Black Swan

Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was near-great. It may have been diffuse around the edges, but it had Mickey Rourke for its beating heart—and Marisa Tomei just out of his reach. Released to theaters between President Obama’s election and inauguration—and on the heels of the economic crunch—it gave an “ordinary” American workingman the chance to do something that No Country for Old Men had withheld from him: fight back. Randy may have crucified himself for his illusions, but he did so nobly; those illusions weren’t just his. The script, by Robert D. Siegel, put an American spin on the rickety hat-twirling of The Entertainer, and the movie was as sentimental in its own way as Charlie Chaplin’s fading Limelight; but The Wrestler was also a beautiful evocation of how I—and, I suspect, many others—felt at that time. It ended tragically, but resonantly; it was cathartic. The wrestler died because he could no longer fight to live; but we were inspired to move on, to move forward. It’s amazing how much can change in two years; illusions can mutate into maximum-security prisons.

Black Swan—the new Aronofsky film, from a screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John McLaughlin—begins lyrically. Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) dreams of playing the lead in a production of the ballet Swan Lake, and she’s all legs—drifting across an unlit stage like a snowflake batted by the wind, a ragdoll animated by the Brothers Quay. As soon as she wakes up, however, her rarified, Lincoln Center-centric world merges with the brusque working-class ethos of The Wrestler; the catch is that she never really wakes up. Nina gets the part of her dreams, but this attainment is tainted from the onset because this is another mind’s-eye-view of a breakdown, with a female soul subbing for the one holed up in Shutter Island. Her impresario, Thomas (Vincent Cassel)—purred, en français, Toh-mah—is, of course, a European and an epicure, and, therefore, by default, a sexaholic scapegrace. (When he speaks English, he sounds disarmingly like Tommy Wiseau.) Each prima ballerina serves as his sweetie-pie du jour. But this customary trade-off leaves Nina—who makes Doris Day look like a Kardashian—feeling squeamish. This worries Thomas; she can play the virtuous White Swan with formal perfection, but the deep-seated naughtiness of the Black Swan makes her hard-won skills wither. Black Swan is about how Nina conjures her inner beast—“art” tears her goody-gumdrop innards out the way fangs can rip feathers from a pillow.

Unfortunately, this impassioned dance macabre looked to me like an intellectualized chicken dance. It’s a bag of obvious tricks, all shook up like the shivery camerawork. The story picks up around the end, but the tension of the first three-quarters comes from trying to figure out how Aronofsky will dodge that unbidden terminus: how he’ll pirouette himself out of “control”—as Nina’s essaying to do—and into something more riveting and organic. She succeeds(-ish); he fails. The director has strapped himself to such burnt-out duds as a.) Thomas’s swanky digs, decked out with Rorschach blots; b.) Nina’s pretty-in-pink, perpetual pillow-fight of an existence; c.) a mumsy (Barbara Hershey) who gave up her own dancing career, and thus lives through her daughter’s gams, like a passive-aggressive, white-bread Mo’Nique from Precious; d.) a jealous rival (Winona Ryder, looking exquisite), who’s guilty only of senescence, but scampers madly into traffic and toasts her bread-winners; e.) an evil-twin doppelgänger (a deliciously lopsided—and cunning—performance by Mila Kunis) in whom Nina’s sex confusion and self-hatred queasily commingle; and f.) a mirror motif reflective of all the film’s disappointments. All the psychological-thriller effects are executed well enough to constrain me from ruining them for you, but they made me cackle rather than cower; where’s the suspense when it’s only a paper doll that’s folding?

Nina is an ideal role for Portman; no doubt it was conceived with her mandarin face in mind. Within its limits, she’s incredibly proficient—one could even say perfect. But the role itself is as hoary as it is anti-whorey. Slogging through this cinematic admonitory-jeremiad-about-repression is like antiquing for second-hand Freud, and to use a ballerina as a metaphor for the artist who rejects all things worldly is no new innovation; anyone who’s seen The Red Shoes knows that. Who’s afraid of virginal sheep? Worrywarts who fear for uptight artists probably suffer from a similar set of hang-ups. (The movie can recuse itself from almost any attitude I ascribe to it because one isn’t meant to know where Nina’s wackiness ends and the filmmakers’ viewpoint begins; but the judgment they pass on their heroine is rather baldly rendered.) Honestly, I’m sympathetic to these ascetic aesthetes—Aronofsky, in a way, is too—but that far from precludes me from partaking in the pleasures of the flesh. I wouldn’t wanna hit Black Swan’s gooseflesh, though; its visual scheme takes beauteous ballet and converts it into an ugly duckling. We probably don’t get many full shots of Portman dancing for the good reason that there wasn’t enough time to train her; but the result is a black eye to ballet: The film is about the attainment of an art that it doesn’t appear to appreciate. It’s making the same point that The Wrestler did about smack-down; but, nimble as its practitioners are, wrestling is rough on the surface. Ballet isn’t. It transfigures hard work into effortless grace.

