February 10, 2011

Is "The Black Swan" just not gay enough?

The NYT's dance critic Alastair Macaulay echoes some of my concern's about Darren Aronofsky's Oscar-nominated ballet movie:

As I wrote in Taki's Magazine:
The Black Swan’s central problem is that the heterosexual Aronofsky, who directed Mickey Rourke so well in The Wrestler two years ago, appears more inspired by professional wrestling than by ballet. Despite Aronofsky’s undoubted cleverness (Harvard Class of ’91), he seems to love the idea of ballet far more than he cares for ballet itself. A film stronger on analysis than artfulness, The Black Swan’s dancing, while competently filmed, is seldom electrifying. 

Macaulay, who certainly is a better judge of ballet than me, comes to similar conclusions:
Though “Black Swan” certainly feels hostile to ballet, I don’t think it means to be. Its real objective — above and beyond that of so many women’s movies — is to imply that a woman’s truest fulfillment is as (heterosexual) lover, wife and mother, and therefore that Nina’s best artistic successes can never compensate for her personal sacrifices. The “Black Swan” view of ballet is that it’s an unnatural art in which women deny too many normal aspects of womanhood.

There is copious evidence to support that view. Witness such dancer autobiographies as Ms. Kirkland’s and Toni Bentley’s “Winter Season” (1982). Ms. Bentley describes how, when she has her third monthly period in a row, colleagues in her dressing room ask, “Are you sure you’re a dancer?” True dancers, according to that attitude, don’t have normal female functions.

To these negatives ballet brings many positives: energy, responsiveness to music, discipline, teamwork, idealism, interpretative fulfillment. Not so “Black Swan.” It’s both irresistible and odious. I was gripped by its melodrama, but its nightmarish view of both ballet and women is not one I’m keen to see again. As a horror movie, it’s not extreme. As a woman’s movie, however, it’s the end of the line.

Most depressingly, Nina is just not a great role. She’s too much a victim — the film makes her helpless, passive — to be seriously involving. Though she enjoys triumph, we never see the willpower that gets her there, just the psychosis and the martyrdom. It’s the latest hit movie for misogynists. 

47 comments:

Anonymous said...

Slight side note but there is an incredible book out about ballet called Apollos Angels
http://www.amazon.com/Apollos-Angels-History-Jennifer-Homans/dp/1400060605
ballet is dying," she declares. Not only is the creative well running dry and performances dull, but more crucially, Homans sees today's values as inimical to those of ballet ("We are all dancers now," she writes, evoking what she sees as a misguided egalitarianism that denies an art rooted in discipline and virtuosity)
her parents were Uof Chi profs I think - and she's a bright woman AND she apparently danced professionally - the book is fascinating .. because few ballet dancers have the intellect to translate the body smarts in to word smarts....

Anonymous said...

As I just noted on the previous thread [ironically enough], the other huge problem with The Black Swan is that Natalie Portman is at that point in her life where she is now well into "The Change".

Whiskey said...

The problem with "Not Gay Enough" is that gay by definition only applies to a tiny (likely 4-5%) of men and women each.

What does a Gay Man have to say to a heterosexual man or woman? Not much, really. The concerns of gay men, by definition, are not really of much interest to that of straight men and women. Who occupy different universes in terms of fundamental motivations.

If a sport (women's gymnastics) or art (ballet) is so demanding that normal women who have periods cannot really perform them, something is fundamentally wrong with the sport or art. Twisted into "gayness" that isolates it by definition from the larger audience making it an irrelevant hothouse niche with nothing universal to say.

The decline of Ballet is likely due to its gayness, see also Hollywood, TV, and much of popular culture. What the hell does Glee have to say, after all? Not much, despite arguably some of the better production values, dancing, and technical excellence on the show.

Truth said...

"What does a Gay Man have to say to a heterosexual man or woman?"

Hi Bob...How are the wife and kids?...Did you watch the superbowl last night?...Nice weather, isn't it?...I like your new car...How's the meat loaf?...Are you done with my lawnmower yet?...How's your dsughter doing in college?...How far away from the earth is the sun?...I like Boston Market coffee better than Starbucks.............
.....

