The Moth Chase

Elevating the Art of Procrastanalysis – Academics wasting time on pop culture

Black Swan

with 7 comments

Natalie:  For the first time in Moth Chase history, we’re bringing all four of our writers together for a little chat.  Perhaps it’s to Black Swan’s credit that it’s the catalyst for us doing so, but I’m not ready to grant that (seeing as we’ve been talking about doing something on Buffy the Vampire slayer together, I’d rather give Whedon the kudos than Aronofsky!).  I wanted to like this movie, but I found it to be as histrionic as the teenage girl themes it seemed to explore.  Every time I scratched the surface (pun intended) to try to get at what more brilliant thing was going on, all I could come up with was the melodrama of teenage identity parading as something adult (I’m all for teen angst, but I like it in teen angst form, not as pretending it’s something more).  In the end, it felt like a 2 hour spectacle, existing only for the purpose of beating up on women’s bodies in the name of art. Indeed, perhaps the thing that annoyed me the most was watching Mila Kunis (who has said in interviews that there were days she couldn’t drive her car because of the dizziness created by the level to which she had to starve herself for this role) eat a cheeseburger – which no ballet dancer, not matter how irresponsible, could ever do! Aronofsky tortures his actors as much as his characters, extracting confessions from each that don’t feel worth hearing, to me.  And don’t get me started on how tired I am of the crazy stage-mother trope!  Characters were so one-dimensionally unbelievable, hyper-active in the performances of the point they were trying to make, but not making any point worth making, that I wished my Black Swan viewing had ended at Jim Carrey’s hilariously parody of it on last week’s SNL.

All right friends – if that’s not a vitriolic enough opinion for you to have fun responding to, I’m not sure what is!  I know you liked it Martin, so please help me see what I was missing…I’m ready to be swayed!

Travis: Not vitriolic enough, perhaps, for my money! A little while ago, Martin and I got into a bit of a conversation about this on Facebook. My comment that got things going, which I posted the next morning after seeing the show, was this: “How to make a Darren Aronofsky film: take 2 parts tired ‘tortured genius’ cliches, 1 part each ‘gritty’ cinematography, histrionic soundtrack, random sadism, and male gaze. The result: ‘ZOMG! Isn’t obsession, like, profound?'” While this is just slightly captious, it really reveals my growing irritation with Aronofsky, which was pretty much settled after I saw The Fountain (I’ve never seen Requiem for a Dream, but have seen The Wrestler and Pi, and think this critique applies to all of them). When I see an Aronofsky film, I feel like Aronofsky is striving to show us the consequences of genius (artistic or otherwise) – a mathematician, brilliant scientist, burned out wrestler, a ballet dancer – except the only genius Aronofsky is really concerned about is himself. I don’t mean this as an ad hominem critique – I mean that his films are all really about himself, as the virtuouso, the genius filmmaker, who deploys “shocking” visuals – the dude drills into his head! he sticks his thumb into a meat slicer! she pulls her fingernails out! – to show the horror lying within all human aspirations for greatness. Ok, fine; but every one of these films reads, to me, not as revealing something about the human condition, but as a stock of cliches about the Romantic idea of the genius who sells his/her soul for their art/quest for knowledge. In the meantime, any actual character is utterly erased by the magnitude of Aronofsky’s solipsism. Mickey Rourke’s wrestler was the closest thing Aronofsky’s achieved to something like an actual character, in that his was the only character not driven simply by the need to exemplify the conceit of the film; the rest are mere narrative functions, there to exhibit the sadism and voyeurism of the filmmaker’s gaze. I don’t deny that Aronofsky is a talented filmmaker in a lot of ways – he can get great performances from his actors, has an amazing visual sensibility, and certainly knows how to amp up suspense and dread. I think he wants to be the successor to David Lynch, and Black Swan could have been in the ranks of Lynch’s brilliant Mulholland Drive. But while Lynch, who definitely indulges of his share of sadism and voyeurism, deploys those creepy qualities for a devastating critique of the Hollywood film industry in that movie, Aronofsky seems to affirm the tortured manipulations and masochisms of Nina’s world, as all are necessary to produce a single moment of pure “art.”

