Monday, March 14, 2011

The Black Swan: Technique, transcendence and the artistic endeavour

Jai Arjun Singh (Jabberwock) had a very interesting post on the parallels between "The Black Swan" and "The King's Speech" .

Here are my own unstructured thoughts on the Black Swan, which I personally loved:
  • More than anything else, for me the movie was about the nature of the artistic endeavor itself. When I was at IIM, I remember that during a lecture, in a very interesting diversion, my strategy professor was telling us about how artists differ from "normal" people in that they get "obsessed". What is but a fleeting glance, an ephemeral emotion for us, becomes the center of their attention, something they get fixated with (think of the indulgent detail with which the Impressionist painters would bring their subjects, drawn from everyday images, to life). In the Black Swan the extent of this obsession is amplified for dramatic effect, but at the core, like all good works of art, it conveys a deep insight: of how the nature of the artistic endeavor is inherently obsessive
  • Secondly, the movie brings out one theme of art that is of particular interest to me, what I call the interplay between "Technique" and "Transcendence". Could truly beautiful art arise out of following rigid rules? Isn't there something inherently contradictory about being "creative" and being rule-bound? Not really. In Douglas Hofstadter's works, he vividly illustrates how it is false to think of these two as a dichotomy; that technique, when properly employed would be in aid of the transcendent nature of art. Creativity arises in how rules are employed not necessarily in flouting them. The requirements of meter for poetry, for following the note patterns of a raga in Indian classical music, of techniques in editing and camera work in cinema, enhance and aid the creativity, rather than hinder it. However, while technique aids creativity,  art cannot be explained by invoking technique alone. A reductionist view of art, in terms of the technique used to create it, would not capture it wholly. That "extra" dimension, which is so difficult to describe, but easy to perceive when it is present, is "transcendence". In the Black Swan too, the limitation of Nina as an artist is the same, flawless technique, but lacking that transcendent quality to take it beyond technique alone. As a theme, I think this interplay between technique and transcendence is on of the most fascinating aspects to bring out in any work about art, and the Black Swan does it very well.
  • Every work of art is an idea. One of the things that I judge a work of art by is if this form of art was the most appropriate vehicle to convey the idea that the artist wanted to share. Every type of art has its own distinctive property- cinema's is the "moving image", paintings are about an arrested image, music is about emotion in sound, and a novel is a complex meditation on the human condition, where the artist has the luxury of discarding the constraints of both space and time , while cinema is bound by it. A movie length of 1 minute, has to take 1 minute to show, it is a real-time medium. Movies cover a longer time span by "cheating", by not showing something that transpired. With a novel, on the other hand, the writer can spend several pages just describing what happened in a fleeting second. There is no requirement to stay married to the actual time (or even space) of the real world, while cinema has to stay very close to it( the most cinema can do is "slow-mo" cameras for time, zooming for space, but that is far less rich than the lens that a writer can use. The greatest writers use this distinctive quality of cinema very well. Good writers always use this aspect of the novel well, the most celebrated example in the modern novel would be James Joyce's Ulysses, even later writers like Ian McEwan (one of my favorites from the current crop) meditate about a single instant of time or a focal point in space, and with rich and vivid description invite the reader to experience it more wholly than we even do on real life. A novel is the writer's way of making the reader experience the full force of his obsessive fixation of what would otherwise be an ephemeral experience. In fact, I think this is why most movies made from books fail to impress. the clichéd explanation that is parroted is that with a book you could imagine the visuals yourself, while a movie does not allow that, but that does not satisfy me for several reasons: a) How much time do we really spend visualizing what we are reading about? b) I see no reason to assume that my imagination would always necessarily lead to a more vivid visual than that of a director and c) If that were the case, everything should be a book, movies will always be an inferior medium! Rather I think it is because the nature of a particular story or idea required all the tools that only a novel could provide, and that the inherent limitations of cinema for that particular purpose, is what prevents the movie from having the same impact as the book. Similarly, cinema has its own distinctive advantages (multiple perspectives, moving images etc.), and a great movie could choose to use them. It is for that reason that a movie like say, The Shawshank Redemption, while being very entertaining a truly awesome movie, would never be something that I cite as the best cinema, because the nature of that story idea would better be served by a novel rather than a movie. It is a lengthy meditation of a prisoner's  journey and of the nature of liberty and confinement- the protagonist's undying quest for liberty and the patient and persistent way in which he pursues it, the sense of community that the prisoners develop even among themselves, and how releasing a prisoner after prolonged confinement makes him an alien in the outside world, with the prison being where he is free and the outside world being where he is confined etc.! Hence you will notice that the movie has to pause several times for expository dialogue. Don't get me wrong, it is an awesome movie (I even list it among my favorites), but it might have worked even better as a book. The Black swan, on the other hand, needed to be a movie. To convey how her obsession leads to madness, it required the viewer to shift perspectives from the "empathetic stance"- perceiving the world from the standpoint of the  ballerina and what she was experiencing to the "voyeuristic stance" - viewing it as an outsider. The dramatic effect and emotional arc of the movie requires the viewer to toggle between these stances continually. To achieve that in a book requires a clumsy shift from a first person narrative (when we need to experience it from the POV of Natalie Portman) to a non-participant third person omniscient narrative voice (for the voyeuristic stance) which would be much more forced and unnatural. In a movie, on  the other hand, it is achieved by the simple device of changing the camera angle!- pointed at Natalie Portman (for the voyeuristic stance), or placed the way she would view it (for the empathetic stance)! Also, the nature of the story, as a ballerina's work, her technique and the need to transcend technique, needed visual storytelling. Hence, I liked Black Swan, not just because it was a well made movie, but also since to be everything that it could have been, it HAD to be a movie
  • Lastly, one shout out for the performances, but more crucially for the casting.  An excellent performance requires good acting, but is not only about acting. The physicality of the actor in bringing out the personality of the character is also very important (as an aside, this again, is something movies can do far more efficiently than books do; if a character such as that of Natalie Portman in the Black Swan needs to be shown as vulnerable and frigid, juxtaposed with the vivacious, sexy and mysterious character of Mila Kunis, the mere casting of the frail Natalie Portman, and the sultry looking Mila Kunis accomplishes that far netter than reams of description in a novel). The pale faced Natalie Portman as the metaphorical "White Swan" and the dark skinned, alluring Mila Kunis as the "Black Swan" was pitch perfect casting. And no portrays vulnerability better than Natalie Portman anyways.
All in all, an outstanding movie!

No comments: