Thursday, December 23, 2010

Black Swan Singing in the Dead of Night . . .

I finally had a chance to see Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan last night, and I was pleasantly surprised to find both that I liked it and that it didn't end up being the mopey, ultra tragedy so many of the reviews are saying it is. It is definitely a thriller in its construction--there are a lot of haunted house scares, things popping up unexpectedly around corners and that sort of thing. And it has the fun of a haunted house, as Aronofsky delights in tormenting poor, straight laced little Nina.

A lot of this is accomplished by a Hichcockian fidelity to point of view even more strict than Hitchcock's. In films like Vertigo and North by Northwest, though the tension is largely created in locking the audience into the limited perspective of the protagonist, there are one or two scenes where that protagonist is not involved--like the CIA meeting in North by Northwest or Midge's discussion with the psychiatrist in Vertigo. Black Swan is so committed to Nina's POV that there is not a single scene in which Nina doesn't appear. And a few minutes into the film, I realised that Nina was visible in every shot--sometimes just as a forehead out of focus in the lower right corner of the screen, as a scene in a crowded dressing room with walls of mirrors inconspicuously reflects Nina all over the place, and her worried brow as she gauges the import of gossipy conversations of the other ballerinas. Aronofsky doesn't overdo this and we get some pure POV shots a few minutes later, without Nina in them, but seeing Nina in every one of those early shots makes sense because Nina is always on Nina's mind. She's always watching herself, fussing and adjusting bits of her self-image and interpreting the information she takes in and deciding how it relates to her. The camera frequently cuts back to Nina's face, with the tops of her shoulders just barely visible at the bottom of the frame. We rarely, if ever, see Nina full figure, top to toe, and this helps not only in covering up the fact that Natalie Portman isn't as good a dancer as Nina's supposed to be, but it also helps keep us in the claustrophobic space of the self-conscious dancer onstage. When making Raging Bull, Scorsese was inspired by The Red Shoes to keep the camera inside the boxing ring in order to emphasise the boxers' perspective rather than that of the audience, and I was reminded more of Raging Bull than of The Red Shoes in Black Swan's dance sequences due to the camera's more frequent close proximity to parts of the actors, while The Red Shoes showed us Moira Shearer's very real genius as a ballerina.

Nina's family life is the old story of someone trying to live their lost dreams through a family member, in this case Nina's mother obsessively creating her daughter as the image of perfection she could never achieve. It's good insight on Aronofsky's part that this kind of perfectionism can actually be antithetical to success, as in the mother the emotional absolutism provokes her to want to cut away things sometimes at the first sign of trouble. She starts to throw away a new cake when Nina says she doesn't want a piece at the moment, she endeavours to constantly be at Nina's side, sleeping by her bed, still tucking the young woman in at night. So partly the movie's about Nina's personal liberation, how she learns how to "let go" as she's told repeatedly throughout the film.

All this could be a pretty unremarkable After School Special, much like Requiem for a Dream. Making it a thriller elevates it, as does the introduction of hallucinatory or supernatural elements. One of my favourite fantasy tropes is used, that of the embracing of a person's darker half, represented as a shadow or doppelganger, in order to create a whole person. This is an idea used in the Star Wars films, Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea, and even in *cough* my own Venia's Travels. Mainly, though, I was reminded of "The Enemy Within", the famous episode of the original Star Trek television series where a transporter accident splits Captain Kirk into two entities, a Good Kirk and an Evil Kirk. Much as is the case with Nina, the good half is weak willed and needs the dark half in order to overcome obstacles or take command of anything.*

