The Black Swan and The Social Network

goldenglobe2Two of the most highly acclaimed and most talked about movies of the 2011 Awards season are The Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman and Andres Heinz and John J. McLaughlin and The Social Network directed by David Fincher and written by Aaron Sorkin as adapted from a book by Ben Mezrich.  Both are Power of Reason films with Power of Reason protagonists.

The Social Network is a fascinating look at a cold, superior, technical genius, Mark Zuckerberg the FaceBook billionaire. In the film, Zuckerberg is personally disconnected from human warmth, emotion and compassion.  He became the world’s youngest billionaire by helping other people connect with each other via technology.  The Black Swan is the story of a young dancer who is a cold, dispassionate and disconnected but technically perfect ballerina.  She is chosen to dance the dual leads in Swan Lake and descends into madness preparing for the role.

I liked The Social Network but despised The Black Swan, although I did admire the stunning visuals.  The truth is, Aronofsky’s film  infuriated me and pushed my buttons like no film I’ve ever seen.  I had an intensely personal reaction to it.  It spoke to me about the biggest problem in my own life.

Both Power of Reason films were horrific in their own way.  Let’s start with the professional analysis before getting personal.

the_social_networkHere’s how Richard Corliss writing in Time Magazine describes Zuckerberg in The Social Network, “Zuckerberg, incarnated by Jesse Eisenberg (The Squid and the Whale, Zombieland) with a single-mindedness so cool as to be lunar, isn’t inhuman, exactly; more post-human, a series of calculating algorithms. He is his own computer code — complex, and to most of those who know him, unfathomable.  (He is) a brilliant, prickly loner — ‘He doesn’t have three friends to rub together,’ a rival says — who created a website that gave him, at last count, 500 million friends.”  Kenneth Turnan writing in the Los Angeles Times says, “(A)s played by Eisenberg, protagonist Mark Zuckerberg is introduced as extremely unlikable rather than heroic, a self-absorbed and arrogant 19-year-old Harvard sophomore who is as socially maladroit as he is fearsomely smart.”  Each of these descriptions is a text book depiction of a Power of Reason character.

The monstrous tragedy of  The Social Network is that Zuckerberg cold-heartedly dumps his only true friend and first supporter.  He does so for calculated business reasons.  Zuckerberg is surrounded by people or “friends” but is utterly alone.  Now that he is on his way to becoming a multi-billionaire, how can he ever know for sure that someone likes him for himself and not for his money or influence?  The more successful he becomes the more isolated he becomes from authentic friendship and genuine human connection.

Sheldon_CooperOther examples of Power of Reason characters, like Zuckerberg, are Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) in the Star Trek franchise, Dr. Gregory House (Hugh Laurie) in the television series House and Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons) in the television series The Big Bang Theory. Cooper is a comedic version of the Character Type and Parsons won a 2011 Golden Globe for his portrayal.  Spock, House, Cooper and Zuckerberg are all Power of Reason characters and have a similiar temperament, outlook and world view.  They function in exactly the same way in each very different story setting.

With the addition of  madness, delusion and horror, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) in The Black Swan portrays the Dark Side of the Power of Reason Character Type.  Issues concerning the boundaries of sanity, the limits of order or of logic, the genesis of evil, the ever-present potential of irrational chaos and the overwhelming nature of unbridled emotion or desire  are very much at the center of all Dark Side Power of Reason films.

Andrew O’Hehir writing on Salon.com describes Nina as:  “(A) dancer whose prodigious technique is a little cold, mechanical and even fearful… (And) Nina can’t tell the difference between the real world and what’s in her head.”  In the film, she is described as “technically brilliant” but devoid of passion or sensuality.  A key exchange between Tomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) and Nina explains the dilemma:

doc4cb4d814681161623008471Nina: I came to ask for the part.

Thomas Leroy: The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you’re beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It’s a hard fucking job to dance both.

Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.

Thomas Leroy: Really? In 4 years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

Nina: (whispers) I just want to be perfect.

Power of Reason characters are technical geniuses who are disconnected or alienated from others (and often themselves). They fear being inadequate to the task at hand, not having enough resources to deal with a situation in a rational, logical or technical manner. They fear being overwhelmed by emotion, engulfed by passion, or getting caught up in chaos or forces they cannot control or contain.  The duality of Power of Reason films concern Connection vs. Alienation, Man vs. Monster, Sanity vs. Madness, Natural vs. Unnatural and Purity vs. Contamination (or debauchery).

