Moonlight, or, Time Fades Away
Swiftly the years, beyond recall
Solemn the stillness of this fair morning
In Seven Types of Ambiguity, the great literary critic William Empson identifies this couplet, from a poem by the fourth century Chinese poet Tao Yuamning, as capturing an essential paradox of the human experience of time. The lines juxtapose, Empson explains, two seemingly incompatible scales of time, the “large scale” of a complete life and the “small scale” of the lived moment. The poem, he suggests, encourages readers to consider “both these time-scales and their contrasts…in a single act of apprehension.” “Being contradictory as they stand,” he goes on,
they demand to be conceived in different ways; we are enabled, therefore, to meet the open skies with an answering stability of self-knowledge; to meet the brevity of human life with an ironical sense that it is morning and springtime, that there is a whole summer before winter, a whole day before night.
“The years of a man’s life seem swift even on the small scale,” he concludes. “The morning seems still even on the large scale.”
First brought to my attention by the film critic Gilberto Perez in an essay on Jean Renoir’s A Day in the Country, this couplet, and Empson’s reading of it, hung in my mind as I exited a screening of Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight this past weekend. Like Tao Yuanming’s poem, Jenkins’s film reflects upon the strange experience of living temporally. The film tells the story of Chiron, a closeted gay black man from a poverty-stricken Miami neighborhood. Spanning decades, it follows him from the early tribulations of grade school through the fraught passage of adolescence and into early adulthood.
Despite the chronological breadth of its narrative, however, the film is not structured like a typical chronicle or coming-of-age story. Rather, it is broken into three practically self-contained episodes, each dealing with a few days or weeks during one of the three stages of Chiron’s life. As a result, large swaths of the ostensible story, including major life events (deaths, prison sentences, cross-country moves), are simply elided, our only clue that they happened coming in the form of passing mentions. What’s more, the episodes themselves are concentrated even further, with each built around one or two lengthy one-on-one interactions. In turn, these conversations themselves are handled principally through tightly framed close-ups of the actors’ faces. The result of this serial telescoping is a film that operates, simultaneously, on both of Empson’s time scales, a film that tells the story of a life by focusing intently on individual moments of lived experience.
In many respects, this approach to Chiron’s story more accurately reflects the way we actually experience time than would a more ‘classical’ narrative. We live our lives as a series of encounters and interactions and lived moments, and then one day we wake up and realize, with a jolt, that a year or two (or ten) has passed by without us having realized it. Individual experience can surely be measured by both small and large scales, but the latter is radically more difficult to perceive, and recognition of it typically must be forced upon us by way of some shocking reminder of the years’ swift passing. Moonlight’s structure functions as just such a reminder.
Interestingly, Jenkins’s film is not the only recent work to employ this approach to time. 2016 also saw the North American release of the great Chinese director Jia Zhanke’s Mountains May Depart, which, like Moonlight, tells a decades-spanning story by way of three concentrated episodes. There is also, of course, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, from 2014, a coming-of-age story famously filmed over the course of 10 years that uses its own performers’ aging faces and bodies as an index of time’s passage. Though radically different in particularities of plot and setting (to say nothing of social or political content), all three of these films attempt to coordinate the two scales of temporal experience, and raise the issue of time itself to a central thematic and structural concern.
Fredric Jameson, in his original diagnosis of the “cultural logic” of postmodernism (written 32 years ago — “swiftly the years, beyond recall”) argued that one of the dominant characteristics of postmodernist art was an abiding focus on space and spatial representation. For Jameson, this was one of the clearest ways in which postmodernism could be distinguished from older forms of modernism, which had concerned themselves primarily with time. It seems perhaps notable, then, that in the art and culture of our own era we seem to be seeing a “return,” or sorts, to temporality. This new(?) concern with time can be perceived not only films like the three discussed above and in other “high cultural” phenomena like so-called “slow cinema,” but also in works of mass culture like Fox TV’s 24 or the listicles of shareable nostalgia churned out by websites like BuzzFeed.
Indeed, while it might seem ludicrous to compare a beautiful, urgent, well-crafted film like Moonlight to something as crass and stupid as “36 Gifs That Will Immediately Take You Back to Your 90s Childhood,” there is, I think, an undeniable affinity between them in terms of a core affective experience. To gaze upon a looping image from a Blockbuster Video TV ad is to become dimly aware of all the years that have passed since it originally aired. Like Moonlight’s sudden forward leaps in time, BuzzFeed lists force a recognition of the gulfs that separate us from even our own past lived experiences, not to mention “history” more generally.
The question, then, is what can account for this (re-)emergence of time as a going cultural concern, observable everywhere from art house cinema to facebook feeds? Is this merely happenstance? Or perhaps the product of a paranoid academic mind attempting to see connections where none actually exist? Or, more likely, might we take it as a symptomatic expression of a shared sense that the past is slipping away from with increasing swiftness, and is taking with it any hope for productively changing the future?
Will only 80s babies remember normal sea levels?
Anyway, Moonlight is great. Check it out if you get the chance.