Saturday, July 14, 2012

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Ark II: "The Robot" (October 2, 1976)




This week on Ark II, Robby the Robot of Forbidden Planet (1956) fame guest stars as Alpha 1, or “Alphie,” in “The Robot.” 

Samuel has been working on the construction of this highly-intelligent machine for four months, and he puts the finishing touches on Alphie just as the crew stops lake-side in Sector 9, Area 15 to enjoy a picnic.  Unfortunately, Alphie -- like most young children -- is prone to accidents and clumsiness, and Captain Jonah has a difficult time trusting him.

After Alphie snaps off the knobs of the Ark II’s mapping computer, Jonah orders the machine shut down while the team investigates a strange “sickness” in a nearby village.  Alphie begs not to be de-activated, because he believes he can help resolve the problem.  When Jonah won’t acquiesce, Alphie breaks free of restraints, knocks-out Samuel, and heads out into the wilderness to act on his own.

It turn out that Alphie is right.  As the robot learns from a girl named Nestra, all the villagers are suffering from exposure to a toxic gas, one which turns them into vacant, zombie-like sleep-walkers. Alphie discovers the source of the leak in a nearby crevice, but finally must sacrifice his very life to seal it up and save the humans.

After Alphie’s noble act, Jonah realizes he was wrong to harshly judge the robot.  As Ruth notes at one point, “robots make mistakes…but so do people.”

Along with “The Lottery, “The Robot” is likely one of the best and most enjoyable episodes in the Ark II series catalog.   The writers, Len Janson and Chuck Menville, along with director Ted Post, really bring their best game on. 

There’s a real vibrancy to this installment (at least compared to others), in part because there’s more banter between the characters here than in all the other episodes combined.  They joke, tease, laugh, and show real ease with one another.  Who are these people?

Perhaps even more importantly than the new-found esprit de corps, not everyone is nice all the time in this episode.  Jonah is still the good guy captain, but he reveals impatience and temper with Alphie.  That doesn't make him evil, it makes him human.  

Samuel, meanwhile, displays powerful emotions when he realizes that his creation has died heroically.  These are welcome colors that the characters could have used on other occasions too, so that they wouldn’t always seem so perfect…and cardboard. 

Visually, "The Robot" is well-vetted.  The show opens with some new footage of the Ark II at an idyllic lakeside, for instance.  And Robby himself -- shiny and upgraded for his starring appearance here -- makes a great visual anchor for the proceedings.  It’s entirely possible (with apologies to the late Jonathan Harris…) that Robby is actually the best and most versatile guest star in the Ark II stable.  He gives a command performance hero, and his heroic death is actually pretty touching.

As usual, the weakest part of an Ark II episode involves the obligatory jet jumper, the rocket pack that Jonah wears to conduct reconnaissance in every darn segment.  It was interesting to see the jet jumper in action probably four or five times early on, but now it’s just a momentum breaker.  The jet jumper interludes inevitably slow down the narratives.

Finally, Ruth makes a comment in this episode that obliquely involves one of my curiosities about the show.  I’ve oftened wondered about the organization that built the grand Ark II, and whether the vehicle is the only one of its kind.  In “The Robot,” Ruth notes “It’s the only ark we have,” which, on the surface, seems to suggest the Ark II is indeed a one-of-a-kind.  On the other hand, she may simply be referring to the crew.  It’s the only ark this crew has, in other words.  So we almost get clarity, and then we get robbed of clarity...

Next week: “Omega.”

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Ask JKM a Question #10: Do I write about women directors?


A reader, Mary, asks:

“Do you ever write about women film directors?”

That’s a great question, Mary.

One of my favorite filmmakers working in the industry today is Mira Nair. 

In 2006, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books published my director’s study of Nair called Mercy in Her Eyes.  It tracks Nair’s output and artistic development from 1988’s Salaam Bombay to Vanity Fair (2004), with a short chapter on the making of The Namesake (2007). 

Nair is a great and dynamic auteur, a director capable of composing ravishing visuals, as we have seen in Kama Sutra (1997) and Monsoon Wedding (2001) among others.  I particular enjoy her continuing ability to find – and extend – highly dramatic moments that capture the nature of her characters and their lives.  She fashions a kind of visual sensuality through slow-motion photography and other techniques, so that audiences can detect the beautiful but ephemeral nature of human existence.

In terms of the horror genre, my book Horror Films of the 1980s includes reviews of Mary Lambert’s Pet Sematary (1989) and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark (1987)…both of which I assign “four stars,” or my top rating.  Horror Films of the 1990s features a review of Bigelow’s Blue Steel (1990), which was interesting, but perhaps not as strong.

