Monday, January 17, 2011

BLACK SWAN (2010): Ballet Horror Flick

Black Swan is about a young dancer’s plunge into madness.  It is a joyless film displaying good choreography and an incredible work ethic on the part of the lead actress that will endear it to pretentious critics and the Academy Award Committee.  It is much like The Reader with its muddled storyline that some audience members will label as brilliance.  It’s much more like Carrie starring Sissy Spacek (though not nearly so good because Carrie really was intended to be a horror flick) in that both movies attempt to blur the line between reality and fantasy.

Nina (Natalie Portman), a naïve and somewhat sexually confused young woman, tries out for the lead in Swan Lake.  Along with this comes many of the more negative attributes of being in such a profession (self-loathing, addiction to overworking, eating disorders, etc.).  Her mother (Barbara Hershey) is a controlling mother and failed ballet dancer that secretly wishes that her daughter would fail in any particular pursuit.  Thomas (Vincent Cassel), the director of the ballet, is a lecher and a tyrant who spends his time humiliating his cast – and in particular, Nina, who he believes in as the “White Swan” but not as the “Black Swan.”  Beth (Winona Ryder) is the aging ballerina that used to be the favorite of Thomas before Nina began to impress the director with her (Nina’s) dancing skills.  Finally, there is Lily (Mila Kunis), who at first pretends to befriend Nina, but later becomes her competitor for the role of the lead in the ballet.  Thomas spends his time fondling Nina and insulting her alleged frigidity to supposedly help Nina metamorphose into the “Black Swan.”   He encourages Nina to masturbate which is somehow supposed to help her better understand her role.  Nina also begins to fantasize about having a lesbian encounter with Lily.  Beth is so jealous of Nina that Beth throws herself in front of a car and badly injures herself to gain the attention of Thomas.  Nina’s mother is so jealous of Nina spending all her time in training that she tries to keep Nina at home to sabotage Nina’s career.  All of this leads to Nina going insane.  The insanity manifests itself in hallucinations, fantasies, rages and the belief that she is growing feathers and has webbed feet and hands.  Nina nevertheless perseveres and gives a brilliant rendition of the “White Swan” and the “Black Swan” in front of a live audience.  Only at the end do we discover that she had pierced herself with a piece of broken glass and as a result she dies just after the performance of Swan Lake was completed.  (We’re not sure if she actually dies or if this is one more fantasy.)

There’s no question that Black Swan has its attributes.  The dance sequences are dazzling, and Natalie Portman is believable as the dancer determined to be a success at all costs to her own peace of mind.  There is a certain suspense that is sustained throughout the movie as we are always kept guessing at to what will happen next.  And juxtaposing the “Black Swan” role along with Nina’s mental state is actually some effective use of symbolism.

There’s also no question that the movie is a mess.  There is no coherent storyline, and nobody in the supporting cast does a decent job in playing their part. Hershey, Cassel, Kunis and Ryder come across as real and one-dimensional as plastic plants.  If the parts these individuals played were the only characters to provide Nina with guidance, one couldn’t blame her for committing (a supposed) suicide in the end.  The portrayal of sexuality throughout the film is relatively mild by today’s standards, but in the context of this particular film it comes out about as wholesome as if we watched a couple of hours of hardcore porn.  It’s gratuitous and completely false.  And the filmmakers did a bit too adequate of a job in making Nina’s flight into madness completely over the top.  It’s too easy hiding a faulty storyline behind the mental fog of a deranged individual.  It would be more difficult to attempt to make sense of the main character’s insanity by providing some plot development.  She was supposed to be an innocent girl, so why did she plunge herself into such depravity?  As it is, whether “White Swan,” “Black Swan,” or combination of “White Swan” and “Black Swan,” we never have the feeling that whatever direction Nina chose to go her destiny would have been anything but tragic. 

The movie runs for 108 minutes, rather short for a movie blockbuster, and this is at least a relief.  It’s directed by Darren Aronofsky, who also directed The Wrestler.  Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising.  A female friend of mine felt that Black Swan was too much like a teenage boy’s idea of how young women dancers would speak and behave - when not practicing their dance moves.  Black Swan is one of the most disappointing movies that I have seen in years (usually I don’t expect much to begin with) because, as evidenced by The Wrestler, I thought that Anonofsky could hold such an unpredictable storyline together as we have in Black Swan.

