I was once involved with a woman and we decided to stay in and watch a movie, she was a professional cheerleader who was interested in dancing, travel and working out, and the movie I chose was Pi.
45 minutes into one of the best movies I had ever seen she says, "I have absolutely no idea what's going on in this movie. All I see is a paranoid fucker living in a world of madness."
As I was leaving the White Trash Monday (matinee) showing of Black Swan, exactly what I predicted to myself would happen happened: a woman turns to her boyfriend and mentions how beautiful the Swan Lake ballet's music was, and how she'd like to get it from itunes.
Is it beautiful? I'm no expert on beauty, pornography is more my thing, but I'll go with yes. But I do know that that woman is in for a surprise, what she heard in the movie wasn't the music of Swan Lake but the same 4 measures of Swan Lake Act 2 looped over and over and over and over again, like it's being played by a wind up music box, which half of the time it was.
Those of you musically inclined will observe that I erased the F clef and edited out the first measure (four beat rest) to generate the above graphic, which is analogous to what the movie does: exerts considerable effort to spoon/force feed you the necessary elements, when letting them happen naturally, which would have been easier and more rewarding.
That's just the music. Now imagine what it does with the psychosis.
Are there any new stories in the world? A high school girlfriend told me the universe was made of them. I'm ok with remakes, but you have to take the story somewhere different, right?
Here's the story: Nina is a dancer and wants, then gets, the top spot in Swan Lake. The previous prima ballerina got old. Nina is an innocent, childlike waif. The director knows she'll be great as the white swan, but can she tap into the dark side to play the black swan? In so doing, she goes crazy, has anorexia, eats a cake, has bulimia, skin picks, kills herself, maybe kills someone else, has sex with Mila Kunis, punches her mom, takes ecstasy, never once mentions the existence of a father, and turns into a bird. I'll leave you to sort out the order.
In parallel: Natalie Portman (the actress) loses a ton of weight, many times thought she would die, thinks what will get men to want to see an Aranofsky film is a lesbian scene, and marries her costar. No, the other guy.
Sort of parallel: Mila Kunis (the actress) denies getting drunk before the sex scene, and ends a 9 year relationship with the kid from Home Alone. (So that's what happened to him.)
We get to see her crazy ex-ballerina mom infantilize and control her, and her French director try to seduce and mature her. There's the psychological tug-of-war: the mother wants to keep her as a child, the director wants her to become a woman, Nina can't choose so she District 9s into a bird.
The problem with this interplay is twofold.
First, the porn-- doing the most obvious to generate the desired emotion. The mom isn't just Carrie crazy, she is exactly Carrie crazy. The French director isn't just smarmy, he is exactly "French director" smarmy. Example: he grabs her crotch and whispers, "respond to my touch. Respond to it."
As advertised, there's a lesbian scene in the movie, it's supposed to depict the psychosexual component to Natalie's obsessiveness. Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman get naked, and Mila lustily gives Natalie
oral, and I'm thinking to myself, what's the matter with me that this terribly unsexy? Am I too old? Too much porn?
The literary answer, the subtext answer, the one that is never touched, is that perhaps Nina's relationship with her mother is not just controlling but incestuous, a ha!, which explains why Nina would dare to have her first lesbian experience at home, in her princess bed, with her Carrie mom banging outside the door; Mila Kunis becomes a projection of mother who brings a guilt ridden Nina to orgasm. The only way she can orgasm is with mom; and the only way she can orgasm is to pretend it's not mom. And when Nina is masturbating on her princess bed, at the moment she should have an orgasm she (thinks she) sees her mom asleep in the chair. Sex without mom is impossible; sex with mom has made all other sex impossible.
That's one answer. The other answer is that I've already seen this scene, this exact scene, a dozen times. No attempt is made to make it different, unique to this story, important to this story. Hence, it is gratuitous; and I certainly have no problem with girl on girl gratuity but when it's done boringly even I will be bored.