To be candid about this matter, the movie business is still very much male-dominated, as I’m sure you realize.  That fact established, I really ought to review some of Bigelow’s cinematic work here on the blog, including the action film Point Break (1991), or the sci-fi epic, Strange Days (1995)…two films I really love and admire.

Thank you for the question.


And readers, don't forget to send me questions, at Muirbusiness@yahoo.com

Ask JKM a Question #9: What Role Should Format Play in Movie Appreciation?


A reader named Robert writes:

“Last year, The New York Times published an article about a subculture of genre movie fans who, for the sake of nostalgia, prefer watching their favorite films on VHS.  Personally, I'm happy that the days of pan and scanned analog murkiness are gone.  I bought a blu-ray player a couple of years ago, and the first movie I watched on it was THE OMEGA MAN.  The clarity of the picture was startling.  Watching Charlton Heston cruise the deserted streets of downtown L.A., the sun gleaming off the windshield of his car, I felt that the enhanced quality of the film gave rise to a correlating sense of immediacy.  The movie became more impactful, more urgent, and less an artifact of early seventies cinema. 

My question is: to what extent, if any, should format play in one's appreciation of a movie?”

Robert, that’s a terrific question, and one worthy of much consideration and debate, actually.  In all my writing, I seek to be judicious, to offer a balanced appraisal where possible.  So in this case, I’m going to tread the same careful path of moderation.

A lot of us grew up with VHS and “pan and scan” murkiness.  And worse than that, even, many of us also grew up with films we taped off the air in the 1980s that were cut up with commercials, edited for content, and otherwise, well, corrupted.  So clearly, these are not ideal viewing formats.

And yet, I first saw King Kong (1933) on television, interrupted by commercials and edited for content.  I first saw Godzilla, King of Monsters (1956) in the same fashion.  I first viewed Planet of the Apes (1968), cut-up and split over two days on the 4:30pm movie on Channel 7 in New York.

I would not trade the timing or placement of those movie “discoveries” in my life for all the tea in China.  The movies came to me exactly how and when I needed them, and I devoured them all.  Did the inferior viewing format in such cases ruin those movies?

No. Not at all.

Now, by the same token, would it have been better to see the films uncut, cleaned-up, and in their original aspect ratios? 

Yes.  Certainly it would have been.

So I guess you could say I’m not a terrible stickler for format when it comes to appreciating movies.  I dislike VHS mainly because you lose approximately a third of the frame, and the format thus plays havoc with a director’s carefully-vetted composition. It's hard to interpret the imagery of a film when that imagery is so blatantly defiled.  

Yet I am also an advocate for experiencing great films in any way possible, even if there are format drawbacks to take into account and reckon with.

I know the purists will complain – because they always do -- but I believe if you ask prominent movie artists the same question you put to me here, the vast majority would rank their interests in this way. 

1.)    See the movie the way it was meant to be seen (preserving the integrity of the frame, uncut, and without commercial interruption). 

And:

2.)    If you can’t do that, see the movie anyway, in whatever form it happens to be available. 

Personally, I can't fathom movie lovers who would rather see movies on VHS for nostalgia's sake in the era of DVD and Blu-Ray.  However, if a seldom-seen movie is for some reason unavailable in these newer formats, I will, without hesitation, seek out the VHS version – panned and scanned – to experience the film in at least some fashion. 

Bottom line: if I want to see a movie, I’m going to find some way, even an imperfect way, to see it, so at the very least, I will have some first-hand sense of it.

Of course, when we talk about format, we must acknowledge the other argument too, that Blu-Ray is a far crisper and more detailed format than was available decades ago.  Some special effects made in the 1960s actually look worse today on Blu-Ray – visible wires on miniatures and all – so by seeking something “better” in terms of clarity, are we actually denying the filmmaker’s original vision again, only in a different way?

I don’t know, honestly.  The Omega Man was also one of the first Blu Rays I purchased, and I agree with your assessment of its visual qualities.  The film, to my eyes, has never looked better.

But how to reckon with director’s cuts, extended cuts, unrated cuts, and special editions?  Are those formats a legitimate result of a director’s vision too, or just money grabs? 

And, finally, again in terms of personal choice, I find those critics who belabor format issues at the expense of actually discussing the artistic merits of a particular film a bit baffling.  To me (and again, this is a personal choice), it’s like picking up a great book and judging it not by the words, writing, and thoughts inside, but by the binding, the cover, and type font. 

Ultimately film is an art form that expresses human narratives in visual composition and words, and that’s where critical focus should land, not on the minutiae of “format.”   After all, when a lot of these films were initially released, quality was variable anyway because of the specific print, the quality of the projector, the projector's bulb, and even the abilities of the projectionist, to some extent.  So why be excessively snobby about a minute, color differential on a DVD version now?  Is that little thing enough to keep you from experiencing a film you want to experience?  For me -- and your mileage may differ -- the answer is no.

