Monday, January 31, 2011

The Best Picture of the Year. Surprise, It Isn't in the Running.

Honestly, I had no interest in seeing Rabbit Hole. Most people probably never even heard of Rabbit Hole, and I wasn't much different, even with my Entertainment Weekly- and general Academy Awards-obsessions. I'd heard about it here and there, little snippets of positivity across the Internet and other movie media circles, but it would've been all too easy to ignore. Thankfully, its fortuitous Oscar nomination last week for Nicole Kidman in the lead actress role brought it to my local AMC (well, one of three, but this is the GOOD one) and I thought, "if the stars align, I will go see it this weekend and flesh out my nominated-films experience".

Mind you, this was more in the interest of obligation: to myself, to my movie-cred (however tenuous it may be), and to you, my seven disinterested readers. I have a duty to be as first-hand knowledgeable of the nominated films as I can possibly be, even if that duty is entirely imagined. So it was not with eager anticipation that I went to the theater yesterday but with nothing short of dread. Why, you ask? Oh, right, I forgot you haven't heard of the film or, more importantly, its premise. In short: Rabbit Hole is about two parents coping with the death of their young son.

(Oh, GAWD. Please don't make me see this.)

WAIT! You need to see this. I mean it.

I have seen a lot - a LOT - of really good films this year. It's been a strong year for movies, and I have seen all ten well-deserved Academy Best Picture nominees, most of the additional nominees in the acting categories (I'm missing Biutiful and Animal Kingdom, to be remedied ASAP), and dozens of other movies that excelled in their genres. I'm not a professionally paid critic, and therefore don't see hundreds of movies a year, but I average about four a month, or one a week. Compared to some people I talk to, who haven't seen a movie in the theater since The Matrix or freaking What Women Want or, heaven help me, The Phantom Menace, I see a hell of a lot of movies. Rabbit Hole is the best movie of the 2010 slate, bar none. It's, quite simply, perfect.

The problem with Rabbit Hole is that its premise is completely off-putting:  The assumption is it's going to be sad, heart-wrenching, overwrought. It will fall into schmaltz and treacle and scenery-chewing melodrama. It will be intentionally painful and exploitative. Disingenuous. It will insult your intelligence and assault your artistic sensibilities. It will force itself on you. It will leave you feeling emotionally violated.

I am here to tell you right now, it does none of those things. It IS none of those things. Everything Rabbit Hole does, it does exactly right. My "instant movie review" over Twitter said it was "Devastating and beautiful. Expertly constructed and acted." I stand by that again today. There isn't a single line, a single scene, a single look, or a single action that isn't in service to its story. Everything has a purpose; everything is there for a reason.

Now, don't go in expecting to know exactly what's going on the moment that it happens. The beauty of Rabbit Hole, the rarity of it, is that it's so tightly scripted you, as an audience member, are seemingly dropped into the middle of these lives, a silent observer of this moment in time. There is no exposition to let you know, for example, that the person who calls Becca in the middle of the night is her sister. There is no explanatory line, no "You're my sister, not my mom" call-out to let you know who these people are and how they relate to one another. You simply observe them, and it becomes obvious. Likewise, there is no emotionally manipulative, "Oscar clip" scene in which these parents Experience Their Loss. Instead, they live it, every day, in every scene. There's only one moment, in fact, when a summary of their son's death is given, and it occurs entirely in context, as it would were these real people, a real family, trying to walk the line between bereavement that never goes away and the lives around them that stubbornly continue forward.

The summary of Rabbit Hole is factually correct. It is absolutely about two parents coping with the death of their young son. But this summary is also misleading. Rabbit Hole is not what you expect. Pragmatic, authentic, and economical, it offers catharsis without histrionics, and resolution without trite insincerity. It is expertly constructed, a tightly woven story that refuses to undermine itself with cheap shots. It is expertly acted, without a single one-note or phoned-in performance (even Becca's sister's boyfriend, who has minimal lines, manages facial expressions that so clearly convey his thoughts he might as well say them aloud). It is devastating, undeniably, but in a very relatable, organic way. It is beautiful in its simplicity and its intelligence. It is a perfect, perfect film. And it's sad that it won't be recognized as such.

