Tuesday, 14 June 2011

First prize for effort

There are films that leave you asking ‘how on earth did they make that?’ For others the question is ‘why?’

We watched one of the latter the other night. I was divided between one friend strongly warning us against the film and another strongly recommending it. Unfortunately we listened to the wrong one and watched Black Swan.

Nathalie: top marks for trying
As far as the plot is concerned, it's just one more in a lengthening series about how tough it is to be at the top of your profession in music, the theatre or, as in this case, ballet. Everyone wants the role you’ve been given and is just waiting for you to trip up so they can pounce. Plenty of dramatic material there, and it’s been mined many times before and will be many times again.

What was different in Black Swan is that they took it all much further, with a descent into madness by the key character, where scenes of rivalry or attraction – or both – degenerate into gory violence or passionate sex – or both – only for them to be revealed to have been fantasies.

The final act of (literally) bloody violence turns out to have been a fantasy about something that really happened. Or perhaps not. It’s never made fully clear. I guess it depends on whether you can believe that someone bleeding to death from a fatal wound can dance a particularly gruelling passage of ballet. You decide just how far your capacity to suspend disbelief will stretch, and you make your choice.

All that being said, obviously I can't really be in any doubt as to why the film was made. It was a money spinner, up into the seven figures. As H L Mencken put it, ‘The movies today are too rich to have any room for genuine artists. They produce a few passable craftsmen, but no artists.’ That’s Black Swan to a T: craftsmanlike, professional, uninspired and uninspiring.

The real ‘why’ question concerns Nathalie Portman’s Oscar for her performance. Now she may be an extraordinarily good actor, but how could anyone tell from that role? She seemed to spend practically the whole film looking frightened. A woman at the top of her profession, the envy of all around her, supremely gifted and supremely capable – and she spends the whole time looking like a child outside the headmaster's study. Or was that what the Oscar was for: best performance in a leading role as a frightened woman?

I’ve been assured, however, that the Oscar wasn’t for her acting but for the way Portman danced so much of the role herself. OK, right, but however fine an actor she is, she certainly isn’t a top flight ballet dancer. Do they really hand out Oscars for doing better than one might expect at something one doesn’t do terribly well? Has it become a prize for effort?

Dr Johnson once said that ‘a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.’ Underneath the misogyny, there’s insight in Johnson’s point about the sense of wonder at something being done, however badly, by someone you wouldn’t expect to be able to do it in the first place.

Feels like Portman got a Johnson Oscar. In a Mencken film.

1 comment:

irishdoctor said...

Maybe she was playing the Dying Swan?