Thursday, January 13, 2011

Black Swan

The last discussion at IPS led into this one on the movie Black Swan:


a little off genre but i went to see the black swan with one of my daughters over the holidays, and i'll be damned if i didn't walk out of there feeling dissociated and in a somewhat diffused state of consciousness. damn aronofsky! it took me about 15 minutes of concentrated breathing, a couple of clove ciggie's, and a matcha latte and nanaimo bar to feel grounded again...i asked my eldest if she'd had any feelings after watching it previously and she said she had similar feelings walking out....


Actually Black Swan is right on topic, being a horror story of transcendence which includes madness and dark shadow. Excellent film, deeply disturbing and most illuninating of that deep, dark passion that looms forever below the surface, and what happens when it's brought to the surface. The choreographer brings the black swan out of her and it is truly transformative on so many levels. And while beautiful it is also oh so ugly.* This genre calls into question religious (and spiritual) notions that transformation is all about sweetness and light, love and compassion. Well worth a second and third viewing.

* I want your ugly, I want your disease, I want your love. --Lady Gaga


Black Swan is truly an incredible movie, powerfully drawn and acted -- and downright difficult to watch at points. (Those fingernail clippers!!!) I'm not sure it's a story of transcendence, however. Repressed (sub/un)-conscious material bursting into awareness is not necessarily "transformative;" it might instead lead to de-formation or disintegration -- even if such aspects perform "transcendently." This movie reminded me somewhat of Polanski's Repulsion -- a (mostly) first-person p.o.v. depiction of obsession and madness.

My own religious heritage has never taught me that transformation is "all about" sweetness and light -- unless one considers dark nights, suffering, rejection, and crucifixion (now there's a horror story!) as pleasant walks in the park.


Speaking of crucifixion, I presume Jesus knew what would happen with his acts of defiance, that it would lead to this end, and that such suffering was required to ascend into heaven? (I wonder if Jesus had self-cutting behavior as a child?) Metaphor or otherwise I see this same process with the heroine of Black Swan; through her self-destruction she experienced the creation of "perfection." I see it no more or less de-formulating or disintegrating than the crucifixion but rather a contemporary tale of it. Except perhaps that religious ascension is reserved for only "the one" in some stories, not the gifted but earthly person that makes herculean sacrifices? The latter can only disintegrate, not being divine by birth?


Another possibility: Jesus (both "earthly" and "divine") has a hunch but does not fully know what end will occur, and his suffering is not a set-in-stone requirement but a self-emptying choice made in/for other-directed love & reconciliation/union, the "kingdom of heaven."

Any "earthly person's" transformation could be toward either disintegration or wholeness. It depends on context and on circumstance. I do think Black Swan's crucifixion could be seen as a dark version of some kind of sacrificial "salvation." But I'm looking at it on a more mundane level, I guess. The main character cannot distinguish her inner monsters from outer reality. Despite her brilliant performance, she remains at the mercy of her imaginings. Her transformation, IMO, is into something fragmented and split-off, not toward kenosis and union.


I guess I don't see that we can cleanly differentiate fragmentation from kenosis, disintegration from wholeness. C'mon, even Jesus went nuts, talking to God, thinking he could literally raise from the dead, live without a physical body...


Yes, it might be difficult to differentiate while in the midst of the process of changing. The movie's ending is ambiguous; we as viewers are not sure ourselves . . . Liminality, bright and dark.


Aronofsky said in this review:

"When I started thinking about Swan Lake a dancer, I think Julie Kent, said to me that the story is really about a girl who gets caught by an evil magician who turns her into a swan during the day and a half-swan, half-human at night. It popped into my head, 'Oh, a were-swan.' And I realized I was making a werewolf movie ."

In this interview Portman says of her character:

"But it was absolutely a case of obsessive compulsive behavior. The scratching. The bulimia, obviously. Anorexia and bulimia are forms of OCD and ballet really lends itself to that because there’s such a sense of ritual — the wrapping of the shoes everyday and the preparing of new shoes for every performance. It’s such a process. It’s almost religious in nature. It’s almost like Jews putting on their tefillin or Catholics with their rosary beads and then they have this sort of godlike character in their director. It really is a devotional, ritualistic, religious art which you can relate to as an actor, too, because when you do a film you submit to your director in that way. Your director is your everything and you devote yourself to them and you want to help create their vision. So all of that, I think the sort of religious obsession compulsion would be my professional diagnosis."

