Was watching a quasi-zombie horror/comedy film called “Mom and Dad” starring Nicholas Cage in full psycho mode, and was struck by the fascinating similarities between it, and “Get Out” and even “Black Panther.”
I haven’t finished watching–it is uneven, and its hyperviolence turned me off a little at times. Basically, it’s the story of a community struck by a mysterious disease that makes parents want to kill their children. And yeah, they go there, if you know what I mean. And it is quite funny in a sick way, although there are some scenes that, as I said, went over the line for me.
But let’s look at it from a Lifewriting perspective, shall we? This isn’t in a particular order, just as it comes up.
- Nicolas Cage and Selma Blair are a set of parents with two kids, a teenaged girl and a pre-teen boy. Cage and Blair are infected by the disease, and begin to hunt their kids, who are forced to put personal differences aside in order to survive “Home Alone” style.
- Cage and Blair are deep into mid-life crisis: the sense of life potentials gone wrong, dreams unmet. Fear of changing aging bodies and waning sexuality. And a sense that they have given everything to kids who are now starting to shut them out, as kids do as they begin to bond to their own peer group.
- The external plot (parents killing children), therefore, simply exaggerates a real concern on the part of parents (their children are “killing” them, symbolize lost potential) AND children (“my parents are killing my spirit”). One good thing is that “Mom and Dad” touches on the different kinds of “loss” men and women feel. Each side can feel uniquely wronged by life, rather than grasping the universality of existential angst. To the degree that we believe these characters, and the exaggeration of the core fear is tempered, the film succeeds. To the degree that the angst underlying the core plot and images are shared by the audience, the film will have an unconscious fascination, and will be more successful.
- If those psychological and plot levels are cookin’ with gas, the next question is: how POWERFUL is the underlying reality, and how big is the social charge? The social charge is intensified if we haven’t seen it addressed before: pressure that hasn’t been relieved, right?
- If you can apply this to GET OUT you’ll see the reason it made a quarter-billion dollars and won all those awards. The surface (plot) works like a dream, but isn’t that atypical of other horror films: fiancee goes home with lover, is victimized by a situation with hidden currents. The NATURE of those currents psychologically is the “can I trust the ones I love?”. But socially, they go deeper: “can black people trust white people, even those who seem to be allies?” as well as “will white people ever be trusted by black people, considering the painful history and lack of understanding?” Taps into BOTH white and black fears, as well as some male-female stuff. Nice. The fact that it opens a door very seldom unlocked (fear of assimilation. Guilt and pain when recognizing your own “micro-aggressions”) it also tapped into a vast ocean of unexpressed tension. Result–powerful emotional associate. Ca-Ching.
- How about “Black Panther” ? On the surface, a superhero origin story with touches of Shakespearean/Godfather family dynamics and power plays in a royal house. Very very well done. Psychologically, it touches a universal hunger: to live up to parental expectations. But wait! There is a spiritual component as well: the “if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him” need to connect directly to the divine without seeing another human being as an intermediary. So long as T’Challa worshipped his father, he could not be equal to him. Once he sees his father is just a human being (who made a HUGE mistake) he could be his own man, in his own way…and rise to being king.
- But wait! There’s more! The psychological and spiritual aspects have been expressed before. But the social aspects are almost unique. The images are pure Afrofuturistic, tying together past and future, mundane and profound. Since the year 2000 there’s been an increasing “collapse” of the American (and therefore worldwide: we’ve driven popular culture) social construct around race that was necessary to justify slavery, a lie maintained for almost 400 years. Just YESTERDAY I saw another endless, vile, ignorant threads conflating slavery with immigrant workers, however mistreated. It’s the same confusion people have about the difference between violent rape and voluntary sex, however poor. I can make an excellent case that there wasn’t a single major dramatic theatrical film dealing with slavery from the actual perspective of slaves in the entire 20th Century. Compare to the number of films about the Civil War, and you’ll grasp how terribly rotten something is. “Gone With The Wind” was the major theatrical image system, in adjusted dollars the most popular film that might ever exist, and a gigantic wet kiss to a world of horrific abuse viewed with rose-colored glasses by the abusers and their descendants: “There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South… Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow.. Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave… Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered. A Civilization gone with the wind…” that’s the opening crawl. That’s the meaning of the title. If you don’t grasp “The big lie” lurking in that, you need to look again.
- So for black people, “Black Panther” gave image to the precise things stolen from us: names, spirituality, language, history, mythology, nation, agency. A dream of what Africa might have been without colonialism. A garden of Eden, no more distant and fantastical than endless mythical lands whites and Asians have given themselves and their children a hundred times a day in countless thousands of books, films, and bedtime stories. Watching the faces of black children who have been told endless times that they are nothing, that their history begins with rape, as they watch “Black Panther” should be instructive to anyone who has a heart.
- But what of white audiences? Well, there is the surface (it’s a good movie) and then there is the empathetic (feeling the powerful emotions others feel). And another layer: we want the truth. The truth saves us. It takes energy to maintain a lie. And what VERY pleasantly surprised me was the number of people willing to reject the negative lie and embrace a positive one. As if saying: “you aren’t what my parents and grandparents say you are? Then who are you? Show me your dreams…”
- Remember when Sting said that we have nothing to fear if the Russians love their children too? The communication of universals has this same power. If we all dream of the stars, IF you believe in human equality you look for the problems that created an uneven result. You look at the “playing field” rather than the players. White people who believe blacks are unequal mentally are welcome to have that discussion with blacks who feel whites are unequal morally. That’s an entertaining conversation: I’ve eavesdropped on a few of them, and its equivalent to having a grenade battle in a phone booth. Neither should expect to have a serious conversation with those of us who believe in one human family. If you don’t feel the need to defend the past, you can embrace the future without fear.
- I’ve talked about a Jules Ffiefer cartoon I saw when I was a kid. In it, a white intellectual was sitting across the table from a black man who looked a lot like Malcolm. The black man says: “you have your history. White history. Written by white men, to promote white power. We want our history. Black history. Written by black men, to promote black power. Our demand is separate but equal lies.”
- That’s what Black Panther is. Separate but equal lies. The creation of a strand of mythology that has been missing for centuries.The fact that friggin DISNEY, who never had an animated image of a black human being in any theatrical film of the 20th Century (until 1999’s “Fantasia 2000”) bankrolled this to the tune of two HUNDRED million dollars (!) suggests that they knew it could make its money back. That suggests a sense of where the culture is: far enough from the events that needed the lie that people are safe to finally speak the truth. This is huge. It is transformative. While problems remain that will not be resolved in my lifetime, it is the moment in our history I’ve awaited since childhood.
- Using the same model we use looking at “Mom and Dad” then, threading it through “Get Out” and “Black Panther” you can see how, whether your interested in the technical (plot), thematic, psychological (personal), social or spiritual meaning, you can “line up” these aspects so that your work has greater power, and greater potential for success.
This is, of course, a way of deconstructing what really smart, integrated, lucky artists do on a purely emotional level: they just “feel” their way and thread those needles “instinctively”. The rest of us…need to think a little more.
But all of us can do better.
Write the myths that change the world!