Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Black Swan and Banshee Wails

Black Swan may have never had a chance with me...wait, is this not the way you begin a persuasive essay? It's just that multiple sources told me the Tree of Life preview, which I'd waited to see in the theater (not on the internet), preceded the film. And then it didn't. And I realized that not only have I been waiting to see even the preview for Tree of Life since the moment vision first blurred and danced and finally steadied in my newborn eyes, but also that I was eager to see Black Swan most especially because of the promised trailer. The disappointment was crippling. I exhaled a desperate, "that's it?!" to the sold out theater as the feature presentation presented itself, which I'm sure was confusing to more folks than my two ladyfriends.

So if I came to Black Swan with narrow eyes and a sunken heart, Darren Aronofsky's brash dance nevertheless managed to disappoint me in surprising ways. Namely, it's a horror film that misses the horror.

Nina (Natalie Portman) loses her grip on the world as she trains for the leading role in Swan Lake. Anxiety and insecurity waltz her frail frame into some serious psychosomatic trauma, a fair few rages of jealousy, and pretty constant fits of perfectionism. An overbearing mom, a hateful past-her-prime dancer, a skeezy self-important coach, not to mention all that catty competition, push her toward self-destruction and insanity. You get the idea. And it seems Aronofsky was relying on just that sentiment: 'You get the idea--the overbearing, resentful mom who desperately throws her daughter toward the dream she sacrificed so long ago!...You get the picture!' and we all nod our heads because we all do know, so well, and it only bothers some of us that the cultural cache of the audience does most of the heavy lifting when it comes to characterization in this film. But there is real horror lurking in this ballerina's world and, at its best moments, Black Swan draws out that anxiety, that misery, that paranoia and claustrophobia, and holds it over us so that we suddenly begin to very much fear what will in fact come of this rapidly unraveling girl.

Nina sees herself in mirrors and in other people's faces. She looks down at a raw cuticle, blinks, and it's healed. Eyes playing tricks in the dark, in reflections, under pressure, and in her dreams put her world on unsteady ground where we blink and sway and nervously flit alongside her. Her mother's unrelenting nagging comes through a stretched and fearful grin. Her bedroom is a pink-paradise fit for a five-year-old girl with no older brothers. She sits on the train as an old guy makes kissy noises, touches his balls, and does that nasty thing with his tongue that's half implying oral sex and half just being a gross old dude. In these kinds of details, Aronofsky successfully flirts with a complicated and very real darkness in the first half of the picture. For there is no shortage of real horror built into the unassuming base of this movie. The kind of horror where paranoia grown from competition gives birth to catastrophic acts of vengeance. The kind of horror that leaves wispy women trying to perform extreme acts of athleticism as their blood sugar plummets and their vision blurs and they desperately try to recall the 1/2grapefruit they ate for breakfast. There's horror in the risks and traumas of performance. In the way dance so often capitalizes on girls’ obsession with body-image. In the endless infantilization of these women and in the power dynamics between them and their coaches. There's horror in after work sexual harassment. There are back-stages and long walks home and dark corners and the endless, excruciating fear of failure. This is all there, lurking in the background of Black Swan.

If only the film would've just stuck with the agitated details that describe this kind of horror, letting the tension build toward something frightfully insane and frightfully human. (Has anyone watched Cassevetes’ Opening Night recently? Because if there’s ever a woman who can walk that troubled line between wild insanity and deep down heart-wrenching human-ness, it’s Ms. Gena Rowlands. And here she falls apart on every stage imaginable and gives the concept of ‘performance’ layers I hadn’t yet approached… alas, this is another essay.) But Black Swan fails to embrace the natural horror of the ballet and the ballerina, jumping off the deep end into the unintentionally comic, the unbelievable, the cartoonish.

