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The Invisible Truth: December 2010

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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Black Swan: Tchaikovsky meets Aronovsky

Black Swan is a new, terse psychological thriller from film festival darling Darren Aronovsky, featuring Natalie Portman playing a ballerina. Her character is as memorable as she is neurotic. Having been selected from her company to play the prestigious role of queen swan in Swan Lake, she descends into a frightful world that treads the border between delusion and social manipulation.

The director of the ballet, thinking she has some distance to travel into her dark side in order to appropriately play the Black Swan half of the part, seduces and torments her to push her into a schizoid state. Alternately leading her to believe that she will be replaced by a new dancer and that her arrival into the star system of ballet is imminent, he cruelly toys with her passion and her obvious fragility, which Portman's performs in an exhilarating and admirable manner.

Aronovsky lends the film psychological depth through the lead character's fraught relationship with her controlling mother, who seems obsessed with living out her fallen dreams vicariously through her daughter. This relationship is echoed in the plot through Nina's overtures to both her predecessor and heir apparent in the company's star system of primogeniture, as figurative mother/daughter relationships. The dethroned prima ballerina resents Nina, verbally accosting her at a fundraiser at which the director announces her retirement and her replacement's ascendence, calling her a whore.

The reality of some of the attacks on her competence, however, are subsequently destabilized in the plot through the introduction of hallucinogenic or delusional episodes. Beth, the former prima ballerina ridiculed by the other dancers for her age, is hospitalized after being hit by a car, and there are subtle suggestions that she is either the victim of the director's cruel whims or that she herself does this intentionally to express her discontent with the company, her waning star status, and to rattle the rest of company out of its rhythm.

To add to the intrigue of the ultra-competitive dance company, Nina's heir apparent seduces her as well, imploring her to live a little and relax her rigid discipline in order to "let herself go" and finally lose herself in her dancing. It becomes apparent finally that the director may have engineered this fatal ménage a trios -- between the director, Nina, and Lily -- to force Nina to plumb the depths of her soul and find its darkness, its aggressivity unto the basic predatory instinct expressed by the crime of murder. 

The anxiety-wracked climax of the film, during which there are continuous suggestions, even through the opening performance of the ballet, that her rival will replace her in the lead role, effectively keeps the viewer on their film-watching toes (pun intended). This climax leads to a violent confrontation in the dressing room between Nina and Lily, which has homicidal and suicidal overtones. The boundary between art and life becomes blurred for the brilliant protagonist.

This confrontation is the flip side of the erotic encounter between the two dancers a couple nights before the opening performance, seemingly precipitated by Lily surreptitiously spiking Nina's drink with MDMA. Lily denies this encounter happened, and this encounter figures as part of the psychological torment that Lily and the director inflict on Nina in order to evoke the best possible performance from her. This drugging incident could be sabotage, or it could be a conspiracy for Nina's benefit: the narrative evades closure and keeps the viewer anxiously guessing all the way until the end and beyond.

Some familiar Aronovsky tropes appear in Black Swan such as the blurred borders between madness and genius, the abject figure of abandoned and forgotten celebrity, and skin-crawling scenarios of gore. What is new is the virtuosity, the polish. This film is excellent on all counts: the cinematography is innovative and deeply creepy; the score is surprising and subtle, full of background bass wooshes and surround sound panning that generates voices that seem to emanate from outside the dark space of the cinema; the writing is solid; the acting is nuanced and bold. Also new are the beautiful sequences of dance, which feature long balletic shots where the camera transcends static reality and becomes a participant in the dancing, a partner to the protagonist in her dance.

This shows Arronovky's flirtation with versatility that is the sign of a truly gifted artist; he has achieved fluency in two poles of film language. On the one hand, in Requiem for a Dream, another of his films that features a harrowing climax, he gives the pivotal sequence its intensity through sophisticated editing and montage techniques. On the other hand, Black Swan takes the long shot to new dynamic heights. Rather than the aleatory tracking shots of Robert Altman's in Gosford Park, or the fantastical slow panning shots of Peter Greenaway in The Cook, His Wife, The Thief, and Her Lover, or the Hitchcock's attempt at a single-shot film in Rope, Black Swan introduces a mobile element to the long shot that is rare and masterful.

