Oscar Notes 2011: Black Swan

This week, busy with a writing project, I barely poked my head from the Man Cave except to eat, sleep, or watch iCarly; into the confines of my cocoon the massive changes taking place in the world were filtered to a distant rumble, tremulous but implacable. Today, deadline met, I emerged to find a peoples’ revolution in Cairo, the protesters’ din of dissatisfaction turned to cheers. I am pleased by this apparent triumph of the democratic spirit, as well as by a victory for more peaceful, if passionate, tactics of overthrow. (I am, after all, half-Czech.) But something limits my happiness. I have learned to be cautious of my attraction to feel-good narratives in fiction, which, finding its unhealthy ally in the spin mechanisms of news and politics, makes me susceptible to feel-good metanarratives. Would that I find in myself an iota of the Egyptians’ courage and faith!

Also delayed by the week’s work: the next in my series of notes on this year’s Best Picture nominees. Beware of spoilers; other posts can be found here.

Black Swan

Natalie Portman is surrounded by a powerful force field of genre that clouds my mind, the result of her early starring role in Luc Besson’s gold-tinged fairy tale of a father-assassin, Leon: The Professional (1994) and — crucially — playing Padmé Amidala in the three Star Wars prequels (1999-2005). There in his mad but pedestrian fantasies George Lucas doomed Portman to the same plasticification he inflicted on Ewan McGregor, as though the director were showing off his ability to convert vital young actors into synthespians avant la lettre. Apart from these two mythically-overdetermined roles, Portman hasn’t really jumped out at me; certainly I wasn’t prepared for the vicious, wincing beauty of her performance in Black Swan.

Darren Aronofsky I also find something of an indirect object. His first film, Pi (1998), seemed almost untoppable in its perfection: minimal yet cosmic in the manner of the Twilight Zone and Outer Limits episodes that supplied its black-and-white grain and shoestring-budget nerd-horror. But we went our separate ways with the assaultive Requiem for A Dream (2000), whose blunt moralizing coarsened and corrupted the elan of its editing and cinematography. No fan of being brutalized, I ignored The Fountain (2006) and suspected The Wrestler‘s (2008) self-effacing warmth was just a tactic to get close enough to hurt me again.

Black Swan doesn’t need to line up neatly on some chart of my fears and fixations, of course; it’s allowed to be what it is, an exercise in style as broad as Sirk in its swoony melodrama and as slender as a surgical needle in its excitation of our nerves. Maybe the reason I want to graph it is because it so unerringly pinpoints a certain set of cinematic intersections — Alfred Hitchcock, Dario Argento, Brian DePalma, with a sprinkling of David Cronenberg and a side of Fritz Lang — pinning Portman to their nexus like a butterfly. It could be the most misogynistic film since True Lies (1994), that insufferably jovial Abu Ghraib of an action movie, but like James Cameron, Aronofsky has a way of turning the suffering of his women inside out, building up their vulnerability only to reverse it into (often deadly) toughness: female body become Swiss Army knife.

The movie’s narrative of possession — as in being possessed — encourages us to cheer for Portman’s character, Nina, even as she devolves into an ever more unhinged and unsettling state; she’s more than a little like Catherine Deneuve in Repulsion (Roman Polanski, 1965). Is Black Swan simply another story about a beautiful monster, whom we pity even as we recoil from her? By the film’s very design, it’s impossible to say: the closing moments made me laugh like I was finally getting a joke, but as in The Game (David Fincher, 1997), I couldn’t tell you what the punchline meant.

Oscar Notes 2011: 127 Hours

More thoughts on this year’s Best Picture nominees. I’m writing with the assumption that readers have seen the films in question, so please beware of spoilers. Other posts in the series can be found here.

127 Hours

If The King’s Speech is a castration run in reverse — the restoration of potency after a lifelong absence — 127 Hours offers up this most basic of phallic dramas in its correct, fated order: a gathering dread that culminates in a foundational wounding. (As in most psychodynamics, of course, time’s arrow is rarely straightforward: castration, like the primal scene, can only ever be retroactively experienced, trauma reconstructed in phantasy.) Knowledge of what is to come colors the entire film; the self-amputation performed by Aron Ralston (James Franco) awaits us at the end of the narrative like Shelob in her lair, and the sunny boisterousness of the rest of the movie (at least as it’s been shot and edited) seems like a long innoculation against those inevitable minutes of agony.

And what beautifully rendered agony it is! Movies are getting good at this lately — the stimulation of our pain centers via optical and audio channels, torture at a distance. (I blame, and thank, pornography.) The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004) still holds the record for the most lovingly conceptualized and rhapsodically paced destruction of an onscreen body, a four-course feast of suffering served up in more efficient form by the Saw franchise (2003-present) with the reliable abundance of fast-food burgers sliding down their stainless-steel troughs. Japanese guinea-pig films worked out much of the cinematic algebra involved, but it is in the French “new extreme” movement, specifically À l’intérieur (Julien Maury and Alexandre Bustillo, 2007) and Martyrs (Pascal Laugier, 2008), that we find this movie’s closest conceptual cousins, exploring the ways in which the visitation of unspeakable violence upon an avatarial stand-in for the spectator results in a kind of mutual apotheosis. As Aron, starved, dehydrated, and bleeding, stumbles out of his death trap, so we leave the theater cleansed, reborn. Having seen ourselves torn apart in the mirror of the movie, we appreciate anew the intactness of our limbs.

Being antisocial myself, I resent the way in which Ralston’s trials have been framed as a kind of punitive purgatorial isolation — the price of his disconnection from society. Ten years after 9/11, apparently, it’s become a bad thing to be a hero (the term used more than once not to praise but to chastise the self-sufficient outdoorsman), and the paneled montages of bustling crowds that open and close the movie read not as condemnations but celebrations of what I can only, in my own grumpy solitude, label herd security: endorsement of the arrival-gate fuzzies of Love Actually (Richard Curtis, 2003) over the misanthropic kaleidoscope of Koyaanisqatsi (Godfrey Reggio, 1982).

I have come to expect surprises from Danny Boyle, which when you think about it is a bit of a paradox. It’s the same way I feel about Quentin Tarantino and the Coen Brothers — the sense that they are minting, with each new film, fresh and highly-specific genres — though Boyle tends to work territory for which I’m more of a sucker, like 28 Days Later (2002) and Sunshine (2007), the latter being one of the most sublimely gorgeous science-fiction films ever made, exceptforitslastthirdwhichsucks. Boyle is showy in all the right ways, setting himself crazy storytelling challenges and then using style to sucker-punch them into submission. But his game in 127 Hours might finally be too similar to that of his previous film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008), another passion play about a young man in mortal danger whose backstory is parceled out in advent-calendar glimpses.

As for James Franco: as far as I’m concerned, this and Freaks and Geeks (1999) more than make up for his turn in the Spider-Man films.

Oscar Notes 2011: The King’s Speech

Over the past week I’ve been doing my homework for the Academy Awards, working my way through the Best Picture nominees. I have enough old-school lead in my shoes to still drag my feet when it comes to the list’s expansion to ten titles: since 2009, the lineup has seemed a little less … elite. On the other hand, I’m new-school enough to recognize that, in this context, “elite” is just another word for “canon fodder,” and if there’s more room in the pool, the diversity of our celebrated archives can only increase. (Unless we adopt the cynical view that it’s all the same brand of sausage, in which case, I suggest skipping the media middleman and just eating some sausage.) With this round of nominations, at least, I savored the grab-bag effect, the ten films up for Best Picture a satisfyingly strange mixture of tastes. Leading up to the Oscars, I will post some quick thoughts on the nominees.

The King’s Speech

On Facebook I called this film “Lacanian,” triggering a long chain of comments — proof less of my throwaway profundity, I know, than of the internet’s global function as a text generator, an explosive growth medium for words compared to which the linkless and un-live petri dish of the prior epoch, Gutenberg’s, now looks a limited arena indeed. (Funny, just a few decades ago it seemed the size of the universe.) As a friend pointed out recently on this very blog, the invocation of Lacan is itself another kind of lexical kudzu, and even if you threatened me with captation, I couldn’t name a specific teaching of the Master’s that applies to The King’s Speech.

Yet a Lacanian thing it remains, and here is why: it is explicit, clinical, and unsparing in its knotting of language, (royal) authority, and fathers – its title in French could be Nom du pere. Watching Colin Firth struggle, strangle, to find his voice, one is reminded that whether or not the subaltern speaks, “superaltern” status is determined first by the seizing of language. The triumphant surge of jouissance generated by the new King’s successful navigation of his radio address has a phallic rush to it — the story is a castration in reverse — but it is a tragic trap George VI finds himself in at the end, subject of a discourse inherited from his father as surely as the British are subjects of him.

Having watched a few episodes of the HBO miniseries John Adams directed by Tom Hooper, I notice the director has a characteristic way of shooting dialogue: shot-reverse-shot constructions in which the interlocutors’ heads are positioned to far right and left of their respective frames, so that if you superimposed them you would get a two-shot. Edited together, the sequences have a lovely rhythm, the back-and-forth of the conversation built on a seesawing center of visual gravity. With Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush playing two halves of what is essentially a single, sundered subjectivity, the effect is as though Bergman’s Persona had been recast with men, its splitscreen compositions opened out in time.

It would make a great screening for a course on new media — especially one whose syllabus takes seriously the axiom that all media are new in the time of their introduction. Fascinated to an almost Cronenbergian degree by the alien apparatus of the microphone and radio dial, The King’s Speech flirts with science-fictional status in its dissection of the transformative cultural and political impact of emergent information technologies and the social protocols in which they are swaddled. Like Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939), whose plot is set in motion by the disruption and repair of a telegraph line in India through which colonial British messages travel, The King’s Speech understands that power and communication find their inextricable nexus in the media machines that distribute that other machine, language.