The Outsize Genius of ‘I’m a Virgo’

Brobdingnag is somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Jonathan Swift’s map in his 1726 satirical cartoon Gulliver’s Travels Vol. 2 depicts it as a large peninsula somewhere north of California. Brobdingnag is the land of giants. Shipwrecked there, Gulliver discovers a race of clever and moral people, about 60 feet tall, but he dislikes his portrayal of snobbish and warlike British society. There are no more gentle giants on the West Coast, but only one remains, south of Brobdingnag, near where Swift designates P. Monterey, according to writer, director, and musician Boots Riley. It is said that giants live in Oakland, California.

Riley’s new Amazon Prime series “I’m a Virgo” is a Swift fable by Charles Dickens, Ralph Ellison, Alan Moore and Spike Lee. Central to this story is that of a once-in-a-generation giant, Cootie, who becomes both a folk hero and a public enemy. As someone told him in an early episode, “People are always afraid, and you’re a 13-foot-tall black man.” He grew up watching his movements on the block through a periscope. He’s a erudite giant, his father requires him to read 10 hours a day, but he’s also thrilled by the screen parroting out lines from his favorite reality shows. (His credo–“From that day on, I knew nothing could stop me from being great”–is a quote from a “Bachelorette”-style program.) shows him the story-filled apartment they built and shows him a scrapbook of historical giants. Many blacks were enslaved or lynched because of gigantism. Their obvious fear is that he will stand out too much and become a screen for the fears and desires of others. (This is not a fate only giants have.) But when Cootie finally leaves home as a teenager, he falls in love with all of this world’s sublimeness and silliness. The first time he hears a thud from his new friend’s trunk, he becomes an enraged poet. “It travels through the body like waves,” he tells his parents. “And it sings to your bones.”

Riley’s Oakland, like Swift’s own West Coast, is rendered surreal through allegory. There’s a housing crisis, police brutality, rolling blackouts, but also a community of people shrunk to the size of a dwarf’s pocket (wearing clothing receipts) and a fast food worker named Flora who works super fast like Flash. there is . There are also rogue white cartoonists called heroes who impose justice on their mostly black neighbors as vigilantes, but even the idea of ​​fascist law and order superheroes seems banal here. The show isn’t subtle about its visions and allegories. “As a young black man,” Cootie says, repeating his parents’ warnings. “If you’re walking down the street and the police see you don’t have a job, they’ll send you straight to jail.” Laugh off at his implausibility until you answer.

One of Cootie’s first rebellions was to insist he try the Bing Bang Burger, the comically unappealing commercial he sees all the time on television. Loose-jawed observers are shown filming the video, and then Cootie himself is seen slouching in line behind him, his back pressed against the fluorescent lights of the burger joint. Actor Jarrel Jerome plays Cootie always small, leaning his head on his shoulder, his body tucked in, his lips pursed in anticipation, showing Cootie’s anxiety. But when I saw Flora assembling burgers at dizzying speed, an instant connection was made. Cootie puffs up while handing out the order and calling him “big man.” He ran into an exit sign on his way out.

It’s always doubling down on the logistics of Cootie’s enormity, while still keen on the obsession and the hilarious part.

“I’m a Virgo” goes from “Atlanta” to “Undone” to the more recent farce “Mrs. Davis.” or inspired by the idea of ​​transcending them. That fantastical concept reminds us of it with a proud and candid demeanor, and works in metaphor exactly as it works in real life. Cootie, drunk at a club, utters poetic words to his friend Felix. “Friends make me feel inside myself and the rest of the world at the same time,” he says. Felix took a moment to figure it out, then nodded and more or less replied, “Hey, that’s true.”

premium cable Networks and streamers have long built brands around boundaries and risk, even though prestige series often fall back on safe and predictable formulas. Then there’s the nature of the ever-expanding Marvel Universe. What may once have used superheroes to dramatize the truth of our world has now disappeared into its own multiverse, swallowed up by digital warfare and green-screen vistas. “I’m a Virgo” is the visual and ideological antithesis to all of this. Drawing on the vanity of a 13-foot-tall black man to arrive at insight into race, class, and injustice, he tackles the part with obsession and hilarity, always doubling down on the logistics of Cootie’s sheer size. There are plenty of series that mess with the narrative structure and genre conventions of television, but this show happily tries to break the most basic visual conventions of how humans are brought together onscreen.

That fantastical concept works in metaphor exactly as it does in real life.

So Cootie has to be as real as TV can represent. Most of his scenes are shot using elaborate forced perspective shots and scale models rather than green screen or his CGI. He can feel the difference. Cootie tends to look like a wall is looming. Because the wall is really approaching. The erratic, claustrophobic genius of this show can be thrilling. She remembers being stunned to see Christopher Nolan portray the depth of the wormhole using only practical effects. Boots Riley figuring out how to shoot a slapstick and ultimately very sexy love scene between a standard-sized woman and a 13-foot-tall man without resorting to digital effects at every frame. The sight did not resemble my awe. Flora and cootie are mostly seen in close-up, with flora nestled neatly in the center of the frame and cootie to the edge of the frame. There are occasional two-shots that use dolls as substitutes, but most of the scenes use dolls. sound To keep in touch with the actors. This scene takes up almost half the episode, with them exploring how their act of love could come to fruition, Riley figuring out how to show it to us, and me. we learn how to see it. But it is kind and not obscene. Usually in Riley’s frame the big man is real and the world around him is either warped or newly constructed. Flora’s own weirdness is also celebrated and protected on the show, reimagining the world in relation to giants.

Visual gags exist alongside other epic fantasies. One of Cootie’s friends organizes a general strike to protest the inequalities in the health care system. There was a guerrilla attack on the power plant. A vigilante policeman converts to communism. (What’s a more brute statement: Law and order ideologues using the power of argument to persuade them to abandon carnivorous capitalism, or that one Oakland kid turns out to be really, really tall?) Riley Although he professes to be a communist himself, he has always been a communist. He’s an unabashedly political artist, but it’s not just politics that’s radical here. That’s what politics allows the show to do. “I’m a Virgo” does this by tying the idea of ​​subverting the establishment of power to something less and less destructive, and a political vision to revolutionize the way we see the human body on screen. . The story feels almost spontaneous, full of strange and unexpected life. Riley made his radicalism feel lush, generative, and self-reliant. In the land of the only living giants, that is the reality.

Opening illustration: Source photo from Prime Video

Phillip Maciak is a television critic for The New Republic and author of the book Avidly Reads Screen Time. He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

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