Cat Man Dues

Panther is a sincere, but self-defeating, exercise

Other scenes suffer from the same poverty of imagination. The sudden film stock switches and punishingly loud soundtrack remind you of Oliver Stone and Spike Lee, the symphonic score is a John Williams pastiche and the pop soundtrack selections offer bass-heavy, rap-inflected remakes and remixes of R&B songs that keep jarring you out of the film's time frame. As New Yorker critic Terence Rafferty once observed of another filmmaker, Mario Van Peebles chews with his mouth open: watching his movies, you can readily identify every piece of art that has fed his imagination. He doesn't appropriate techniques and images from other pictures and make them his own; he isn't inventive enough for that. (One transitional gimmick stands out, though: a pan of Judge moving across his living room toward a TV that has just announced Martin Luther King's assassination becomes a split-screen image of Judge facing newsreel riot footage. It's screwy, brave and inspired. Panther could have used more moments like it.)

Like his films, Mario Van Peebles is an infuriating mixed bag. He has a vibrant, video-age eye, a good ear for conversational dialogue and a strong grasp of how to get an audience riled up. But he's neither a great artist nor a formidable thinker. Like Kenneth Branagh and Oliver Stone, he elicits primal emotions in the crudest way possible -- by tilting the camera to indicate disorientation, filling the soundtrack with ultra-low bass hums to signify that something important is happening and whooshing his camera up to a god's-eye view every time somebody dies. He even has a key villain shoot a cute dog at point-blank range to establish what a mean guy he is -- a sure sign that a filmmaker has no shame.

It's idiotic to argue that Panther would have been a better film had it hewn more closely to the facts, because art is art and history is history, and one is almost never capable of performing the function of the other. The best a movie can hope to do is convey a generally truthful (and primarily emotional) impression of a time, a place and its people -- to sketch human footprints in the shifting sands of time.

But Panther rarely manages even that. Part of being a good historian is the ability to deftly underline crucial but small moments. There are no small moments in Panther. Quiet scenes are played at an epic pitch and epic scenes can make your ears and eyes bleed. The end result is a gripping, free-form, wildly imprecise riff on history -- a simplistic film about a difficult subject.

Directed by Mario Van Peebles. With Kadeem Hardison, Marcus Chong and Courtney B. Vance.

Rated R.
124 minutes.

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