Saturday, October 05, 2013

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Return to the Planet of the Apes: "Flames of Doom" (September 6, 1975)

Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) is a Saturday morning TV program developed for television by David De Patrie and Fritz Freleng.  It assimilates and re-invents characters, plot lines, devices and technology from all previous incarnations of the once-popular franchise, including the Pierre Boulle novel, the 1968 film and sequels (Beneath, in particular), and even the short-lived 1974 live-action TV series.

The result is an invigorating shot in the arm for the franchise. I hadn’t watched these half-hour episodes for something like thirty-five years, but re-discovering them on DVD, I was shocked and pleased at how attentive and committed to details (and to an overall story arc) this animated series remains.

Because frankly the buzz from the old genre press wasn’t good. Going back to Fantastic Television a reference book from 1977 that I've always adored, the author writes in a summary review of the NBC series that it “was a not very exciting animated version of the short-lived CBS live-action series,” and that the artwork and plots were “simplistic.” (page 177).  The comment about the art work is correct, and yet some times "simplistic" can also mean...interesting.  Once you get used to it, the design of the cartoon series is actually pretty terrific, at least in a baroque kind of way.

The premiere episode of Return to the Planet of the Apes, “Flames of Doom,” (by Larry Spiegel), finds a NASA space capsule called the “Venture” traveling on a routine deep space mission on August 6, 1976.

Aboard are three astronauts: Bill Hudson (a white man), Jeff Allen (an African-American man) and Judy Franklin (a woman).

Bill narrates the captain’s log and confirms Dr. Stanton’s theory of “time thrust;” that man can utilize faster-than-light speeds to propel himself into the future. Admirers of the 1968 film will recognize this comment as a reflection of Chuck Heston’s opening narration, and Dr. Hasslein’s theory named there. It’s been simplified for children in this cartoon, but the idea is identical.

No sooner has Hudson informed us about this scientific theory than the ship’s chronometer goes wild and the Venture literally plunges into a time warp. The “Earth Clock” goes crazy, and the Venture arrives battered and bruised in the year 3979, where it crashes on a strange planet, and into a dead lake.

Meanwhile, elsewhere on the surface  – in a city ruled by intelligent apes – General Urko, a gorilla power-monger, addresses the Supreme Council of Ape City and demands genocide against all humans.

Arguing the opposite case is the kindly chimpanzee Cornelius, who pleads for a “different course.” He and his wife, a behavioral scientist named Zira, wish to study humans as the key to “simian origins.” Arbitrating this dispute of national importance is the ruler of the apes, an orangutan named Dr. Zaius.

I must note that the level of attention to detail in this scene is remarkable.  For as Zaius issues his decision on the matter at hand, the edit cuts to a stone relief on the wall behind him which reveals the long history of ape-human relations. There are images of apes hunting humans and even domesticating them.

Humans may be hunted as legitimate sport, Zaius concludes, or brought into the city to perform “menial tasks.” They may even serve as domestic pets, but Zaius will not demand their total destruction.

However, on an ominous note, he warns that Article 18 of the “Book of Simian Prophecy” demands that man must be destroyed at any cost if he develops the power of speech. In other words, this is a temporary victory for Cornelius’s cause, and for the primitive, mute, stone-age humans who populate caves outside the technologically advanced ape-city.

Watching this portion of the episode, a few matters become plain. First and foremost, the franchise has returned to the ape society as depicted in Boulle’s original novel. In other words, the apes dwell in a twentieth century city with television, radio, automobiles and the like.

Their city is not a rock-outcropping like in the popular original movie, but rather a contemporary metropolis with buildings and skyscrapers that resemble those from human history in a wonderful nod to the adage “monkey see, monkey do.” The ape culture of the original film was almost medieval, despite the presence of guns and such medical advances as brain surgery. Not so here.

For instance, the imposing ape council building resembles nothing so much as our own Capitol Building where Congress deliberates when it isn't shutdown. Since this is a re-imagination and updating of Planet of the Apes for the mid-1970s, not only is there the burgeoning nod to gender and racial diversity (this was the era of the equal rights amendment...) in the make-up of the astronauts, but the focus on the Council and its proceedings reveals a more bureaucratic bent to the apes.

