Why Do We Fall in Love Underneath the Moonlight?

I live in a big city, and by big I mean, big. The no stars in the sky type of big, the blinding city lights type of big, the breathing in traffic fumes and feeling the vibrations of engines type of big. Naturally, I’ve always had this fascination with clear night skies, and whenever I go somewhere with a little less light pollution all I ever do is keep my eyes up, head tilted back to try to immerse myself within the vast universe around me. I am also a little too obsessed with the local planetarium in Bristol (pro tip: their seasonal stargazing nights are incredible).

Being in Greece for two weeks, walking up and down the beach at night until the early hours of the morning, really intensified my moonlight obsession tenfold. I’ve been racking my brain thinking of all the moonlight-related figures in media that I know of: film, television, music, etc. and I thought it would be interesting to discuss that a little bit and see what they all share in common and ways in which they relate to each other.

Of course, there are probably hundreds of thousands of famous moonlight-themed characters, stories and poems out there, but these are just the ones that come to mind from recent years:

  1. Moonlight (movie) – Barry Jenkins, 2016.
  2. Moonlight (song) – Ariana Grande, 2016.
  3. Princess Yue / Moon Spirit (character) – Avatar: The Legend of Aang, 2005.
  4. Dancing in the Moonlight (song) – Toploader, 1999.

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Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight was a cultural phenomenon, which I’ve actually talked about extensively in my Letterboxd as well as YouTube reviews. Traditionally, the moon is often a symbol of romance and love in literature, but it also often symbolizes change and movement in the passages of time:

It might reflect inner knowledge, or the phases of man’s condition on earth, since it controls the tides, the rains, the waters, and the seasons. It is the middle ground between the light of the sun and the darkness of night, and thus often represents the realm between the conscious and the unconscious.

Dictionary of Symbolism, UMich Fantasy and Science Fiction

It’s a fitting description to think about in relation to the movie and its source material. Barry Jenkins adapted the script from a play by Tarell McCraney, originally titled, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. The movie’s transformative properties (in genre and style) is perfectly represented in its title. Even its original title, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, suggests an optical illusion of sorts, referencing the supernatural connotations of moonlight (werewolves, anyone?) while still retaining a focus on the romantic aspect of it.

In the movie, Kevin and Chiron share their first intimate moment by the beach at night, with crashing waves in the background. Chiron dreams of Kevin at night, in scenes tinted with distorted colours of moonlight (heavy, surreal purples and dazed blues). It becomes like a fever-dream somewhere in between desire and the brink of reality. As the UMich quote above describes, that ‘realm between the conscious and the unconscious’ is explored throughout this entire movie through its use of lighting, colours and settings. I mentioned in my review of the movie that watching Chiron’s life journey felt like a memory being played back on a tape, and perhaps the conscious structuring of this movie (separating Chiron’s life stages into three distinct parts) is what makes this movie feel so effortlessly, and unconsciously, personal.Moonlight Lean In.gif

Moonlight lies within that realm of instability; being a story based on McCraney’s life, but one that has also been adapted by Jenkins into a different medium. It continues to move, to transform, just as the scenes refuse to linger for too long, being cut from one sequence to another, and just as the dialogue sometimes just stops or fades away, leaving audiences to read in between the lines for unspoken thoughts.

The transformative properties of moonlight is often used in folklore and mythology. In recent media, I can remember one show from my childhood (or teen-hood) that portrayed this phenomenon, which is Avatar: The Legend of Aang. Princess Yue, who is thought to bear a resemblance to Chang’e, the Chinese goddess of the moon, transforms into the Moon Spirit in an act of sacrifice.

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In becoming the Moon Spirit, Yue gained waterbending abilities and was able to create powerful tidal waves. The concept of a Moon Spirit also reminds me of the zodiac moon calendar. It is, of course, July (the best month) and being a cancer myself, my zodiac is ruled by the moon. If anyone wants a fun read into my astrology:

Moon in Cancer displays her best qualities: sensitivity, compassion, caring, empathy, and a huge capacity for nurturance; characteristics, which give this luminary a healing influence for those bearing emotional wounds, since they possess the ability to get in touch with the feelings and moods of others.

