Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Runtime: 108 min.
Directed by Kanye West
Runtime: 34 min.
figure prominently in Kanye West’s half-hour film “Runaway,” and are among its
many symbols of the agony and beauty of artistic struggle. But in Black Swan, one ballerina, Nina Sayers
(played by Natalie Portman), becomes director Darren Aronofsky’s mechanism for
a ridiculous psychological thriller that is genuinely less thrilling and
revealing than West’s magical mystery movie.
Nina’s artistic struggle only represents the indulgence of escapist filmmaking.
He pretends that wacky thoughts and paranoid hysteria are the stuff of great
cinema more so than the concentration and discipline that go into a ballet
dancer’s skill and hard work. Nina angles for the lead role in a new production
of Swan Lake, competing with other
dancers for the attention of a rapacious choreographer, Thomas Leroy (Vincent
Cassel). Driven by a domineering mother (Barbara Hershey), Nina’s stress
includes self-mutilation and sexual confusion as she discovers masturbation and
becomes infatuated with a lusty young female dancer (Mila Kunis). In Nina’s
psychotic breakdown, no one can be trusted; she even fears turning into a
murderous and suicidal, red-eyed black swan.
combination of Repulsion and The Red Shoes shows how Aronofsky, since
his debut feature Pi, has come to
specialize in specious deep thoughts—usually melding them to sentimentality (The Wrestler) or sensationalism (Requiem for a Dream). He’s gotten away from
the original ethnic emphasis that distinguished Pi’s story of Jewish
paranoia as an exploration of Hasidic arcana. The way Black Swan deprives Upper West Side art maven Nina of any specific
ethnic characteristics, makes it a horror story in more than one way.
Aronofsky’s ethnic denial and escape into Nina’s psychological trauma actually
trivializes her artistic pursuit. Turning art into genre movie silliness is a
West is an inveterate dancer trying out unpredictable sounds, influences and
gestures. He understands careerism as a maneuver fraught with real tension and
frustration, and thus uses the ballerina to represent his own objectives and
physical and emotional sweat. “Runaway” is the most ambitious of West’s adventurous
music videos. A collaboration with the great Hype Williams—billed as “writer,”
which has to be a deceptively modest credit—it is a work as visually awesome as
it is conceptually audacious. Since West’s videos for the 808s & Heartbreak album, he has burst the limits of music video
narration, never settling for commercial strategies that corrupt the ideas,
such as when Black Swan’s Thomas declares, “We’re going to take Swan Lake, strip it down and make it
visceral and real!” Aronofsky actually proceeds to make it hackneyed.
West takes his recent public humiliations (his Hurricane Katrina slam of George
W. Bush has come back to haunt him; even Obama called West “a jackass” after
the Taylor Swift incident) and stripped his black sheep media status down to
the purest paranoid hallucination. He’s first seen running in a panic that
resembles Tom Cruise in The Firm but
that turns out to be a flash-forward, projecting the viewer into a crisis that
is part sci-fi apocalypse, part eschatological reverie and part movie-musical.
A meteorite that crashes to earth (one of this year’s most stunning movie
images) introduces West to an alien traveler—a nubile black birdwoman (played
by Selita Ebanks) whose elegant neurasthenia parallels his spiritual and creative
sensitivity. Then West’s stress gets multiplied into pirouettes, pliés and
jetées performed by 27 ballet dancers as he sings the self-exculpatory: “Let’s
have a toast for the douchebag.” Even a marching band appears, leading a Mardi
Gras parade that features a Michael Jackson floating head, another audacious
symbol that combines a personal homage with ideas about egotism and intimations
of lynch mob spectatorship.
avant-garde, “Runaway” is a work of
Surrealist art. This is impressively personal filmmaking, unlike Aronofsky’s
superficially personal horror-movie shtick. West communicates even as he gets
deeper into his own private meanings and distress—exactly the connection
Aronofsky cannot accomplish. Our dumbed-down film culture is likely to prefer Black Swan precisely because: 1.) It is
insipid; 2.) It glamorizes white petulance without specifically identifying its
sociological or cultural sources; 3.) Its nonsense is familiar.
Few black pop
artists have successfully maneuvered cinematic experimentation or achieved the
influence to force the significance of personal expression upon the public.
(This may explain Tyler Perry’s permanent retreat into mediocrity: It may not
please the mainstream, but it doesn’t frighten it either.) West, like R. Kelly
in the genius “Trapped In the Closet,” carries on Michael Jackson’s music video
audacity. He uses Surrealism in the Luis Buñuel/Salvador Dalí way: to attack
bourgeois complacency and to open the subconscious. He dares offer proof that
black artists—frequently limited to avatars of primitive sensuality—indeed have
an unconscious in which dreams and nightmares intermix, as do blues, hip-hop,
classical and pop music, as well as breakdancing and ballet. The odd,
unexpected loveliness of West’s 27 ballerina alter egos conveys the strength,
endurance and poise it takes to hold one’s balance and to sustain an artistic
personality. Balletic grace and surrealist ingenuity are his responses to a
race-based sense of oppression—a reality Aronofsky might have claimed for his
Upper West Side schizophrenic but that he tellingly overlooks. Black Swan falsifies the whiteness of
elite Western culture and the pressures it puts on its practitioners. That’s
why the movie gets crazier (“Find freedom in death”) as it goes along. Nina’s
crisis is hysterical in the worst way; It doesn’t relate to anything real—like
the scene in which sad-eyed Portman flaps her arms but hardly moves her legs.
circular narrative catches up to his scared, running intro, it explains his
anxiety. The birdwoman-alien-muse refers to the statuesque ballerinas when she
asks, “All the statues that we’ve seen, where do you think they come from?”
Kanye answers, “I think that artists carved them years and years ago.” But he’s
corrected: “No! They are phoenix turned to stone.” This blunt message is in the
same tradition of such pop experimental movies as Pet Shop Boys’ “It Couldn’t
Happen Here” and The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour. Like “Runaway,”
those were also advert films that compiled the musicians’ recent recordings,
attached to a loose story concept.
But Runaway is never as loose (or loony) as Black Swan. West’s fantasy is grounded in his celebrity wisdom:
“Don’t believe what you hear in this world.” And again, his muse
corrects/confesses: “Do you know what I hate most about your world? Anything
that is different you try to change. You try to tear it down. You rip the wings
off phoenix and they turn to stone. And if I don’t burn, I will turn to stone.”
Those enigmatic ideas rhyme emotionally—and visually—thanks to West, Hype
Williams and cinematographer Kyle Kibbe. Their surrealist fantasy makes
palpable the Gil Scott-Heron quote: “Who will survive in America?” That’s a
black artist’s eternal question. Black
Swan avoids it in favor of junk movie decadence.