Instead of ape culture being essentially of one mind (as in the see-no-evil/hear-no-evil/speak-no-evil triumvirate of the Schaffner film showcases), here Ape society is bedeviled by partisan politics, with chimpanzees representing the pacifist left, gorillas the militant right, and orangutans the sensible center. This is especially important considering the context of Return to the Planet of the Apes: immediately post-Watergate and soon after the Vietnam conflict. Again, this is an example of updating and changing a franchise, but not throwing out the baby with the bath water.

Continuing with the story, Bill, Jeff (voiced by Austin Stoker of Battle for the Planet of the Apes and Assault on Precinct 13), and Judy abandon their sinking spaceship and flee into the Forbidden Zone. Recalling the portions of the original film shot in Death Valley, the series offers an artistic montage here as the three astronauts search for water and food under the glaring sun of what they believe is an alien world.

The animated frames turn a bright scarlet hue to represent the heat of the desert and there are close-ups of human faces caked in sweat. Close-ups of tired feet marching in the sand also appear. This montage doesn’t rely on dialogue, but rather on clever images that express an emotion.

The animation is limited perhaps, even crude but these limitations are marshaled as a strength on the program. Overlapping views, double exposures, intense close-ups, insert shots and first person subjective point-of-view shots all provide a texture to the desperate march through the wasteland.

This march ends, appropriately, with the sighting of an Ape Mount Rushmore. Another new touch, but again one that along with the ape metropolis reveals the ape talent for mimicry (monkey see, monkey do) and is therefore thematically valuable; a subconscious reminder that all of the simian accomplishments are built on “aping” human society.

Later episodes go further with this idea, visiting "The Tomb of the Unknown Ape" or mentioning the famous author, William Apespeare.  One episode, "Invasion of the Underdwellers," even casts eyes on -- at least briefly -- a simian Mona Lisa.

In the desert, Jeff and Bill lose Judy when fires spontaneously erupts in front of them, and an earthquake splits the ground in a series of lovely frames that reveal a high degree of fidelity to images from Beneath the Planet of the Apes (particularly Taylor’s abduction by the underground mutants).

The astronauts have little time to ponder the loss of their companion, however, as Bill and Jeff encounter a tribe of stone age humans, including the beautiful Nova.

Suggesting an interesting mystery, Nova wears the dog tags of another astronaut, someone named Brent (again, a reference to Beneath the Planet of the Apes). His birth date was May 2, 2079, so Jeff and Bill are forced to ponder the notion that an astronaut who was born after them arrived on the planet of the apes before they did. Boggles the mind, no? This is a pretty advanced concept for a kid’s show, and it also provides an underlying mystery for adults to enjoy. Where is Brent? What happened to him?

Before long, the apes arrive, on the hunt,  in tanks, jeeps and with heavy artillery. The gorillas even lob gas grenades at the primitive humans. Here, the series utilizes zooms inside individual frames (not actual motion, but rather camera motion…) to suggest the frenetic pace of the hunt. Jeff and Bill are separated, and Bill is captured and taken to Ape City.

That’s where the first episode ends, but already, the attentive viewer can detect how this canny re-imagination assimilates the critical aspects of the Planet of the Apes mythos with something akin to 20/20 hindsight.

Instead of making up the saga as it goes (a deficit of the otherwise outstanding motion picture series…), Return to the Planet of the Apes accounts for -- from the very beginning -- the mutants in the Forbidden Zone (here termed “The Underdwellers.”) It also employs familiar characters in new ways and in  new situations, and even incorporates movie imagery to vet the story. 

In terms of characters, Urko derives from Mark Lenard’s character on the 1974 TV series. In Beneath, a similar character was known as “Ursus.” He is essentially the same ape here, as are Zira and Cornelius, but Dr. Zaius has changed the most.

Zaius is no longer a hypocritical religious zealot, but rather an equalizing force of moderation in Ape Society…almost heroic, actually.

The free ape is he who does not fear to go to the end of his thought,” he even states; an ideal that the movie’s “chief defender of the faith” could never get behind.