Aronovsky gives the psychological edge of this film expression through handheld camera shots, which he tastefully limits to avoid the nausea-inducing verisimilitude of The Blair Witch Project or  Cloverfield, and through shots following the protagonist as if the camera depicts a stalker's point of view. In this film, there is suspense a-plenty. 
Furthermore, the director avails himself of CGI technology in a similarly tasteful and unobtrusive way. There is no fetishization of technology for its own sake here. The uses to which he puts the dramatic digital manipulation of the film are governed by the internal logic of the film. Nina's skin at different points in the film bristles with energy, and the sores which her mother attributes to her neurotic scratching of her own back are also the site of the emergence of black feathers, signaling the transformation central to her performance of the Black swan and her negotiation of the binaries within herself.

This film features a spectacular synergy of talent; to miss it is to thumb your nose at film's inherent potentials. Bravo!

Sunday, December 19, 2010


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Friday, December 10, 2010

Artist Spotlight: Christopher Peet

Christopher Peet is a hardworking, local Toronto artist who has recently finished a painting entitled "Songs in the Tree of Life." While his previous work tended towards watercolours with a special emphasis on architectural detail, this painting explores universal themes in a surrealistic manner. He also teaches art, and he has contributed political cartoons to many Canadian newspapers and magazines.

Although the surrealistic influence is new, this painting still shows his meticulous rendering of the built world, with a wood-paneled dwelling dominating the top right third of the painting. Its blue eaves and window edges "rhyme" with the blue of the sky. The two dormers stick out of the house's face at improbable angles, the one in the background seeming subject to the pull of the arc of the brick structure. This structure itself suggests a bridge, with the water underneath likewise at a surprising angle to the bridge. This water is painted as if the viewer is looking into a well. The water is implied skillfully through the presence of ripples, but ultimately left transparent, so the viewer can see a small clutch of narwhales.

To the right of the painting, the bricks lose their cohesiveness in a furious fire that evokes creation and destruction simultaneously. Creation is suggested through the connotative association of bricks to the ovens in which the materials of earth are transformed into bricks by human labour. All the elements are represented. A herd of land animals gathers at the apex of the brick bridge; narwhales swim in the pebble-bedded well water; and two butterflies dominate the air in the upper left third of the painting. The tree, emerging out of the clouds in the sky, is an organism of the earth; half of the tree in reality -- the root system -- hides underground.

The herd of animals on the bridge are painted in a more ambiguous manner than the incredible detail of other areas of the painting. When I spoke with the artist, he said he painted pairs of animals – giraffes, elephants, seals, deer, and bears – to represent in partial form the story of Noah's Ark, which puns on the arc-like curve of many of the lines of the painting. Putting the focus on the butterflies effectively challenges the tradition of centering the focus of the painting, and emphasizes the notion of transformation.

The "tree of life" ironically has no leaves, and its Kabbalistic and Edenic connotations tease out the both biblical and materialist resonances of the painting in a refreshingly complex way. At the right side of the painting, the artist's hand is painted, in the act of reaching for the house. This implies both the human influence over the material world: our active re-shaping of the world around us, as well as the longing for home and shelter. Below the hand and above the house are planetary bodies; the red one evokes mars and earth respectively.

The point of view of the painting is not grounded in one point around which the perspective is arranged; it is deployed in a diffuse, if not fragmentary manner. That earth's various manifestations are visible to the viewer at the same time as the earth itself, as if from space, presents us with a surreal assemblage. In this dream-like scene, we are granted the privilege of seeing things we could never see juxtaposed in real life.

I see some modernist echoes in this painting as well. The tree in the sky is reminiscent of Magritte's floating Castle, which itself perhaps referred to Kafka's novel of the same name. And the transformation of earth into building materials and elements is evocative of Diego Rivera's murals at the Detroit Institute of Art.

"Songs in the Tree of Life" is being sold for $8000. Its size is 24 x 24", and it is acrylic on canvas. You can get a high-quality print for $500 or $600 depending on whether you want it printed on canvas or paper (canvas is the more expensive), and there are extra charges up to $125 depending on how you want it framed and stretched (regular: $100, gallery-style: $125). You can visit him on the web here: http://www.christopherpeet.com/index.html.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Yessirree, I am a nanowrimo WINNER.

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I will be cleaning up the novel and submitting it to publishers over the holidays.