Does Aronofsky shoot this picture to the moon because he doubts there's enough horror in a less fantastical ballerina story? Or is he high on directorial power, wielding the weird and forcing the gore because it's a way to get a rise out of us? Either way, it feels a disservice to the dark matter beneath this film. You know what's scarier than stabbing people's faces with nail files and having jimberjambery cartoon knees and undergoing trashily special-effected metamorphoses? The quiet horror of the mind! This intricate, intimate system that can work on reality so subtly you have to blink and blink again and still sometimes aren't sure who you are or if you're even still really alive. Realizing, as you teeter, how close you were to the edge the whole fucking time. The terror of suddenly seeing your own fragility, as your feet, so firmly in a world you thought you knew, sink into unknown depths. But portraying this kind of drift toward nightmare takes gentle strokes where Aronofsky just empties a can of paint. Yes, Black Swan ventures beyond all dumbness. It lets go of any faint grasp it ever had on the real horror and delves into a world of shocks and awes where the audience at BAM could do nothing but laugh. I was with them but I was also kinda sad, I think because I sensed a good movie hiding in this garish shell. Indeed, I've seen and loved the exact type of movie I saw sneaking around, all its pretty potentials unfulfilled, in the background of Black Swan.

I'm talking about movies that push the commonplace into the realm of horror so that, in all our terror and anxiety, we look back for the source, only to find the stealth darkness emerging from none other than the mundane. Enter Jane Campion's In The Cut. Sure there's rape and murder and we don't know who done it and who keeps doin' it, but that grand suspense gives way to a more complex anxiety that pervades every scene, every note of dialogue, every shot. Fear--of sexual assault and murder, and then by extension, of dark alleys and leering eyes and becoming vulnerable to the wrong people--structures Campion's grim New York, alienating the main character, Frannie, from her simplest habits and sending the audience into a frenzy of untraceable suspense. Suddenly taking out the trash becomes a feat in this predatory world. Because this fear and anxiety is so general, it's impossible (for Frannie or the audience) to differentiate between truly harmful elements and just the shit of the world. As Frannie visits her friend in a seedy strip joint or attempts to deal with her nice enough but creepy stalker/neighbor, it's impossible to pinpoint the danger or detect how much of it there actually is. When a police officer invites himself into her apartment or says seriously sexy but also kinda weird stuff in a bar, we're on edge, unsure and so fearful of what he's after. The whole film resides in that gray area ruled by questions like, 'when do I scream,' 'when is this creepy guy a Real problem,' 'what constitutes following me home,' 'does that mean this person is untrustworthy,' 'is this guy dismissing my refusals,' 'am I being manipulated right now,' and finally 'oh my god does the person with whom I just had really wonderful sex not only disrespect me, but hates all women, and oh sweet christ is he also a notorious rapist and murderer.'

Please allow me to illustrate this gray zone beyond all necessary illustration with the sincere intention of, at some point, bringing it all back together: Last year I was riding the subway when a smarmy Wall St. wannabe drunkenly approached me on the 2 train. He got in my face, trying to talk to me about god knows what and I did my usual, notably insincere halfsmile&nod which is decidedly unconfrontational while also trying to communicate something like, 'you sicken me.' And I just kept doing the halfsmile&nod even though he got more and more demanding. When he took a brief break to examine his coat buttons, I, having just seen a different Campion film as a matter of fact, decided that if he came back over for another go I wasn't going to grant him my Midwestern/feminine passivity. I was tired of acquiescing to vulgar shit. And just when I was thinking, 'Yeah, Fuck This!!!' guess who decided to saunter back over. As promised, this time I met his advances with a solid, loud, "You're done talking to me now. You need to step away from me and not speak to me anymore. You need to leave me alone now." This provoked the classic, "Can't a guy talk to a woman anymore?!?! What the fuck!?! What the fuck is your problem?! Fucking ice queen!...yatayatayata." An older woman rolled her eyes and shook her head, smiling at me. A couple of teenage girls gave him the stink eye. The dude next to me held his cello closer and inhaled audibly. As the guy's lips got closer to my ear and he started to tell me things I didn't even know about my own vagina, I looked in his dim, angry eyes and gave him another, "You need to step back and not say another word to me." He then stood very close to me, waited two stops, then, when the doors opened, punched me in the head and ran off the train before I could peel my face off the subway bench.

