Sunday, November 17, 2013

Black Swan: Art Damage

It's not often that a movie that could be considered horror gets serious consideration as something other than genre entertainment, so when one comes along, it's kind of a big deal. It's honestly sort of tough to write about a movie like this, because at this point so much has already been said about it, for good or ill, insightful or no. I'm just one more dude watching this movie about which most people probably already have an opinion. But here it is: Black Swan is a striking, vivid depiction of tension, repression, and paranoia, but one that doesn't quite make it over the finish line with its strengths intact.

The film opens with the prologue to Swan Lake, and pretty much tells the whole story in a few minutes - the white swan is engulfed by a dark, bestial figure. This is not going to end well.

The swan is ballerina Nina Sayers, a dancer in a New York ballet company experiencing some rough financial times and hoping to renew interest with a radical reinterpretation of the classic Swan Lake. The company's star, Beth MacIntyre, is retiring (not of her own volition, it seems) at the end of the season and the company's director wants a new dancer for the principal role as the Swan Queen. Nina wants the role badly, but it's a tough sell. She's technically as good a dancer as there is, but the role demands that she dance the part of the Black Swan, desire incarnate. Nina is drawn as tight and thin as a bowstring, all whispers and hesitancy, kept trimmed into arrested development by a deeply controlling, enmeshed mother. She's a grown woman with the bedroom of a 12-year-old, all stuffed animals and pink wallpaper. She's like some kind of hothouse flower or bonsai tree, built to specific purpose and not really good at thriving outside of very specific environments. She's not very worldly, and it becomes pretty clear pretty quickly that she is essentially prey in this situation. Everyone - from her mother to the company director to other dancers - is poised to take as much advantage of Nina as possible.

The defining image, then of this film: Nina breaking in a pair of toe shoes. Pink satin stitches ripped, laces burned, soles scuffed, scratched, broken. The shoes themselves share some uncomfortable similarities with footbinding, and it is the idea of constraint in the service of aesthetics, breaking something to bend it to a larger purpose, that runs through the movie like a single shrill chord under everything else. The pressure around dancing the role of the Swan Queen compresses Nina even further, and insecurity turns to suspicion, suspicion turns to paranoia, and paranoia starts to fray everything around the edges, until it becomes clear that we can't be sure how much of what's happening to Nina is actually happening.

Watching this movie is like watching someone standing on the uncertain ice in the middle of a frozen lake. Everything in the film is black and white and gray except for Nina, who is pink and white, and one libidinous blur of a night out, all strobing green, blue, and red. There are mirrors and reflections everywhere, used to tremendous effect to call into question exactly what it is Nina is experiencing. The camera circles and paces around Nina like a predator, waiting to strike. When things happen, they happen quick and sharp, in sudden, startling reveals. At first, we detect little cracks and chips around the edges of Nina's sanity, then the cracks spread, and spread, and everything falls apart into hallucinatory spectacle.

But, in the end, the film doesn't build to as hysteric a pitch as I might have hoped. It's about Nina's disintegration, but just when you expect everything to go completely batshit insane (because that's the way it's been heading, in often surprising fashion), in the end it stops short. Just when you expect everything to collapse, it…doesn't, and then the credits roll. Behind-the-scenes features suggest that the film could have been more gruesome and nightmarish in some of the details than what we got, and that sort of bugs me. It's not that I wanted more gore or anything like that - everything leading up to the denouement suggested that what we were seeing was someone's life spiraling into chaos, and a lot of really uncomfortable (physically and psychologically) stuff made it in. This movie goes some interesting places for something that actually got nominated for Academy Awards, and I think that's why it bothers me. There was an opportunity here to really push the envelope, to embrace the horror of what's happening to Nina, to pay off the degree to which the tremendous pressure she's under has warped her view of reality, and the tools of the horror film are tailor-made for exactly that. If you want to show what a nightmare someone's life has become, make their life the stuff of nightmares.

It's oddly appropriate, since the biggest criticism leveled at Nina's performance of the Black Swan is that she doesn't cut loose - she's too formal, too restrained to achieve transcendence in her performance. Admittedly, my own criticism is at least partly ideological - this is one of those cases where one director's horror film becomes another's "thriller" or "drama", but I think it's an important distinction. Make no mistake, this is a beautifully constructed movie, with impeccably realized characters and a real eye for detail and unsettling imagery. Most bog-standard horror films tend to emphasize the unsettling imagery over things like strong visual style and fully developed characters, so seeing that there was an opportunity here to tell a scary story in masterful fashion, to demonstrate that horror can be art and art can be horrifying, that shrinking back at the very last moment made me a little sad. Just as the truth of Nina was compromised by everyone else's needs, so was her story.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available on Amazon Instant Video
Unavailable on Netflix Instant (Available on DVD)

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Scalene: Three Sides, None Equal

There's a long, honored tradition in literature and cinema of telling the same story from multiple points of view and using contradictions and inconsistencies between the tellings to build up our understanding of the story, often with one last narrative providing sort of an "a-ha" moment, a final revelation, the discovery of which makes us call everything else into question. It's an especially useful technique for horror movies and thrillers, because that one last piece of information can trigger the horror of discovery - the feeling we get when the full implications of what we know reveal themselves and our full understanding of what we've just witnessed overwhelms us.

