fb-pixel Skip to main content
Critic’s Notebook

It must have been moonglow

Barbara Bosworth’s “Full Moon, Meadow, Carlisle, Massachusetts,” 2004.
Barbara Bosworth’s “Full Moon, Meadow, Carlisle, Massachusetts,” 2004. ©Barbara Bosworth/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

“Every once in a while I look up at the moon, but not too often: been there, done that . . . ”

— Michael Collins, “Carrying the Fire”

That’s Michael Collins as in Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins, the crew of Apollo 11. July 20 marks the 50th anniversary of Armstrong and Aldrin landing on the moon. Collins remained in the command module, behind and above. Like the rest of us, he’s seen the moon without being there. Unlike the rest of us, he’s seen it up close and very personal.

Anniversary observances have already begun. Last fall, Ryan Gosling starred as Armstrong in Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”; Lukas Haas played Collins. This year has seen the superb documentary “Apollo 11” and the reissue of Collins’s acute and searching memoir, quoted above.


Exhibitions have opened at Harvard’s Houghton Library (“Small Steps, Giant Leaps: Apollo 11 at Fifty”) and the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum (“Apollo 11: One Giant Leap for Mankind”).

The John F. Kennedy Library will host a JFK Space Summit on June 19; among the participants will be Collins and Jeff Bezos, founder of both Amazon and the aerospace company Blue Origin. The Globe is one of the event’s sponsors. Among other forthcoming events are “Apollo’s Muse: The Moon in the Age of Photography” at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and PBS offering a monthlong “Summer of Space.” The programming includes an episode of “Antiques Roadshow.” Perhaps some lucky visit to the attic uncovered a moon rock.

Human beings have “been there,” to return to Collins, as long as we have gazed at the nighttime sky: drawn to what the poet Keats called the moon’s “orby power.” Who can’t relate to the title of a Ming Dynasty drawing in the Museum of Fine Arts’ collection: “Figure Watching the Moon”? If only in fantasy, it wasn’t just Mother Goose’s cow that jumped over the moon. The title of Barbara Bosworth’s exceedingly beautiful photograph “Full Moon, Meadow, Carlisle, Massachusetts” (2004) reminds us of how near the moon can seem: It’s right there in the western suburbs, as well as 239,000 miles away. It’s a presence in our lives, high above yet somehow not at all distant.

The moon can be as much about belief as imagination. Numerous religions have had a lunar deity. The Egyptians had Thoth, the Greeks Selene. Nearly a quarter of the Earth’s population belongs to Islam, a religion associated with the crescent moon and star as a symbol. Look closely at one of Ansel Adams’s most famous photographs, “Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico” (1941) and you find another symbol of religion. A line of crosses denotes a “Moonrise Kingdom” far different from the one in Wes Anderson’s 2012 film.


Simply to invoke “moon” or some variant is to salute that celestial body’s unique allure. In this sense, “done that” (Collins again) has taken countless forms in music, literature, movies, painting, even TV shows. No “Moonlighting,” no Bruce Willis? Your bet’s as good as Cybill Shepherd’s. The sun and its radiance may be life, but the moon and its pale fire are art.

Everyday speech bears out the hold that the moon has on the human imagination. References can be bibulous (moonshine), behavioral (mooncalf, moonstruck), occupational (moonlighting), marital (honeymoon), terpsichorean (moonwalking), transgressive (mooning), spiritual (Moonies), culinary (moon pie), automotive (moonroof), astronomically figurative (blue moon, harvest moon, hunter’s moon), recreational (Hearts players shooting the moon), joyful (over the moon, like the song from “Rent”), threatening (“To the moon, Alice!,” Ralph Kramden’s favorite threat on, yes, “The Honeymooners”).

The regularity of Ralph’s eruptions suggests how much he may have been under the moon’s sway. The moon can provide solace, yes. Think of the title of Eugene O’Neill’s “A Moon for the Misbegotten,” that immense coda to “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” (night, which reveals the moon). Or Edward Lear’s owl and pussy-cat: “The moon,/The moon,/They danced by the light of the moon.” Serene in the sky, the moon does not judge. The jazz jive-meister Slim Gaillard put it best, when he ad-libbed in his version of “How High the Moon” (1959), “Everybody’s wondering how high the moon/The moon never wonders how low you are.”


Yet the moon is no less capable of its own misbegetting: that “Old Devil Moon,” as the Burton Lane-E.Y. Harburg song has it. Bad enough to be a mooncalf (silly person) or moonstruck (bewitched); far worse to suffer from lunacy and be a lunatic. The power of the moon extends beyond controlling the tides and turning humans into werewolves. Stare at the sun, you go blind. Stare at the moon, you go mad. Would a sane person call her boyfriend “Moondoggie”? Gidget does — in eight novels, three movies, and one TV show. No, the moon refuses to play favorites: Gidget here, Shakespeare’s Hotspur, there (in the first part of “Henry IV,” he would “pluck bright honor from the pale-faced moon”).