My brother, who seems to love me very much, said I should have maced that motherfucker. Or at least moved away. But if I moved away or maced the guy every time that kind of initial harassment happened, I'd hardly ever get to sit down and my whole neighborhood'd be rubbing their eyes. When do you mace. When do you move. Living in this gray area is pretty horrible and, as it turns out, makes a heck of a horror movie as well. In The Cut takes one woman’s New York, her everyday anxieties and mistakes, and renders it as horror. Campion uses the classic thriller--its narrative lines, its lighting, its sense of duration, its visual language--to uncover the terror that undercuts a whole bunch of female experience (not to mention, gay experience and the experience of every other one of society's targets).Which is to say, In The Cut plays around in the thriller genre to say something about human beings and how we get along in this world (as does Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining, for a few other examples, with all their effed-up relationshipping rendered horrific).

For a while, it looked like Black Swan was going to try to work this angle, making the very ordinary elements of this ballerina's world slowly skew toward the terror that was in them all along…leaving the grander, more cliched delusions in favor of a subtler, realer deterioration that says something about anything...but most especially something about lady experience since this is the area in which the film is ostensibly working. Among all of the ballerina/female-world horrors flitting through but ultimately going unexplored in Black Swan, the hypocrisies and incompatibilities in dominant notions of femininity is most notably left uncharted. This is especially frustrating since the issue is pretty much served on a platter by way of the black swan / white swan dichotomy in Swan Lake.

White swans are precise, graceful, delicate, passive, sweet; black swans are wild, radiant, impassioned, unrelenting, and strong. Black swans are the type to steal white swans’ princes away with trickery and bounds and leaps and dark sparkly makeup. As the Swan Queen, Nina must play both the white swan and the black swan. So here we have two female archetypes and one ladygirl who’s gotta play both roles. This reminds me of, um, every girl who consciously and subconsciously bends her ear toward our culture’s declarations about what a girl should be, only to find two (if not more) wildly competing definitions. Be the gentle white swan, perfect and careful and quiet and bad at math! But also be the black swan, dangerous and sexual and powerful and wildly talented at any old thing your crazy eyes cast upon! Be predictable and spontaneous. Be self-sacrificing and impassioned. Button the top button but get a tattoo. Be the virgin and the whore and the homemaker and the artist. Be trained your whole life as a white swan and then suddenly (when we tell you to) emerge as the black swan. But above all, be punished for being either or both.

Black Swan speaks on this dichotomised femininity by having characters say 'black swan' and 'white swan' next to each other about 4 million times, by having a brazen girl and a fragile girl and dressing the former in black and the latter in—you guessed it—white, by showing duel reflections of the coach when he first says 'black swan/white swan,' and by any number of other visual cliches. We have the care-free black swan character juxtaposed with the frigid Nina and we have a world that's asking too much of a girl. But for all the apparent references to this dichotomised femininity and the trouble it causes, none of them reach deep enough to explain the finale of horrors. We see ample signs of Nina’s distress (cuticles!!#$%@) but we never see her heart. We see evidence of a home-life and a career that would drive anyone mad but we never really see how it’s taking its toll. We never feel her motivations or meet the terror that summons her delusions. To my mind, if we had been given the chance to meditate, through the lens of the thriller genre, on Nina's everyday anxieties particular to her gender and experience, we might have found this black swan / white swan crisis truly horrifying. Why is the world too much for you, Nina? Though you reside in a thriller flick, might they be the same reasons I’ve found the world to be at times nothing short of unbearable? Are your everyday negotiations of self and swan a terror all their own?

