Monday, December 27, 2010

Black Swan

Yesterday, Sarah, her mother, and I went to see Black Swan.  It’s been a while since I’ve seen two movies on two consecutive days.  Another benefit of Christmas!

We live in a small town in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.  Some movies just never make it out here.  I would love to see 127 Days, but I doubt that will happen unless I drive the 85 miles into D.C.  Similarly, Sarah wanted to see Black Swan, and had about given up hope when, last week, it played in Hagerstown, Maryland, about 25 miles from here.  She loved the movie.

This week, Black Swan came to our local multiplex and Sarah urged me to see it.  She wanted to see it a second time, too, so we made plans to see it yesterday.  Beni also wanted to see it, so the three of us went.

It is an excellent film.  On the surface, it’s a fairly simple story of an emotionally stunted ballerina who is picked to star as the Swan Queen in a production of Swan Lake in the Lincoln Center in New York.  More generally, it also can be seen as the portrait of the ballerina’s breakdown as she works hard to excel in the role and meet the expectations of the choreographer/director.  I saw it also as a cautionary tale about the cost of excellence and success.

Natalie Portman, the actor who plays the central role of Swan Queen, is amazing.  Sarah says that she spent a whole year learning enough ballet to play the part.  What amazed me, though, wasn’t her dancing but her depiction of the poor ballerina, pressured from every side but especially from within herself, as she descends into total breakdown.

The prima ballerina in Black Swan does finally achieve both excellence and success.  The depiction of the horrible price she paid for success is the point of the movie, I believe.  Ms. Portman’s portrayal of this poor woman’s disintegration was painful to watch.  I told Sarah and Beni that the movie actually is a horror flick.  I can’t remember the last movie where I covered my eyes as much as I did while watching Black Swan.  It’s an emotional horror movie.

For me, the movie had a huge moral: nothing great comes easily or cheaply or painlessly.  Living your passion is a dream come true, certainly.  Living your passion also takes just about everything you have to give.  Success and passion and achievement apparently are ruinous if they come to people who aren’t prepared to receive them.  I have known a few hugely successful people.  As far as I know, not one of them had experienced the devastation Black Swan shows.  Most of these successes were  grounded in the day–to–day reality of life—grounded by a good family, or good friends, or a physical impairment, or some of all of the above.  These people have been able to put their drive for excellence in perspective and so have good lives.

I have a good friend who is a psychologist.  His wife is an attorney.  She is extremely bright, she loves the law, and she enjoys litigation.  She is an excellent attorney.  She has never made partner, though, in any of the several firms where she has worked.  My buddy has a theory why his wife hasn’t had unqualified success as a lawyer.  She is too well–adjusted, my friend believes.  He, on the other hand, is an unqualified success in his research field.  He’s called upon to speak as an expert on radio and TV, he’s on all kinds of national and international advisory boards, he gets a lot of grant funding for his lab, he excels as an adviser for Ph.D. candidates, and has more requests to accept Ph.D. candidates than he could ever grant.  He also is, by his own admission, a slave to obsessive–compulsive disorder and lives a life full of fear of failure.  His wife, by contrast, is as easy–going and mellow and happy as a stereotypical 1960's hippie.  She is a joy to be around.  My friend the psychologist believes that success is a product of flaws, of the need to prove yourself, of the need to disprove raging self–doubt.

The story told in Black Swan seems to prove my friend’s theory.  It’s an amazing movie that is very hard to watch.

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