Friday, December 31, 2010

Black Swan

I waited to blog about Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan after discovering that there were a couple of other ballet themed films that I had not yet seen and wanted to be well versed before tackling this project. Having a personal interest in ballet and more then casual acquaintance with that world, it seemed that any attempt at criticism should come from a place that is well versed on the cinematic history of ballet in cinema.

But on further reflection, there is no reason to look to dance cinema before a discussion of Black Swan. Despite it being about a young dancer, Nina (Natalie Portman) getting the lead role in Swan Lake. Her attention to perfection and reticent character makes her an obvious choice for dancing the White Swan, but the lead in Swan Lake must also perform her seductive twin, the Black Swan, which is an uphill battle for the virginal Nina. Knowing that Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis trained with the New York City Ballet for a year in preparation for this part, one would expect there to be more on screen ballet. What draws me to dance films is the promise of on screen dance, so in this regard Black Swan was a disappointment.

Instead of a dance movie, Black Swan is a character study of a woman's descent into madness. This is a film with more parallels with Polanski's Repulsion then Altman's The Company. But the stress placed on female dancers do provide a uniquely plausible situation for psychological horror. To this day, ballet remains an art form where women are asked to conform to completely unrealistic cultural beauty standards. In order to succeed in that world, young girls must have a perfect body-type appearing long and lean without being tall enough to tower over male dancers while on point. They have to be very thin, much thinner then possible if eating regular meals despite dancing 8 or more hours a day. Due to the intense competitiveness between female dancers, dancers dance injured trying never to reveal the pain they are experiencing. Actually, pain is part of the world of ballet, in that dancers develop a very high tolerance to physical discomfort, because dancing ballet hurts, even when uninjured. However, the rewards for success are financially small, but culturally great. A young ballerina is the embodiment of mythical perfection for women. This is likely why all little girls seem to dream of becoming a ballerina or at least wearing pink tulle.

And this is where Black Swan really works as psychological horror. Like many girls in the ballet, Nina is being pushed into this world by a mother (Barbara Hershey) who did not rise above chore dancer during her career and hopes that her daughter will be the prima ballerina that she was not. And so Nina is sheltered by her mother, keeping her a child and Nina's only outlet for self expression and independence is her work at the company, where she strives for rigorous perfection and achieves a high standard of discipline and determination. But evident on Nina's face is the real driving force behind her fight for perfection. Instead of dancing for the sake of art, or for herself, she starves and rehearses through the nights out of sheer terror of failure. And this terror is worn on Natalie Portman's face during nearly every frame of Black Swan.

And Nina's terror is only enhanced as she gets closer to achieving her goal to dance the lead in Swan Lake. A new arrival at the company, Lily (Mila Kunis) becomes the personification of Nina's fears as she struggles to learn the more challenging role of the the evil side of the swan queen. Lily gives the impression of the natural dancer who doesn't have to fight to achieve perfection and her ease gives her a charisma that Nina lacks and also a sensuality that Nina both drawn to and frightened of. So Nina and Lily become both friends and at least in Nina's mind, desperate rivals.

So much of the plot of this film and Nina's descent toward madness is plausible and acts as an allegory of womanhood, but Nina's reticence keeps it from being authentic. Nina is never a joy to watch move and this kept me from believing that she was able to achieve the heights of a lead dancer. But the portrayal of her waking nightmares were always authentic and well staged. Black Swan opens with a dream sequence and can be presented as a segmentation of Nina's hallucinations. And the portions of the film that exist in Nina's mind are terrifying and didn't come across as predictable and has some nice horror movie jolts. This is where Black Swan succeeds along with Natalie Portman's depiction of this frail ballerina, who is disintegrating or rather being eaten alive by her need for perfection, both psychologically and physically, depicted by Portman's shockingly, frail tiny body which shrinks over time.

But Black Swan wasn't entirely successful as a ballet film, even a ballet horror film as it left me longing to watch real dancers move and for more time with Mila Kunis's free-spirited depiction of a young dancer. I see what Aronofsky was attempting to portray with Black Swan, a kind of feminine version of The Wrestler, but it doesn't quite achieve the greatness that it strives for.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Araki's New Queer Cinema

People come to the cinema with very different motivations. For some, a movie is pure escapism. Some are looking for intellectual stimulation, or maybe to get caught up in an emotional experience. The reason I keep returning to the theater is to catch brief glimpses of my personal realities on screen. In college, I went to nearly every movie with a gay character or a queer subplot. I was searching desperately for a glimpse of the future I wanted for myself, before I even had a fully formed notion of my adult identity. I only knew that the path that most people take in life was not the road I was traveling. I always knew that I wouldn't be a wife, a home-maker, a mother... And it was through my worshiping at the alter of the cinematograph that I occasionally glimpsed images of alternative lives.

