Moonlight: The sea unravels

Image: Cynthia Via

When I first saw the trailer for Moonlight it caught me off guard. I immediately felt intrigued by the quiet scenes, the slowness of the dialogue clouded  in dark blue and green hues. Most of the characters on screen were male, but it always went back to a young black boy and Mahershala Ali, who played Juan, and seemed to be the wise friend.

Moonlight, directed by Jenkins, chronicles Chiron’s childhood, through adolescence and adulthood. The character is played by three actors (Jaden Piner, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes). We don’t get every detail of Chiron’s life, but only the major turn of events. Every scene is part of a chapter or a change, and the gaps are left for us to imagine an unraveling that leads to the next chapter. The empty spaces in between each new chapter carry on the emotions to the next event. The film is about discovering your place in the world, who you are, and while for others it may come easily, the search for Chiron is a long and meaningful journey.

In one scene Juan takes Chiron to the beach and teaches him the basic lessons of swimming, as a father would, lifting him so he can float in the coolness of the water. In more ways than one, Juan is the only person, who can keep him afloat in a world where few understand the boy. Chiron is bullied in school by a classmate who questions Chiron’s masculinity. At home, he arrives to a mother who is usually drugged out on her own or drugged out with male company. He doesn’t have anyone to turn to for support except Juan and Teresa, played by Janelle Monáe, who lives not far from Chiron’s apartment complex. He has questions about his sexuality, but he rather hide behind silence then become ostracized by the people who put their masculinity on display, as a kind of test to weaken him. By rebelling in a quiet, conforming way, he is inviting people to pry him open and judge him.

The score of the film draws you to the urgency being felt by the characters on-screen in moments of raw clarity. Some of the best scenes are accompanied by the sound of the beach at night, the waves clashing somewhere far, the moon illuminating dark corridors, the palm trees swooning, the humid days where people are out in the streets. You can feel this hot place in the agitated moments when Chiron’s mother is in the middle of a drug-fueled argument in the heat of the night or when Chiron is walking home from a rough day in the Florida sun, and he is met with the teasing of a bully.

Chiron has a quiet demeanor and feels out of place. He never answers with more than one or two words, and even when adults bribe him with a hot meal, he still only says a few words, leaving a feeling of sadness and uncertainty in the observer. Juan and Teresa want to help him; they listen and are there for him, which is sometimes enough. Often more is said with fewer words, but the emotions expressed by the character’s actions, leave you wishing he could express those thoughts hovering above him during his interactions, especially when he stands across an old friend he hasn’t spoken to since since high school.

As an observer Chiron’s silence feels like a burden that we all carry, and when it ends you wish he could have said more, but it’s possible silence was his only defense.

Arrival: Language and thought


Alien encounters and the study of language.

The theory of Linguistic Reality, expressed by  19th century thinker, Wilhelm Von Humboldt, tells us that language shapes our worldview and cognition. Language is a construct with intricate patterns that is heavily ingrained in our cognitive process, making it possible to influence our thoughts and decisions.

Other civilizations have language construct that may appear strange to western speakers. Quechua—an indigenous language spoken by the people of the Andes— never developed into a written form until the Spaniards arrived. It was always seen as an oral language that was kept alive by the descendants of the Incas. One can only imagine how it feels to know a language only through its oral form without ever having learned an alphabet system.

Arrival is one of the few films to explore connections between language, thought process and worldview. The work presents us with a realistic alien encounter that is relevant despite its futuristic elements. Arrival was directed by Denis Villeneuve, and is based on the 1998 short story, “Story of Your Life” by science fiction writer, Ted Chiang. Villeneuve also directed Enemy in 2013, which has been compared to Memento for it’s Kafkaesque style. Similarly this film carries flashbacks not always appearing in linear order. We meet Louise Banks, a linguistics professor, played by Amy Adams, who is the sole communicator between an alien species and the befuddled, and easily agitated human population. As the irrational generals and political pundits carry a message of fear, the populous tend to follows, but there’s a push and pull between the science community and elected officials. The scientists and linguists have less time to study the aliens than it would take for the military to blow the aliens’ heptapods (a gray structure resembling a pill) that floats over grand natural landscapes.

In the beginning of the film, we see glimpses of Banks playing with her daughter and subsequently learning that she has a rare disease. Though the film never explains the connection between the present and the past, we assume it’s her daughter, and believe those are memories.

When communicating with the aliens, Banks has a seemingly simple question, “What is your purpose on earth?” She breaks down the complexity of the question, that would hardly baffle an earthly being, but could be taken as something else entirely by an alien from another planet. They must first understand that a question demands an answer, Banks explains. We don’t know if “Your” for them means the individual or a collective group. She says what if they think of themselves as a collective body and not individuals? The idea of purpose may also be difficult to grasp, since that concept may not exist in their world. What if there is no such thing as reasons or outcomes for them?



When communicating with the aliens, Banks tries to find commonalities between the two worlds. In one scene she uses basic name introductions that may produce commonalities. Her study requires patience to understand the new language and their way of thinking, so she can phrase her questions properly. The scene is a reminder of compassionate forms of communicating. Irrational fear doesn’t play into Bank’s study until some soldiers, after having listened to an angry radio pundit, decide to take matters into their own hands.

Banks is the only woman among many men trying to influence the powerful to base their decisions less on fear and more on reason. What does that say about the role that women can play in society? How can we influence society to use language that is appropriate and helpful? The film draws a powerful connection to the current political climate. The shortsightedness that is present in the movie is one we see time and time again. We would gladly bomb an alien species that could help us, rather than understand their language. If the generals had their way Ian, a theoretical physicist, working alongside Banks, would have never realized the circular symbols were related to the concept time.

Arrival seems to appear in waves, carrying us through contemplative, foggy blue-gray skies and ongoing flashbacks. The way Banks stares out towards the endless fields of Montana is similar, as when she’s in front of the aliens; it’s a moment of awakened knowledge and peace. The film does leave out some logistical explanations, especially when the scientists suddenly arrive at fully interpreting and translating the alien symbols. There seems to be no eureka moment when they discovered how to decipher the circular symbols that have no correlation to anything human.