It’s better to light a candle than curse the darkness, and better to see – rather than not see -- a film simply because of format issues.   So I think people should just be educated about what, precisely, they are watching, if that makes sense, and tailor responses accordingly.  Don’t review a pan-and-scan VHS and note that the movie looks like a “TV show” because, you must acknowledge, finally, you’re not seeing the full picture, but a cut-up one.   

In a nutshell, my answer is: be reasonable about format when appreciating movies.  Watch what feels right to you.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Memory Bank: "Dragon's Domain"


Well, it’s turning into a Space: 1999 day here on the blog, I suppose you could say.  Nonetheless, this afternoon, I want to share some of the memories I cherish from my first viewing of “Dragon’s Domain” in the winter of 1975, when I was just shy of six years-old.

Now, I’ve reviewed “Dragon’s Domain” by Christopher Penfold on the blog before, here, so this isn’t a formal review of the installment’s visual and thematic merits, merely some of my recollections about the episode and how it affected me during that time in my life.

First of all, “Dragon’s Domain” is the Space: 1999 episode that casual watchers seem to most often remember from this Gerry and Sylvia Anderson TV series.  It’s easy to understand why.  We get to learn more about the main characters’ history on Earth (before “Breakaway”) and more importantly, the episode concerns…a monster.  And one hell of a memorable monster at that.

“Dragon’s Domain” is the story, in part, of the Ultra Probe, an Earth vessel captained by Tony Cellini (Gianni Giarko).  The story is told in flashback by Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain), and we learn how Cellini’s ship – in 1996 -- encounters a grave yard of spaceships in orbit around the planet Ultra, and then loses his crew to a devouring, one-eyed monstrosity: a tentacled spider/dragon-type alien. 

Now traveling through a different area of space all together, the isolated Moonbase Alpha encounters the same space grave yard, and the same monster…thus validating Cellini’s “crazy” story.

On first blush, this Space: 1999 episode probably doesn’t sound far different from many familiar space “monster” stories of the cinema or pulp magazines, yet the presentation and implications of “Dragon’s Domain” have captured my imagination for thirty-five years now. 

In particular, I’ll never forget sitting on the sofa in my basement family room with my parents and watching on TV as the space monster – the dragon – wrapped his dark tentacles around helpless astronauts, male and female, and then drove them into his glowing orange maw. 

If this act of “feeding” wasn’t horrifying enough, then the very next moment surely fit the bill.  The steaming skeletons of the dead were spewed out onto the spaceship deck…human flesh (and internal organs...) totally consumed.

This was my first real experience with something so…horrific. I was a huge fan, even as a child, of King Kong and Godzilla, but this kind of death was something different.  It felt more personal, somehow.  The “Dragon’s Domain” monster had no noble of sympathetic qualities, and didn’t exist, seemingly, on a different scale…towering above us like a dinosaur.  Instead, it was inescapable, hungry, and something that could occupy the same room as any unlucky human soul.  It seemed more immediate, more real, and less fanciful than the other monsters I loved, somehow.

Thus I suspect that “Dragon’s Domain” is the very story that ignited my fascination with horror films, and with the powerful idea of mixing hard sci-fi tech (like spaceships and control rooms) with something more Gothic, or perhaps even Lovecraft-ian.  Before Alien (1979), Event Horizon (1997) or Pandorum (2009) caught my eye, “Dragon’s Domain” sparked my curiosity about the darkest corners of the cosmos. 

What might await us out there, in the dark?

But “Dragon’s Domain” fascinated me for other reasons too, as a kid.  At that point, I had also been raised on stories such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Robinson Crusoe, and even Moby Dick.  “Dragon’s Domain,” with its squid-like monster, man alone on a life boat, and central mission of vengeance (on the part of Cellini) tied in directly with these beloved literary tales and translated critical story elements, again, to the final frontier.  There’s something downright mythic about this tale, and even the teleplay acknowledges it, comparing Tony and his “monster” to St. George and the Dragon.

At five going on six, it probably goes without saying that I was really scared by “Dragon’s Domain.”  Yet I was equally tantalized by the things that went unspoken in the episode.  The “monster” didn’t register on any Alphan scanning devices, for instance, which meant that these 20th century, technological men couldn’t really quantify if it was truly dead at adventure’s end, a nice Twilight Zone twist to close out the hour.  This open-ended question tantalized me for weeks and months (and years and decades…). 

Could something exist out there in space that is so different from us that it doesn’t even register on our equipment?  That lives and dies by physical laws we can’t comprehend?

Even more intriguingly, the episode concerned that space grave yard.  Once more, there were a hundred untold stories there; stories of space farers who had come to that unpleasant and inexplicable end.  But where had they traveled from?  Who were they?  We might even ask the same questions of Ultra.  Was the monster from that world, or did the grave yard appear in orbit by coincidence?  What was the surface of that planet like?  Who lived there?  Had they too, been devoured by the dragon?