Rick Groen, writing in The Globe and Mail, discusses these themes:  “Nina must destroy the sweet, pure girl in order to liberate the bold, mature artist. But that idea terrifies her, and with good reason – as we know from horror movies, metamorphosis can be deadly.”

“Nina becomes so consumed with becoming this monster seductress that her body simply begins to turn her into one. Her skin is pimpling like a chicken’s. Her shoulder blades are scarred. Is her body repaying her for those bulimic bathroom breaks? Aronofsky situates the entire film so deeply inside Nina’s fraying psyche that we’re unsure whether to believe the figurative monsters Nina concocts. Is (her mother) Erica (Barbara Hershey) a gorgon because that’s how Nina sees her? Is the company’s fading star (Winona Ryder) also its (crazy) Norma Desmond? … Is the more socially limber Lily a (sinister) frenemy or just the girl with a dragon tattoo?”   asks Wesley Morris writing in the Boston Globe.

donnie-darkoOther examples of Power of Reason characters confronting the Dark Side of their fears and their madness are Dr. John Nash (Russell Crowe), a brilliant but cold and superior scientist who is overwhelmed by schizophrenic visions and delusions, in A Beautiful Mind;  Donnie Darko (Jake Gyllenhaal) a troubled and alienated teenager who has visions and delusions about a giant rabbit in Donnie Darko; and Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy), a brilliant, obsessive and aloof scientist who wants to discover the nature of good and evil, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

In A Beautiful Mind and Donnie Darko salvation comes from embracing and connecting with others.  Nash’s salvation is his wife, son and the students he formerly disdained.  Darko finds salvation by selflessly sacrificing himself for the girl he loves and who would have died in his place.  Jekyll finds no salvation.  He is consumed by and transformed into pure evil.

.Nina Sayers is like Dr. Jekyll.  Metamorphosis doesn’t help her face and transcend her fears.  Instead, it makes her one with them, consumed in madness and the malevolence of murder/suicide.  What the film seems to be saying about art and artists is what pushed my buttons.

487972901_03df31638dA major problem in my own life has always been balance.  I am a bit of an obsessive myself.  I laughed when I saw the opening of Romancing the Stone. Writer, Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) finishes her book and sobs, completely caught up in the emotion of her characters and story.  When she reaches for a tissue there are none left in the box.  There is no toilet paper in the loo to substitute either.  There is nothing in the fridge and no food in the cupboard.  Joan is a writer so obsessed with what she does that she has no time to live life.

I’m afraid I can too easily become that obsessed writer.  I struggle to maintain a healthy balance between work and play, creativity and regeneration, losing myself in the story and being present in the here-and-now of life.  The thing that disturbed me most about The Black Swan is the idea that to be a great artist we must sacrifice everything including our humanity.  Every major character in the film is monstrously selfish, insular, obsessed and willing to sacrifice themselves and others without thought, care or any sense of compassion.  Is that really what creates and makes great art?

Where in The Black Swan is the sense of joy in creation?  Where is the fun and exhilaration in doing what you love? Where is the transcendence in art?  How does it elevate the human spirit?  How is it life-affirming?  There is nothing of any of those concepts at work in The Black Swan. There is no humanity here and no generosity on display anywhere in the film.

Black-Swan-Natalie-Portman-1I’m not alone in abhorring this depiction:  “The Black Swan says that a dancer must enter into the irrational and the erotic—even destroy herself—in order to make art. That is, if you don’t get laid, and you aren’t ready to kill your rival or yourself, you can’t be a great dancer… (The film) is a pompous, self-glorifying, and generally unpleasant interpretation of an artist’s task.”  David Denby, The New Yorker

Diana Byer, the artistic director of the New York Theater Ballet, says that:  “A person who doesn’t live life can’t bring anything to a ballet. You have to live life to create an art form.”  Sarah Maslin, The New York TImes

“Nina is just a collection of neurotic behaviors… nearly all the conflict on screen derives from her victimization (or perceived victimization?) at the hands of others. We never understand what’s at stake for her as an artist, other than sheer achievement for achievement’s sake. With this movie’s curious inattention to the question of why performing matters to its heroine, it could just as easily be a movie about a girl’s brutal struggle to become Baskin Robbins’ employee of the month,”  writes Dana Stevens in Slate.com

