Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘film criticism’


Black Swan is summing up to be one of the most controversial Oscar-hopefuls of the season.  There seems to be a strict divide on audiences’ opinions; “Either you view it as a flawed, gritty take on the rigors of ballet and how they affect this particular character, or you choose to view it as a Freudian nightmare of a woman contending with her repressed sexuality with the world of ballet serving simply as a backdrop.” Being the savvy peruser of all media on the internet, I found a DVD screener of the film and was able to watch it twice; the first try, I was unimpressed.  Natalie Portman’s performance was reminiscent of Audrey Hepburn’s superior portrayal of the damaged yet talented beauty throughout her career, but days later my mind was still reeling, dissecting the film, so I decided to watch it again. The second time around, I had the completely opposite reaction–I was moved to tears, feeling a deep sense of empathy and understanding for the protagonist Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman).  I definitely feel that it’s a film that haunts you, and it hits on a type of suffering that is very universal for women or artists (of which I am both), if you’re watching it in the right frame of mind.

I’ve heard a lot of arguments against the film’s perceived originality.  The psychological thriller is not a new genre, and in many ways Black Swan isn’t doing anything to its audiences that wasn’t done in Sixth Sense; its ambiguity is a bit frustrating in the context of its intense portrayal of female sexuality, more openly Freudian than Hitchcock’s best works.  It is clear at every moment that you’re watching a film written, directed, and produced from a male prospective, even down to the lesbian wet dreams and feminine sexual rivalry.  It’s perhaps the most open attempt at examining the male/female unconscious but it’s a Hollywood film that’s made over $60 million dollars.  With that in mind, Black Swan is not going to find a place among the great works of feminist cinema.

So it’s not the most groundbreaking film.  Compared to Darren Aronofsky’s other films, it’s not as original, nor does it offer an untold story as his other works (The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream, Pi).  In fact, unlike his other works, Black Swan is a contemporary idiom on the story of Swan Lake–all the aspects of the original story are, in essence, borrowed from an early reference.  However, the film is still ambitious, relevant, even important as a testimonial to gender politics in post-modern cinema, if you’re willing to take the over-all ambivalent nature of the film with the highest expectations, placing a responsibility on the production values and semiotics in the visual aspects of the film.  That is to say, if you’re a person who is willing to see the film as the product of vision and struggle, rather than another voice yammering on in some conversation of what a man thinks it means to be a woman, you’re probably on the pro-Black Swan team.

For me, the beauty in watching Black Swan was knowing that all of the struggles of Nina Sayers were being felt by Natalie Portman through her preparation and portrayal of the role.  When Toma (Vincent Cassel) grabbed Nina’s face and shoved his tongue down her throat, the sexual aggression Portman had to endure in order to be professional was very real.  Although Portman is a trained ballet dancer, she spent a year preparing physically; Portman used the real, physical pain she felt as fuel into the psychological mindset of a prima ballerina, her stage being the silver screen rather than Lincoln Center.  Turns out Portman’s real life mother had some similarities with Nina’s as well: “She was always worried and scared about me working, asking me, ‘Do you really want to do that?’ And I would beg and cry and plead, but both my parents were very protective in not wanting me to act that much…. but she wasn’t a pushy mother at all.” The symbolic ending of the film added what I felt was a poignant statement on what it means to be an artist, visually portraying the physical manifestations of suffering one must endure through their bodies and minds in order to fulfill their purpose.

I thought the intense focus on the body that came with such a film was a greatly understated aspect.  Dance is the art of controlling one’s body, and I thought this played out in a very complimentary way in terms of this film being a product of post-modernism.  There is, again, the aspect of the interdisciplinary genre work–the fact that the actresses were all trained dancers, and also Clint Manswell’s reinterpretation of Tchaikovsky’s original Swan Lake score in order to create a new relationship between the choreography and cinematography.  But the other connection is one between female sexuality and the relationship with one’s body–at every turn, Nina’s body is rebelling against her, even to the point of psychosis.  This metaphor was perhaps a bit too obvious for most women, especially combined with all the prevalent bitchy dancer stereotypes that hinder Nina’s relationships with every woman she interacts with.  There’s also the fact that the famous French choreographer, Toma, was a huge pervert, with not even especially good pick-up lines, who basically gets away with sexually inappropriate relationships with his dancers because he’s just that good-looking and brilliant.  Not anything redeeming about that character, but, hey, maybe that was the point.