In all of this searching, there is one filmmaker that I feel a strong kinship with, Gregg Araki. I had read of Araki and his cinema long before I had seen or even heard a plot outline for any of his films, as during the 1990s, Gregg Araki was one of a minority of queer figures that did not identify as gay, but as bisexual. There still aren't too many public figures that reject the binary of gay or straight. I had put Araki on a pedestal long before I had seen any of his films.

And then, Doom Generation was released. To be fair, I still have not revisited Doom Generation, the second film of Araki's teen apocalypse trilogy, but I swore that I would never, ever see another Gregg Araki film after and I still don't have much desire to see it again. Pretty strong words considering the movie featured a young and perky Rose McGowan. And I felt more than justified in avoiding Araki at all costs, after reading what others have written about his cinema. I was definitely not alone is strongly disliking an Araki film. In fact, the critical consensus on his films ranged from dismissal to hatred.

But more than a decade later, I was at a screening for an Araki film. It wasn't my first choice and I was filled with dread, but Gregg surprised and delighted me with Mysterious Skin. So much so, that the film immediately joined my favorites and I started to work my way though his previous films and an amazing thing happened, Araki's cinema made sense to me and now quite a few of his movies remain on frequent rotation as guilty pleasures. Once I stopped looking for film art, but movie camp, I started to enjoy Araki more.

With the exception of two films, Mysterious Skin and The Living End, Araki films do not take themselves at all seriously. He populates his films with young, queer, Californians and puts them in highly sexual and downright bizarre situations. Everything about Araki's cinema is reckless, artificial and steeped in 1990s aethetics and sentiment. The dialog is ridiculous and there is no attempt at creating plausibility. Not only aren't the films steep in any recognizable reality, but some of them are downright awful, but despite this, I have grown very fond of Gregg Araki's alternative reality. Unlike his first film, The Living End, Araki's universe has complete sexual liberation. There is no angst due to sexual orientation or attraction. Polyamory causes some short lived drama, but the characters are struggling with a different existential crisis.
Dear Diary, what a day, I swear I've never been do depressed, miserable, and lonely in my entire life. It's like I know there's got to be somebody out there somewhere... just one person in this huge, horrible, unhappy universe who can hold me in their arms and tell me everything is going to be okay. And how long do I have to wait before that person shows up? I feel like I'm sinking deeper and depper into quicksand... watching everyone around me die a slow, agonizing, death. It's like we all know way down in our souls that our generation is going to witness the end of everything. You can see it in our eyes. It's in mine, look. I'm only 18 years-old and I'm totally doomed
While there are plenty of examples of so bad it's good dialog, it is amusing, and laughs of the whole GenX outlook. But there is a wonderful earnestness to the sincerity to Araki's characters. But despite the negative outlooks of the characters who inhabit these movies, none of them are apologetic about their sexualities. I love that in a Gregg Araki film, there is little attempt to define anyone's sexual orientation. Boys have sex with girls. Girls with girls. Boys with Boys. Sometimes all in the same afternoon. And most refreshing, is that no one cares. Araki just allows us to watch these young attractive people have lots of sex on screen in an atmosphere that is more celebratory than the real world.

This hasn't always been the case in Araki's films. The film that launched Araki into the center of the new gay cinema of the 1990s, The Living End, is a allegorical road trip into hell for two HIV+ gay men. The Living End is Araki's last film that has any hint of self loathing. His teen apocalypse trilogy is a celebration of destruction and the reckless sexuality of youth. But the film that fills me with complete delight everytime I watch it is his take on Jules and Jim, Splendor. Many films have referenced Truffaut's tragic manage a trois, but like the original, the films always end badly. In Splendor, Araki's most conventional romantic comedy, Veronica cannot choose between the two men she is dating, sensitive writer Abel and rock drummer, Zed, so she moves in with both of them. This threesome begins well, but over time, Veronica becomes frustrated with the immaturity of both men and leaves them for a director who promises maturity and financial stability for her unborn child. The threat of losing Veronica forces Abel and Zed to win Veronica back and they all live happily ever after.

