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 Science Fiction of Being Marilyn

Many thanks to Chuck Hamsher for posting a reminder of the anniversary of Marilyn Monroe‘s passing on August 5, 1962.  She was a mere 36 years old when she died at her home in Los Angeles, her death ruled a probable suicide by consuming an overdose of sleeping pills.

Norma Jeane Baker

Several people commented on what made this woman so remarkable, and a common reference was to her “vulnerability.”  I’ve heard that word and variations of it used to describe Norma Jeane Baker my whole life, and not once — not once — has it rung true for me.

“Vulnerable” is a very popular and widely accepted way to label NJB.  And I will disclaim here that I know there is every possibility and probability that I just don’t get it; but I also don’t see it.  What I’ve always seen is a woman who, for whatever God-foresaken reason, became a sponge for what the rest of the world needed her to be.  She may be the most perfect reflection of a global codependent love story there ever was. 

NJB was in reality what in most human experience only exists in fantasy and story telling.  She was very much like a character from an old Star Trek episode called “The Perfect Mate.”  This character, Kamala, is described thus:

She is an empathic metamorph, a woman genetically-predisposed to suit the desires of any man she is with. She has the ability to sense what a potential mate wants, what he needs, what gives him the greatest pleasure and then to become that for him until she reaches the final stage of bonding, where she must imprint upon herself the requirements of one man, to serve as his perfect partner in life.

NJB was incredibly good at this, and that is why I think I’ve never seen her as truly vulnerable.  She impresses me as a woman who had an amazing talent in her relationships with other people, especially men, that allowed her intimate access to the likes of Joe DiMaggio and Arthur Miller — and my friends, that is serious range.

It is all unknowable now.  But I wonder if this lovely person did in fact connect with another individual above all others, knowing that in order to carry on her life she would need to suppress that connection and continue to meet the needs and dreams of many more in order to sustain her career.  That’s a story I can buy, and in the end would make her in fact vulnerable to only one person.