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FILM / Disorienting Aesthetics: Moonlight and Queer Cinematic Perception / Patrick Boyd

Image copyright A24

Image copyright A24

The first time I saw Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)upon its release in 2016, a point of dissention among those I saw it with concerned the aesthetics of the film, in particular its opening shot. When the film opens, Juan (Mahershala Ali) pulls his car to a stop and gets out. The camera follows behind him as he walks over and joins a few other men on the sidewalk. The camera immediately begins to swirl around them as they talk. This goes on for moments until it finally settles in a frontal profile. A disorienting effect continues as the image looks blurry or distorted around the frame, drawing attention to the background of the image. Lens flares are also visible at moments, which can be a common effect from the use of anamorphic lenses. Even when the film is “still,” it contains disorienting effects. My friends said the shot was “distracting” and “out of place” as a device that enhanced the narrative. In fact, for them, there were many moments that felt out of place. This cinematic disorientation was read as a mistake. It is precisely this disorientation created by optical effects though that Moonlightutilizes to produce a disorientation in the viewer to invoke a sense of queerness. In this paper, I want to look at disorientation in Moonlight using Sara Ahmed and Charles Johnson’s phenomenological studies of both queerness and the black male body respectively. As Moonlight thematically considers both of these subjects, its cinematic affect conveys a phenomenological rendering of queer orientations. As the film’s body, a concept coined by Vivian Sobchack in her phenomenological study of the cinematic apparatus, can perceive human perception and also understands the other senses of the human body, I would like to propose that the film’s body also understands the dynamics and orientation of queerness or Otherness, which is demonstrated through disorientating camera effects and illusions. In other words, I would like to pose the question: can the film’s body be queer?

Before analyzing how the aesthetics of Moonlight create a queer orientation through disorienting effects, I would like to bracket or set aside the notion that jarring or disorienting effects alone create a queer sensibility. Nor is the label queer a matter of content, which is a common misconception of queer cinema in that it must contain or be about those who identify as queer. While these kinds of effects or camera movements can be the source of queerness, it is how these effects orient or disorient the nature or object of what Sobchack refers to as the “viewed view/viewing view.” This shared viewing nature between the film’s view and the spectator’s view of that view can allow the audience to perceive queerness, in that they can see a disorientation that isn’t seeking to resolve or re-align itself. If the audience then can perceive a queer orientation through the film’s body, then we must briefly consider what comprises this queer orientation that can then be perceptually transcribed to the screen.

Sara Ahmed discusses this sense of disorientation in her book, Queer Phenomenology, by stating that, “a queer phenomenology would function as a disorientation device; it would not overcome the ‘disalignment’ of the horizontal and vertical axes, allowing the oblique to open up another angle on the world.” Ahmed’s book is focused primarily on how these disaligned orientations are constructed, primarily through repetition and habituated actions. These repeated actions of heterosexual orientation or whiteness extend themselves into the background of our perception, creating spaces that privilege some and are inaccessible to others. If this is how habituated actions extend into a space so certain members of society can “sink” into it and live comfortably, then certain film bodies also can provide a sinking sensation for a viewer. In this, the film’s body and the viewer both align in their intrasubjective perceptive grounding of the world. Perhaps this is the reason why my friends didn’t like the film. They are used to more alignment with the film’s “viewed view/viewing view” that allows a more “sinking” effect for the eye. 

