Black Swan: the neurosis

I really liked the look of the film, Black Swan. I thought the ambiance and glimpses of dance in the film powerful. I wanted more of those and for that I want to see Black Swan again. But I am a dancer and a writer. I’m looking at the visuals, what pulled me in. I know what I disliked.

From the hype about this film and the trailer, I knew I’d go see it because it seemed to be about ballet and an exciting foray into the art of dance. Having worked on staff at New York City Ballet and loving dance, I wanted to see what the filmmaker would bring to the screen. What an opportunity for a movie, I thought – to explore the dual nature of this great ballerina role: black and white/good and evil/pristine virginal angel vs wicked seductress. And even more than that, woman as enchanted swan, woman as a creature of the wild driven by forces beyond her control. That’s what I thought the movie would be.

But what many of us forget is that the movie isn’t called Black and White Swan or even Swan Lake. The focus is on black.

The film captured some of the insular world of ballet so that we got some insight into dancer’s lives sun up to sun down. Natalie Portman looked the part (even if her upper body was all we saw tacked on to an American Ballet Theater ballerina’s lower half according to one post I read). Portman captured Nina’s destructive obsession to become the sexual predator Black Swan, which was frightening to the virginal young woman part of her. Portman’s portrayal of a driven ballerina descending into madness deserves acclaim and is a real winner.

This being said, I might not have spent time watching Black Swan had I not had an interest in seeing what the filmmaker, screenwriter and movie had to say all the way to the final fade out. Why would I have not spent time? Because I found Nina – the good little girl “white swan” side – to be whiny and unlikeable and that aspect of her was relentless. All aspiring screenwriters have drilled into them to create likable characters so that readers and viewers have a character they want to follow to the end. Director Darren Aronofsky has his own rules. Before I was even a quarter way into this film, I was ready to scream, “Enough already, I get she’s neurotic!”

We saw how hard dancers work – the long hours – the punishment on the body. What we didn’t see were the moments of ecstacy, the highs, the growth – what it’s like to embody a role like the White Swan (Odette), the challenge of it, the beauty of it, and paired with it the power, mastery, guile, technical prowess and sheer will necessary to portray the Black Swan (Odile). We didn’t see what made all that hard work worth it: we were told it by Nina at the end if we were able to understand what came from her tortured being. To achieve the film I’m getting at we would have had to have seen more dancing and Portman rolling her eyes up into her skull with the sublimeness of being the pure light-filled wild animal that a swan turned ideal woman would be. Some positive to the whole spiral downward.

That Portman wasn’t given the opportunity to show more of this ecstacy – her reason for dancing besides torture (or achieving perfection) – isn’t the actress’s fault nor a weakness of Portman’s. It simply wasn’t in the script. But Nina as whiny and overwhelmed by the company’s director and her psycho ballerina angst-ridden artist mother was – and it was way over the top.

As a writer who has long studied screenwriting and dance (ballet, modern and now ballroom) and written my own screenplays, I have some concept of what the Hollywood machine looks for. For a ballet story to be made these days, the screenplay would seem to have to be what this one is: a psycho-erotic thriller… dangerous, edgy, shocking, with a major star attached and a director who would make it. That Aronofsky and screenwriter Mark Heyman had to use a rather trite way to get there is simply and often the way Hollywood seems to operate unless you happen to have conceived and directed a musical with lots of dancing like Bob Fosse’s Chicago via Rob Marshall or Mama Mia with Meryl Streep attached.

I enjoyed the visuals often. However, I wish I had been so riveted by the characters and story that I could tell all my friends to go see Black Swan as I have with a very different movie – The King’s Speech. I wish I had been so moved or transported at the end of the film to have sat back and said, “Wow. This film’s masterful. What insights. I feel inspired, awakened, aware of aspects of life I never saw before.” But I wasn’t. Instead I looked at my friend in the movie theater and we both laughed. We laughed because the movie was so over the top and because in our minds, we sat through all the relentless angst to discover… nothing. Black Swan was a let down. It simply didn’t work.

So much of this movie was done for effect that sometimes I got lost. So much was so unbelievable that all I could do was shudder – or laugh.

When I asked actor/director friends what had gone wrong, one suggested the pacing and said he needed to see the film again because he hadn’t felt well when he went to see it. Another suggested that this film was pure entertainment and we weren’t involved enough with Nina to care or even understand what the ending meant. The visuals were what was important and those were dramatic. They drove the film and continue to bring in audiences.

Natalie Portman addresses Black Swan being a dance film in her own way. She said, “It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down… Everyone was so worried about who was going to want to see this movie. I remember them being like, ‘How do you get guys to a ballet movie? How do you get girls to a thriller?’ And the answer is a lesbian scene. Everyone wants to see that.”

Her response, however, sounds like the response of a very young person. Guys might go to a ballet movie to see all the lovely ballerinas. Girls might go to a thriller to be thrilled. A sculptor friend of mine would say that creating this movie was a sellout of the art form, which he has never done and would not conceive of doing. Obviously, Hollywood is a high stakes industry.

Black Swan relied on cliches and neurosis to hit its highs. Due to the over-concern of Hollywood with getting people to see a movie and making back the millions of dollars spent on making films today, this is what we tend to get.

Will dancer actors and dancer writer/directors get a chance to do a ballet film with an involving story in which we come to care for the characters now that so many kinds of dance have become popular? Will we gain insight into ourselves and our dreams and the art of dance by seeing a great dance film some time in the future? This is the challenge.

I know I want to see some great acting and a film that is clear, dramatic, engulfing AND a tribute to the art of ballet and film. And I know a director who I would want to direct it…

Martin Scorsese.