SPOILER ALERT: Middle part of Moonlight discussed.
When it comes to watching movies in the theaters, audience participation is strongly encouraged in movies such as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (“WHY THE F*CK IS THERE A BILLBOARD IN THE MIDDLE OF A CEMETERY!?”). It’s funny, it’s bawdy, and everyone’s having a good time.
And then there are films like Oscar Best Picture Winner Moonlight, where audience participation should exist solely within the silent, emotional dimension of one’s soul. In other words, no one should be talking at any point in time.
Of course, human beings are imperfect, so at least some verbal litter is inevitable. However, when I watched Moonlight a couple weeks ago, one person’s comment irked me so much that I wanted to scream.
It happened in the middle of the movie, when Chiron becomes lost in a fit of fury and approaches his bully during class. This bully has turned his lover and friend against him and forced him to lose the one glimmer of hope in his sad, oppressive life. Thus, he betrays his gentler character and becomes the monster he’s been running from. He picks up a chair and strikes his adversary on the head, dolefully indulging in the violence that characterizes his society.
And then from behind me, a stupid, gleeful “yes!” is uttered from someone’s mouth.
My (elitist) blood boiled. Whoever it was that said this obviously missed the emotional significance of this scene and mistook it for a cheap revenge sequence. This is not that kind of movie! It annoys me to this day, how one person’s knee-jerk reaction pulled me out of the exceedingly tragic denouement of the second act.
However, I should be fair. After all, aren’t the audience conditioned to respond in this way? Whether violent justice is an innate human desire is a matter for philosophers. But with movies like Kill Bill and Gladiator (both awesome films, don’t get me wrong) making their mark on the public conscious, aren’t audience members wired to desire the violent end of a villain?
The answer is yes, at least in the eyes of film production studios. Take, for example, Taken. In order to exploit this animalistic response, they pit child sex traffickers as the bad guys, which basically sets up a premise close to the Nazi-killing genre: aggressive violence that is unquestioned and justified. Consumers are able to completely indulge in ass-kicking and throat-slitting without having to weigh any sort of moral repercussions. We crave Liam Neeson’s murderous rampage, and the more pain the child sex traffickers feel, the more endorphin pulse through our veins.
I suppose Taken would be the one revenge film I could think of right now that is unforgivable with regards to violence (I think I became a truly worse individual coming out of it). Smarter films utilize revenge to achieve something beyond just base pleasures. For example, John Wick utilizes revenge to drive forward its ultra-stylistic action sequences. Inglorious Basterds utilizes revenge to develop a plot that ultimately criticizes the audience for their blood lust. Gladiator utilizes revenge to explore not only Maximus’ character, but also that of Commodus, who is undeniably evil yet heart-wrenchingly pitiful.
But even when revenge is given intelligent treatment, it cannot mask the prevalence of audience blood thirst. Even in Netflix’s Daredevil, where the main villains are given incredibly sensible characterization, there are countless scenes where shady henchmen are beat up gratuitously and mercilessly. In this case, it is impossible not to pander to the audience’s thirst for violence; logistically, the show can’t go through each henchman and assign deep human characterizations.
Therefore, is it possible to reverse this trend? I don’t think so. Even smart revenge films will continue to be misconstrued by many as being “awesomely violent” (as opposed to “violently awesome”), and studios will continue milking that cow because of capitalism, etc. For many movies, violence will continue to be their main selling point.
Moonlight, of course, is nowhere close to being a revenge film. Yet, I am pushed to believe that the conditioned responses perpetuated by these types of movies made its way to the theater those weeks ago. Perhaps I should be more forgiving and try to understand why that person said, “Yes!” Maybe she said this because, mistaking aggression for assertion, she believed that Chiron was finally standing up for himself. Maybe if I had asked her why she responded in this manner, she could explain exactly what was going on in her head. Maybe, if I pressed on, she might apologize for caving in to the wide-spread audience blood-thirst that the film industry has hooked society on. Who knows.
Or how about this: maybe, we should all remind ourselves that some movies are not Rocky Picture Horror Show and that people should keep their thoughts and feelings to themselves when they are at the movie theater.