Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Archive for December 6th, 2010

Psycho, Black Swan, and the problem of surprise

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to a memorable showing of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho at the CSO, with a live orchestra playing Bernard Herrmann’s magnificent score. It was the second time in just over a year that I’d watched Psycho with a live audience—I saw it last August in Grant Park—and it’s always a lot of fun: everyone is appropriately jaded by the film’s most famous scene, but then there’s that second murder, which is much less well known, and which invariably results in a big scream from the audience, fifty years after the movie’s original release.

Before the screening, we attended a discussion of the film with the AV Club’s Keith Phipps and Scott Tobias, where Phipps shared the following story (which, if you haven’t seen Psycho, I’d advise you to skip):

I took a friend to see Psycho…Not only had he never seen Psycho, he had somehow managed to remain ignorant of its twist. We sat in front of a pair of elderly women who decided to provide a running commentary about the film, specifically about how much things had changed since the 1960s. “Gas sure was cheap back then,” one commented as Janet Leigh pulled into a gas station. “Cars sure were big back then,” the other responded. (It might just be my memory making the story better, but I could swear one of them also said, “It sure was dark back then.”) It was annoying. But not as annoying as the moment shortly after Leigh’s death, when one said, “Isn’t he pretending to be his mother or something?”

Phipps says that he then saw his friend “tense up with rage.” Well, sure. These days, it’s so rare for anyone to see Psycho without any previous knowledge that those women deserved, if not to be stabbed in the shower, then at least to watch that awful psychiatrist’s speech over and over again.

Not long after seeing Psycho at the CSO, I had a plot point for Black Swan spoiled for me, appropriately enough, by an anonymous commenter on the AV Club. Needless to say, I tensed up with rage, and was afraid that the movie had been ruined. But when I mentioned this on Twitter, Scott Tobias responded: “No worries. The film will work for you (or not) regardless.” And, strangely enough, he was right. I don’t think my experience of the movie was any less compelling because I knew where the story was going. I may even have enjoyed it slightly more.

So what makes Black Swan different from Psycho? One difference, obviously, is that it’s a greater crime to spoil a classic: Psycho is one of a handful of movies that will probably be watched a hundred years from now, while the jury is still out on Black Swan. More important, though, is the nature of Psycho’s secrets, which fundamentally undermine the movie that the audience is anticipating: first the star is murdered, and then the killer turns out to be something…unexpected. Black Swan’s spoilers are inherent in its premise: we know from early on that this movie will be about a young woman going mad, and the only surprise lies in what form that madness will take.

Is there a lesson here for writers? I’d like to think of it as another example of the power of constraints. Psycho tells us that it’s a film of suspense, then radically destroys our expectations of what to expect from such a movie. Black Swan, by contrast, establishes from its opening scenes that it’s a psychological horror film, then does pretty much what we expect, even if it gives itself more stylistic leeway than Psycho does. The former kind of surprise, needless to say, is much more powerful than the latter, but it only works if the story first lays down the rules that it intends to break. In a film in which anything can happen, it’s hard to expect the audience to be surprised—or moved—by what eventually does.

Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 7:50 pm

Black Swan: Take off The Red Shoes

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The only person standing in your way is you.

—Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), in Black Swan

It’s safe to say that no other movie this year, aside perhaps from Inception, filled me with so much unnatural anticipation as Black Swan. Ever since my first encounter with Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, which I think is the best movie ever made, I’ve had an uninformed but highly emotional interest in ballet, especially ballet on film. Darren Aronofsky, coming off The Wrestler, is easily one of the ten most interesting directors in America. And while Natalie Portman has been making a career, as Pauline Kael once said of Meryl Streep, of seeming to overcome being miscast, she’s still an actress for whom I have a lot of affection and respect (even if she seems determined to squander it).

The result, unfortunately, comes precariously close to being a bad movie. It’s chilly and lurid at the same time; the story is both overcooked and underconceived; and it descends so rapidly into overwrought melodrama that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. (At its worst, it’s nothing but one long mirror scare.) And yet it’s a work of undeniable skill and commitment, with extraordinary images and moments, and even at its worst, it’s still more interesting to think about than many conventionally good movies. On our way home, my wife asked me if I thought it would become a midnight movie classic. I think it will become something even better: it’s the kind of movie where, if it had come out before I was born, I might have skipped school to see it in revival on the big screen. (I did that only once in high school, and that was to see Last Tango in Paris.)

But Black Swan is still a deeply problematic movie, in ways that I don’t think Aronofsky intended. The story, without giving too much away, is that of a young ballet dancer’s descent into madness. And it plunges you into that madness so quickly, almost from the very first shot, that there’s no sense of loss as her sanity slips away. From the beginning, Portman’s character, Nina, comes off as hopelessly fragile and neurotic, and she’s never given the kind of emotional grounding—a scene with friends, say, or even a moment of ordinary human behavior—that might have made her story genuinely tragic, rather than a chilling exercise. What Black Swan needs, above all else, is a first act, set in the real world, before Aronofsky releases all of his lovingly conceived visual and aural shocks.

As it stands, it’s tempting to see Nina as a surrogate for the director himself (though it should be noted that Aronofsky did not write Black Swan, which is based on a screenplay by Andres Heinz, Mark Heyman, and John J. McLaughlin). Nina is repeatedly told that she has perfect technique, but needs to lose herself in the moment, a criticism that can be leveled, not without reason, at Aronofsky. Even more than Christopher Nolan, Aronofsky is the most left-brained of all directors with access to stars and large budgets, and he might well argue that, objectively speaking, Black Swan is perfect. Which is probably true. But subjectively, in ordinary human terms, it’s dangerously close to ridiculous.

Aronofsky has obviously seen The Red Shoes, and includes one scene—an audition filmed from the point of view of a pirouetting ballerina—that is clearly intended as homage. And both movies are about dancers whose leading roles become tragically literal, and ultimately destroy their lives. The difference, though, is that The Red Shoes implicitly contains all of Black Swan, and embeds it in a much larger story about art, love, and the wider world that Aronofsky only shows us in fragments. Vicky, in The Red Shoes, is destroyed by the conflict between art and life. For Nina, there is no life, only art, and thus no conflict: she’s a creature of art in a movie that cares about nothing else. And by the end, it’s unclear why she, and nobody else, has gone crazy.

Quote of the Day

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Written by nevalalee

December 6, 2010 at 8:05 am

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