Richard Corliss says in Time Magazine:  “The Black Swan isn’t an advance. It’s a throwback, in three ways. First, to what Freud called ‘the return of the repressed’ — that repressed desires created severe neuroses. Second, to the Method cult notion of empathizing with a character until you become it. (As Laurence Olivier legendarily told Dustin Hoffman when the younger star was agonizing over his motivation in the tooth-drilling sequence of Marathon Man: ‘Dear boy, why not just try acting?’) Third, and most reductively, to the ancient commandments of the horror genre, which teach that a young woman is either a virgin, who’s pure enough to fight the demon, or a whore, who somehow deserves to be killed (especially when she’s just had sex). The idea of a healthy eroticism is alien to these films; they allow no middle ground. I’m pretty sure this is a guy’s idea of a woman’s sexuality. The Black Swan had women in front of the camera, men as the director and writers and cinematographer.”

Billy ElliottA movie about male ballet dancer has a completely different take on what it means to be an artist.  Billy Elliot, a Power of Idealism character, portrays the joy, verve, inspiration and freedom that great dancers bring to their art (along with their drive, determination, hard work and sacrifice).  Billy also loses himself in dance but he does so with love, exuberance and joy.

Tutor One: What does it feel like when you’re dancing?

Billy: Don’t know. Sorta feels good. Sorta stiff and that, but once I get going… then I like, forget everything. And… sorta disappear. Sorta disappear. Like I feel a change in my whole body. And I’ve got this fire in my body. I’m just there. Flyin’ like a bird. Like electricity. Yeah, like electricity.

Coincidentally, when Billy’s father, brother and best friend come to see Billy perform as an adult in London he is dancing the lead in  Matthew Bourne’s… Swan Lake.  It is a ballet performed by all men.  See the YouTube video clip of Billy’s performance here.  When told his family is in the audience, Billy smiles backstage.  Moving into the spotlight he literally jumps for joy and my heart leaps with him.

Billy Elliot may be a sugar-coated fairy tale or fable version of a film about artists.  It may not be a serious, complex or “important” film, but I wonder what it says about the state of our society when business AND the arts are portrayed in such an unrelenting, obsessive and monstrous way. Or am I just tragically unhip?  I would love to hear your thoughts. Comment here or on my FaceBook page.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and
John J. McLaughlinDirected by Darren Aronofsky and written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and

19 Comments

  1. Reply Mark Wale 24th January 2011

    Thanks for another great post Laurie. I have not yet seen either film but your visceral reaction to The Black Swan has me wondering, especially since you don’t seem to be the only one. A film that shows us one artist falling to the dark side is not necessarily a general judgement on all artists. Maybe it’s what Aronofsky feels about the world of classical ballet — my sister was in that world for many years and it certainly didn’t seem to radiate a lot of joy in creation from her point of view, just a lot of enforced discipline, despotic power-wielding and bitterness. It seems to me though that the addition of just one story strand or one character that gives the sense of joy and exhilaration you crave might take the story from being a sermon to being a true tragedy, where we feel pity and fear at the loss of our central character’s humanity. And it need not even be in the context of the dancers. A canteen chef who prepares salads for the dancers that are more achieved works of art than the ballets being performed, for example.
    But then maybe the film itself was made entirely from the head without any heart. Did Darren Aronofsky fall to the dark side as a creative artist with this one? Mmmm…

  2. Reply Jay 24th January 2011

    I had the same reaction to the film that you did. I thought her performance was wonderful, the film beautifully shot, but the message about dance and the arts a real downer. There were just no characters that I could identify with or feel sympathy toward and in the end I just didn’t care about the film at all.

  3. Reply Jim McDonald 24th January 2011

    Films often reflect the mood of their times: Billy Elliot was released in 2000, when the mood of the country was upbeat and bright; Black Swan and Social Network in 2010, after a decade of political, economic and social problems that have left people looking through the glass darkly.

  4. Reply Laurie Hutzler 25th January 2011

    I think we are in a time where we feel alienated from the institutions we thought we understood and which used to feel secure to us– government, financial, social and religious organizations. Instead, we find out there are monsters in there. You often find Power of Reason characters as protagonists in monster films, disaster films, plague films and horror films. The biggest fear of a Power of Reason character is to find out everything you thought you understood is incorrect. You discover forces beyond your control. Nothing or very little turns out to be reasonable or logical and you are overwhelmed/annihilated by on-rushing chaos and darkness.