We will see what kind of accolades Black Swan receives at all of the award ceremonies.  Not surprisingly, Natalie Portman won a Golden Globe award.  She was at least believable as a dancer and as a fragile human being.  The more important indicator of the quality of this movie will be determined over time.  Will this movie standup in ten or fifteen years?  I’m not convinced that it will because in just twenty-four hours I have no desire to ever see this movie again.  It is a movie that tears down yet never builds anything up in its place.  It is entirely negative in its treatment.  One walks away from this and so many other Hollywood movies with little to give anyone hope.

January 17, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

THE FIGHTER (2010): Story of Micky Ward and Dicky Ecklund

The Fighter is part Rocky and part Raging Bull with the same attributes and flaws of these two earlier fight movies.  Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg) comes from an extremely dysfunctional family whose influence he cannot seem to escape.  His mother Alice (Melissa Leo) is a controlling woman, completely blind to the behavior of her children, and who insists on taking an active role in managing the fight career of Micky.  Micky’s sisters abide by whatever asinine directions their mother gives.  Micky’s father George (Jack McGee) tries to be a decent husband and father but has no control over limiting his family’s insanity.  Most significantly, Dicky Ecklund (Christian Bale), Micky’s half brother, is a crack smoking ex-fighter who wants to train Micky while at the same time engaging in all sorts of felonious behavior.  (Dicky’s claim to fame is that he once unofficially knocked down Sugar Ray Leonard in a professional bout while many people at ringside called the knockdown a push.)  Micky does find a girlfriend, Charlene (Amy Adams), a mini-skirted and tough talking waitress and bartender, who has the courage to stand up to Micky’s family.  Through Charlene’s influence and through Dicky’s conveniently getting himself jailed for assaulting several policemen Micky is able to keep his act together well enough to put together a few impressive wins, and this enables him to get a shot at the World Boxing Union Light Welterweight championship of the world.  (The World Boxing Union is only one of about a dozen sanctioning committees that hands out boxing titles - so the viewer should be only marginally impressed that Micky has been granted this title bout.)  By this time, Dicky is released from jail, gets himself off of crack, and is able to make a positive contribution to Micky’s training for the championship bout.  Micky’s mother also apologizes for being so controlling and promises to stay out of the way.  Micky manages to hang on during the early rounds of this bout and wins the title by technical knockout in the eighth round.  We are told at the end of the movie that Micky eventually marries Charlene. 

How much one enjoys The Fighter is largely dependent upon one’s ability to suspend their disbelief.  The ending of the movie resolves itself too neatly and happily to hold up under any strict scrutiny.  Micky won his title bout during the year of 2000 and, unfortunately, his brother Dicky has been in quite a bit of trouble since that time.  He was busted for possession of crack in 2006 and may soon be charged with attempted murder.  I’m also doubtful that the Alice, as portrayed in the movie, could have so completely removed herself from interfering with Micky’s life. 

Like in almost every boxing movie made (including Rocky and Raging Bull), the fight scenes and training sequences are completely staged and unconvincing.  Movie directors cannot resist the urge to brutalize the fight sequences and turn the whole encounter into a David versus Goliath scenario.  Ringside accounts of the Micky Ward and Shea Neary title bout had Ward winning almost every round.  Probably, we did not have the dramatics of Charlene begging everyone that the fight be stopped to save Micky from a savage beating.  I suppose having Mark Wahlberg look somewhat like a conditioned fighter should be enough when taken in context to other fight films.  To be fair, it is almost impossible to film fictionalized fight scenes that contain the nuances of the real thing.  The Joe Louis Story, an extremely low budget movie filmed in 1953, may be the only film that ever got it right because it used actual footage from fights involving the heavyweight champion.