And speaking of coincidence, how could the space grave yard travel from Ultra to Alpha’s position between galaxies?  Was the monster somehow guiding its “web” to…follow Tony?  All these unanswered questions swirled in my mind, and my response at the time was to “make pretend” further 1999 adventures (with my Mattel Eagle…) that addressed some of these points. 

It was this impulse to understand and continue the story that I credit with my decision, finally, to become a writer.  “Dragon’s Domain” was so tantalizing a mystery, so engaging a tale, so psychologically intricate, that this episode of Space: 1999 evoked the creative, artistic impulse in me, even at six.   One of these days, I must remember to thank Christopher Penfold.

But as a kid, I wanted more; more stories that were open-ended, that offered hints – but not clear-cut answers – about the universe  This is the very thing that continues to draw me to Space: 1999, and to works of art like Ridley Scott’s masterpiece, Prometheus (2012).   

In works such as these, there’s the tantalizing opportunity to go deep, to explore possibilities and ideas not spelled out or spoon-fed.  I don't consider a lack of explanation cause for nitpicking as so many fans do.  On the contrary, I look at it as gateway to engagement.  In fact, I now consider this quality a necessary pre-requisite for great art: room for interpretation, based on the hard evidence of a text’s words, and of its visual symbolism.   How boring it is to be told everything of import, or to be led on a leash to just one answer, when a filmmaker can, instead, only hint or whisper life's little verities to us.

The idea of this kind of exploration hooked me at age five, and has kept a hold of me – like a dragon’s tentacle – ever since.

Collectible of the Week: Space:1999 Eagle 1 Spaceship (Mattel; 1976)





Long-time readers of the blog may recall that I’ve featured this particular toy before -- on November 24, 2005 --- but sometimes, you have to return to your “greatest hits” and just hope people will be patient with your idiosyncrasies.

And this Mattel Eagle 1 Spaceship (1976) remains my all-time favorite toy, hands-down.  So today seemed like a good time to highlight again, especially for newer readers.  I’ll probably feature it again in another seven years, so be warned.

In part, I favor this 1970s Mattel toy because it comes from my all-time favorite science fiction TV series, Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977). But in part it is also because the toy is downright colossal: over 2.5 feet long, as the box trumpets. 

Beyond these values, the Mattel Eagle also comes apart into a smaller ship, a combination of the command and engine modules.  This aspect of the toy seems very realistic to the series (or “show accurate,” to use collecting lingo) and the modular design of the Eagle (from SPFX maestro Brian Johnson).   The separated command module resembles some of the incarnations we saw of the Eagles in episodes such as “Missing Link” and “Dragon’s Domain.”

The box for this toy noted: “It’s a space vehicle.  It’s a headquarters and living quarters on Moon Base Alpha! With three 3” characters.” 

In the latter case, that means that this Mattel toy came complete with three intrepid Alphans: Commander Koenig (Martin Landau), Dr. Helena Russell (Barbara Bain) and Professor Victor Bergman (Barry Morse). 
As a kid, I remember being deeply disappointed that there was no Alan Carter action figure, especially since he was the character most commonly seen piloting the craft on the series.  Anyway, the figures featured the show’s trademark orange space suits, as well as removable helmets and back/chest packs.

Again this just perfect for pretend play: the Alphans could walk in space, or take their helmets off for planetary action.  Just don’t tell the Prometheus nitpickers I took off their helmets in dangerous situations, okay?

On the nose section of the Eagle, the “module hatch” would open and hold two action figures.  Inside the “carrier” section was the passenger section, replete with computer decals, “weapons rack” and “space crane.”  The weapons rack held four stun guns and one laser rifle. “Both side panels” of the carrier would slide open, allowing you access to the interior sections.

I was given this really awesome toy shortly before my sixth birthday, in 1976, by my Mom and Dad.  I remember that I was sort of depressed because my older sister didn’t want to play with me on a Saturday and I had nothing to do.  My Mom noticed I was down in the dumps.  So she led me into my parents’ bedroom and told me to look underneath the bed.  I did, and there was Eagle 1, ready for action!  The surprise gift made my day…and I’ve never forgotten it, or my Mother’s kindness.  She was always doing things like that for me (and still does, for my son Joel, to this day.)

Then, as my real birthday approached, my Mom and Dad took me aside and told me that my Uncle Glenn, who recently passed away, had also bought me an Eagle One toy.  They asked me if I wanted a second one, or something different.

Well, of course I wanted a second one.  The only thing better than having Eagle One was having an Eagle fleet!

