywood) and the representations of the rest of us even exists: she insists (so wrongly) that stories like Moonlight, which charts the experiences of Chiron, a gay, black man in Miami, at three different points in his life, have “been told countless times, against countless backdrops.” Both viewer experience and Long’s failure to offer any concrete examples belie this notion. 

Because she’s going out of her way to be racist, Long fabricates several demerits with which to accuse Moonlight. She thinks it is an “interesting disctinction” that Juan, the adult drug dealer who acts as a surrogate father figure for Chiron, keeping the boy safe from both bullies and his drug-addled mother, is middle class himself, and that he is “calm, appreciative, fully ‘woke’ dude living in beautiful interior-designed house,” and one can only assume that by “interesting distinction” she means that it is unlikely. Also confounding, for Long, is the willingness with which Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa, shares in the responsibility of looking after Chiron and welcoming him into their home. In both critiques what is made clear is that all Camilla Long knows of blackness is what she’s seen in the movies. Juan and his house are both for Long “too nice” because the only idea she has of a black man who sells drugs is that of one who maybe dresses like Juan, with his baggy clothes and his do-rags, but who possesses all of the anger, violence, hostility, and domestic squalor–the black criminal exterior–that Juan lacks. Long simply cannot reconcile her presuppositions with the images before her. Likewise, her dismay over Teresa’s kindess seems fueled by too many movies in which African American motherhood is at best pitied and at worst vilified (anything from The Color Puple (pitied) to Precious (vilified) to The Help (both)). The representations of black mothers who are both happy women and competent mothers are out there (even if Long hasn’t been exposed to them); however, Long’s views makes clear that these images are no where near as prevelant as their counterparts–even for a woman who makes her living reviewing films. 

Long seems to have missed entirely the point of Moonlight. She calls the picture the film paints of “the African American community’s attitude to gay sex” “one-note,” but the film itself harldy seems interested in representing the attitude of an entire demographic, of either the one-note or textured variety. Rather, it is a very specific tale about the very specific experience of a very specific boy–a specificity rarely afforded to stories about people like Chiron. This specificity is evidenced by the intimate closeness of the filming, which situates the viewer firmly in the world of the film (or should) and what Long calls its “single lines of agonised dialogue,” which is actually spare, striking, even poetic. But Long’s view of black Americans as all members of one ghetto or another again prevent her from seeing Moonlight correctly. Why must it be that the film articulates an African American attitude toward homosexuality and not, for instance, a working class attitude (for Long, the “ghetto”), or even a “heteronormative” attitude (which it certainly is)? Because Long can’t help but generalize blackness, and black people; therefore, she can only deduce generalities from black art. 

That she simply didn’t “get” the movie is evident in her other large criticism, which concerns the film’s fragmented storytelling technique, which Long confuses for meandering plotlessness but which is actually quite successful. The film is broken into three distinct parts. The first part features Chiron as a bullied youth who is taken under Juan’s wing. The second part features Chiron as a quiet, bullied teenager whose burgeoning homosexuality finds expression in a beachside encounter with his friend, Kevin, played against his mother’s harrowing descent into drug addition and his growing relationship with Juan and Teresa. In the film’s third part, Chiron is an adult, now a drug dealer himself, who somewhat spontaneously reconnects with Kevin after several years. 

It is this third part that draws the strongest connection between the film’s vignette form and its content. The flirtation between Chiron and Kevin when they meet as grown men is as endearing as it is weighted with the hesistency and subtlety their lives have taught them is necessary where their sexuality is concerned, and although the actors who play these characters at each stage of their lives bear little physical resemblance to one another, it is impossible to witness the tender touching that ends the film without remembering the violence that has preceeded it. Despite Juan’s apparent acceptance of Chiron’s homosexuality early in the film, the larger society in which he lives has left its mark on Chiron’s psyche. Once bullied for his small size and his gender performance, as an adult Chiron has transformed himself into a massive hulk of guy, appearing even more the drug dealer than Juan, which is enough to suggest an effort to dispense with his old reputation and victimization–that is, to emulate or even exaggerate the notions of masculinity and manhood which had formerly opppressed him (and in this way still do). Affirming this is his confession to Kevin that no one has touched him since that night on the beach. It’s quite obvious that Chiron has insulated himself against both the injustices of his past and the desires of his present; that he has quite literally built himself up as a fortress against them, or a dungeon to keep them in, and that it might be just as easy to continue this way. Just as easy, certainly more convenient, perhaps even safer. 

And yet, he doesn’t. Instead, he goes to visit Kevin. Instead, he lets Kevin touch him, lets himself be touched. Yes, these events are isolated from the events of the film’s first two parts–and those parts from each other–but it is precisely this isolation that drives home Moonlight’s overrarcing point, and one of its triumphs. Camilla Long may want movies that order life into a cohesive chronology that explains the end result, but Moonlight says no. Moonlight resists that. Its anti-narrative is disruptive, even combative, because it has to be: it is queer. This queerness disrupts the narrative structure, which is also necessary, for how to accurately and truthfully convey black and/or queer lives via a structure that oppressives and excludes them? 

Mostly–and perhaps most saddening–is that Long mistakes her racism and her inability to empathize with the black characters of Moonlight (and, I suspect, Hidden Figures) as a failure of the movie to be relevant. As such, she misses what is “universal” about Moonlight: at its core an immensely hopeful film, it says that our pasts don’t have to define us, that our experiences don’t have to be who we are, that we can go a different way. In light of her recent humiliation, such news should seem particularly relevant to Ms. Long.

On “Looking: The Movie”

looking_still_jonathan_groff_murray_bartlett_frankie_j_alvarez_h_2016_0

One should start, to get it out of the way, by saying that Looking: The Movie, which premiered on HBO earlier this summer, is exceptionally bad. Not bad as in “bad but fun,” or bad as in “bad but entertaining,” but bad as in “resolutely terrible.” This should come as no surprise, however: When the series, for which this telemovie is meant as a final chapter, debuted in 2014, it was met with a decidedly nasty response from audiences and critics alike, both of whom found of its storylines trite and its characters vapid and unexamined. One particularly excoriating review, by J. Bryan Lowder writing for Slate, called Looking “an almost unbearably boring television show,” “utterly flat in terms of narrative and characterization,” and likened it to “a lightly dramatized version of a press release originally meant for straight people.” The made-for-TV capstone, unfortunately, suffers from the same malaise as the series proper, managing an excruciating drabness that is the television equivalent of a cold bowl of Cream of Wheat.

Worse than the film’s confounding badness, however, is its insidious brand of respectability politics. In the series, these politics were embedded within an aesthetic interest in subtlety and uneventful simplicity–what Lowder called a “‘post-gay,’ nothing-unique-going-on-here ethos.” This ethos, meant to emphasize the normalcy of gay lives by showing gay people doing regular things, is back again, and accomplishes in the movie what it accomplished in the series: In its zeal to present gay lives as lives essentially unlike any other, it necessarily directs the movie not at the community it purports to represent but, rather, the status quo– for certainly gay men already know that in a quotidian sense they are “just like everyone else.” Yet the ethics at play in the movie are significantly more blatant and slightly more corrupt than they ever were, or seemed to be, in the series, and the movie works overtime to glorify traditional performances of masculinity among gay men, marginalize those who fail to comply, and vehemently reject thought that challenges the mainstream.

The film opens with Patrick Murray (played with a rankling bafflement by the Broadway actor Jonathan Groff) returning to San Francisco because his good friend Agustín (Frankie J. Alvarez, whose method of acting is gratingly over-reactive and self-aware) is getting married. Patrick has been living in Denver for the ostensible nine month interval between the end of season two and the beginning of the movie, having fled there after ending an ill-advised affair with his wealthy, not-quite-single boss and suffering an equally disastrous relationship with Richie, the charming, perpetually furrow-browed barber he met by chance. Patrick’s exile was a classic attempt at a new beginning, a self-reinvention, even, and we’re led to believe it worked: The Patrick who returns to San Francisco is markedly different from the one who left.

Looking can’t be bothered with anything as grueling as character development, so there’s nothing about Patrick, at least outwardly, that suggests this reinvention. Thank God the other characters are on hand to point out his many changes. We learn that the typically punctual Patrick has started running late because Agustín points it out it in the opening scenes, when Patrick meets he and Dom after arriving in town. Later, after Patrick hooks up with some twink he meets in a bar, Dom comments on his newfound sexual confidence. “You look different,” someone else tells Patrick, at another point in the film. “I’ve lost a little weight,” Patrick explains with shy confidence.