Find a showtime. Go see it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Quick Thought on a Line

In the early goings of Winter's Bone, Ree, played exquisitely by Jennifer Lawrence, tells her younger siblings, "Never ask for what should be offered." In that one line, Lawrence conveys everything you need to know about Ree: she's headstrong, prideful, follows a strict moral code, and always has the welfare of her siblings at the forefront of her mind. But it also evokes emotion. Instantly, you're able to empathize with Ree's situation; you know where she's coming from, and you support her. At the same time, you pity her -- just a little -- for her rigid pride, and wonder if she might not have such a hard life if she knew how to ask for help.

Of course, that would require help being available to her, which is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Happy Oscar Nomination Day!

It's been a relatively slow movie year for me, I think, in that I didn't go as often as I would've liked, and yet I've seen 9 of the 10 Best Picture-nominated films that were announced today. Sadly, Winter's Bone must've came and went through the city on a whisper, because I do not remember it ever playing here, but it's already at the top of my Netflix queue, so soon that problem will be remedied.

If you've heard anything about the Academy Award nominations so far today, it's probably been along the lines of "not a lot of surprises" and "all well-deserved" since many of the early frontrunners (and critical darlings) of the year have snagged key positions in the races. What's interesting about that to me, however, is that, with so many really well-received films getting well-deserved nominations, really strong arguments can be made for almost all of them as serious contenders. In my eyes, the field is wide open. So let's explore it! As we did last year, I'm going to take this space to discuss some of the major categories up for Oscars at next month's ceremony.

Christian Bale (The Fighter) is as close to a lock as anything in just about any other category (save Toy Story 3 in Best Animated Feature). Only a groundswell of highly vitriolic (and unexpected) anti-Bale sentiment could knock him off his current perch, and with final ballots due to the Academy by mid-February, that seems like an awfully small window of opportunity for such a thing to happen. Of course, if it did, Geoffrey Rush (The King's Speech) would be the one to topple him. Rush's character, an Aussie speech therapist to King George VI, is the charming and delightful heart of a truly charming and delightful film, whereas Bale's crack-addicted has-been performance, while transformative and mesmerizing, might be seen as unsympathetic and hard for some voters to relate to. Of the also-rans, Mark Ruffalo is something of a perfect foil to Annette Bening's nominated uptight matriarch in The Kids are Alright, Jeremy Renner is, by all accounts, the best thing about The Town, and John Hawkes (Winter's Bone) is an established character actor in a well-respected movie that gets a pleasantly surprising nomination, but all three will have to settle for the honor of being nominated.

Also honored to be nominated, Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) has no chance of taking home the gold. The rest of her field, however, is a lot more open than most prognosticators will have you believe. Sure, Melissa Leo (The Fighter) won the Golden Globe, and is definitely the favorite over her co-star Amy Adams -- not to take anything away from Adams, whose performance was remarkable -- for tiptoeing the line so perfectly between the brash, strong boxing mom and the hurt, impotent woman faced with her older son's addiction and her younger son's distance, but the field is full of really strong contenders. Most notably, Hailee Steinfeld was able to snag a nomination in this category (despite clearly having a lead role in True Grit), and she was the best, most enjoyable aspect of a really enjoyable film. It's so rare to have a strong role for women -- much less girls -- that emphasizes strength, intelligence, competence, and bravery the way this role does, and it deserves to be rewarded. Some may not understand the politics of the Academy, but with heavy hitters like Natalie Portman and Annette Bening in the Lead Actress race, the Supporting category offers a much greater possibility of Steinfeld emerging victorious, and the fact that Academy voters made a point to list her in this category over the other is a good indication that they really want her to win. Of course, that still leaves Helena Bonham Carter (The King's Speech), a heavy-hitter in her own right, to contend with, and her subtle, restrained performance is something to behold, providing a lot of the emotional depth and heft of the film.

