bird on a wire

by Megan Abbott

On Christmas Eve, I saw Black Swan, which I thought was pretty extraordinary, and I’m still working it all through in my head. Stylistically, it’s sort of an unholy union of unholies: Roman Polanski, Dario Argento and the brightest work of Brian De Palma (Sisters, Carrie)–which may sound like a  nightmare to some, but for me is kind of the Big Dream.

I’ve heard some dismiss the movie as “over the top,” which is a criticism I’ve never really understood. If I didn’t seek out heightened realities in movies, I wouldn’t be going to many (and I love movies). Moreover, I think “over the top” or histrionic or all those criticisms are frequently code for something else–and might have to do with a certain discomfort in movies about women, about women’s bodies (in ways that aren’t situating them solely for ornamental display), about what used to be called “female hysteria” (or just “hysteria,” since the word itself derives from “womb”).

(It’s interesting to set it alongside director Darren Aronofsky’s last film, The Wrestler, in this regard–an explicitly kitchen-sink-realistic rendering of the male body facing self-imposed abuses for the sake of a different kind of performance.)

It’s an expressionistic movie, which is one of my favorite kinds. Before I saw it, my friend Reed told me that he thought many of the film’s naysayers were making the mistake of judging it as a film about dance or as some realistic depiction of the ballet life and finding it lacking. But the movie has no interest in realism, or objective realities. The world of the movie is the world of someone’s head, not someone’s life.

There’s so much to swim in in the movie:  split selves … driving, mutilating perfectionism … an arrested sexuality. But Black Swan is also, and perhaps mostly, a movie about an artist, and I think it might be kinda revelatory about that. In A.O. Scott’s piece in the Times, he refers to it–by way of praise–as an “overheated, wildly melodramatic rendering of an artist’s struggle.” How do I create this (e.g., this performance, this painting, this book)? I can only do so by becoming it. It’s a process of brutal self-annhilation and transformation. It requires, depending on how you look at it, utter self-erasure (“I’m no longer me, I am IT.”) or complete self-absorption (no movie in recently memory has so stunningly depicted the egotism of the artist–there is no world in the movie but in the dancer’s head. It’s the only thing that matters.).

And so it’s also about aesthetic risk. Natalie Portman’s emotionally fractured dancer pushes her body beyond physical limits to make it correlate with the beautiful chaos in her head. She feels herself as the “black swan” and wills herself to become it, to manifest it. The flesh resists but finally submits. And it is, as Scott writes, a kind of “liberation in self-destruction.” And the movie takes those same aesthetic risks, walking a tightrope between art and kitsch, between psychological complexity and camp. But if it didn’t risk the fall, it would lose all its incantational magic.

This is, admittedly, dark stuff. It makes us squirm under our skin. And makes us maybe even want to make fun of it, that nervous giggle we get when we see something very internal, secret, private laid bare out there. But Black Swan also warns us sneakily of the dangers of that, of repression, restriction, compulsion. You hold them down, they come back bigger, badder. The movie asks us to, even at great risk, release ourselves.

23 Responses to “bird on a wire”

  1. Have you seen this flowchart explaining the movie’s trashy greatness?

  2. I hadn’t, but I resent it!

  3. I think I have to go see it today! I know what you mean about “realism,” I think–I think a lot of people fundamentally don’t understand what art is. There’s really no need to replicate reality, on screen or on the page. We have reality for that! The point, I think, is to show these slivers of reality in a new light, so we can have an understanding of the relations between things we wouldn’t have had otherwise. Or something like that!

    And as I think you know I LOVE early Brian DePalma and Polanski, so that is a ringing endorsement for me!

  4. and it seems typical — you never heard anyone called The Wrestler trashy, despite its milieu. Ooh, that burns me up!

  5. Oh, megan, everyone knows wrestlers are artsy and interesting but ballet is stupid and girly stuff for girls. Didn’t they teach you anything in those fancy schools?

  6. But The Wrestler is trashy. It’s like a made for TV movie. The stripper girlfriend!

  7. I’m not saying trashy is a bad thing, by the way, and it’s a good film but, you know…the dance with his daughter, too!

  8. Hey, Paul! I think the point being that, trashy or not (that’s always a judgement call), The Wrestler was taken quite seriously. In ways Black Swan hasn’t always, you know?

  9. Well, I think films with a ‘louder’ visual style will always be seen as more superficial than films which adapt a more pseudo realistic visual style But, as Saint Quentin said ,”style is everything!’
    I don’t think I’ll like Black Swan very much but I onlt like bits of the Red Shoes.

    But male trash seems to get away without obvoius piss takes.The films ‘Heat’ ,for example , with that smashing super sentimental scene in a diner where two tanned film stars in designer clothes pretend to be an ‘over the edge’ cop and a copper

    .Bobby: ‘A mans gotta do what a man’s gotta do’. Al Cappacino: ‘Yeah, lets have cuppa and a bit of cake, luv.’ How camp is that scene!? And Kilmer’s get up?! Cracking film, mind you, but it’s not Ken Loach! (thank god!)

  10. Boy, that’s really right re: visual style/flourish!! also frequently coded as “feminine” ….
    and YES, Michael Mann in general really gets a pass on that somehow….(and that scene always bothered me for a number of reasons, not the least of which its announcing itself as an “Important One”)

  11. That posh Irish bloke’s hair in the Miami Vice film was a bit trashy,too!

  12. I agree that the diner scene in HEAT was not all that great. It follows the adapted story from what happened in Chicago but, at the time of the release, the whole scene was promoted as “DeNiro and Pacino together at last!” I reckon no one with production responsibilities would allow those two leads to not appear together.

    Besides, Mann has lots of shooting, blood and killing which is not “feminine”.

  13. Mann gets no pass from me, nor does Aronofsky. This is an unoriginal film in nearly every way, and while novelty is not necessary, patly saying less than your predecessors did (when your predecessors also include Bergman with PERSONA and of course as Paul notes THE RED SHOES and its creators) is a bit sad.

    Also, for the madness of artists, try Damon Knight’s short story “The Country of the Kind,” among so many others. But, then, De Palma at any stage of his career and Argento get no passes, either.

    I didn’t hate the film, but I think its admirers tend to overstate its significance and underestimate its hostility toward its subjects. Perhaps in that last I’m unduly influenced by Hershlag’s accounts of the Method rivalry Aronofsky tied to spark between her and Kunis, apparently old friends.

  14. Why do people hate Brian DePalma so much? Come ON, people!! Body Double? Blow Out? Dressed to Kill?

  15. I don’t get it, Sara, I really don’t. Don’t even get me started on the brilliance of SISTERS!

  16. Did they have an anti-DePalma class in grad school?

  17. Body Double (certain parts anyway) was a favorite of mine when I was a teenager. Revenge of the Cheerleaders as well. To be clear and honest, I was a fan of most anything on late night Cinemax.

  18. With Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Melanie Griffith in her best role ever! brilliant.

  19. The experience of De Palma films is enough. However, he was fortunate in such actor-choices as Kidder and Spacek in his early suspense and horror films. I note you don’t seem to be too enthusiastic about highlighting FEMME FATALE or even OBSESSION…and it might take a grad-school semester to find anything worthwhile in THE BLACK DAHLIA.

    And, yes, BLOW OUT.

  20. Oh, I’ve found almost all DePalma great fun. Carrie is great. Dressed To Kill, smashing. Obsession was the only one that I saw at the flicks and I enjoyed that. I like Blow Out,too. Much more than Blow Up. Or The 100 Blows.

  21. Me too, Paul! Even when his movies don’t “work” for me, I find them utterly fascinating, like an old puzzle box and a new puzzle box shaken loose on the carpet and reassembled–the new pieces make the familiar old pieces seem different and strange. that’s a bad metaphor, but geez-louise, I freaking LOVE Raising Cain.


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