Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Did I Mention That the Swan Was Black?

“I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir.”
The what?”
“The duality of man. The Jungian thing, sir.”
“Whose side are you on, son?”
        - Full Metal Jacket
At a couple of points in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, we see brief glimpses of Natalie Portman’s character working with some kind of dance trainer, and the scenes feel like they could be documentary footage: The actors are mumbling, natural; the moments serene, almost humdrum. (Interestingly, they feel a bit like one of those backstage, locker-room bits from The Wrestler.) But within the hyper-melodramatic context of the film itself, where everything else goes to 11, these scenes feel like transmissions from a distant galaxy; they are so out-of-place that I’m positive they’re meant to be intentionally jarring. Which begs the question: Why? The scenes obviously draw attention to the histrionic nature of the rest of the film. And I’m not sure said histrionic nature need draw any more attention to itself.

Recently on Slate, Dennis Lim (a good guy who has edited a number of my pieces over at Moving Image Source) offered up a rather insightful and to some inflammatory piece about Black Swan, asking if the film could be considered a work of camp. (To be fair, it’s not a question I’ve given too much thought to personally, since I find discussions of camp to be -- how shall I say it – strangely pointless.) Dennis doesn’t actually fall on one side or the other, suggesting that the film in many ways seems to be exactly the opposite of camp, at least camp as defined by Susan Sontag so many years ago.
“Far from subcultural, it's a high-profile movie that strains for respectability, a barefaced Oscar grab. Despite some diva catfights and lesbian sex, there's not a queer bone in its body: Its derisive view of female ambition, its crude linking of art and madness, and the leering frenzy of its girl-on-girl fantasies are as familiar and banal—as straight—as can be. Hardly naïve and in no way coded, it is willful, overt, strenuous. If Black Swan barely resembles camp as many of Sontag's ‘notes’ would have it, is it then … anti-camp? Post-camp? Failed camp?”
Dennis then goes on to call Black Swana schizoid piece of high-minded trash that seems to divide audiences on how seriously it is ultimately meant to be taken.” As you might imagine, this doesn’t go over so well in the comments, leading to a lot of name-calling and digs at snooty critics and whatnot. But I suppose those folks are merely the ground troops in what’s turning out to be a kind of critical war over Black Swan – witness, for example, A.O. Scott’s eloquent defense of it in the Times as “a leading candidate for the most misunderstood film of 2010.” Interestingly, though, Scott never quite sells his claim that the film is “misunderstood,” especially since he basically winds up saying the same things about the film that every other reviewer who liked it has said: It’s about duality, it’s actually a horror movie, Natalie Portman is great, etc. etc.

I’m not actually sure where to fall in this debate. I mostly liked Black Swan, though I’ve been pretty sour on much of Aronofsky’s other work. The unnerving bluntness of his direction wouldn’t be so problematic for me -- plenty of great filmmakers have been blunt – if it were not so often combined with cliché subject matter and rote storytelling, even when it’s been gussied up with faux-experimental stylization, a la Requiem for a Dream (a film I deeply loathe...sorry). Still, Aronofsky’s last two films have mostly worked for me, thanks to their terrific central performances: It’s a lot easier to buy a ridiculously cliché story if you can care about the protagonist. Duh. (That said, ironically, the only film of the director’s I’m genuinely interested in revisiting is The Fountain, a deranged, awful, gorgeous trainwreck whose ludicrousness is matched only by its sincerity.) An interesting comparison here could be drawn to David O. Russell’s The Fighter, a project Aronofsky developed at one point and on which he now has an Executive Producer credit. There too is another all-too-familiar story, but it’s made breathtakingly real by that cast and that milieu – you feel that all of these characters have real lives that extend beyond the screen.

I don’t really get that from Black Swan, though I’m obviously not supposed to, since everybody in the film besides Natalie Portman is, on some level, a projection of her character, and Aronofsky isn’t the kind of director who likes to leave any doors open on his set (even though that’s pretty much exactly what he did with The Wrestler). Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone else besides Portman in the part, especially since this is an actress who has grown up before our eyes and part of the idea in the film is that we still see her as a kid. A.O. Scott also appears to have noticed this:  “[S]he seems, with her mother and with Thomas, more like a terrified child than an accomplished professional with the skills of an athlete,” he writes. But again, I’m not sure how anybody could miss this fact, since she literally sleeps in a little girl’s pink and white bedroom surrounded by enormously oversized stuffed animals.

And this is where Aronofsky basically loses me. Obviousness too can be distracting, and at some point, pretty early on, you basically know where Black Swan is going, and – more importantly -- you basically know how it’s going to get there. It’s not that the director has lost control – indeed, the film presents us with plenty of giant road signs announcing its intentions, chief among them “Swan Lake” itself. Everything has been programmed and magnified, pre-digested and announced. I don’t know that there’s anything existentially wrong with that – like I said, I mostly liked the movie – but I also can’t shake the feeling that this obviousness is keeping me from fully embracing it. This isn’t the most misunderstood film of 2010; it’s the most over-understood film of 2010.


  1. HUH?
    say what?
    Black Swan is Black Swan
    people should shut the fuck up
    and just enjoy that she
    turned into the Black Swan
    got it?

  2. Your criticism of the film is that its intentions are too clear? The same can be said of so many great films. Unpredictability is not the only way to wow an audience or keep them riveted. Watching the film, I felt like I was watching the work of a maestro. Stylistically, it starts uptight and controlled and accelerates into a dark, delirious climax as it "lets go", per the White Swan/Black Swan dynamic spelled out by Vincent Cassel's character. Did you not find that more rewarding than boring?

  3. It's the most overrated film of 2010.

  4. Anonymous #2: This is actually *exactly* my problem (such as it is) with the film. It doesn't actually let go, it just pretends to. This is why I was disappointed by how unsurprising and generic much of Natalie's "madness" was (aside from her great performance). The film needs to take its own advice and be dark and delirious and out of control -- it needs to get its hands dirty. But it's a programmatic madness, and as such it did little for me. Though, as I keep having to reiterate, I mostly liked the film.