Maybe Black Swan really never did have a chance with me. Aronofsky was never gonna spend his thriller blockbuster exploring gender, sexuality, and ballet culture, nor do I think he’s got the formal chops to do it to my liking anyhow. But I searched for the horror of the everyday lady experience anyway because I’m so tragically starved for the chance to see my lady life mindfully illuminated on screen. I’m so starved for movies that can help me navigate the gray moments before the punch and help me peel my face off the subway bench after it hits. So when Nina takes her last swan dive, I’m left mourning only Black Swan's missed opportunity and the perpetual interruption--nay, robbery--of my due catharsis at the movies.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Ladies Are Computer Programmers Too and Even the Vast Majority Who Aren't Are Still People: The Story of How We Invented Facebook Before Zuckerberg

Cowritten with Maya Dusenbery

The Social Network (you know, the facebook movie!) sprinted through its story with enough dramatic acceleration and high-voltage quipping to keep us pretty much rapt for its entirety. But it sure ain't the defining film of our generation, and not a responsible one at that, and here's why:

1. That's a stupid thing to say about a movie in general and a really weird thing to say about this movie since ambitious young nerds have been innovating, fighting, and reaching for power since time immemorial and their stories have also been told for about that long. It's just that this is about the internet. The same old arc applied to a new pixelated interface is the same old arc! People seem to think that just because this is about facebook it's "emblematic of its time and place" but the creation story is a familiar one and the way facebook has changed our relationships to one another goes relatively unexplored. Those larger questions hover in the backdrop of dueling nerds but the repeated shock and awe at facebook's success doesn't get at the real social transformations of the current age. This movie could say something interesting about the social complexities of the facebook age but it's kinda just about Harvard boys sparring and high-fiving over a good idea.

2. And we also really hope that The Social Network isn't emblematic of our time because, if that's true, there's really no place for us here. Because we're smart girls. Apparently smart girls' only role in this world is to spur entitled boys on to greatness with a sharp tongue lashing or, when they're at the top and feeling down, reassure them of their humanity. Every other female character in the movie is a twittering, bong-hitting bimbo with no ideas, hardly any words, and if she has a personality, it's an inexplicably crazed one. So don't call this our movie or a movie belonging to anyone on our social-scape because all the girls we know have ideas of their own right along side their male peers...not below them on their knees in a bathroom.

3. Further, Harvard in 2003 looked a lot more like our smart-girl world than the crudely misogynistic old boys' world depicted here. Many have pointed out how far the movie departs from reality--from the invention of Zuckerberg's ex-girlfriend and the elimination of real influential female relationships in his life; to the fact that the initial project, facemash, had women and men and didn't seem to be an act of breakup-revenge; to the invention of Zuckerberg's final-club obsession. That Sorkin and Fincher felt the need to make this story more male-dominated and the world in which they exist more sexist--that these misogynistic elements are necessary ingredients for successful drama--is perhaps most indicative of our current culture's expectations. While the film is being praised for its contemporary insight, its most revealing commentary on the facebook age is an inadvertent one--the assumption that the we, the audience, want to see this particular story of age-old gender stereotypes and tired narratives.

4. So okay, this film doesn't tell our stories or even particularly truthfully reflect the world it's purporting to describe, but we'll hold that against it only through point #3. We love tons of all-boys narratives and totally believe in their right to exist and, furthermore, often think they have good things to say about the cultures they reflect, but this is not one of those movies. The Social Network casts a critical eye on a lot of the contemptible traits of its world: the elitism of Harvard, the ambition of the start-up company game, the immaturity of emotionally-stunted computer geeks, even the superficiality of social ties in the facebook age. But the misogyny of its world somehow escapes the critical gaze. Aside from the two women who bookend the film and "drive the action only from the sidelines," the film is populated with out-of-focus, muted, anonymous, often under-age girls whose only purpose is to embody the sex, fame, and power that all the men in the film are ultimately reaching for. What a fucked up gender dynamic. If the film had wanted to critique this dynamic in any way, as it does the rest of this world's debaucheries, well then it could have:

Let the camera linger in the girls' bathroom after Zuckerberg and his co-founder receive their blowjobs, instead of instantly cutting outside to the boys' smirks. Who knows if we would have found something less bubbly and excited than the rest of the film's images of femininity.

Bring the stoned teenage blondes into focus when Justin Timberlake tells them, as they dizzily loll and giggle, that it's time for another bong hit. What if they shared a half-worried look about how the night was shaping up?