Yes, Splendor is all camp and melodrama and I completely adore it. Why? Because unlike every other threesome movie, this one ends happily. In Araki's universe, it isn't unthinkable that two men and a woman could happily spend the rest of their lives together. Actually, in an Araki film, it is probably more likely that the characters will find happiness in a non-traditional relationship as every relationship challenges the cultural mainstream.

From Blogger

Monday, December 06, 2010

127 Hours

Everyone knows the story. Aron Ralston was hiking when he is pinned by a falling boulder and cut off his own arm to escape. But how would one make a film about an ordeal that everyone already knows how it ends? This story poses some serious challenges for a feature length film as it is asking an audience to be trapped in a canyon with Ralston as he ponders his predicament, for 5 days, until he finally decides to cut his way free. One could decide to approach it as a horror film, using the viewer's dread and claustrophobia to build to the final gruesome scenes when cutting occurs. It could also explore the territory of so many other man versus nature films, and use Ralston's days of isolation for internal exploration. So it was a bit of a surprise that filmmaker, Danny Boyle, decided to conquer this project as his films are about as far from interspective as it gets and it is hard to imagine him attracted to a project that puts it's sole character beneath a rock for it's duration. Boyle, who never fails to be flamboyantly entertaining, fed my curiosity as to how he would handle Aron Ralson's well publicized story.

127 Hours is a highly watchable film; Boyle takes this ordeal and makes it downright entertaining. He uses plenty of flashy shots, split frames, and rock music keeping the film loud and visually interesting within the limits of setting. Unlike another of this year's releases, Buried, the camera work keeps the audience from feeling at all trapped with pans out of the crevice, opening to wide shots of the surrounding desert and clear blue sky. 127 Hours has none of the intense fear and claustrophobia that made Buried such a challenge to endure. 127 Hours maintains a spirit of adventure instead of delving into questions of morality or man's place in nature. If this film has a message, it is simply to leave a note before going on an excursion into the wilderness.

What this film really understands about Aron Ralston's story is the kind of man he is. Aron Ralston (James Franco), like many rock climbers, treats nature with a spirit of conquest. He sets out to complete hikes faster than anyone before, to try new climbs, and while experienced, it is his cockiness that gets him into trouble, but also makes him appealing. This is perfectly illustrated during the opening of the film, when he prepares for his Saturday expedition and meets two female hikers on the trail. He offers to guide them and leads them through a climb and to an underground lake. All along this adventure, he photographs and takes videos to document these accomplishments.

It isn't until Aron's new friends depart and he hikes further into the desert canyon that he is suddenly pinned by a falling boulder and the film's title finally appears. The tone shifts and becomes more serious, but maintains levity due to Ralston's constant documentation of his predicament. At one point, he even interviews himself about his dire situation, asking if he was actually stupid enough to not tell anyone where he was going. But James Franco as Aron appears calm and rational throughout his entrapment, carefully taking stock of his limited supplies including a small amount of water, camelback, head-lamp, rope, and a woefully inadequate multi-purpose tool, with a tiny knife. He spends his time trying to chip away at the boulder with the dull knife, while hallucinating and thinking of his family and lost loves. These sequences that depict moments of grief or regret seem overshadowed by his generally upbeat nature. And none of these sequences give relief from the tension. As time passes, one cannot help but to know that soon, he will have to cut himself free and climb out of the desert, keeping the tension on edge, waiting for Ralston's dreaded method of escape.

It took about an hour for Aron to cut off his arm, just above the wrist, but thankfully, it occupies no more than 2-3 minutes of screen time. However, they are graphic and intense minutes. After, listening to Aron Ralston's account of how he severed his own limb, 127 Hours succeeds in communicating exactly how it was done using mostly sound effects and sparing the more graphic visual details. This resulted in the most graphic moments of the film being watchable. After this seemingly agonizingly long scene, his hike to safety and film's conclusion is brief. The overall result is an enjoyable film, one skillfully acted and directed, but ultimately an empty experience with little below the surface. But it succedes in capturing the mindset of an adventure seeking man who had what it took to survive this brush with death, but based on the character developed in this film, he might not survive his next accident and there will probably be others.