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January 10, 2011

Movie Review: Black Swan

Two weeks ago I witnessed a crime in progress. That crime was plagiarism, and the culprits were Natalie Portman and David Aronofsky. I was aghast as I witnessed a nearly shot-for-shot swipe of another, better movie, and one beloved by me.

Here's the plot of Black Swan: A performer/athlete is technically gifted, beautiful in movement, and virtuous -- and virginal -- in personal character. This Black Swan must compete for top honors with a "Black Swan," who represents the dark side of humanity, the id, the demiurge, the primal and the sexual, and whose style of performance is more free-flowing, unrestrained, and, ultimately, better appreciated.

The "White Swan" ultimately finds that triumph cannot come by beating the "Black Swan," but only by fusing with the "Black Swan," synthesizing control and abandon, caution and recklessness, order and chaos, and sexual restraint and a hungry, all-devouring sexual urge. The climax comes in the film's final moments, which featrures, in rapid succession, a shocking crime, a tour de force maneuver involving tight spinning, representing the ultimate fusion of super-ego and id , and, after this moment of triumph, the true triumph-- that of escape.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar? Of course it does.

Blades of Glory (2007), the mind-bending psycho-sexual thriller by Josh Gordon and Bill Speck, explored the duality and dilemma of human nature, the dark and the light, in the context of the high-stress world of competitive figure skating. The auteurs Gordon/Speck explored the ice-cold, ice-hard world of figure skating, going beyond the pretty image presented to the public, to reveal the dark heart of the sport and the hidden turmoils within those who practice it.


Chazz Michael-Michaels, the first and only "Black Swan."

The Black Swan script does not even attempt to hide the cinematic crime it's committing. Compare the following text from Black Swan, in which the cruel director Tomas inquires about Nina/the White Swan's sexual inexperience...

Thomas Leroy: So, you got a boyfriend?
Nina: No.
Thomas Leroy: And you've had many in the past?
Nina: A few but no one serious.
Thomas Leroy: You're not a virgin are you?
Nina: [nervously] No.
Thomas Leroy: So there is nothing to be embarrassed about.

...with this virtually beat-for-beat identical passage from Blades of Glory, in which Chazz, the Black Swan, mocks Jimmy for not understanding the sexual nature of his (Chazz's) technique:

Jimmy: That was disgusting.

Chazz: THAT, young man, is how babies are made.

Both Blades of Glory and its imitator Black Swan flirt with the idea of homosexual attraction between competitors. Compare:

Lily: Wait, did you have some sort of lezzy wet dream about me?
Nina: [whispers] Stop it.
Lily: Oh my God? Oh my God! You did! You fantasized about me!
Nina: Shut up!
Lily: [gasps] Was I good?

with:

Coach: What do you two have that other skaters don't?

Chazz (raising hand, confidently): Twin dongs.

Coach: Exactly.

Both films underline the physical hardship of top-level competition, and feature the presence of a domineering, driven parent -- in Black Swan, Nina's mother pushes her into isolation, and there is a nasty, and somewhat gory, shot of Nina's foot breaking under the strain of placing her full weight upon a single toe. Whereas Blades of Glory features this stronger, more compelling revelation about the perils of having a stage-parent:

Jimmy: When I was eight, my dad had me get a circumcision to minimalize air resistance.


The triumphant fusion of Bacchanalian revel
with Apollonian discipline -- done right the first time.

Both films are about the duality of the human nature, and the need to balance the super-ego with the vital id. Compare Black Swan:

Coach: The truth is when I look at you all I see is the white swan. Yes you're beautiful, fearful, and fragile. Ideal casting. But the black swan? It's a hard fucking job to dance both.
Nina: I can dance the black swan, too.
Coach: Really? In 4 years every time you dance I see you obsessed getting each and every move perfectly right but I never see you lose yourself. Ever! All that discipline for what?

With the superior treatment in Blades of Glory...

Coach: Chazz, you can't go it alone! No lone wolf out there! And Jimmy, don't be afraid to improvise!

In far fewer words but infinitely more dramatic depth, Blades of Glory summarizes the key thematic opposition of Black Swan.

But the similarities are not constrained to mere plot and dialogue -- no, the key visuals of Blades of Glory are shamelessly appropriated for the thief-film Black Swan. Both films play with the idea of apotheosis into a great bird pregnant with symbolic heft. Black Swan of course fixates on the image of the swan, whereas Jimmy McElroy begins the film as a peacock:


The Black Swan can only build to the
mindblowing imagery Blades of Glory assumes from the outset.

While some praise Aronofsky for his "inventiveness" in the swan motif, few seem to remember the unbridled joy they first felt upon seeing Jimmy McElroy's "galloping peacock."

Having watched both films recently, virtually identical in all respects, I confess that at this point have trouble distinguishing between them. I cannot remember from which movie comes the line "You all have had the chance and the privilege to be enchanted, transported, and even sometimes devastated by the performances of this true artist of our company," and from which comes "Great! That'll give me time to wax my jugs!"

Or which film featured an Ecstacy-fueled debauch, and which featured a man vomiting inside a wizard costume, or which an ice princess, and which an "ice-devouring sex-tornado."

Or which film contained the bloodcurling cry, upon seeing a beloved sports mascot wounded by a crossbow bolt: "Snowflake!!!"

It is shocking in this day and age that such shameless stealing can pass not only unremarked by the critical audience, but in fact be rewarded. Or that the true innovator should be shunned as inferior while its imitator receives the accolades.

While some ineffectual, arch dialogue about sexuality is cause for critical celebration in Black Swan, true insights about the Demiurge of sexuality are entirely ignored from Blades of Glory. Savage, sudden bursts of true insight like this:

Chazz: I was just trying to find some peace. A haven, a place where I could feel safe... she was my yoga instructor. So I know she was limber. [H]er friend, a massage therapist walked in the door naked... With a big bottle of canola oil and a monkey who was trained to work on a video camera.

And she rocked my world.

Black Swan may rack up the awards, but Blades of Glory will always have something its pale imitation does not: A monkey trained to work on a video camera.

Funny: "Boner-killing!," rave the reviewers.



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posted by SPADES-OF: ACE at 10:32 PM

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