Contemplationist said...

lol@ misogynists. Anything real-worldly is misogynist, sexist, racist etc etc

Anonymous said...

I'm gay, but I tend to like masculine type movies. Conan the Barbarian, Red River, Treasure of the Sierra Madre, etc. I also like some girlie movies, such as Clueless, Out of Africa, and various musicals. So I can testify from this unique vantage that Black Swan fails on gay and masculine levels equally. There is no story there. The grafting of cheap horror onto beautiful ballet is grotesque in the extreme. The horror elements are plainly lifted from 80s movies, such as the Fly and Nightmare on Elm street(notice the obvious lift of the bathtub scene). It's a case of the naked emperor; it's so weird and shocking people are supposed to think it's "artistic", and are worried that they will appear dumb if they don't get it.

Ray Sawhill said...

Just for the record: Toni Bentley's very eloquent about the harsh demands that ballet makes and what it inflicts on the girls who try to make it in the field. But she also thinks that the glories the art sometimes delivers make it all worth the cost.

(FWIW, I disagree -- it all seems insane to me. That said, if people are gonna do it anyway, I may occasionally take a look at what they're producing, and may even let myself enjoy some of it. I feel the same way about boxing, car racing, '70s filmmaking, football, stunt snowboarding, and many other nutty activities.)

Christine said...

Well, that's the magic of ballet and most opera, Whiskey. Heterosexual love stories told with a gay, epicene sensibility, even if the composer, librettist or choreographer is in most cases, heterosexual. These art forms not for everyone. I agree with you that both are minority tastes. For ballet at least, when a piece crosses the line into soft porn or the heterosexual male gaze, the piece dies.

Rain And said...

"and therefore that Nina’s best artistic successes can never compensate for her personal sacrifices. The “Black Swan” view of ballet is that it’s an unnatural art in which women deny too many normal aspects of womanhood."

No it wasn't. The movie implied that Nina ultimately found fulfillment in her sacrifice. It was the exact same theme in the Wrestler, except with the genders reversed.

Was the Wrestler a misandrist movie?

Rain And said...

In fact the Wrestler was a far more extreme version of what Macaulay implies. Mickey Rourke's character was trapped in the self-destructive role he chose as a young man, but Nina was still young and beautiful enough to escape her unrewarding life choices. Even Winona Ryder's 40-something character would have little trouble finding a good husband and settling into a wife and mother role.

It's much easier for aging beauties to cash in their chips in mid-life than loser men.

Anonymous said...

I took a date to see Nureyev. In his big solo he fell right on his ass. The next day he defected.

My only ballet story.

Albertosaurus

beowulf said...

What a dark, dark movie but what do gay men have to do with it? The subtext of the movie is Nina being the victim of mother-daughter sexual abuse. By getting in touch with her "black swan", Nina had a mental breakdown as her repressed memories and feelings about her abuse came to the surface.

To quote psychologist Kathleen Young:
"I wondered if I too would interpret the movie as centering around an underlying theme of mother-daughter sexual abuse. I left wondering how anyone could not see this theme. And yet many do not....We also see Nina exhibiting symptoms that are common in survivors of incest..."
http://drkathleenyoung.wordpress.com/2011/01/21/black-swan-revealing-mother-daughter-abuse/

stari_momak said...

What does Nassim Nicholas Taleb have to say about all this?

Anonymous said...

Passion of the Ballerina.

travis said...

No it wasn't. The movie implied that Nina ultimately found fulfillment in her sacrifice. It was the exact same theme in the Wrestler, except with the genders reversed.

You're right about the two movies sharing the same theme with the genders reversed, but I'm not sure you're correct that both found fulfillment. Clearly "The Ram" was filled with regret that he could never be a proper father to his daughter. As for Nina, she may have been happy, but she paid a high price for it. Both "The Ram" and Nina would rather commit suicide than face the emptiness of their non-performing lives.

