Monday, February 7, 2011

Bodies in motion

My first exposure to film theory (a sorry excuse for an academic discipline if you ask me) was Theory of Film published in 1960 by Siegfried Kracauer, who was a philosopher, not a film scholar. (I'm not sure film scholars existed in 1960, other than self-proclaimed ones.) Being my first framework for analyzing movies, rather than just taking them in with a dull, open-mouthed stare as I did in younger days (I've learned to close my mouth), I've never really shaken the spectre of Kracauer.

One of his shibboleths was the camera's affinity for actual events. Actual events, be they disasters or dancing, were fundamental to cinema, and the place they part from dramatic theater. (Of course there is vaudeville and circus, where some performers demonstrate actual physical skills, such as juggling, trapeze and animal training, and those things do turn up in the movies.) To that end, film which documents high levels of physical skill feel inherently more cinematic. Perhaps that's why swimmer Esther Williams and skater Sonja Henie could become film stars, without any discernible acting talent. They could do real actual things, and even if you criticized their acting, their clothes or their hair, you couldn't take their real skills away from them.

Which perhaps explains the preponderance of ballet movies, given ballet's minuscule place in our cultural landscape. It's hard to make a ballet movie without a real ballet dancer, who can really do it. (The Turning Point cuts itself off at the knee in my opinion, because they put in real ballet star Baryshnikov, who performs a great solo from "The Prodigal Son" in which he could school Michael Jordan about staying airborne for huge amounts of time. Then the film moves to Anne Bancroft and Leslie Browne and tries to convince you that they are great ballet stars, and frankly that dog won't hunt.) There is always going to be a grounding in reality no matter how crazy a ballet movie gets (and they get pretty crazy). The camera just likes recording that sort of extreme level of skill.

For present day films such as Black Swan (2010), it is now possible to past movie star heads onto great ballet bodies, and although that means we are tinkering with reality, we still have the reality of the dancing that was done, regardless of the head involved or not involved. And it gives director Aronofsky the opportunity to make a film whose meanings and ideas will be expressed in almost exclusively visual terms. Yes, there is dialogue--the modern film audience is not prepared for a dialogue-free film, but this film would be completely comprehensible if about six title cards were substituted for all of the talking. We can hear Nina's mother haranguing her, but her face and movement convey all this is necessary, not to mention the bedroom full of little girl things (which Nina tellingly tries to discard and destroy partway through the movie). Sure, the choreographer tells Nina she must express herself sexually, but I think the scene of him groping her and forcing a kiss on her is far more communicative and expressive. Honestly, if they had had CGI in 1924, Lillian Gish could have done a fine job with this film.

Black Swan is hypnotic and mesmerizing just the way great silent film can be, and great care has been taken not to break the spell. Case in point, we need to see Nina travel from her home to the theater. We see her walking from the back. There follows what is technically a jump cut from city street to stage door area, but since the camera's relationship to Nina remains the same, both in direction of movement and relative size of her image, the transition is virtually seamless -- and suddenly we have gone from home to work without thinking about it. The seamless and unemphatic use of Nina's doppelganger visions follow a simple pattern. The effect is that the warp and woof of the fabric Nina's mind gradually develops a pretty drastic warp, but incrementally throughout the brief period of the story.

I honestly cannot understand why anyone in 2010 or 2011 would find this movie confusing. Aronofsky states what he is about from the very first scene. (I believe most people miss or forget first scenes when they are not part of the narrative continuity that follows immediately. How often have you seen a film which, in its final sequence, harkens back to the first sequence and you hear all around you, people saying, "Oh," clearly having forgotten that first scene and never giving any thought to where it might be headed. Maybe everyone's still digging around in their popcorn bags at that point.) We see a ballet dancer on a bare, empty stage. No set, no context, just dancer and light. The camera is steady and, if not fixed, moving with great smoothness and slickness. Then the perspective changes. The camera is handheld, wobbly and jittery. (As I saw it I was trying to recall if I had EVER seen a ballet sequence shot handheld. Do any of you recall one? Please leave a comment, if so.) The black bird appears, menacing and cruel. The ballerina has become prey. And after some brief, suggestively violent montage, the dream--or nightmare--ends and the film proper begins. But we have been warned -- do not rely on what you see. Do not rely on it to be stable or predictable, and do not rely on it to represent objective reality. "Wake up, folks," says Aronofsky, "you're going to be messed with." And yet many writers on this film profess surprise at being messed with. SPOILER ALERT - The film is not obscure at all, presenting a straightforward, if subjective account of a person undergoing a psychotic break. My wife suggests that the principal character is probably schizophrenic and she points out that she is exactly the right age for such symptoms to appear. Nothing difficult to figure out here.

