Thursday, 10 February 2011

Dark, Dangerous Bird

Nothing has changed in forty years.  Manhattan, you’re still the same.  The grainy camera shots, and the subway carriages – the adolescents’ MOMA -; those old apartments, that could be Parisian, though somehow are not; even the tattered vinyl stacked on the shelf, all is familiar; and I lose myself for a little while. 

We open the door into old money (always the best); it is a large apartment, and cluttered so tidily, with large spaces in dishevelled rooms; we can feel the sensibility; a cultivated bohemia (even better) is all around; like old furniture it fills these rooms, and reminds us, suddenly, of a wise professor in faded clothes: a quiet order amongst the absentminded untidiness. 

Few things have changed; the ballet certainly has not: Swan Lake still its winter hit.  Manhattan has survived, it seems, so for a while at least I can relax and relive old memories.

Of classic New York, where even the humans are recognisable.  Smart and uptight, sometimes sensitive; and competitive to the edge of madness; though restrained by civility: excellent manners are the price ambition demands, although jealousy is quietly permitted – it is a goad to even greater sacrifices.   Here is a world that has stood still since the mid Seventies.  Or had it slowed down decades before, only film froze it later?  New York the Florence of the 20th century, and now its living monument.  Although we may be victims of today’s culture, and its knowingness; are these snapshots from a private history, a lecture in classic cinema?  A homage to the times when Hollywood caught up with the Germans and the Nouvelle Vague; a celebration of those great years in the 1970s when America seemed real at last.  It feels so familiar… is it an old myth we see?  Or something else; that peculiar quality of high culture, that glides through the decades like an old gondola; hardly changing as it carries its rich patrons through Europe’s prettiest towns, with the wise paupers and the foolish princes, and the dresses like tiered wedding cakes.  The rich, yes, how little do they change; the same hands clapping the same old scenes…

The Russian poet, Marina Tsvetaeva, once wrote a poem dedicated to the rich.  “I proclaim it: I love the rich/for the way their softest word is/obeyed like a shouted order…” and there is something wonderful about its cultured citizens: their restraint and quiet sensibility; the wisdom of the select few words; its ability to look and just listen.  Everything must be right.  Everything must be perfect.  When was the last time they saw the lead ballerina fall on the first night of the new season?

The dangers, it seems, of excess.

The rich are very demanding.  They pay lots of money not to be surprised.  The orchestra, the dancers, the choreographers, even the director himself, how hard they work for their wealthy audience.  They expect perfection, and hope for something more: a wild genius at the controls of a carefully calibrated machine.  Though perhaps we are too generous.  Only some will recognise the transcendent madness of a great talent; most borrow their sophistication like rented clothes from the atmosphere around them. 

That is the audience.  The film illustrates the tension between the conscious control of an excellent technique and the freedom needed to transcend it.  There is more than this; the story needs other myths to sustain its drama, enriching the film enormously, although they are based on false premises.  It’s sex, you see, that is the great power; the source of our artistic heritage. 

Thomas, the charismatic and authoritarian director, seduces women, but cannot talk to them.  A typical artist, one suspects: all the emotion into the work, with none left over for anyone else.  Though, as with life itself, it could be more complicated: Nina’s innocence makes him gauche and naïve; her virginity dams his words; for an artist needs his material to give, he wants his heroine to unbend and unwind; he needs a muse that will seduce him. 

Little things have altered.  The special effects are more sophisticated and merge seamlessly with the human characters; though their power threatens to overwhelm some of the film’s scenes.  They are just about restrained, and we find ourselves in a familiar place: inside the head of a fragile actress.  Discos have gone; clubs are in; ecstasy has replaced coke; and one ballerina has wings tattooed on her back.  Though the audience will never see them…

Lily is the black swan, flown in from the west coast to undo those buttoned up New Yorkers.  So friendly and so free, she is a sexual beast, flying around the rehearsal rooms on the back of her tattooed wings.  Nina is uncertain, jealous, afraid she will lose the part - Thomas cannot resist those compelling charms.  She is attracted too, although scared of what she’ll find.  Lily will not be denied!  Is she scheming to replace her; or is she a little in love with the leading lady, attracted to the fresh body under those feathers so white and pristine?  No matter, Lily will seduce her.  And she does, after a wild night out she slides between Nina’s thighs, and as she pecks between her legs we hear the calls of another bird escape from Nina’s lips.  In sexual ecstasy the artist is at last conceived.