Moon in Water Signs: Cancer, Scorpio, and Pisces – Part 2

According to this read, Yue was definitely a cancer. I find it interesting the way the moon is often gendered as female, possessing feminine traits such as the ones listed above. Thinking back on Moonlight, though, a big part of that movie involved challenging concepts of masculinity and attaching more traditionally ‘feminine’ character traits to the male role models of the movie. Of course, the fact that ‘sensitivity, compassion, caring, empathy’ are often considered ‘feminine’ traits is another issue entirely, but, the point still stands. The moon remains as this feminine, enchanting figure, in control of the more fluid aspects of life such as emotions and one’s inner identity.

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The last two things I’ll be discussing in this moon-related post are contemporary pop songs, released over a decade apart by completely different artists, and are completely different tonally and lyrically. The first is a pop-ballad by Ariana Grande, Moonlight, which was the opening track in her newly released album Dangerous Woman, and the second is Toploader’s dance tune Dancing in the Moonlight which is one of the most overplayed songs on indie/throwback nights in UK clubs, but hey, you won’t hear me complaining about that.

In Ariana’s song, moonlight becomes a metaphor for the subject of her affection as she sings in the chorus:

I never knew, I never knew
You could hold moonlight in your hands
‘Till the night I held you
Ooh, you’re my moonlight

Ariana expresses a sense of bewildered surprised at the fact that moonlight is now suddenly tangible (‘I never knew / You could hold moonlight in your hands’) and in her grasp. The song is lucid, reflecting the throwback, retro-type vibe of the rest of the album. She references James Dean (a common figure popping up in pop music lately) and Elvis, these faraway characters of a different age in pop culture. But the melody of the song remains hauntingly ambiguous, blurring the line between a contemporary work of art or something perhaps from another time. Listen to: Moonlight (Acapella)

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I could listen to it all night. Her voice actually mimics the properties of moonlight, opting for soft harmonies and falsettos, accompanied by gentle piano keys and a slight reverb and echo effect. I also really like the final lines of the song:

He knows just what it does
When he’s holding me tight
And he calls me moonlight too

There is a nice reflective and mirroring effect there, with her lover seeing the ‘moonlight’ in her as she does in him. It reminds me of looking out into the ocean at night and seeing the reflection of the moon in the dark waters, glowing and bright. In Toploader’s party song, this is described explicitly in the refrain and the chorus:

We get it on almost every night
When that moon is big and bright
It’s a supernatural delight
Everybody is dancing in the moonlight
[…]
Dancing in the moonlight
Everybody is feeling warm and bright
It’s such a fun and natural sight
Everybody is dancing in the moonlight

Everything comes to life, in a ‘supernatural delight’ that brings everybody’s wild side to light. They are transformed into beings free of inhibitions, and only their ‘natural’ state remains. They let loose, dance, they feel ‘warm and bright’ like a fuzzy wave of bliss kicking in. The song references the full moon (‘when that moon is big and bright’), indicating the peak of the moon cycle as it reaches maturity. The heightened emotions, sensations, and excitement are conveyed all at once. It’s a celebration of life, of nature, and marks a climactic point in time.

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As Ariana’s song marked a climactic point between her and her love, the Toploader song expresses the peak of human indulgence, perhaps even veering on the side of being a celebration of hedonism.

So that’s the end of it. Maybe you believe in the supernatural, maybe you believe in astrology, or maybe you believe in the poetics of film and music – either way, we’re all trapped beneath the moon and its powerful light. We could be consciously or unconsciously making decisions underneath its gaze, being influenced by the romance of it all, or like turtle hatchlings on the shore, following it into the depths of the night to start our new lives.

It’s a good method of self-reflection, if you think about it. If we stop to think about things whenever a full moon rolls around, we could also be thinking about what we want to do when the next cycle rolls around. Did we reach our full potential that month, our desires and our pleasures, or did we let time go by while sitting completely still? Or for me, it might be an excuse to try to get out of the city every now and then.

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Indonesian. 20. English major at the University of Bristol.

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