Moonlight doesn’t provide a stylistic framework that we typically see in “realist” cinema. While a discussion of realist cinema could take up an entire book, suffice it to say that certain techniques of realist cinematic perception are very important, yet could be considered more accessible than the type found in a film like Moonlight. If realist cinema depicts our reality, then we could say that the background of realism then is whiteness or hetero and mirrors or refers to our lived-world reality. Moonlight disturbs this notion of reality, with its swirling shots, blurred edges, lens flares, and discontinuity. These all provide a queering effect on the viewer, because the eye of the film body is drawn specifically to matters of queerness. The story of Moonlight could be told in a very linear and “realistic” fashion, but rather it’s this disorientation of perception as cinematic affect that as Ahmed says puts “within reach bodies that have been made unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy.” Instead of the genealogy of the family as Ahmed is concerned with, we could apply this concept of genealogy to previous cinematic styles that come before Moonlight that are about gay or lesbian or queer life yet still feel straight or hetero in their aesthetic and stylistic choices. We could say these choices fall back into a mainstream line, which may be why the choices of Moonlight’s design take some off-guard, essentially because the film is okay with disorientation. Ahmed goes on to say that “queer orientations might be those that don’t line up, which by seeing the world ‘slantwise’ allow other objects to come into view.” These effects are not queer in themselves as I’ve aforementioned. Some disorientating effects in cinema are read as hetero like those that could be found in an action film. There is a habituated aspect to cinematic language, where a wide shot implies “establishing a scene” or a close-up implies “emotionality of the face.” This habituation of cinematic language then also becomes a habituation of cinematic experience for the viewer. The repeated aspects of this language allow the viewer to extend himself and sink in, familiarized in this cinematic discourse. Since film is unfortunately predominantly white, so then is cinematic language. The disorientating nature of Moonlight transcends and subverts both cinematic language and experience by ripping the habituated nature of storytelling from its roots and creating a new figure-ground relationship that mirrors the lived-world albeit in a disoriented fashion. So how do we distinguish disorientating effects when applied to a story concerning the black male queer body, and most importantly, their mind?

Charles Johnson proposes this question in his essay, “A Phenomenology of the Black Body,” where he considers both the experiential aspects of being black in a white-centric world, and also proposes solutions, only to arrive in closing that “the black body remains an ambiguous object in our society, still susceptible to whatever meanings the white gaze assigns it.” In a postscript from 1993, Johnson discusses ways in which the black male body is still ambiguous. He discusses how the black male body can be looked at through a genetic phenomenology, or “by examining an individual as he (or she) exhibits over time a series of profiles or disclosures of being.” These “disclosures of being” is precisely what Moonlight structures itself around. By dividing the film into three sections with three actors playing the same character (a queer affect in itself) the film’s body understands this notion that Johnson proposes: “for a life is a process, not product.” With this accumulation of “moments” in one man’s life, the black body becomes less a “cultural object” that is fixed, but rather a “subject” that morphs and changes and has life. This morphing of the black body between these three sequences runs counter to Franz Fanon’s statement, “there are times when the black man is locked into his body.” While this is true, in Moonlight the changing nature of the body queers space and time where Chiron’s body changes while everyone else around him except for his best friend remains the same. Because of the disorientating changing of the body, Chiron’s mind becomes the focus of the viewer’s interaction with the character as the mind is the main through-line that remains. Moonlight therefore, prizes the mind of Chiron, and by changing the body, the inner life is what remains constant and resonant for the viewer. Chiron’s changing body disorients us, yet the queer nature of the film body’s perception doesn’t try to align with “realism” or a “straight” line of cinematic style. We become oriented to this form of disorientation. 

While many of us cannot understand the struggles that Chiron goes through in Moonlight in our own lives, it is through the eye of the queer film body that we can approximate an understanding of him insomuch that we are thrown into a state of disorientation similar to Chiron’s. Johnson considers Malcolm X as depicted in Spike Lee’s biopic of him by saying that “for the first time in motion picture history, and perhaps in pop culture, the black male body is experienced as the embodiment of intellectual, political, and spiritual ideas.” Now with Moonlight, we can go further not only in its depiction of a complicated hero that is Chiron, but by also marrying a queer aesthetic to that struggle, which doesn’t try and fight disorientation but finds poetry in a life that internally cannot align with the “straight” path. The sensuous nature of the film’s body understands Chiron’s struggle that looks deeper than his socio-economic status. Moonlight defamiliarizes the world around us especially in how black lives like Chiron’s have previously been depicted. Equally, it defamiliarizes cinematic language and aesthetics, calling into question the nature of what a shot can be used for and what it can depict. It The queer film body asks us to look to the background using effects and stylistics to draw our eye to it. The queer film body challenges us and never lets us sink in. 


Patrick Boyd is a current MFA candidate in the film directing program at UCLA. He is currently trying to find a festival home for his latest short film, You and Me and Him and Him and Him, and is also at work on his first novel. He loves film/literary theory and Italian cinema.