Bright Lights Film Journal

Opera Rules

Warsaw/Chicago Film Diary

1. Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky

The perils of virginity, or I Was a Teenage Were-Swan.

Black Swan is a hot mess: preposterous if you listen to the words, luridly enjoyable while you’re watching the screen, and unexpectedly complex, almost pop-profound, by the time you get home. The most surprising thing about it might be how seriously Aronofsky takes the story of Swan Lake, the ballet at its heart, investing Tchaikovsky’s confection with a depth and nastiness I didn’t suspect it had. Black Swan resurrects a whole late-Gothic vocabulary of doubles, monsters, sacrificial virgins, and fallen women in all its pre-Freudian fairytale murk, married that to the mid-century psychodrama and grafted the result onto the contemporary no one-believed-we-could-dance-movie, or the rotting corpse of Dirty Dancing.

Natalie Portman is Nina Sayers, a ballerina with perfect technique, but no soul – which is another way of saying she’s not sleeping with anybody. Vincent Cassel offers her the lead role in Swan Lake after she bites him, in the mistaken assumption that this means she is sexually playful and not a dangerously unhinged prude. The role demands that Nina be both a chaste, technically perfect ice queen, and a loose, sensuous seductress. The first one is no problem; the second is at odds with everything she is.

Why is sex such a problem for Nina? Maybe it’s because any kind of bodily release threatens the ruthless bodily discipline which has given her career. Or maybe it’s because she lives with her mother, a domineering ex-ballerina who doesn’t let her baby have days off or locks on her door.

All that repression has weird results. Nina has a variety of tics – compulsively picking at her skin, cutting her nails, scratching a patch of skin on her back. Is this all the punishment she puts on her feet coming out somewhere else? Or is she scratching some other kind of itch? Nina also has a doppelganger with a wild streak (you know because she keeps her hair down), who might be either her treacherous understudy or her repressed libido. And, after a while, she starts sprouting feathers.

Aronofsky wrings a tremendous amount of horror out of the tiniest bodily imperfections, things like hangnails, pimples, and goose bumps. When he moves up to surgical scars and stabbings it doesn’t feel like an escalation, just an extension of Nina’s self-abuse.

2010 has been a good year for madwomen. In Inception and Shutter Island, they were the crystallization of male fears – evil mothers and grasping wives, ready to kill what they love to prove that they love it. Nina is a something else – a gifted child and priggish lunatic, with an artist somewhere in between.

Becoming the thing you’re portraying is a hoary cliché, but Black Swan makes it work: Natalie Portman, by putting everything into her eyes and face, and Darren Aronofsky, by not giving us any time to think, until we’re happy to play by opera rules – trading sanity for getting laid and life for being on stage.

Signs of life beyond the mirror: The evil sorcerer Von Rothbart backstage in his evil-bird costume, saying ‘Yo.’

2. Autobiography of Nicolae Ceausescu, Andrei Ujiča

Three hours with the Balkans’ most vivacious Stalinist dictator.

Ujiča’s film is a monolith, three hours of found footage from Nicolae Ceausescu’s quarter-century in power presented in roughly chronological order without commentary or annotation. In spite of its length and the austereness of its presentation, Autobiography stays compelling, acquiring a hypnotic momentum as Ceausescu goes on junket after junket and reviews parade after parade.  The absence of a framing voiceover or deliberate narrative gives it a radical ambiguity: Autobiography feels like several movies at once: a chronicle, a propaganda collage, a catalogue of Socialist fashions, and a perverse opportunity for celebrity spotting (look, there’s Leonid Brezhnev! the Queen of England! Richard Nixon!).

The one thing it isn’t, at least in any conventional sense, is an autobiography. The film doesn’t offer any window into Ceausescu as a person, or even really as a ruler. From the start, Ceausescu appears as a role-player in the spectacle of his own rule, first as a pall-bearer at the funeral of his predecessor, Gheorge Gheorghiu-Dej, then as a spectator of the various living tableaux staged for his benefit. We get to know Ceausescu’s face intimately – his sneers, his smirks, his looks of self-satisfaction, amusement, and disdain – but never what’s inside his head.

