It’s tough being a girl. Especially if you’re in a Darren Aronofsky movie. Once I realized that Black Swan was in no way, shape, or form a “dance movie”, I was able to actually see the damn thing. I kept waiting for the dancing. There is actually very little dancing in the film, and what you see you see mainly from the waist-up, which is understandable – the feet would be the dead give-away – but I found it distracting. Too obviously hiding the inadequacies of the dancing. You can’t fake being a prima ballerina. It’s really a horror film, and it reminded me of Carrie, with its overwrought panic about the natural processes of a woman’s body, and what it means to certain overly sensitive neurotic young girls. Sex, menstruation, masturbation, sexual fantasies, seduction … that’s what the movie is really about. I’m not sure what Darren Aronofsky, of all people, has to say about such things (his track record of showing normal adult women in films is pretty abysmal – they’re all freaks and addicts and whores), but seen in the light of his other films, Black Swan is about obsession and single-minded (at times insane) dedication. (Please go read Jason Bellamy’s and Ed Howard’s in-depth “conversation” about the film.) It’s also about the creative process, and what taking on a role can do to a performer, how it can morph you, change you, alter you. I wanted more process in the film. Take into consideration the fact that I am a process-junkie. There’s a moment in a rehearsal, when the displeased director (Vincent Cassel) watches Portman and her partner dance. They finish and look at him. Cassel says, “Do it again.” They do it again. Then they look up at him expectantly. He says, “Do it again.” Portman, desperate, steps forward and says, “Any notes?” I wanted to say, out loud, “AMEN, girl.” Nothing worse than a director who can’t tell you what he wants and yet keeps insisting that you “do it again”. I would have loved to see more of him trying to tell her what he wanted (as a DIRECTOR, not as a sexual harasser), and to see her struggle with that, her technique failing her when it comes to performing this role. But his notes for her consist of, “You need to masturbate more.” So, Herr Direktor, if I masturbate more (although I’m not sure how that would be possible – no, just kidding. No, actually, really.), I could be more excellent in my artistic pursuits? Is that all it takes? So his repetition of “Do it again” was more his anger that she somehow wasn’t “in touch” with her sexual side, and his only “note” would be, “Darling, are you fondling yourself every night as I told you to?”
These intense and personal things do come up in rehearsals from time to time – getting in touch with rage or sex or grief is not always easy – the boundaries blur. You have to be willing to “go there”. After watching Portman’s struggles in the role of the Black Swan, I would say that this was a case of a director mis-casting the role, and then being unable to help the dancer find her “way in”. Dude, you knew she would struggle with the part when you cast her. It’s your job to help her. Figure it out. Problem-solve. The girl is clearly having a psychotic break and is actually molting in front of your eyes. What are you going to do about that?
There’s a great scene in All That Jazz, when Roy Scheider, in a rehearsal, comes up against a block. The number isn’t working. He tries different things. He berates one of the dancers. He broods and smokes. Something is not right. Finally, a breakthrough, when he throws out everything he had been working on earlier, and starts all over again. The number finds its life. It’s an exhilarating scene, and shows its rootedness in the actual process. This is how rehearsals go. This is what often happens. Tempers flare high, people fight and struggle, things get really personal, but the overriding passion is to get it right, and you will do what it takes. If you have to berate a dancer publicly, then maybe she will remember that the next time she dances badly, and try harder. And the berated-dancer in that scene also has a breakthrough. It’s WORK. Not neurosis. People don’t freak out at being treated roughly (psychologically or otherwise), because often that is part of the work. Prudes and prisses don’t last long in that environment, and I’m not talking about sexual behavior, I’m talking about people who have rigid boundaries about how they can and cannot be spoken to. That won’t fly in a rehearsal room. All That Jazz understands that process better than Black Swan does, which remains, at heart, a psychological thriller about a young woman who is afraid of sex and growing up, and on that level it does work freakily well.
Along with Carrie, there were elements of Black Swan that also reminded me of Cassavetes’ Opening Night, the story of an alcoholic middle-aged actress (Gena Rowlands) struggling to perform a role in a play she can’t stand. Why can’t she stand the play? Because her character in the play is a middle-aged woman, and the actress is terrified of growing old. She resists actually DOING the play, even while she is onstage. If you want to see a harrowing realistic evocation of the actual creative process coming up against strong resistance bordering on psychosis, see Opening Night.
