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.


Ryland Walker Knight said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
blind irish pirate said...

I think this is a very accurate opinion on the movie - clearly I saw the social commentary, but how many other people where thinking about her trimming her finger off, and lost concern for something that is much more horrifying than zombies & boogie-men? The mind is something acutely terrifying.

Thanks for the other movie recommendations. :)

Slone13 said...

I think "jimberjambery" may be my new favorite word.

Phil Miner said...

just spent a happy couple of hours going through your blog. The black swan review was special – the personal illustration on the subway comes up to the movie in unexpected way. To do it you have to understand yourself and your belief system and the movie and its… Thanks, I found Black Swan well worth seeing, and I'd think that your review -- doubts and all -- would convince readers that the movie is a must-see.

I found you on Awl,bookmarked your blog, look forward to more. phil

Anonymous said...

missed opportunity indeed! the ending could have transformed the entire movie, but was so disappointing. Thanks for the thoughtful review (and suggestions of other movies--I love Campion).

Ally said...

Um, hi! I went hunting for your blog after I read your Hairpin piece and really really really liked it. THEN I read this review and felt all spooked because it ONE HUNDRED PERCENT ENCAPSULATES how I felt about Black Swan. (Which abbreviates to BS, haaaa.) So anyway, thanks heaps for writing. I like what you do! Internet creeping over now.

tovah said...

Really great commentary on Black Swan that I just couldn't really articulate.

I just knew I didn't like it and at time, it was just plain laughable.

The sadness is that it had the potential to be great.

TUXYtheguardian said...

I agree with the majority of your rant on the matter in this movie. Nina is indeed a byproduct of a system and society that is overtaken by the extremity that is heteronormative hegemonic society. She has indeed become subject to an internalized and distorted sense of self as a result, having to play out and uphold to this hyper-femininity ideal, all the while becoming increasingly disconnected from her true sense of self, spiraling further downward to a tragic (and far from uncommon) demise. Yes...

Having said all of that, I have to admit that I still thoroughly "enjoyed" the movie! Yes, it was visually oddly gruesome, silly and comical at times, harrowing in such a way to the audience that causes us to jump out of our seats at the sight of Nina's physical torture.

But I feel like this is still just one extreme aspect of the dancer's reality, and there are indeed companies and troupes all over the world who are constantly challenging the norms and principles of the heternorm, despite its constant encroachment and colonization of our minds, our bodies, our sexes and genders.

I think that anyone who considers themselves a "dancer" at heart, or a mover, or a shaker, in any form (whether you are alone, or in a crowd) understands that dance should be about liberation!

I feel like the point that most people seem to miss about the movie is that ultimately, Nina is at odds with herself; her light and her darkness. Since she is constantly seeing herself as the innocent white swan, denying that her dark half exists, she is out of balance and her dark half consumes her, and therefore, in order to achieve that highly sought after, seemingly unattainable, ethereal sense of freedom in embodying the rigid "perfection," she needed to kill her good side in order to transcend.

In a sense there is a somewhat magical, even phoenix-like aspect to what is happening here. But hopefully we can all learn from Nina(as dancers) to strive for "balance" so that we do not simply consume, or are subject to be consumed to death by the dance of life, but rather, that we may hopefully breathe and feed others with our beauty instead <3