Within the diegesis, all of these changes are presented as positive: Patrick isn’t as uptight as he once was; he’s loosened up; he’s started taking care of himself. In short, he’s doing better. Telling, then, that one of the first of such observations his friends make is how “masculine” he’s gotten. It’s a small, quick line, forgettably mumbled by Dom (played by Murray Bartlett, capable but underused in the film), but its early occurrence situates it as the foundation upon which all the subsequent superlatives are built. That is, Patrick’s supposed masculinity becomes a primary characterization of his transformation. He even admits, at one point, that he has a much greater sense of self-worth than he used to, and it’s more than suggested that that self-worth is due at least in part to his noted progression from effeminacy to masculinity. As if to be effeminate is to be mired in self-loathing and a few extra pounds. There’s a dangerous femmephobia underpinning this narrative of self improvement, and it pricks sharply.

This femmephobia rears its head elsewhere, too, especially regarding Brady, who is Richie’s new boyfriend and the only character in the movie that can at all be described as “femme.” Though he dresses in male clothing, his comportment is decidedly effeminate: He’s all flailing wrists, dramatic gestures, and emotional public outbursts. That there’s something cruelly stereotypical about the character barely registers, as his presence is such a welcome contrast to the rest of the cast, largely populated by the sort of gay men who might describe themselves, had they Grindr accounts, as “straight-acting.” Brady offers a bit of balance against this strange and suspiciously cis gendered, apolitical group of gay men, at first in terms of his gender performance and then, later, when he becomes a voice of (however minor) political dissent, questioning the semiotics of Agustín’s and Eddie’s “big gay wedding,” wondering if it indicates “how dull we’ve all become,” and proceeding to rail drunkenly against conformity and normalcy-chasing in queer communities (at the reception, no less, because he gives zero fucks). Here, the film squanders a perfectly good opportunity to have an actual conversation about the necessary intersection of politics and gay lives and offer a textured portrait of gay male thought, instead giving Brady an argument vague and depthless enough to be easily silenced by Patrick’s flimsy, “Yeah, but can I live?” rebuttal. It’s telling that Brady, at one point described by another character as the physical embodiment of “a blog no one reads,” yet also the film’s sole representative of a gay politics that might be skeptical of heterosexual institutions like marriage  and traditional gender performance, is not taken seriously, either by the characters or the film itself. Instead, he’s treated as an aggressor and becomes nothing more than an emotional, maniacal (one wants to say “hysterical”), queen, ranting about how to be gay and making a scene on what’s supposed to be a happy occasion. Emerging as the closest thing this snore-fest has to a villain, Brady is both flaming and totalitarian.

Yet merely humiliating Brady is not enough for the movie: He must be punished further. Fittingly, at the film’s tidy conclusion, Richie–played, importantly, as every gay man’s straight-acting dreamboat, the ultimate prize, by Raúl Castillo–leaves Brady and returns to Patrick’s side. When Brady stumbles off after his spat with Patrick, we never see nor hear from him again. Not a villain after all; rather, a sounding board against which Patrick asserts his right to conform. As a result, the dual morals of Looking: The Movie seem clear: 1) that femme characters, and by extension femme lives, are at worst disposable and at best a means to an end, and 2) discordance will be met with disavowal and banishment. The urge among some gay men to penalize other gay men who don’t adhere to some movement-approved, ostensibly mainstream idea of homosexuality, either through their being or their politics, is an icky residual misogyny, and it’s a shame that Looking: The Movie laps it up like mother’s milk. As one of the very few filmic representations of gay lives available through a major outlet, it has a responsibility to do better.

home movies

somewhere on a shelf in my mother’s basement, amongst the dozens and dozens of books, stuffed in with the dvds and vhs tapes my family amassed throughout my childhood, there is a home video my father recorded when i was very young. i’m not sure of my exact age, but i couldn’t have been more than three or four, as by the time i was five my parents had divorced and my father had moved out, and it is very distinctly his voice invisibly booming out directives from somewhere just out of frame.