Give us 6 more lines where boys trip up on their own sexist assumptions--like when one boy has to ask another, in so many words, if he means 'students' when he says 'chicks' or when Zuckerberg asks his arch enemies, the Winklevi twins, what their girlfriends thought about facemash and they reply, "I don't know; we should probly ask them."

Give us any kind of reason a girlfriend would hatefully burn a gift. Her being a bitch is not a reason.

We're not asking for The Social Network to be The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants with a little Waiting to Exhale thrown in; we're asking for any kind of third dimension in the wall of giggles and boobs that composes the film's background.

When Stephen Colbert asked Aaron Sorkin why there are so few women of any substance in the film, Sorkin’s response was startling direct: “The women are prizes.” First, let’s take a moment to appreciate how absurd it is that this qualifies as an answer. Oooooh I see! The women are the prizes and everyone knows prizes are, as Colbert says, “high or drunk or bleeping guys in the bathroom!” Frankly, that much was already clear. But it doesn’t answer the key question: Either the filmmakers are so totally A-okay with a world where women are considered nothing more than prizes, or they were attempting to critique that culture. If they were, they needed to do something (like any of the helpful suggestions above) to show that the women, even when serving as prizes in a male-centric film, are also human beings. And ultimately they failed to do that.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Long Overdue: PolkmasTales

1) I love my family
2) I wish I were Arnaud Desplechin
3) Check this out

Monday, February 8, 2010

A Failed Entertainment


This morning I ventured up, up, up Manhattan to Columbia University's LeRoy Neiman Gallery where several of James O. Incandenza's short films were playing on loop in a lonely room. The video tapes ran simultaneously in a tower of 26 VCRs, the chords of which all led to a television and a door knob. To change the channel and switch to another video, you could turn the knob with a satisfying click. If you turned through the channels quickly so that a half second of a various small flames from Various Small Flames filled the screen, followed by a flash of Too Much Fun's failed post-conceptual standup routine, followed by the snowy revelry of Baby Pictures of Famous Dictators--Escatong, followed by a cracked and bewildered brick from The American Century As Seen Through A Brick--the effect was schizophrenic. And if you just sat very seriously and stared through each video, swallowing each image whole before daring to turn the knob, well then the experience became alternately eerie and meditative. Which is to say, I think that old eccentric, that filmmaker and tennis guru and scientist and headmaster and dad, Incandenza, would have been proud or at least pleased, though he may not show it. And though I really don't know, I think David Foster Wallace--author of Infinite Jest and father of all its characters including the madstork himself, Incandenza--would have liked this Columbia film project too. It seems in line with something the book was doing; indeed, A Failed Entertainment: Selections from the Filmography of James O. Incandenza contributes, to my mind, to one of the most exceptional aspects of Infinite Jest and DFW.

The book gives us a world complete, a gift DFW manages through various exercises of genius and with no shortage of love. Here are two of the things that DFW does...or really, one thing that gives birth to another. He gives us a ton of information (those of you who haven't read Infinite Jest probably have still heard of its hundreds of endnotes and its 1079 pages) that extends outward into the book's hypothetical universe. To some (very foolish people) all this information, much of it descriptive and non-narrative, appears excessive, or worse, indulgent. But DFW's 25 page charge through the mechanics of a favored school-yard game, or his tireless medical and colloquial etymologies, or a methodical description of carpet, or an endnote correction to a character's language or ideas--all of this builds a universe that breaks free of literary limitations to mirror the structures of reality.

Because with each breath our existence initiates a million points of contact with a zillion objects and ideas and emotions and people and microscopic matter! So that to glimpse something of the world is to step back from the narrative we've created for the moment, or for the day, or for a lifetime and see the overwhelming web of stories that surround us--the story of this green blanket over my legs, and the idea of growing nails as an act of willpower, and the picture of my mom and what her 80s perm was all about anyway--and when we see so many of these histories rise up around us, the idea of a linear story with narrative boundaries and a guiding principle of pertinence, well this loses all meaning. So but Infinite Jest then, finds something like the fabric of the universe in all its endless referencing and acronyms and characters and objects and spaces. There's a human thought behind every building, an evolution behind every gesture. The ideas and facts in the book branch in every direction, circling back on themselves and then taking a new path. The whole project is rhizomatic, not arboreal, and in the curious nature and quantity of its content, is convincing such that the reader unwittingly becomes confident of facts left unsaid, people unmentioned, and ideas untouched. And it's totally fucking incredible. Like taking all the world in a breath. And yet DFW locates the source of this unbridled efflorescence, always, in the human souls that most concern him, so that in fact, we are blessed with a plot to boot. But, I stray.