Of course, Colin Firth (The King's Speech) is hardly wanting in the emotional depth and heft department. His stammering monarch is a tangle of duty and fear, hope and desperation, vulnerability and restraint. He's definitely emerged as the category favorite, though a few of his co-nominees have a strong shot at the Oscar as well. First, James Franco (127 Hours) quite literally IS his entire movie. From beginning to end, Franco's performance is the sole focus, the sole conflict, and, often, the sole character. He carries a movie that could have easily gone wrong in so many ways, and turns out a spectacular, nuanced, brilliant piece of work (also a testament to Danny Boyle's directing, for making the film as riveting as it is) that stays with its audience for days. Likewise, Jesse Eisenberg's polarizing portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network) is still being talked about for it's unsympathetic view of an ambitious, manipulative, scathing, awkward genius. And don't count out dark horse Javier Bardem in the little-seen foreign language film Biutiful, which is making the rounds among the film industry (read: Academy voters) and generating a lot of strong, positive buzz for his gutwrenching performance. In a field this strong, a solid and entertaining performance by Jeff Bridges in True Grit -- a real contender in almost any other year -- gets relegated to longshot.

On the other side of the aisle, there are no longshots among the women nominated for their lead performances. True, Nicole Kidman (Rabbit Hole), Michelle Williams (Blue Valentine), and Jennifer Lawrence (Winter's Bone) aren't the names everyone's picking to win, but their supporters all have extremely compelling arguments for these roles. I haven't heard a bad thing about any. Their biggest detractor, then, may be the simple fact that most people (including myself) haven't seen the films due to limited distribution. On the other hand, for small and (in the case of Black Swan, certainly) offbeat films, The Kids are Alright and Black Swan have both been successful at the box office, leading to a lot more people talking about the performances of Annette Bening and Natalie Portman. Black Swan is (as I've written about here a few weeks ago), not without controversy, but Natalie Portman acts the hell out of her role, infusing it with overwhelming tension as taut and fragile as a violin string. Her growing madness and frustration and ultimate capitulation to the pressure draws the audience in and holds them captive, as terrorized by it all as Portman's Nina. Bening's character, too, breaks under the pressure of events unfolding around her, but holds it together as she must, as she constantly strives to do, as she and her family expect her to do, with a pitch-perfect portrayal of forced strength through pain. Not the most likeable character, being the controlling disciplinarian of the clan, Bening's Nic is somehow still the most relatable, thanks entirely to Bening's ability to deftly maneuver through the minefield of emotion in the film without taking a single wrong step. And as an Academy favorite (with 4 previous nominations but no wins), she may finally be able to snag the statuette.

Unlike last year's five strong contenders versus five questionable ones, this year all ten nominees are excellent films worthy of the honor. However, not all ten films have the same chance at winning. Inception was the first contender of the year, but, especially given its lack of more nominations, it hasn't held up as more films came out in the later months to supplant it. Still an excellent, mind-boggling and visually enthralling movie, look for it to pick up awards in Cinematography and Visual Effects. Similarly, The Social Network was a shoo-in for Best Picture when it first came out, and the theatrical re-release in December certainly helped its awards-season showing, but it might not be as likely a winner as it once was. I could actually see it walking away with nothing but Original Score and Adapted Screenplay, and even those aren't locks. Toy Story 3 is nominated in the Best Animated Feature category, so Academy members will see no need to reward it here. Winter's Bone is the pleasant surprise nomination, which almost always means it won't win, and Black Swan is too campy, too out-there, too polarizing to have a real shot. The Kids are Alright is good, but without Bening's performance it wouldn't have stood up half as well as it does, and 127 Hours just hasn't had the awards-season momentum it probably deserves. That leaves The Fighter, The King's Speech, and True Grit. My favorite of the three was The Fighter, with it's different-yet-familiar take on the sports-triumph genre, though the Academy might be content to just reward its actors. True Grit was really good, and the biggest box office smash of this particular group, which the Academy does love to acknowledge. Coupled with the unstoppable and highly-revered duo of Joel and Ethan Coen, it could win. But my gut is telling me The King's Speech prevails. Leading the way with 12 nods, it certainly can't be pushed aside as a quaint addition to the list, and it's a solid A/A- film that clearly has a lot of supporters. Will it win? Or will The Social Network make a full circle back around to favorite and snatch the win away? Tune in to ABC on Sunday, February 27 at 8pm ET to find out!

For those of you who like to be thorough, here's a list of all the nominees:

Performance by an actor in a leading role
  • Javier Bardem in "Biutiful" (Roadside Attractions)
  • Jeff Bridges in "True Grit" (Paramount) 
  • Jesse Eisenberg in "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing)
  • Colin Firth in "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company)
  • James Franco in "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight)

Performance by an actor in a supporting role
  • Christian Bale in "The Fighter" (Paramount)
  • John Hawkes in "Winter’s Bone" (Roadside Attractions)
  • Jeremy Renner in "The Town" (Warner Bros.)
  • Mark Ruffalo in "The Kids Are All Right" (Focus Features)
  • Geoffrey Rush in "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a leading role
  • Annette Bening in "The Kids Are All Right" (Focus Features)
  • Nicole Kidman in "Rabbit Hole" (Lionsgate)
  • Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter’s Bone" (Roadside Attractions)
  • Natalie Portman in "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight)
  • Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine" (The Weinstein Company)

Performance by an actress in a supporting role
  • Amy Adams in "The Fighter" (Paramount)
  • Helena Bonham Carter in "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company)
  • Melissa Leo in "The Fighter" (Paramount)
  • Hailee Steinfeld in "True Grit"(Paramount)
  • Jacki Weaver in "Animal Kingdom" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Best animated feature film of the year
  • "How to Train Your Dragon" (Paramount), Chris Sanders and Dean DeBlois
  • "The Illusionist" (Sony Pictures Classics), Sylvain Chomet
  • "Toy Story 3" (Walt Disney), Lee Unkrich

Achievement in art direction
  • "Alice in Wonderland" (Walt Disney), Production Design: Robert Stromberg, Set Decoration: Karen O’Hara
  • "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" (Warner Bros.), Production Design: Stuart Craig, Set Decoration: Stephenie McMillan
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Production Design: Guy Hendrix Dyas, Set Decoration: Larry Dias and Doug Mowat
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Production Design: Eve Stewart, Set Decoration: Judy Farr
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Production Design: Jess Gonchor, Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh

Achievement in cinematography
  • "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight), Matthew Libatique
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Wally Pfister
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Danny Cohen
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Jeff Cronenweth
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Roger Deakins

Achievement in costume design
  • "Alice in Wonderland" (Walt Disney), Colleen Atwood
  • "I Am Love" (Magnolia Pictures), Antonella Cannarozzi
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Jenny Beavan
  • "The Tempest" (Miramax), Sandy Powell
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Mary Zophres

Achievement in directing
  • "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight), Darren Aronofsky
  • "The Fighter" (Paramount), David O. Russell
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Tom Hooper
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), David Fincher
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen

Best documentary feature
  • "Exit through the Gift Shop" (Producers Distribution Agency), A Paranoid Pictures Production, Banksy and Jaimie D’Cruz
  • "Gasland", A Gasland Production, Josh Fox and Trish Adlesic
  • "Inside Job" (Sony Pictures Classics), A Representational Pictures Production, Charles Ferguson and Audrey Marrs
  • "Restrepo" (National Geographic Entertainment), An Outpost Films Production, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
  • "Waste Land" (Arthouse Films), An Almega Projects Production, Lucy Walker and Angus Aynsley

