The Art is the Artist: a Consideration of Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (contains spoilers!)

I just said it, but it bears repeating: this post contains spoilers, so please do not read ahead if you are sensitive to things like that.

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What is the relationship between the art and the artist? That is the central question of Black Swan, a trippy psychological thriller that pits Nina (Natalie Portman) against the role of her career: Swan Lake’s Swan Queen, split into two shades: the White Swan, the cursed princess who needs love to change her back into a young girl, and the Black Swan, her cruel twin sister and seductress of the White Swan’s only hope for release.

The film pits the two swans against each other effectively. We come to understand, through the mentorship of the company’s director, Thomas (Vincent Cassel), that the White Swan is naive, idealistic. In terms of the dance, she is flawless, technically perfect, trained. The Black Swan is her doppelganger, representing both dark desire and dark methods. The Black Swan must be visceral, is absorbed by the feeling of the moment rather than the requirements of the dance. She is unpredictable.

In a move reminiscent of Almodóvar, Aronofsky lifts the archetypes from Swan Lake and places them inside his narrative, adding an additional layer of tension and metaphor. Nina’s (Mila Kunis) technically flawless but spiritless dancing is contrasted with that of Lily, the company’s newcomer, whose impassioned but “incorrect” dancing seduces Thomas before Nina’s eyes. But Nina, we come to learn, has a Black Swan within, a schism shaken loose more and more desperately by her own insecurity, by her paranoia’s of Lily’s friendship (or sabotage?), by her mother’s suffocating control over her daily life off stage. Ultimately, Nina gives in and becomes both swans, flawlessly—she commits, in her mind, the act that finally releases the swan (murdering Lily during intermission) and then, just as quickly, discovers it was a fantasy and returns to the White Swan, now realizing she has lost everything she dreamed possible about herself.

That all of this occurs during the opening performance of the ballet is both tense and somewhat humorous, and the film plays with this tension, allowing us brief moments of nervous laughing even as we both fear and root for Nina. In that way, Aronofsky releases the Black Swan within each audience member and, by extension, forces us to empathize with Nina’s destructive schism.

What’s truly remarkable about this film is that every decision that went into its production was so carefully chosen so as to contribute to the thematic arc of the film. The costumes help define the light and the dark. The beginning of the film, Nina wears light pinks and whites for every scene, from her warm ups at home to her practice runs at Lincoln Center to a night out with Lily. But as the film progresses, we see her incorporate swatches of black, more and more fully, until her Black Swan fully takes her over. She takes, at Lily’s insistence, a black camisole and wears it beneath her own shirt during their Ecstasy-fueled dance night, which finally and fully releases the potential of the black swan’s power to Nina herself. Lily, on the other hand, is almost always dark–dark practice suits, dark hair, even somewhat ruddy skin, dark eyes. The contrast–and yet the resemblance–between Portman and Kunis is occasionally jarring, and purposefully so as Aronofsky sometimes shows Nina misrecognizing Lily’s face as her own, especially in the scene where she stabs Lily (wearing her face) with a shard of broken mirror. Are you getting the symbols yet?

The sets are also doing a lot of work. Nina’s apartment is small and claustrophobic, her bedroom decorated in whites and pinks with the accoutrements of childhood like stuffed animals, ceramic animals, and a ballerina music box. But right through the center of her white pillow is a curling stripe of black ink, swirling around her head. Thomas’s apartment is a mid-century modern shrine that balances striking white elements with heavy black elements, signifying that he is the balance between the light and dark–and perhaps the route back and forth. In the nightclub where Nina gives in to Lily’s visceral pleasures, the entire screen is black, lit with a pulsing red strobe light.

The camerawork is also brilliant. The film relies heavily on hand held camerawork, giving the film both a sense of cinema verité and also of the psychotic shifting happening within Nina. The filming of the dancing creates dizziness and instability in the viewer to match our heroine’s descent and vertigo–we experience the whirl/stop balance of a pirouette that spins out of control as well as the imbalance inspired by being carried atop a dancer’s shoulders and turned, turned, turned beneath the lights.

The sound effects are also amazing. Throughout the film, Aronofsky peppers the soundtrack with the sound of rustling feathers, evidence of Nina’s growing transition and schism. The tapping of her toe shoes en pointe as she dances echo this sound, make her sound wholly avian. And the burly, sexual tones of the Tchaikovsky ballet are constantly contrasted with the light, delicate tones.