Craziness bestowed from above explains the title of “Man on the Moon,” both the 1992 R.E.M. song and the 1999 movie about the absurdist comedian Andy Kaufman. Pink Floyd’s album “Dark Side of the Moon” (1973) has sold 45 million copies and spent more than 940 weeks on the Billboard charts. Now that’s crazy. “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon,” Roger Waters sings in “Brain Damage.” “The lunatic is in my head.” That’s a lot of lunatics, a lot of heads. Or as the title of the Johnny Burke-Jimmy Van Heusen standard has it, “Oh, You Crazy Moon.”


The moon’s special hold on the musical imagination spans genres. Glenn Miller’s “Moonlight Serenade” (1939) reminds us that we listen to the moon as well as look at it. “Moon River” — located “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon)”? — is worth crossing, especially when in the company of “Mr. Moonlight.” That gentleman is not to be confused with Keith Moon, the craziest (and greatest) of rock drummers. If only the Who had covered Creedence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” (1969).

The most celebrated Beethoven piano sonata, No. 14, is known as the Moonlight. In French the sonata is referred to as “Au Clair de lune,” the French phrase for moonlight. Claude Debussy’s best-known work for piano is the movement from his “Suite bergamasque” known as, yes, “Clair de lune.” Seven years later saw the premiere of Arnold Schoenberg’s best-known work, the musical melodrama “Pierrot Lunaire.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 has nothing to do with the moon, except that a theme from its third movement provides the melody for “Full Moon and Empty Arms,” a hit for Frank Sinatra in 1945 and most recently covered by Bob Dylan, in 2015. A very different moon two-fer comes courtesy of Elvis, on the (ahem) “Sun Sessions”: “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” a Bill Monroe bluegrass number, and “Blue Moon,” the Rodgers and Hart standard.


The moon has an obvious attraction for writers of science fiction and fantasy: Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” (1865), H.G. Wells’s “First Men in the Moon” (1901), Robert A. Heinlein’s “The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress” (1966). But the literary appeal of so evocative a word, and one with so many associations, extends much further.

The first detective novel is Wilkie Collins’s “The Moonstone” (1868). W. Somerset Maugham’s novel “The Moon and Sixpence” (1919) reimagines the life of Paul Gaugin (who painted “The Moon and the Earth,” 1893). John Steinbeck’s “The Moon Is Down” (1942) celebrates Norwegian resistance to Nazi occupation. Paul Auster’s “Moon Palace” (1989) takes its title from a Chinese restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and begins in the moon-landing summer of 1969. Harry Potter fans are acquainted with Luna Lovegood. In “Moonglow” (2016), Michael Chabon dazzlingly braids together meta-fiction, family history, rocketry, Jewish identity, the Holocaust, and a cameo appearance by NASA’s Werner von Braun.

The movies, as reflection of the imagination rather than rendering of reality, might be said to begin with the moon. Loosely inspired by the Verne and Wells novels, Georges Méliès’s “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) has one of the most memorable images in film history, an Earth-launched rocket poking the man in the moon in the eye. More important, the 14-minute film can be seen as blazing a path for a medium in which fictional, even fantastical storytelling would prevail over the documentary impulse it began with.

The Méliès screens June 8 as part of Moon Movies: Apollo 11 at 50, a Harvard Film Archive series that runs through Aug. 3. Many of the films relate to space exploration (“The Right Stuff,” 1983; “Hidden Figures,” 2016) rather than the moon, per se.

The two strands unite with Fritz Lang’s “Woman in the Moon” (1929). It boasts classic Langian elements of suspicion and conspiracy (there’s gold on the moon!), as well as such charming quirks as a scientist who sleeps beneath a globe — not of the Earth but its satellite. One charming quirk became standard operating procedure. Before the launch of a rocket carrying a lunar expedition, there’s a countdown. Life, or at least space-flight life, would later imitate art.

The moon figures in the logos of both Steven Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment (derived from the most magical image in his “E.T.,” 1983) and Dreamworks. “The Moon Is Blue” (1953) was the first Hollywood movie to include the word “virgin” in its dialogue. “Racing With the Moon” (1984) managed to contain the egos of both a young Sean Penn and an even younger Nicolas Cage. “Moonstruck” (1987) brought Cher a best actress Oscar. “Moonlight” (2016) won a best picture Oscar, though only after a bit of onstage confusion.