Best documentary short subject
  • "Killing in the Name", A Moxie Firecracker Films Production, Nominees to be determined
  • "Poster Girl", A Portrayal Films Production, Nominees to be determined
  • "Strangers No More", A Simon & Goodman Picture Company Production, Karen Goodman and Kirk Simon
  • "Sun Come Up", A Sun Come Up Production, Jennifer Redfearn and Tim Metzger
  • "The Warriors of Qiugang", A Thomas Lennon Films Production, Ruby Yang and Thomas Lennon

Achievement in film editing
  • "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight), Andrew Weisblum
  • "The Fighter" (Paramount), Pamela Martin
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Tariq Anwar
  • "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight), Jon Harris
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Angus Wall and Kirk Baxter

Best foreign language film of the year
  • "Biutiful" (Roadside Attractions), A Menage Atroz, Mod Producciones and Ikiru Films Production, Mexico 
  • "Dogtooth" (Kino International), A Boo Production, Greece
  • "In a Better World" (Sony Pictures Classics), A Zentropa Production, Denmark
  • "Incendies" (Sony Pictures Classics), A Micro-Scope Production, Canada
  • "Outside the Law (Hors-la-loi)" (Cohen Media Group), A Tassili Films Production, Algeria

Achievement in makeup
  • "Barney’s Version" (Sony Pictures Classics), Adrien Morot
  • "The Way Back" (Newmarket Films in association with Wrekin Hill Entertainment and Image Entertainment), Edouard F. Henriques, Gregory Funk and Yolanda Toussieng
  • "The Wolfman" (Universal), Rick Baker and Dave Elsey

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original score)
  • "How to Train Your Dragon" (Paramount), John Powell
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Hans Zimmer
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Alexandre Desplat
  • "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight), A.R. Rahman
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross

Achievement in music written for motion pictures (Original song)
  • "Coming Home" from "Country Strong" (Sony Pictures Releasing (Screen Gems)), Music and Lyric by Tom Douglas, Troy Verges and Hillary Lindsey
  • "I See the Light" from "Tangled" (Walt Disney), Music by Alan Menken, Lyric by Glenn Slater
  • "If I Rise" from "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight), Music by A.R. Rahman, Lyric by Dido and Rollo Armstrong
  • "We Belong Together" from "Toy Story 3" (Walt Disney), Music and Lyric by Randy Newman

Best motion picture of the year
  • "Black Swan" (Fox Searchlight), A Protozoa and Phoenix Pictures Production, Mike Medavoy, Brian Oliver and Scott Franklin, Producers
  • "The Fighter" (Paramount), A Relativity Media Production, David Hoberman, Todd Lieberman and Mark Wahlberg, Producers
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), A Warner Bros. UK Services Production, Emma Thomas and Christopher Nolan, Producers
  • "The Kids Are All Right" (Focus Features), An Antidote Films, Mandalay Vision and Gilbert Films Production, Gary Gilbert, Jeffrey Levy-Hinte and Celine Rattray, Producers
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), A See-Saw Films and Bedlam Production, Iain Canning, Emile Sherman and Gareth Unwin, Producers
  • "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight), An Hours Production, Christian Colson, Danny Boyle and John Smithson, Producers
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), A Columbia Pictures Production, Scott Rudin, Dana Brunetti, Michael De Luca and Ce├ín Chaffin, Producers
  • "Toy Story 3" (Walt Disney), A Pixar Production, Darla K. Anderson, Producer 
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), A Paramount Pictures Production, Scott Rudin, Ethan Coen and Joel Coen, Producers
  • "Winter’s Bone" (Roadside Attractions), A Winter’s Bone Production, Anne Rosellini and Alix Madigan-Yorkin, Producers

Best animated short film
  • "Day & Night" (Walt Disney), A Pixar Animation Studios Production, Teddy Newton
  • "The Gruffalo", A Magic Light Pictures Production, Jakob Schuh and Max Lang
  • "Let’s Pollute", A Geefwee Boedoe Production, Geefwee Boedoe
  • "The Lost Thing", (Nick Batzias for Madman Entertainment), A Passion Pictures Australia Production, Shaun Tan and Andrew Ruhemann
  • "Madagascar, carnet de voyage (Madagascar, a Journey Diary)", A Sacrebleu Production, Bastien Dubois