Kathryn: OK, so I’m clearly the outlier here because I didn’t expect genius or profound from Black Swan. And I’m going to reveal the depths of my philistinism by admitting to not having seen any other Aronofsky films besides The Wrestler (I know, I know, Requiem and Pi have been on my “get to it” lists for years but I’ve never gotten to it). What I did expect from BS (and, um, given Travis and Natalie’s takes, is that the perfect abbreviation?) was melodrama, high and pure, and what I hoped for was a visually stunning exploration of the dancer’s imagination. I was not disappointed on either count, even if it all was a bit more overwrought than I even expected. And the world of professional dance (or really, ballet) is the perfect setting for a campy, high-brow horror film. When each new Swan Queen takes the stage she literally forces her body into perfect replication of the same dance done by other women for over a hundred years. It even matters that her arms and legs look roughly the same length as past dancers, that she weighs roughly the same. But of course the goal in this perfect replication is “originality” – that spark that makes the same graceful swan-like arm wobble come to life in a whole new way. In that burst of bodily inspiration, new meanings of the ballet become written into new bodily movements that become part of the long physical/kinesethetic history that other dancers inherit and are forced to reckon with in their own bodies. Most of us don’t go to the ballet much anymore. But there was a time, and for some it is not over, when whole histories of meaning could be summoned up in the way a dancer chose to raise her arm over her head. Dance is particularly grueling as an art form in that the dancer has no other instrument than her or his own body. The professional ballerina has to master exhausting physical feats and also literally remake her body (stretch her sinews, break her bones, discard her flesh) to fit the history she is joining. I loved that the terror of this, the sheer brutality of it, and the obsessive beauty of it too, was explored with the conventions of horror (skin peeling away, feathers growing out of the back – and please at least agree with me that the scene when she dances herself to full black swan glory was breathtakingly gorgeous and her exhalation palpable and creepy!). And maybe that is why I wasn’t disappointed – I didn’t expect twisted genius, only a stunning, higher brow campy horror film about dancers. But Martin is supposed to tell me why that is sacrilege and I really am just a philistine.

Martin: No, no, Kathryn — I think you mostly got it right: and that precisely is the genius of the film and of Aronofsky. Let’s take a step back and remember: the guy made a film about *ballet* and filled it with a panoply of horror motifs. OK, OK–I can feel Travis and Natalie rolling their eyes. Of course, that’s not all there is to this movie. I think, in part, achieving what you describe, however, is quite a feat in itself and commendable for its originality.

But let’s move on to why I think this is an inherently interesting film, not just a creative or flashy one. I really have to disagree completely with your take, Travis–not only on this film, but on Aronofsky as a whole (and not that it matters, but since we’re volunteering the information: I’ve seen all of his movies.) My two main points of contention are the following:

(1) I don’t think Aronofsky is actually at all, in any way wed to the notion of greatness (perhaps his own, but as I’ll argue shortly, we need not read his films as illustrating that point; rather, it may be an incidental, unrelated, albeit true biographical point). In fact, the scenes you describe are all about the ordinary. All of Aronofsky’s films show, to speak with Cavell, the “uncanniness of the ordinary.” They show, in a variety of domains and a variety of practices, that the ordinary is quite extraordinary (and vice versa) and that, furthermore, and more importantly, nothing at all guarantees that things (no matter how established or entrenched they may be) need to go on the way that they have been (and then, just as importantly, that when they do, there is nothing “ordinary” about them doing so, as both The Wrestler and Black Swan illustrate vis-à-vis two quite established genres). Aronofsky, in my opinion, manages to capture this uncanniness better than any other contemporary filmmaker. In part, this is because of certain stylistic elements and in part because of his abilities as a director to cajole amazing performances from his actors. The former is illustrated by the amazing level of realism that his films tend to present (from the way that he shoots the films to the way he merges sound with video, and here I have in mind specifically Requiem…, but also obviously BS, and TW) coupled with the very strange brand of the fantastic they illustrate (here, The Fountain is this impulse pushed to the limits, while in TW it is most restrained), while the latter is illustrated by the amazing performances he’s managed to present (from reviving Mickey Rourke’s career to Marisa Tomei to Natalie Portman to Marlan Wayans! Sorry, if you’re reading, Marlan!)

(2) I also really dispute the idea that he is in any way working with Romantic tropes. In fact, I take him to be operating at precisely the other end of the equation. His films are extremely historicized and operate in a thoroughly post-Romantic (I would argue critical theoretical) domain. Let’s take BS. I read the film as not at all about greatness or selling one’s soul, but rather about the present possibility of art. The argument as I see it is simple: your craft can be amazing, but for it to be anything, it needs to be filtered through the market. The weakness–if any– of BS is that it beats you over the head with this message. This is really the only thing that has/had me questioning this film. At first I sort of tended to agree with you, Natalie, thinking that perhaps the film was too over-the-top. From the lesbian sex scene to the black swan to the masturbation scenes to the maniacal music to the ending scene of a single colored screen. But then, as I thought more on it, I decided it was just right: it was, after all, a movie about ballet–it had to be this way. Not only that, but precisely by beating you over the head with some standard fanboy cliches (again, lesbian sex scene, the blood of puberty, horror motifs, etc.), Aronofsky takes his basic message (You want to make art? Well you’re going to have to sell it!) and performs the point not only explicitly in his film, but also implicitly through it, all while subtly undermining, questioning, and examining the message. So, the violence (and the uncanniness) of the ordinary. (And again, if you buy my reading here: I think an interesting question to ask is what should we say about our present cinematic climate, given that the two–I suppose, arguably–greatest filmmakers of our generation, Aronofsky and Nolan, both made movies this year about making movies.)