Natalie Portman's performance in Black Swan is by far the best I've ever seen her give. She's always struck me as a fairly stiff performer, unable to get in touch with her emotions, but this was perfect for Black Swan. I was reminded a little of Kubrick's choice in casting Tom Cruise for Eyes Wide Shut, where Cruise's own peculiar asexuality was crucial to the film. I'm fully willing to believe Natalie Portman's never had an orgasm, as the film suggests of Nina. Tom, the director of the Swan Lake production in which Nina stars, tells Nina he can very much believe her as Odette, the virginal Swan Queen, but not as the Swan Queen's evil look-alike, Odile, the daughter of the sorcerer who cast the spell on Odette that made her take the form of a swan during the day. The movie gets its title from a decision to suggest that Odile is also a swan of sorts, a black swan. Tom doesn't feel Nina has embraced the darker, more passionate character embodied by the black swan. In the end, Nina finds the black swan in herself, apparently even taking on physical aspects of the swan by way of special effects and makeup. These effects and makeup go quite a ways toward making me believe Nina really has found her inner black swan, but unfortunately, Portman, for me, didn't pick up any of the slack. I still don't feel she achieved black swanhood. I was reminded of Francis Ford Coppola's complaints about Wynona Ryder in his Dracula and her inability to connect with an inner passion to match Gary Oldman's, and it's sort of fitting Ryder has a small role in Black Swan as Nina's predecessor in the ballet company.

I was reminded of Suspiria a lot, another movie concerning a ballerina dealing with dangerous supernatural phenomena, but, of course, more than anything Black Swan reminded me of The Red Shoes, as has been the case for so many other critics. And yet, Aronofsky claims The Red Shoes was not an influence on him at all. From an interview with Aronofsky at;

CH: There are also numerous thematic and even visual similarities to the classic ballet movie The Red Shoes (1948), which, like Black Swan, used a ballet to parallel the emotional and relationship breakdowns of characters. Can you talk about how Red Shoes influenced you?

DA: I actually wasn't aware of
The Red Shoes. I mean, I had heard of The Red Shoes, but I didn't see it, and then [Martin] Scorsese did the restoration a few years ago, and then I was like, "You know what, I better go and see it." It's a masterpiece, an unbelievable film, and I saw that there were similarities in the story, but I think that's because we both went back to ballet and pulled from ballet the different characters and stuff. So we ended up in similar places, but I wasn't really influenced by it, and I really didn't ever try to be influenced by it because it's such a masterpiece and the dance sequences, they weren't doing visual FX like that for 20 [more] years, they were [that] ahead of their time. So I just sort of kept it in the back and said, "Look, we just sort of dress it." I forget the year, but it's a long time ago and most people may not know about it, but unfortunately they do.

I can't make heads or tails out of what Aronofsky's saying at the end of this quote. "Dress it?" Is that a typo for "Address it?" It still wouldn't make any sense. I suppose that's the peril of getting a written interview by transcribing recordings of a spoken interview.

Anyway, as for Aronofsky saying he wasn't influenced by The Red Shoes, I say he's just flat out lying. The similarities are just too obvious--notice how the interviewer doesn't ask him if he was influenced by The Red Shoes, but rather asks him to discuss the ways in which he was influenced, because the influence is a foregone conclusion. I remember seeing David Bowie, a long time ago in a discussion on BowieNet, talk about how he never understood why so many artists weren't honest about their inspirations. I didn't know what Bowie was talking about then, but after this and seeing how clearly Star Wars was influenced by Doctor Who, I definitely do now. Aronofsky even borrows one of my favourite sequences of shots from The Red Shoes, where Moira Shearer's performing Swan Lake and we see a series of swish pans from her POV as she pirouettes.

But if Aronofsky's too insecure or something to own up to it, whatever. It won't make me think less or more of Black Swan. If The Red Shoes is a fifteen year old scotch, Black Swan is a shot of Bacardi, and there's a place in the world for affordable rum, even though there're better drinks out there. Like a good scotch, The Red Shoes is more complex than rum, and this speaks to the fundamental difference between the two movies. Black Swan is definitely about someone's struggle with herself, about sex and about how to relate with other people. The fact that Nina is a ballerina is incidental--the movie could've been about a barista. When Craster accuses Lermontov of being jealous of Vicky in The Red Shoes, Lermontov says yes, but in a way Craster "can never understand." I think the idea that Lermontov's libido was perverted and channelled into the ballet is certainly a fair interpretation. But the compulsion embodied by the red shoes speaks to something much bigger than the cathartic personal journey Black Swan ultimately amounts to. In a way, though, this sort of reflects the general cultural change in media over the past sixty years--what was once about giving oneself up to creating something bigger has become more about giving oneself up to creating oneself.

*In my geek fantasy, George Takei mentions this the next time Aronofsky calls into The Howard Stern Show.

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