Among all the speeches and state receptions, Ujiča intersperses some footage culled from Ceausescu’s home movies – Nicolae and his wife Elena swimming at the beach, Elena on a cruise ship, Nicolae on a bear hunt, both of them cheating at volleyball – but these domestic scenes don’t feel any less opaque than the public ones that surround them. For most of the film, Ceausescu is a true tyrant, the unruffled, contemptuous owner of all he surveys. Occasionally, in unfamiliar environments, like a relatively combative Czech press conference, his underlying cynicism breaks through. Only once does he slip into self-justification, during the 1989 trial which sentenced him and his wife to death. Even then, haggard and stunned, he seems so defensive and deluded that it becomes clear the mask hasn’t come off.

Cut off from its protagonist’s subjectivity, Autobiography‘s main attractions are the massive spectacles of Socialist rule. In Romania, Ceausescu drives through hillsides festooned with medieval warriors out of a Mario Bava picture, watches huge musical numbers in praise of the country’s sun-dappled mountains and inspects Potemkin villages full of beaming peasants and frolicking children and stores stocked with otherwise unavailable goods. Abroad, Ceausescu is welcomed in similar style, only more so. In China and North Korea, tens of thousands of dancers greet him with meticulously choreographed routines in honor of the Romanian Communist Party. Seated next to Mao or Kim Il Sung, Ceausescu looks flabbergasted at the scope and eeriness of the whole thing. Back home, he joins in his own applause.

3. El Sicario: Room 164, Gianfranco Rossi

Power from the other end: eighty minutes in the company of an assassin for the Juarez drug cartels. The hit man, or Sicario, spends the length of the film under a black hood, narrating his life story with the help of a sketch pad and magic marker in the South Texas motel room where he previously held and tortured some of his victims. He’s a terrifically engaging monster: animated, effusive, self-serving, simultaneously self-pitying and in love with his lost authority.

His stories reveal a Northern Mexico completely in thrall to the drug traffickers, where every institution is corrupted by their money and influence. As a boy, the cartels gave him money, girls and cars in exchange for making drug deliveries. When he was a little older, they sent him to the Police Academy to school them in the arts of killing and pursuit. The violence described by the Sicario is stomach-turning, worse than anything in Roberto Bolaño’s already extreme-seeming 2666, but when he gets into the story of his conversion to Pentecostalism things get bloodcurdling in a different way.

4. Machete, Robert Rodriguez

At one point, Danny Trejo disembowels a man and uses his intestines as a zip line. Seems tame after El Sicario, but at least the extraordinarily plodding allegory proves everybody’s heart is in the right place.

Robert De Niro, Don Johnson, Steven Seagal and Lindsey Lohan all look bloated and tired; Jessica Alba couldn’t act her way out of a paper bag. Danny Trejo has so much fun it’s like a disease.

5. Gesher, Vahid Vakilifar

From Iran, three men in a tube.

They’re economic migrants, drawn to a drab southern port city in search of work. They find it, but the jobs don’t pay well enough to afford real housing, so the three join a community of transients living in cement pipe sections by the water.

It isn’t nearly as grim as it sounds; spruced up with some carpets and an electric light, the pipe looks pretty cozy. Plus, it has a view of the ocean.  Their jobs – gypsy cab driver, welder, janitor – aren’t great, but they’re not terrible either. Gesher gets deep into the rhythm of ordinary work. A long sequence of a man unclogging a toilet ends up feeling neither dirty nor degrading: it’s the start of There Will Be Blood stripped of all the mania and histrionics: just a man digging for a living. No highs, no lows, no explanations.

6. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I, David Yates

André Bazin said that by recording the world, film can’t help but reveal something of reality, but the seventh Harry Potter movie, with its layers of attendant mythology and relentless CGI, tries its best to keep out any trace. One scene though seemed to offer a way back to our world: at one point, the three wizards, stranded in London, go into a chip shop. Hermione orders a cappuccino, and Ron and Harry, with looks of absolute terror and incomprehension, follow suit (does Hogwarts no teach a spell for foaming milk?). Afterwards, they go to an abandoned flat, and for a second it seems like a whole other movie is about to open up. What if, to elude Voldemort, the wizard kids had to dive into the real London – living in Shoreditch squats and hanging out at Camden raves, getting into sex and drugs, turning tricks, maybe even getting into the arts? (Larry Clark could direct the spin-off). Would J.K. Rowling’s immaculate world melt on contact with some real-world grime?  Or would it explode?

7. Honey, Semih KaplanoÄŸlu

A family drama about the dangers of beekeeping.

