Gorgeous Degradation

It’s hard to like a film about a broken-down, narcissistic head-banger with a special gift for sentimentalism and self-destruction. Having the character played by Mickey Rourke doesn’t make it any easier. I’ve always thought of Rourke as something of an oddball, and Darren Aronofsky has provided him the perfect character to both rehabilitate and reify his superfreaky aura. The first forty minutes of The Wrestler burn past with a searing, nearly anthropological furor. I have to admit I was initially enthralled by this portrait of a sub-culture that would ordinarily leave me more than cold. The writing is lean, raw and intense, the acting honest and risky, and Aronofsky utilizes hand held cameras to give the film a DIY, Def Leppard-worthy, visual punch. Shortly thereafter the film settles into something more recognizable and less surprising, but that’s to be expected I guess. Rourke is good, maybe even great. Marisa Tomei is also really good.

10 thoughts on “Gorgeous Degradation”

  1. I don’t want to simply echo all of Jeff’s comments, but I could–I loved, then (as the film slipped into its familiar spandex tights) liked The Wrestler, and recommend it highly.

    But while watching it hit me that all of Aronofsky’s films have been about trying to cheat death. Obsessive conspiracy theories and mathematics, the rush and buzz and distortion of the needle and the pill, most recently (and most tediously) Love–LOVE: his characters frenetically repress and resist mortality (while his camera & editing echo that frenzy). And Aronofsky has been a stern moralist judging such obsessions. I think that’s why I found Requiem technically proficient but uninteresting. In the end, the only thesis he had about drug-taking is that it degrades, diminishes, ultimately destroys life. But it said nothing, for me, true or moving or meaningful about why people are seduced by drugs. Pi I got: that kind of hyperrational avoidance of life was perhaps more familiar. Still, (recollection here dimmed by the decade since I saw it) the theorist is also, in seeking mastery, hiding from life.

    Then in the gloriously-, foolishly-, at day’s end dully-ambitious The Fountain that struggle to avoid death is is for the first time in his films not destructive of life; the two lovers, in finding some (the?) great truth about the meaning in their life, struggle mightily and absurdly to maintain it, against death. I find the film’s thesis intriguing, many of its technical accomplishments dazzling, and yet–as with Requiem–it struck me as … well, immature. At heart, its thesis about heart was pap, mere homily; it told me that love mattered most, and made life, and yet I wasn’t moved, emotionally or reflectively.

    It’s always as if Aronofsky’s formal brilliance replicated his earlier characters’ flaws: all that kinetic/cinematic energy, ostensibly aimed at savagely attacking or evoking the characters’ responses to mortality, was itself a distraction from a meaningful engagement with living. His films–even Pi, which was the only one I’d enjoyed–were lifeless mechanical exercises.

    Until this one. As its title suggests, The Wrestler really grapples with mortality, and our illusions of control (of pain, in the ring; of desire, in the stripclub), and the inevitable degradation of our illusions. Even though the film does–like his other ones–turn toward a too-pat thesis, and too-neat and familiar narrative devices, it BURNED with Randy/Rourke’s (and Cassidy/Pam/Tomei’s) pain. Maybe it’s no surprise that Aronofsky has here shelved the agitated camera, the rush of cut and splice, instead opting for an unnerving focused observation, and for the first time I really see his moral vision. It is perhaps not a great film, but for the first time I really get a sense of Aronofsky’s greatness — not just as an accomplished technician, but as someone whose own moral vision reveals something passionate and visceral about how we live.

  2. The Fountain was baffling. And, yes, I suppose it was immature (as reynolds says). But I think a more accurate description would be: an episode of Grey’s Anatomy on acid.

  3. Black Swan! It deserves an exclamation point. Whew! Hell, I’ll give it two. Intense, masochistic, frenetic and ecstatic, Aronofsky’s film plays like a feverish nightmare. There is one sequence when Portman’s character (Nina) literally turns into the black swan on stage, and it is truly enervating and exhilarating. Manohla Dargis talks about the tension between the Apollonian (control, technique, reason) in combat with the Dionysian (release, ecstasy, altered consciousness, the irrational). The Greek word for ecstasy (ek-stasis) means standing outside (or being removed from) one’s self, and one could argue that such release into altered states (booze, sex, drugs, bio-chemical breakdowns) are necessary reactions against the civilizing impulse . . . that it is possible we cannot separate reasoned, civilized, rational living (with its norms and rules and social codes) from the dark, primordial impulses which pulse through our bodies (that mystical connection to the primal creative urge). Thomas (the manipulatively charismatic choreographer) wants to push Nina toward the black swan in his production while she is still so very bound up in the child-like innocence of the white, and I liked the way those dualities played themselves out on the screen, utilizing many visual tropes from horror cinema (but also psychological thrillers & the fantastical). I was also reminded of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (especially its vivid, over-saturated reliance on technocolor film processing) though I haven’t seen that one in a few years.

    Thank god for Mila Kunis, because I needed her character’s (Lily) uninhibited spirit to provide much needed opposition to Portman’s remarkable yet clammy and claustrophobic performance as the emotionally repressed and neurotic Nina. Portman dug really deep and fully committed (physically and emotionally), but that character, her mom (a mournfully frozen-faced Barbara Hershey), Thomas (a game and playful Vincent Cassel), the used-up ballerina (Winona Ryder wearing one of the worst dresses in cinema history), and the other women in the corps were all so uptight and often unpleasant to watch (much less to identify with). Kunis’ Lily made all that strident energy go down a little bit easier. Still, it is hard to know what to think about that character as the line between objectivity and subjectivity is heavily blurred in this film. Are we only “seeing” Lily through Nina’s fragmented psyche!