This is actually a significant structural change as well as a symbolic representation of the left/right divide in our culture. Why? Because with Zaius moderating pacifists and war-mongers, we can more logically believe that humans (particularly the astronauts) can continue to escape and outmaneuver a technologically advanced simian culture. The whole planet isn’t out to kill them; they do have allies.  Dr. Zaius is even referred to by his enemies, the Underdwellers, as being "just...for an ape," and again, this is a sea change in the character's depiction.

From the original Planet of the Apes movie, “Flames of Doom” also incorporates other powerful visuals. We see the ape scarecrows on the border of the Forbidden Zone again, and, on a connected note, hear the same gorilla “hunt” horn on the soundtrack. We see a small, yellow rubber raft and a U.S. flag planted in the Forbidden Zone too, as well as the discovery of a first green plant indicating life on the fringe of the desert.

Again, the approach here seems to be to this: take what worked in the apes movie, book and TV series, and then put them all together in a more coherent, cohesive story, smoothing out the bumps and making everything jibe.

That’s important, because long time Planet of the Apes fans will remember some of the more dramatic gaps fouling continuity in the film series. In Planet of the Apes, for instance, it is the year 3978 when Taylor arrives, but when Brent arrives on his heels in the follow-up, Beneath, it is magically 3955.

Similarly, there are discrepancies between Escape and Conquest in the story of how the apes ascended to superiority in man’s world. Cornelius’s story involves an ape named Aldo (whom we meet in Battle), but does not take into account the true ape revolutionary, Caesar.  Coming at essentially the end of the apes cycle, Return to the Planet of the Apes benefits from knowing everything that came before.

Indeed, this is the only valid reason for the re-imagination of a franchise. Taking what worked in one production and maintaining it; and taking what didn’t work and improving upon it.  It must be done, however, with a degree of love, patience and restraint involving the material. I feel like I see all that here.

Notice that there is not merely change for the sake of change; that characters have not miraculously switched sexes, and whole swaths of mythology have not been removed or altered to suit a developer"s ego, or need to be "creative."

What I’m suggesting is that fundamentally there is a respect in evidence here for the the productions that came before, for the Apes mythos. So yes, a re-imagination can work, and this dedicated animated series is one example, at least in its first chapter, where it did so.

None of this means, however, that Return to the Planet of the Apes doesn't sometimes lapse into childishness and silliness.  The series was made, after all, to air on Saturday mornings in the 1970s.  The intended demographic was young children.  

This factor plays out in some funny ways throughout the series, as we'll see in the weeks ahead. Next weekend: "Escape from Ape City."

Return to the Planet of the Apes (1975) Intro

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost: "Tasha" (September 7, 1991)

In 1991, producers Sid and Marty Krofft revived the popular Land of the Lost (1974 – 1977) concept for a new era.  This new version of Land of the Lost aired for two seasons on ABC, and the run ultimately came to 26 half-hour episodes.  The series was popular enough during the early 1990s that a considerable line of show-related toys was released from Tiger Toys.

Like the original Land of the Lost from the 1970s, this new version of the story begins after a family has already arrived in the hostile pocket universe of three moons. 

In the original series, the first episode was called “Chaka” and involved the Marshalls -- Rick, Holly and Will -- meeting a friendly denizen, a Pakuni child.  The first episode of the re-made Land of the Lost “Tasha,” duplicates that template.  Here, the stranded family -- Tom, Annie and Kevin Porter -- encounter a newly-hatched, baby dinosaur.  This dinosaur is named “Tasha” after Annie’s dead mother.  And, as another point of connection, the Marshall children had also lost their mother at some point before arriving in Altrusia in the original series.

This new version of Land of the Lost demonstrates how much times had changed since 1974, to be certain.  Specifically, the Porters arrive with far more amenities and technological assets than did the Marshalls.  The Marshalls spent their early years in the Land of the Lost in a dusty cave called High Bluff.  When we first meet the Porters in “Tasha,” they have already constructed and furnished an elaborate tree-house which stands high off the ground, and which boasts a separate kitchen (replete with sink) and sleeping area. 

