Tuesday, January 25, 2011

White Swan

"Empire alone can create and sustain whiteness, despite the common fantasy of its self-sufficiency. The Black Swan must be mastered and absorbed to save whiteness from enervation and sterility. (As Odile in the poster, the heroine’s genuine essential whiteness is in question; having absorbed the whiteness-creating blackness of Lily, the Prima Donna is red-eyed like an albino and thickly painted white.) The bourgeois culture industry has deconstructed only to reconstruct as indestructible because ideal; it has discursively destabilized with “gynesis” the hierarchies of white supremacist patriarchy only to reaffirm them, killed them to give them the eternal life of spectres. Spectacle’s layerings – able to create the illusion of that DeManian “infinite” irony through a kind of seductive hypnosis – assist in the re-establishment of debunked mythology deploying a levelling operation whose main move is to place reality under an erasure it cannot re-emerge from entirely."  (Qlipoth)

People can't seem to agree on the basic properties of Black Swan, probably nominated for a bunch of Oscars by now.  [Some general spoilers follow here.]  Is it camp?  (If so, what kind?)  Are the laughs this movie draws intentional or symptomatic?  What about people who take the quasi-high romantic markers seriously?  Black Swan is what I'd call a "diffuse" film - a deliberately multi-layered construction.  In the work's complexity one is invited to bask in the codified indeterminacy of the entire affair.  It's like "art" (multi-faceted, mercurial, rich, impossible to pin down), and yet not. This film contains so many diverse elements in terms of plot, theme, and style ... the result isn't a new thing with a new structure, but a clever theme park ride through various codifications of genre or symbolism, and various registers.  A night out on the town?  It's like Gossip Girl.  High-pressure dance practice?  It's like Center Stage.  Frightful blurrings of fantasy and reality?  It's like Repulsion.  This sort of contained "surfing" can make for really interesting cinema (see here).  All art cannibalizes and repurposes previous cultural content; plenty of great art deliberately courts ambiguity. I wonder here about the meta-orientation of this particular expression of ambiguity. 

One generic ingredient in the Black Swan stew is the horror film - suspenseful editing strategies, the intense soundtrack, the overbearing generational conflict between mother and daughter (and absent father), horrific and animalistic CGI, and horror of one's own body and its involuntary changes - changes one both anxiously awaits and dreads.  (A thought that crossed my mind, but which I haven't hashed out in conversation with anyone yet: Black Swan is a film about sublimated menstruation anxiety made from a male point of view.)  Horror, Richard Dyer writes in White, "is a cultural space that makes bearable for whites the exploration of the association of whiteness with death." 

The horror trope of vampirism for instance - white, ghastly, consuming - is so menacing, Dyer goes on, that it is often represented by whites who are not coded or accepted as completely white (Jews, Southeastern Europeans, creoles).  Unsettlingly coincidental, then, that in this film's setting of a markedly moneyed, white subculture it is Portman and Kunis (both Jewish) who embody the emergent presence of this passionate, dionysian, destructive, selfish, unchaste thing, the black swan.  The "deaths" of these two characters in the film signify the pyrrhic victory of a newly tempered whiteness, which has been threatened & pushed to its limit by that evil blackness.


Jon Hastings said...

Interesting points, although Black Swan only seems diffuse to me when I read about other people's reactions to it: while watching it, it felt very much all-of-a-piece - New York Gothic, with the clubbing scene a nightmare tunnel leading us away and back to the main structure. (If anything, that's its fault: that compared to The Tenant, Secret Defense, Boarding Gate, or Kill Bill it isn't diffuse enough - Aronofsky crosses his t's and dots his i's like a good student). I didn't see the same shifting of subject/object, who/whom that I got from District 9, for example.

But I liked the movie - that is, I found it engaging and fascinating (though not moving) - and thought it was more honest (although that's a loaded word) than The Wrestler, where (though I liked that movie, too) I felt Aronofksy was doing Rocky in quotes. And I have to admit that I took the movie at face value - as a portrait of performance as a kind of ritual suicide - and was puzzled that some of my friends thought it was campy. (The only moment that seemed campy to me was the CGI-enabled metamorphosis, but, by that time, I was drawn in enough that it didn't ruffle me).

Jake said...

Zach, I think what you wrote here on There Will Be Blood is applicable to thinking (psychology?) behind "diffuse films":

". . .when I was a teenager with my own fairly routine movie geek obsessions, and I harbored my own filmmaking dreams, I would often obsess about how my future movie masterpieces would be, and get intoxicated on their imagined affect while paying little heed to real thematic, philosophical, aesthetic elbow-grease."

Yeah, this is Zack Snyder and George Lucas in a nutshell for me.

I was bit surprised at the good press Black Swan got. All of the reviews I've read seemed to have responded to it on a visceral level (oddly, Cassel's character in the film notably says "This time we're going to do Swan Lake differently, we're going to make it real and visceral," and the film itself does exactly that) and not noticing how the story itself is rather silly and trades on shopworn cliches on art and performance. I suppose I am making a substance over style grievance here.

I don't think Black Swan is entirely a diffuse film in the manner of The Matrix Trilogy or the Batman movies directed by Christopher Nolan, but it does seem incredibly muddled in its tone. Is it campy or not? Is the ending meant to be interpreted in a positive manner or not? I think the ambiguity of these questions that the movie provokes reflects its poor design.

ZC said...

Jon, I think you're right that one shouldn't emphasize the film's diffuseness - it's not quite District 9 (or Splice, or...) yet, as you agree, the variegated public reactions do point in that direction. Maybe Jake's onto something into suggesting the film is simply muddy - as a diffuse work it's not quite as well-engineered, as sleek & mobile, as some others of its kind (if that's its kind) are.

