I saw Black Swan* last night. It was possibly the most interesting movie I’ve seen all year, if not of the last few years. If you haven’t seen it, do so. I won’t attempt here to dissect it closely, since exactly what interested me in it was its seeming disdain for any desire to dissect it.
The film’s identity isn’t in any plot devices/character involvements. The real work is in the mirrors that occupy the background of almost every scene; the fact that the real age of Portman’s character is never given—she could be 20 and she could be in her early 30s; the fingernails that are cut and picked at obsessively, the very real and very human and very fragile breathing that can be heard throughout the movie—it is extremely rare to hear people breath in a movie, unless it is separated out into a moment of anguish or emotion that is cordoned off, as if breathing is only something we do when vulnerable, and the rest of the time we should make sure we keep it as quiet as possible; and in so many other small (or not so small) obsessions and complexities.
These thematic, imagistic, and tonal (yes, tonal) touches are what drove the movie. Precisely why the film worked for me is that the pieces didn’t feel like they fully cohered into a recognizable “narrative” (although I’m sure there are, right now, those out there who are trying, and possibly succeeding, in making all of these disparate things cohere into a narrative, and to them, I say go with god). Even more refreshing than my enjoyment of the film’s lack of plattered platitudes was my fellow movie-goers’ enjoyment of the film without needing the platter.
This was negative capability. I think this is a common trait in movies (the invitation to let go of the control) by all sorts of wonderful filmmakers, David Lynch and Werner Herzog of course, but I see glimpses of it in mainstream movies now and again as well.
It makes me wonder if, in a world of synopses and aggregaters, good film is a respite for the artful, not for arts sake, but for the sake of the emotional experience that cannot always be wrenched by the three act arc. I think it would be difficult for most people to say what exactly was going on with this movie’s fascination with fingernails, but I think it would be even harder to find a person who was not affected by it–even though there was only one truly graphic scene involving fingernails in the entire movie. Indeed, for an incredibly frightening and disturbing film, there was very little about it that was outright graphic, which is another reason I think it worked.
Ultimately, I’m brought back to the idea that that poetry is “on its way out” or “dead” or “dying” or “elitist” or whatever, because people are no longer allowed space to respond to poetic stimulus, which is so often indirect or mood-driven (like the fingernails) or outright disjunctive. I’d say the trouble is more a matter of conditioning, or, rather, not being allowed space that is unconditioned. It is more important, in my mind, to identify a space where the reader (or student) is allowed to identify what is primary in a text for themselves, rather than the default conditioning of coming to a text with the expectation of parsing. Interestingly, on the IMDB summation of the movie (I will acknowledge that they only get one sentence, so it must have been tough to write) they say, “A thriller that zeroes in on the relationship between a veteran ballet dancer and a rival.” I would say this movie is about about ten or eleven things before I got to a rivalry, and I’m not sure a rivalry between Portman’s character and Kunis’s character even exists, except in Portman’s mind, but it shows the difficulty that this complex and rangy movie even needs to be boiled down to a single sentence, let alone one that may be inaccurate. In the movie, the plot is strikingly simple and the character relationships are minimally developed (at most). However, the seven people who I saw the movie with—none of them poets and only a couple even occasional readers of poetry—both enjoyed (although that’s the wrong word) the film and thought of it as full, effecting, and, entertaining (although that words connotations might make it inaccurate as well). They were willing to suspend their conditioned desire for full comprehension and exist within the emotive and disjunctive parameters of the world. That’s negative capability, and if an audience can react so readily to that way to a movie, they can to writing. If only given the proper space and if stripped of the external pressures to make a single thread out of the web. Carving out that space, however and wherever, is the real task ahead.
*I had planned to drop a link to the IMDB site for the movie, but my linker seems to be broke. I’ll update eventually, but for now, you can check it out at: www.imdb.com/title/tt0947798/