Furthermore, the Porters have their car with them, which is still operable, plus Sony Walkman radios, and a hand-held video camera.  They also have a boom-box and a box garden.  In other words: all the comforts of home, a planet away.  I have not seen episodes of this series in many years, so it will be interesting to note, going forward how the Porter’s technology plays a role in their adventures.

In terms of production, the 1990s Land of the Lost does not rely on chroma-key matting, dinosaur miniatures, or sound-stage shooting.  There’s a great deal of exterior work instead, and the dinosaurs – designed by the Chiodo Brothers -- are depicted with much more detailed (and much more menacing-looking) puppets.  Personally, I prefer the look of the dinosaurs in the original series, but that’s my own sense of nostalgia speaking, and not a reflection on the Chiodos’ work. I suspect these new dinosaurs will just take a little getting used to. 

In “Tasha” we also meet the dinosaur antagonist of the series.  The original series had the T-Rex named Grumpy, and here we meet “Scar,” the T-Rex responsible for murdering Tasha’s mother and eating all her eggs, save for one.  Scar also attacks the Porter tree-house twice during this episode, but is finally repelled when the family rigs their car to deliver the dinosaur an electric shock.

The greatest drawback I detect at this early stage of the re-made Land of the Lost (1991 – 1993) is that it possesses no coherent or distinctive sound-design, one of the most amazing qualities of the original series.  You can turn on the original Land of the Lost and you won’t mistake it for any other series ever produced.  The sounds of the jungle-world of Altrusia are highly-distinctive, and make the alien world seem very real, and consistent from installment to installment.  

Similarly, the visualizations of the Land of the Lost in the original series -- while clearly done on the cheap -- also created a kind of cohesion or unity of thought in terms of technology (like the pylons and the crystal matrix tables) and the locations in terms of the lost city of the Sleestaks, and other subterranean and above-ground constructs.  I’ll be looking hard during this retrospective of Season One of the 1990s remake to see if I can make the same observations about its production design.

In terms of the characters, the Porters are pretty obviously a recreation of the Marshalls, only updated for the 1990s.  Annie is a little more forthright and independent at the beginning than Holly was.  Indeed, that sense of dawning independence became Holly’s character arc, and I’ve often insisted the series is really about her, not Will or Marshall.  Meanwhile, Kevin seems more obnoxious and snarky than Will ever was, but again…this is the 1990s we’re talking about so I guess that’s to be expected.  The Dad, Tom, much like Spencer Milligan’s Rick Marshall, seems a paragon of patience and wisdom.

Next week, we learn much more about this new land of the lost and its denizens in episode #2, “Something’s Watching.”

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Land of the Lost (1991) Intro

Friday, October 04, 2013

Cult TV Review: The Name of the Game: "L.A. 2017" (1971)

L.A. 2017" "is a uniquely dystopian episode of the wheel TV series The Name of the Game (1968-1971) and one directed by none other than movie legend Steven Spielberg.

Networks don't present so-called wheel series these days, but The Name of the Game filled a ninety-minute slot each week of its 76-episode run on NBC, with three rotating lead actors (Gene Barry, Tony Franciosa and Robert Stack) vetting different story lines. 

In this case, all the adventures portrayed on The Name of the Game centered around Howard Publishing.  Franciosa played an investigative reporter, Stack a crime magazine editor, and Gene Barry was Glenn Howard, the publisher-and-chief.

Created near the end of The Name of the Game's three year run, on the then-considerable budget of $375,000 dollars, "L.A. 2017" features Gene Barry's character, and sends him off in an unexpected and frightening science fiction adventure.

As "L.A. 2017" (written by Philip Wylie) commences, Glenn Howard is on his way back to Los Angeles from the Sierra Pines Conference on Ecology. 

As he drives on a windy mountain road, Glenn dictates a private memo to the President of the United States about what he has seen and heard at the conference.  He suggests that "the destruction of the environment" is imminent unless someone begins to demonstrate real leadership on the issue.

While steering and dictating the memo, Glenn suddenly falls unconscious and drives his car off the road. When he awakes, he is being tended to by two emergency workers in red jumpsuits and protective gas masks. 

