An Impromptu Conversation With Max Tohline regarding the Magic of Black Swan

What began as a simple conversation between Max Tohline and myself about art began to mutate into new fields. One area in particular concerned the use of affect in Aronofsky’s Black Swan. With the permission of Mr. Tohline, I have included a portion of our correspondence below.

Max Tohline’s thoughts:
[…] [T]here are films I love so much that I find it difficult to explain why; when I try, I simply become frustrated with the other person that they can’t already tell. Renato Rosaldo once asked: “Do people always in fact describe most thickly what matters most to them?”One such film is Black Swan. I’ve probably only seen it four times, but each viewing pummels my emotions and my heart rate such that I dare not overdo it and lose the jouissance. When I first saw it, I became aware in the theater that the film was slowly causing me to take leave of my self control. I can’t really describe it (which is horribly frustrating), but the film was coming close to flinging me around like a rag doll – not just mentally, but physically as well. When her legs bent back and everyone else in the theater groaned, I nearly yelped with glee. “Finally a movie that’s going for it!” I thought. And it kept going for it. I willingly abandoned myself to the camera movements, the psychological violence, the radiant reds and greens (as in Vertigo, and as in Van Gogh, who said: “I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green!”), the sweeping camera, reality collapsing, and all of it synchronized so ineluctably to Tchaikovsky’s unstoppable music —- I was propelled! Closest I’ve ever come to what can rightly be called ecstasy. To the people who came to the theater with me, my response might as well have been Fitzcarraldo’s ecstasy over Caruso — “I will outnumber you! I will outbillion you!”I remember an art professor I know passing me in the hall the Monday after he saw the film for the first time, grumbling that the story wasn’t any good and he couldn’t figure out why people like it. I nearly blew up on him: “It’s not about the story, you prole!” I shouted — or maybe that’s just what I wanted to say, because in truth, I just stammered, “but the editing, the camera, the music!”Such is film. Pointing indiscriminately at the screen and raving…


My Reply:

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:


5 thoughts on “An Impromptu Conversation With Max Tohline regarding the Magic of Black Swan

  1. Huzzah, more Black Swan love~! I’ve only seen the film twice, but I love it so.
    Something that’s recently come to my attention are midnight screenings of the film for people who enjoy the film in a campy way, which I can totally understand, though I doubt I could ever go to one of the showings.

    • Well I never imagined that might be its fate! Now that you mention it I see where they’re coming from. The film does straddle the line (in that it seriously tries to portray something even few artists take seriously, and does so by turning it into a lesbian slasher horror that at times would make Dario Argento proud), but it seems like indulging the film as a camp show is like admitting everything we hold dear about art really is a joke to be mocked, and not valued and savoured. Rocky Horror is enough camp for two lifetimes and then some minor reincarnations. I’m glad to learn there are other swanlings out there (is that name working? Do we like it? Is THAT too camp?).

  2. Interesting post. Honestly, ‘Black Swan’ disappointed me. I have an issue with Aronofsky films as I think apart from ‘Requiem for a Dream’ he sets his goals and visions too high, and fails to deliver on a large scale. Psychologically speaking, I did not find the film better or more interesting than what I have already seen in such films as ‘The Machinist’ or ‘Spider’. Portman’s’ transformation just isn’t enough for the impact, and I am critical about her winning an Oscar. As for the ballet and the general theme, me being Russian and being practically raised on ballet performances I expected something much more. In short, I felt underwhelmed. I worry about ‘Noah’ now because the vision seems terrific, but will he pull it off? Great blog, btw, some of your pieces are very thought provoking πŸ™‚

    • Thank you for your reply, your praise, and your insightful points!

      I agree with all your criticisms of the movie except I arrive at a different conclusion about the film.

      I initially wrote out a fairly substantial response but then the WordPress ap on my phone closed and decided to erase my message, much to my frustration. I’m piecing this together from hazy memory:

      I admired the way the editing combines the power of the music mixes with the bold cinematography to emphasise the fluidity of Nina’s sexuality. I appreciated the unique way in which the film tracks the physical and psychological maturation of its main character. Aranofsky concocts this absurd pep pill and then laces it with adrenaline.

      I appreciate that Aranofsky not only tackles the subject matter but then makes it so enjoyable to watch. It’s like a haunted house movie with the horror created by the main character’s mind which she chooses to remain locked within (isn’t that just life in a nutshell). He may go overboard on the style, but never the content, and that earns a great deal of my respect.

      I’ve never before been entirely enthusiastic with Aronofsky’s work, it has always left me removed from it. The Fountain, for instance, is like a heartless remake of Ikiru. I don’t mean that entirely as a negative, since Aranofsky seems to go to great lengths to cultivate a distance between the audience and his characters (in the same way that the characters are themselves isolated). That said, it does make it hard to invest much in these characters and their stories. I wouldn’t be bold enough to offer a proscription about that, but it does seem like the seed of something worth noting.

      As for Portman winning the Oscar, if it helps I don’t even pay attention to the awards. I don’t understand them. What exactly does a Best Actress award mean? Best at portraying mental instability that year? Best preparation for a role? It seems little more than a PR popularity contest. It’s the main reason why Weinstein seems to have been so good at securing the little bastards for his artists all these years.

      As for Noah, I’m worried because I can’t figure out just what the hell Aranofsky is getting at, I’m worried it’ll overplay both style and content (it seems pretty damn heavy-handed, and why the hell is everyone overdoing their British accents–did I also detect Connolly, an American, doing one? What gives? Was Noah’s Middle East particularly anglophone?). Still, I will reserve judgement till I see it.

      • Thank you for your reply πŸ™‚ I agree with your points about ‘Black Swan’, but I guess my point was ‘very good film’, but something more was called for/something special was missing. But maybe it’s just me. As for Portman’s win, I meant the controversy surrounding her dancing and ‘hard work’ she put into the film. It seems that some believe Sarah Lane, a professional ballerina, who was Portman’s double in the film, did 70 per cent of work attributed to Portman. I happen to believe this for many reasons. Aronofsky (crazy for an Oscar), her lover (Milliepied) and her friend (Kunis) supported Portman in her defence. Of course they would.

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