Best live action short film
  • "The Confession" (National Film and Television School), A National Film and Television School Production, Tanel Toom
  • "The Crush" (Network Ireland Television), A Purdy Pictures Production, Michael Creagh
  • "God of Love", A Luke Matheny Production, Luke Matheny
  • "Na Wewe" (Premium Films), A CUT! Production, Ivan Goldschmidt
  • "Wish 143", A Swing and Shift Films/Union Pictures Production, Ian Barnes and Samantha Waite

Achievement in sound editing
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Richard King
  • "Toy Story 3" (Walt Disney), Tom Myers and Michael Silvers
  • "Tron: Legacy" (Walt Disney), Gwendolyn Yates Whittle and Addison Teague
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Skip Lievsay and Craig Berkey
  • "Unstoppable" (20th Century Fox), Mark P. Stoeckinger

Achievement in sound mixing
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Lora Hirschberg, Gary A. Rizzo and Ed Novick
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Paul Hamblin, Martin Jensen and John Midgley
  • "Salt" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Jeffrey J. Haboush, Greg P. Russell, Scott Millan and William Sarokin
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick and Mark Weingarten
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Skip Lievsay, Craig Berkey, Greg Orloff and Peter F. Kurland

Achievement in visual effects
  • "Alice in Wonderland" (Walt Disney), Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas and Sean Phillips
  • "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1" (Warner Bros.), Tim Burke, John Richardson, Christian Manz and Nicolas Aithadi
  • "Hereafter" (Warner Bros.), Michael Owens, Bryan Grill, Stephan Trojanski and Joe Farrell
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Paul Franklin, Chris Corbould, Andrew Lockley and Peter Bebb
  • "Iron Man 2" (Paramount and Marvel Entertainment, Distributed by Paramount), Janek Sirrs, Ben Snow, Ged Wright and Daniel Sudick

Adapted screenplay
  • "127 Hours" (Fox Searchlight), Screenplay by Danny Boyle & Simon Beaufoy
  • "The Social Network" (Sony Pictures Releasing), Screenplay by Aaron Sorkin
  • "Toy Story 3" (Walt Disney), Screenplay by Michael Arndt, Story by John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich
  • "True Grit" (Paramount), Written for the screen by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
  • "Winter’s Bone" (Roadside Attractions), Adapted for the screen by Debra Granik & Anne Rosellini

Original screenplay
  • "Another Year" (Sony Pictures Classics), Written by Mike Leigh
  • "The Fighter" (Paramount), Screenplay by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson, Story by Keith Dorrington & Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson
  • "Inception" (Warner Bros.), Written by Christopher Nolan
  • "The Kids Are All Right" (Focus Features), Written by Lisa Cholodenko & Stuart Blumberg
  • "The King’s Speech" (The Weinstein Company), Screenplay by David Seidler

Thursday, January 6, 2011


To some, Black Swan is a horrifying and fascinating portrait of obsession and madness. To me, it evokes the sinking suspicion it might be a subversive condemnation of female empowerment and masturbation.

I can hear the arguments now: "Nina is encouraged to be more empowered, to take control of her life, and yes, to masturbate, so as to unleash her passionate side. It's her cloistered and rigid life up until the start of the film that has made her so closed off and tightly wound. She needs to let go, and the film explores that need."

My response: "Not really."


In the film, Nina (Natalie Portman) is a delicate, innocent, soft-spoken, almost childlike ballerina who desperately wants the principal role in the Company's new production of "Swan Lake". At her audition, however, while the director exalts her portrayal of the fragile and sweet White Swan, he pushes her to unleash sexuality and aggressiveness for the role of the White Swan's evil twin, the Black Swan. It is this struggle for duality that becomes the focus of the movie and, ultimately, Nina's undoing. In a nutshell, Nina can't be a whole woman -- one with layers and complexity and dualities and substance -- without going completely mad. This is literally the arc of the film. It's a superficial interpretation, sure, but it goes deeper than that.

