Swan Dive

There was so much action in the garden in the month of May–action that, between finals, graduation, and everything else that was going in my life, just did not get documented in this space. And now that I’m writing again, am I writing about gardening?

Heck, no.

You see, yesterday I watched a movie, a movie I’ve long anticipated, the first new(ish) release I’ve seen in  months, one that’s been showered with praise and film awards. The Black Swan.

Natalie Portman in a rather boringly traditional black tutu.

That’s right. The one that got Natalie Portman lots of pretty gold  statues from the Oscars, the Golden Globes, the Independent Spirit Awards, and about a dozen others. The one that got Daniel Aronofsky a boatload more best director nominations and the kind of press reviews that people in his industry hire hit men to deal with. The one that you probably saw months ago, but that the preadolescent ballet junkie that still lives deep within my soul had spent literally months avoiding–all hype, all trailers, all reviews–because I wanted to come to the movie completely fresh. No preconceptions, no outside opinions tainting my perceptions.

And honestly, I might as well not have bothered because I didn’t just dislike it. I HATED it. I didn’t just hate it, I was outraged by it. I wasn’t just outraged by it, I bent my poor baby’s ears about what a misogynist piece of crap I thought it was–well, I’m sure to him it seemed like hours.

So now, poor dears, it’s your turn to be subjected to my Black Swan rant. Strap in. It’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Two things you should know up front. I’m not going to waste anyone’s time by summarizing the plot. Presumably I’m the last person in America who has seen this movie, so I think I can dispense with telling you what happened. (Though if you want a quick refresher, you can look at the music video version of the trailer here.)

Also, I’m also not going to quibble with Natalie Portman’s performance. There are no adjectives adequate to describe how completely she inhabited the role of Nina and no superlatives strong enough to praise her–something I never expected to be able to say of the girl who gave such a convincing performance as a stick figure in the Star Wars trilogy.

What I object to is the runaway misogyny of director Aronofsky’s vision. I have never in a long life of moviegoing seen a more virulently hateful collection of hags, wenches, and assorted nutjobs. And I’m baffled that none of the reviews or discussions in any of my various social networks took the slightest note of the fact.

As exhibit A, we have the corps de ballet–beautiful, willowy thin, graceful as so many reeds bending in the breeze, but potty-mouthed, back-biting, two-faced cretins one and all.

Then, as exhibit B, Barbara Hershey as Nina’s mother, Erica, a former dancer  who’s creepily obsessed with keeping her daughter as sexually pure as a music-box ballerina–even if that means preventing her from dancing the role of a lifetime: the Swan Queen in Swan Lake.

Exhibit C is an almost unrecognizable Winona Ryder playing Beth Macintyre, whose star is fading even as Nina’s is rising. Deciding even though she can only be 30 that life is over, she walks in front of a car, landing herself in the hospital with a shattered leg. She tops that performance later in the film, when she stabs herself repeatedly in the face with a nail file while screaming that she is “Nothing! Nothing!”

The most damning evidence for the prosecution would have to be Mila Kunis in the role of Nina’s seductive, manipulative, immensely appealing but ultimately two-faced understudy, Lila. Was there hot lesbian sex  between the two, or was it one of Nina’s hallucinations? I have no idea. And it doesn’t matter because no encounter would have taken place had Lily not roophied Nina’s drink. That’s right. She drugged her rival in order to take her place onstage. I mean you can’t go much lower.

Finally, there’s Nina herself. She’s bulimic, she’s crazy, but she’s also, at heart, a gifted girl warped by her mother and by the values of a world that insists on nearly impossible standards of beauty wedded to athleticism masked by artistry. Nina is an immensely sympathetic character, because her journey is every girl’s journey–she’s seeking to claim her power, both her sexual power and the star power that’s been inhibited by the unnatural life she’s led. She’s seeking to claim herself, to create an independent life, to embrace and embody her life’s work. And I think I could have forgiven Aronofsky for everything that had gone before–if he’d only let her. Then, there would have been some movement toward affirmation, toward transcendence. Instead, Lily gives the performance of a lifetime–and dies.

And I’m still enraged–and outraged.

