Max Tohline’s thoughts:
You’ve perfectly captured my experience of watching the film! When it finally faded to white, I realized I was crying, partly because of my emotions, but also in part because I realized I’d forgotten to blink for a stupidly long length of time. My eyes hurt from this experience, the film had literally caused me pain and distress in all the best ways. After I stumbled out of the theatre, unable to describe its effect over me, I feebly wrenched out my phone and tapped a poor excuse for a synopsis on facebook: “Black Swan: a swirling, feverish nightmare of perfection. Don’t even read a synopsis, see it now. Then, after you recover from the experience, remember to tell others about it.” I went through my history just to fetch that, because I’m thrilled to know somebody else had roughly a similar experience. Because nobody else who did had the same reaction. This would have been fine, except the majority responded with these asinine statements like “I don’t get it”, or worse, “That’s stupid. How the hell can you dance like that with a shard of glass in your abdomen?” It’s not supposed to be taken literally! It’s the descent into single-minded obsession with art. It’s the all consuming fire of passion and of creativity, the kind that Klaus Kinski lived and died for, the kind that destroys the barriers between art and life. It’s like dandy aestheticism refined for a twisting, neo-noir horror film.
And if you want to talk about The Red Shoes! They’re red with blood, of course, extracted from the brutal perfection of the talent on display. Nowadays people bicker over the fact that Natalie Portman didn’t do most of her own dancing and that her head was digitally imposed over another dancer, and my question to them is “so what?!” It’s not about Natalie Portman, or her dancing ability. It’s the unparalleled choreography between script, music, movement, cinematography and editing to create an experience. I needed to repeat that to them, it’s an experience; a taste of obsession, one that we can indulge with cathartic glee in the confines of the cinema. It’s a sort of prophylactic then, allowing us to experience these emotions without much danger of infection. The film keeps the madness contained on the screen, we’re aware “it’s just a movie”, and my god, what a movie!
Try to tell this to people, try to enamour them with an experience before they’ve ever had it, try to explain desire to a generation who’ve only ever known lust. It can’t be done with any passing coherency, we become the raving madmen of the arts. The filmmakers even slyly acknowledge the great wall of obstinacy they must contend with when they admit they threw the lesbian scene in to make money (nevermind all the repercussions that scene has on our understanding of Nina, if not so much on the overall progress of the plot).
Despite the love that swells from my deepest depths for this film, I’ve only seen it three times. I dare not overdo it. Because each time the finale has me enraptured, in tears, amazed that art can accomplish this feat of technical bravado in the service of affect. When Tchaikovsky’s notes hit the transcendent crescendo during that Vertigo-like moment as Nina crashes through the aether separating art and reality, and a mask of emotions gives over to a simple, unadulterated bliss, I hit the edge of infinity with her. The film has to stop; it can’t get any better.
And so I stop myself from rewatching this film unless I’m in the perfect mood for it, unless I can devote a full two-hours of unfettered attention. When I told my brother to watch the movie, I said “do it in a theatre setting. Turn your phone off, watch the screen, let it take you over.” When he returned I asked him what he thought (I knew since he didn’t come in the door gushing it hadn’t done much for him). He said “it was good.” And a part of me died, to hear my darling swan so besmirched.
A professor at the University of Ohio, Max Tohline also runs his own blog:
And creates fantastic videos about film and cinema which he posts to Vimeo: