Monday, 14 March 2011

Black Swan, Objections Thereto

I'm a bit lost as to where to begin writing this post. I'd like to say a few words about Darren Aronofsky, if only because he keeps getting praise which I don't understand. But I'm not sure how to frame my argument so that I don't give off the wrong message. My issue with Aronofsky is not that I dislike the films. It's something else.

Let me try putting it this way. I've seen three films by Aronofsky. The first of these, I loved it, I thought it was absolutely brilliant. It was Requiem for a Dream, a harrowing, graphic tale about a group of people who are into the use of drugs and ultimately sacrifice themselves to them in the film's climactic conclusion. Next followed The Wrestler, a harrowing, graphic tale about a guy who is into wrestling and ultimately sacrifices himself to it in the film's climactic conclusion. And now Black Swan, a harrowing, graphic tale about a girl who is into ballet and ultimately sacrifices herself to it in the film's climactic conclusion. Are we beginning to see a trend?

Aronofsky has caught a virus which was supposed to belong to Guy Ritchie. Ritchie made one brilliant comedy in Lock & Stock, and then remade it in both Snatch and Rocknrolla by switching the ancient shotguns for a diamond and then for a valuable portrait. But it's still, essentially, the SDF (same damn film).

And then there's the fact that Aronofsky seems to be getting more popular the less his films become interesting. From what I understand, Black Swan (which abbreviates to BS but I don't have the heart for that) is the first of Aronofsky's films to win a major Oscar (Best Actress). The others have swept up the Baftas, the Golden Globes and other prizes, but have been ignored by the more populistic Academy Awards. Black Swan finally breaks the mould – and rightly so, because it's by far the most audience-friendly of his films.

I've stopped that old silly thing of exploiting gratuitious boobs to get hits on my blogs. It's Lesbo kisses all the way now!

One of the major problems I have with the film is that it's one of those old stories about art. The point being that an individual sacrifices herself for her art, and the parable shows how art takes everything from you, demands everything, etc. In other words, it's the famous (*yawn*) dialectic about art versus life. I liked Requiem for being a simple narrative about what happens when you take drugs, told with brutal efficiency and indelible power. But the points made by Black Swan are about two-hundred years old, and they're really beginning to feel stale. The ending, with the 'it was perfect' closing line, is one tired cliché (and it made me think of that abhorrent closure in Last Samurai, when the master sees the 'perfect cherry-tree' while dying in battle).

Of course, precisely because the story is so old, it's easy to recognize and easy to digest (hence so many people going nuts over the film's cathartic power, I guess) – even though it's false. When presented in this form, Nina's tragedy is meant to encapsulate an underlying dilemma – whether she should choose art or life (which is the Romantic form for the original choices of Hercules and Achilles between life and glory). And the audience is meant to be provoked into reflection because, y'know, they're weighing out the same question. But since the possibility of a positive response is conditional on her identity as an 'artist,' and since this identity is not assumed but born into (via another old myth, 'talent' – read, blueblood), there really is no question, and Nina is stripped of her tragic dimension as she simply follows through the struts and frets of her linear script.

With no sense of the tragic, all the gore and graphic details that we're constantly subjected to over the projection lose their weight, and become voyeuristic at best, torture-porn at worst. These graphic details are the things that normally make Aronofsky's films tough to stomach, even when they are so easy to digest. In association with the sensitivity denoted by the themes (a vaguely left-wing sensitivity, at times), and the intellectual aura which surrounds his movies, I am getting a real sense of what their target audience is. Aronofsky makes films for Young Men Who Think They Are Smart. They're the ones who can be expected to like old Darren's films most readily. Black Swan's most clever touch was to focus its story on female characters and concerns, thus broadening its appeal enormously – and this probably accounts for its popularity at the box-office (its US gross is ten times the total gross of his last film, The Wrestler, and it's still showing in the EU).

I've defended Inception in the past as one of the notable films of 2010, more so than Black Swan anyway (it goes without saying that this has provoked a few intemperate responses, as is often the case when your interlocutor is a Young Man Who Thinks He Is Smart). I'm not crazy for Nolan's picture, but it did have some effects I liked. It divided critics on whether the film is clever or hollow, on whether its technical set-pieces made for good story-telling, on whether it took any steps forwards with respect to its granddaddy The Matrix (and if so, how), on whether it was engaging science-fiction or just re-hashed Philip K Dick. In other words, it generated some waves. It caused some change. It posed some questions. With Black Swan, critical response has been pretty standardised. There's a few people who are calling the film for what it is, but even then, the disagreement is about the execution, not about the theme or the idea of the film. And how could it be any other way? Black Swan is a film made to generate consensus. It's a film which we cannot help agreeing upon (mostly).