In the end, I liked Black Swan because I felt it was a film I could relate to.  I interpreted a lot of the more “ambiguous” parts of the film to be the product of Nina’s psychosis, which I think speaks to all artists who have ever struggled with mental illness or depression. The gender dynamics of the film didn’t offend me because I took them as a critique.  I came to accept the film’s similarities to previous works because of its success of reintroducing concepts that seldom seem to come out of Hollywood these days.  I related both the character Nina and the actress Natalie Portman’s process to writing a poem, and using your art to manifest all of the demons inside of you.  And I’d definitely recommend it to anyone prepared to stomach such a work. Like I said, there’s DVD screeners floating around on the internet, so take a look, and let me know if you think the film deserves any Oscars.

Or, just watch Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Black Swan on Saturday Night Live to get the gist of it all.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »


This essay offers both a introductory explanation of the male gaze & its value in analyzing film as a mass media as well as a critique on representations of women in Quentin Tarantino’s work.

Creativity is inherently linked to how our brains function. In order to participate in creative expression, one must exercise divergent thinking, or “the ability to produce multiple ideas, answers, or solutions to a problem for which there is no agreed-on solution,” and not just convergent thinking, or conventional intelligence problem solving in a logical way. Further, through analyzing art, one has the opportunity to examine and interpret an artistic thought process. Some psychologists applied theory to this analysis, such as Freud, who considered narrative incarnations (or unconscious phantasies) as an integral part of the unconscious. In theory, one “must believe that he or she has created the object that he or she discovers. Failure to have done so results in trauma” (Grotstein 193). This idea implies that manifestation of phantasies in art would reflect unconscious desires or perceptions at some level of analysis.

Psychoanalysis proposes that creativity is the result of unconscious drives. In acting out unconscious drives, one is expressing repressed desires stemming from an unsatisfactory reality. These feelings can be the result of perceived inadequacies, biological drives, or social pressures. Ultimately these phantasies exist to fulfill the ego. “Theorists in the Freudian school have built further on the premise that creativity is part of the mental functioning operative in the id; i.e., the individual uses it to seek pleasure and avoid pain” (Vantage). Freud paid specific attention to the influence of gender and sex to the influence of personality; he believed it to be intimately related with defense mechanisms in maintaining self-esteem. In his systems of personality Freud believed the id, ego, and superego—the three components of self-image and perception—to be the results of pleasure-seeking drives (the pleasure principal), conscious rationality (reality principal), and moral influence (ego ideal), respectively. In this way, our unconscious phantasies are influenced by both hidden sexual drives and social reinforcement of expectant or exceptional behavior.

In theory, self-expression often reflects these personality components and unconscious views. As a result, analysis of creative works often relies on interpreting an individual’s ego, as well as the collective unconscious. Works of art often reflect both an individual’s repressed desires, as well as social ideas of good behavior. When analyzing mass media—such as television, magazines, and film—a broader consideration to cultural inclinations is taken into account. Mediums such as film, especially when the product of big studios, place a greater importance on superego in order to have the broadest appeal (and make the most profit). Auteurs of the film industry—such as Hitchcock, Felini, and Tarantino—often embody the most primal and persistent social drives in their work while achieving a vision of great personal influence. Such individual influences have shaped the medium of film and how audiences perceive it. By observing visual media, one has the potential to acquire the creative identity of the minds behind it.

In her essay “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Laura Mulvey approaches this psychological phenomenon through the concept of the “male gaze.” The male gaze is the theory that in observing film, audiences acquire a heterosexual male point of view wherein female characters are always passive while being actively observed. This is the result of both the reflection of an industry of male-dominated creators as well as cinematographic techniques that construct the camera lens as a masculine eye. Because of the acquiring of identity through observing a film, the position of the woman helps to form what Mulvey calls the “patriarchal unconscious” (28): “Her meaning in the process is at an end, it does not last into the world of law and language except as a memory … Woman then stands in patriarchal culture as a signifier for the male other, bound by a symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing them on the silent image of a woman still tied to her place as a bearer of meaning, not a maker of meaning.” In terms of film, a woman represents symbolically the fears and desires of the male creator—usually through visual or linguistic command rather than subtext—instead of her own unique meaning as a representation. She is the both product and representation of the male unconscious, mimicking the pressures women feel in the real world to uphold male standards.