Second, I cannot understand the complaint that the film is "overdone" that it is "too much." By the same token Phantom of the Opera and Dracula are kinda overwrought, too. Because we are really dealing with a psychological horror film and "over the top" goes with the territory. If someone is shocked because Nina's imagined quills sprout and she turns into a full-fledged black swan in the course of the dance, I cannot imagine what film they thought they were watching. It's a cinch they've never seen Polanski's Repulsion, which I was reminded of when the first rash appeared on Nina's back and which an interview with the screenwriters confirmed was an inspirational source for Black Swan. (And why is Black Swan excessive but the typical Quentin Tarantino bloodbath is "inspired cinema." How is depicting the inner imaginings of a diseased mind more unrealistic and overstated than balletic shoot-out that supposedly represents some sort of objective reality. I think film critics need to learn more about how guns and gun wounds work before they decide what's realistic and not.)

Another surprising revelation from hearing the screenwriters speak is to learn in what detail the film was scripted even before Aronofsky's involvement, and even once he took over the project. It is odd that Arnofsky did not earn a writing credit for his work with the final scriptwriter, because the work of screenwriter and director appear to be seamlessly fused. The direction is burnt into the script and the script scarcely exists independent of its direction. There is no film apart from its visual embodiment (which is as it should be, but is rarely true). I only wish Griffith and Hitchcock could see this film. I don't know if they'd like it, but I'd hope they'd recognize how it is a culmination of what they began.

Jackie Chan doesn't even need CGI to become the physical embodiment of film (in fact, his films which employed CGI are unquestionably his worst work). Many viewers assessing the Coen Brothers' True Grit have tried to make too much of their idea that John Wayne is a "real movie star" whereas Jeff Bridges is not. This is nonsense. John Wayne was simply around so long that it is hard to imagine him as anything but John Wayne, whereas Jeff Bridges is a more protean artist. Over time, people took him for a symbol of what he had portrayed on screen. Wayne was not a hero (other than the personal heroism of battling with cancer, a heroism demonstrated by millions every day); he never served in the armed forces, and was in fact an avid draft-dodger, which is why his career was in good shape in 1945, when many of his former competitors -- James Stewart, Clark Gable, who had gone to fight had to struggle to re-establish themselves. Dick Cavett recently revealed that Wayne was very familiar with the work of ultra-sophisticated and gay theater artist Noel Coward. When Cavett told Woody Allen this, Allen replied, “It reminds you that he’s an actor, not a cowboy.” But he was an actor who made a lot of movies, and a lot in which he played characters with many shared traits.

But while Jackie Chan is a pretty good actor (and a pretty good singer, too) he is far more than that. I would argue that, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Buster Keaton and Fred Astaire, he is a metastar (NOT a megastar), whose physical gift and qualities embody the very idea of motion pictures. They do not need characters, situations or settings. Like the traveling actor who only needs a few planks and an audience, a metastar like Jackie Chan need only step before the camera for cinema to take place.

A modest proof of this can be seen in the remake of The Karate Kid (2010), which Jackie shares with Jaden Smith, who could be a metastar in the making. It cannot really be called a good film. (The very fact that it was entrusted to a director whose credits include Cody Banks and Pink Panther 2 suggests that the people in charge were doing their best to prevent a good film being made.) It inherits the cheesy and illogical series of story events from the original film (which itself was directed by John Avildsen, Master of Cheap Schlock, whose previous film was the excruciating and manipulative Rocky, beloved of gullible rubes everywhere.) Unmotivated and relentless bullying, an unexplained tournament lacking any sort of rules of entry, a popular and respected martial arts teacher driven by sadism, not to mention getting a 12-year-old into peak physical condition in two months, none of this troubles the kind of lazy, sloppy filmmakers who engineer stuff like this. Well, what do you expect from people who use the title Karate Kid to make a film about learning kung fu?

Luckily, they were not in charge of the real training and fighting sequences, and Jackie was. From developing an analog to the famous "wax on, wax off" trope (and check out the special features on the DVD to see how beautifully Jackie does this), to Jackie's opening six-on-one battle, to the very palpable accomplishments of young Mr. Smith in the fighting sequences, due in great part to training under Jackie's direction, Jackie Chan lifts a piece of run-of-the-mill commercial product into a demonstration of the power of capturing human movement on film. That is why he is larger and more important than any film he is in, and why he may never be in a great film. To do so, he would have to be able to put himself at the service of a great filmmaker, to subordinate himself to ideas and visions, and serve a narrative greater than his simple triumph over opposition. It's not Jackie's fault, but I'm not sure that it's possible. Jackie Chan is a great folk artist, and he is best left to continue working on the same film with the same elements over and over, endlessly fiddling with details, like a great naive painter who keeps working on the same still life, or a blues artist working over the same three chords and six melody notes, ringing endless changes from a few small objects and an immense human soul.

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