Look, I want to make this clear. It's not that I didn't like Black Swan. I enjoyed it – how could you not? It's a well-crafted story, about an all-too familiar topic. It's like the intellectual version of family comedies – as long as they're properly executed, it's almost impossible not to enjoy the viewing. But it does nothing that hasn't already been done in Aronofsky's previous films, and it says things about art which have already been said, what, a billion times? As far as I'm concerned, if the next film by this guy doesn't show me a radically different synopsis when I google it, I'm gonna steer away. Peace out.


Mike D said...

Hmm... I have no desire to watch Black Swan. But Inception was terribly overrated. I correctly guessed the ending in the first ten minutes, and I hated the way to complex Dreamworld rules were contrived in a way that seemed a little too convenient for the action. "But wait, at X level you can do ABC..." But the effects were cool.

I also watched The Matrix again a few days ago, and it reiterated my original thoughts: it's a clever but flawed movie. I suppose I'm a heretic for thinking the sequel was better.

Jon Stone said...

I dunno, Andrea. I didn't think it was trying to make much of a point about art versus life at all. I thought it hijacked that sort of a storyline to give it the tools to create a claustrophobic atmosphere and a series of intense spacial and narrative arenas through which to chronicle a mind destroying itself. In this respect, I thought Aranofsky was making some attempt to critique a more general facet of the modern psyche - that of self-obsessed single-mindedness. But whether or not that's the case, I just appreciated the spectacle and the frenzy of it. There aren't many films that make me feel genuinely uncomfortable and yet not regret watching them afterwards.

I also had the impression that Black Swan was hugely divisive with the critics, far more so than Inception, to which the negative responses generally fell into the 'another pompous, overblown action movie' category, same as with The Dark Knight before it.

The Judge said...

Mike - I didn't think Inception was a masterpiece, but it was well-executed from a narrative point of view and I think it took some steps forward in a genre (not just sci-fi, but action and special effect movies more generally) which failed to jolt me much in the previous decade. As for The Matrix, much of the merit of the first film lies in its innovative qualities. From this point of view, the second simply cannot be compared, as it does no more than build on the same concepts. I also think that the dramatic power of the first movie was much superior, but I guess this is subjective.

Jon - Black Swan's being a film about ballet, isn't it inevitably about art, even if indirectly? I mean, Nina's obsession may be the fulcrum of the film, but her obsession is about (her) art. It's like you told me that Rocky isn't about boxing because it concentrates on the character development rather than the sport.

I appreciated the spectacle of Black Swan too. But it just felt like something I'd already seen in A's previous films. As for the critics, do share reviews to exemplify the split you mention, if you find the time. The ones I've read have all followed a similar line of interpretation.

Anyway, thanks to both for your comments.

Tristan D. Vick said...

Black Swan irritated me to the point that I had trouble watching it. If I ever see one more long shot panning to the back of Natalie Portman's head, as she walks down a hallway, I'll scream, throw things, and then kill a producer.

Inception was brilliant in almost every way. Granted the ending was cliche, the rest of the film and storytelling was superb. The soundtrack was superb. The acting was brilliant. The casting also brilliant. The special effects were the most groundbreaking since the Matrix revolutionized the way film was done, as Star Wars did before it. In fact, not enough credit is given to Inception.

Meanwhile, True Grit had the best script I've ever heard, and I enjoyed it immensely. It's not a ground breaking film, it wasn't No Country for Old Men, but it was a great Western.

Josh said...

Who can't agree that in some form or another it relates to another Aronofsky film. However, in the other two aforementioned films, the director's creativity never started off as limited. He was confined to a story paralleling Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake Ballet. The story ran hand in hand and the ending masterfully detailed a mentally deteriorating teen coming to terms with all she understands. It never really focused around the art, either. The film focuses around Nina losing her mind, those factors affecting her mind, and the displacement of her personal understandings of life onto a medium, which happens to be dance. Her mother returning her to a perpetual state of innocence plays a larger role in the film than Nina as an artist. Her mom was the artist, Nina was a tool who achieved beauty only in losing her mind and becoming both main characters of Swan Lake in her own mind. This never could not have happened for any other ballet is the point.

Josh said...

Her obsessions lies not in the art, but achieving her mother's love and respect; which, again she could have only earned through dancing a lead role for the NYC Ballet.

The Judge said...

"It never really focused around the art, either."

The degree of denial that people will display never ceases to baffle me. It's a story about a ballet dancer who dies for her ballet! OF COURSE it's about the art/life struggle! There may be other themes, yes, but you simply cannot take the 'art' bit away from the equation, anymore than you can take war from Saving Private Ryan or drugs from Trainspotting, however much these films may have greater or richer dimensions.

Honestly, I can't believe there's even any controversy about this. :/