Throughout the film, every step Nina takes in a self-possessed, independent direction leads her further and further into anxiety and insanity. She starts by stealing the items of the former principal ballerina (Winona Ryder) -- a girl who, herself, has devolved into a self-loathing, self-destructive shell of a woman -- and travels down a road of violence, hysteria and self-mutilation. The line between reality and madness is frequently obscured in this psychological horror, but to great effect, resulting in Nina's quest to become a fully realized woman of light and shade literally destroying her.

But, wait, didn't I say something about masturbation?

Throughout the film, Nina's director pushes and chides her (usually in very sexual harass-y ways) to access and exhibit her sexuality, but it's made very clear that Nina is not comfortable with this side of herself. She doesn't know how to be sexy, she's not able to discuss sex, and she does not seem to have had anything more than a very limited sexual history. Perfect as the White Swan, incompetent as the Black Swan. Her brief forays into seduction with her director are stilted, awkward, and end in unfulfillment and humiliation. Her one sexual encounter with another person was apparently all in her mind, the realization of which also leads to mockery and humiliation. At every turn, Nina's attempts to be more womanly and whole are discouraged. She is met with negative reinforcement time and again, but never so much as when she attempts to bring herself to orgasm.

Nina makes several attempts to masturbate in the film, not so much of her own accord but as an assignment by her director -- an opportunity to please him and to be the embodiment of the Black Swan as perfectly as she embodies the white one. These attempts, however, are always interrupted -- negatively reinforced -- by Nina's visions of self-mutilation and blood. The one time she started masturbating out of her own desire, she was horrified to look over and see her mother sleeping in a nearby chair. Once again, even though she wasn't seen, Nina is shamed and humiliated away from expressing her sexuality.

So what's the answer? Is Black Swan an indictment of perfection, and the fruitless pursuit thereof? Is it a portrait of the destructiveness of obsession? Is it a call for women to embrace the sexual, animalistic desires within ourselves? Or is it a public censure of such practices? Does it say that assertiveness and aggressive sexuality is something to avoid? That masturbation is something evil, something humiliating, something to be ashamed of? What makes it great art, of course, is that it's open to various interpretations, but don't overlook the darker messages within. On many levels, Black Swan undermines the ideals of female empowerment and self-satisfaction.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Edward Screws with Fate: A Call for Some Serious FanFiction

Ummm, yeah ....

So I promised this final Twilight roundup nearly a year ago -- and by "promised" I mean "threatened you with the prospect of it even though I was pretty sure no one was really interested anymore" -- but I never got around to it. Until now. And actually, I'm only getting around to it now because I really really want to write something about Black Swan but figured I should do this first.

Anyone still reading? Good. Let's continue. [CAUTION: SPOILERS ABOUND!]

First, you have to get on the same page with me that Edward and Bella are meant to be together. This is indisputable and I will accept no argument to the contrary. What's more, I can PROVE they're meant to be by the sheer fact that the moment Edward and Bella are finally together as vampires, both of them instantly stop being so damn unlikable. Seriously. A vampire Bella is, ironically, a less-sucky Bella. Likewise, a vampire Bella means a less whiny-controlling-maudlin-sucky Edward. You know I'm right. As soon as they get together, all becomes right with their worlds. Even the painful, nagging cold sore that was Jacob Black's moody obsession with Bella, which he mistook for love, is healed and eradicated by the birth of her daughter and Bella's vampire transformation. The stars aligned, the universe righted itself, and Bella finally felt like she fit in. End of story.

