Are Moonlight and La La Land the same movie?

I wonder if anyone else had the feeling the La La Land and Moonlight are something of the same project, with the politics reversed. Both take pains to emphasize their structure according to the protocol of a classic Hollywood genre: musical in one, melodrama in the other. (Compare Moonlight’s almost identical structure to something like Wyler’s Wuthering Heights, which I happened to watch the day after the Oscars). Both end by following an exit off life’s highway to the restaurant-of-what-might-have-been.

And both seem largely committed to inhabiting the interstices of their genres in real-time. In contrast to the brash excesses and mannered compositions of classic musicals and melodramas, each deploys an endlessly swirling camera to open up the self-contained worlds of their classical predecessors, while the most dramatic moments are saved for a classic shot-reverse-shot; each devotes the bulk of scenes to the reactions of their actors, particularly the silences in the moments the characters summon the courage to speak.

If classical genre was clamped-down and ideogrammatic (and tbh I’m not sure it was), the shots and reactions here last well past the point of emotional signifiers, as they shift in and out of the meaning and resolution they’re ostensibly supposed to convey. Not-speaking is important in both movies as an act of not-communicating, or not-yet-communicating; La La Land’s most expressive moment is probably when Emma Stone laughs.

Neither movie is really naturalist or constructivist, though La La Land seems to wage a battle between the two; rather, as in the classics, each could operate as a kind of documentary of the acting process itself, with characters figuring out how to move from silence to social performance in scene after scene. There is immense pleasure in thinking that the movies are telling us a lesson à la Warhol: that the real point of genre is to test characters against as many emotional developments as possible in order to experience a performer’s presence in all its forms. And just experiencing the presences of Mahershala Ali, Janelle Monáe, and Emma Stone in extended duration is very, very powerful. For me, anyway.

But I’m also suspicious of power here in both movies. Because the above notes could also be easily inverted. And we could say that the point of the swirling cameras isn’t to open up these constructed worlds to real-time longeurs but to direct our eyes instant-by-instant on what to see; that the point of the extended reaction shots isn’t to bask in the presences of performers performing, but rather to direct us how to feel at all moments (who understood the power of reaction shots better than Capra?).

In the end, I had a sense that for the films’ super-cinephilic directors, *everything* in cinema operates according to an emotional syntax, and this is their lament: even a hand-held camera is not a way to get at “raw” authenticity (thankfully), as it used to be in American cinema, but a formal device to communicate a breakdown in a character’s expectations. As a result, it’s hard not to feel that every gesture and tracking shot is overdetermined — whether the filmmakers are trying to call attention to that fact or hide it under a veneer of real-time “presence” is a question.

In short, both made me long for the combination of total modulation *as* total risk in something like an Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dance routine. Of course, such a thing seems barely comprehensible to a contemporary zeitgeist. And that makes sense. Clearly both filmmakers want to push beyond genre representation towards presence, towards being, the kind of thing Chaplin attained in City Lights (and that Maren Ade goes for more explicitly by the end of Toni Erdmann, to which a lot of these comments might otherwise apply). But I wonder if both movies start and end with the the self-defeating point that such a thing in 2017 is impossible.

Genre, as ever, is a grave.