This appears to be the essence of Aronofsky’s vision:

  1. Menopausal women are emotional vampires fattening off the beauty, innocence, and talent of the young.
  2. Women are washed up at 30 and might as well kill themselves or die.
  3. Before they are washed up, when they’re young and beautiful, if they are also sexual, then they are viciously competitive, two-faced, and willing to sink to any depth, commit any betrayal to get what they want.
  4. But if they’re young, beautiful, and sexually unaware, they will die the moment they claim their sexuality.
  5. Also, they’ll die when they achieve their professional goals because to pursue personal and professional excellence, not to mention life balance or health in any form, is to court death.

Basically, women suck and then they die. Though it’s better if they die younger, because they turn into really scary hags when they get old. Honestly, if you let your daughter see this movie except as an object lesson of what antifeminism looks like, you should stand accused of child abuse.

Rudolph Nureyev, when young and gorgeous.

Let me backtrack a few steps and note that I am passionate about ballet. I was only three years old when Rudolph Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union, but I could have told you who he was by the time I was in second grade just like I could have told you who Martin Luther King was.

That’s because in the sixties and seventies, even in the South, ballet stars were more like rock stars.

We had a better-than-average ballet school in Charleston, my hometown, one that produced professional-level dancers, including a high school classmate of mine who bailed on college for a few years to dance professionally in New York. So my childhood memories of wider world events tend to veer wildly from  images of dogs and fire hoses turned on demonstrators to assassinations and napalm  flames in the Southeast Asian rain forest to defections.

Dame Margot Fonteyn, one of the great “swans.”

The gorgeous Arthur Mitchell, Balanchine alum and founder of Dance Theater of Harlem.

You know, defections. Mikhail Baryshnikov  escaping to the West. Gelsey Kirkland abandoning the New York City Ballet to dance with Misha.

The magical, ethereal Gelsey Kirkland.

The incomparable Mikhail Baryshnikov.










It shouldn’t surprise you then that I tend to be rather obsessive about dance movies, if fairly indiscriminate. Basically, I love them all. From The Red Shoes to Turning Point. From White Nights to Strictly Ballroom. I adored Rent, though not Moulin Rouge (go figure). I don’t even mind the cheesy, awful ones, like Flashdance and Footloose. Though I did draw the line at Jessica Alba’s Honey (treacle-y sweet).

Grace and power–Alvin Ailey’s Judith Jamison

So, you may be asking, why so much vitriol for this film? You mean, besides the fact that it celebrates predatory male sexual behavior and  trades in cheap, exploitative sexual thrills while resurrecting every vile, hateful stereotype about the nature and sexuality of women (dude, they actually used the word “frigid”–repeatedly) since St. Paul? Yes, there is something else. Two things, actually.

First, it disappoints at the level of dance. We keep being told that the director’s version of Swan Lake will be like nothing ever seen before. But the costumes, frankly, look like every other version of Swan Lake I’ve ever seen–tons of tulle and a few black feathers. Yawn. Not to mention the fact that there’s not a whole lot of dancing. From Portman particularly we get lots of allegro footwork, some closeups of  fouette turns, a whole lot of yearning around corners and from the wings. In point of fact, we spend so much more time looking at Portman’s face than her feet that the final performance that so enraptures everyone in the film falls flat–at least for this dance fan.

Second–and more damning to my mind because it speaks to something that’s wrong with American filmmaking in general, something that’s been keeping this particular butt out of theater seats for quite som time now–the film disappoints at the level of storytelling.

I’m happy to explain.

I believe that, for some years now, American filmmakers seem to have embrached the notion that to be “dark” is thereby to be interesting. But if not wedded to a moral vision–yeah, I used the M-word–then being dark can be just as cheap and exploitative as the obligatory happy ending of the formula drama or comedy.

The problem with The Black Swan is, that despite the gorgeous production values, it’s essentially squalid. And it’s small. Nina’s death has a reductive effect on the proceedings, shrinking the sexual exploration, for example, from a fumbling, bumbling search to connect with the world of feeling to soft-core porn. The death, in effect, closes the film off like a box, creating a claustrophobic structure in which all avenues for escape, for transcendence, goshdarnit, for meaning, are foreshortened and blighted.

Now, imagine if Nina had lived to take her bow. Then that struggle literally over broken glass to find her sexuality and to find herself would have been redeemed. Allowing her to survive wouldn’t have changed the fact that she was mental–and so was everyone in her world. It need not have changed any of the action–because so little of it makes rational sense in any accepted definition of the word anyway. But it would have changed something crucial: the audience’s perceptions of the possibilities for human existence.

And incidentally, I think the film also would have won Best Picture.