by Alison Janssen
Alright, I'm calling bullshit on Darren Aronofsky.
(And in doing so, I'm going to get all spoiler-y with regard to Black Swan and The Wrestler, just fyi.)
Listen, Darren, I like your movies. I really do! Your visual style is awesome. Even though I brought my knitting with me into the theater when I saw The Wrestler, it wasn't because I don't like your shot composition or your quick cuts. (If you must know, it was the stapling-things-to-people and other wrestling grossouts that I didn't want to see, hence the Noro dropstitch scarf I worked on during those parts.)
Also, Darren, I think you're a nice guy. When I was in college, my best friend and I went to a screening of Requiem for a Dream that you held for NYU students (which we were not! but my bff's friend Renee was), and we met you. You introduced the movie by saying, "Listen, I'm sorry. In 45 minutes, you're going to feel bad. And then 30 minutes after that, you're going to feel worse." and I was like "Rad! I like this movie already!" and then I DID like the movie, though it was devastating, and afterward when we made it through the line to greet you, you signed a poster for my mom ("To the world's second-best mom, after mine.") and then you declined our sincere but misguided offer to go out drinking (though we could tell you thought Renee was cute).
Anyway, my mom still has that poster and I like you for being the kind of guy who would revise my suggested poster-inscription ("To the world's best mom!") like that. I will say I was disappointed when you signed this, though.
But! Your movies are interesting, that's for sure. I always feel something, and feel it deeply, when I watch what you've made.
Which brings me to the message I've gleaned from your last two movies. You've mentioned in interviews that The Wrestler and Black Swan are companion pieces, and having seen them both, I think that's perfectly clear. A wrestler who is too old to be wrestling clings to his past success. A ballerina who strives for perfection goes crazy trying to attain it. They punish their bodies and have incredibly disfunctional relationships with their loved ones. They sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice ... and in the end, what do they have? Lonliness and death, that's what!
Ok, but you know what? That kind of plot is ok with me (worlds better than the "Please, someone, believe me!" plot, in my preference heirarchy). Both Randy and Nina are compelling characters, and characters I wanted to watch. In terms of story structure and plot, I found both movies absolutely satisfying. I wanted to watch crazy ballerina go crazy! And when she sprouted her feathered wings as the black swan during the climax, I got chills. [Momentary aside: Friends and family know I have an irrational dislike of Natalie Portman, which I like to blame on her having overlong eyebrows but really is rooted in the fact that I'm jealous she's a movie star and I am not, and so they will understand that this is a big deal for me to say: WOW, Natalie Portman, you were great in this movie. My hands-down favorite part, which made me tear up and nearly ugly-cry, was when she finds out she's cast as the Swan Queen and she runs to the bathroom to call her mom, and it's a tight closeup of her face as she struggles to hold it together enough to get the words out on the phone, and her longing is so painfully apparent, and her disbelief and wonder and almost unbearable happiness -- all of that plays on her face and it is INCREDIBLE.]
Right, but what was I saying? Right, the lonliness and death and melodramatic sacrifice.
Here's the thing about it: Nina literally kills herself to embody perfection in one performance. Randy literally kills himself to return to the ring one last time. And yes I know I'm taking a pedantic, literal view of the films' endings, here, but stay with me. I don't want to fight about whether or not that fade-to-black (or white) signified death or just an end. It's clear these movies are about the sacrifices one makes for one's art.
I loved Black Swan. I thought it was creepy in all the right ways, and the white swan/black swan dichotomy worked for me. When Nina gasps out her last line, and the audience is going crazy for her, and her mother is proud and she's won the admiration of her fellow dancers and the director, I felt the fulfilment, just like Nina. "I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect."
And, conversely, I hated The Wrestler. Or, more specifically, I hated the end of the movie. The acting was superb, the story was compelling, and I was on board until Randy's last-act choice to go back in the ring. I was *so angry* when the credits started to roll. It was his last speech that made me mad:
"I just wanna say to you all tonight, I'm very, very grateful to be here. A lot of people told me that I'd never wrestle again and that's all I do.
You know, if you live hard and play hard and you burn the candle at both ends, you pay the price for it.
You know in this life you can lose everything that you love, everything that loves you."
Now I don't hear as good as I used to, and I forget stuff. And I ain't as pretty as I used to be. But god damn it, I'm still standing here and I'm "The Ram."
You know as time goes by -- as time goes by, they say:
"He's Washed Up."
"He's A Loser."
"He's All Through."
You know what? The only one that's going to tell me when I'm through doing my thing is you people here.
You people here -- You people here are the ones who are worth bringing it for because you're my family.
I love all of you!
Thank you so much!"
Randy felt out of place everywhere but in the ring, and even though he knew wrestling again would probably kill him, he felt he had no other choice -- his relationship with his daughter was falling apart, his friendship with a stripper was complicated, and he had a terrible, unfulfilling job. Randy bought in to his own romantic notion that dying in the ring was fitting, that it was right. And I think the film treats his choice as the right one. He's given a last moment of glory as the crowd goes wild for him, and the audience doesn't have to see him suffer actual death as it cuts to black just after he launches himself into the air for his final, signature move. We don't see him land, we don't see his heart explode, we don't see his estranged daugher cry at his grave.
I've been trying to put my finger on why I had such different reactions to these movies for the past few days, and here's where I've gotten. Nina is presented as crazy, Randy is not. He's a depressing, sad man who has self-destructed. The movie gives him (and the audience) the "out" of a last blaze of glory, and romanticizes what is essentially a suicide. I think that's bullshit.
It's a difference in presentation. Nina's world is terrifying, full of hallucinations and metamorphosis and gross skin-peeling. She's a cautionary tale for immersing onseself too far into the quest for perfection. Randy's world is pretty unremarkable and normal -- aside from his hearing loss, which audience members experience occasionally as muted ringing over the audio track. He reminds me of people I know, who are unfulfilled and sad and disconnected. Who have a talent, but struggle with how to best use it. I think Randy's a cautionary tale, too, but I this his story is presented in such a way that the romantisicm overpowers the warning.
Have you guys seen these movies? What did you think?