Mulvey’s theory of the male gaze is one of the most interesting analyses of Freudian desire because rather than pure psychoanalysis of a subject, it analyzes specific visual examples in addition to context; in other words, film aesthetics become a manifestation of the unconscious in a way verbal self-insight cannot obtain. Further, because the behavioral glance is rooted in the id and superego, as well as the collective unconscious, the theory provides valuable insight to identity on a micro and macro scale. Common shots that are concrete examples of the male gaze include medium close-up shots of women from over a male’s shoulder (opposed to close-ups of a male’s face from straight on or extreme angles), shots that pan and linger on a woman’s form (opposed to shots of a male that do not pan and show his full body), as well as scenes that frequently occur which show a man actively observing a passive woman. This last type of aesthetic was common in Hitchcock’s work, which was at its peak of popularity in the 70’s at the time of Mulvey’s essay, and which openly incorporated Freud’s theories of personality. One film in particular, Vertigo, about a man who falls in love with a woman he’s been hired to spy on, offers perhaps the most explicit example of the male gaze. “[The protagonist] Scottie’s voyeurism is blatant: he falls in love with a woman he follows and spies on without speaking to. His sadistic side is equally blatant: he has [freely] chosen . . . to become a police man, with all the attendant possibilities of pursuit and investigation. As a result he follows, watches, and falls in love with a perfect image of female beauty and mystery” (37). Beneath the purely voyeuristic behavior portrayed lies a further critique on identity; as Scottie observes Judy—a woman from Kansas pretending to be his employer’s wife—she takes on the identity of Madeleine, who has become a ghost twofold. In this way, Scottie has fallen in love with someone completely unobtainable because of deception initiated by a man and carried out by a subservient woman. This exemplifies male feelings of victimization rooted in unconscious inadequacies, i.e., Scottie’s inability to save Madeleine from her false suicide and therefore losing his fabricated vision of love forever to his male employer; his drive to keep her alive by searching for Madeleine destroys his reality when he succeeds by finding Judy and discovering that he’s been set-up.

At the time of Mulvey’s essay, alternative cinema, which she recognized for its importance in opposing patriarchal views, was still at its on-set in comparison to its popularity today. Fearing the influence of the male gaze in Hollywood film, she directly called upon alternative filmmakers to use opposition as the pivotal meaning of their works. Although alternative cinema has come to influence mainstream film, the male gaze is still prevalent in visual aesthetics, if not as obvious as in Hitchcock’s openly Freudian works. One filmmaker today who represents both the subversive appeal of alt film and the superego of the patriarchal society is Quentin Tarantino. His films are perhaps the most fantastically violent to ever come out of mainstream Hollywood cinema, and he often portrays females as active characters participating in the normally exclusively male battles, such as in his short film with Lady Gaga, Telephone, which portrays all-female characters in a normally male archetype: as prison inmates escaping from the law. However, despite females being represented as active characters in this film and others, they are still presented under the scope of the heterosexual eye and are intended to be observed rather than relatable. Tarantino compensates for his masculine representations by creating hyper-sexualized female characters.

In Planet Terror, his own wife, Rose McGowen, portrays the epitome of this restitution; the opening credit sequence shows her go-go dancing provocatively from the prospective of the audience. Later, she loses one of her legs from the knee down and can no longer dance; she then completes her now-damaged body using a gun as a peg leg, her provocative dance moves now utilized to slay the enemy. Her representation is not to be mistaken with that of an empowered woman; she does not transcend notions of a desirable woman in the unconscious male mind and the superego of the patriarchy. As a professional exotic dancer, her strengths lie in her willingness to be observed for sexual pleasure. This is at the heart of how she is aesthetically represented as a manifestation of desire and obtainability.

Between the polarization of representations of women in Hitchcock and Tarantino’s films, which can essentially be reduced to the unobtainable versus the obtainable, a broad spectrum of the ideal woman from both the heterosexual male and broader patriarchal unconscious point of view is illuminated. In Mulvey’s application of Freudian theory to film, these images arise from inadequacies in a masculine unconscious, and an attempt to make reality more enjoyable by constructing a phantasy that sympathizes with these desires. “The image of woman as (passive) raw material for the (active) gaze of man takes the argument a step further into the structure of representation, adding a further layer demanded by the ideology of the patriarchal order as it is worked out in its favorite cinematic form—illusionistic narrative film” (38). While films may no longer be purely a manifestation of heterosexual male’s point of view, because they must have a broad moral appeal, they are subservient to distinctive social standards that persist in a patriarchal society; because they exist to make reality more enjoyable, they must appeal to unconscious desires on an individual level. In this way, passive—or aesthetically pleasing, observable women—are still highly prevalent in film and video, and reflect the position of women in a patriarchal society. Although alternative cinema has called these images into question, mainstream cinema reinforces it, even when redefining aesthetics to a socially progressive audience. In this way, the objectification of women persists on both an individual and mass level of unconsciousness.

Works Cited
1. Grotstein, James. “The Overarching Role of Unconscious Phantasy.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry 28.2 (2008): 190-205.
2. Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Issues in Feminist Film Criticism. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1990. 28-40. Print.
3. Vantage. “Comparative Theories.” Vantage Quest for Creativity and Personal Transformation. Web. .
4. Wood, Samuel E., Ellen R. Green. Wood, and Denise Roberts. Boyd. The World of Psychology. Boston, MA: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2007. Print.

Read Full Post »