who knows why or what he was filming. growing up my parents (first, my father, and later, my step-father) recorded birthday parties and easter egg hunts, christmas mornings and baseball games and piano recitals, but this video, shot in the basement of the house we lived in until the spring of the year i was in second grade, contains none of the festive attributes i would associate with the special occasions of my childhood—a birthday cake for instance, or balloons and brightly colored decorations—and if i was three or four, then the year would’ve been 1988 or 1989, and we had probably very recently acquired the video recorder, which i still remember, large and black and boxy, hulking on my father’s shoulder, his eye pressed to the soft rubber of the viewfinder. this video feels like a test video, as if my father has just gotten the thing home and out of the box, is taking it for an anxious first spin, a fresh tape snug in the deck, waiting to contain. essentially, he’s filming nothing, filming us, our family, in our at-home, mundane day-to-day. my siblings and I can be seen and heard chasing after my father as he pans around the basement, with its wood-paneled walls and the half-tiled floor upon which we used to roller-skate, begging for our chance to perform for his camera. over here! record me! we are shouting. my mother can be see trying to evade the camera’s view.

when it is my turn, the video shows my three or four-year-old self wearing a t-shirt sized for an adult male (it is my father’s; I remember wearing his t-shirts often, to bed mostly), which hangs over my tiny frame, falls down past my bony knees. and, I’ve belted one of my own belts around my waist, which lends the entire ensemble an overt dress-like effect. and, i’m twirling. when my father turns the camera on me i’m twirling and twirling so that the portion of the t-shirt below the belt flares up and out, rippling on the waves of my motion, billowing out like a woman’s gown. and i just keep twirling like that—proudly, smiling, pausing every few rotations to strike a pose of theatricality—until my father jerkily focuses his camera on something else, on my older brother executing some martial arts maneuver he’s been practicing: unable to bear the disequilibrium, the camera (gaze) (male) (specifically, the father’s) averts to something stabilizing (specifically, my older, appropriately inscribed brother, performing an appropriately inscribed act).

selfie #3

i didn’t do anything with my day that i intended to do, mostly because what i intended to do was write, and i didn’t do much of that.

i woke up later that i meant to. my alarm went off at 7:30 and i rode that snooze setting hard until it gave up and i awoke again, on my own, at not quite half past 10. then i got up and made some coffee and drank it while kathie lee and hoda prattled on on the television and i scrolled through twitter and facebook newsfeeds. i always make a full pot of coffee even though it is just me and i probably don’t need all that coffee. i drink it very quickly and by my third cup i’m shaking and i feel alive and unconquerable. also as if i could smoke all of the cigarettes known to man, which by now i am probably well on my way to accomplishing.

(i like to temper this feeling of unconquerability with a little bit of marijuana, which is best smoked as close to first thing in the morning as possible, though never absolutely first thing–a cup or two of coffee before hand is preferable, and perhaps a spot of breakfast, though the breakfast should be something small, like a single banana, or some granola in greek yogurt, or one scrambled egg.)

as i said, i meant to spend the day writing, as there are a few things i am working on, but i became distracted by:

  • a book i am reading, by claire-louise bennett, called pond, which is a lovely and beguiling bit of witchcraft which has had me in its enthrallment these past two days. in fact i’d have finished it by now but i’m taking the book slowly, which i like to do sometimes, reading it in small doses so as to savor its meticulous unfolding.
  • by various things on the internet, including but not limited to anything i could get my hands on w/r/t how fierce and regal and absolutely eternal mrs obama was at the DNC last night, pond and claire-louise bennett, and, according to my history, a not insignificant amount of ostensibly amateur porn.
  • a trip to the library to get a book i know i only just heard about today but decided i had to have immediately, though i can’t for the life of me remember how i heard about it. the book is a collection of short stories called you are having a good time by amie borrodale, and i was thinking that i read about it during my search for whatever interviews i might find with claire-louise bennett, but a search of my browser history today generates not a single hit matching either the book’s title or its author’s name. i would think the book didn’t exist and i made the whole thing up, because i can be susceptible to remembering dreams as reality, but alas, the book is here on my desk next to me.

