Thursday, December 23, 2010
IT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS, BUT IT'S NOT
“This is fucked up.” --Thom Yorke, “Black Swan,” 2006
“No, THIS is fucked up.” --Darren Aronofsky, Black Swan, 2010
Every awards season needs that one picture that's too weird, ballsy, or transgressive to actually win anything, even though it's absofuckinlutely tremendous. This year, it's Black Swan. An absolutely wonderful picture featuring a stunning lead performance by Natalie Portman, eye-popping, jaw-dropping, heart-stopping direction by Darren Aronofsky, and some of the most beautifully cinematic dance sequences ever filmed, Black Swan has less than zero chances of winning any awards. The cynical would say it's because Black Swan is too good. Those willing to look past being pissed at the Academy for its eternal boner for simplistic, sentimental tales that resolve neatly will note that Black Swan is complex, unsentimental, and has a very ambiguous ending (it's hard to say definitively whether anything in the movie actually happens). This dooms it to that token Best Supporting acting nomination (which neither Mila Kunis or Vincent Cassel will get and Barbara Hershey probably won't) or Best Original Screenplay (which it shouldn't get; the script was the weakest part of the picture) or Best Costume Design (hey, someone's got to lose to Inception). Really, pictures like Black Swan serve as a reminder that Oscars are for fuckin square-asses. (Ed. Note: this is why Movies By Bowes ™ will work tirelessly to bring you the Internet's most comprehensive 2010 Oscar coverage!)
Black Swan is a movie about how Natalie Portman goes batshit crazy. She's an ambitious young ballerina living in the Upper West Side with her stage mother (Barbara Hershey, who gave up her ballet career to have Natalie Portman and is quite batshit her own self). Natalie Portman's dedication to her craft has led to her becoming a technically immaculate, deeply repressed dancer; French douchebag ballet director Vincent Cassel (maybe the only guy alive who could keep this not-so-well-drawn character from being an irredeemable, boring fuckface) announces that they're doing Swan Lake to open the new season, but that Natalie Portman, while a perfect White Swan, just doesn't have the darkness/spontaneity/passion/sex to be the Black Swan.
Natalie Portman's ambition leads her to prove, in any way she can, to Vincent Cassel that she should be the swan queen. If that means tarting herself a bit and implying that she'll shtup him for the part, so be it. Vincent Cassel catches a glimpse of the Black Swan in Natalie Portman and takes a leap of faith, giving her the part, even though he realizes he's gotta coach her up a bit (by some less-than-PC methods, like semi-forcibly making out with her and instructing her to go home and masturbate).
Vincent Cassel points out another dancer to Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis. Mila Kunis appears to be everything Vincent Cassel wants Natalie Portman to be: spontaneous, sexual, seductive. Natalie Portman is both jealous and fascinated.
Natalie Portman starts noticing this mysterious “rash” on her back that her mother insists is because of Natalie Portman being a compulsive scratcher, and forcibly trims Natalie Portman's nails. Natalie Portman's fingers keep mysteriously bleeding (each one of these scenes is filmed in such a way that the audience feels the blood; Aronofsky is fucking on point in this picture). And suddenly things start happening where you're like “Is this really happening, or is Natalie Portman losing her grip on reality . . .?”
Now, all dancers are crazy. If they weren't already, they're made that way through years of brutally painful physical training where they're not allowed to add any muscle mass at all (lest they look anything less than the ideal of femininity) and they're not allowed to eat to give themselves the energy to do all that dancing (lest they get fat). This is why they're always flipping out and crying: they're fucking hungry and their knees and ankles hurt. (Ed. Note: the guys have a slightly less insane version of the same shit to deal with). Of course, they could all save themselves a lot of headaches by, instead of the conservatory, going here:
So yeah, Natalie Portman going nuts isn't any kind of revelation, or the point of the movie. It's like one of those “based on a true story” movies where you know the ultimate resolution—in this case, “Natalie Portman goes absolutely bugfuck”—but the journey is what the movie's about. With Black Swan, Natalie Portman's delusions or hallucinations or whatever all serve to make her pursuit of that within in her that will let her become the Black Swan literal and visual.
One evening, while Natalie Portman's at home with mom, fretting about taking the stage the next day, there's a knock at the door, and Natalie Portman thinks she hears whoever it is asking for her. Mom sends the caller away, but Natalie Portman runs to go see who it is, and it's Mila Kunis, wanting to see if Natalie Portman wants to go out for drinks or dinner. Over her mother's protests, Natalie Portman goes out.
They have quite the night, getting drunk, taking E, picking up meathead dudes who know nothing about the ballet. Natalie Portman, never having taken E before, starts rolling her tits off and she—for some bizarre reason—takes Mila Kunis back to her place, where her mother's still waiting up, and proceed after the start of rather a massive fight to Natalie Portman's room, where she and Mila Kunis have their much ballyhooed scene where Mila Kunis goes down on Natalie Portman con molto brio; Natalie Portman has a massive orgasm and passes out.
The next morning, Natalie Portman oversleeps, and frantically drags her tiny hungover ass to rehearsal, where Mila Kunis is dancing her part for her. Natalie Portman flips the fuck out and has what Vincent Cassel calls a “breakthrough,” although Mila Kunis denies hooking up with Natalie Portman, derisively saying “You totally had a lezzie wet dream about me.” And while this is the first point at which Natalie Portman herself questions her grip on reality, it really started a bit earlier.