These men escort him through the "Los Angeles Portal" to the city.  But it's not the same city it once was, as Glenn quickly learns.  The year is now 2017, and the surface of the planet Earth is uninhabitable.  Mankind has moved underground to a series of overcrowded subterranean complexes.

While Glenn tries to figure out how he traveled into his own future, the authorities of 2017 interrogate him.  Cameron (Severn Darden) is a psychiatrist and chief-of-police, and is suspicious of the stranger.  Cameron fears Glenn might be part of a violent underground movement seeking to destroy the cities.  "I can get anything I want out of you, electronically," he confides in his ward.   Soon, Cameron diagnoses Glenn as either "schizoid" or telling the truth about his time travels.

In short order, Glenn is introduced to the amiable Vice-President of Los Angeles, Dane Bigelow (Barry Sullivan).  Dane further explains the nature of this terrifying future.  He describes how mankind has been underground since 1989, when the atmosphere grew "toxic" after the growth of poisonous algae in the Indian Ocean.   Because "science and government stood by while everything died," the business community of the United States took over control of the country, drafting a "Corporate Constitution" that gave all surviving citizens shares in America, Inc.  Supposedly, this is a more "efficient" system of government, than before.  At least according to Bigelow and the Chairman of America Inc.

A beautiful young woman, Sandrette (Sharon Farrell) gives Glenn a tour of the underground city, home to 11,000 survivors.  She introduces herself by informing Glenn is she is "thirty, sterile and a sex education major."  Sandrette then takes Glenn to church where computers have taken the place of priests.  You can type your spiritual question on a keyboard, and the computer will answer it.  Example: Q: "How do I find the truth?"  A: "It will find you." 

The more Glenn learns of life in LA in 2017, the less he likes it.  America is at war with England over a jurisdictional matter, and many of the poor citizens are assigned to public housing, five or six people to a single room.  Worse, these homes often show seepage from the surface, and the air is becoming unbreathable.  Other people are exploited as workers on the poisonous surface, an occupation with a 20 percent death rate. 

Milk is the drink of the rich, because there's only one cow, and it is "privately owned."

The state also constantly monitors all citizens, making privacy a thing of the past. 

"If there's no privacy, there can't be any invasion of privacy," Sandrette cheerily informs the visitor from the 20th century.  When Glenn asks her if there is any freedom in the city at all, Sandrette's response is similarly vacant: "Freedom is always relative to the needs of the community."

In the final moments of "L.A. 2017," Glenn escapes the city, where the Vice-President has plans to install him as the head of a state-sponsored press/propaganda outfit, and tries to make it back to his car, and hopefully, back to his time...

Although "L.A. 2017" features the dreaded "it was all a dream," dramatic cheat at the end, it nonetheless makes for a remarkably powerful program, forecasting ably the growing power and influence of corporations in America, as well as a technological surveillance state.  The movie boasts many great, almost throwaway moments involving the city's official announcements over loudspeakers, for instance.  One such advertisement encourages citizens to "borrow against their shares at an interest rate of just 35 percent,"  a concept that is not at all foreign to our contemporary country, post Great Recession. 

This episode of The Name of the Game is veritably filled with brilliant little asides like that, such as the surprise announcement in a control room that "there are unconfirmed reports of a Negro(!) in Cleveland," meaning, apparently that most African-Americans did not live to survive the new Corporate America.  Another interesting touch: parenthood is "no longer for amateurs."  On the contrary, the State has "professionals" do it now; professionals who have removed the words "mother" and "father" from society all together. So the episode also reflects the growth of the so-called "Nanny State."

I also enjoyed the way the episode blends psychiatrists with law-enforcers; these fearsome men are -- quite literally -- thought-police (and armed with weapon cylinders which fire injections of "counter-productive" drugs.)

But the episode's finest and most telling moment arises in the last act.  Glenn visits Vice-President Bigelow and upbraids him for maintaining and nourishing a "totalitarian state." 

At first, Bigelow responds that "survival justifies anything" in 2017, but then he changes his tact. 

