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

The Discomforts of Freedom

Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I am usually better-than-average in my comfort zone with the complexities of the U.S. Constitution.  Not that I am a legal scholar, but I tend to see the difference between what is making people uncomfortable and what is actually constitutional without too much trouble, and it doesn’t raise my blood pressure most of the time.  It is true, however, that nothing about the Constitution is designed to make us comfortable.  It is designed to challenge us to be a free as we can be without violating the rights of others.

The most powerful and influential thing I ever heard about the idea of “rights” is this:  When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

When we say that someone has a right, we have simultaneously said that someone else does not have a right.

It’s a troubling sentence, but very important to process every time we throw around talk about “rights.” In the United States when it comes to the highest law of the land we have to focus on the Constitution and what this country is about, not on what makes us comfortable.  If I have a right to smoke cigarettes unrestricted, that means that no one else has the right to breathe clean air.  If you have the right to hit your child, that means your child do not have the right to an absence of violence against them.  One can see how this goes down a snarly road quickly, but one can also see how the Supreme Court starts slicing and dicing the nation’s most difficult cases.  Don’t tell us how you feel.  Tell us which Constitutional rights are at stake.

A few decades ago in the sleepy college town of Davidson, North Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan applied for a parade permit.  The town approved their permit, and then essentially the entire town abandoned Main Street and gathered on campus for a community picnic.  The Klan marched, alone.  I don’t think they ever came back to Davidson, at least not in a manner expecting endorsement and attention.

The construction of a mosque very close to the site of the 9/11 attacks in New York has challenged me in unexpected ways.  I want to say I’m cool with it, but I’m not, at least not from the perspective of how I feel.  But it doesn’t matter how I feel, it only matters what rights the Constitution preserves and protects.  There is a baked-in irony in the attitude that “allowing” this place of worship on “our” holy ground only celebrates a radical Muslim victory against the United States.  The greatest victory any enemy of our country could ever achieve would be to turn us into something else, to so terrorize and shake our foundation that we rationalize stepping away from what makes us unique, from what makes us a destination that people around the world risk everything to reach.  Grief over the 9/11 attacks will never disappear, but that grief cannot be enshrined as a national religion.  The Constitution prohibits that, and we should all be deeply grateful.

Freedom of religion ensures that this mosque can be built, at ground zero or anywhere else.  The President of the United States said he “would not comment on the wisdom” of the decision to build, and that is probably the best thing he can say.  It doesn’t matter how anyone else feels about it.  It is a protected right, and it should be allowed to proceed in peace.

I am also allowed to ignore it after today, and to take my picnic somewhere else.  That is my right.  And I wouldn’t trade any of these rights for anything, especially not for a society where I am never challenged and always comfortable.

Update: I made a mistake when I referred to the issue as being about a “mosque.”  Several times today I saw items that clarified this proposed construction is about a community center with a space reserved for worship.  I think this probably doesn’t change many feelings, but anything that can be done to talk about the facts is important.  This is what I get for reading CNN headlines, right?  I also saw this link posted by someone on Facebook:  What a great reminder that headlines aren’t citizens, and New Yorkers are some of the last of us to get up in arms about diversity!  A good read for some good perspective………