A lot has been written about Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, both in the mainstream media and even here on TNB. It was an important feature of Matt Baldwin’s “When Stupid People Go To Smart Movies,” and was also mentioned in “Legacy, Lightcycles, and Lady Gaga,” a discussion between Cynthia Hawkins and Gloria Harrison. As it happens, I’ve also tapped Ms. Hawkins, who has become TNB’s resident film expert, for a post about Black Swan. Below you’ll find a conversation she and I recently had about how audiences perceive independent films compared to those built using the more traditional Hollywood model, as well as some questions for you, the TNB reader. Thanks in advance for sharing your time and thoughts with us.
Richard Cox: Black Swan is everything I love in a film. It plays with the nature of reality, with the subjective human experience, and it takes the viewer on a visceral ride that never lets you catch your breath. But based on description alone, it’s not the sort of film you would expect to pull in big audiences. A dark, psychological thriller set in the world of ballet?
Cynthia Hawkins: Add to that the art-house look of it, with its tight shots of what seem to be handheld digital cameras recording the surreal experiences of Nina, and the mere fact that it’s Aronofsky. Even so, Black Swan might be his most accessible film to date. Working with the plot of Swan Lake does at least two mainstream things for him: It produces a traditional story arc and creates suspense (not in what’s going to happen but how).
RC: It’s interesting how much attention is given to Aronofsky’s technique. For me it often feels like a reality-show camera crew is following her every move, which only adds to the authentic feel of the film. And I’m glad that larger audiences are finally being introduced to Aronofsky’s work. I feel like he brings something to movie-making that is increasingly missing: actual, old-fashioned storytelling.
CH: And following her very closely, almost claustrophobically close. There are several scenes in which it feels like we’re stalking Nina with our noses just inches from that tight swirl of her ballerina bun. Yes, actual, old-fashioned storytelling, and more often than not a story born of a character’s internal conflicts. That’s what draws me into Aronofsky films again and again, these intense character studies he’s so good at. And then when you add the “reality-show” effect to something like The Wrestler or Black Swan it ratchets up the levels of voyeurism and complicity.
RC: You’re absolutely right about his films exploring the essence of humanity and the internal conflicts that drive us…and sometimes drive us insane. It’s the same thing that drew me to Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, which has long been one of my favorite films. I enjoy it when stories unnerve me, and when they explore the tapestry of human emotion, extreme or subtle, good or bad. It surprises me how so many films get made that don’t attempt to do so, like many mainstream, bigger budget projects that often seem to contain obligatory over-the-top action and obvious humor. And yet plenty of my friends express almost the opposite opinion, that they enjoy mindlessly entertaining films because they’re looking for an escape from real life.
CH: I can see that, in a way. I suppose this is why I’m such a big fan of blockbusters like Inception or the Abrams Star Trek, films that use their movie magic to transport you someplace you couldn’t necessarily experience otherwise. But then there are the unimaginative mainstream films like Little Fockers and The A-Team, etc. I have this theory that those types of films are appreciated less for their sense of escape and more for the comfort of the “known.” You know the jokes. You know the plots. You know the characters. Everything’s familiar here. Safe.
There’s not a lot to be gained from “safe” though. I always leave movies that invest themselves in complex characters and experiences, dark or otherwise, feeling a little more attuned to the world, like everything’s suddenly more vivid and resonant and meaningful. Sometimes it’s better to tap into that tapestry of human emotion, as you describe it, for better or worse, than to check out from it.
RC: I’m certainly not a snob when it comes to blockbusters. I’ve defended Titanic more than once on TNB, and I’m happy to do it again. I can make a case for nearly any James Cameron or Steven Spielberg film, and regular readers here know you and I are members of an expansive Star Wars fan club. I’m also a huge fan of plenty of comedies like Role Models and Wedding Crashers and even the original Meet the Parents. As a writer it’s easy to say this, but ultimately for me it comes down to the script. I might prefer intense movies about the human experience, but I can enjoy a juvenile comedy if it’s cleverly written. I can get behind a special effects extravaganza if the story works on a basic level. From a sensory standpoint, films can transport you to another world in a way no other medium can, but effects alone don’t cut it. For instance, The Matrix hooked me early and thrilled me in unexpected ways. But the second one was a letdown, and I fell asleep in the third.
So let’s talk about film endings. Blockbuster films seem overwhelmingly to end with the protagonist achieving his desire, so often that for most of us the outcome is usually never in doubt. And yet you and I have both been wildly entertained by films that ended tragically. What do you think makes for a rewarding ending?
CH: Easy. A believable ending. Any ending that stays true to the arc of the story or the character’s progress or the circumstances, whether it’s positive or negative, is going to be a rewarding ending for me.
RC: I think you’ve nailed it. I would add that in films other than comedies I’d also like the ending to be in doubt. Like, I don’t want it to be a given that all will end well, because if it is, what’s the point of telling the story at all?
CH & RC: And now we’d like to ask TNB readers and contributors to offer your own opinions. How do you feel about Hollywood “blockbuster” films versus those produced by independent studios? What sorts of endings work for you? And how do you feel about films that veer toward the dark and artistic and yet appeal to a mainstream audience? We think Black Swan comes close, but what do you think? Can such a film honestly exist?
Thanks again for your time.