That Christmas season, both Mattel Eagles went to forest planets (my backyard), ice planets (on snow days) and other dangerous environments.  I recruited the giant squid from G.I. Joe’s Sea Wolf submarine to serve as the tentacle monster from “Dragon’s Domain.”

Even after Space: 1999 disappeared from the pop culture horizon and Star Wars (1977) took its place, I kept and cherished and played with my Eagles.

For years, I’ve kept and cared for these ships.  The one you see pictured is in relatively good condition.  Inside the box is the one I really played with, and which is…battle damaged, let’s just say.  I do worry about my “good” Eagle simply because it is getting really old.  In less than four years, it will be a forty-year old toy, which I find virtually impossible to believe. 

Anyway, if you look closely, you can detect yellow glue lines on the toy, apparently from manufacture, at all the seams.  These lines are becoming more pronounced over time.   The hull is also yellowing in spots (the dorsal lattice, particularly…).

That’s okay, though. I’m keeping this toy in my home office until I die.  And then I’m leaving instructions to my son that it should be buried with me (along with the box).  Unless, of course, he wants it, in which case I’ll be happy to pass it on. 

I’m still working on getting him to be a Space: 1999 fan, however.  Right now, Joel is totally into Star Wars and we spend several days a week playing on a forest planet (our front yard) with Astromech, Battle Droids and Pit Droids.

I guess, in some ways, things haven’t changed at all.  Maybe Joel will let me work an Eagle in there, somehow.  But R2-D2 will probably get to fly it…


Game Board of the Week: Raiders of the Lost Ark (Parker Brothers; 1981)


Cloned from a Mutual Zygote: A View to a Gungan?


Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Cult Movie Review: Black Swan (2010)


“We all know the story. Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan. She desires freedom but only true love can break the spell. Her wish is nearly granted in the form of a prince, but before he can declare his love, her lustful twin, the black swan, tricks and seduces him. Devastated the white swan leaps of a cliff killing herself and, in death, finds freedom.

-       Black Swan (2010)

Early in Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan (2010), a ballet director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) describes his choice to re-invent the Russian folk story and Tchaikovsky libretto, Swan Lake (1875). His goal is to take that well-established work and “strip it down," and "make it visceral and real.” Not coincidentally, that task is very much the one that film director Aronofsky undertakes himself in terms of the film’s narrative and direction.

The doppelganger or evil double is a central tenet of Swan Lake, embodied by the wizard Von Rothbart’s seductive daughter, Odile, who closely resembles the beautiful and cursed “Swan Queen,” Odette.  Historically, one ballerina has typically essayed both roles in this work, despite the fact that Odette and Odile are two distinct and separate individuals.  However, in keeping with the tone and content of the early  psychological thrillers of Roman Polanski such as Repulsion (1965) and The Tenant (1976), Aronofsky knowingly dispatches external supernatural flourishes such as doppelgangers and instead positions the evil personage inside the good one…as part of the good oneIn other words, Aronofsky’s Swan Queen – Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) – possesses the seeds of the darkness within her very psyche, and it is that internal evil that is brought forth during the course of the film.  Thus he has made "real" (rather than super-real or supernatural) the familiar and perhaps even trite narrative of Swan Lake.

If we proceed from this conceit of one person as a damaged schizophrenic -- as both Swan Queen and Black Swan, both Odette and Odile -- then Black Swan becomes understandable as the tale of a young woman with a very fragile identity.  It’s an identity so fragile, in fact, that it is “darkened” by at least three other apparently external black swans in the film.  They take the form of her mother, Erica Sayers (Barbara Hershey), the former lead dancer of the White Swan's company, Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder), and last but not least, her rival as lead ballerina, Lily (Mila Kunis).  At points, these apparently different black swans seem to morph and change shape, indicating that they are all actually "one," part of the same, dark personality.

These three “black swans,” along with a fickle royal prince -- the company director, Thomas -- ultimately drive Nina, a kleptomaniac, to bring forth a second, darker, repressed identity.  The ironic thing about the creation of this “other” psyche is that such creation is deemed absolutely necessary, in some sense, by the demands of performing Swan Lake.  After all, a person who has never taken a walk on the dark side can’t portray the dark side effectively.  That is the paradox that Nina grapples with throughout the narrative.  To be the best she can possibly be -- to be perfect -- she must let the dormant monster within be birthed.  And yet once let loose, this beast is not easily controlled.  Instead, it demands its “turn” as the dominant psyche.