the library is not far so i walked there. there are many historic houses and other buildings in my neighborhood, some of which have fallen into disrepair. there is a big yellow house on the corner that now functions as a law office or something, the paint of which is peeling terribly so that the structure looks like a house-shaped snake shedding its skin–or, more precisely, like pam from true blood in that episode where marnie puts a hex on her and her face starts falling off. for the past several weeks a troupe of college guys have been rectifying this situation. i like to walk by and see them on their ladders, in their gym shorts, some of them with their shirts off. there are between four and six guys working on the house, and three of them of have very impressive bodies, and they are always the ones with their shirts off. two of them have only semi-impressive bodies, and only sometimes are they shirtless. there is one who seems not to fit amongst the other, whose body is not at all impressive, according to socially accepted standards of beauty; that is, he is a pudgy fellow, toe-headed and pale, and never shirtless, and whenever i pass i feel a slight sympathy for the pudgy one. his refusal to discard his shirt–even last week, when it was almost a hundred degrees by 11 am–betrays, i think, his own unease with his body, an unease i’m sure is only compounded by his adonis-cut brethren. the others are all tanned from going about shirtless.

there is one in particular who seems like god’s very idea of manhood: six-pack abs, rippling arms, a back like snakes coiled in a barrel. his hair is dark and curly. today when i walked by he was standing on the back porch of the building, shirtless of course, wearing a pair of gray gym shorts slung low enough i could see the elastic band of his underwear. he was talking to a short middle-aged woman standing inside an open door. the porch was close enough to the street that when i passed i could marvel at the sweat that glistened on the young man’s skin and the full round muscles of his ass in his gym shorts. obviously, because it is possible i am a sex addict, i started imagining all manner of erotic scenarios involving myself and the young employee of Collegiate Painters, LTD., but by the time i reached the library and the young man was long out of view i began to feel stupid for being so attracted to someone so blatantly attractive. it was too easy. the muscles, the athletic wear, the job doing manual labor out of doors at the height of summer. everything about him was so quintessentially masculine it is no wonder i nearly twisted my ankle in a crack on the sidewalk from trying to feast my hungry eyes on his succulence as long as i could, hoping against hope my sunglasses colored my cruising with a shade of discretion. here was a specimen of manhood so pure and unadulterated there was no doubt it had similarly captivated countless girls and women and gay boys and men in the past. he was basically a sean cody model.

the points is its embarrassing, that i was so attracted to the painter. i know nothing about him other than the slope traced by my eye of his lower back, yet still, based on a good set of gluts or whatever and some well-formed abdominals i’m fantasizing about riding his dick until i pass out and then, after i come to, swearing myself to him for eternity. i should be better than that. i’m not muscle boy (although i had a brilliant set of abs for approximately three months following a nasty bronchial infection a few years back) but i do think about muscles a lot. whenever i see a dude with really huge muscles i immediately think of what it would be like to have sex with him, and always, without i fail, imagine the the hottest sex possible. full on porn-star style sex, the kind, of course, that ends in the temporary obliteration of consciousness and cumming hands-free. these fantasies always include my body (diminished in the fantasy) being deftly manhandled by the brute, who knows just how to turn and flip and pose me. it doesn’t matter. for a while i worked in bar that got kind of rowdy after a certain hours on the weekends so we kept a bouncer at the door. he was one of those swole guys you see shuffling around in GNC or something. he always wore these little t-shirts that clung to every single one of his ridiculous muscles and a baseball cap backward and those horrible jeans with embellished back pockets and i remember even now how unattractive i found his scrunched little face, his tiny, close-set eyes, how short he was. even so i never failed to imagine what it would be like bury my face betwixt his huge pectorals and grab onto the huge biceps i knew would prove too large to palm while his rammed himself in and out of me at jack rabbit speed, because, in my head, these muscular guys are always beats when they fuck. the muscles are for picking you up and tossing you around a little bit. (in a sexy, nonviolent way.)

these fantasies persist despite the fact that i’ve actually had sex with precisely two men you could reasonably categorize as muscular–i don’t mean the regular, everyday muscles of men who work with their bodies or jog in the mornings or make it to the gym a handful of times a month, i mean muscular extravagance such as you are likely to see at bodybuilding conventions or under the muscle tab on pornhub–and in both cases the sex was thoroughly disappointing.