black panther (ryan coogler, 2018)

I'm not sure I'm up to the task of writing about Black Panther, which is so much more than "just" another Marvel superhero movie. Just to address the Marvel-ness of it, I am marginally conversant with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and I mostly like the movies I've seen ... well, I didn't think much of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies, but the rest, sure, they're OK. But I usually only see them because my wife is a fan. Personally, I prefer some of the TV series, especially Agent Carter. So one thing that set Black Panther off from the rest is that I wanted to see it; I didn't wait to be dragged into the theater. And my desire was justified, because Black Panther works on its own as a movie, separate from Marvel mythology.

I was delighted to see how much Oakland love was in the movie. We saw it at a theater less than a mile from the Oakland border (in Emeryville, home of Pixar, who are always putting animated local landmarks in their films), and right at the beginning, when a title tells us we're in Oakland in 1992 while Too $hort's "In the Trunk" plays on the soundtrack, the crowd erupted in applause, a tangible example of how audiences see themselves on the screen when watching Black Panther. (It wasn't shot in Oakland ... I think Atlanta was the location ... but given that director/writer Ryan Coogler was born in Oakland, the visuals are on target.)

Black Panther serves its function as an origin story, and since we're told at the end that the character will be featured in Avengers: Infinity War later this year, it is clear that Marvel is in this for the long haul (it doesn't hurt that Black Panther is already one of the biggest grossing films in history). But Black Panther didn't leave me wanting to see Infinity War, even if my wife inevitably gets me to watch it. I suspect this is because, as I noted, Black Panther works as a movie ... it made me want to see the next Black Panther movie Coogler works on, which isn't the same as wanting to see Infinity War because Black Panther will be in it.

Much has been made of the political statements the film is making. Black Panther wears its political heart on its sleeve. The message of the movie is messy, which accounts for the various disparate explanations of what is going on. But you don't have to dig very deep to start the discussion.

I have read some convincing arguments that Black Panther is ultimately something less than revolutionary in its narrative (the plethora of black filmmakers and actors in the film is revolutionary in itself, of course). Much of the film's thrust involves deciding who will be King of Wakanda, and that decision is based more on hand-to-hand combat than on a reasoned confab on politics. Since Erik Killmonger, who proposes that Wakanda should be sharing its wealth to help liberate the oppressed all around the world, is presented as "The Villain", his revolutionary position is attached to a "bad guy". Supposedly, this taints the radical politics of Killmonger, and I understand why it seems that way.

But people have been rooting for the bad guy for a hundred years of movies. Jack Nicholson's Joker is evil compared to Michael Keaton's Batman, but Nicholson's acting in the film is much more enjoyable than Keaton's, and Batman is a bit of a fascist in that movie anyway, so I didn't have any trouble "rooting" for the Joker. It is true that Keaton's low-key approach to his character allows Nicholson to take over the film, but it is also true that without Nicholson, Burton's Batman would be even darker than it already is.

A comparison of Joker/Batman and Killmonger/Panther doesn't completely work. In Batman, not only does Nicholson dominate the movie, entertaining the audience in the process, but Batman is not a benign leader of men, but instead a fascist. In Black Panther, we are led to think of T'Challa as a good ruler ... he is easier to root for than Bruce Wayne. And while Nicholson overwhelms Batman, Black Panther is full of strong characters (many of them women) and thrilling performances. One reason it's hard to root for Killmonger is that Chadwick Boseman is himself charismatic ... he makes us want to accept T'Challa's way.

Yet I would argue that Michael B. Jordan overcomes Boseman's excellence. I am a longtime fan of Jordan's, so I may be too biased. But he is so great as Killmonger that he breaks through the attempt to make the character into a villain. Yes, Killmonger is a sociopath, but ... OK, I know there is no "but" for some people, but like Nicholson's Joker, Jordan commands the screen with such intensity that I found myself rooting for him, despite the way in the end the film denounces Killmonger. It is like those 30s gangster movies, where the bad guy had to die in the last scene, but when you walked out of the theater you remembered the excitement of the film's first 85 minutes, not the required comeuppance.

Of course, those gangster movies weren't making explicit political arguments. It's a sign of the greatness of Black Panther that it is not only a great spectacle (we saw it in IMAX 2D, which I much prefer to 3D), but it inspires discussion after the fact.

 


music friday: 1974

Bob Marley and The Wailers, "Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)". Natty Dread was the first Wailers album without Peter Tosh and Bunny Wailer. A hungry mob is an angry mob.

Kraftwerk, "Autobahn". Rolling Stone ran a picture of these guys in one of their books, with the caption, "Is this the face of rock and roll's future?"

