The Universe of Things

Gwyneth Jones’ short story collection, The Universe of Things, has just been published by Aqueduct Press, and is available for purchase here (at a reduced price until Jan 25). (Amazon lists the volume here).

I’m proud that I was asked to write the Introduction to the volume. Jones is one of the greatest and most important science fiction authors writing today, and she still hasn’t gotten quite the level of recognition that she deserves. 

The volume is named after one of the stories therein. The phrase “the universe of things” comes originally from Shelley’s poem “Mont Blanc.” In addition to writing the Introduction to Jones’ volume, I have also myself written an essay called “The Universe of Things”; the essay cites both Jones’ story and Shelley’s poem in the course of arguing for a Whiteheadian understanding, or revision, of the claims of object-oriented ontology. I now seem to have written several essays more or less on this theme; I am working, hopefully, towards a short book that will address the question of “Whitehead in the light of speculative realism”; and that book, if I manage to finish it, will probably also bear the title, The Universe of Things, thus continuing the semantic chain.

Black Swan

I really loved Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan. It joins Splice, Toy Story 3, Scott Pilgrim, and Enter the Void as one of my favorite films of 2010. (I missed too many things this year to offer anything like a top-ten list; I still haven’t seen Inception, or True Grit, or The Social Network, for instance — just to mention some of the general-release films that other people have been talking about).

In any case, Black Swan was one of those movies that just touched and jolted me in all the right ways — I became totally entranced by it. I really need to see it again, however, before I can comment on its cinematography — which struck me as key to its effectiveness, in the way that it both drew us into, and yet distanced us from, the intimate world of its protagonist. I think that some variety of cinematic free indirect discourse was at work here (I am thinking of Pasolini’s adaptation of this literary term to describe Antonioni’s cinematography, and then Deleuze’s generalization of the term, to get at a mode of presentation that is neither subjectively expressive, nor omniscently objective, but somehow in between). There’s a crucial relation between the autonomy of the hyperactive camera (and also the horror-film-esque shock cuts, and the use of subliminal sound) and the way the tortured flesh of Natalie Portman is at the center of the film — but I will need to watch the movie again before I can hope to pin this down. In the meantime, I will try to say something more general about how, and why, the film affected me so strongly.

Black Swan could be described as either a female equivalent to Aronofsky’s previous film, The Wrestler; or else as a sort-of remake of All About Eve. Natalie Portman’s character, like Mickey Rourke’s character in The Wrestler, has made a mess of her life. But she sacrificially redeems herself through ballet, the only thing that she is good at, just as Rourke does through wrestling. In both films, brilliance in the blatant artifice of intensely embodied performance compensates for what is otherwise an inauthentic self; perfection of the work substitutes for the impossibility of perfection of the life. Both Black Swan and The Wrestler thus preach and practice what I can only call a delirious kitsch aestheticism. In saying this, I do not use the word “kitsch” pejoratively. Rather, I insist that the aestheticism must be kitsch, in order to avoid falling into the void of a high-minded and self-congratulatory elitism. 

Black Swan resembles All About Eve in being a bitchy and overheated backstage melodrama. Just as Ann Baxter manipulates her way into supplanting Bette Davis as a lead actress (and, in the final scene of the movie, is set up to be supplanted in her own turn), so Natalie Portman displaces Winona Ryder as prima ballerina (leading to Winona’s attempted suicide), and is threatened in turn with displacement by her rival (and supposed good friend) Mila Kunis. The cold cynicism displayed in All About Eve by George Sanders is mirrored in Black Swan, at least somewhat, by Vincent Cassel as the manipulative ballet director. These echoes probably have something to do with why the film has been described by some critics as being camp (or criticized, as here by Dennis Lim, for not even being successful as camp). 

However, I think that the whole camp reading of the film is wrong. In fact, Black Swan is emotionally and wrenchingly intense, in a completely unironic way. Of course, this intensity is not “high art”; it is entirely lurid and hysterical, in a way that has its roots in pulp writing, and B- or exploitation-filmmaking. And this may be why some critics have trouble in receiving it unironically; there’s the unfortunate and wrong sense that some cultural elitists have that nothing can be taken seriously unless it is, well, “serious.” I’m putting that latter word into quotation marks, precisely because it connotes an attitude that cannot take anything with pulp energies, or with the kind of dogged and even corny conviction that Black Swan manifests, except “in quotation marks.” I am suggesting, to the contrary, that Black Swan works as powerfully and beautifully as it does, not in spite of, but precisely because of, its emotional excess, and its glossy reveling in that excess.

To put this in another way: Black Swan fully fits within the categories of what the film theorist Linda Williams calls “body genres.” These are films that are aesthetically disreputable, precisely because they overtly work to incite physical responses in the viewers. Williams lists three main body genres: pornography, horror, and melodrama, which move audiences to sexual arousal, chills of fear, and bouts of weeping respectively; and Black Swan is actually all three of these. The film moves from an initial creepiness to a culminating full-blown body horror; but along the way it titillates us with the phantasmatic, faux-lesbian scene of Natalie Portman’s full-blown orgasm. This softcore scene marks both a breakthrough (an overcoming of sexual repression) and also a breakdown (as Portman’s character finally learns that she can only fulfill her quest for aesthetic perfection at the price of her own existential self-destruction), and thus provides the bridge between horror (the revulsion of bodily metamorphosis, linked with the white swan – black swan duality of the Swan Lake ballet) and melodrama (the tears of unfulfillment, tied to a utopian negation of life as it is, in which every success is also a failure). 

