Monday, December 13, 2010

She's lost control... again...

The arty world is abuzz over the new offing by culty director Darren Aronofsky. "It's amazing!" "It's great!" Critics throw their hands up. I went. I saw. But after settling in to her feathered embrace, Black Swan left me filled with little but ruffled plumage.

The critical majority suggests that Black Swan is the feminine heir to The Wrestler. Where that film used Mickey Rourke's beautiful, abused face and a catheter to signal the crippling ideals of American masculinity, Miss Portman's demented perfectionist narcissism is supposed to do the same here for... what? certainly not American femininity. Wasp culture? Gender is the issue here, and, sadly, we still cannot claim that all men are created equal. While Rourke flooded all the pathos in the world into that beleaguered face, his "Randy" maintained the dignity required of tragedy. See, in tragedy, the fate of the primary figure is sealed from the start. It is, therefore, not ultimately on account of the hero's actions that the fatal flaw is set into motion, but a kind of predetermination that was carried out, without hope for reversal. Think Oedipus.

Now, Miss Portman, dear Miss Portman. Actually, Aronofsky has the angel of casting on his side. No one else could have played the mechanical Nina Sayers with such perfection. Portman is a body actress and can only be depended on for the most plasticine forms of emoting. Her Nina is trapped in a wholly different web, that of her staid eroticism, her inability to let her hair down. Surrounding her are sexy beasts: Vincent Cassel, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder. But she's trapped in the age old lady space: the land of the pathetic. Pathetic as in pathos. There's no depth of tragic feeling for Portman's character, as I found reflected in the vaguely apathetic response of the viewers with whom I attended the screening, because, unlike Rourke's Randy, Nina seems a victim of her own determination, rather than someone locked on a fatal track. No, set up here is a simple Manichean struggle. I mean, for god's sake, the literal struggle is between the black and white swans. As Linda Williams writes on the pathetic form, "unlike tragedy, melodrama does not reconcile its audience to an inevitable suffering. Rather than raging against a fate that the audience has learned to accept, the female hero often accepts a fate that the audience at least partially questions." It is in attempting to adopt the dark side to which all other figures of Black Swan belong, that the too-pure Nina loses her grasp on reality, ultimately bringing about her eventual (*SPOILER*) swan song.

As a lover of melodrama, I'm always shocked when I find myself irate at the use of melodramatic screen action. But the provokers of my cinematic contempt are almost always the Oscar-grade liberal movies that would purport to not tug at your heart strings, the movies that feign a sense of realism. Which is not Black Swan by a long shot. The film's (not quite) saving grace is its woozy topple into discordant (low) genre forms. Gleefully, the film stumbles from Pi to Argento's Opera and back again without missing a beat. In these moments, the film has time to breathe, is aired out and feels comfortable, likeable, even. But just as quickly, a return to gendered norms renders this high-minded art film a nugget of flaccid storybook formula. Despite (or perhaps, precisely because of the contrast provided by) the high-brow grainy hand-held shots that swoop in, dip, and dive with our diva, there's the same old story with its conservative values, casting damsels as innocent darlings and (French) wolves as their corruptors. The Wrestler, too, was an age-old story, a formulaic western that set that formula to critical work on the wrestling industry and the kind of hyperbolic virility that it engenders. Set in the upper tiers of society, the allegorical potential of Black Swan, feels as constricted as Miss Portman's pornographically hampered feet.


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