The problem, of course, is all the stuff before the end of the story that's not really story at all. Or at least, not very interesting story. Most of it is manufactured nonsense. Edward won't change Bella; Edward leaves Bella; Jacob convinces himself he has half a chance with Bella even though she tells him multiple times that he doesn't; Edward thinks Bella is dead and tries to kill himself; Bella goes to save him; Edward and Bella are back together; Jacob continues to make an obnoxious, date-rapey nuisance of himself; Edward and Bella bicker over whether to change her some more; Edward wants to get married but Bella can't possibly commit herself to that even though she's been begging to spend eternity as a vampire for 3 books; etc., etc., etc. It's all a headache. My theory is, Edward and his mopey conscience screwed with fate from the very beginning.

If you read the excerpt of Midnight Sun from Stephenie Meyer's website (and I have -- it's Twilight from Edward's perspective), you learn that Edward questions whether fate would be so cruel as to destine a mate for him, given that such a destiny requires the death and soul-nullifying vampire transformation of some innocent human girl. I say, Fate does what Fate does and it doesn't concern itself with right, wrong, or soul-nullification. If something is meant to happen, it will find a way to happen. If two people are meant to be together, Fate will continue to bring about opportunities until it happens. And as we've already established, Bella and Edward are meant to be together. They're fated. So, in my mind, what Fate intended was for Bella to die in the crash in the school parking lot. Or, rather, "die". She would've been taken to the hospital, where the combination of her fatal wounds and Edward's obvious connection to her would've convinced Carlisle to change her. She would've become a vampire then; end of story. Edward fucked that all up.

So, instead, Fate sends some scary hooligans after Bella in Port Angeles, where she could've met her "demise" in much the same way Rosalie did. Edward got in the way of that too. Bella may have been clumsy all her life, but she was never in mortal danger until it was time for Fate to get her together with Edward. It's a pattern.

Of course, the next instance is the sudden and convenient obsession James develops for her. Clearly, here's a vampire who could -- and did -- feast on any human who caught his fancy. But Bella he must have because it would irritate Edward? Really? Okay, maybe it's not that far-fetched, but still. Convenient.

The thing is, in the story Edward prevents Bella from being changed by James's rogue bite by sucking the venom out of her wound. Unfortunately, this doesn't wash. Meyer establishes that when a vampire smells (and subsequently tastes) blood, his mouth fills with venom. If Edward's mouth is filled with his own venom, it's highly unlikely he's able to remove all the venom from her wound without replacing it with some of his own. Forget unlikely, it's impossible. Bella could not have been cleaned of venom in that ballet studio; it's not feasible. So what did happen, then? What about all the other books? What about Jacob? What about the Volturi? Get this: it never happened. None of it.

Everything from the point Bella passes out in the ballet studio to her soft-focus happily-ever-after with Edward and Renesmee is a figment of Bella's imagination, a venom-induced hysteria. Jacob's not a werewolf; he's a Native American kid with tribal lore and customs that intrigued Bella's subconscious. There is no old guard of bureaucratic bloodsuckers waiting to pounce on this mild-mannered group of "vegetarian" vamps; and even if there were and Edward went there to commit suicide, Bella and Alice wouldn't follow him on a commercial flight -- surely one of the Cullens owns and can fly a private jet. Bella isn't immune from newborn-itis because of her super-willpower; in fact, most of these alleged vampire superpowers are fictitious. As Edward said in the beginning, special powers are somewhat rare. Not all vampires have a "gift". And there is no Incubus, because there is no vampire semen. I'm sorry, there just isn't. Renesmee is an elaborate and horribly-named hallucination.

What I want to read, then, is the real story. What really happened after James and Edward changed Bella at the end of the first book? This is what I want to explore, and I think only a really detailed, concentrated work of fan fiction will do the trick. Bella's death will have to be faked; she'll have the standard, much-maligned first newborn year of thirst and strength and struggle. She'll have to move; will she try to see Charlie again? Will she resent Edward at first for not being able to save her or will their love be able to flourish? What will she do with all her newfound free time? Answer these questions for me, people. This is the story that should've happened. This is the story that Fate intended to happen. Let's let it unfold.


I know it's been a long time, but it's been an eventful year. Anyway, I don't have to explain myself to you.