The Black Swan and The Social Network
Two 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.
Here’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.
Other 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:
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.
Other 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.
A 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.
I’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.”
A 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.