Portman is terrific in the role, and she has one moment huddled in a bathroom stall, calling her mother to tell her she got the part, that is as good as anything she has ever done. There’s a look to ballerinas: you can recognize them even on the subway, when they’re wearing giant parkas and Ugg boots. Tutu or no, you can spot them on crowded sidewalks. It’s the carriage, the tilt of the head, the elongated neck, the calm focus on their faces. Portman, too old really for the role, totally NAILS that look. There is nothing else she could be, with that head, those shoulders, that neck, than a ballerina. People spend their entire lives at the barre to “get that look”. Portman trained for 10 months, and is able (at least in the scenes where she is not dancing) to capture that very specific ballerina look. Her voice is whispery and uncertain, a little girl’s voice, and all you need to do is listen to how Portman speaks in The Darjeeling LImited or Closer to see how specific she is being, as an actress, in Black Swan. Her mother, played by Barbara Hershey, had her own dreams of being a ballerina, and is now living vicariously through her daughter. It is a suffocating relationship. There is a LOT of unspoken anger. There is also the possibility of sabotage (her mother buying the biggest cake ever baked to celebrate her daughter getting the part – like: your daughter is bulimic, lady, she’s not gonna eat that). My mother saw the film and had an interesting take on the mother’s part in it. “By the end, I thought – maybe her mother was so protective because she knew there was something ‘off’ about her daughter. She knew that she was not all right.” Mila Kunis is wonderful (I really like her), Vincent Cassel is creepy and believable, Hershey is great, and Winona Ryder has a haunting violent cameo.
I love dance movies. I love The Red Shoes, All That Jazz, hell, I adore Center Stage. Center Stage, with all its silliness, is more serious about ballet than Black Swan is. Black Swan isn’t about ballet. It’s about psychosis and womanhood, the two being inextricably linked. I am still working out my feelings for Black Swan. It’s a riveting piece of work, deeply sick and committed to its sickness, and Portman is terrifying to behold at times. It’s irrelevant what I would have liked more of, because like I said: it’s not really a dance movie, but I keep thinking about that director saying to them repeatedly, “Do it again” and Portman saying, tremulously, “Any notes?” I would have liked more notes, too, dear. You’re not alone in that.
I Knew It Was You: Rediscovering John Cazale
A 40-minute documentary about great actor John Cazale, I have seen it already about 10 times. He only made 5 films, but they are 5 iconic films: The Godfather, The Godfather II, The Conversation, Dog Day Afternoon and The Deer Hunter. Who was he? How did he work? How did he do it? There is actually a commentary track on this short, rather amazing for a documentary of this length, but it’s fascinating. Richard Shepard, the director, had this project in mind for a while. He knew he wanted to interview everyone, but he also knew that Meryl Streep would be the key. She dated John Cazale, and was there with him at the end. She has never spoken about Cazale publicly. Shepard reached out to her people, asking if she would consent to an interview. She turned them down. Repeatedly. This had a domino effect on everyone else Shepard wanted to interview. No one would speak to them without Meryl’s involvement. Pacino, DeNiro, Coppola – he ran into a dead end with anyone consenting to be in the film. The loyalty to their old friend, Meryl Streep. John Cazale’s brother was involved in the project from the get-go, and was so determined to get the film done, that he found out where Meryl Streep was going to be one night, at a gallery opening, and he went there to plead with her to be a part of the project. Meryl Streep finally said yes. Once she said Yes, everyone said Yes. (Everyone, that is, except for Michael Cimino, who did not participate). The interviews, with Gene Hackman, Sidney Lumet, Pacino, DeNiro, are phenomenal. You really get the sense that John Cazale was actually the reason that these films are so good. Israel Horowitz, playwright, old friend of Cazale, said that Cazale was brilliant at the “assist”. He was so good that he made everyone else step into their A-game. To hear Al Pacino give Cazale the props like that is something else. You see their moments together in Dog Day Afternoon, and you can see Pacino, dealing on a moment-to-moment basis, with the intensity of Cazale. Cazale gave him that performance. Pacino says at one point, “Cazale taught me the value of asking questions, and not having to answer them.” A very moving portrait of a man whose name has been forgotten, already, but whose characters will live forever. He will be known as “Fredo” forever. An amazing documentary, a real actor’s project. Interviews with Steve Buscemi, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Sam Rockwell are also included. The new generation of actors celebrating this great talent who had gone before. Wonderful interview with director Richard Shepard here.