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Tron: Legacy

It being a Disney movie, the hero of Tron: Legacy never inserts his hard drive into his paramour’s sex drive; they don’t even cyber. If they had, they might have prompted an error message: The film is destined to produce computer-generated progeny of its own. That said, I actually kinda enjoyed this software saga; I’m not proud of it, but I did. It bifurcates Jeff Bridges into both Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. (The villain digitally duplicates the actor—circa The Fabulous Baker Boys—right down to the vintage mullet.) There are some silver-clad albino chicks who stare straight into the camera—step-daughters, no doubt, of Fritz Lang’s False Maria; a David Bowie droog (Michael Sheen), with a Chaplinesque twirl of the cane, who downshifts the production design from 2001 to A Clockwork Orange; and an eldritch-eyed heroine (Olivia Wilde) who shares her hairdresser with Anna Karina. Mickey Mouse gets the goat of Pixar’s ally Mac; and it’s fun to sift through the ironies when an über-blockbuster, with the ulterior impetus of ungluing moviegoers from their computer monitors, takes a stand against monopolies and champions open-source code. The plot has enough glitches to pay its I.T. squad a century’s worth of overtime, but I found Joseph Kosinski’s direction—it mega-bites—rather endearing; he’s like a kid who got the keys to the kingdom, but is too green to play at politics. Whoever decided to turn Bridges into a flower child, however, fell into the right groove; this meager concession to characterization is enough to leaven the family-reunion shtick (between Bridges and his son, Garrett Hedlund) from the fallow field that Alice in Wonderland gracelessly salted.

None of this means it’s very good—or necessarily worth $14 and change. The difference between Tron: Legacy and its 1982 prequel hearkened me back to a tiff I once got myself into upon claiming that the effects in Star Trek were inferior to those in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Maybe the thought is native only to quixotic turns of mind, but the more realistic special effects get—the more pliable they become, the more densely packed the pixels around the digital helix—the less they seem to me, well, “special.” In C.E.3.K., the flying saucers scintillated like Christmas lights wrapping invisible trees; they were the gods’ magisterial chariots, earthbound constellations, self-illuminating nebulae: Obscurity lent to their mystery. Star Trek just played Hacky Sack with the camera, in space and on set. Laid athwart the graphics of a rogue Atari game, Tron had a Piet Mondrian austerity; the fractal patterns, bursting forth from reams of Day-Glo graph paper, were really unreal and truly unique—a contrast to the punk pastiche of Blade Runner, which came out that same sci-fi boon year. Tron: Legacy, with its Regency dining rooms and L.E.D. lounges, is more grounded in reality and too heady with neon pop pastiche. The ligne clare style of its predecessor is but one aesthetic bug caught in this virtual spider web. Even Daft Punk’s vaunted techno isn’t quite daft or punk enough. I wish they’d friended Trent Reznor; it’s too much of a movie score.

Between Avatar and Inception and Scott Pilgrim and now this, there’s been much ado about the fusion of cinema with video games—that is, much ado about nothing. There’s been an incestuous relationship between the two since the latter was in its infancy; as soon as Star Wars came out, heralding simplistic quest stories and spiffy visuals as all the rage, the film industry pounced on the burgeoning form like a creepy uncle. An ancillary market was born—even if the horny union was more like onanism than marriage. Movies were dumbed down so that they could be resold as video games; and, as their graphics developed, video games began to assume the styles and techniques of movies. I don’t think that filmmakers inspired by video games are adding much to the art of film; they’re just cramming into movies the crap that video games have already borrowed—they’re making movies even more jejune and reductive. Taken on its own, gaming can be a blast—it can even have salutary consequences. But, as Inception demonstrated, the brainpower that video games export to celluloid is only artificial intelligence.