Labelle, "Lady Marmalade". When this came out, the women were all pushing 30, having been around singing doo-wop and the like for many years. They even sang backup on a Laura Nyro oldies album. Then they put on space suits and recorded this song, which had been released earlier by someone called Eleventh Hour.

Cluster, "Hollywood". More krautrock.

Betty Davis, "He Was a Big Freak". One of a kind funk singer who, during her one-year marriage to Miles Davis, introduced Miles to Hendrix and Sly. The title "Bitches Brew" was her idea.

Queen, "Killer Queen". Their first big hit.

Al Green, "Take Me to the River". For much of the 70s, Al Green had an unmatched run of great music. He had a greatest hits album in 1975 (a desert-island disc if ever there was one), then put out volume two in 1977 ... and he wasn't scraping the bottom of the barrel (Volume Two had this song, "Love and Happiness", "Sha-La-La (Make Me Happy", and more).

Joni Mitchell, "Help Me". Joni wasn't messing around in the early-70s, either: Ladies of the Canyon, Blue, For the Roses, and Court and Spark (which included this song).

Bachman-Turner Overdrive, "You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet". According to the never-wrong Wikipedia, Randy Bachman claimed "the song was performed as a joke for his brother, Gary, who had a stutter".

Bob Dylan, "Dirge". We saw Dylan for the first time on the tour with The Band after the Planet Waves album. I'd link to a video, but that's usually impossible with Dylan, so you'll have to go to the Spotify Playlist to hear it. At least I can post the lyrics:

I hate myself for lovin' you and the weakness that it showed
You were just a painted face on a trip down Suicide Road.
The stage was set, the lights went out all around the old hotel,
I hate myself for lovin' you and I'm glad the curtain fell.
 
I hate that foolish game we played and the need that was expressed
And the mercy that you showed to me, who ever would have guessed?
I went out on Lower Broadway and I felt that place within,
That hollow place where martyrs weep and angels play with sin.
 
Heard your songs of freedom and man forever stripped,
Acting out his folly while his back is being whipped.
Like a slave in orbit, he's beaten 'til he's tame,
All for a moment's glory and it's a dirty, rotten shame.
 
There are those who worship loneliness, I'm not one of them,
In this age of fiberglass I'm searching for a gem.
The crystal ball up on the wall hasn't shown me nothing yet,
I've paid the price of solitude, but at last I'm out of debt.
 
Can't recall a useful thing you ever did for me
'Cept pat me on the back one time when I was on my knees.
We stared into each other's eyes 'til one of us would break,
No use to apologize, what diff'rence would it make?
 
So sing your praise of progress and of the Doom Machine,
The naked truth is still taboo whenever it can be seen.
Lady Luck, who shines on me, will tell you where I'm at,
I hate myself for lovin' you, but I should get over that.

 Bonus: "Lady Marmalade" updated for Moulin Rouge.

 Spotify playlist (including "Dirge"!)


film fatales #37: on body and soul (ildikó enyedi, 2017)

On Body and Soul marks the return to feature films for Hungarian filmmaker Ildikó Enyedi, who has spent the last 18 years working in television and on short films. Her prior features played at festivals around the world, and I can't find anything to explain her absence from the big screen. (She won a couple of Best Director awards for her last feature, Simon, the Magician.) This is her film ... she not only directed, but wrote it as well.

The IMDB description hints at the oddness of the setup. "When slaughterhouse workers Endre and Mária discover they share the same dreams - where they meet in a forest as deer and fall in love - they decide to make their dreams come true but it's difficult in real life." Enyedi never shies away from this oddness, but the movie and its actors underplay to such an extent that you don't always remember how much the plot resembles a fantasy. There is a suggestion of magic realism, but it's not like the deer show up in the slaughterhouse ... they stick to the dreams of the two protagonists, and the only real fantasy element is that they are sharing the dreams, and that the dreams are bringing them together.

It's actually a perfect setup for the budding romance of the two, who have a big difference in age (Endre is roughly twice as old as Mária) and share an awkwardness in public interactions (Mária is borderline autistic). You get the feeling the two would never find each other if they didn't share dreams about deer. The relationship itself is awkward, given their personalities and age difference ... in fact, for most of the movie, it barely qualifies as a relationship. The plot devices required to bring them together are rather clunky, and not at all magical.

Still, stars Géza Morcsányi, who had never acted on screen before, and Alexandra Borbély, by comparison a seasoned veteran (she won a Best Actress award at the European Film Awards for this film, joining a list of stalwarts such as Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, and Charlotte Rampling), are excellent. Throughout, On Body and Soul threatens to emerge as something great, but it never quite gets there.

(Explanation of the Film Fatales Series.)