If Nina represents the dichotomy of the swans and Lily the threat of losing the part of her career to a more natural Black Swan, then Thomas is the prince of the ballet, there to save Nina from both the obscurity of the chorus and the ruin of her own meek identity. That Nina sees (or imagines) Thomas seduced by Lily only completes the enlivening of the ballet in her life. Nina’s mother, on the other hand, seems to be the presence who curses her. A failed ballerina herself, she lives through Nina’s career by extension, manipulating her daughter’s emotions to retain control over her choices, behavior, and ultimately her career (she even wears all and only black!). In order to fully become the Black Swan, Nina must reject her and her control.

In the final performance, with Nina seemingly divided into the two aspects of her role, the light and the dark, traveling back and forth between the personae, she represents the artist’s full integration into the art. She is no longer dancing the swans. She is the swans. Trapped in the circumstances of her own fear and insecurity, she dances the first act as the White Swan, full of self-pity and desire to be saved. In the dressing room, after she kills Lily/Nina and hides her body, she takes on the Black Swan, invites the darkness into her, and flawlessly dances the part to enormous audience acclaim. She kisses Thomas full on the mouth in front of her dancing colleagues and, just as quickly, tosses him away. Back in the dressing room to prepare for her final act, she discovers, when Lily knocks on her door, that the murder was a fantasy, and she realizes, too, that she is no longer capable of separating reality from her own perception of it. She has become a victim of the Black Swan herself–a victim of her ambition, her ego, her desire to conquer. Emotional, now, and slightly broken, resigned to her fate, she dances the White Swan’s final scenes with no division between self and role. Nina knows what she must do in order to be released from her curse–just like the White Swan. When she dives from the cliff, the audience roars–and we discover she is bleeding from a wound in her abdomen. In order to succeed in the part, she had to become the part; she had to burn out in order to burn brightly. The White Swan and Black Swan cannot coexist.

If Inception was this year’s exploration of the filmmaker’s process to create his artistic vision, then Black Swan is the parable of the artist, the performer, the maker. This is not about process, but identity. The art is the artist–when completely integrated, the art/ist is transcendent, ecstatic. The integrated art/ist is both a symbol of herself and herself; she is human and heavenly. It is a strong and powerful message here.

Aside from all of this, the movie is buoyed by the beautiful dancing sequences executed by Portman and Kunis, who both received extensive training for the role.

Poets in their Youth

I did that “20 Books of Poetry” meme on Facebook and have enjoyed reading the lists generated by other people.

Except that it sparked a good case of neurosis in me as practically no one shares affection for the books I chose. I think about 3 books I picked have ended up on other people’s lists.

And it’s, you know, an exercise in inauthenticity, doing this list thing. At the moment I wrote the list, I chose the books that stuck out in my memory. If I were to be excessively honest, the first poet whose work I read in great depth was John Updike. I was in high school, it was the biggest book of poetry I could find at Half Price Books (and therefore, the greatest value for my Wal-Mart dollar), and so I read it.

From then on, not being an English major in college, I read uninformedly, continuing in a tradition of reading each year’s Best American Poetry anthology and being sparked mostly by the work I read there, not fully understanding then the implications or ramifications of anthology inclusion/exclusion.

I don’t like a lot of the poetry I should like. I remember teachers in my MFA program looking at me with great sympathy and confusion when I said I’d rather stick red hot pokers through my eyes than read any more Wallace Stevens (the only poem of his I can stomach is “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”). I actually described Stevens’s poems as “word noise” in that class. I would rather replace my shower soap with sandpaper than have to read Elizabeth Bishop’s Collected Poems again. And I, too, dislike almost all of Marianne Moore’s poems.

The list of poets who’ve shaped me in the negative is probably longer than its companion list.

Sometimes I wonder if this means something significant about the quality of my own work. Something, you know, I don’t want to hear.

And it’s true, too, that I’ve drawn much of my poetic inspiration from watching widely of cinema. I could easily scrap out a list of films that make me want to write great poems. To wit:

Citizen Kane
Cleo from 5 to 7
Rear Window
The 400 Blows
Moulin Rouge
All About My Mother
Poison
Dead Again
Myra Breckinridge
Closer
V for Vendetta
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Bonnie and Clyde
Chinatown

That was a 30-second list. A longer reflection would lend itself to more certainty, but there you are.