    Furthermore, why did Barbara Hershey destroy her face? I think Aronofsky played sort of a cruel joke by casting Hershey and Ryder. Here we see this young child/woman (Portman) push her body to such extremes in the name of art (fragmenting beyond repair in the process) while Aronofsky frames Hershey and Ryder in such a manner to suggest they are indeed past their prime (playing on our own cultural knowledge of Ryder’s celebrity fall from grace over the last decade). Women come across pretty bad in the film, but I can’t figure out if that is the point or a product of some level of cinematic misogyny (or maybe a comment on ballet). Paired with Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, however, Black Swan seems to be a continuation of Aronofsky’s interest in extreme obsessions as well as the body as a site of contestation, foregrounding the spectator’s need to grapple with issues of control (indeed, do we have any). Still, Mike’s intriguing thesis about mortality is somewhat undermined in this film as death is openly embraced – sought after even.

    Writing this makes it sound like something approaching Greek tragedy (if so probably one written in the fourth century BCE), but I like David Denby’s summing up best: “A luridly beautiful farrago.”

    More interesting . . . why this film? It has crossed over to a much more mainstream audience, and I am very much intrigued by that. Aronofsky’s The Wrestler was far more conventional, but Black Swan appears to have tapped into the zeitgeist in inexplicable ways. Any ideas?

  4. Another Aronofsky film I thought was fine, interestingly feverish, but feverish about pretty bland, even uninteresting things.

    The actors were solid all around, maybe particularly Portman’s every muscle and glance like a taut wire right at the edge of snapping. (I love your description, J–“clammy and claustrophobic”–that nails her, and the film.)

    Here’s another take on my complaints above: Aronofsky doesn’t get joy. If we follow through on Dargis, or on Cassel’s slyly hyperbolized director, the film is deeply interested in capturing–with perfect technique–the disappearance into the irrational, and from this transcendence something of the pure experience of art. But isn’t the Dionysian, despite its self-destructive implications, meant to be also joyful? There’s never any fucking joy. There’s a furious passion–and I agree with you, J, that as Portman becomes the black swan, it got right under my skin, was enormously affecting. But there was no bliss, just fervor.

    I have the same complaint about his Requiem — a film about the horrific implications of drugs without any grasp of the attractions–the delirious dizzying release just doesn’t seem to make any sense to Aronofsky. He, like Portman’s ballerina, is scared to death of desire.

    That question about why this film… that’s a good one. Here’s a cheap, too-reductive argument: I’ve had so many conversations with so many younger folks (mostly students) in love with Requiem, and the raves about Swan seem to follow the same logic. The feverish passion resonates feverishly. Aronofsky is, like Kerouac or Hesse, an artist who distills an adolescent’s hyperbolized vision of the world.

    I am NOT knocking this. Okay, I sort of am. I do think DA is talented, but the talent’s been constrained. I feel like Cassel, seeing his technical mastery, unconvinced by his ability to feel. (He seems to seek furiously to prove he does feel with outsized and overdetermined visions of Feelings.)

  5. Joy. Yeah. Joy walks that fine line between control and ecstatic release. Call me a downer, but joy is a kind of fleeting, illusive concept. We Americans put a lot of stock in joy, but I don’t swim in that pool as often as I wished (or at least as often as I’m told I should be). Pentheus and his mom would probably wrestle with the notion of joy when it comes to the power of altered consciousness to wreak havoc (is it possible the idea of Dionysiac release is extraordinarily attractive but the reality, at least in representation, is far from joyful – even the second season of “True Blood” on HBO suggested the fucking and sucking and drinking and looting were horrific, soul destroying events and the players were deluded and delusional; any “joy” to be experienced was felt by those characters that maintained that fine line). I might imagine there is something overtly messy and self-destructive about Dionysiac release (for example Requiem), but, yeah, some/we/I go there for the seductive allure of joy and transgression but tend to be rudely rewarded by the masochism and self-pity, the melodrama and attendant hysteria, the momentary escape and eventual fall back to earth. So, we might be moving in on this target from different perspectives. Watched Nicholas Ray’s 1956 Bigger Than Life a couple of weeks ago (nice Criterion transfer including an impassioned defense of the film from Jonathan Lethem), and there is a similar dynamic at work in Ray’s portrait of a suburban elementary school teacher who is transformed into an id-induced monster via an addiction to cortisone (cortisone!). Worth a look but more interesting as a dark portrait of post-war masculinity-in-crisis than it is a compelling piece of filmmaking.

    On another note, most folks “found” Requiem long after it’s initial release. It certainly didn’t gross $120 million domestic. Yes, I see the power such a movie might have to fuel the feverish adolescent imagination (which, truth be told, does not go away but gets compartmentalized for most of us who have left “adolescence” behind – that civilizing impulse again). Still, Black Swan was so luridly over-the-top and folks of all ages flocked to the cinema. That intrigues me.

  6. You raise a lot of good points, and that last question, continuing from your earlier post, is still a good one: why did Swan produce the swoon? Any ideas?

    Meanwhile, I’m with you on Bigger, which I loved for Mason and the conceptual thrills, ‘though the film wasn’t too affecting to me.

  7. A couple of quick/fast/cheap theories. For young people working their asses off to make a dent in the job market as the recession rebounds yet unemployment remains at record hights, Black Swan crystallizes the anxieties and fears about not being good enough to hold onto to that ideal job . . . to put one’s vocation into action without sacrificing the self in the process. For others, the film might tap into the old melodramatic weepies (women’s films?) where abjection and, eventually, death is the ultimate (richly satisfying) escape – the only release from the self, the body (this definitely fits into Linda William’s take on “body genres) and the powers that be which subjects us to those larger forces which shape and contain/constrain our own sense of self. The one pure moment of joy in the film is Nina’s death.

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