Howl

Howl is a hardcover CliffsNotes of Allen Ginsberg’s poem. It may not have its own legs to stand on, but it has a handsome body, albeit one assembled in an unusual way. A mishmash of styles, it’s Frankenstein’s monster as a svelte if suave hunk, and though it can’t seem to find its own voice, it speaks thoughtfully and intelligently, in affable, dulcet tones. The only time it ever howls is when the poet, played by James Franco, débuts his work at the historic Six Gallery Reading, in front of a finger-snapping Beat klatch in San Francisco, on October 7, 1955. He has an amateur’s bout with nervousness, but—as he builds—a jazzman’s staccato, and, eventually, a standup comic’s exasperation. While it may look like an experimental film, Howl is, at heart, a message movie—even if it is a very scrupulous appeal to one’s high-mindedness. Its defense of freedom of expression may seem, these days, quaint—almost square; but if you take into account that the script is taken, verbatim, from interviews with Ginsberg and the transcript of the obscenity trial that the poem’s publication sparked, you begin to appreciate how mid-century society might have beaten the Beatnik, and how his howl has reverberated through the years.

The film is a series of small victories. Considering that the figures in the legal imbroglio seem to have even less of a personal life than the attorneys on Law & Order, the reenactors give the impression that these people existed beyond this courtroom—one that suggests the unity of place in classical theater. David Strathairn, who plays the prosecutor—and always exudes a dogged rectitude—gives a studied elegance to the cadences of a modest philistine; Bob Balaban, as the judge, is cinematic Quaalude (in a good way); Mary-Louise Parker, who provides the only glimmer of femininity that isn’t twinkled by Ginsberg, suggests someone who’s jittered half her life away, locked in an ivory tower; and Jeff Daniels (who might be the twin of Colin Firth’s English professor in A Single Man) suggests the person who wielded the keys. Jon Hamm projects his full-bodied charm, though his defense attorney isn’t substantially any different from his East Coast contemporary, Don Draper. Since the animation (by Ginsberg collaborator Eric Drooker) that the filmmakers have set the poem to is already much maligned, I’ll only say that it seems at odds with the testimony of an expert witness who snaps that poetry cannot be translated into prose—that is, be taken “literally.” (Though Drooker does retain some of the poet’s bawdy sense of humor, as well as some pleasantly Hammy jokes—like a billboard for Lucky Strike, proclaiming that “It’s Toasted.”)

Between Howl and 127 Hours, I feel I’m becoming—mais non!—a Francophile. (There’s a spiritual kinship that urbane Ginsberg—with his antsy sensitivity, awkward physical presence, and terribly twee attempts to flirt with Kerouac—shares with rustic Aron Ralston.) Franco’s emotionality used to be so gelatinous that he might as well have been harboring unrequited love for Spider-Man; it seemed only right for him to play gay in Milk (where he twerped too much like Tweety Bird), and gay-ish in Pineapple Express (in which his birdsong was loonier—and more convincing). Now he’s really earned his wings. When Ginsberg is being recorded by an unseen interviewer in his dingy Village apartment, supposedly during the trial—though this dialogue comes from a later period—he still flirts a bit with the camera; but by now he’s found lasting love (with Peter Orlovsky), and fame, and freedom from institutions (mental and otherwise). It’s the come-on of a lusty poet, no longer ashamed of being lusty. That’s really what Howl—and “Howl”!—is about. That may also be what makes the filmmakers—documentarians Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman—a little too lusty in their approach: lovesick, perhaps, with their subject. They exult in sharing their heartfelt message, but haven’t quite thought out their thesis. Ironically, they’re at their weakest in the black-and-white “documentary” flashbacks—Franco’s camera presence and Edward Lachman’s color imagery might have overwhelmed them. The yummy golden glow of the courthouse seems to douse the litigants in honey; their outlines smudged into haloes, they’re all of a piece with Drooker’s doodling. Scenes set in Ginsberg’s flat are even more timelessly beautiful, with the blue-green wallpaper glowing in late-afternoon light like a lazy cat sunning its belly. These images have the stress-free, student-film look I love—they’re aqueous.

