A few days ago I saw the film Black Swan, in which Natalie Portman offers a convincing portrayal of a ballerina obsessed with, not only pleasing her director, but getting the lead role in Swan Lake just right.
The film is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to marvel at the sheer virtuosity and athleticism of the dancers. It's also incredible to look at -- from the stunning play with color, to the sheer painterly beauty of its shots. And then there's that marvelously hallucinogenic quality that director Darren Aronofsky has been refining since his Requiem for a Dream (2000) -- one of my favorites.
But it's in connection with this last quality that the movie ended up disappointing me. Portman's character sees things. Many of her visions are spurred by a nervous concern for artistic mastery. The movie captures these paranoid states of mind through a suspenseful double-register, forcing you to continually ask yourself, "was that real or not?"
But despite their craziness, the anxious feeling tone of these visions is not that alien from mind states anyone freaked out about accomplishing some major task might experience.
Yet, Portman's visions come to be much more than that. In fact, little by little, they kill her. To me, this was an over-dramatization that strained my ability to suspend disbelief. I asked myself why this might be so ...
The Rise and Fall of the Mad Artist
Certainly, the idea of the creative person who loses it in pursuit of her art has a rich pedigree. Plato famously insisted that madness was required for writing good poetry. As he put it, "there is no invention in him [the poet] until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and the mind is no longer in him: when he has not attained to this state, he is powerless and is unable to utter his oracles." Horace added that it helped to be drunk too.
Such doctrines are seemingly renewed continually. In my favorite century, the 19th, Rimbaud pursued "the systematic derangement of the senses." And, starting with the Romantics and proceeding through their Pre-Raphaelite, Symbolist and Decadent successors, not only was the attainment of a nearly psychedelic artistic vision required, but, as catalogued by Frank Kermode, that vision had to cost you something to be credible. Swan Lake, of course, is a product of music's "great Romantic Age."
Yet, as much as I'd like to believe in this mini-religion of art, today it all seems corny. This may be because, in part, in the poetry world (the art form I've been personally involved with), such notions seem passe; we live in a distinctly anti-Romantic moment. The last time poets were driven mad by their art, it seems, was at the beginning of Ginsberg's Howl.
The transformation of a few other attitudes come into play as well. Addiction, for example, once the accoutrement of the tragic artist, is now seen as a mere pathology in need of a 12-step program. Likewise, today mad visions are considered psychological, rather than artistic, problems. As such, they too can be domesticated away.
The Visions of Ally McBeal
This may be why, despite the malefic quality of the visions of Black Swan, the film brought to mind the use of fantasy in TV shows of the past few years. Coincidentally, reruns of Ally McBeal (the show that seemed to pioneer the use of fantasy imagery on TV), have been playing lately. Here is perhaps the program's more famous scenes, where Ally -- a dancer in this instance too -- encounters a hallucination of her own:
As I remember it, this vision had something to do with McBeal's nervousness over her "ticking biological clock." But, not being an artist but a mere lawyer, seeing things like this doesn't kill her. As if informed by a New Age version of pop psychology, during the rest of the series she speaks to her vision, makes peace with it, "respects its right to exist", lets it be.
All of which is a way of saying, I guess, that the process of secularization in our culture demystifies not only the potentially mystical, but the arts and creativity as well. But if that's true, why might an extremely sophisticated filmmaker still expect these motifs to carry such dramatic weight?
I wonder if Black Swan might not represent a longing, not for a time when artists went mad for their visions exactly, but for one in which their visions mattered.
And to bring those somewhat more purist sentiments back to life -- in an age of action flicks, blockbusters and rom-coms -- is the type of ambition that would drive anybody nuts.