It is almost as difficult to write about boxing as even some accomplished literary figures could not resist over dramatization.  Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates mythologized fighters by making the fight game appear like a religious quest.  Jack London created fantastic characterizations of fighters, but he could not resist politicizing the actual fight sequences by making it sound like a battle of the oppressor versus the oppressed.  Ring Lardner could not put away his cynical disdain whenever a fighter accomplished something significant.  And even Hemingway, who wrote as eloquently about physical action as any American writer and who composed probably the greatest boxing story ever written (“Fifty Grand”), could not help but cast moral aspersions at fighters he did not like such as Jack Dempsey or Max Baer.  The best descriptions of fight sequences continue to be written up in Ring Magazine and other sports’ journals because these reporters cover far too many fights to romanticize each bout and are aware of the behavior of too many fighters to ever be impressed or misty eyed about a fight such as a WBU Championship bout.

Nevertheless, The Fighter contains probably the best acting of any boxing movie since Raging Bull was released back in 1980.  Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Melissa Leo played their roles almost perfectly in their struggles with their own personality flaws.  I’m not as convinced concerning the acting of Amy Adams.  The tough talking but attractive leading lady characterization goes all the way back to Mae West and by now has become a Hollywood type.  Yet even Adams plays her typecast role adeptly.

This movie can also be gut wrenchingly intense – especially in almost every sequence that Christian Bale appears.  Whether his sudden conversion seems forced, Dicky still comes across as disturbingly real.  The character of Dicky knows that he just missed his chance for greatness when fighting Sugar Ray Leonard.  Though it is difficult to tell if he actually did knock down Leonard or if this was the result of a push, Dicky did manage to hurt Leonard in their fight and would have made boxing history had Dicky gone on to beat the great fighter.  Dicky’s skills as a fighter were undone by his own character flaws.

By no means do I consider The Fighter to be a great movie because so much of it doesn’t seem believable.  Yet in today’s Hollywood setting such a criticism could apply to almost every film.  At least we had three characters that seemed flawed and real in this movie.

January 16, 2011
© Robert S. Miller 2011

Thursday, January 6, 2011

MARK TWAIN: And the NewSouth Books Controversy

Many associate reading with a high school English teacher we can’t imagine ever having been young.   To be fair, the teachers have done the best they can.  Seeing that they were probably good students themselves, somewhat idealistic and naïve in desiring to pursue the goal of education, instructors are not the perfect candidates to comprehend violence, drug abuse or nymphomania.  They have practically nothing in common with the skinhead, pot smoker, slut or loser.  They will probably have problems keeping up with the simple adolescent rebel.  With the overcrowding of schools, they may limit themselves to the students they can handle: the good, compliant and well-behaved student who lacks the imagination to question anything.

When it comes to education the debate always becomes political concerning what our children should read.  And when we speak about censorship, the one book always mentioned is The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.  Huck Finn was a troublesome novel from the start, though its author understood how to use such adverse publicity to his own benefit.   After the novel was banned in several Boston libraries in 1885 Mark Twain remarked that such publicity guaranteed another 5,000 copies of the book would be sold.  Literary historians have been trying to figure out since that time why this particular novel has been so targeted.  Why not instead go after some dime-store smut novel?  Why not concern ourselves with the journals of Marquis de Sade?  Why not ban Mein Kampf?

The answer concerns the quality of our education because Huckleberry Finn is about as far as most English teachers are ready to take the debate.  The novel has been so defended by scholars that educators know somewhere they will find an intellectual justification for teaching it in class.  However lame the argument will be teachers know that they will never have to argue about the merits of the novel from their own perspective.  What is wrong is that the teachers really do not believe in Huckleberry Finn.  They believe in the novel only as a piece of history, a novel that must be placed in the context of time.  They present it as a quaint, entertaining piece of fiction, but they’ve never felt personally challenged by the narrative.

The novel, of course, is controversial because of the use of the term “nigger.”  Here is where we come dangerously close to exceeding the teacher’s comfort zone.  The teacher has been trained to point out that: (1) Twain never used the term “nigger” in a derogatory fashion; (2) the term was part of the common idiom in the pre-Civil War south; and (3) the point of the novel is that “Nigger” Jim was in fact a human being.  That probably would be the end of the discussion in a rural school in Kansas or North Dakota.  It might go over if a black teacher taught it to an all-black school.  There would be more problematic if a white teacher were to teach it to a school that was made up of mostly black students.  Most teachers would never use the term “nigger” themselves but, historical context aside they know damn well what the term implies.  Still, since the novel is a beloved phenomenon most scholars would rather explain away its faults than be accused of censorship.

