“What must be done, practically? Which action is good? Which action is bad? To ask such a question is also to fall into a naive abstraction . . . Ethics does not furnish recipes any more than do science and art.”
Simone de Beauvoir
Here is the main film poster for The Black Swan (Aronofsky, 2011) – we have a well brought up good girl (ballet dancer), her high, intellectual, brainy, forehead; her full-red–lipped-pout; the immaculate white mask of makeup; the opulent eyelashes, lots of white of the eye –the eternal (girl) feminine; yet this is matched by a disconcerting pursed discontented somewhat disapproving gaze: bivalent, she’s cracked (literally!).
There is another poster image for the film, again featuring Natalie Portman, (how her good girl persona benefits from make up and special effects to transformative ends). This swan threatens with her reddened eyes and black stripes and her interrogative gaze coming straight back at you. This is the feminine as animal, dangerous . . . The gaze which means something out of the ordinary – like as if she means to . . The gaze of the moment of decision- she is going to do it – you are going to have it – the thrill and the threat of another kind of animal. How did we get from one to the other?
Catwoman: another transformation – the film’s is Batman Returns (Burton, 1992) but the flying mouse is totally eclipsed by The Cat. Sorry, but Michael Keaton’s blokishness versus Michelle Pfeiffer – no contest! And Pfeifffer’s Catwoman is such a singular invention in the history of cinema. Somewhere in the pages of Sight and Sound, in a throw away remark, the great but tragically virtually vanished critic Ian Penman, called Catwoman ‘beyond good and evil’ – knowing the full Nietzschean resonance. The comment is completely justified – this Catwoman revalues all previous Hollywood values and is a stitched multiplicity of a body.
The similarities and differences as Pfeiffer becomes Catwoman and as Portman becomes The Black Swan are striking. Early on in the narratives both are scenically pink: wallpaper, cuddly toys, nighties; both have interfering mothers who ring them incessantly and both have crucial transformation scenes. In both films the transformation is de-infantilizing and animalising. The female character progresses from enforced childhood to an animalwomanhood.
Is one transformation more progressive than the other? Considering the overall narrative arches of the films – in the more recent one Portman rebecomes The White Swan and reconciles with mom – but by dying at the end! Whereas Catwoman lives and is seriously independent – that film ends with such an unprecedented line in a Hollywood movie (to the Batman ‘hero’): “I could come and live with you in your castle but I could not live with myself”. What a marvelous anti-fairy tale and anti-patriarchal popular splat! pow! wow! of an ending! On the other hand in The Black Swan, Nina just can’t live. So according to contemporary evaluation The Cat has surely won against The Swan.
But there is more than meets the eye and there is more to a film’s narrative than typical theory understands. What The Black Swan shows us is the madness and the courage of the decision and that we should be sensitive to the resonance of narrative moments rather than how or whether the beginning, middle and end are ordered. In Batman Returns, Catwoman does not have to make a decision at all. She just rejuvenates and is transformed from a dowdy downtrodden desperate Miss (HELLO THERE!) to a misanthropic lycanthrope Ms. (HELL_ _HERE!). In Batman Returns the transformation is brilliant cinema, virtually wordless, highly rich in metaphor and textual play – the cat that sprays, the gothic black supersedes the infantile pink – but it’s a moment which, after seeing The Black Swan loses some charge.
One film can make us critically re-examine another, even another we have loved, even against the critical grain – and so see more clearly the problems with the film that previously in the midst of pleasure and the urge to critical affirmation we had only intuited. So here we have a case of a film with a similar theme effectively critiquing another.
In 2011, equality and independence are not for fantasy anymore, the egalitarian is at last getting very real. A lot has happened in twenty years or so. What was poetic, cryptic, subversive etc. and was so well served by Burton’s fantasist aesthetic is now antique (and the Burton aesthetic seems to have run its course and finished at a fairly uninspiring point at the madhatters chocolate factory.) The transformation in The Black Swan is less poetic and elaborated that that in Batman Returns but means more. Its meanings congregate around decision. The sheer courage of decision making is the topic of the drama here and is matched by the events outside of the cinema in February 2011 – by the courage and decision making of the revolts of the people of Tunisia and Egypt and Libya as well as elsewhere.
The Black Swan highlights the problem with the self as a rational thing and obviously with the self as a unified entity. The problem of the maintenance of black as white, and white as black. What should we do – the white thing, the black thing, the grey thing, the X thing? No matter how well we think we know what is the thing to do, it ‘s the doing of that thing which is difficult, sometimes to the point of a seeming impossibility. You can examine your fear, analyze your emotions, but rational deliberation does not eradicate them, here Jacques Derrida is helpful:
However careful one is in the theoretical preparation of a decision, the instant of the decision, if there is to be a decision, must be heterogeneous to the accumulation of knowledge. Otherwise, there is no responsibility. In this sense not only must the person taking the decision not know everything… the decision, if there is to be one, must advance towards a future which is not known, which cannot be anticipated
There is always something in everything that we call a decision, that entails the recognition that something in it is unknowable, indiscernible, beyond the control of the creature, the animal, that we have hitherto taken ourselves to be. We may think we hold the reins but actually we know that we are entering lands that are very likely beyond our control. Our subjectivity is up for grabs. In Politics of Friendship, Derrida emphasizes that the decision must “surprise the very subjectivity of the subject”. There are always reasons to X and reasons not to X. That four letter word ‘will’, as Nietzsche showed, is an oversimplified token for a complex of drives and emotions pulling in a multiplicity of directions and all this is what The Black Swan dramatizes.
It is the moment of decision which is courageous. At the moment of decision much is lost and much is gained. Here The Swan’s decisions to leave her overbearing mother, to ‘kill’ her rival, to dance on and on until . . . . The courage of self-overcoming with an acknowledgement of the sheer near impossibility of it and the transcendent otherness of act. Or as Alain Badiou would say there is no subject prior to the decision – it is only after the decision that we become a subject, that we really start to live according to an idea. The truth of this transformation is what this film shows and in showing it, it grips us, there is a truth experience which abolishes narrative duration. The film grips just as Nina is gripped – a universal connection is made between her and us – the ones she stares at in different ways in the publicity. That Nina dies at the end of the film isn’t, either in a patriarchal or existential sense, at all comforting – it just tells us that moments of decision with all their attendant anguish and courage will return eternally and will only end (for us) with death.
Gary Widdowfield lives in Middlesbrough in the North East of England. He teaches Philosophy, goes to the cinema and protests against the current Coalition government.