Melissa Leo is crazy. You would never know this was the same woman from Frozen River. A sort of low-rent Lorraine Bracco in Good Fellas, her character in The Fighter is a gun-moll, without the gun and without the gangster boyfriend. A tough woman with nine children, her hair is a helmet of frosted tips, and she smokes like she’s a dragon in her lair. Watch her suck on that cigarette, eyes ferocious and yet focused. The outfits she wears are so perfect. Her performance has been criticized as over-the-top, but I disagree: I KNOW this woman. I said to my sister Jean, “She would hang out at Joyce’s Pub.” and that was all I needed to say for Jean to get it. Southern Rhode Island reference, but a testament to the film’s specificity. The film is a crowd-pleaser (I saw it in a packed house, and people were cheering and clapping spontaneously during the final fight), and I have never understood those who use the term “crowd-pleasing” as an epithet. These people can’t have ever been actors. To me, “crowd-pleasing” is basically the be-all end-all, whether you’re watching Tarkovsky’s Stalker or Stallone’s Rocky. “Crowd-pleasing” doesn’t mean simplistic or playing to the lowest-common-denominator. It also doesn’t mean “happy endings”. It means audience involvement. Hamlet is a crowd-pleaser. I’ll get off this hobby-horse in a second, but that kind of snobbery seems really cloistered and silly to me. Look, I’m show trash, and I come from a family where show trash is one of the main industries. You want those people out in the seats to be “with you”, every step of the way. Silence is being “with” you, too. Shedding tears over a fictional character is being “with” you. I don’t like simplistic movies, and I don’t like cliches. I like imagination and involvement. Which means that I love movies like Blue Crush, G.I. Jane, Bring It On, School of Rock, films that are fearless in ways that a lot of more “serious” fare is not. It’s a fine line, I suppose, and much of it perhaps has to do with personal taste. I don’t have the contempt for the industry that a lot of people seem to have, and I don’t have contempt for the down-low “pursuit” of getting strangers to clap for you, weep for you (like Hecuba), cheer for you. I think a lot of people think show business is kind of embarrassing, even those who make a living writing about it, so they pooh-pooh stuff that seems blatantly entertaining. I think that’s a shame, but then again, I know what it’s like to be in a bomb, and to feel the silent waves of anger and withholding coming up at you from the dark audience. So go ahead, PLEASE that crowd. That’s what we WANT. The Fighter is crowd-pleasing in the best sense. It doesn’t go for generalities, it stays specific, in that world – a world I know very well. The accents are terrific, and I thought Amy Adams was great, as the woman who comes in from the outside, takes one look around and says, “Hon, this is ridiculous. You have got to separate from your family.” Also, she went to URI (my alma mater), and listen to how she says “URI”. “You-arreye.” That is a Boston accent. Believe me, I grew up hearing Boston people say “URI”, and Adams nails it. Here is what I mean by “crowd-pleasing”, and I’ll just speak for myself now: Over the closing credits, we see a clip of the real guys, talking and joshing in a diner in Lowell – and I suddenly, spontaneously, found myself in tears. I value that. It’s not easy to generate a spontaneous heartfelt response from an audience. It’s harder than you think. It’s hard to do it right, to do it with specificity rather than generalities and short-hand cliches. The Fighter does it right.
To those who keep repeating like little parrots, “Melissa Leo was over the top, she was over the top”, I can give you a list of pubs in South Boston as well as Rhode Island where you can meet that character ad nauseum. You think that’s over the top? You need to get out more.
Red Riding Trilogy: 1974, 1980, 1983
One of the best things I have seen all year. A three-part story about the struggle to find and capture the Yorkshire Ripper, a struggle that reveals police corruption at the highest levels. A truly local story (the second one was difficult for me to understand, the accents were so strong), the trilogy is directed by three different directors (Julian Jarrold, James Marsh, and Anand Tucker). Each has its own look and feel, and the period is evoked without being gimmicky. You are immersed in the bleakness of that time: the brick housing projects, rotary phones, claustrophobic wallpaper, and dug-up fields, all combine to give you a picture of an entire world. The acting is universally phenomenal: Andrew Garfield has had a helluva year, and here, as the journalist tracking down leads, he is nervy, restless, obsessed. It is a great performance. Mark Addy, most well-known for his performance as “the fat guy” in The Full Monty, plays a solicitor in the final part, a down-on-his-luck guy who finds himself in the position of having to be courageous and heroic. He is quite an unlikely noir hero, and I found his performance tremendously moving. He does not WANT to be in the thick of the crime. He does not WANT his miserable life upset by these murders and getting “involved”. But he can’t help it. He must follow the path to the end. Other great character actors fill out all of the parts, with Sean Bean as the shady real estate developer who is the key to the entire thing. Part 1 and Part 3 are superior to Part 2, which got a bit bogged down in a soap opera story of the main police officer’s romance with one of his subordinates, something I wasn’t interested in at all. These are noir stories, make no mistake about it, a real whodunit, with the answer being almost worse than the uncertainty of not knowing. Moody, intense, fascinating, and totally engrossing, I watched the entire thing in one night. I couldn’t stop.