Black Sheep Vs. Black Swan

| 13 Aug 2014 | 08:06

    Black Swan

    Directed by Darren Aronofsky

    Runtime: 108 min.


    Directed by Kanye West

    Runtime: 34 min.

    Ballerinas figure prominently in Kanye West’s half-hour film “Runaway,” and are among its many symbols of the agony and beauty of artistic struggle. But in Black Swan, one ballerina, Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman), becomes director Darren Aronofsky’s mechanism for a ridiculous psychological thriller that is genuinely less thrilling and revealing than West’s magical mystery movie.

    For Aronofsky, Nina’s artistic struggle only represents the indulgence of escapist filmmaking. He pretends that wacky thoughts and paranoid hysteria are the stuff of great cinema more so than the concentration and discipline that go into a ballet dancer’s skill and hard work. Nina angles for the lead role in a new production of Swan Lake, competing with other dancers for the attention of a rapacious choreographer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel). Driven by a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s stress includes self-mutilation and sexual confusion as she discovers masturbation and becomes infatuated with a lusty young female dancer (Mila Kunis). In Nina’s psychotic breakdown, no one can be trusted; she even fears turning into a murderous and suicidal, red-eyed black swan.

    This berserk combination of Repulsion and The Red Shoes shows how Aronofsky, since his debut feature Pi, has come to specialize in specious deep thoughts—usually melding them to sentimentality (The Wrestler) or sensationalism (Requiem for a Dream). He’s gotten away from the original ethnic emphasis that distinguished Pi’s story of Jewish paranoia as an exploration of Hasidic arcana. The way Black Swan deprives Upper West Side art maven Nina of any specific ethnic characteristics, makes it a horror story in more than one way. Aronofsky’s ethnic denial and escape into Nina’s psychological trauma actually trivializes her artistic pursuit. Turning art into genre movie silliness is a careerist’s dance.

    Rapper-musician West is an inveterate dancer trying out unpredictable sounds, influences and gestures. He understands careerism as a maneuver fraught with real tension and frustration, and thus uses the ballerina to represent his own objectives and physical and emotional sweat. “Runaway” is the most ambitious of West’s adventurous music videos. A collaboration with the great Hype Williams—billed as “writer,” which has to be a deceptively modest credit—it is a work as visually awesome as it is conceptually audacious. Since West’s videos for the 808s & Heartbreak album, he has burst the limits of music video narration, never settling for commercial strategies that corrupt the ideas, such as when Black Swan’s Thomas declares, “We’re going to take Swan Lake, strip it down and make it visceral and real!” Aronofsky actually proceeds to make it hackneyed.

    In “Runaway,” West takes his recent public humiliations (his Hurricane Katrina slam of George W. Bush has come back to haunt him; even Obama called West “a jackass” after the Taylor Swift incident) and stripped his black sheep media status down to the purest paranoid hallucination. He’s first seen running in a panic that resembles Tom Cruise in The Firm but that turns out to be a flash-forward, projecting the viewer into a crisis that is part sci-fi apocalypse, part eschatological reverie and part movie-musical. A meteorite that crashes to earth (one of this year’s most stunning movie images) introduces West to an alien traveler—a nubile black birdwoman (played by Selita Ebanks) whose elegant neurasthenia parallels his spiritual and creative sensitivity. Then West’s stress gets multiplied into pirouettes, pliés and jetées performed by 27 ballet dancers as he sings the self-exculpatory: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebag.” Even a marching band appears, leading a Mardi Gras parade that features a Michael Jackson floating head, another audacious symbol that combines a personal homage with ideas about egotism and intimations of lynch mob spectatorship.

    Not really avant-garde, “Runaway” is a work of Surrealist art. This is impressively personal filmmaking, unlike Aronofsky’s superficially personal horror-movie shtick. West communicates even as he gets deeper into his own private meanings and distress—exactly the connection Aronofsky cannot accomplish. Our dumbed-down film culture is likely to prefer Black Swan precisely because: 1.) It is insipid; 2.) It glamorizes white petulance without specifically identifying its sociological or cultural sources; 3.) Its nonsense is familiar. 

    Few black pop artists have successfully maneuvered cinematic experimentation or achieved the influence to force the significance of personal expression upon the public. (This may explain Tyler Perry’s permanent retreat into mediocrity: It may not please the mainstream, but it doesn’t frighten it either.) West, like R. Kelly in the genius “Trapped In the Closet,” carries on Michael Jackson’s music video audacity. He uses Surrealism in the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí way: to attack bourgeois complacency and to open the subconscious. He dares offer proof that black artists—frequently limited to avatars of primitive sensuality—indeed have an unconscious in which dreams and nightmares intermix, as do blues, hip-hop, classical and pop music, as well as breakdancing and ballet. The odd, unexpected loveliness of West’s 27 ballerina alter egos conveys the strength, endurance and poise it takes to hold one’s balance and to sustain an artistic personality. Balletic grace and surrealist ingenuity are his responses to a race-based sense of oppression—a reality Aronofsky might have claimed for his Upper West Side schizophrenic but that he tellingly overlooks. Black Swan falsifies the whiteness of elite Western culture and the pressures it puts on its practitioners. That’s why the movie gets crazier (“Find freedom in death”) as it goes along. Nina’s crisis is hysterical in the worst way; It doesn’t relate to anything real—like the scene in which sad-eyed Portman flaps her arms but hardly moves her legs.

    When West’s circular narrative catches up to his scared, running intro, it explains his anxiety. The birdwoman-alien-muse refers to the statuesque ballerinas when she asks, “All the statues that we’ve seen, where do you think they come from?” Kanye answers, “I think that artists carved them years and years ago.” But he’s corrected: “No! They are phoenix turned to stone.” This blunt message is in the same tradition of such pop experimental movies as Pet Shop Boys’ “It Couldn’t Happen Here” and The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Like “Runaway,” those were also advert films that compiled the musicians’ recent recordings, attached to a loose story concept.

    But Runaway is never as loose (or loony) as Black Swan. West’s fantasy is grounded in his celebrity wisdom: “Don’t believe what you hear in this world.” And again, his muse corrects/confesses: “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything that is different you try to change. You try to tear it down. You rip the wings off phoenix and they turn to stone. And if I don’t burn, I will turn to stone.” Those enigmatic ideas rhyme emotionally—and visually—thanks to West, Hype Williams and cinematographer Kyle Kibbe. Their surrealist fantasy makes palpable the Gil Scott-Heron quote: “Who will survive in America?” That’s a black artist’s eternal question. Black Swan avoids it in favor of junk movie decadence.