Yet for some reason, many bad movies have moon-related titles. Science fiction is the least of it, though the lunar interlude in “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968) is the least-epic segment of that most epic of Stanley Kubrick’s films. (You do know that a popular version of the theory that the moon landing was staged holds that Kubrick directed the staging?) “Moonraker” (1979) is one of the weakest James Bond movies. Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Luna” (1979), Jean-Jacques Beineix’s “The Moon in the Gutter” (1983), Prince’s “Under the Cherry Moon” (1986) remain notorious fiascos.

Maybe there have been so few good films with “moon” in the title because the movies, astronomically speaking, are so much more comfortable with stars. It’s one of the classic lines in movie history, Bette Davis saying to Paul Henreid at the end of “Now, Voyager” (1942), “Oh, Jerry, don’t let’s ask for the moon. We have the stars.”

Stars twinkle. The sun shines. The moon does them one better: It glows. Whether as circle or some fraction thereof it displays a geometry of radiance. How could the moon not prove irresistible to visual artists? The Japanese master of the woodblock print, Hiroshige, returned to it again and again. It obsessed the 19th-century American painters Albert Pinkham Ryder and Ralph Albert Blakelock. Even as a subsidiary visual element — think of how Henri Rousseau used it in “The Sleeping Gypsy” (1897) and “The Dream” (1910) — the moon captivates the eye in any canvas.

Photographers have been no less drawn to it. That’s the burden of “By the Light of the Silvery Moon: A Century of Lunar Photographs from the 1850s to Apollo 11,” which runs at the National Gallery of Art July 14-Jan. 5. This attraction has been there from the birth of the medium. Louis Daguerre, photography’s inventor, took the first camera image of the moon, on Jan. 2, 1839. It was destroyed in a studio fire, two months later. John William Draper took the first surviving photograph of the moon, in 1840. Countless others have followed.

In Edward Steichen’s “Moonrise – Mamaroneck, New York” (1904), orby power takes the form of luminosity and mystery. With Ansel Adams’s “Moon and Half Dome” (1960), it springs from clarity and wit. The clarity comes from Adams being Adams, an artist as precise as the moon is cratered, and his having shot it during daytime. Isn’t that when the moon is really at its most mysterious? Looking up, who hasn’t wondered what that tiny rival to the sun is doing in the sky? Wit factors in twice over. First is the juxtaposition of a moon that’s nearly full with a dome that’s famously half. Second is the reminder that, minus the sun’s reflected light, all the moon amounts to, really, is a ball of rock hanging in the sky: The moon in its entirety is one big moon rock. Try to get an estimate for that on “Antiques Roadshow.” The juxtaposition with Yosemite’s Half Dome doubles as geology lesson.

That’s not the only lesson on offer. Consider the puniness of the moon compared to the majesty of Half Dome, a stand-in for the planet all that granite rests on. It’s a lesson Collins elaborates on in his book. “The moon’s jagged contours certainly stick in my memory but just barely, compared with the vision that I summon over and over again of the itsy-bitsy sphere just outside my window, motionless, cradled in black velvet. That sight — the Earth, tiny, shiny, blue of sky and water, white of clouds, with only a brown trace of land — haunts me.”

Only when mankind reached the moon could it appreciate how much more orby power there is right beneath our feet than 239,000 miles above our heads. This is the moon’s ultimate gift to the imagination: not to take us away from the Earth but to help return us to it. As Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins supremely appreciated, the epochal achievement wasn’t to get there. It was to come back here.

Ten moon musical moments

“That’s Amore” (1953), Dean Martin. When “the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie” it has to be Dino.

“Just One of Those Things” (1956), Ella Fitzgerald. Is there a better lunar lyric than “a trip to the moon on gossamer wings”?

“The Rising of the Moon” (1956), the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. The moon isn’t just about romance. It’s also about rebellion.

“I Wished on the Moon” (1957), Billie Holiday. Hey, Dorothy Parker, who wrote the lyrics, is mentioned in “Just One of Those Things.” Truly, the moon works in mysterious ways.

“Fly Me to the Moon” (1964), Frank Sinatra. Backing Sinatra, the Count Basie Orchestra has the kick of a Saturn V rocket. Launch velocity like that powers a giant leap for ring-a-ding-ding.

“Armstrong” (1969), John Stewart. That’s “Armstrong” as in “Neil.” It’s sort of like “Abraham, Martin, and John” — topical, tepid, a bit pious — only without assassinations.

“Moondance” (1970), Van Morrison. “Fantabulous” is just such a Houston mission control sort of word. Well, it should have been.

“Moonshadow” (1972), Labelle. Why, hello there, Cat Stevens: See you and raise you.

“Moon Tears” (1972), Nils Lofgren and Grin. The difference from sun tears is unclear. The snarliness of the hook makes the lack of clarity acceptable.

“Marquee Moon” (1977), Television. A direr, darker side of the moon? Something like that, yeah.

Mark Feeney can be reached at mfeeney@globe.com.