Aronofsky depicts this personal and incredibly intense struggle between competing psyches in symbolic visual terms throughout Black Swan.  For example, the film is dominated by shots of both Nina and her reflection in the mirror, a composition which signifies the doubling of her identity.  Secondly, he uses what I like to term “intrusion” shots.  These intrusion shots are compositions wherein the camera follows Nina and then tracks her into new and stressful locales, whether a bar, a reception for the ballet company, her apartment, or any other setting.  In such shots, both the camera and Nina are literally intruding into crowds, into established “realities” where she must either remain composed…or possibly psychologically splinter.  These intrusion shots amp up the film's visual stress level, just as Nina's stress level is elevated by her entrance into closed, seemingly hostile domains.  What is that cluster of ballerinas laughing about?  Why are all those people over there looking over here?  What do all these people want from me?  These are the questions the frequent "intrusion" compositions seem to ask, thus visually suggesting paranoia.

Finally, Black Swan pinpoints a visual conceit for Thomas's decision to make “visceral” the drama encoded into the narrative of Swan Lake.  Instead of providing us with the expected proscenium arch and entire stage in long, uninterrupted master shot compositions, Aronofsky and his director of photography, Matthew Libatique fracture that staid frame during moments of dance for a world of intense, hand-held, immediacy-provoking spins and lunges.  This is the metaphorical act of going inside Swan Lake -- of deconstructing it --  just as the movie goes inside the head of Nina to show us both the White Swan and Black Swan elements of her psyche.

Technically and conceptually brilliant, and bolstered by a stunning, completely committed performance from Natalie Portman, Black Swan thus satisfies my highest critical criterion: it utilizes imagery to mirror or augment narrative content. More so, Black Swan accomplishes this task in a manner that we absolutely associate with the horror genre.  Through jump scares, digital morphing, monstrous make-up and other tools of that ghoulish trade, Black Swan depicts a  fierce war within; one which Nina must ultimately embrace if she is to transform Swan Lake from a sterile  presentation to a personal, searing artistic statement.  To make her dual role real and visceral, Nina must live it all, and so the film is a visual representation of her doing just that.

“Which of you can embody both swans? The white and the black?

After awaking from a dream in which she dances the part of the White Swan, ballerina Nina Sayers (Portman) returns to her company in the City only to learn that the director, Thomas Leroy (Cassel) will be auditioning dancers for the lead role in his re-invention of Swan Lake.  Nina believes she could flourish in the role, but Thomas is concerned that she can’t “let go” enough to make the Black Swan a compelling, seductive figure.  He worries she is too controlled, and not in touch with her emotions.

After Nina unexpectedly bites Leroy during a stolen kiss, he has a change of heart and casts her as his lead.  The move is not uncontroversial.  The former lead ballerina, Beth (Ryder) has been cast-off because of her advanced age, and still harbors rage about the decision.  And a new dancer from San Francisco, Lily (Mila Kunis) has her eye on Nina’s lead role, especially since she is so able to readily “let go” as the Black Swan. 

Meanwhile, Nina’s controlling, obsessive mother, Erica (Hershey) – a failed dancer, herself – keeps sending her daughter messages that imply Nina will break under the pressure of dancing both the White Swan and the Black Swan.

Nina attempts to let go – to find the passion inside of herself – but is stymied at every turn by her domineering mother and by Lily’s efforts to undercut her in Thomas’s eyes.  Finally, Nina’s psyche shatters, a happenstance that allows her dark side, at last, to emerge…but with fatal results.  Yet in keeping with the story of Swan Lake, it is strongly implied that freedom awaits Nina on the other side of death...

“Go ahead, jump! You'll be fine. Jump!

Not since Brian De Palma’s Sisters (1973) and its pervasive use of split-screens, perhaps, has a film focused with such dedication on the visual conceit of "doubling," or a splintered psyche.  In Black Swan, we are constantly treated to views of “The two Ninas,” one light, one dark, but each vying for control.  In this case, we don’t get split screens, but rather carefully-constructed shots that double her presence in the frame: views of Nina looking into a subway window and seeing her reflection, views of Nina before a mirror during rehearsals, and even shots of Nina – splintered – in a multi-faceted mirror in the apartment she shares with Mom.  The dramatic point of the pervasive “the two Ninas” imagery is to reflect her internal battle, her selection to cede perfectionist and obsessive control of her dancing (and life) to chaos…and eventually darkness.

The frequent mirror shots escalate to full-throated terror as Black Swan reaches its dramatic conclusion.  Soon, the reflection Nina sees in every mirror begins to move on its own, taking on malevolent, independent life in her eyes.  And finally, the Black Swan and White Swan fight it out -- importantly -- over a broken mirror, a symbol that the dam has broken, so-to-speak, and that Nina's mind is now in full-scale war with itself.  Even the film’s murder weapon – a glass shard from that broken mirror – reflects the ongoing motif regarding mirrors and the doubling of Nina’s psyche.


Reflection #1: Rehearsal.

Reflection #2: A sign of physical stress?

Reflection #3: The Black Swan emerges.

Reflection #4: Another sign of physical damage?

