Black Swan: Truth or No Consequences

Black Swan is a visually gorgeous and psychologically probing film.  It secures the archetypal female psyche for the viewer and vivisects it on-screen.  This painful and nearly surgical opening of classic female struggles and vulnerabilities make it disturbing and raw over and above any particular plot or character complexities.

I don’t agree with much of the film’s interpretation in other reviews, as most reviewers tend to just accept the two lead dancers’ characters as apples-to-apples stand ins for the plot of Swan Lake.  I didn’t see a lot of simple good and evil.  I did see a lot of complex desire and confusion.  There is a difference between fictional animals and  “real” women.

Note: I wouldn’t call this a “spoiler alert” exactly, but if you plan to see the film and want to go with a clean slate, you might read this post afterward.

Last year’s post What DO Women Want? looked at researchers’ conclusions that, at least when it comes to turn-ons, women want to be wanted; but that conversation was only about one area — albeit a significant area — of female desire, namely sexuality.  Black Swan climbs much higher up the totem pole of wants, and uses the juxtaposition of characters Nina and Lily to illustrate the depth of female longing for freedom from consequence.

Certainly, every person spends moments or even huge chunks of time wishing for the freedom to just do what he or she wants to do without having to worry about what comes next.  “Personal responsibility” is a modern catch term, and there are raging debates about and private businesses built on the idea that we can all make happen whatever we want to have happen.  Black Swan carves out something more refined, stripped down, and basic.  Via the culture of professional ballet, the film is a sharply crystallized reminder that women tend to bear a uniquely warped burden of perceived responsibility for everything in their worlds.

There is a fair amount of cliche, but that is exacerbated if you believe the main characters are truly light and dark.  The character of Lily is not “the dark side.”  I suggest the character does not even exist outside of Nina’s hallucinations.  The dead giveaway is her enormous back tattoo — does anyone seriously think a professional dancer would be allowed onstage with something like that in the New York City Ballet?  There are plenty of other signs.  Lily stays up all night clubbing, bedding strangers, taking recreational drugs, and drinking the night before she is on stage.  She doesn’t warm up before she dances.  She smokes.  She eats cheeseburgers.  She’s never really worried about anything, ever.  She leads an entirely stress-free existence.  She makes friends, ignores authority, and generally thinks life is a blast.

It’s difficult to pin this character as evil, unless you frame her persona as an extreme repression of someone else’s psyche.  Nina starts to interpret Lily as evil (“She’s after me!”) because she, Nina, is so far locked outside of her own sense of balance.  She’s operating in a world where she doesn’t know how to relax, even a tiny bit.  When she tries it, she’s tipped so far out of whack that she (if we are to believe hallucinations) attacks her mother, mutilates herself, stabs Lily, and generally loses her mind.  It is Nina’s unbalanced life that is the dark side.

Women still tend to be socialized to believe that we are responsible for an obscene amount of things that either don’t matter or that we never had anything to do with anyway.  Should I have eaten that cookie?  Did I hurt his feelings?  Oh, I couldn’t cheer her up.  Is my child smart?  I don’t work out enough.  That was the wrong thing to wear.  I should give more of my time.  I should give more of my money.

Maybe if I just…….

Black Swan is brilliantly constructed because it’s impossible for me to win the argument that Lily isn’t real, just as Nina can’t prove what she thinks is real.  The film perfectly puts me or you or anyone viewing it in the same position as Nina.  I can’t “prove” it via words on a page or screen.  But I know that most women struggle to put their lives in a healthy balance, to know what their own dreams are vs. the dreams they are living for others, and to spend just one full day not worrying about how they could have made life easier or better for someone else.

Oh yeah.  And to eat a big juicy cheeseburger and not care.

Images credit: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Wonderland: Thoughts on Willy Loman, “Personal Branding,” & The Spirit

This is a draft of some thoughts I had while constructing a larger essay on issues of body, mind, and spirit.

There are good reasons for not disclosing our most vulnerable moments. One reason is that disclosure might change others’ impressions of a carefully crafted “personal brand.”

It is quite popular now to worship at the altar of one’s own marketing machine, and while I confess that I am attracted to the control and management the branding appears to offer, I have some concerns. I watch Gen Y especially lavish attention on personal branding and I keep having this disturbing mental image of Death of a Salesman.  I worry that any language commoditizing human beings is destined for moral bankruptcy and ultimate failure.

In even the short run, allowing others a glimpse behind our branding curtain, especially one that betrays our public trademark, risks potentially serious consequences. Those who have invested in our “brand” may become disoriented or even feel betrayed. If someone has yet to know us, he or she may decide not to engage, now or ever.

Asset? Sometimes.

As human beings we are drawn powerfully to the idea that we are to manage, control, decide, and dominate. Personal responsibility  surfaces regularly in politics, psychology, athletics, medicine, education and the law. In short we are surrounded by a culture of, “I’m in charge, and if I’m not it’s my own fault.”

We should take care of our bodies, and we should take care of our minds. A huge percentage of human potential is left on the proverbial table by our unwillingness to take up and use the things available to improve our lives through our own efforts.

Living exclusively in the intoxicating haze of our own power, however, is also a great way to lose touch with our spirit. It makes the reconnection more difficult.  Physical and psychological elements grown giddy with their own influence become increasingly resistant to being quieted and even silenced when their influence grows too great.

Some integration of mind, body, and spirit is clearly indicated for a balanced and healthy life, but the simplicity of this idea on paper masks the complex relationship of the elements that make us human. It is not a mathematical equation, for example, of spending too much time in your head, so now you should go for a run. Nor is it as simple as noting an absence of prayer or meditation time and devoting extra hours to the process until you recalibrate.

This issue rests in the need for a premise that our minds and bodies both serve and take direction from our spirit.