Destroy All Monsters: MOONLIGHT and Having a Flow Experience in the Cinema

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
Destroy All Monsters: MOONLIGHT and Having a Flow Experience in the Cinema

I have a spot. A favourite spot, in Cinema 1 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, which is not my favourite movie theatre, but is in the top five. This spot is up in the balcony, way over on the left wing, right up at the front. It is a weird little high seat, all on its own, propped right up against the edge of the balcony, maybe less than 50 feet back from the left side of the Lightbox 1's very large, very lovely screen.

It is an odd angle from which to view a movie, I admit. It is also an odd seat to sit in, given that it's basically a barstool with a back. My feet don't touch the ground, and have to go elsewhere.

I don't really mind. I love that spot. Sure, most of the time I'll sit on the ground floor with the rest of the people. But this raises a sticky subject: most of the time, I don't actually need other people, either friends or strangers, around me to enjoy a movie.

Sticky subject because, in my experience anyway, the majority of folks hear "don't actually need" and cannot, will not, intentionally do not, hear anything other than "don't actually want." If there is a running theme of the modern age, it is simply this: "My experience is important too! I am important too! Validate meeeeeeeee!" I am well aware of this, being a person with a column on the internet. This is why people like me write columns. This is why I'm describing a seat.

Now, truth be told, there are regular occasions in which "don't actually need" does mean "don't actually want." I'm an introvert. I need regular breaks from the crush of other people, both physically and mentally, or I just plain flip out. On those occasions, I retreat to the seat. And I have a movie experience just for me.

That's what it was like watching Barry Jenkins' Moonlight at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month. The film did not win the "viewer's choice" award at the festival, a real missed opportunity by the festival staff to support something that will, I sincerely believe, go all the way this year - to the Oscars and beyond. Moonlight is kind and empathetic, brings its audience completely into its world, and is about something - a queer Black man questioning his masculinity under three different lenses - that American movies are never about. Give it all the awards.

Right around the time I saw Moonlight, I was finishing off Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's 1990 book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I've been circling that one for a while. It's a foundational work in the field of positive psychology, and has major roots in the theory of both gaming, and gaming's buzzwordy bastard offspring, gamification.

The book describes flow experiences, which are essentially times when the brain experiences uncommon, advantageous ordering with no distractions or disturbing entropy. The reason Flow lead so cannily into game theory is that it's an experience video gamers often describe when they're deep into a game and time seems to stop. From here we get Jane McGonigal's equally revolutionary book, Reality is Broken, which analyzes how flow experiences in gaming lead to massive positive effect, the creation of a sense of awe, and the reinforcement of optimistic belief that anything is possible. (Seriously: you should read that book.)

Anyway. Back to Moonlight and that seat in the Lightbox 1.

While I was reading Flow, I was naturally thinking about whether or not watching a movie could become a flow experience. In Csikszentmihalyi's very early-'90s conception of North American life, the answer would probably have been no. He doesn't address movies directly, but he does talk about watching TV as what is essentially a junk food experience, meant to supply artificial ordering of consciousness without tweaking any of the mental processes that actually lead to flow. (He wrote this about a decade before the Golden Age of television began, so maybe we can forgive him. Hands up if you ever had a flow experience watching Lost!)

While watching Moonlight, I had one. It's not an unusual experience for me, in retrospect; and, I'd assume, for you as well. If you're reading this you're probably "into" movies, as we say, which means you're not just passively watching them to ease your troubled mind at the end of a long day. (OK, you're probably doing that too. Why do you think I keep watching Captain America: Civil War?)

One of the first requirements of a flow experience is, of course, a degree of adept practice at the experience itself. If you're into movies, you're probably good at watching movies. You've watched a lot of them, and you know something about how they're made. You're probably aware of things going on in a film which, if you mentioned them in your workplace, your co-workers would give you "that look" where it's nice that you have your hobby and all but jeez man it's just a movie.

These are the invisible (?) languages of cinema, like blocking, editing, music; the arcane arts like digital grading and visual effects; the critically performative, like what an actor is doing with the material they are given. These things tend to blow past the mainstream audiences for film - which is why we can shriek about the rubes not "getting it" when Mad Max: Fury Road doesn't become the biggest movie of all time - but are painfully apparent to us.

These are the tools we use to dig deeper on what a movie is doing and how it is doing it; and if we dig into that mainline pipe, really "tune" ourselves to what is going on in a film we are enjoying, I'd argue a flow experience is not just possible, but probable.

This is what happened to me while watching Moonlight, and not just because I was way the hell up close to the screen, at my eye-level (though admittedly off to the left), although I'm sure this helped. That sense of being "alone" with the movie, "a movie made just for me," was a contributing factor, because it allowed me to focus immensely on what was happening before me, filling my sight; I hacked into the film's DNA and began following its rhythms from moment to moment, from a line ("it can't be as bad as being in there") to a scene (the complex, slightly sexual framing of Little's wrestling match with Kevin) to an outcome (that moment on the beach). And then I was in love.

I've written before about the cinema as an empathy machine, per Roger Ebert's comments on the subject. I've also mentioned above that, on paper, little ol' white cis het me couldn't be further from Chiron, the main character of Moonlight. But this was one of those perfect movie experiences for me, moving along two parallel tracks: my identification with Chiron and empathy for him as a character; and hyper-lucid awareness of the tools of cinema which Jenkins was masterfully employing to support, enhance, and describe Chiron's journey.

Now, I've had flow experiences in projects as varied as Enter the Void and the aforementioned Mad Max: Fury Road. I suspect it could happen on any film, if our focus was clean enough, our resources of interest deep enough, and if the film were giving back to us in like kind a wealth of cinematic meat to chew on.

What's yours? What was the last movie that made you feel like you were nowhere else on earth but right there, alone with the film?

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Letterboxd.

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