Monday, October 17, 2011

Suffering for Art

Anybody who comes to the cinema is bringing their whole sexual history, their literary history, their movie literacy, their culture, their language, their religion, whatever they've got. I can't possibly manipulate all of that, nor do I want to.

--David Cronenberg

I've been kind of stumped when it comes to Darren Aronofky's Black Swan (2010).

On the one hand, it seems like it's cobbled together from a bunch of other movies. On its surface, it's a quasi-remake of The Red Shoes crossed with Repulsion, Carrie, and The Fly. It's an exploitation film masquerading as an art film, right down to the Oscar-winning performance of its lead actress, who exploits and is exploited by the film. None of this is a criticism, by the way. Merely a description. Darren Aronofsky tends to make exploitation films dressed up as art films. You cannot tell me that Requiem for A Dream isn't pushed hard over the line into exploitation by the scene where Jennifer Connelly ends up impaled on a dildo the size of my forearm, and you can't tell me that Black Swan doesn't do the same thing when it shows Mila Kunis going down on Natalie Portman. That Aronofsky is able to convince A-list actresses to perform in these kinds of scenes speaks to a director of considerable persuasive skills. These kinds of scenes do tend to undercut the high-mindedness of the director's films, though.

...And on the other hand, this is a film that puts its index finger on the psychological pressure points of my own household. There's nothing in horror movies more apt to leave bruises than the shock of recognition. I'm actually reluctant to describe exactly why the film hits home for me so precisely because it's intensely personal.

So I'm stumped.

As I say, this is a reworking of The Red Shoes, substituting Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake for the Red Shoes ballet. You have the same driven ballerina, the same prick of a ballet director who fancies himself as Svengali, you have the same theme of suffering for art. Although the details of the film puts its heroine through more horrifying paces, it arrives at essentially the same place: art, in the worldview of these films, is a fatal pursuit.

As someone who works in the arts, let me tell you, this romantic myth of the neurotic artist suffering to create art is bullshit, but movies are so full of bullshit about every aspect of human life, I don't know why I should bother. It's axiomatic. If Black Swan is about "art," then it doesn't understand art at all. If, on the other hand, Black Swan is suggesting a transformative nature of art, then I'm down with that. I can divorce this idea from an idea of art as a kind of universal suffering--though the contrast of Nina, the swan, and Beth, the over the hill prima ballerina who stands in as the movie's dying swan, suggests it's going for an idea of universal suffering.. If it's about the transformative nature of art, then that's an individualized idea. As the quote at the outset notes, people bring everything they are to the arts, but no two people are alike. And if this film wants to depict transformation through art for this one particular neurotic as a terrifying horror, then that's certainly valid. This film literalizes the transformation with lovingly detailed special effects, pushing the whole enterprise into the realm of the Cronenbergian New Flesh, in which identities are written upon the body.

As a portrait of psychosis, however, Black Swan might actually be more on the money. I know Nina. I know her very well, as it so happens. I know her monstrous mother, too. These are people who are totally real to me. While this may be a kind of demonic parody of a controlling stage mother, I can associate the depiction with controlling parents of all kinds. My partner's mother, for instance, is equally monstrous. But that edges perilously close to things too personal to discuss here.

This is generally a cold movie. It has an austere, blue-tinged cinematography and an emphasis on mirrors and reflections that drains all of the warmth out of the film. The only time it warms up is when free-spirited Lily, played by Mila Kunis, is on screen. The long night of debauchery that Nina spends with Lily is pointedly NOT blue-tinged. Lily functions as Nina's id. When Nina murders her id to assume its identity near the end of the film, it's Lily she thinks she kills. Given the film's emphasis on reflections, it's no surprise that Lily becomes just another of Nina's reflections in the end. It's an inward-focused, solipsistic kind of movie.

Current tally: 15 films

First time viewings: 15

My partner and I have been watching season 3 of True Blood this week, which is out of competition as far as the challenge goes. I mention it, though, because it wins the award for ghastliest special effect of the month: in S3 Episode 3, Bill hate fucks Lorena while twisting her head all the way around. Bravo, guys, for a completely indelible image. You rock.

My internet has been flaky all weekend, so I'm behind on both my viewing and wrangling links, but here's some more good stuff from around the web anyway:

The Vicar of VHS ticks off Dark August, Hatchet, Captive Wild Woman, and one of your bloginatrix's favorites, Burn, Witch, Burn.

Tim over at The Other Side soldiers on through The Naked Witch and Teeth.

Andreas over at Pussy Goes Grrr dreams his way through White Zombie.

It's hard to keep up with Mr. Gable's slog through the twilight zone of b-horror, but Mr. Gable himself trudges on with Goth Kill, Strip Club Slasher, Curse of the Zodiac, and Zombie Nation.

Jenn over at Cavalcade of Perversion posted her second week recap over the weekend, including such mathoms as Chawz, The Girl Slaves of Morgana Le Fey, Switchblade Sisters, The Ape, Jaws of Satan, 976-Evil 2, and I Bury the Living.

And Eric over at Expelled Grey Matter reports on Carved: The Slit-Mouthed Woman, Mulberry Street, Wicked Wicked, Oasis of the Zombies (poor bastard), and Drag Me to Hell.


Laura said...

"But movies are so full of bullshit about every aspect of human life, I don't know why I should bother."

Truer words were never typed. And with something like Black Swan, any pleasure there is in the movie is derived from that disproportionate, rising hysteria. Nina's psychosis can be terrifying, but it can also nicely distance us from the grisly proceedings because of the outlandishness of it all. A good campy horror-fest should make us laugh with disbelief at the same time it disturbs us.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Laura.

I wish this film was self-aware enough to be funny, but it's not. I think that's a failing.

I think it sounds like I don't like Black Swan, which isn't the case, really. For some reason, my writing reads as ambivalent sometimes, no matter how much I try to wash it out.

Laura said...

True. I think Aronofsky's greatest fault here is that he tries so desperately for Oscar-fodder level of seriousness that even when you do laugh, it's more to stave off discomfort than out of a genuine sense of fun.