He turns Glenn's self-righteousness around on the man from the 20th century.  If Glenn hates this "future" so much, why didn't he do something about the environment when he had money, fame and power, back in 1971?  Who is he to judge the future if he didn't take responsibility for building it in the first place? 

This is a really clever narrative angle, because it asks the audience, rather bluntly, to take just such responsibility for our shared tomorrows.   Why aren't we complaining more loudly that some people -- in the thrall of big business -- want to gut rules and regulations that keep our water clean, our food safe, and our air breathable? 

Director Steven Spielberg does a solid, highly-effective job creating and charting this dystopian future of the year 2017.  He sometimes sets his camera high--up (pointed down) to catch an angled-perspective of the various rooms; presenting the appearance of being a surveillance camera view.   On other occasions, he uses extreme low angles looking up to present us multiple levels of surveillance, a visual cue that the upper class is always looking down on the rest of the populace.

Otherwise, Spielberg gets the absolute most out of the tunnels and corridors of the city, fostering memorable visions of a claustrophobic world.  In the episode's final road chase -- an ambulance versus a police car with a hood-mounted machine gun -- he deploys many of the same expressive angles he used in Duel (1971). 

Finally, Spielberg's last shot -- a shift in focus from a "rescued" Glenn in 1971 to a dead bird on a bare tree branch in the foreground -- proves a nice way of undercutting the facile "it was all a dream" ending.  Instead, Spielberg puts the valedictory focus of this piece on the environment, leaving us no choice but to consider its importance.

What surprised me a great deal about this long-ago production was -- to take a page from Glenn's dialogue -- "how it's all remarkably consistent."  The episode is filled with odd touches (like a rock-and-roll club for senior citizens), affecting touches (a painted skyline is all that's left of surface life...), and moments of authentic pathos (the death of one of the four last fish in the world...).   There's not one moment of empty air in this TV show from forty-two years ago; not one wasted breath.  Instead, Spielberg and writer Wylie fill in every inch of the movie with terrifying and memorable detail.

The episode's predictions are clearly hit or miss.  The environment in 2013 may be in difficulties, but it isn't destroyed.  Rather, the predictions about modern surveillance techniques and the rise of the corporation seem more apt.  Whether right or wrong, "L.A. 2017" represents a good early look at Steven Spielberg's approach to filmmaking, and an intriguing time capsule of 1970s "futurist" concerns.

The Name of the Game (1968 - 1971) Intro

Wednesday, October 02, 2013

Collectible of the Week: E.T. Talking Figure (LJN; 1982)

The summer of 1982 was a great one for genre movies, perhaps the greatest in my lifetime. It was the summer of Firefox, Tron, John Carpenter's The Thing, Swamp Thing, The Road Warrior, Blade Runner, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Poltergeist and another little number from director Steven Spielberg, E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial.

At the time, I was much more into Star Trek than E.T., but many of my friends got into "collecting" mode over the blockbuster and sentimental film about a boy named Elliott (a young Henry Thomas) and his homesick alien pal.

LJN produced a line of E.T. action figures to spur the toy craze. Among the items available were an E.T. Pop-Up Spaceship, an E.T. and Elliott Powered Bicycle, an E.T. Wind-Up Walking Figure, E.T. and Spaceship Launcher, an E.T. Stunt Spaceship, and E.T. 3 and 3/4 inch action figures.

One of the most popular E.T. toys was this talking figure. Designed for ages 3 and up, this action figure stands approximately eight inches tall, features a painted red heart, and can utter such words as "home," "ouch" and "Elliott." The talking figure could also say his own name. three times: "E.T. E.T. E.T." All you had to do to activate the little guy was pull the string on his back.

My parents found this particular collectible on a yard sale excursion with my son Joel and bought it for three dollars. As you can see, it's in pretty good condition for a thirty-year old toy. Personally, I think it makes a good book-end with my LJN Gremlins action figure...

Below, an LJN commercial for the E.T. line.

Lunchbox of the Week: E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial

Board Game of the Week: E.T. The Extra Terrestrial (Parker Bros. 1982)

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

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.