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Black Swan: Just One More Disturbing Portrait in Mind-Game Movies

Black Swan: In Touch With People's Dark Side? - Dick Daniels
A study of a disintegrating mind is a growing film genre devoted to the human condition under pressure, where all is not what it seems. Ever.

‘Oh poor perturbed spirit’, as Shakespeare put it. In Black Swan, almost two rivetting hours of senses awakened with superb acting, amazing camerawork, lavish music and wits scared, are hallmarks of a great movie. To spend hours afterwards perturbed, thinking through what was actually seen, is how mind-game movies hook people.

Black Swan (2010) is about a young ballet dancer, given the White Swan role in a production of Swan Lake, who gradually lost her grip on reality, as she became like the evil twin sister, the Black Swan. Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Natalie Portman mixed the subtleties/horrors of acting with dancing perfection.

The film is about perfection people aspire to – for ballet dancers, perfection is sought through body and dance. The perfect mind and body don’t exist, but human beings strive, struggle, fight, self-torture, self-harm and damage others to achieve it.

Reality and fantasy

Anybody involved in the performing arts will understand the intensity of the pressures of rehearsing till the body is sick, longing for stardom with a yearning that would make somebody kill to achieve, and then the terror of sensing others around are better, more suited to star. This movie went further.

Nobody could be sure what was absolute truth and reality. Did the girl imagine the violence she inflicted on her arch rival? Was the scratching her back nervously till it bled caused by something embedded under her skin, or was it a phantom condition? Her bleeding fingers and toes, were they imagined?

Uncomfortably, when she was persuaded to go out on the town the night before her big stage appearance and had her drink spiked, did she have sex with two men as she said or with the woman who was encouraging her as she envisioned? Did she repay her mother’s over-zealous, stifling care with a real brutal attack?

The Crowded House of Mind Movies

Matthew Baldwin, writer on The Morning News, identified movies that inform, entertain or ‘pry open your skull and punch you in the brain’. These are ‘puzzle movies’, ‘brain burners’ or ‘mind messers’ – films where people know something is going on, but don’t know what. Some episodes of the TV series The X Files also met this definition, with ambiguous endings/realities.

He listed movie classics for consideration in this category. Hitchcock’s Spellbound (1945) included a surrealistic dream sequence, delusions, amnesia, mental illness and serious doubt about the term ‘innocent’. Rashomon (1950) dealt with the rape of a woman and her husband’s murder through accounts of participants that were: ‘muddling, contradictory and self-serving’. It replayed in the mind afterwards, over and over.

Of Russian-made Solyaris (1972), Baldwin said it filled the ‘mind-blowing cinematic science-fiction gap’, and Videodrome (1983) about a show on which people were routinely tortured and killed was a film that ‘raises questions and your lunch’. A deranged doctor alone on the planet in The Quiet Earth (1985), like Charlton Heston in Omega Man (1971) questioned sanity, perception and reality.

Baldwin rated Jacob’s Ladder (1990) as it singled a man coping with what may have been post-traumatic stress disorder, chemicals, time travelling or pure insanity. The Game (1997), saw Michael Douglas enrolled in an executive sport where he kept wondering if the people trying to kill him were doing it to ‘give him a thrill’ or they really wanted him dead. At least at the end, it was clear that it was a game all along.

The Cube (1997) he described as traps-and-puzzles formula with no explanation at all. Dark City (1998) and to an extent The Matrix (1999), was variously fantasy, science fiction, film-noire; Baldwin reckoned that working out what genre of film it was part of the mystery. The basis of Momento (2000) was the man who had no short-term memory searching for his wife’s killer, in a dark story told backwards.

Mind Games Becoming a Genre

Other contenders include Donnie Darko (2001) about a troubled teenager’s visions of a giant manipulative rabbit, and Primer (2004) about four wannabe entrepreneurs who invented something, but they didn’t know what. Many people would also include 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). This was an epic, hard science-fiction mixed with the sweep of time from primitive man to space travel, with a finale that was so far out it was joked that hippies used it to get high on.

Still more could include Last Year at Marienbad, Pi, Fight Club, Persona and Blade Runner. However, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) was a clear entrant in the league of infathomability, being about erasure of memories from the mind, and the cyclical nature of life. Internet Movie Database summed up the most deliberately obtuse of all: Inception (2010): ‘in a world where technology exists to enter the human mind through dream invasion, a highly skilled thief is given a final chance at redemption which involves executing his toughest job to date: Inception.’

So, much praised as Black Swan was, it was categorized by Internet Movie Database as merely ‘drama, mystery, thriller’. The dancing was such that the audience experienced a full performance of a classical ballet. But it was the dark side in the human soul that it tapped into, that connected with most viewers.

First published on Suite 101, 16 February 2011.
Photo: Black Swan: In Touch With People’s Dark Side? – Dick Daniels


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