Monday, January 3, 2011

Black Swan, Vertigo, and the Ludicrous

Last Wednesday Tracy and I went to Albuquerque to meet with the talented Gabriel Blackwell and his fiance Jessica, where together we saw Black Swan. Afterward I had a plate of the most tender carne asada I've ever had -- any softer and it would have been gelatin. (Well, now I've made it sound horrifying but it was good.)

I avoided as many reviews as possible leading up to the film because I find that if I don't do that often I'm arguing with critics or preparing to argue as I watch the film. It's not a great way to enjoy yourself! And I miss being surprised. So if you want to have the experience I did, I guess I would say don't read this: it's definitely more fun if you don't know what's coming.

That being said, one thing that I didn't quite understand from the one review I did read is how ludicrously over the top it is. Darren Aronofsky previously turned professional wrestling into a quiet, slow-moving art film without much in the way of real wrestling. (I'm talking of course about The Wrestler, which I watched with several people who were a bit more disappointed by this approach than I was, I think.) His movie about ballet is a wild psychological thriller and horror show, home to some of the most visceral and sexy images you can see in a theater, and probably actually worth attending a theater to see. And it's also -- sometimes even chiefly -- extremely funny. There were times I thought this was an accident, but when some putz walks through the scene dressed as what was previously a monster in Portman's dreams, says "Hey," and leaves, it sucks the fear out of the scene so hard even audience members who were previously telling the film, out loud, to "stop it," had to laugh. The crazier Portman's ballerina gets, the scarier it is, the more funny and wild it is. This is partly due to fearlessness on the part of the people who made the film, partly due to its beauty, and partly it is maybe a rejection of  the way "serious" films (Aronofsky's own work included) have become so damn serious.

This is, remember, the guy who directed The Fountain, a movie that gave great trailer and might well have been spectacular if it hadn't taken itself so seriously. While the past and future action in the film were visually inventive enough to occasionally make one forget what a dismal experience it was as a whole, the unremitting grimness of the present-day storyline was nearly unwatchable and not at all appropriate to the film. I don't know enough about movies to say when we made this turn toward humorless, grim storytelling, but we might speculate for a moment that it has something to do with the way (we might also speculate, in our ignorance) art cinema went mainstream with Vietnam movies; we are a public that associates great filmmaking with chastening truths. Tron is maybe the perfect example of this phenomenon: the original was a goofy bit of sci-fi fun, and by all accounts the sequel is oppressive in its darkness, with many critics rejecting it as totally lacking humanity. You can see the aesthetic decisions that would lead to this interpretation of the franchise (it does happen, after all, in a computer) and yet at the same time the idea that such a ridiculous film should be so joyless breaks my heart.

As I thought on this I felt some nostalgia for an era of film I may have partially imagined -- one wherein movies weren't afraid to go over the top to entertain their audiences. I wrote here a long time ago about my fondness for older comedies like the Mel Brooks classics that were comfortable with their own goofiness, stiltedness, movieness. The serious movies were sometimes, at their best, equally comfortable with the fact of their being an entertainment. Take, for instance, Hitchcock's Vertigo.

In its time the film received mixed reviews, but mainly (it seems) for being too boring. Watch the sequence above and tell me how bored you are. Since then, however, Vertigo has been at the tops of many critics' lists, with some calling it maybe the best or second best film of all time. I wouldn't go quite that far myself, but there's an undeniable greatness in it, an irresistible wildness, with Jimmy Stewart's ludicrous performance anticipating for instance Nicholas Cage as directed by Herzog in Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans. What I'm saying is the movie is fun. It's capital A art, yes, but it's also an entertainment, and shamelessly so. This is how it advertised itself:

It may be another revenge of the nerds who, so desperate to prove their favorite films and comics and so on have artistic merit, damn you, so often suck the joy from the thing they once loved. I mean I enjoy the new Batman movies as much as anybody but the worst moments always come from their attempts at realism -- the way that Batman can't turn his head because he's in body armor, for instance, drives me up the wall. You want a practical way to fight crime? Try not being Batman. The first one, Batman Begins, was pretty unremarkable, and the second is largely effective because it's so much damn fun to watch Heath Ledger. Any scene where we're expected to take Batman totally seriously pretty much falls flat.

The Iron Man films are better: they're bright, colorful, funny, and when they reach for pathos they do it without forgetting to be fun. I don't mean to suggest that comics aren't art. If anything, it's the opposite: art is comics. Or rather, while every form should use the full emotional range available to it, I increasingly feel as if most of the art I'm supposed to engage with as art is missing out on the opportunities of entertainment. I will admit to having moderately high hopes for the Thor movie, hideous costume designs aside, not because I want Branagh to elevate the film to Shakespeare's level but because I so enjoyed the bright, wild, crazy style of Branagh's Hamlet, which seemed, to me, to bring Shakespeare back "down" to Thor's level, where I'd say it looked pretty comfortable, and more or less belongs.

The book I have surprised myself by starting to write as I finish this Very Serious novel about the atom bombs (which is hopefully also a very entertaining novel), is maybe a response to this feeling as well. I'm excited about it.

In any case, I do endorse Black Swan in the strongest of terms. There are things about the plot I find terribly schlocky, but that's appropriate, I think. And it's also lovely.

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