Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Sh!#ting on the Classics: Black Swan

I remember well the first (and only) time I saw this overwrought stinker. I was sitting in the theater with Patrick Bromley and both of our lovely wives. I hated every minute of Black Swan. The lights came up after the screening, and I turned to them with a grin. I was looking forward to trading snarky wisecracks... but THAT NEVER HAPPENED.

 I thought that they too would have found Black Swan to be irredeemable, endless, tawdry, turgid trash. I wondered who would be the first to crack a mean-spirited joke at director Darren Aronofsky’s expense. I looked at them; they looked at me… silence. They liked it! I began to spout vitriol. They looked at me like I had just spilled ink on the carpet.

Was it me? Was there something wrong with me? Could that horrible summer I spent at ballet camp really have twisted my critical faculties that much?

The movie’s plot in brief: an insecure ballet dancer goes crazy for 108 endless minutes.

This film made hundreds of millions of dollars! It was nominated for Oscars! Natalie Portman even won one... and got a free baby and husband to boot! There was a brief controversy about just how much of the dancing in the movie was actually our little Natalie. The studio ordered her dance double to stop giving interviews before Oscar season. The studio also removed a short video -- demonstrating how Portman’s head was digitally grafted to the dance double’s body -- from its website.

I wonder how many Academy voters gave her the nod because they thought she had transformed herself into a prima ballerina in just six months? It reminds me of the time Warner Brothers (unsuccessfully) tried to silence stuntwoman Eileen Dietz and voice actor Mercedes McCambridge because they thought it would scotch the Oscar chances of Linda Blair for The Exorcist. Dietz performed a few shots in the famous makeup, but McCambridge did the famous devil voice! Blair did not win the Oscar.

Because Black Swan is photographed like an “art film” and lit like an “art film” and paced like an “art film” and deals with classical music, many people mistake this for an art film. It is not. It is actually a horror film, and not a particularly good one.

Like a horror film we start with a bad situation, and it only gets worse. Like a horror film all of the performances (especially Barbara Hershey in a career low as the crazy mother) are pitched to the third balcony. Like a horror film, camera tricks and “what is reality” tropes are sprinkled liberally over what is essentially thin material.

Black Swan also features one of the least sexy sex scenes in film history. Really, its only rival is a scene in another Aronofsky film, Requiem for a Dream. (Come on-- you all know the one I am talking about.) What does it say about a director when all of his sex scenes are creepy nightmares? In Black Swan, Natalie Portman fantasizes that she is having a one-night stand with Mila Kunis. At the scene’s climax (sorry) Mila Kunis is about to offer Portman oral pleasure. Portman looks down between her legs, only to see her own face staring back. Psych! Clearly, a fantasy of having sex with oneself represents to Aronofsky the height of madness, which is ironic, given that the whole film is really Aronofsky having sex with himself. I wonder if the last straw in his relationship with Rachel Weisz was his insistence that she wear a Darren Aronofsky mask whenever she went down on him?

The movie’s dialogue? Laughable.

Try this: “The only person standing in your way is you!”

Or this: “This is your moment […] Don’t let it go!”

Or this: “Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go.”

Or this: “I’m getting too old for this shit! I’ll have your badge for this!”

Okay, I made that last one up.

This film divided the critics: some lauded it, some praised parts of it but conceded its faults, and some could see right through it. Rob Kirkpatrick of The Huffington Post was the first to point out that Black Swan seemed to be a hysterical remake of Showgirls; he called the film “higher priced cheese.” The more I think about this, the more I am struck by just how many points of reference Showgirls and Black Swan share. No wonder Doug likes it!

I have found no other film that so divides audiences... but NOT HOW I WOULD LIKE TO DIVIDE THEM. I would use an axe and casually ask them if they liked Black Swan, and if they should happen to say “yes,” I would swing my mighty axe of vengeance and shear them neatly in twain, bathe in their blood, gnaw on their skulls, try to be perfect, dance en pointe, take my dance double out for a drink, grow wings and flap them maniacally, casually throw a birthday cake into the garbage, leap bravely from a platform to my death, and then invite the F This Movie! crew to an  impromptu “Bathe in the Blood of the Swan” gala with party favors and gourmet hors d’oeuvres made with real black swan foie gras... I would finally get to meet Eric and Alex and, if we hit it off, perhaps murder them too.