It’s the latest hit movie for misogynists.

Apparently Aronofsky's baby's mama is currently dating Daniel Craig
. Says a "close source": ‘Darren’s such a good and responsible man, but Daniel’s the opposite extreme, he’s brooding and mysterious. Darren and Rachel have simply grown apart, they spent long periods away from each other, moving in different directions.’ Darren is done being Mr. Good and Responsible. His next movie is an adaptation of The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, starring Brad Pitt. Mr. Macaulay need to look for Aronofsky to direct Eat, Pray, Love 2: One Woman's Continued Search for Everything Across France, Singapore and Sudan.

Anonymous said...

It's much easier for aging beauties to cash in their chips in mid-life than loser men.
not in NYC.

Kylie said...

"What does a Gay Man have to say to a heterosexual man or woman?"

Good point, Whiskey. Factor out the toe-tapping (straight men) and interior decorating tips (straight women) and I can't imagine that any Gay Man would have anything to say to other than those of his own persuasion.




To forestall the literal-minded and readily offended who now congregate here: /sarc

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

I saw the movie a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by how relentlessly bleak it was. Every character in the film brought more pressure and tension to Nina.

A more typical film would've been tempted to relieve this by having one character who provided a bit of refuge and comfort to Portman's character. And if it had, it would have been one of two movie tropes: a wacky older female relative, or gay male peer/neighbor.

Not Mikhail Baryshnikov said...

As a hetero who dabbled in ballet, it can become an all-consuming passion. It is both physically and artistically demanding and challenging without limit.

The women immersed in it seemed a bit off. Like women obsessed with horses or classical music, ballerinas seemed withdrawn from reality and other people. It was the female equivalent of men obsessed with programming or withdrawn into a role playing virtual world game.

Of course it could have just been personal. Maybe they found me particularly repulsive for defiling their sacred space and art form. Who knows?

Anonymous said...

The other Black Swan.

http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/3651/full

Anonymous said...

What does a Gay Man have to say to a heterosexual man or woman?

Tchaikovsky was the greatest ballet composer who ever lived, and if some of the more unseemly rumors about him are indeed true - especially concerning his relationship with his nephew, Vladimir Davydov - then the guy was also a world-class pervert.

PS: May I assume that you are familiar with the famous picture of Rahm Emanuel in full-on ballerina drag?

They've got almost 400 stories about him at Hillbuzz.

peter A said...

Ironically pre-Stonewall most of US mainstream culture was dominated by gays. Straight white men actually used to enjoy musicals,watch opera and ballet and even enjoy a night out dancing, because no one worried about being considered "gay" - you really had to be an effeminate queen to be ostracized. Gay "liberation" - by exacerbating the straight/gay split - has had a very damaging effect on our cultural life.

TGGP said...

beowulf, the subject of child abuse is one where America is crazy and the crazy are accomodated in their beliefs. This was most dramatically illustrated in the 80s daycare abuse cases, where children claiming they had seen satanic sacrifices and were taken up into spaceships were treated as credible witnesses. There were also lots of claims around that time that people only discovered their "repressed memory" through hypnosis, which invariably turned out to be bogus (traumatic events actually tend to be ingrained in our memories, even if we were children when they occurred). There was a recurrence of that with "facilitated communication" where severely autistic kids were basically used as ouji boards to accuse their parents of abuse. The latter trend was too recent to be included in Elaine Showalter's "Hystories", but I highly recommend the book for its accounts of hysterias whose participants were utterly convinced and impossible to argue with because they were "victims".

Regarding the damage done by child abuse, your genes did not evolve to kill you, and because some degree of parent-child genetic conflict is common (as Trivers famously noted) children have evolved to be resilient. If child abuse victims grow up to be screwed up, it's likely because they share genes with their aberrant parents.

Chip Smith gives more here, although he's using those ideas to argue for holocaust revisionism.

Anonymous said...

"Gay 'liberation' - by exacerbating the straight/gay split - has had a very damaging effect on our cultural life."