Reflection #5: A face in darkness.

Reflection #6: Failure.

Reflection #7: From white to black.

Finally, shattered reflection.

Less obvious, but equally ubiquitous, are the film’s multiple “intrusion” shots, which I mentioned in the introduction.  In these tracking shots, Nina enters a new locale, where the loyalties and disposition of other people are unknown to her.  The camera follows the lead ballerina into crowds, down twists and turns, and even on stage, and the idea underlining this brand of imagery is of an uncertain person going before an audience (appropriate for a performer), or even into a lion’s den.  We see in these shots mostly the back of Nina’s head, and that’s appropriate, because she is, in some fashion, locked in an uncertain state of becoming.  She is not yet the Black Swan, or even the White Swan for that matter.  Nina intersects with a hostile or at least ambiguous world throughout the film, and these shots are physical manifestations of that intersection, a sign of her uncertain state in the world.


Intrusion #1: Back to the lion's den.

Intrusion #2: What are they laughing about?

Intrusion #3: Where's Mom?

Intrusion #4: About to take center stage.

Intrusion #5: The Black Swan reigns supreme.

And who, we must ask, charts Nina's path through this uncertain world?  Well, there’s the master manipulator himself, Thomas (Cassel), but I submit the film actually focuses more intently on the three Black Swans whom Nina so assiduously orbits and attempts to break free from. 

Her mother, Erica (Hershey), is perhaps the darkest of the Black Swans.  Erica universally wears a black wardrobe, and is consumed by the idea of living “through” her daughter, very much how the Black Swan lives through her intentional misrepresentation to the prince; by pretending to be the White Swan.  Erica so fully sees Nina as an extension of herself that she even grooms Nina (by cutting her nails, for instance) and makes notation of "our" favorite flavor of cake.  To her, Nina is not a separate entity.


In other words, Nina constantly attempts to subsume Nina’s identity into her own.  Nina lives and dances only so that Erica’s life and career are not failures and that so, vicariously at least, Erica receives the glory (if, again, reflected through the lens of her daughter).  We see this relationship symbolized in the film through the use of color -- black (Erica) vs. white (Nina) -- and through the canny placement of certain props in the background.  Notice that during one close-up of the pinched, drawn Erica, we can clearly view a white, gilded bird cage behind her.  That cage, of course, is for the White Swan, for Nina.

Erica is a truly insidious character, permanently infantalizing her daughter by consigning Nina to the bedroom of a twelve-year-old girl, a realm decorated in pre-adolescent pinks and with plush, stuffed animals and ivory ballerinas.  But it is Erica who likes pink, not Nina, as we can see from her "pink" telephone screen, emblazoned with the word "MOM."  Erica has fashioned this whole world for her daughter in an attempt to assure that Nina is a carbon-copy of her.  


And yet, by the same token, Erica is also terribly afraid of being eclipsed by Nina, and so her encouragement  also boasts a terrible dark side.  She can’t stand to see her daughter succeed where she failed.  Whenever Nina shows the slightest sign of independence, Erica complains that she is no longer a little princess, no longer “her” Nina.  There is no way, then, to please her and still establish a sense of self.

The film’s second black swan is Beth, a woman whose rage and jealousy knows no bounds.  When she is forcibly retired, she goes mad.  She lets her inner black swan escape, as Thomas acknowledges:  Everything Beth does comes from within. From some dark impulse. I guess that's what makes her so thrilling to watch. So dangerous. Even perfect at times, but also so damn destructive.” 

In other words, Beth has sacrificed discipline and control -- Nina's trademark qualities -- and let go too much.  Ironically, this is exactly what Lily and Thomas almost constantly implore Beth to do: to “let go,” to “live a little.”  But the example of Beth, this particular Black Swan, reveals the dangers of doing so, of going too far.

Then there’s black swan # 3, Lily (Kunis).  Young, sexy and extremely liberated, Lily is a little less twisted by life than either Erica or Beth.  But she still makes no bones about getting what she wants, no matter if she has to step over Nina to get it.  Lily introduces Nina to recreational drugs the night before an important rehearsal on stage, and there’s a case to be made that everything that happens in the film after this point is actually the result of drug-induced psychosis.  Regardless, Lily attempts to sabotage Nina, first by “tattling” to Thomas that she is overworked, and secondly by introducing Nina to perception-altering drugs.  Then, she attempts to take Nina’s place, as alternate, when Erica calls in sick for Nina.

With friends like these…


Black Swan #1: Erica.  Notice the gilded white cage behind her.

Black Swan #2: Beth.  Everything about her comes from a dark impulse.

Black Swan #3: Lily, with the black tattoo.

And Black Swan #4: Nina.

