Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Black Swan, and the fallacy of literalism

I read a story that's going around the intertubes, about Crazy Chicks in the movies, as evidenced by the popularity of Black Swan, and how it represents a misogynistic artistic view, and re-inforces images of women as blahblahblah.  The article contains a pretty good list of movies that have women with broken psyches.  So what? The movie is an allegory of the ballet.  It's an extended metaphor, which takes some actual brainthought energy on your part if you're going to act like you give a damn enough to write about movies and popular culture.

Plays and stories have to be about something compelling, so that we look at life differently.  Nobody wants to see a play about the second-most important day in a person's life. If  Sophocles wrote about the day before Tiresias shows up at Oedipus's house, the only terror and pity engendered in the Ancient Greek audience would be that they wasted two hours of their precious Dyonisian revelry sitting in a hot amphitheater, looking at some guy sittin' around wondering what's up.

Art not only has to present the most important moments in a life, but sometimes it also has to shift the story's viewpoint so that audience's viewpoints can shift.  The old journalistic saw also holds true: Man Bites Dog is a news story.  Dog Bites Man is not a news story (although if it happened to Michael Vick, it would be a satisfying slice of karma for the day).  That's why the Demi Moore/Barry Levinson/Michael Crighton steamy crapfest Disclosure, for instance, had to be about a female as the aggressor in a sexual harassment case--the role-reversal forces us to look at the situation differently.

The mythic feminine is yin energy--an actively receptive vessel, life-giving, an invitation to action. The mythic masculine is yang energy--outwardly active, productive, a response to the call to action. There's really no getting around that hard-wired fact. When that energy goes awry, it is News. It is a story worth telling. It speaks to some primal part of who we are, as both men and women integrating both yin and yang in our fullest expression.  The "misogynist" viewpoint of the article completely misses the other side of the coin.  Yes, there are plenty of "women gone crazy" plots, most having to do with that aspect of their feminine side gone amock, which wreaks havoc in their world and the world around them.  The analog to those plots, however, are the "broken man" stories...men who are unable to express their yang nature (all those A-list star turns as developmentally-delayed or cognitively deficient wounded males).  Both sides of that coin make for compelling stories because they resonate on a mythic level of our pre-civilized consciousness.  And when actors are good at it, they win awards--on both sides of the Y-chromosome equation.  They win, and they sell tickets because they show us the broken aspects of ourselves, so it resonates with us (subconscious terror at viewing our inner weaknesses on display) and allows us to externalize the broken part of ourselves as part of a story (pity).  Thus, we leave exhausted, satisfied, and a little drained (catharsis).  Except for when Sean Penn does it.

Of course, there are exceptions.  Jodie Foster in Nell.  Fight Club (though that does address the issue of the mythic male in breakdown as no other film has or can.)...Jodie Foster in Nell.  (But I had to reach for that one, and I don't think that film made much of a dent in the popular awareness.  "Tay in da Ween?" Really?

The Bottom Line:  The Black Swan is an allegory stuck in a world that has scant little room for metaphor--especially when it comes to the mythic aspects of gender roles in popular entertainments.


  1. Nit picked: I like Jodie in "Nell." It was Liam Neeson acting like he'd discovered a Lost Tribe that toasted it for me.

  2. I'll grant you that--her performance was solid. I'm not calling into question her work; although to me, it did have a bit of the "me too" syndrome coming as it did so close on the heels of all o them men playing cognitively-challenged case studies. Ultimately, the "mystery that was Nell" just wasn't very interesting.