I think The First Risk owes a great structural debt to Poison, for example, and The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon reflects my obsession with Lost.

Generally, I think I should read more poetry.

When Kristen Bell Narrates, I Listen.

I wanted to comment on a few more aspects of Gossip Girl that I’ve really enjoyed.

1. Production Value
Shot on location in NYC, GG is honestly such a gorgeously filmed show, you can’t help but want to move there–even me, who would rather have ebola than live in NYC. More than that, the show feels very cinematic in the quality of its film stock and lighting, set design, etc. There’s a lot of care and thought put in to where the action happens, which is more than you can say for your standard 30-minute joke-in-a-box sitcom.

2. Anachronism
I mentioned before here that I love me some good anachronism in my art (see also Jesus Christ Superstar. GG reflects anachronism when its modern world of technology and teens collides with the historic aspects of NYC and its Uppper East Side denizens. “Old Money,” cotillions, and formal brunches get a new-wave, txt msg makeover in the show.

I love its use of music, which rivals The Hills in maximizing my iTunes store purchases. GG‘s soundtrack features a lot of bands I already like, and a bunch more I want to get to know. The music, both orchestrated and curated, fits the show’s aesthetic to a tee, seeming at once both ultra-modern and reminiscent of times past.

3. Fashion
Since you know I love Top Model, Ugly Betty, Project Runway, and just about any other show that incorporates fasion, it’s no surprise that I appreciate GG‘s costume designer, who puts these kids in some of the hippest and outrageous outfits. Each character has a very specific aesthetic in terms of dress–contrast, for instance, social-climbing Jenny’s aspirational costumes with Blair’s austere, sexy-matron look complete with bows and fitted waists.

4. Someone went to film school
Aside from the sets, costumes, lighting, and hair design, the show incorporates a lot of interesting film techniques like jump cutting, cross-cutting, and rhythmic editing as the stories play out. It’s not that these techniques are innovative at all, but they are done thoughtfully and with a knowledgeable hand. Whoever’s behind the camera and in the editing room knows what they’re doing as these considerations enhance the action in the scene.

Godard/Truffaut

I was overjoyed yesterday when I saw in the Apr 7 issue of the New Yorker an extensive history/discussion of the impact of the friendship of Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, two of the most important filmmakers of the last decade. Godard and Truffaut revolutionized French filmmaking and, I believe, had a big hand in legitimizing film studies as a discrete discipline when they founded the seminal film journal Cahiers du Cinema with other New Wave filmmakers Claude Chabrol and Eric Rohmer.

I thought today would be a good today to let everyone know which films I most love from the French New Wave. I was lucky enough to have a whole class on the movement in college (coupled with Italian Neo-Realism) and was really inspired by the work they did:

François Truffaut’s Jules et Jim
Agnes Varda’s Cleo from 5 to 7
Alain Resnais’s Hiroshima, Mon Amour

The Varda film is probably my favorite.

It tells the story of Cleo, a hip French pop singer, as she waits out the final two hours before she learns the results of a serious medical test. Beginning with a portentious tarot card reading and ending with a full life transformation, the film is a gorgeous, moving, and deeply emotional exploration of ninety minutes in a person’s life. The film was an early experiment in real-time filmmaking, where film time elapses in tandem with real-world time, and it plays out beautifully.

30 Days of Night

Vampire flicks come and go; the mythology itself seems to fall in and out of fashion with abandon. As my colleague Aimée noted recently, “Vampire stories aren’t about seduction and surrender anymore; they’re about blood.” (I’m paraphrasing) And it’s true. For the Victorians, the urge of sexual surrender was so strong and so taboo that only a “creature of the night” could enthrall a woman into giving in to him and enjoying arousal (such as the tender kiss on the neck).

But today’s vampire mythos has been revolutionized over and over again. In The Hunger (early 80s), David Bowie and Catherine Denueve seduce a boyish-looking Susan Sarandon into exploring some lesbitronic love action, which then was a compelling form of taboo surrender. Abel Ferrara’s haunting and brilliant The Hunger appeared at a time when heroin chic was robbing the culture (again) of our most talented musicians and made the link between drug addiction and blood lust that culminated in one of the most atrociously wonderful orgies of violence ever filmed—in celebration of a doctoral defense!