I disagree somewhat with Fred Kaplan’s suggestion, in his otherwise informative refresher course in Slate, that Howl doesn’t adequately “capture [its] entire milieu”; personally, I think I can better comprehend, after seeing the movie, the period that left Godard so Breathless. Yet the film’s relationship to the present day is somewhat more suggestive. There’s a continuity between its scene and the one examined in “What Was the Hipster?”—an insightful, if alarmist, exhortation by the aptly named Mark Greif that ran in New York magazine this fall. He sees, somewhat optimistically, the decline and fall of the modern-day “fauxhemian”: one who “aligns himself both with rebel subculture and with the dominant class, and thus opens up a poisonous conduit between the two.” This is distinguished from the “White Negro” of Ginsberg’s generation—“defined by the desire of a white avant-garde to disaffiliate itself from whiteness, with its stain of Eisenhower, the bomb, and the corporation,” which Lester Bangs identified with as late as the 1980s—and the “alternative” culture that rejected consumerism in the ’90s.

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127 Hours

127 Hours is the span of time that 27-year-old Aron Ralston (James Franco) has before arm-ageddon. We all know this going in: The hiker, without telling anyone of his plans, ditched town to spend his weekend traversing Utah’s Canyonlands National Park in April of 2003. He faltered, tumbled into a crevice, and found his right arm literally stuck between a rock and a hard place. This became the title of his memoir, which he presumably wrote with his left hand; to escape, he had to amputate the other one. Ralston came, he sawed, and his arm hurt. I don’t feel like a d-bag—or don’t any more than I usually do—cracking wise about the incident, one of the most awesome survival stories in memory, because I have an inkling that the Ralston dramatized on film by Danny Boyle and Simon Beaufoy would, in his much larger crack in Blue John Canyon, laugh right along with me. Even if Boyle “[finds] it hard to be in the country for more than an afternoon,” he’s a slakeless sensualist; and his white-hot flames of chutzpah are saved by a sense of humor blacker than gangrene. Like Ralston, Boyle and Beaufoy and Franco have performed scrappily in the face of a bare-bones scenario; this troika had their work cut out for them.

Boyle’s direction is so aggressive it’s polarizing; it’s as easy to overrate as underrate. But it’s easy, too, to see how this city boy felt a kinship with the mountaineer, who had only his videocamera, dollar-store multi-tool, water bottle, and wits at his disposal in the canyon. With a sense of aesthetic daring, Boyle and Beaufoy circumscribed their own toolkit; and, this time around, it’s perfectly in synch with their subject matter, which is much too lean and sinewy for the baby fat they stuffed their knuckle-headed Oscar-winner Slumdog Millionaire with. Boyle tells Creative Screenwriting that when he read Ralston’s book, he skimmed the sections that took place outside of the author’s confinement; but he and Beaufoy have taken advantage of something that the writer Jon Krakauer, and Sean Penn (as director), couldn’t drag Into the Wild: the turbid inner workings of an adventurer and anchorite. It’s a “cinematic” choice, devised in terms of camera maneuvers; but it peers at Ralston from a poetic point of view. We know how he survives bodily; at the risk of sounding florid, 127 Hours is about how he saves his soul.

However, as I’ve implied, floridity can be double-edged. (Flowers can have thorns.) Existential humor is often borne from a polite, if caustic, wariness. When Boyle’s camera plunged into the loo with a strung-out Ewan McGregor in Trainspotting, it was too audaciously funny to be taken as a frying-pan judgment of the character’s brain on drugs; the director repeats the stunt here by trailing urine through the hero’s camel bag. Though still grotesque, it’s now the opposite of a narcotic—it’s Ralston’s piddling lifeline—and yet the underlying desperation remains the same. Like Herzog in Bad Lieutenant, Boyle is capable of high comedy when his mind is in the gutter. I think that a bleating little slumdog may still be nagging these filmmakers, though; even if fatherhood is a goal worth Ralston surviving for, as an “explanation” for his courage, it seems rather too pat. (In the movie, Boyle and Beaufoy have Franco see his child in a “premonition”; Ralston’s son was born in February of this year.) And, despite its wit and wily imagination, I have a few reservations about the visual scheme, which does too little to distinguish reality from hallucination. The rust-colored Western mesas are beauties to behold, but, tricked out by ludic wide-angle lenses and filtered up the wazoo, they’re hyperreal from the onset—even psychedelic. (It’s telling that North Face, which concerned a failed expedition, was disinclined to make the Alps look so pretty.) I also feel it would have been more accurate psychologically, and certainly more dynamic, if the filmmakers had done more to suggest that some of Ralston’s memories were false—revised and idealized by a brain dangling by its stem.