Secondly, it's wrong. When those two forces pull, they pull at angles with a resultant vector, they are not exact opposites-- you don't get torn apart. If you go with the psychoanalysts, the schizophrenogenic mother causes psychosis through certain interactions, but explicitly NOT because there's another force in your life opposing the mother's. The alternate force, however bad it was, since it opposed mom would be reality grounding, and while you can still get every kind of personality disorder and a lifetime of messed up relationships, having that opposing force prevents psychosis, not enhances it.
Natalie Portman adeptly plays lots of different pathologies: anorexia, psychosis, OCPD, etc-- but these things don't all manifest in the same person and certainly not because of events in your life-- this thing made me OCD and this thing made me hallucinate and this thing...
It is also the kind of crazy defendants fake when they want to pretend they're crazy. Not understanding real psychosis, nor the specifics of the legal term "insanity" often means defendants endorse or exhibit every symptom I throw at them. They pull a Nina, thinking I'll be impressed. (A very common one: cross modal hallucinations, e.g. seeing and hearing a demon talk to you, are rare in schizophrenia and if they actually happen are usually the result of drugs or other organic illness.)
Of course, anything is possible and blah blah, but since this depiction is not novel and not accurate, what is it, and why is it at least partially effective? The answer is that it's a genre piece. The genre isn't ballet, the genre is paranoid fucker living in a world of madness. Nina's craziness is the (male) audience's fantasy of crazy, it is a template for the kind of crazy a 20something wants to pretend he has to impress girls. The crazy part is a signal to girls: I'm passionate, creative, driven. (FYI: It almost always signals a lack of commitment.)
The movie is very much what an outsider assumes happens in a world he doesn't inhabit. Crazy overbearing ballet mom? Seems plausible. But doesn't exist-- not at the professional level. That's grade and high school stuff. A person who needs to work hard at a profession would have abandoned such a mother (fathers are different) long ago because it interfered with her own progress. Crazy soccer mom? Check. Crazy Olympic soccer moms? No. Where you would see such an enmeshed mother-adult daughter relationship, with the mom living through the daughter, is when there is no technical skill necessary, e.g. living through their daughter's beauty, youth, relationships. I don't expect pathological enmeshment between Natalie Portman and her mom; it wouldn't surprise me in Kim Kardashian.
None of this is to detract from Natalie Portman's Christian Baling the role or Aranofsky's tremendous directing and emotional impact (Ron Bennington: "Aranofsky's movies make you hate the human body.") But the story doesn't do anything but repeat scenes from other movies which were better in their originals. This is why Natalie Portman could probably get an Oscar for Best Actress, but the movie isn't a contender for Best Picture. Nine years married to Rachel Weisz, he's going to be predisposed to melodrama.
Unfortunately, where I see Hollywood headed isn't more sequels or more remakes, but more copying, more cheating. When a movie copies a scene from another movie, that used to represent an allusion; it now represents a cheat sheet to the audience: remember how you felt about the dance scene in Jacob's Ladder, the fear, sexuality, confusion? Just apply all that here, it saves me the work of exposition.
Here's an example: the preview before Black Swan was for a super cool movie that I really want to see right up to the part that it turns out to be a Transformer.
But listen to the music. At the big reveal, the music they play is the Lost crescendo; and at 1:45, the way they signal we're not in Kansas and things are not what they seem is to play the Inception theme.
And on and on. The Adjustment Bureau is a Matt Damon movie about fate. So when you want to quickly create a backstory, just put the Fringe guys in anachronistic 1940s clothing and Dark City yourself a spiral staircase
and we'll take it from there. It is in all ways identical to the shortcuts and cheat sheets we employ for ourselves-- branding-- to generate a backstory without having to put in the work. "See this hat? It means I like to think about the things I heard on NPR."
I'll still go see these movies, of course, but I find myself wishing someone would do something original or at least in an original way. By all means, make it 3D.