The first half of Black Swan powerfully expressed a sort of creepy nervousness, discomfort, emotional awkwardness, vulnerability, and embarrassment. These are all evident in Natalie Portman’s relationship both to her mother and to the ballet director, as well as in her general malaise (or sense of being ill at ease) whenever she is not dancing — when she is riding the subway to and from Lincoln Center, for instance). This is the sort of mood that I find myself exquisitely attuned to in the cinema, when it is done well. It’s almost unbearably painful, but in an oddly detached and mediated way; the pain becomes pleasure when it is right there in front of you, objectified and articulated on the screen. 

But Black Swan doesn’t stay there. In the second half of the film, everything accelerates into full-blown body horror. Things spiral completely out of control. Natalie Portman moves from a minor obsession with eczema-like wound marks on her body, to a full-fledged crisis in which she seems to be growing feathers, the better to suit her for her “black swan” role. She imagines both having sex with, and then murdering, Mila Kunis, who is trying to steal her role. The film remains ostensibly “realist” enough to suggest that this is sheer hallucination on the part of Portman’s character — e.g., Kunis shows up again unharmed and unaffected, after Portman has apparently beaten her to a bloody pulp. But to the extent that “seeing is believing,” and that — in the suspension of disbelief with which we watch movies — we cannot help accepting what is plainly and viscerally shown to us on screen, the sex and the murder and the body horror are as real to us as anything else in the film. They are continuous with, and as compellingly actual as, the feelings that provoke them: self-disgust, the drive towards an impossible perfectionism, sexual jealousy vis-a-vis Kunis and resentment and feeling-betrayed vis-a-vis the mother. By the end of the film, it is impossible to say — and meaningless even to try to decide — whether Portman’s culminating wound (menstruation? vaginal mutilation?) is real or phantasmatic. We are swept away — or, at least, I was — in the vertigo of a hallucinatory, emotion-twisting, body horror/ecstasy. (And by “hallucinatory,” I mean something like “intensified”, rather than something like “unreal”).

The emotional tonality of Black Swan combines horror with melodrama: more specifically, horror’s body panic and hysteria with melodrama’s embarrassment and overstatement and weepiness. I think that Aronofsky really knows what he is doing here. He is using horror in order to update the old Hollywood melodrama, to make it more believable for the 21st century. He is making new equivalents for the parts of melodrama that might otherwise now seem antiquated, and therefore (to some viewers) campy. In this way, he is very smartly keeping the emotional center of melodrama intact. In this way, Black Swan is a contemporary version of what used to be called the “women’s picture” in the old Hollywood. Such films were frankly oriented towards middle-class female audiences; they also often became points of identification for gay men (which, of course, is partly where the association with camp comes from).

Now, the “women’s picture” is one genre that has never gotten the degree of recognition that it deserves. Some feminist film theorists took it seriously in the 1980s and 1990s, and wrote insightful things about it; among contemporary filmmakers, Todd Haynes has shown considerable interest in it. But overall, the women’s picture has remained disreputable; it is still generally condescended to by “serious,” high-minded critics who insist on regarding it as “trash” — even when they find it to be enjoyable trash. I always think of this in terms of what I like to call the Tarantino Test. Quentin Tarantino loves to make revisionist updates of “disreputable” male-oriented genre films, by making strong female protagonists the heroes — he does this in with blaxploitation in Jackie Brown,  with martial arts films in Kill Bill, with the car-racing genre of the 1970s in Death Proof, and with the war movie in Inglorious Basterds. But I cannot quite see Tarantino ever remaking, or offering a revisionist version of, a “disreputable” female-oriented genre film (though I am still, and always, waiting for him to surprise me). Aronofsky is to be praised for fearlessly entering this territory, and for pushing it all the way, without defensive irony. 

Postscript: it’s worth noting that another one of my favorite films of the past year, Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void, has gotten some of the same negative or reserved reactions from critics and bloggers as Black Swan, and for similar reasons. In some ways, these two films could not be more different; Enter the Void is as male-centric as Black Swan is female-centric. But they have both been regarded as somewhat chintzy, cheesy, and corny: as being too “obvious” to be accepted as Great Art. Critics of Enter the Void, in particular, have accused its mindblowing visual and sonic textures of just being coverings for an ultimate banality; they have see the film as just an empty display of technique (or of digital technologies). I think that such reactions, like the critical reactions dismissing Black Swan as glamorous trash, betray a continuing discomfort with movies in which psychophysical stimulation and affective intensity overwhelm plot and theme. To my mind, in both films, the psychophysical intensity is the point; and thematic concerns are deliberately flattened and simplified, so they do not interfere with this. (Noe is following the example of 2001, which is evidently his main cinematic reference point; Aronofsky, I think, is simply following his salutary pulp instincts). In the end, of course, it comes down to how particular, individual films affect me; but the power of both of these films reinforces my sense that a certain cinematic maximalism is a better way to go than the reserve of slow or contemplative cinema.