Mary noted above that her religion isn't all sweetness and light, that there is suffering involved. Exactly. What I meant though is expressed in her follow up, talking about the clean differentiation between disintegration or wholeness. Jesus can be both earthly and divine but the "earthy" person it seems is more limited to this either/or. And it is this clean either/or that is at the root of metaphysicall thinking. I think Mary is closer to it regarding Jesus being both/and but he is not special in this regard: he is not god and we are just like him, have the same capacity for this transformation. And that Jesus' bodily part is just as much fucked up as any of us, just as dysfunctional psychologically. It seems that such obsessive behavior is part and parcel of sacrificing for one's art or spiritual experience or whatever. I.e., is there really any transformative experience that is wholly pure, wholly healthy, wholly functional without dysfunction?

It seems part of Portman's character, the part that drives her mad, is this belief in "perfection." While she is adept at the part of white swan with its elegance, grace and pure beauty she cannot master the black swan, the sensuous, down and dirty, seducing whore. Her home life is the epitome of this separation of purity and the elimination of any such distraction like sex. And this metaphysical separation, plus its sudden and violent eruption released by the choreographer and her rival, lead to its liberation in the most destructive, yet creative, performance.


Theurj, you wrote:

"And it is this clean either/or that is at the root of metaphysicall thinking. I think Mary is closer to it regarding Jesus being both/and but he is not special in this regard: he is not god and we are just like him, have the same capacity for this transformation. And that Jesus' bodily part is just as much fucked up as any of us, just as dysfunctional psychologically."

You've described, to a certain degree, my faith: We are all "both/and," earthly/divine, children of God. (Collectively, the body of Christ.) (Or: all "weregods?" lol). Jesus is a brother and gifted teacher whose path of self-emptying love I follow. And transformation, as a process, is rife with light and shadow. I do not idolize "purity" or perfection. But I do think it's possible to move from dysfunction, illness, and fragmentation to sanity, health, and integration. The movement, the process itself, and the outcome are not "wholly clean" or anything like that. But, simply put: change in the direction of health can happen. And the seed must die and be buried before it breaks open, roots, sprouts, and flowers.

Another thought: Perhaps dysfunctional obsessiveness occurs when one is under the illusion that they can completely control of any process of transformation. The process is actually a gift and a grace that we give ourselves to, surrender to. The seed releases itself into the soil and allows itself to be broken open. We release ourselves into a current, trusting that it will take us where we are to go, not knowing where we will end up.

I like this encapsulation of the movie: "This metaphysical separation, plus its [the black swan's] sudden and violent eruption released by the choreographer and her rival, lead to its liberation in the most destructive, yet creative, performance.

A related synopsis something from a Yahoo site [spoiler alert]:

"The White Swan is an archetype: perfection, refinement, innocence, fragility. Aspiration. The Black Swan is lack of restraint, exuberance, and creative/sexual energy; dangerous, but whimsical and alluring. They are a duality, and in a way, are the two sides of art: technique and inspiration. Alternately, if you take a feminist stance, you could view them from the lens of the "virgin/whore" dichotomy.

"The story is basically about someone who wants beauty and perfection, who longs to embody that in her art. But her slavish devotion to getting each movement down just isn't enough for that: you also need something else. To embody the forces represented in the Black Swan, Nina needs to be more than just devoted to ballet; she needs to be brave enough to embrace those forces. Artistic inspiration is kind of a dangerous thing. It exposes you to a darkness, a side of life that is wild and ferocious.

"The changes in Nina's body, including her self-mutilation and the "rash" as well as the crazy "pulling feathers out of her body" sequence, are symbols of her desire for perfection. Her eating disorder is certainly the result of that. Although I'm sure most ballet dancers don't have Nina's problems, the extreme discipline required for professional ballet is, in itself, kind of a mutilation. Dancers' bodies literally transform to suit their art; ballet bodies are different from other bodies, and many dancers have talked about the incredible pressure to be perfect. And perfection is a bit like the Black Swan: seductive, but deadly and quite often unhealthy."