But disco was big with straight people. And lots of straight people enjoy gays in movies, tv, music, etc.

What you mean is maybe conservative/gay split. Maybe fewer conservative straights attend things that are obviously 'gay' because the gay factor is no longer hidden. That may be true but on the other hand, there are lots of conservatives at the National Review who seem to welcome stuff that's overtly gay.

Anonymous said...

"What does a Gay Man have to say to a heterosexual man or woman? Not much, really. The concerns of gay men, by definition, are not really of much interest to that of straight men and women. Who occupy different universes in terms of fundamental motivations."

Jesus, you're a moron.

Anonymous said...

"because few ballet dancers have the intellect to translate the body smarts in to word smarts...."

Oh please, I"ve known three ballerinas: Two were high IQ and incredibly articulate and, though I can't be certain, I think the one who attended the same high school I did was taking calculus.

beowulf said...

TGGP, I'm sorry just because prosecutors have encouraged young children to tell stories of spaceship-related sex encounters doesn't mean that sexual abuse is just a myth. Professionally (I'm a lawyer) I've had clients who were sexually abused as children, their memories of it blocked and their spontaneous recovery of those memories as adults led to unfortunate psychological abreactions. And no these weren't "false memories".

In one case that stands out in my mind, the abusive uncle (who prostituted his orphaned teenage niece to his friends) was tricked into confessing on tape by a jackass lawyer. The next day, he committed suicide when he found out the cops were on the way with an arrest warrant. Oops, my bad!

Sometimes children are abused by people they trust and watching Nina's breakdown on screen was painful because I've seen that in real life. Now I get it that Natalie Portman was acting, but I immediately saw where her character was coming from and it wasn't walking out of a spaceship.

Jim O said...

OK. Somebody makes up a ridiculous story, then a bunch of people film the story, then a larger bunch of people ruminate over what it all means.

Folks, in this particular case, all it means is that The Black Swan is pretentious horse manure. That's all. Move along people; nothing to see here.

Jane said...

@ anon #2:

FYI, when a lot of women write about "the Change", they mean "menopause."

Anonymous said...

The Red Shoes it ain't.

Anonymous said...

"the other huge problem with The Black Swan is that Natalie Portman is at that point in her life where she is now well into "The Change"."

Do you mean she's too old for the role? Or are you just dwelling creepily on female biological functions?

Anonymous said...

i regret not taking ballet - seriously- and not just so i could be around hotties..

I live in New York, I can always tell a ballet dancer, they walk with a grace and carry themselves with a dignity that seems like its from another age.. but often they are intellectually empty.

Anonymous said...

For some reason I think women's legs look 100% better in tights. Why? shouldn't I like naked better?

Anonymous said...

Oh please, I"ve known three ballerinas: Two were high IQ and incredibly articulate and, though I can't be certain
Professionals? I have known 3 ex NYCballet - all were like polished dumb jocks.

Anonymous said...

if a sinister gay character were put in the film the militant homo movement would have been all over it. In our pc times, the only POSSIBLe gay you could have but in was a good fairy, but that would have been in conflict with the dark nature of the whole film.

charlotte said...

"For some reason I think women's legs look 100% better in tights. Why? shouldn't I like naked better?"

I don't know.
But I do know that silk stockings were currency during WWII, and need I go into the garter belt fixation of some men. I always thought the garter belt thinkg had to do with men like mechanical stuff.

Kylie said...

"The Red Shoes it ain't."

Apparently not. But it just might take its place alongside Ben Hecht's overwrought foray into the world of ballet and the madness of tormented artistes, Specter of the Rose.

Wikipedia: Specter of the Rose.

Anonymous said...

"Professionals? I have known 3 ex NYCballet - all were like polished dumb jocks."

Of the two professionals, one taught honors English to upper level high school students, a class which included the most thorough approach to learning how to write research papers that I have ever seen. The other I'm not sure about, she danced professionally in high school and was in Symphonic band as well - Not necessarily an indication of high IQ but at that school probably.