    The leap of faith in these stories is to become more connected with your own humanity and connect more deeply with others. That is the only response to horror that allows one to survive with dignity. Prof Howard Suber defines horror as “the loss of hope.” To fall to the Dark Side is to sink into the chaos and surrender to the feral madness.

    Do you think filmmakers and others are losing hope?

    • Reply Moira Romano 26th January 2011

      Black Swan and The Social Network are films that have brilliantly focused on a character type – “The Power of Reason” (Laurie’s definition). What unsettles us is that we really do recognize these characters. One is a real life billionaire, barely more than a kid who has established a facebook platform we all know and many use. The other is a young woman seeking to be frighteningly perfect in a modern world we also recognize easily. Whatever we take away from these movies is extremely valuable because even though we would like to shake them off, they are disturbing reality checks about the society we have created and the alarming difficulties living in it can present. The modern day Grimms Fairy Tale for adults definitely not the Walt Disney version.

    • Reply Laurie Stoner 27th January 2011

      Some filmmakers may be losing hope. One thing is certainly true, some filmmaker prefer to depict hopelessness in their films. Aronofsky is one of those filmmakers. His main characters descend into madness, maim their bodies, and consistently fail to achieve their goals.

      I recently came upon James Hull’s article: http://storyfanatic.com/articles/story-structure/what-it-means-to-fail.

      (I believe he is to storyform what you are to character mapping.)

      To me, Aronofsky purposely refrains from presenting a balanced viewpoint in his films so we must experience the inescapable horror of the lead character as they fail to achieve their goal.

      • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th February 2011

        I am not sure I agree the characters in THE BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER fail to achieve their goals. Nina does become the Black Swan and says “It was perfect.” Unless of course it is ALL a dream. Randy “The Ram” continues to avoid the real world by continuing to perform in the wrestling ring. He rejects having an ordinary life as a deli man and being with a woman who loves him. He continues to disappoint a daughter who is willing to reconnect with him. Both protagonists do exactly what they set out to do. Interesting link BTW.

        • Jim 9th February 2011

          Hey there, thanks for the link and interesting article as well.

          To clarify, I would agree with L. Hutzler that the Protagonists in both films, Nina in Swan and Randy in The Wrestler achieve the original goal they set out for. Nina dances the Black Swan (basically embodying the essence of that part) and Randy reclaims the roar of the crowd during his last big fight against the Ayatollah. So I would say that both efforts end in resounding success.

          The interesting difference between the two characters is where they stand emotionally, especially taking into consideration their ultimate demise.

          As he climbs those final ropes, Randy is torn up — the woman he loves has abandoned him and his daughter has rejected him. His efforts to create some sort of personal life have left him feeling emotionally cutoff and alone. The only decision left for him now is to sacrifice himself for the crowd, returning to his life as The Ram by casting aside the Randy.

          Nina, on the other hand, is ecstatic with how things have turned out. As she falls to her death, a peaceful glowing smile tells us all we need to know about where she stands emotionally. She has fulfilled her desire to be perfect and tells us as much with her final words.

          The Wrestler would be what I consider a Personal Tragedy – the kind of story where the efforts to achieve the Goal have ended in success, yet the focal point of the story, the Main Character, is left with great angst, their personal issues unresolved. Black Swan would be an all out Triumph, like Star Wars or The King’s Speech. Nina’s efforts to embody the Black Swan have ended with great applause and her desire to be perfect perfectly fulfilled. The reprehensible part, which coincidentally is also the reason why many consider the film “cool” and “darkly moving,” is that this Triumph came at a great cost. In short, the film is trying to prove that the only way to achieve success and feel emotionally fulfilled is to commit what many consider the greatest offense.

        • Laurie Hutzler 24th February 2011

          Nicely put Jim– But triumph always comes at great cost. I’m not sure triumph is worth your soul, your humanity and your sanity. What kind of triumph is it to sink into your worst instincts and resort to murder? That sounds like tragedy to me.

  5. Reply Angela 6th February 2011

    So what did you think of the ending then?