I had a dance dream last night. I was in an improvisation dance class and as the music began I started dancing with strict, exacting technique. I too am a stickler for precise technique, as it is certainly an element of excellence. But as the music began to take over in me I began to flow into movements outside normal techniques, and yet my technical training shaped those innovative movements within proper alignments and lines. I got so into it that I lost myself in the music, being its conduit, that I was transported into nonduality,for lack of a better word. It was ecstatic, sensual, surreal, ethereal, yet still technically flawless. When the music stopped and everyone became still--for we were all dancing together in the room while the teacher evaluated our improv--I sat spent like after an intense orgasm, soaking in sweat but feeling utterly content, supremely "perfect," much like I imagine Nina felt at her moment of triumph. I was transfigured.

I want to come back to the quotes from Varieties of Religious Experience from the previous post. James notes the difference between “health-minded” and “pathological” religious inclinations and it seems he allows that each is legitimate. And it might even be that the so-called healthy-minded are the ones that create this false dichotomy between health and pathology, that there is a “more complicated key to the meaning of the situation.”

In his description of one who solely pursues a religious life, like others who dedicate their lives solely to their art, they tend toward the so-called pathological. They “presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.” This was part of what I was getting at with Jesus' road to crucifixion. He had to have known that his behavior would lead to the “twelve stations of the cross,” as this was the common and accepted punishment for heresy. He not only knowingly but willingly took this upon himself, in fact had to do so, to achieve the apotheosis of what was to become Christianity. This “passion” of Christ was a necessity of its self-fulfilling prophesy. And arguably not just that, but this ultimate sacrifice of one's life for something greater has long been associated with such apotheosis. The ultimate human pathology, suicide, is elevated to the ultimate path for humanity into divinity.

So who is to say that Nina, through her own artistic devotion, her own apparent pathological behavior, is merely an example of the “sick soul.” Her apparent sick aspects were what led to a theatrical performance that was particularly and uniquely transforming not only for her but for her audience. And much like Jesus she had to sacrifice her actual life to achieve this sort of religious or artistic apotheosis. This is one reason the film is so disturbing, as we have to acknowledge that to achieve such liberation as this often requires of us a journey through both hell and heaven and perhaps even this ultimate sacrifice. Death is the ultimate liberator to help us live more fully while we can, and instead of hiding it away, repressing it from out daily lives, perhaps we should take Don Juan Matus' advice and keep in always over our left shoulder as advisor, always aware of our impending doom—not our everlasting life but our actual and final death—and perhaps we can have a more liberating experience of living and dying without denying this ultimate so-called pathology.

I am also reminded by current events in Arizona, the shooting deaths of several people at a political rally. When we as a people are confronted with such violence and death, it is at this time that our best natures come forward to deal with the situation. It's almost as if such occasions are necessary for such heroic behavior. Same as in war, in utter terror, like in the apparent pathological philosophy of Colonel Kurtz.

1 comment:

  1. Here's an excerpt from Cameron Freeman's book Post-metaphysics and the Paradoxical Teachings of Jesus (Peter Lang, 2010), p. 248:

    "Consequently, if we avoid listening to the explosive paradoxes that are intrinsic to the parables of Jesus it is because they might disorient us and change our world irrevocably, leaving us robbed of certainties and naked before the divine mystery that is God. For such radical pointing-out instructions give wholehearted expression to Jesus' passion for the Real, his urge to go to the very end, to go all the way, to the extreme experience of the 'impossible to say' at which point opposites coincide. For where Jesus' passion for the Cross inscribes and embodies the infra-structural zero-logic of the Kingdom, we find the infinite pain of crucifixion turns into the infinite joy of mystical ecstasy, as the erotic intensity of Love meets with the monstosity of crucifixion, just as the all-mighty power of God is revealed in the powerlessness and vulnerability of a suffering servant, while in the disaster of death hides the miracle of new creation."


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