And today we have 30 Days of Night. It’s hard to make a film about blood that doesn’t call upon the AIDS crisis in some way, I think, and vampirism as an infectious disease is a metaphor we’ve seen before. But here, in this new film, I think vampirism has become a form of terrorism.

The isolated, nearly-uninhabitable town of Barrow, Alaska stands in for post-9/11 America in the film. Residents prepare to leave as their titular 30 days of night, a time of complete isolation for these residents, begins to fall. But something strange is happening: a pile of burned cell phones is found on the outskirts of town. The power is cut and all other telecommunications and data services go out. The town is, effectively, removed from the rest of the world as America itself has become increasingly politically rogue in its pursuit of terrorist cells. Who can we call for help now? No one’s listening.

The vampires rely on secrecy and disinformation to do their work. “It took us centuries to convince them we were just a bad dream,” the leader tells his army. “There can be no survivors.” American government would have us believe that terrorist cells run on this same philosophy. But are these vampires really so much like our goverment’s top enemies? These vampires behead their victims, plain and simple, to prevent them from “turning.” This strange departure from the traditional vampire lore is significant today, after we have been broadcast on the internet our own citizens beheaded by terrorists. It wasn’t so long ago.

The nature of the vampires’ modus operandi ties them to the communicated notions of insurgency. Although we are led to believe that insurgents are a small band of poorly trained civilians, they are in fact a fairly sophisticated form of guerilla warfare (itself a loaded term: guerilla is in the eye of the colonizer). And the vampires don’t break through doors with their teeth bared; they wait. They hunt. They attack swiftly, quietly, and efficiently. One shot in the film pans over the entire town, showing in horrifying omniscient detail how the attacks have disabled nearly every resident. Bodies litter the ground as attacks continue. Humans run for escape but are taken down in quick succession.

Unlike many horror films, 30 Days of Night resists resolution. It is fairly gory, but it gets high marks for “looking away” more often than not, for resisting the urge to create a spectacle out of violence. I wanted to barf after I watched it, but not from the gore. It was because I was entirely stressed out throughout the film. It’s a good film for Halloween.

Fatal Attraction: A Greek Tragedy

On Friday night I caught the opening performance of Stray Cat Theatre’s production of Fata Attraction: A Greek Tragedy. A spoof of the 1987 film of roughly the same name, the quick play (clocking in at just over an hour) tears through all the high points of the original—steamy elevator sex, the suicide attempt, the boiled bunny—and brings their subtext into the text in hilarious and inventive ways. One really significant aspect of the production is its use of a four-person (two men/two women in business suits) Greek chorus, who come on stage between scenes to give commentary derived from tragedies, ladies’ etiquette books, and other scraps of strange (and funny) texts.

The characters in the play are referred to by the names of the actors who played them, often their full names—Glenn Close, Anne Archer, Michael Douglas, etc. Ellen, the child of the philanderer, was played by a six-foot+ man. All of the performances were great send ups, but Alicia Sutton as Anne Archer and Cynthia Rena as Glenn Close probably got to have the most fun with their meaty parts. “I am a WORKING WOMAN, Michael,” Glenn Close seethes at several non-sequitous points throughout the play.

Even the chorus pull double duty, often standing in as props or flies on the wall during the scenes. One chorus member served as the Answering Machine (standing in the house holding the phone and beeping, then making rewinding noises with her mouth as the message sped backwards) AND later stood in the corner of the kitchen blowing through a straw into a little jug of water to make the sounds of the bunny boiling on the stove. These little touches—along with hilarious costume choices for each cast member—brought so much to the script.

The play also included a five or ten minute “dream” ballet in which the chorus members took on each of the primary performer’s roles and resummarized the plot in dance, complete with a huge devil-eyed bunny who chased many of the dancers around the stage. I’m not sure this was part of the original script, but it added so much.

I laughed my ass off throughout the production. I thought it was a smart parody of the “scheming woman” genre of filmmaking and it got me thinking about other films like Working Girl that do similar things to the role of women in the workplace. But that’s an essay for another time. For now, if you’re in Phoenix, go see this play.