I didn't mention her yet, but there's this whole subplot with Winona Ryder, as the aging former ballet star (I mean my God she's in her fucking 30s) who Vincent Cassel used to shtup but doesn't anymore, and furthermore is phasing out of the ballet. Winona does not take this well and screams drunkenly at a shaken-up Natalie Portman before at the very least semi-intentionally wandering out into traffic and sustaining career-ending injuries that may leave her unable to walk. I waited til now to bring Winona up because it's at this point that Natalie Portman starts going “Shit, I'm tiny, dark-haired and wound too tight just like Winona . . . Mila Kunis is a threat.” Vincent Cassel, to whom she goes in a teary teenage tantrum insisting that Mila Kunis be fired, tells her to get back to work.
That scene, afterward, had me thinking. I was already wondering whether Natalie Portman had ever actually spoken to Mila Kunis, or whether she just saw this cool-looking chick with a tattoo of wings on her back (like . . . A SWAN! coughcough ahem sorry bout that) come in late one day and went “That's everything I'm not: cool, sexy, ten minutes late . . . let's build her up into a fantasy BFF and an avatar of my repressed bi-curious tendencies! Oh fuck now she's a threat to me because she represents things that I envy but which I scorn! Whatever shall I do?” I mean, clearly the lesbian scene didn't really happen. But here's the question: Vincent Cassel, veteran that he is, must have seen a lot of crazy dancer chicks through a lot of crazy shit. Was he aware that Natalie Portman had constructed this fantasy rival/bedmate/reification of her subconscious . . . and did his patient yet firm dismissal of her request that he fire Mila Kunis derive from this knowledge? Because I don't know whether Vincent Cassel was just playing that scene with old school old country male chauvinist “oh shush, you poor little hysterical girl” shit or was he just like “ah, she's nuts, let's take the 'handling nitroglycerin' approach”? Whatever the answer, I love that this is a movie where you have to ask questions like that.
Natale Portman manages to stay sane enough to (barely) make it to opening night, whereupon one of the great dance sequences in the history of cinema begins. Through perspective, camera placement, sound design, and cuts, Darren Aronofsky makes the audience feel as though they themselves are an extremely skilled dancer who is out of her fucking mind dancing Swan Lake on opening night. In a wonderfully ironic touch, Natalie Portman fucks up embarassingly as the White Swan, the one she was supposed to be perfect as, and not only is she great as the Black Swan, she fucking grows wings. That's the kind of thing I say when I go to the ballet when I'm drunk and the people I'm with sigh at me: “Dude, she was so fuckin good as the Black Swan she fucking grew wings, dude!” (Ed. Note: the author is fully comfortable with being ridiculous). I consider Black Swan as a vindication of my tendency to get fucked up and discuss high culture in vulgar terms. She grew wings, man, what do you want me to say?
Okay, shit, sorry, I'm still stuck on this. She fucking grows wings. She grows wings! She totally and completely becomes the Black Swan. And, after her hallucinatory dressing-room-trashing, mirror-smashing rage following her fuckup as the White Swan, Natalie Portman's doing all this with a chunk of mirror embedded in her gut. So, at the end, when the character dies, the dancer does too, murmuring “I was perfect” as Aronofsky fades to white. Fuck. Yes.
Some people have gotten hung up on some of the things in Black Swan that don't make any immediate, apparent sense. Like Mila Kunis looking like she's going to be this big important part of the movie and then disappearing after the sex scene. If you take it as literal truth, Black Swan is a gigantic incoherent pile of bullshit. It doesn't make any literal sense, because it's not meant to be taken literally. The entire picture is constructed of visual metaphors for the creative process and the way in which a performer can lose him/herself identifying with a character. If the performer fails to maintain a sense of self and totally becomes the character—like Natalie Portman and the Black Swan—the self ceases to exist, and bloop, that's it. You might as well be bleeding out through the guts from a chunk of broken mirror. So really, Black Swan isn't even about a ballet dancer, it's a cautionary tale to all performers, warning them to not surrender too much of themselves in the pursuit of their art. It's nice to see a movie getting mainstream release that has the balls to not even be literally true, but instead a visual poetic essay about the preservation of self.
But that last is what, in the end, is going to screw Black Swan come award time. Natalie Portman's going to lose Best Actress to Annette Bening because this is Annette Bening's year and Annette Bening got shafted by Hilary Swank twice and Hilary Swank isn't getting nominated this year because all she did was that shitty Amelia Earhart movie. Or, translated into normal people talk: “irrelevant bullshit irrelevant bullshit irrelevant bullshit yayayayaya.” Black Swan is a more important and better movie than any award nominations could ever say. Darren Aronofsky, at this point, could probably do anything he fucking wanted with a movie camera. His reward will not be Oscars. His reward will be masses of cinemagoers, writhing around on the floor having been knocked on their ass, murmuring “wow” or staggering out of the theater Tweeting things like “HOLY FUCKING SHIT BLACK SWAN.” I don't know about you, but to me that's cooler than some gold-plated statue that I got because some other son of a bitch didn't. I'll take the floor-ass-knocked stunned people. And if I'm Natalie Portman, while I'm off somewhere having the big, delicious meal I couldn't while making the movie and someone walks up to me and goes, “You were really good in Black Swan,” I smile and say to myself, “Yeah, that was pretty good, wasn't it?” Because holy shit. Holy fucking shit. Black Swan.