I wouldn't say I liked Black Swan but it was more engaging than I was preparing myself for. I liked The Wrestler quite a bit, despite its shortcomings, but perhaps it was because my expectations for that were so low. I didn't go into this new Aronofsky expecting a masterpiece but I was willing let down my guard.

Jake, I first misread a word you wrote - from "shopworn cliches" to SHOWPORN cliches (e.g., the aspirational subculture of elite NYC stage performance, etc.) and I think it adds another layer to your critique!

Qlipoth said...

thanks for the link

re - menstruation horror (a pubic hair!)

i wonder...two clear references that are being overlooked in the criticism are All About Eve and Opening Night. Two great films, each about a beautiful woman performer entering middle age. Then there's the ballet film Turning Point, too, also about women aging. In Black Swan those characters are present in Hershey and Ryder, but inflated to psychotics, and the film marginalises them as their Marschallin dramas have become unsightly. The story of beautiful, "fascinating" women aging has gone from bittersweet comedy to horror. There seems to be something about the "refusal" of women to age - in the spectacle - and make room for the next generation transforming the younger ballerina's rise - which should be a glorious time, the spring of life - to nothing but a sweaty prelude to the horror and terror of an aging that can't be endured, that is unnatural, that has to be averted by technology.perhaps.

JeanRZEJ said...

One thing I think plays into the mix in Black Swan discussions is the idea of adaptation. In theater and ballet it is extremely common to stage a new interpretation of an existing play, yet in cinema this is frowned upon. However, recently there are people who are making these films which are like Frankenstein's monster - cobbled together pieces of other films which come together to make a 'Superfilm'. It's kind of the dream of a functionalist approach to cinema, that impulse to nitpick films and pick out which parts produced the desired effect and then deride those that don't work right. Nina seems to do this in her own life, she needs to perform the ballet but she also needs to cobble together elements she has experienced in order to construct an emotional equivalent of Frankenstein's monster. Thus, I think it's interesting that the film is less an adaptation of an existing play, as would be found in theater, and more a 'best hits list', or even a film composed by sampling. In theory perhaps this works; in practice the balance of these elements is a precious one. The mother-daughter relationship is rather simplistic and overstated, but if Aronofsky lifts a layered, nuanced, understated approach from a great human drama - will that even fit into this hysterical work? I'm not so sure. I think he could have stolen something better, of course, as there are filmmakers who can craft something unexpected, dynamic, and revealing without being simplistic, so if I were making a Frankenstein's monster film I would probably go that route, but I can see why he would choose to limit the depths of the human drama to retain the visceral dynamic of the film. It's clear to me that he's working in this blatant mode of adaptation by parts, and while it's not a real substitute for groundbreaking work I think it's an interesting approach to the theatrical tradition of the reinterpretation which makes more sense to cinema than a straight remake (because while a play disappears, the film remains).

There may also be something to say about the use of these stock pieces in the film, such as the simplistic mother/daughter dynamic, as a sort of Pavlovian response which conveys information rapidly simply because they are so unoriginal. Those same people who often nitpick films based on the emotional effectiveness of certain scenes also tend to be the ones who demand to identify with characters, to have a strong central plot, to have character growth, all things which can run contrary to an immediate and visceral story. Thus, if you give them what they want, they will apply these odd preconceptions to say that they also don't want it. It seems he moves to pacify those who demand some 'human element' to an otherwise phantasmagorical experience without having to waste much time. In theory it seems like a practical solution, and he does come from the school of 'audience satisfaction' as opposed to those who experiment with new modes of experience (which are consequently far less audience friendly), so I think it's an interesting compromise. I prefer the latter, but when I am subjected to the former I would prefer if it were minimized, and he seems to have done that to some degree. An interesting example of art adapting to commodification.

Greg said...

Zach, in spite of your aversion ratings/awards/etc. for movies, here is a short review I wrote of Black Swan that I think you might be interested in reading.

While watching Black Swan I was reminded of something Lawrence Oilvier reportedly said to Dustin Hoffman during the filming of Marathon Man. Hoffman stayed up all night in order to play his character when he is sleep deprived. Olivier said, "Why don't you just try acting? It's much easier." Natalie Portman's Nina suffers for her art in the method-acting way, by transforming herself into what she is portraying; but, I kept thinking to myself during Black Swan that it simply was not worth it. While I appreciated the bravado of sight and sound that portayed the descent into terror, unfortunately, I think it is all in service of a story that simply has no good point to be told.

The gradual use of special effects to show the metamorphosis of Nina into the Black Swan was done with panache. The sound frequently gave great highlight to the dreamlike quality of the story, especially during the back-and-forth between onstage and offstage during the Swan Lake performance. Natalie Portman really let loose showing her character going in deeper and deeper. I thought Barbara Hershey gave the best performance. She constantly came across as perhaps a monster mother or, perhaps, someone just doing her best to help her daughter, always keeping you guessing which it is.

In short, to me Black Swan is a thumbs-up swanky body wrapping a thumbs-down pointless heart averaging to a thumbs-sideways movie.


ZC said...

Qlipoth - good observation! Hershey tells Portman at one point in the film, 'I didn't want you to make the same mistake I did.' What mistake? It hasn't seemed to affect this family/dyad economically from what we're given. But the transition from quasi-virginal young ballerina to a mother, and consequently a professional has-been, is the most horrific thing one could imagine. Hershey (like Ryder) is a husk ... the things the characters did to get ahead are the indicators of their inevitable disgrace.

Thanks for the thoughts, Jean and Greg - will ruminate on them.

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