New Review of Barbie Chang

Poets & Artists recently published my review of Victoria Chang’s new poetry collection Barbie Chang, which I enjoyed and admired a great deal.


We first meet Barbie Chang, the character whose life and thoughts populate most of Victoria Chang’s fourth collection, at a conference, when everyone stands to give the speaker a standing ovation except Barbie, who walks out of the room. It’s a stark image of a woman who “once worked on a street called Wall,” and it’s this act—quiet defiance that isolates her from those around her, a kind of idealism—that will come to define her again and again in these poems.

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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.


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.

Because I Wanted To

Last night I finished reading Mary Gaitskill’s Because They Wanted to, at long last. I’ve been working through it for a few weeks, stealing chances to read now and then. I enjoyed it about as much as I enjoyed Don’t Cry, which was a lot.

Gaitskill’s narrators tend to have a detached objectivity, which I think would normally turn me off because it gets “cold” and “robotic” if overdone, but she tempers it with gorgeous descriptions and unique, unlikely metaphors and similes. I’ll never forget how in “College Town” in Don’t Cry, she described one character as having the “face of a greyhound,” which I thought was simple and brilliant.

On the one hand then, in Gaitskill’s work you get the very sort of high-intellect descriptors mixed with very reflex-oriented, gutteral metaphor. While the body and the mind don’t necessarily coexist in her fiction, they share the burden of the story telling. It’s an interesting give-and-take.

A lot of the stories are about intimate relationships. Gaitskill’s objectivity, when applied to sex and sexuality, is somewhat uncanny, but it also feels very honest and true to me in a way that doesn’t at all glorify or memorialize the sex act in any way. There’s no sentimentality in her work. That’s what I’m trying to say. But it is emotional. The emotional effect of her work is cumulative, and many of the stories are burdened by lonesomeness, by characters who are, like their narration, almost fully detached from the world itself, held on by the thread that tethers them to the story (which sometimes breaks off at the end, letting them drift off into nothingness).

Of all the prose writers I’ve been writing, I think it’s she who I admire most. The craft of her language is, to me, exquisite and interesting and challenging in a lot of ways, but always true.

Quickster movie review

Over the weekend, I went to see Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief. I actually went to see The Young Victoria, but for some reason the 7:05 showing was sold out 45 minutes in advance in Bethesda. Only in Bethesda are people clamoring to see a two-month-old movie during the dinner hour, I guess.

Plan B was Percy. The title, to me, sounds like a great band name and first album title. (“Climbing up the charts this week are Percy Jackson and the Olympians with their debut release The Lightning Thief.”) I was very turned off by the fact that this was a Chris Columbus film, but in the end, the combination of my curiosity about why Catherine Keener decided to make this movie and my preemptive excitement for the new Clash of the Titans won out. As did my companion’s reluctance to see anything remotely suspenseful.

The movie was actually full of famous people: Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman, Rosario Dawson, Joe Pantoliano, the hot English dude who was on Journeyman and who’s on Gray’s Anatomy now, the weird looking English dude with the bad hair, and the menacingly sexy English dude who always plays German terrorists.

Dawson was, like, the best Persephone ever.

The lead kid is cute, and he has really pretty blue eyes, so when he’s brooding about everything going on, it works. The daughter of Athena was pretty good, but kind of wooden at times. And the story was fun. It was almost a little too major for a full-on kids’ movie, but is comparable to some of the later Potter films in terms of its darkness factor.

Sequel? Likely. Is this based on a series of books? It felt that way. Now that the public’s appetite for kids’ movie series has been whetted by Potter, I’d expect this is a move to cash in and keep us hungry.

My Favorite Albums of 2009


Yeah Yeah Yeahs, It’s Blitz
Music Math: New Order + Garbage / Smashing Pumpkins + Scissor Sisters
Best Tracks: “Zero,” “Heads Will Roll,” “Shame and Fortune,” “Hysteric”
Representative Lyrics: “Shake it like a ladder to the sun / Makes me feel like a madman on the run / Find it never, never far gone / So get your leather, leather, leather on on on on”
Notes: The new evolution of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs is much more electropop than their last album. Veritable dance floor anthems are nestled among more lilting ballads, but the overarching connection seems to be the synthesizer and its many, many guises. Karen O’s voice sounds fantastic on this record.

Dear Diary

Okay, I admit it. The Vampire Diaries is the best new show this fall. (That I’ve watched. I need to get in touch with Modern Family and Cougar Town, though.)

How do I love The Vampire Diaries? Let me start by saying I did not want to love it. I did not need to watch another show about vampires, feeling it was well-covered territory with Buffy, Angel, True Blood, and Moonlight (plus, yuck). Like zombies, I was sure the vampire Zeitgeist had peaked and jumped the shark, jumped the pufferfish, jumped the minnow, even jumped the plankton.

I was ready to move past vampires. I was ready to move past vampires who go to high school, vampires who have a soul/conscience, vampires who are barely-tamed animals with no soul, vampires who long to be human, and vampires who both love and eat humans. I was over glamours, I was over longing looks through the shadowy afternoon, I was over men who look like they need to eat a cheeseburger instead of a cheerleader.

Plus, there’s a witch! It’s like, hello, did you crib right from Buffy or what??

And then I watched The Vampire Diaries. And I threw all my rules out the window. Isn’t this what love is supposed to do to us? Make us shame ourselves for constructing false expectations and futile boundaries?

Here is my systematic list of why I love this show:

1. It’s a killer. A whole bunch of people have died on the show, unlike a lot of vampire predecessors. Among them have been some pretty important main characters, as well as your typical out-for-a-drive-on-the-wrong-road crowd. And then people have become vampires, and they get killed right away, and cool characters get killed right away, and basically there’s a lot of “animal attacks” in the town and people getting bloody and dying. That’s hot. It means anything can happen on this show.

2. Only the men take their clothes off. This is probably courtesy of Kevin Williamson, who helped create this show, but there’s a lot of PG-13 going on here, and it’s all boys all the time. Also, most of them are really hot. I say that because it seems like no matter what flavor of boy you prefer, there’s a slice of beefcake for you on this show. My favorite is Mike, but Beau prefers that angular looking vampire Sebastian.

3. It’s moody. The lighting on this show is amazing. Although it takes place in Virginia, it’s the darkest version of Virginia you’ve ever seen. The colors are both richly saturated (the greens and brows of the natural environment) and starkly washed out (buildings, faces, interiors). There are also intense, intense shadows on the show, which seems almost as if it’s light by diegetic lighting alone (that would be like using only light from the lamps in a living room shot and not supplementing with traditional film lights off-camera). The characters end up living in this world where their faces and bodies are always partially cloaked in shadows.

Look at how dark & rich & shadowy that shot is!! Yum.

4. It rocks. The soundtrack uses hot music that I love. It’s like they plugged into my iPod and either took bands I’ve liked for a while, or anticipated my tastes as well as or better than Gossip Girl has.

5. It’s actually kind of scary and suspenseful. The writers do a really good job of keeping the surprises real and the plot moving forward into new directions. Unlike Buffy, which always felt as if it were snowballing toward an inevitable, inescapable conclusion, I have no idea what’s going to happen on this show, and I really appreciate that.

6. It’s only a little Dawsony. While the characters have slightly precocious dialogue, it’s not as self-referential as Williamson’s other show. The characters, instead, seem pretty “now,” not too wise beyond their years, but wise enough to speak more eloquently than your average walking gland.

You can catch up with The Vampire Diaries next week on your local CW station when they run a week-long marathon of the season so far. Enjoy!