The third did a business major at a competitive university and combined it with a near 2nd major in a foreign language. I'm sure she would've been good amateur as a young girl or she wouldn't have pursued ballet.

That being said, there's probably much more competition in a place like NY. Maybe you should've stuck with the semi-finalists and the wanna be's for good conversation.

Anonymous said...

"Professionals? I have known 3 ex NYCballet - all were like polished dumb jocks."
Jennifer ringer nycb, was pretty bright and she's a principal dancer. She even took time off to get a degree at columbia in literature.

re: tights:
Could be most ballernina's (thus the women you see wearing tights) have awesome legs? I love that slightly overdeveloped upper leg that dancers have.

Marc B said...

The scene in the movie where the lead actress gets a pair of new ballet slippers, modifies them, and then attended to her various mutated appendages and traumatized joints reminded me of how hardcore over-30 rock climbers behave while warming up at the base of an overhanging rock face.

Anonymous said...

I just saw the film. Misogyny? i will have to think about that perspective. At this point, it looks like an exploration of that perfectionist personality, what happens when you demand an individual like that 'lose herself'. . . yikes. Also reminded me very much of my sister when she suffered from anorexia. Another extreme practice in discipline and control - not to equate dance with anorexia, but the perfectionist personality can be found there, too. I'm not sure it was a condemnation of ballet. . . Lily's character was portrayed as a relatively 'well-balanced' person through her offer of friendship, eating a cheese-burger, seeing the mom as totally weird. . . she provides the more mainstream perspective on this stuff. Of course drugging the drink with the two men there echoed a date-rape scenario. . . could it be women in ballet was simply chosen as a setting that lends itself to exploring this pursuit of perfection?

If anyone is interested. . . Tchaikovsky married a woman who threatened to kill herself if he rejected her.

David said...

>If a sport (women's gymnastics) or art (ballet) is so demanding that normal women who have periods cannot really perform them, something is fundamentally wrong with the sport or art.<

Why do all sports and arts have to be open to women?

David said...

>"because few ballet dancers have the intellect to translate the body smarts in to word smarts...."

Oh please, I've known three ballerinas: Two were high IQ and incredibly articulate and, though I can't be certain, I think the one who attended the same high school I did was taking calculus.<


"Most swans are white."

Typical idiot: "That isn't true! I know or two that are black."

"Men on average are taller than women."

Typical idiot: "That's crazy! I know several men who are shorter than women."

"Blacks are more violent per capita than whites."

Typical idiot: "That's racist! I know some black dudes who aren't criminals."

And so the parade of folly continues.

MQ said...

lol@ misogynists. Anything real-worldly is misogynist, sexist, racist etc etc

Yeah, The Black Swan is very "real-worldly".

Haven't seen it, but it seems like what people are pointing out is that it entirely lacks any perspective on the positive values of self-discipline and devotion to a deep art form. These are conservative themes.

And oh, "The Wrestler" and "The Black Swan" are not that parallel unless you think professional wrestling = ballet.

Kylie said...

"Why do all sports and arts have to be open to women?"

In an ideal world, a case could be made for the more strenuous sports being open to women, leaving the poor dears too tired to do the nattering on and gadding about the rest of us find so tiresome.

Unfortunately, in the real world, it's the most stridently vigorous among them who take up, say, field hockey or basketball and still have lots of energy left over to bedevil the rest of us.

Men made some major mistakes back 80-100 years ago with the development of so many labor-saving household devices. Did they really think all the time and energy those saved the distaff side would then be expended on attending to men's comfort and convenience?

Felix M said...

>"because few ballet dancers have the intellect to translate the body smarts in to word smarts...."

And David goes into knee jerk reaction. The existence of some black swans (to advert to the topic) doesn't disprove the assertion that Most swans are white. etc

But the comment was that *all* of the ballet dancers in his experience were intelligent or very intelligent.

(BTW, I've met one - male - ballet dancer. I couldn't tell whether he was intelligent, but he was uneducated and convinced of his own superiority.)

David said...

"Is 'The Black Swan' just not gay enough?"

It's gay enough to keep me away.