It is the combined actions of these three black swans that finally bring Nina’s dark side from the world of the other side, the mirror, into dominance in her own psyche.  The final straw is a vision – perhaps real, perhaps not  real – of Lily making love to Thomas; a direct allusion to the prince falling in love with the wrong girl in Swan Lake.


Given the stresses she endures through out the film, it’s no wonder that Nina’s dance moments on stage (and in rehearsal) are staged as though visual assaults; with hand-held urgency, dizzying spins and whirling turns.   These movements reflect Nina’s stress and lack of control.  She’s not just going on stage, she’s going into battle…into dedicated combat.  Incidentally, and with apologies to lovers of theater, these sequences explain why, in a nutshell, film is inherently superior to the stage.  On stage, we must always view action from a certain physical distance, and with physical distance comes emotional distance too.  But through formalist editing, film can show us the things we need to see -- at the distance we need to see them -- to compel us to feel and experience emotion.  Our eyes can be directed to a montage, to distortions of time and space, to other factors that can’t easily be conveyed via the theatrical experience.  It’s funny that some critics thought to call Black Swan theatrical, because it’s actually the absolute opposite of theatrical.  Along with the supernatural, the film rips away any sense of artificiality, and lands us inside the psychic swoon of a mentally unstable dancer.  We don't get the distance or theatrical restraint of the proscenium arch here. Instead we take a trip to the brink of madness.


The stage can't put you this close.

Or show you this.

Or this. 

It’s illuminating too, to consider how Black Swan uses a real psychological disorder, Kleptomania to add to its (realistic) case about Nina’s release of-and-from tight control.  Kleptomania is generally associated with  depression, and feelings of extreme stress.  With Kleptomania there are often “intrusion feelings” (going back to those “intrusion” tracking shots I noted above) where imagination and fantasy are coupled with reality, and it is impossible to tell which is which.  I believe this is very much the case with Nina. She drives herself, veritably, to schizophrenia, taxing her body and mind to the point that it can’t distinguish memory from dreams, or memory from nightmares.

And what remains remarkable and ironic about all of this is that Nina’s efforts to excavate a part of herself – the second, dark Nina – creates great art.  This is an important and little-investigated component of the film.  With the drive to create art also comes the drive to push oneself to the limit, to scale heights never before scaled.  Although it is easy to perceive Black Swan’s ending as wholly negative and tragic since it involves Nina’s death, one must not forget her final epiphany.  “I felt it,” she states.  “I was perfect.”  She finally achieved what she set out to achieve.  She drove herself to the limit of her capabilities and beyond, and in the process gave a performance for the ages.   From her perspective, then, the journey was worth it, no matter how it finally ended.   She dies to orgasmic shouts from the audience “Nina! Nina! Nina!”  She beat the limitations imposed by her mother, she upstaged Lily, and she never suffered the same fate as Beth.  She had to shatter her own psyche to do it, but she killed…if you get my meaning.  And finally, the screen fades not to black (which would indicate a triumphant Black Swan), but to white, which of course is indicative of the White Swan.  In the end, the goodness in Nina is what won out.

So while one can certainly read the film as a cautionary tale of what happens when an athletic figure or artist is exploited or pushed too far, there's another possible interpretation.  Black Swan also reckons with the (perhaps trite) idea of the “suffering artist.”   How far would you go to really do your best?  Perhaps we should ask Marlon Brando (if he were still around), or Robert De Niro, or…in point of fact…Natalie Portman.  What wouldn’t you put yourself through to reach the absolute apex of your art?  To be the best there ever was?

I realize some people may get angry with this perspective, or feel that I’m romanticizing mental illness, emotional abuse and every other aspect of Nina’s harrowing experience.  My wife wasn't pleased with my interpretation, for example.  But, again, I just point out – and this is very much a horror movie-type theme – when you’re faced with adversity, you use that adversity to, as Thomas notes, “transcend” it.  In a way, this was also the theme of Martyrs (2008).  Here, it isn't ballet that makes Nina miserable, it's her mother.  It's jealousy.  It's passion.  It's all those things others are telling her to feel, but which she has avoided.


Dream or destiny? Death or apotheosis?
In some fashion, Nina – by unshackling herself from reality – transcends these vicissitudes, upsets and stresses of her daily life and achieves a kind of apotheosis.  If we recall the story of Swan Lake (at least as it is described in the film), the White Swan kills herself…and then finds peace

I believe that at film's end Nina finally finds the peace she could not find in life.  And furthermore, the film's opening phantasm...of the White Swan dancing under a warm white light, is a prophecy of this final, serene disposition.  So while Black Swan is so disturbing a film, there's a way that you can look at the denouement and feel satisfied.  We would be fools to assume that Nina – so driven to perfection – in the end could settle for anything less than a truly perfect method performance.  And that's what she gives the audience,  through the unlikely auspices of madness itself.