Sunday, February 18, 2018


• The Village Voice column is delayed by the holiday til Tuesday. As part of my research I went to see Black Panther. I've told you good people before -- for example, back in 2009 when people were talking about The Dark Knight as a serious movie -- that I don't relate to the comic-book flicks that even some of my most intelligent friends enjoy. In fact, I find them idiotic. There may be a Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies, but as far as I'm concerned comic-book movies don't even have a Dances with Wolves. (Exceptions, or rather excuses: Ghost World, which I revere, is [clears throat] based on a graphic novel -- I know, that's like Lisa Loopner calling The Way We Were "a film not a movie" -- and Tim Burton's brutal Batman Returns is a Batman movie like Godard's Weekend is a road picture.) I can't even relate to those Lord of the Rings pictures. Magic kingdoms don't send me. My nerdness does not that way tend.

Black Panther is no exception. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy it; in fact once I got used to the unfamiliar sensation of having my eyes and ears pummeled while prone in a multiplex barcalounger,  it was a treat. The Afrocentric threads and sets are supercool, I am definitely down with the Praetorian Guard of tough bald chicks (the baddest-assed of whom is a general), and I'm happy for anyone who gets an ethnocentric or any other kind of thrill from it.

But I couldn't take it any more more seriously than I did Kokumo and Pazuzu in Exorcist II: The Heretic. I've never seen a made-up ancient tradition that wasn't at least slightly ridiculous (including the "real" ones we all grew up with). When the Wakandans were shown cheering T'Challa at his coronation in mountain niches going up hundreds of feet, all I could think of were Hummel figurines in a specialty display, or It's a Small World at Disneyland.

Also, I have to say that while I see why T'Challa had to defeat Killmonger, the latter had a good enough argument; why shouldn't Wakanda help liberate black folk around the world? History certainly supports W'Kabi's prediction that, once Whiteyworld got a whiff of their secret Vibranium stash, they'd do as they have always done with Africans. The Wakandan isolationist ethos is about protecting Wakandans; I see nothing in it about the brotherhood of man. It's nice T'Challa and Shuri are sufficiently guilt-tripped by it all to go to Oakland and start starship midnight basketball, but if they'd decided to go the Black Planet route instead I think it would have been more interesting.

But like I said, it's a comic book movie, and it was enough that it moved and looked good. And if I'm sympathetic toward Killmonger it may be in part because Michael B. Jordan, in a cast full of winners, steals the plum. Admittedly he has the advantage of being able to speak modern argot in a movie full of pseudo-Royal-African, and everyone else's jokes are corny enough that lines like "'Hey, Auntie" bring the house down. But modern, too, is the monster of reaction to injustice that Jordan makes of Killmonger, and though his viciousness made me want him defeated, as it was meant to, when he said at the point of dying that he wished to be buried in the ocean like his ancestors who "knew death was better than bondage," I wept. That, I took seriously.

• Also, returning to the Oscar derby I started with The Post, Get Out, and Dunkirk, I saw Lady Bird. Story: Christine, who prefers to be called by the fanciful eponym because I guess it will make a good title someday, is a driven though perhaps not exceptionally bright girl attending a Catholic school her parents can barely afford who wants to get out of her third-tier city (the same one auteur Greta Gerwig grew up in, what a coincidence) and make it big in New York — come back, reader! I swear it’s not bad! Along the way she does a lot of growing up — Reader? Hello?

Ha okay, leave if you want, but first let me tell you why it’s worth a look: Lady Bird and the other characters reveal themselves quickly (wanting-more daughter, angry-loving mother, becalmed-depressed dad, et alia) and, I'm forced to say, none of them shows much in the way of hidden depths. Nor are they full of surprises  -- in fact the characters usually do things you should have seen coming a mile away. But I stayed interested and rooted for them throughout. I think that's because Gerwig and her actors understood that, first, when characters are closely observed, the audience will notice that, and think them worth watching. (Gerwig even has one of Lady Bird's teachers mention the similarity between love and attention. If that doesn't do it for you, the really-real performances of Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, and Tracy Letts should.) Also, they knew that the characters don't have to surprise us to be worthy of our attention;  they just have to really try to be — what’s that phrase Mom uses? — the best version of themselves they can be. Sometimes just that struggle alone is worth watching.

I especially felt it in every scene involving Lady Bird and her best friend (Beanie Feldstein -- remember the name), a more obviously talented but also more ungainly girl whom she betrays, in a slightly ridiculous high-school way, before deciding to ditch her new cool friends and take her to the prom with her. I know, ick, after-school special, right? But when they went from crying in each other's arms to laughing with their mouths full of cheese and crackers because they couldn't believe they finished it all, I loved them. Later on, when they were mooning over what they would be doing next summer, they bored me. But I'll remember the cheese and crackers for a long time.

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