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My Best of 2011: Black Swan & The Elevation of Schlock…

It’s that time of the year. To celebrate 2011, and the countdown to 2012, I’m going to count down my own twelve favourite films of the year, one a day until New Year’s Eve. I’m also going to talk a bit about how or why I chose them, and perhaps what makes this list “my” best of 2011, rather than any list claiming to be objective.

Black Swan is number six. Check out my original review here.

It’s interesting, how one can end up loving the same films, for very different reasons. I suspect that a great many critics and commentators lavish praise on Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan for its elegance and sophistication, which I appreciate and admire. There’s a lot to love about the film. However, my own appreciation of the movie seems to be for a very different reason. I think that what makes Black Swan so utterly compelling is the fact that it’s essentially a classic horror movie elevated to the status of fine art.

Of course, Aronofsky himself has been fairly quick to concede that Black Swan is a spiritual successor to any number of classic body horror transformation films:

It’s about transformation, it’s ultimately a werewolf movie. Swan Lake is about a girl trapped as a swan, at night she’s half swan half human, so I saw it as a werewolf movie.

I think if you look at Aronofsky’s technique, you’ll find that the director owes a lot to perhaps the most recent iconic body horror film, about another character slowly transforming into something less than human. As I watched Nina pick at the scars on her back, finding a feather, I thought of Seth Brundle making a similar grotesque discovery in The Fly. The same with all the other little signs of transformation, including Nina’s webbed digits or freaky eyes – a sign that the ballet dancer was becoming something… other.

However, critical discussion of the film seems reluctant to acknowledge the debt as freely and as fluidly as Aronofsky himself does. While researching the film, I found it classified under “drama” or “thriller” or “psychological thriller” far more often than I saw the word “horror” attached to it.  On watching the film, that seemed quite strange to me, because Aronofsky makes sure that audience experiences all the physical reactions one associates with horror. Lingering on the grotesquely distorted form of Nina’s body even before her breakdown has truly begin, it’s hard not feel a hint of revulsion or even disgust.

Normally the very picture of beauty, Portman makes herself look as unhealthy here as Christian Bale did in The Machinist. Aronofsky treats each and every aspect of her body as revolting, . His insight doesn’t serve to make Nina more relatable or to let us into her world, but instead to display how this little ballerina is truly broken before the film even started – cracked toenails, self-mutilation and bulemia included. If that doesn’t constitute body horror, even before we get to the eponymous dark-coloured bird, I don’t know what does.

I suspect the reason that this aspect of Aronofsky’s film is not frequently discussed is because of the stigma that’s associated with horror films. After all, the last “horror” film to win the Academy Award (and also the first) was The Silence of the Lambs, which would arguably be bettwe classified as a psychological thriller. Even outside of the Oscars, there seems to be a long-standing prejudice which suggests that horror films are somehow “lesser” films than dramas or sophisticated comedies or smart thrillers. It’s this train of thought which arguable kept films like Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining and Alien and The Exorcist from getting the praise and acknowledgment they deserved on initial release, leaving the films to be reevaluated years later.

Ironically, it also means that the label “horror” has become something of a dirty word, as if mentioning the word in any conversation about Aronofsky’s work of art would immediately tar it by association to nonsense like Freddy vs. Jason or Jeepers Creepers 2 or what-have-you. While there have been more than a few bad horror films, the same is true of any genre. Describing Rise of the Planet of the Apes as an “action” movie doesn’t tar it by associating it with The Expendables, any more than describing The Adjustment Bureau as a “romance” doesn’t tar it by association with The Ugly Truth.

Those rejecting my comparison, quick to distance Aronofsky’s deftly-constructed piece of cinema from decades of schlock and horror might try to draw a distinction between what Aronofsky’s film and those body horror or werewolf movies. I think that there is a distance of light-years in terms of quality between Aronofsky’s film and most such horrors, I don’t think there’s too much to block the classification.

I think those trying to draw a line between Aronofsky’s project and what is seen as a “lesser” genre might suggest that Aronfosky’s film might avoid such classification because his transformation is purely metaphorical, rather than literal. As in, the film is somehow completely different because Nina is only turning into a swan in her head, rather than – you know – actually turning into a swan. As far as we know.

Such a defense betrays a hint of prejudice against the horror genre, one that believes the films exist only to be read on the surface. Somehow a movie is inherently silly because it contains the image of man transforming into something else. I’d argue that most transformation is metaphorical, with the werewolf representing something animal and primal and less than human within us. Just like Dracula represented a response to repressive Victorian sexuality, a lot of horror can be read as a social commentary – giving voice to our societies fears, hoping to give them expression so we might vanquish them once and for all. All horrors allow people to deal with their own fears and insecurities, which is at the core of what Nina is doing here.

That said, I think that 2011 was fascinating because we saw that sort of traditional schlocky horror creep into relatively mainstream and high-profile releases. Soderbergh used a lot of similar techniques in bringing Contagion to life, animating a story about the types of fears that really hit home in a modern globalised community – I think that Contagion worked best when it was a horror film that worked at an almost societal level. Like Aronofsky, we linger on close-ups of mouths and what should be normal human features, suddenly becoming infinitely more terrifying and grotesque. I wonder if that creeping sense of horror might reflect an increasing sense of insecurity in the midst of the current financial crisis, as if we’re now more open to seeing our fears in places we wouldn’t quite expect: a prestigious Oscar-quality ballet movie, or a cold exploration of a fictional viral outbreak.

I’ve always had a bit of a fond spot for horror films. I remember I used to love staying with my gran and grandad in Kilbarrick because they’d let me stay up and watch horrors with them. Sure, most were the camp and silly Hammer horror films, but they also introduced me to many of those classics mentioned above, as well as providing my first experience of John Carpenter and Wes Craven and countless other skilled filmmakers working within the genre.

Aronofsky’s Black Swan is a stunning film in its own right, well-made, beautifully crafted and featuring superb performances, but it’s also the type of film that I could imagine showing my gran and grandad with a sense of pride, as if to declare that they hadn’t steered me wrong and that the genre was capable of producing cinematic masterpieces, even if cynics might try to gerrymander them out of “horror” genre. I think that Black Swan might be the most wonderfully handled horror film in recent memory. And that doesn’t make it any more or any less of a film.

I’m counting down my top twelve films of 2011, one a day. Here’s the list so far:

12.) Rango

11.) The Guard

10.) Super 8

09.) The Adjustment Bureau

08.) True Grit

07.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes

06.) The Black Swan

05.) Thor

04.) Midnight in Paris

03.) The Artist

02.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

01.) Drive

You might also like our other end/start-of-year pieces:

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4 Responses

  1. Black Swan is 2010

    • In Ireland, where this blog is based, it was released on 21st January 2011.

      Similarly, Extremely Loud… and War Horse will be eligible for next year’s list. Cheers.

  2. I couldn’t agree with your assessment. I thought Aronofsky made a basic yet clever horror story into something much more through his very stylized approach. I was shocked that my wife loved it when she’s completely against anything even near the horror genre.

    • Hi Dave! I think the only point of disagreement is that there’s something inherently wrong with a “basic yet clever horror story.” I think the genre is just as capable of producing masterpieces as any other, and that Aronofsky’s film is a great example of that. I’d consider it more akin to Ridley Scott’s Alien than to any other Best Picture nominee in the past twenty or thirty years – perhaps because of the rather interesting commentary both films offer on gender.

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