And, finally, there’s the case of the filmmakers’ taste, which will probably need to be tried in each individual viewer’s stomach. It’s one thing to see inside Franco’s character; it’s quite another to see his insides. But Franco’s yelps of agony are as convincing as any others I’ve heard uttered during so ludicrous a circumstance; his casting is inspired. Harmless weirdness comes naturally to this actor, but of a certain kind: His Ralston clearly spent a lifetime captivated by daydreams before being sequestered by a boulder. In Into the Wild, Emile Hirsch glowed with the assurance of a true believer; but the author made it clear in the book that he didn’t regard Christopher McCandless’s self-righteousness as a flaw. To Krakauer, it seemed, McCandless was already a butterfly; if he were to have emerged from his Alaskan cocoon, what then? Fascinating and idealistic though McCandless was—really, who doesn’t want to see him- or herself reflected in his Thoreauvian self-reliance or rejection of hypocrisy?—his pilgrimage tale was blinkered by a dew-eyed sort of reverence. Franco gives the lie to anything so sacrosanct. With his wiry climber’s physique, and half-baked cutie-pie crinkles, this MacGyver on the Mount isn’t rejecting society; he’s avoiding it. He may be a romantic like McCandless, but he strikes another nerve. In fact, he slices it off.

Fair Game

There are a few scenes in Fair Game, laid in bars or at dinner parties and set during the lead-up to the Iraq War, in which a gaggle of rather well-heeled, soigné Washingtonians casually discuss current events with their friends, Joe Wilson (Sean Penn), the former ambassador to Gabon and São Tomé and Príncipe, and his wife—Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts). Of course, they don’t know that she’s a covert C.I.A. operative, or that she knows that what they know from the news—and the White House—is false. Though trying to save face while helping to wash the dishes, the look in Watts’s eyes is that of someone about to lose her meal. As the Wilsons’ guests go on about Saddam Hussein’s stockpiles of W.M.D., it’s dramatic irony on a national scale; and there’s a hideous impotence about the Wilsons’ position that, in a different movie, might cast them as defendants in a homeland-security refit of The Trial. Fair Game is by the book, but certainly not that one. After Wilson wrote an op-ed calling out the Bush administration for manipulating intelligence that the diplomat had helped to gather, one of Vice President Cheney’s goons—I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby—outed Plame, ruining her career and jeopardizing national security in order to punish dissent. This film, however, isn’t about the horror of mini show trials in a 21st-century democracy, but, rather, how easily those can be overcome if you’re a good citizen and love your family. Proficient melodrama though it is, Fair Game seems formally inadequate to deal with the facts—regardless of its authenticity or good intentions. For the Wilsons, or anyone connected to either side of the war, justice has never really been served; the Hollywood happy ending (of Plame testifying before a congressional committee) was but a hiccup in real life.

I don’t speak as someone particularly surprised or outraged; the script (by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth) is based on books written by both Plame and Wilson. Following the opening credits—a mashup of news footage from the time with the Gorillaz’ song “Clint Eastwood” providing some cynical, sinister accompaniment—any subsequent promise of wry indignation is smoothed over, as if to make the movie more marketable. (Any stale old epithets aside, “Hollywood” always comes before “liberal.”) I’m disposed to like what the film stands for, and can objectively attest to its formal qualities, and yet all its plot points arrive so conveniently on time that I can’t help but feel distrustful. For instance, the director, Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Mr. and Mrs. Smith), is too adept at handling the spy-thriller intrigue that Plame is ensnared in during the cold open; its function is to draw us in, but it draws us into another (more fanciful) genre. And when, toward the end, Plame seeks counsel from her pillar-of-virtue father, and he turns his big ol’ silver-fox all-American mellon and is revealed to be Sam Shepard, I nearly jumped out of my seat and yelled, “Called it!” Like the grizzled grampa Shepard played in Brothers, Colonel Plame stands for a mythos rather than a person. (Shepard’s presence seems to backdate movies to the Days of Heaven era or earlier.) Plaudits are owed to the leads, who couple nicely, and are convincing as the opposite ends of a certain spectrum. Yet it’s impossible for me to say whether Fair Game is preserving a key moment of the recent past or merely spreading preserves on top of it; this is no minor issue in a country so prone to amnesia.