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th February 2011

      Was the ending all a dream? Not sure. The problem here is we never know EVER what is real and what is imagined or a feverish delusion. Personally, I get very impatient with a narrator who is never reliable or a protagonist who is never anchored in his or her own life. Like I said, maybe I am just tragically unhip.

  6. Reply sebastian schipper 7th February 2011

    ARONOFSKY loves to punish.
    even back in the days of ´REQUIEM FOR A DREAM´ (meaning ´the dream is dead´ obviously) the only message was: ´take drugs (dream) and: you 1. loose one arm (white guy) 2. have to get penetrated by some other girl in a porn (woman) 3. or just simply will be shot by rascists (black guy).
    so i think ARONOFSKY will be one of the most successful directors of his generation following the great punisher DAVID FINCHER.
    fincher: THE GAME (the meanig of the game is the lead gets chased, attacked and – of course – hurt), SE7EN (lead finds the head of his beloved wife in box), FIGHT CLUB (lead get punshed in the face and becomes basically a nazi – at least her lieks it for while), PANIC ROOM (!), ZODIAC (celebrating a guy having fun killing other people – alter ego?), BENJAMIN BUTTON (yep – too bad the lead grows the wrong way), SOCIAL NETWORK (success? sure. but you will be the most lonely person on this planet).
    what do we learn? in all these films? there is pain. and thats the story. thats life.
    so best just play videogames and watch films, so you can just watch them scream and bleed and be penetrated.
    please excuse the language (and yeah – its a bit of a hate speech, i know …) – but is there another way to say or see it?

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 7th February 2011

      Well horror is the loss of hope so I guess these are all horror movies.

  7. Reply Cynthia C 11th February 2011

    I just saw Black Swan as part of my ambitious goal to see all the Oscar nominated films in this year. I wasn’t much looking forward to it given the press, but intrigued because of the awards given so far. Very soon into the film I realized that I had little to no sympathy for Natalie Portman’s character. She wasn’t likable to me and it’s valuable to see how important that is when creating a character. When Tomas said she was weak, I agreed! Furthermore, too much story is left out to possibly have made her struggle more interesting to the audience. I wonder if any flashbacks could have been useful here to learn more about why she is a dancer, did she ever have any joy? How did she and her mother become so unhappy and insular? Yes, striving for perfection can drive us mad, being human, it is impossible. We never got to feel happy for her, not even when she won the desired role. I supposed making us feel as trapped and unsure of the reality as Nina’s tortured ballerina was, could have been Aronofsky’s intent. However, it’s not an enjoyable ride when you don’t feel the overwhelming expansion of joy to the ever self-diminishing fever of fear and horror. Her death did not “feel” tragic to me as it should have, since I wasn’t drawn in to love and root for the character. I guess it’s hard to tune in late to the unwinding of a character. It’s just all down hill. With all that said, I think Natalie Portman does give an Oscar worthy performance in this film.

    • Reply Laurie Hutzler 14th February 2011

      I don’t believe a character has to be “likeable” I do believe we have to respond emotionally to a character. We have to connect in some powerful way.

      Vulnerability is certainly key to that connection– and Natalie Portman is vulnerable. But verisimilitude is also key– which a core deep feeling of truth and authenticity as a human being.

      Nina as played by Portman never felt “real” to me. I had trouble feeling much for her because I never felt her true core. When a narrator is so unreliable– what is real, what is not, is she dreaming, is it really happening– it’s very hard to get a sense of the character truly is. For me that is a big problem with the film.

  8. Reply Dickey Nesenger 13th February 2011

    Hi Laurie, I just saw Black Swan. I am teaching a film class on German Expressionism and was looking for a contemporary corollary to illustrate doppelganger and I guess this is that. I reacted very much the way you did, viscerally. I wonder which character stood for her enlightened side or else where she even learned to be “sweet,” a character that may have represented this trait could have offered more push and pull for her soul. (Poor Barbara Hershey) I understand as a teacher I need to look at the film analytically but as a female it offered me little in the realm of entertainment, wisdom or encouragement to proceed with critical analysis. Not a white swan on either side of the camera.
    Dickey

  9. Reply Laurie Hutzler 14th February 2011

    I agree with you. We never felt a pull toward her enlightened side. No one in the film represented the joy, exhilaration or transcendence of artistic creation. Even in an endeavor as physically punishing as ballet there must be some love and joy involved or a feeling of participating in something larger than yourself (and your own small concerns).

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