 NewSouth Books is now trying to make it easier for our educators.  Not only are they willing to publish a book for our schools with the offending adjective left out, they are even willing to change the wording as if Twain had never written anything offensive to begin with (the term “nigger” will now become “slave” and “Injun” will become “Indian”).  We’re told that there will be a suitable introduction to this new volume explaining why the publishers believe such a step is necessary.  The publishers will even pat themselves on the back by proselytizing how this will encourage more young people to learn to appreciate a classic piece of literature.  I’m guessing little will be written concerning how NewSouth Books hopes to make a bundle in financial deals with schools.

NewSouth Books will have its defenders.  If these individuals are sincere at all, the mistake I still believe that they are making is that they overestimate the impact that reading will have upon the young.  Most students are so apathetic about reading in the first place that they only become eloquent when scratching out graffiti upon the bathroom walls.  They will not go out of their way to read Huckleberry Finn.  They certainly will not go out of their way to read Marx, Proust or Joyce.  Their interest might be peaked by one or two books of Henry Miller, but this will die very quickly.  As it is, many students will get more steamed up about a romance novel that appears in a Good Housekeeping magazine than by anything they will ever read in a school library.   Therefore, I think we should worry more about our child’s ability to read at all than attempt to create imagined controversies.  Why not let the kids read the Communist Manifesto or Lady Chatterley’s Lover?  I would be proud of any child who could make his way through Ulysses and still be able to figure out any alleged obscenities. 

I will say, however, that those calling this “political correctness run amuck” may want to be careful about what they wish for as the uncensored Twain often did not make for happy reading.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is mild in comparison to other of Twain’s works.  The Innocents Abroad first published in 1867 portrayed American’ tourists as rubes that groveled at the feet of their European ancestors.  Cannibalism in the Cars was a short story where members of Congress stranded on a train started consuming each other while all the long adhering to parliamentary protocol.  In 1901, Twain wrote two essays entitled To the Person Sitting in the Darkness and To My Missionary Critics lambasting the imperialist policies and religious pretensions of the McKinley’ administration (and supporters) concerning American intervention in China and the Philippines.  (So controversial were these essays that Vice President Theodore Roosevelt referred to Twain as a traitor.)  Letters from the Earth (not released in printed form for more than fifty years after Mark Twain’s death because Twain’s last surviving daughter would not allow this book to be published while she was still alive), What is Man and The Mysterious Stranger are as darkly pessimistic and anti-religious writings as anything published in the English language.  Far from comprehending the phenomena of Mark Twain, cultural conservatives only embrace the cheery humorist that was largely a fictional persona created by Samuel Langhorne Clemens (a.k.a. Mark Twain).

There’s too much outrage and too little honesty coming from both sides of this debate.  I hope NewSouth Books continues in its plans to print the expurgated volume of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and that not a single school system purchases a copy.  I also hope the unexpurgated version of Huckleberry Finn sits side by side in the library with The Merchant of Venice, Catcher in the Rye and Mein Kampf * (to show that the destiny and life of Hitler - the great fruitcake - should have been boring, ludicrous and inconsequential as evidenced by his writing).  Finally, whether The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is or is not read in the schools in the final intended form that Mark Twain allowed to be published, I hope that what is presented in our schools is not just material that educators feel they can comfortably present.  The term “nigger” is a word that is hurtful to a large group of descendents of slaves in the United States, and the term will not disappear simply because it is officially deleted from published material.  Racism needs to be directly confronted.  Unfortunately, racism will never completely go away.

*In 1939, a reporter named Alan Cranston (and later United States Senator) was sued by Hitler’s publisher for copyright infringement for attempting to bring out a more accurate translation of Mein Kampf than had already appeared in English.  Hitler’s publishers were worried that American readers might make the assumption that Hitler was an anti-Semite if a too accurate translation of Mein Kampf was actually released in English.  Too bad for Hitler that he won his lawsuit only after a half-million copies of the Cranston’ translation already was sold.

January 6, 2011 
© Robert S. Miller 2011