The third part of KaplanoÄŸlu’s Yusuf trilogy, after Milk and Egg. Yusuf is six. He lives with his parents in a village in Turkey’s lush Black Sea region. His father keeps bee hives high in the treetops of the neighboring forest. One day he goes out to collect honey and doesn’t return. Slowly, very, very slowly, the full weight of his disappearance registers with his wife and son. In the meantime, Yusuf struggles at school and his mother prepares meal after somber meal.

We know Yusuf’s father is dead from the first scene. The tension driving the rest of the film is miniscule, dissipated in endless fixed shots of lone figures advancing or retreating from the camera. But KaplanoÄŸlu gives us plenty to look at: handmade tools, thick ropes, somber woods, embroidered clothes.

From the screening room: two girls rush in midway and sit down to watch Yusuf in school, struggling to read a short text in Turkish through his stutter. Every time he starts the classroom holds its breath; each syllable feels endless, and he can’t get to the end of a single word.  After five minutes one girl turns to the other: “This isn’t Harry Potter.”

8. True Grit, Joel and Ethan Coen

Nice to see a movie in which even dying men speak in complete sentences.

True Grit is full of virtuosic American talk – meandering, hyperbolic, fascinated by precise legal categories and perverse figures of speech. The film is remarkably faithful to the language of Charles Portis’ novel, whose prose itself recalls the Coen brothers’ most prodigious talkers, like Everett McGill from O Brother Where Art Thou and The Big Lebowski‘s Walter Sobchak.

Where does this language come from? Some of it comes from the tradition of frontier boast and tall talk and some from Mattie Ross’ Presbyterian forthrightness, but mostly it comes from the law. Everyone in the film seems fluent in the complexities of contract law and torts. Matt Damon, with a bullet through the shoulder and his tongue half-severed, is still able to confidently make the distinction between acts that are malum in se and malum prohibitum. Fourteen year-old Mattie threatens her enemies with writs of replevin, offers affidavits to her would-be friends, and tells everyone in sight about the talents of Lawyer Daggett back home in Dardanelle, Arkansas. Even Rooster Cogburn tries, albeit unsuccessfully, to master Daniels on Negotiable Instruments. Only the moronic, self-pitying assassin Tom Chaney is totally out of this loop. Even his boss, the bandit Ned Pepper, knows how to honor a deal.

Stanley Fish thinks True Grit is a Christian allegory, spun out from the mystery of predestination. Several other critics have described it as a voyage through a moral vacuum, in the mold of No Country For Old Men. I’m not sure things are quite so dire in the Choctaw Nation. The Indian Territory isn’t a land without ethics, beholden to an unknowable god – it’s a land without courts, where even subpoenas come out the barrel of a gun.

9. Post Mortem, Pablo Larraí­n

The fall of Allende, viewed from the morgue – the second part of Larraí­n’s trilogy about Chile in ’73.

Mario is the kind of hapless dolt you only meet in the movies – a bureaucrat who can’t type, a loner who lives on fried eggs and rice, a masturbator who cries when he comes. He works at the Santiago city morgue and falls in love with his neighbor Sandra, a burlesque dancer with left-wing sympathies. Pinochet’s coup interrupts their supremely downbeat romance: he has to attend Allende’s autopsy, and then rush home to hide Sandra.

Larraí­n gives a believably oblique view of history sliding into daily life as an annoying distraction. His characters are harder to read. Everyone seems to be moving in a fog – is it the speed of events, or the director holding his cards to close to his chest? A big final gesture takes a leap of faith. In life, I’d assume it was performance art. In the film, it smells like the kind of symbolism which everything else in the movie has been holding at bay.

10. Somewhere, Sophia Coppola

Sophia Coppola’s third feature in her trilogy on swanky hotels is a study in learned helplessness. Johnny Marco is a movie star. He lives in a celebrity frat house and has the mental life of a snail. A troop of courtiers and assistants is on hand to plan Johnny’s days and see to his needs. After a while, it comes as a relief that he can take a shower by himself, especially since he can’t navigate a staircase.

Somewhere starts with a daring minimalist set-piece – Johnny driving around a circular track, over and over, going nowhere – which makes sense, because we’re told his life is empty as a hoop, but after that the film gives you nothing to look at and nothing to hang onto, except maybe an Ed Ruscha print in the corner of one room.

As Johnny, Stephen Dorff plays blank like a pro, and Elle Fanning, as his daughter, pulls of the difficult task of looking up to him. By the end, he realizes he should spend more time with her, and I think this is supposed to redeem him – but who wouldn’t want to spend time with an eleven year-old that can make perfect eggs Benedict?