Sunday, January 30, 2011

Black Swan, etc, etc...

Yes, yes: as promised, and as should be expected from every movie blogger, a little chat about Black Swan.

The really interesting phenomenon that this film is at the center of is this seemingly new theme where the movies that are the most popular are also the movies that "high brow" film audiences like the best. The Golden Globe nominees weren't the subtle, almost indie or entirely indie films that you didn't even notice were in theaters, but  the movies that people were talking about--Black Swan, The Social Network, The King's Speech, etc.

With that in mind, I went into the first showing of Black Swan that I saw with a question: Why is this film so popular but also so praised by critics and "high brow" film audiences?

The answer became very clear very quickly, and it is my only criticism (and, apparently the only criticism, considering the incredible reviews it got.) The film lacks a lot of subtlety in plot and symbolism. The conflict, though very deep and thought-provoking, is also straightforward--it is an inner conflict, but it is still white vs. black, good vs. evil. This was reinforced, of course, by the gorgeous but obvious visuals in the film--Nina wears light, soft colors, Lily, Beth, and the mother wear all black. Everything the director, Thomas, owns, is black and white. Reflections are used almost obsessively, (but well,) to, again, reinforce the conflict--mirrors and reflections have been used in film for many, many decades to represent the two sides of a character, and this movie isn't always so adept with it--for instance, when Thomas is explaining the role of the swan queen, the camera cuts decidedly from a medium shot of him in the studio to a shot of his reflection in the dance mirrors.

There are other moments and things that could have been more subtle. Nina has a weird rash on her shoulder blade--and by some coincidence, it is exactly where a wing would grow were that to happen. A shot of the ballerina in her music box, with head and leg broken off, is shown after her legs break and she hits her head. She puts on a black shirt when she goes out with Lily. The list goes on.
Woah guys it's a mirror!!

However, this is why, in my opinion, it was so accessible to a mainstream audience and critics (as well as the fact that it's all daring and stuff with the various sex scenes which aren't often shown on screen--more on that later.) The symbolism was there, the mise-en-scene and cinematography reflected the intent of the story perfectly, but in a way that you didn't really have to think about--this way, the mainstream audience (who, presumably, don't pick apart visual symbolism while watching movies,) and the critics, (who potentially do? I will when I'm a film critic?) could both enjoy it and understand it's full value.
Oh my gosh. Another mirror. 

When I saw this movie with my film appreciating friends, they saw that problem with it, too, (as well as the problem with the lack of gay male dancers...) but my dancer friend, who spends less time than we do analyzing movies, thought the symbolism was very clever (although she also saw the problem with the lack of gay dancers...) So, case in point.

I loved a lot about this movie though, including the visuals. Last year, my school put on the musical Curtains in the winter, and one of my favorite things that the director and costumer did was to make all the backstage scenes, with the dancers in their dance clothes, in grays, whites, and blacks, with red accents. I adored those costumes, and knitting some legwarmers to go with them, just like I adored the costumes and colors in this movie. The soft grays, pinks, creams, and blacks were so gorgeous together and invoked very well the idea that Nina was still locked in a childhood dream to be a ballerina, and that she still saw it as beautiful, gentle, and feminine, while the other dancers (who all wore black,) saw it as competitive and vicious.

Also, all of Nina's costumes looked sooo cozy. I wish I were a dancer, because I want to wear various knitted tubes on my legs and arms all the time. Some of the knitted things were so unnecessary seeming but soo beautiful--for instance, the lacy gray top that was knit probably with lace weight yarn and size twenty needles that she wore in her last practice scene, where the piano player leaves her in the dark and she really begins hallucinating. Why was she wearing that? I don't care, it was awesome. She always has one leg warmer or one arm warmer--why? I don't care, they look so comfortable. Amazing knitwear in this movie. Amy Wescott, the costume designer (famous for such films such as The Twelve Dogs of Christmas and Porn n' Chicken....hopefully this is her big break, she deserves it,) is a lady after my own heart and must have had a great time knitting up all sorts of amazing things.

The knitwear, though, along with the soft colors and the gray brick walls that were the backdrop for most of the scenes, perfectly captured the atmosphere of New York in the winter, (have I ever been to New York in the winter? Nope.) and made the whole movie feel very cold and raw, which made the scenes in her bedroom appear that much more warm. Very skillful.

The second thing I loved about this movie is also what I think makes it so scary--it is entirely first person. In most movies, we get at least two points of view--usually one a third person or third person omniscient--but in this movie, we know only what Nina knows and see only what she sees. This, of course, leads to some serious confusion when she starts hallucinating, and at only one point--the long shot of her on stage as a human instead of a swan after her solo as the black swan--do we see what we can know is really happening. This point of view makes every surprise, from the shocking notice of her mother while she is masturbating, to the simple event of her walking into a nurse at the hospital, just as surprising for the audience as they are for her.

I also loved how the various aspects of the black swan--the things she needed to be "perfect," were displayed in the other female characters, particularly Beth. I think Beth is the most undervalued character in the movie, because though she's on screen less than ten times, she's as important as Lily in representing the black swan. Nina's transformation to the black swan is also her transformation into Beth, as embodied by her jealousy of Thomas being with other girls, her paranoia that Lily is trying to steal her part, her destructiveness, and her...taking over Beth's dressing room and stealing all her stuff. More subtlety.
This is actually awesome--the framing makes it look like a mirror. 

Thomas says that Beth's "dark impulse" was what made her so "thrilling to watch...perfect at times, but also so god damned destructive." At that point, Nina begins letting her own destructive tendencies and ticks--her habit of scratching and biting her cuticles, and her bulimia, overcome her much more, presumably trying to be more like Beth. The first move she makes as the black swan, asking Thomas for the role and then biting him when he kisses her, is done wearing Beth's blood red lipstick. The major shifts in the movie--her getting the role, her becoming entirely consumed by hallucination, her "claiming her position," as it were, as the lead girl in the company and taking over the dressing room, all happen after an encounter with Beth.

I was also super impressed by how they used the Swan Lake music. Tchaikovsky has been my favorite since I was a tiny tiny child, and they used it very very effectively in the movie.

And the last bit that I'm going to rant about is the presence of sex scenes. Not the scenes themselves, but the fact that they made it onto the big screen. This shows a major change of standards in the rating system, one that I consider to be for the better.

A while ago, I watched a documentary released in 2006 called This Film is not yet Rated. It detailed (with a lot of bias,) the process of rating films, and how and why some films get an NC-17 rating and can't be released in theaters. The director of one of my favorite movies, But I'm a Cheerleader, was interviewed, and talked about how her movie couldn't be released by a major company because of its rating--a rating that came from a lesbian sex scene with no nudity shown, an girl masturbating over her clothes, and a maybe three second long shot, in the dark, of two men laying on top of each other, also fully clothed. Obviously we've crossed some major bridges in how okay we are with seeing homosexual sex on screen, and I think that's fantastic. How much of the film's audience saw the movie only for the sex scene? What was the intention of the director? I'm not sure, but I think it's a big statement for the progression of film that it's in there.

The entire movie, really, is a pretty positive statement for the state of film right now--even thought the symbolism was forced, it was there. The plot was accessible and somewhat easy to follow, but still scary and complex. And, of course, just the fact that such a terrifying movie made it into the Golden Globes, the Oscars, and the hearts of film audiences makes me very, very happy.

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