What does this have to do with the movie? Well, a scalene triangle is one in which all three sides (and thus their angles) are different. As a title goes, it's simultaneously a little too cryptic and a little too on-the-nose, but Scalene does a fine job of fulfilling the title's thesis and giving us three perspectives on a series of events, in the process telling a smart, restrained story about human failing and the tragedies that the simplest of decisions can loose upon the world.

We open on extremity - an older woman, obviously at the end of her rope, telling a younger woman that she wants "him" back. We don't know who "he" is or what relationship these two women have, but the encounter is brief, awkward, and ugly in its violence. Something lead this older woman to do something terrible, and the rest of the film lays out the chain of events that culminated here, tracing three people's paths to their final destinations.

The older woman is Janice, mother to a young man named Jacob. Jacob has something very wrong with him, and at 26 years of age, he requires constant supervision and care. The younger woman is Paige, and she is Jacob's caregiver. Something has happened between the three of them, but saying much more betrays the careful unpacking of events that makes up the majority of the film. Suffice it to say that everyone has been hurt irreversibly, and although we can try to find fault, it's like the title says: There are three sides here.

Scalene tells a very sad story in three different ways: Janice's story runs backward from her final encounter with Paige to the incident that started it all, Paige's runs forward from the decision that brings her to Jacob to her final encounter with Janice, and Jacob's is brief and unmoored by time, place, or logic, but just as revelatory all the same.

It's almost a cliche to say that nothing is what it seems here - if it were, why play with chronology? If there are no secrets to be revealed, why not just walk us from the beginning to some awful end? But the movie doesn't quite tip its hand - no, not everything is what it seems, but everything isn't not what it seems either - we might be able to trust our first impressions of these people after all, but not for the reasons we think. By the end of the film, there's an understanding that good people can do terrible things, and that even the right motivations or the best of intentions can't excuse our crimes. To come to that understanding, we have to watch events unfold (or in Janice's case, collapse in on themselves) and see what brought Janice to the end of her tether, what brought Paige into Jacob's life, and how Jacob ended up as he did. Our understanding shifts and changes kaleidoscopically - forms vary, but the underlying colors remain constant. They are always the same people, but our understanding of what it means to be that person is transformed.

Janice cares for her son, but the strain of taking care of him is pulling her apart slowly but surely. And it's clear why - Jacob can't be left unsupervised for any amount of time, he's very sensitive to stimuli and doesn't always have a good sense of what appropriate behavior is, as strongly outlined by Paige's first night with him, when an attempt to share pizza with Jacob underlines that he's isn't just someone who needs care, he's a 26-year-old man, physically fit and possessed of a 26-year-old man's needs but without any means to monitor or moderate his own behavior. He's a ticking time bomb's worth of id, and Paige is well-intentioned, but very young and maybe a little idealistic. It becomes clear in this single scene that she might be in a little over her head, and doesn't know it yet.

But Janice makes the choices she does, too - she's still a woman, her husband left sometime in the past, and she doesn't always make the right choice or handle Jacob's care with the painstaking attention it requires. Paige may ask some inappropriate questions, but that doesn't make Janice's answers to those questions any more convincing, and their relationship dynamic over time does its own share of work to create the events that follow. All of this is handled deftly, we learn a lot about these people by watching them interact (or fail to interact) and it's because we're shown who they are, not told. The urge to lay blame and point fingers is strong, but the film doesn't urge us in one direction or another - it shows us what happens, and lets the course of events speak for itself.

In addition to thoughtful characterization, there's a strong, confident visual vocabulary at work. Color underlies the three main characters and suggests something about affinities between them. Shots are well composed to reflect the characters' internal states - in the aftermath of terrible deeds, characters are placed at the center of the shot and scenery appears to move around them; they are not so much in motion as they are frozen in the awareness of what they've done as the world moves around them. The brief interlude from Jacob's perspective is especially effective - our point of view wanders constantly, regardless of where the shot is focused, and everything we see is unreliable. He's trapped in a waking nightmare.

At the same time, the deliberate emphasis on imagery and perspective never feels gimmicky or stagey. This movie is set very much in everyday life, and the juxtaposition between the world the characters inhabit and how we see them calls to mind for me a less-flashy One Hour Photo, a comparison that extends to the story as well - we know something bad has happened, and the movie is finding out exactly what happened and why. By the end we feel horror, pity, and disgust, not so much for any one person as for the entire situation, and a lack of pat answers or tidy resolution means we keep thinking about what we've seen and more importantly, what we might have missed.

IMDB entry
Purchase from Amazon
Available from Amazon Instant Video
Available from Netflix