How much do we need to be told? Hollywood is never quite sure. A screenwriter writes with the subtlety of Elizabeth Bowen; but this upsets the producer, who imagines tomorrow’s reviews in the Washington Post.
The influence of the early Goddard is surprising, but the emotional nuance and political analysis is handled cleverly; the balance is never once disturbed. We came away with much to think about. Of course, we will need to see it again; like any work of art it needs time for those hidden levels of meaning and textural pattern to emerge; for its overall shape to be fully appreciated.
Apart from its classic period in the early 70s Hollywood has always lived with this tension. It wants a high quality product, but it must also appeal to the widest audience; many of whom will lack sophistication and a literary culture; and thus have to be told too much for the good of the story. As a result its films are rarely free from the occasional signpost to direct the viewer to the obvious. It’s a problem. For Hitchcock, in his classic phase, Freud may have been the solution: the psychological complexity contained within a relatively transparent doctrine; which allowed for a sensitive handling of the individual scenes, but a slight crudity in their interpretation.
We get used to these blemishes, letting them pass like billboards our train windows, knowing we’ll forget them soon. We accept the inevitable. And we turn to Europe for our fulfilment; to its great era, from the 1950s to the mid 70s, when movies were transformed into art. And where fragile atmospheres are not spoilt by speech bubbles and carefully contrived announcements, telling us what to see and what we should hear. It was a time, and how strange and far away it seems, when the director could believe in his audience.
The Black Swan also suffers from the Hollywood disease. Reminiscent of Hitchcock it frames a complex emotional drama within a myth; this one Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. However, although the film is being explained to us, quite explicitly, this is not enough for the fearful executives who run these studios…
Thus we see Lily, the black swan, stuffing herself with a massive burger, getting high on alcohol and drugs, while screwing just about everybody she meets; and all this just a few nights before the opening premiere. Does it have to be so obvious? Why not put a sign up on the screen: Lust Here! Maybe one day they will.
There is too much money at risk, and we cannot be trusted; after all, we’re not just Americans, but Brits and Russians, Japanese and Peruvians. So much could be lost if the film were to rely only on quiet nuances and our own understanding. Thus we watch it with subtitles.
This scene stands out awkwardly, and is a cinematic mistake; which spoils the overall effect. Of course, few films are perfect, but in a great one the imperfections are part of its character; arising from within its personality they don’t feel alien and extraneous. This kind of error, repeated time after time in film after film, is simply the pictorial clichés the studio adds to ensure popularity. We have seen them all before, and they have no life in them; they are like government press releases, whose tired sentences remind us of our own stupidity, so dull are they, and simple-minded.
As Lily chews away at her food the film crumples for a moment. The big burger, the sauce drooling from Lily’s lips, breaks the reality this film has created; its integrity is destroyed. It’s curious why this should be so. The act is real enough, while a myth artificially frames the story. This, surely, is what we should worry about. But artifice, providing it can achieve a totality, between its form and the content it encloses, can create its own world based on rules itself has created – the work of art becomes an object in its own right. Add something that doesn’t belong and that unity no longer exists; and we become conscious of its failings, both in detail and in design.
Art needs space for the imagination to work in; it should suggest things for us to think about, allowing us to both feel and absorb them. Just like objects in real life, to create its effects a film has to be slightly opaque; we must be allowed the chance to misunderstand it. If everything is clear-cut and simple, and all the details explained, the film will pass through us like a fast car a road side town – it will not even be a memory. Why? We have been told what to think, and, therefore, we have not thought about it for ourselves. The sensuous qualities of the art work has been turned into information, a painting into the words of a gallery guide, so that the feelings are not touched, and the intellect lets them go.
We’ve been shown too much, and we regret it. I watch another film, from France….