Now, I suspect, that, Travis and Natalie, you may want to respond with saying something like: well, yeah, Martin, OK–I’ll give you that (if you’re generous)…but that just proves my/our point: it’s all about Aronofsky. He’s just making films in order to make a particular point. That may be true–but I think that would be a much longer discussion, would require greater attention to all of his films, and–most importantly–would have to take stock not only of Aronofsky’s inter-film-relations, but also his relationship to other contemporary films. What I suspect–but cannot argue for here–is that we would find, that while in some sense this is true, his films still operate with a very strict sense of self-reflection and self-criticism to make this not only not their sole defining feature, but also to suggest that there is a world of difference between pointed films done intentionally and those done “merely” ideologically.

Natalie: I’m sorry, Martin, but I remain unconvinced.  On the one hand, it was the film’s precise inability to connect with anything remotely ordinary that drove me nuts while watching it…and if you want something to reveal the uncanniness of the ordinary, then it needs to make that connection!  Of everything, I think I’m most surprised to hear this as your defense of it (stunning performances – yes, sure, I see that).  While watching, I thought Mila Kunis’ character felt like the only one grounded in anything like reality to me.  She was the only one who actually felt human.  And in the first half of the movie, I clung to her for that reason, thinking that she could get me through the annoyance of the melodrama.  But by the time the two of them were in the restaurant eating dinner (so before we enter the time of not being sure what is and is not real – a theme Inception pulled off in way more interesting ways if we want to start making comparisons of this year’s genius) I felt like she was as much a lie as anyone else (I refer back to burger reference above and the “cool girls like to get laid” crap they had her pulling).  Maybe I could be convinced by K’s pseudo-defense if I didn’t think that the melodrama was yearning for a brilliance it couldn’t reach.  And if I wanted to see a film about dance with some stunning dancing pulled off by actresses I’d go for Neve Campbell in The Company over this any day.  I know Portman and Kunis trained for this – but honestly I found their performances completely unconvincing.  And sure, I know – but they aren’t dancers!  But sorry, if you want me to believe in your Prima Ballerina, something about her needs to be more captivating than all the stunningly talented girls in the chorus.

Kathryn: I like the intensity of discussion here, but really, Natalie, not grounded in any reality? Natalie Portman’s overwrought insecurity coupled with fierce drive for perfection plus slow downward spiral into insanity was pretty convincing  to the world of professional dance I’ve known. I did not like her character at all; I found her unbearably childish, petty, insecure, and naive. And I agree, Lilly was far too unconcerned. The contrast was far too stark and felt like a cheap ploy to draw attention to how uptight and uninspired Nina was (and no one has said it explicitly, but the link between orgasm and creative genius inspiration was far too strong and obnoxious – yes, she finally gets off and then, lo and behold, she is able to slip into her full neurotic genius!). That said, it is a hard thing to make a movie about the utter brutality of the dance world and the way it demands the literal destruction of the female body and not seem misogynistic. Did you see the NY Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay say that Jenifer Ringer looked like “she’d eaten one sugar plum too many” and then, when criticized for this, say ““If you want to make your appearance irrelevant to criticism, do not choose ballet as a career. The body in ballet becomes a subject of the keenest observation and the most intense discussion. I am severe — but ballet, as dancers know, is more so.’’ Plenty of dancers escape insanity and have more supportive companies and choreographers, but many more don’t. Was it the best dance movie ever made? No. But as an exploration of how the inner workings of the mind and psyche play themselves out in the body and how the manipulations of the body warp and twist the inner workings of the mind and psyche, it was worth my money.

Travis: Friends, thanks for a great discussion. Here’s the thing, Martin: I can’t see how Aronofsky could be described as limning the ordinary at all. One of the reasons I read his films (and I’ll grant I’m primarily seeing Black Swan in the context of his filmography, absent Requiem) the way I do is that every protagonist is cut from the same trope: a genius pursuing the unattainable and sacrificing themselves for the sake of the unattainable. This is my concern – that Aronofsky presents us with a vision of what I think he takes to be the transcendent, that only the hero and the genius (I do want to stick to this term – not greatness, genius) – the inspired figure – can envision and for which the hero and the genius give themselves. But just because Aronofsky takes it to be something transcendent – think of that interminable ascent into the supernova in Fountain, or the freeze-frame in The Wrestler – means that we’re far beyond the realm of the ordinary. These characters are not ordinary, at all. Here’s why I think we really disagree, Martin: I don’t see him as undermining or subverting anything (especially including his voyeurism)- I cannot see the triumphant sacrifice of his characters as anything but affirmation and celebration of, yes, the possibility of art, and art specifically as the apotheosis of individual vision, which is why I think we’re  solidly in the realm of Romanticism.