So for me, James O. Incandenza's filmography was always more than a list of phony films in the endnotes of Infinite Jest--those films already existed for me in some sense. Because everything the book touches and, like I said, even some things it doesn't, are called into existence. Which is why it was so awesome when those good kids at Columbia decided to put together this show and bring these films into another dimension. Among others, Tim Lawless' adaption of Zero Gravity Tea Ceremony and its dance of steel and china and liquid is certainly something to celebrate and Brendan Harman's Cage presents a stunning collage, but this is almost beside the point. Their final beauty is their position in the universe; Here lies another tangled, winding branch extending from Infinite Jest, this one finding its bloom in a dark room way uptown.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion

Happy 37th anniversary of Roe v. Wade! Last week I was lucky enough to celebrate the right to abortion with two films, Obvious Child by Anna Bean and Gillian Robespierre and I Had an Abortion by Gillian Aldrich and Jennifer Baumgardner. The first--a 10minute rom-com about a lady (Jenny Slate) who finds herself pregnant after a totally charming encounter with a very sweet dude--presented abortion as a necessary procedure, one event among many in this lady's life, and as a logical decision for her. And how refreshing to see abortion removed from the highly politicized and abstract realm it usually resides and brought down to one lady's rom-com reality. Importantly, this little movie did all this while avoiding a nonchalant tone; the prospect of her abortion left our main character calling her mom, trying to calm her own nerves, needing to talk to her friends, and trying to navigate a new romantic relationship, but it refused the sensationalism that so often shrouds a woman's decision to abort. And afterall, when 1 in 3 women are having the procedure at some point in their lifetimes, abortion deserves a story that refuses the abstraction and sensationalism of morality plays. So that in Obvious Child, there were the kind of jokes, sincerity, mindfulness, and frankness rarely afforded to pregnancy or abortion in general (and almost never on film), which felt wonderfully close to the way that my friends and I are working to deal with all sorts of political issues that are truly personal.

The second, I Had an Abortion moves chronologically through a series of interviews with women who've had abortions. Starting with a story from the 1920s and traveling to the present through these women's voices, we see the contours of a political and social history take shape in the background. We don't often hear abortion stories which of course adds to the appearance that abortion is a hemogenous experience. This film effortlessly shattered that myth just by going to the source (ladies!) and listening.

If you know me (which, let's be real, you probly do if you're reading this), you know that I like to think about the way that film moves, how movies do the things they do, how their aesthetics make meaning, the way a movie functions in the world, etc. Obvious Child and I Had an Abortion have plenty of internal dynamics worth exploring but these movies' most impressive effect emerges from their simple existence. And that's something that isn't often true in the world of cinema. In a world in which the word 'abortion' is systematically avoided; in which shame and silence guard the abortion stories of most; and even our greatest reproductive rights activists sometimes can't help framing abortion as external, a right worth fighting for but ultimately another woman's problem***; well in this world movies that dare to be frank and honest about abortion experience have an unusually inherent meaning. Their statement is their existence. The details of content are almost beside the point. Their most generous gift doesn't have to do with aesthetic accomplishment or well-crafted arguments or anything else I am used to thinking about when working out how a film creates meaning--these films are meaningful just by being in the world.

Thanks so much to the filmmakers, NARAL Pro-Choice NY, and Soapbox Inc. for working to make abortion experience something we can talk about.

***Many people have written about the limitations of the abortion conversation, and one activist does so in particularly thorough and articulate terms: see Maya Dusenbery's writing at RH reality check and Feministing.