Given his interest in paradoxes, the French philosopher Alain Badiou dubbed cinema a ‘mass art’, although not every film can be categorised in this way. On the one hand, many movies are above all commercial fare, interested merely in reaching a mass audience. On the other hand, there are films that are too idiosyncratic or pedagogical, privileging artistic or other non-commercial aims over any orientation towards the mass. The concept of ‘mass art’, however, covers those films which find a balance, quite effortlessly, between box-office and aesthetic success, and thereby transgress the gap between high and low culture. Film has always seemed pretty indifferent regarding this divide, perhaps because the question of its being a true art has been and still is moot. Owing to its insecure status, cinema has historically been marked by a much tighter feedback loop between high and low than more established arts (painting, literature, theatre). As Stanley Cavell remarked decades ago, you can appreciate the artistic ambitions of the 1960s nouvelle vague only if you also admire the American genre films that inspired them.
The notion of cinema as a ‘mass art’ encompasses those films which are critically acclaimed and yet entertaining for a general public: think of Metropolis, City Lights, The Apartment, Psycho, E.T., to name a few. Many a popular film character is an ‘everyman’ who has come to occupy the structural position of a protagonist, although he has no particular innate qualities. Chaplin’s nameless Tramp, whose attire recalls that of both a lord and a beggar, is a type rather than an individual, and as such, Badiou asserts, the millions who like him come from all social groups. An unsuspecting baseball player fits the ‘John Doe’ description in Meet John Doe. Truman is ignorant that he is the star of a reality show in The Truman Show. The average hacker Neo is seen as the ‘One’ in The Matrix, because an Oracle has predicted this role for him. The nerd Peter Parker turns superhero after being bitten by a spider: this could have happened to anybody. Classic cowboys and James Bond exude masculinity, but they are psychologically shallow: their pasts are shrouded in mystery and they possess no evident family ties. The less specific (or the more superficial) they are, the better protagonists function as a vehicle for constituting the audience as an anonymous ‘we’.
In addition to the propensity of fairly blank heroes serving as a narrative fulcrum, there is, as Alex Ling mentions in his study Badiou and Cinema, the ‘mass art’ method of ‘identificatory rupture,’ exemplified by Hitchcock’s ‘empty subjects’. Characters are invented or no longer exist yet are nevertheless absolutely present. The second Mrs. de Winter in Rebecca is burdened by everyone’s memory of the film’s dead titular heroine; the fascinating Madeleine from Vertigo is a deceptive masquerade; Roger Thornhill in North by Northwest is dying to meet George Kaplan, a nonexistent spy. Hitchcock’s cinema pivots around the exposure of characters who turn out to be radically absent. In Psycho, we go from Marion, Norman, Lila, Arbogast, and Sam to the revelation that Mrs. Bates, the ultimate point of identification, has been dead the entire time.
The content of the aforementioned pictures is not political, but because of their universal address, Badiou regards them as political films. Having protagonists devoid of particularities or ‘empty subjects’ at their heart, such films construct a collective that is based upon the ‘access-for-all’ principle: namely, there should be something for any and every viewer. Badiou is well aware that this idea of ‘cinema as a democratic emblem’ comes with certain provisos, but I lack the space to elaborate upon possible drawbacks. Let me just say that I am intrigued by the utopian dimension that undergirds cinema as the mass art par excellence. Despite competition from, among others, Intouchable, Birdman, or Boyhood, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (2016), I propose, is the ‘mass art’ title of the 2010s. Few will contest that Moonlight meets the basic criteria of the category. Shot as a low-budget production, it exceeded its box-office expectations and struck a chord among viewers practically everywhere it was shown. Not only did Moonlight win three Academy Awards, but as a film festival favourite it catered to the taste of cinephiles as well, owing to its superb camerawork, its colours, its sound design, its 2.39:1 aspect ratio.
But here is the catch. Moonlight garnered popularity despite having all the ingredients of a ‘social-problem’ film. We have seen coming-of-age stories before, but the tale told here is about a boy with very ‘small expectations’: divided into three chapters, the film focuses on decisive incidents during its protagonist Chiron’s childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Moonlight thematises how the black boy’s identity is shaped by unfortunate circumstances: he grows up in poverty without a father; his crack-addicted mother has angry fits; he is bullied at school and loathed for his softness; his homosexual desires add to his reticence and, as an adult, he tries to compensate for his shyness through bodybuilding, which makes him resemble the drug dealer who once took him under his wings.
Because of a growing number of black filmmakers currently at work, Jenkins has said that he did not feel compelled to carry the torch of the black experience in the way Spike Lee had to in previous decades. His attitude perhaps explains why Moonlight, while keenly embedded in black culture, has not been reduced to a political vessel for Chiron’s myriad ‘issues’. On the contrary, viewers with far more privileged backgrounds than the ‘boyz n the hood’ also empathised with the misfit protagonist. I do not necessarily want to claim that this remarkable reception should be cause for too much optimism – steps forward are usually met with serious backlash – but it is at least a noteworthy sign of the times that after the habitual non-particularity of cowboys and John Does, after the ‘empty subjects’ of Hitchcock, after nondescript ‘heroes’ such as Neo and Frodo, the main character in the ‘mass art’ film of the 2010s is a troubled kid whose background is highly particularized. Moonlight is not begging us to revere and respect Chiron, but Jenkins presents him in all his complexity, inviting us to connect to him as if he were ‘one of us’, and to do so without judging him. Jenkins does this, and it is his major achievement in the film, quite effortlessly.