It’s been almost two weeks since I saw Black Swan, director Darren Aronofsky’s twisted fable about a tightly wound ballerina (Natalie Portman) who discovers her dark side, and I still haven’t been able to shake the lingering effects of the film. Movies like Black Swan are why the movies were invented to begin with—to immerse us completely in the filmmaker’s vision in a way the other arts simply can’t do; through the expert use of all of those other arts themselves—photography, directing, painting, music, writing, acting, theater. Cinema is nothing if not a mutt.
Black Swan works as well as it does for the very reason some have criticized it—the film has been accused of being nothing more than exploitative trash (i.e. 1995’s Showgirls) masquerading as high art. Well, I’m here to say that those critics are absolutely right, but that is not a bad thing. As the late, great film critic Pauline Kael once remarked (and I’m paraphrasing here), the history of great cinema is the history of great trash. Take some of our revered classics—The Godfather, Citizen Kane, Some Like It Hot, Star Wars, Titanic, for example—and what are they but the perfect hybrid of low and high brow? “Sensationalism” dressed up as art. As Kael also said (and this is an exact quote): “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”
Black Swan fits squarely into this category, which is what makes it so entertaining while still allowing us to feel superior to all those other heathens who’d rather see Little Fockers. After all, nothing livens up a film about an artist suffering a painful emotional and psychological toll than to include a moment of hot girl-on-girl action:
And just as the actors’ excellent performances in a work of great trash like The Godfather made it more than just a standard shoot-em-up gangster flick, the actors’ work in Black Swan helps to make it more than just Showgirls set in the world of ballet and minus the nipple tassels. Portman, in particular, is as sublime as all the critical raves would have you believe. She takes a character that on the page had the potential to be just a one-note crazy chick and turns her into someone completely believable; even as she may or may not be losing her mind in the most absurdist fashion.
Which is to say that Black Swan worked for me because Portman works so well in it–the film is structured in such a way that how much you “enjoy” the movie depends largely on how well you identify with Portman’s character (which may also partially explain why the film appears to be dividing audiences along age lines). And in that regard, I identified with Portman’s character more deeply than I have with any movie character in quite awhile.
That’s not to say I’m on the verge of going insane and using my lap top to beat the brains out of the more successful writer sitting next to me at the coffee shop (and if I do, I promise to blog about it). But it did remind me of the transformative power of cinema—how at its best, a film can put you right in someone else’s shoes and completely make you see and experience life through that person’s eyes. After all, I should have nothing in common with a neurotic 20-something Jewish ballerina chick, yet I felt like I could relate to her in both a more familiar and deeper way than most of the cinematic Asian American characters I’ve come across.
Well, perhaps it’s because in its own way, Black Swan is an Asian American film except without any Asian Americans in it (at least in the substantial roles): The lead is hard working and intelligent but so high strung that she may snap at any moment. She’s good at what she does on a technical level but lacks real passion and fire. She has an overbearing parent who wants her child to be perfect. And the highly-competitive ballet community as reflected in this movie–where everyone seems supportive on the surface but will stab you in the back the moment you turn around–might as well be a metaphor for the Asian American community. Hell, throw in two hot and talented Asian actresses instead and the film could just as easily have been called Yellow Swan or The Joy Luck Swan. I’d definitely pay to see that. And I bet a lot of other people would too. Well, provided the filmmakers made sure to remember to include moments like this (cue sexy porn music):