Sunday, January 23, 2011
A few months ago, I read a brilliant review of Daren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN in Los Angeles magazine, which firmly placed the film within the context of a genre the writer calls “the Cinema of Hysteria” – a collection of off-kilter films including BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935), LEAVE HER TO HEAVEN (1945), DUEL IN THE SUN (1946), THE FOUNTAINHEAD (1949), BEYOND THE FOREST (1949), A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), JOHNNY GUITAR (1954), WRITTEN ON THE WIND (1956), VERTIGO (1958), SPLENDOR IN THE GRASS (1961), THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST (1988), EYES WIDE SHUT (1999) and later works by David Lynch (especially TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME and MULHOLLAND DRIVE). What do these films have in common? Steve Erickson identifies two essential components: sex and imagism.
The colloquial definition of hysteria is “a state of violent mental agitation; excessive or uncontrollable fear; a neurotic disorder characterized by violent outbreaks and disturbances of sensory and motor functions.” When the term was first coined, however, it referred to a medical condition ascribed only to women – because the condition was supposedly caused by “disturbances of the uterus.” (The word “hysteria” actually derives from the Greek word for uterus.) In the 19th century, the word “hysteria” was used to denote sexual dysfunction – a condition often treated by massaging the (female) patient to orgasm. It’s not hard to see how this term might be applied to a story about the Frankenstein Monster’s frigid bride or to Johnny Guitar’s hyper-masculine lady in waiting… to say nothing of “sexual dysfunction” associated with necrophilia (in VERTIGO) or a rape victim’s PTSD (in TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME). In these films, life becomes distorted by the perceptions of a oversexed or undersexed woman… and the men who obsess about them.
Certainly the men in these stories are just as “afflicted” as the women. I’m reminded of a short prose piece that T.S. Eliot wrote in 1915, which expresses the poet’s own “state of mental agitation” in the presence of his reputedly hysterical wife:
As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.
Eliot conveys unreality through sexually-charged images and attending metaphors: the teeth like “accidental stars” (symbols of a universe in chaos), the dark caverns of her throat (a reminder of another “cavern” in his wife’s body, and its “unseen muscles”?), the pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table (pink and white finery disguising a hard-but-“rusty” object… hmmmm….). If you were to change the tone of this piece to more something aggressive and sinister (Eliot, in his “Bolo” phase, might have suggested an immediate remedy for that maddening laughter – by filling the dark caverns of her throat), you’d find yourself in the neighborhood of Roman Polanski’s film REPULSION – a film that BLACK SWAN director Daren Aronofsky claims is one of his biggest influences.
Aronofsky’s latest film thrives on sexual tension, alternating between images of puritan innocence (Natalie Portman’s bedroom is full of pink and white finery, and she shudders with horror whenever a man touches her) and experience (the club scene is a spectacular frenzy of shadows and grinding body parts), allure (exhibit A: Mila Kunis) and repulsion (exhibit B: Winona Ryder as the vengeful harpy from hell). Erickson sums up BLACK SWAN as “a berserk mix of the classic THE RED SHOES, the legendary backstage catfight ALL ABOUT EVE, and the surreal Italian horror film SUSPIRIA, with a bit of SHOWGIRLS tossed in just in case none of this is nuts enough.” In fact, it’s hard to escape the feeling that Aronofsky’s imagist collage is a little too frenzied. Either it goes too far – becoming so hysterical that it confounds the viewer’s sense of reality and yanks them out of the drama (especially, as Erickson notes, in a theater full of nervous laughter) – or it doesn’t go far enough.
A friend of mine opined that BLACK SWAN is “like a David Cronenberg movie that’s afraid to be a David Cronenberg movie.” Many of Cronenberg’s films (especially the early ones) use imagism to explore the mind-body connection. As the bodies of the characters change, so do the characters’ perceptions of reality. In BLACK SWAN, the reverse happens: As Natalie Portman’s character stretches beyond her psychological “safe zone” in order to play the “black swan” role, her body undergoes a metamorphosis. But this mind-body connection is not the main theme of the film (as it probably would be in a Cronenberg movie)… It is only a fragment servicing the main theme of all of Darren Aronofsky’s films: “No great genius has ever existed without some touch of madness.”
It’s fascinating to examine BLACK SWAN within the context of the Cinema of Hysteria, but I find it more helpful to consider the film within the context of Aronofsky’s body of work. Soon after I went to see BLACK SWAN, I realized that all of the director’s films are about a kind of quasi-mystical pursuit: the main characters in PI, REQUIEM FOR A DREAM, THE FOUNTAIN and THE WRESTLER each achieve moments of transcendence as a direct result of physical sacrifice. For that reason, I think of Aronofsky’s films as “Cinema of Ecstasy” rather than “Cinema of Hysteria.” The colloquial definition of ecstasy is “a trance or trance-like state in which an individual transcends normal consciousness; a state of consciousness characterized by expanded spiritual awareness, visions or absolute euphoria.” The origin is “ex-stasis,” a Greek philosophical term that I understand (and I must admit that I’ve never studied the Greek language, only Greek philosophy) to designate a more literal “standing outside oneself.” To me, Aronofsky’s films suggest a mindset – and by that I mean a physical relationship with the world, not just an attitude toward the world – that is at once familiar and foreign to us, something ancient yet vital...
(As I write this, I realize that I’m only teasing a potentially much longer essay on Aronofsky’s work – particularly the films PI and THE FOUNTAIN, which seem to be his most complex and personal efforts. The longer essay will have to wait until I have more time.)