We think about the opening scene, and a dark, birdlike animal haunting the desperate steps of a young swan.  On it goes, and on and on; the film is old and somewhat grainy; it is like a dream or fairy tale: the image strong and stark, and suggestive of much much more… Is the black swan a dangerous bird that should not be born?  We wonder, and wait to see.

Her mother doesn’t think so.

Her mother has locked her up inside a different fairy tale; where time stops at sixteen.  Everything is white and pink inside Nina’s bedroom, it has a full house of cuddly toys; they watch over her, holding the years back with their attentive concern.

Thomas tells her she must masturbate; to play a seducer you have seduce, so sex must become a habit.  This is an unexpected part of rehearsals.  At home we see her hand rummaging under the duvet, and her body rising up - the black bird has begun to emerge, it starts to cry -; her are limbs loosening, her legs moving faster and faster; her pelvis rubbing hard against the pillow, squashed into the mattress - she is a storm of hands and fingers, a wave rising up inside her white knickers; and her mother is sitting in the chair.  She’s seen me!  Nina starts; in a chaotic kaleidoscope she spins and jumps around, and pulls herself up into a tight ball; hiding in plain view.  She peeps out.  Her mother is still asleep.  We all sigh with a relief we all recognise.

The mother cannot let her go.  She means too much.  Nina is the career she sacrificed; the artist she may have been.  Her talent is gone now; and there will be nothing left when the white swan flies away.  As the black swan grows - scratches, drops of blood, feathers emerging from inside her own body – so her mother changes; a mad possessiveness overcomes her.  A new battle now begins.

Nina is also falling apart: bloody scratches, crunching bones, mad jealousies, and hallucinations that could be real.  Is it all inside her head?  One moment she is competing with the black swan, and is convinced she is out to replace her; the next she wants to remove Lily’s stockings and get inside her underwear; yet she is in love with Thomas, but cannot let herself go…

We are watching an innocent girl become a woman, trashing her childhood and achieving sexual maturity, which is destroying her – the virgin child has to die for the free woman to live.

Female hysteria is all over the screen.

And there he is!  We see him now, Freud is in centre of the front row.  Sex explains it all.  How do you transform a machine into a Romantic genius?  You must lubricate it with erotic fantasy; for sex is only real when it is inside the head; only then can it acquire its motive power.  Nina is ripe for the main part, for she has the technique to be the White Swan.  But Thomas has come up with a new idea: the same dancer will play both swans; the black and the white.  Can this be possible; can Nina be both a virgin and a sexual predator?  The film has doubts, but it believes the one chance is sexual fantasy; the body is pure while the mind becomes promiscuously free.  As the artist endures these torments she becomes a patient on Sigmund’s couch, unsure if what she remembers is real or unreal.  It reminds us of Marnie, and of the Fifties and early Sixties, before Easy Rider conquered the Hollywood studios; and ripped off all those tight suits and beautiful corsets.

It makes for a good film, as artistic and sexual growth becomes entwined like ivy around a statue.  But is it true?  I have my doubts.  Freud had found the key to life: sex unlocked all his intellectual doors.  It was a powerful insight, but a limited one.  Sexual feelings and sexual repression are only two of many physical and unconscious drives; of which the need to create is one - it is overpowering in artists.  To the uninitiated, though, brought up on Freud, these all appear to be exactly the same; in part because the effects look similar.  That this is now the common view can be seen in a scene from The Lives of Others where a Stasi agent, when eaves-dropping on the love making of the two main characters, an actress and a playwright, nods to his colleague knowingly: “Künstler!”  At best these drives share an excess energy; but it would be wrong to believe that artistic creation is inherently sexual.  Freud had many things to say; most of them incorrect.  Too often he was led astray by his idée fixe; if we listened to him we’d spend all our lives recalling how we danced between the sheets; and afterwards wondering how much of it we’d made up. 

A free spirit flies in from the west coast; it lays an egg inside a white swan.  We then watch as the bird slowly thrusts its way out.  At the end of the film, before the rich patrons in the climatic final scenes, the shell splinters, white feathers drop like heavy snow, and Nina bursts free: she is the dark and dangerous bird.  She is a woman now, and she has become extraordinary.

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