Happy Halloween!


  1. Fan-fricking-tastic, I heart when you pass solids on the classics! Bravo JB, bravo!

  2. I haven't seen it, but I will... You had me at Portman going down on Portman.

  3. 7-word review for Black Swan:

    Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. 'Nuff said.

    I don't know, maybe it was because my spousal equivalent and I share very little cinematic common ground and I was just excited to watch a movie that she was excited about (as a former ballerina), but I enjoyed it. I thought it was well-acted, fairly creepy, a few good shock-moments, a few good lesbian/female masturbation moments - not a great movie and certainly over-hyped, but not a waste of time.

  4. Man, that Eric without an h is in for a serious BEHEADING! I hear he really liked that movie.

  5. “Bathe in the Blood of the Swan” sounds like an awesome seven word review of whatever it is that we'd do at the FThisMovie fete that JB mentioned. I'll bring beer.

  6. I have a theory about the arc of this movie but it might be bullshit. She kills off the little girl part of her and learns to be an adult. The horror elements are window dressing.

    F This Movie crew, your thoughts?

  7. Or maybe it's just about puberty....if you think about it...Portman's character acts more like a teenager as she rebels/black swans than an adult.

  8. Mark! I'm not a big drinker. Please also bring Coke Zero. And maybe some baby wipes.

  9. I like your theory, Adam. I'm back and forth on that movie as to how much I should try reading into it, because while I think it could (in theory) support multiple interpretations, part of me thinks Aronofsky is so on-the-nose about everything that what we see is what we get. Doesn't mean that we can't read something that he wasn't intending, though, because Death of the Author and all of that.

  10. Sol - Totally agree that the movie is not a waste of time, if for no other reason than because it tries to be art. It may be, as JB believes, obvious and ham-fisted and BAD art, but at least it is striving to the level of art. Most movies don't. That alone makes it worth seeing.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, people. They often make my sad, dark life seem worth living. I have to disagree with Patrick Bromley on one point. I do not think the "striving" alone makes something worth seeing. I understand that Patrick is sometimes forced to sit through some real unredeemed, unredeemable shit, so he is looking for ANYTHING in the way of "attempt at art." I am more of a results person; I have much less patience for the "striving;" of course, I also have much less patience for Patrick.

  12. Also, I must disagree with you, Adam. I do not think this film is about Portman killing "off the little girl part of her and [learning] to be an adult" at all. I think this film is about Aronofsky killing off that part of his audience that ever thought he was a decent filmmaker, and that audience, in turn, learning to frequent movies by other, better filmmakers.

  13. I liked this movie a lot when I first saw it; re-watched it recently, and ...

    I still love it. JB is right about it being a horror movie, and I like that about it. Portman's performance is terrific, the Oscar was deserved. The dialog, well, think of it like athletes being interviewed after a game, everything they say is a cliche, but they do actually say those things!

    This movie has so much going on. Not the least of which is a woman's struggle with her sexual preferences and the guilt she feels about possibly preferring her own gender. Also her struggle to start pleasing herself instead of pleasing those around her (her mother, her choreographer). The closer she gets to acceptance of herself, the more she is able to feel "free" and transform into that black swan. The transformation itself is characterized visually in a very creepy, grand, operatic way, which I like a lot.

    And there's more! There's the on-the-surface plot drivers of competition and rivalry, desire to succeed at your profession, etc. But there is also mental health issues being explored, is Portman unbalanced, or is everyone else around her? Does her mother know she is unbalanced and trying to protect her, or is her mother unbalanced herself and way overprotective?

    I'm surprised you don't like this film. I wonder, you wrote this 5 years ago, have you seen it again since then? Has your opinion changed?