To trade on the comparison with Lynch again: Lynch does reveal the uncanniness of the ordinary (and thank you, Martin, for reminding me that I need to read more Cavell!) – his films are populated with moments of violence and irruption of the surreal in a way the highlight, chiaroscuro-style, the stark horror of the everyday. But the reason why I cannot abide Aronofsky is that this horror in enfolded into an affirmation of its necessity and even beauty. I suppose at the end of the day it’s this nihilism I can’t stand in him – and it’s not simply that he’s a nihilist (at least it’s an ethos! – and speaking of which, I adore the nihilistic Coen brothers), but that it’s a nihilism born of solipsism. Aronofsky’s work, to me, reads like the program of someone who took onto himself the baggage-laden title of auteur, and is now trapped within a self-constraining vision of his own genius. And at this point, I can’t get past the enormity of the auteur’s self-absorption. Were it campy, Kathryn, I could totally get on board; perhaps this is the biggest issue with Aronofsky – his utter lack of humor or irony!  I will readily admit, though, that the scene of Nina’s transformation into the swan was genius. I’ll give Aronfsky that – he does have a great visual imagination, as I said. It’s the one-note moral imagination that I just can’t get on board with.

All right Moth Chase friends – we’ll pause it there to hear what you think…join in and let us know where you stand in the comments – and we’re likely to join you there to keep our own little debate going!

Moth Chasers

Written by themothchase

January 24, 2011 at 8:40 am

Posted in Black Swan, Movies

7 Responses

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  1. This discussion is incredible, and while I’m completely intrigued by Natalie and Travis’ takes, I am as convinced as Kathryn and Martin. Beyond what I experienced as stunning beauty and incredible acting, I was mesmerized by the simple idea of transcendence that this film seemed to explore in me, which perhaps is along the same lines of greatness but different in some important way. I sensed Aronofsky exploring the idea of the human need to transcend ourselves — to become something we are not — and that we think this is a good thing — the best thing to which we could aspire — that this is “perfect” — and it left me quite pensive. Ballet seemed to be a perfect venue to explore this.

    It is so obvious, but I was left thinking about the inherent self-annihilation that always must accompany transcendence. Is this really a good thing? Perhaps we humans would be so much better off if we stopped working so hard to transcend ourselves in some way (but Kunis’ alternative is not very compelling). I know this is a simple take, but it is where I was left – and being a Christian priest – I of course began exploring all this theologically since no matter how many different ways we try to couch it, we’re often urging people toward transcendence or the word we love to use – transformation. (I’m now curious about God’s need to transcend God’s self in becoming human, but I digress). And what about pain — the pain of being who you are and the pain of trying to be who you are not, the pain of trying to “other.” I love Kathryn’s explanation of dancers remaking their bodies and how this then fits her into the history of the movement.

    I actually really didn’t like Kunis’ character much and found her unconvincing. I thought was one of the weakest developments in the movie because she could have been a fascinating study in the opposite of a drive for transcendence but was in fact not — instead she was to me, somewhat paradoxically, a cliched and yet unrealistic counterpoint to transcendental resistance. Wait, maybe this is where Natalie was going with her being the most “real” character — this is what our resistance most often looks like, so maybe I’m changing my mind about her character as I write this and taking that all back… hum…

    As an aside, despite what Aronofksy says in interviews, he is fascinated and perhaps obsessed with, pain.

    Thanks for the great discussion!

    Abbott Bailey

    January 24, 2011 at 12:36 pm

  2. Oh one last comment – Just re-read Travis’ last paragraph about Aronofsky’s play with nihilism – and I think you’ve just hit on what does make my stomach turn when I watch his fims and why I am so deeply ambivalent about them (except Requiem – really, really didn’t like it — too many images indelibly printed on my brain that i don’t need/want there).

    Abbott Bailey

    January 24, 2011 at 12:42 pm

  3. I think that the film is about everyone who does not laugh–pathetically, mind you–at the final shot.

    Josh D.

    January 24, 2011 at 4:23 pm

    • I had the pleasure of being in an audience who managed to laugh (pathetically and, to my great great pleasure, at times very inappropriately) throughout the whole thing! (Natalie)


      January 26, 2011 at 12:29 pm

      • See Natalie, you did appreciate the campy horror nature of it after all. I was laughing, giggling, chortling at many points! (Kathryn)


        January 27, 2011 at 10:58 am

  4. […] for reviews of a few of this year’s nominees on our site, check out Black Swan, True Grit (Natalie), True Grit (Kathryn), and The […]

  5. […] they put her body through with that pregnancy. And after my ranting in our roundtable discussion of Black Swan, I feel like I should be the last one to defend such abuse in a movie. But I think I’m going […]

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