MOONLIGHT & the Queer Baker’s Dozen of NewFest LGBT Films – Part 1


Me getting the NewFest 2016 rainbow logo treatment

Moonlight – The Pass – Esteros – Lazy Eye

I am “recovering” from watching 14 LGBTQ themed movies over the course of four and a half days.  Not “recovering” in a bad way, only in as much as after seeing 14 movies in quick succession, all of which ranged from pretty good to masterpiece, and more importantly, many of which were powerfully affecting, my emotions and subconscious are a little overloaded and I am in desperate need of more sleep time to process all those narratives.

Thirteen of these films were presented as part of the NewFest LGBT Film Festival of New York City.  Ed and I renewed our membership with the festival and decided to take in as many films that interested us that we could.   And then there’s “Moonlight”, also LGBT themed, and the currently best reviewed movie of the season, which opened this weekend while the festival was in full swing.  When I realized I would be writing about all the movies I’d be seeing at the festival, I knew I’d want to include “Moonlight” too.

moonlight_2016_filmMost of the NewFest films I saw will get little fanfare, which is why I hope writing about them on my little blog may help direct some attention to new indie and foreign LGBTQ movies.  “Moonlight” is getting plenty of attention, but it may be in danger of getting marginalized the way movies about the African-American experience, or movies about LGBT people, or movies about drug addiction often do.  That would be a shame and a loss to anyone who loves to see a great movie.  I don’t think of myself as a critic, and frankly, there is not much I can add to A. O. Scott’s New York Times “Moonlight” review (really, if you will read just one review of this film, or any film this year, read that one).  When I left the theater Friday afternoon, I tweeted:

Just saw

Which is beautiful and stark

And finally a balm of hope and love in the night.

A. O. Scott calls “Moonlight” an “almost unbearably personal film”, an “urgent social document”, and “a poem written in light, music and vivid human faces”.   It is real and poetic, specific and universal in almost alchemical ways as it tells the story of one man in three time frames, as a child, a youth and young man.  To me these three sections transcended  “mere” narrative acts and became three musical movements, such was the ineffable impression the use of light, cinematography, dialog, acting and score left on me.

To help get you in the mood for this exquisite movie, listen to its main theme, the central character’s “leitmotif”, as heard briefly early on in each of the three segments of his life (titled with the name he is mostly known by each time) and subtly altered for each iteration:

Little’s Theme – Nicholas Britell

Chiron’s Theme – Nicholas Britell

Black’s Theme – Nicholas Britell

the-pass-featUnexpectedly, although so very different in many ways, “Moonlight” would have some key thematic and structural commonalities with “The Pass“, the Opening Night film of NewFest’s 2016 LGBT Film Festival.  In addition to the theme of a man trying to deal with his homosexuality in a difficult environment, in the case of “The Pass” a star soccer player, both movies are based on plays and take on a distinct three act structure, each act separated by time lapses of 5 or more years.  There are marked differences in how both films adapt the plays they are based on.  According to A. O. Scott, in “Moonlight” “Mr. McCraney’s play is a layered and fractured collage of voices, and … (the director/adapter) Mr. Jenkins has adjusted the shape to the linear demands of narrative filmmaking” in creating three separate segments in three distinct time frames.  “The Pass” presents three crucial moments in the life of soccer player Jason (Russell Tovey, Johnathan Groff’s boss/lover in HBO’s “Looking”) in uninterrupted real time within three contained spaces, very much like the play it is based on.  But it is filmed and performed with such verve that it doesn’t feel “stagey”.  As the playwright/screenwriter John Donnelly suggested during the Q & A that followed the NewFest premiere, “opening up” the play (as often happens when stage drama is adapted for the screen) may have sapped the narrative of its suspense and claustrophobic intensity.  When a single cinematic “opening up” does occur at the end via a crucial flashback, the effect is devastatingly heartbreaking.  “The Pass” haunted me with the tragic implications of its conclusion as much as the final image of grace in “Moonlight” filled me with the balm of hope.


Russell Tovey (far right) with NewFest directors plus the director and screenwriter of “The Pass” at the NewFest Opening Night.

But coming to terms with one’s sexuality and a three act structure are not the only major elements “Moonlight” and “The Pass” have in common.  Both films and two others I saw at NewFest feature the protagonist’s momentous reunion with the “love-of-his-life” after a long time apart, and for three of these films the last time this long lost lover was seen was when they were youths: 19, or around 16, or around 13 respectively.

Before I dive into the other two films, let’s listen to this crucial and oh so apropos track from “Moonlight”:

Hello Stranger – Barbara Lewis

esteros_feat-1The Argentinian/Brazilian co-production “Esteros” has childhood friends Matías and Jeronimo coincidentally reintroduced by Matías’ girlfriend when she hires Jeronimo to apply their Carnival “Zombie” make-up.  As the two men become reacquainted and embark on a day trip to Jeronimo’s family’s farm house in the waterlogged region of Esteros, flashbacks to a summer vacation they shared together as boys in the same place reveal just how intimate their bond then became.  These sensitively played scenes of boyhood friendship and love and loss play elegantly in tandem with modern day scenes of halting and eventually passionate rapprochement between the adult counterparts.

So is “tension filled reunion with long lost same sex male lover” a common movie trope, now that it has played out in four movies I saw in three days?  Or does it just say something about the kind of movies I gravitate towards?  I’m actually rather skeptical about old flames reconnecting successfully after decades apart, no matter how attractive the trope may be as experienced in romantic comedies and dramas (although the mounting anecdotal evidence of real life high school sweethearts reconnecting decades later on Facebook and getting married in midlife would appear to counter my skepticism).

featured_copy-of-lazyeye_keyartBack to NewFest and our fourth example of the “tension filled same sex reunion” movie: “Lazy Eye“.  Based on having seen the writer/director Tim Kirkman’s earlier film “Loggerheads”, I expected it to be a well-written, well-acted, intelligent character study, and I was not disappointed.  It was also very funny and sexy (actually all four films mentioned so far have their highly erotic moment or two).

What else do these four movies have in common?  All turn on crucial extended dialog scenes between the two male leads.  Three deal heavily with repressed homosexuality.  Two include day trips to nature preserves.  All feature intense scenes of lovemaking (always bears mentioning again).  And yet I am doing all four films a great disservice by focusing so much attention on their commonalities.  Because what is more striking about all four of these films, no matter the ways they may include elements or evoke themes that have been with us in Queer cinema especially for many years, all four are distinct, accomplished expressions of particular filmmakers.  It is their individual voices that make them moving and memorable, honest and unique.

I will take a break now and be back soon with the rest of my Queer baker’s dozen NewFest experience.  There will be more Brazilian, more German, more American (Brooklyn and Midwest), some hot French, some weird Polish, lots of Homosexuals, too few Bisexuals, a couple funny/scary Lesbians…  In other words, there are (at least) ten more films to share.

About dannyashkenasi

I'm a composer with over 40 years experience creating music theater. I'm also an actor, writer, director, producer, teacher and general enthusiast for the arts.
This entry was posted in Cinema Scope, LGBTQ Alphabet Soup, Melodies Linger On, Notes in the News and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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