Film Review – Black Swan

Black Swan (2010, dir. Darren Aronofsky)
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder

With Darren Aronofsky you know you will get something ambitious, whether its ambitious in its drama (Requiem for a Dream), its scope (The Fountain), or its simplicity (The Wrestler). Are they always winners? Nope, but they always bring forth a completely unique vision and experience. With Black Swan, Aronofsky is bringing together elements from all his previous work. You have the severe schizophrenic breakdown of a character, you have a hallucinatory transformations, and you have the destruction of the physical body for the sake of one’s art. The film also breaks the boundaries of genre by being both one of the best dramas and one of the best horror films of the year.

Nina Sayers (Portman) is one of the many dancers that perform at New York’s Lincoln Center. The prima ballerina of the company (Ryder) is on her way and out and the manipulative director, Thomas (Cassel) is looking for his new “little princess”. A re-interpretive staging of Swan Lake is in the works and Nina finds herself in competition with the new girl, Lily (Kunis). Lily works against the conventions of the ballerina, staying out late, dropping ecstasy, and being very laid back with her work ethic. Nina must also contend with her mother (Hershey) who is babies her daughter and attempts to mold her into the dancer she failed to be. Nina is suffering from strange abrasions on her back and is beginning to have intense nightmares about the ballet. All of this is leading down a dark and destructive path….or is she merely fighting against those who have constrained her since she was a child.

Everything about this film clicks, the performances are pitch perfect and the direction from Aronofksy hits on all cylinders. There is the return of the shaky handheld cinematography of The Wrestler that adds that vérité feel to the story. In direct contrast to the realism of cinematography there is amazing use of makeup and CG effects. The films does a great job in balancing the psychological horror, and will make you question deeply what events actually happen to Nina and which are the product of a fragmented mind. I was most impressed with how Portman manages to infantilize Nina’s behavior in very subtle and nuanced ways. She doesn’t babytalk, but the way she interacts with her mother and her director bring out her childlike mentality. Her rebellion against these forces of control is played naturally and its horrific outcome resonates in the mind for a long time after.

DocuMondays – Art and Copy

Art and Copy (2009, dir. Doug Pray)

It’s everywhere. You experience it almost every hour of the day, and it is usually while you are in a passive state. It persists and nags at your brain without you ever realizing it, but when you see it done exceptionally well you sit up and make note. Advertising is a modern psychological virus. The majority of it is terrible, which makes sense when you think about how much of it there is. As the film states, we experience 5,000 advertisements a day in multiple mediums. When it is done well, we slip out of passivity, sit up, and make note. What’s interesting is the best advertising either sets an atmosphere without every directly referencing the product, or is completely direct about the product and the emotion that goes along with it. This documentary interviews the pioneers of modern advertising from the mid-1960s to the 1980s.

The documentary is structured in a very clean way. Each section of the film is divided with a scene without dialogue and statistics on advertising placed over scenes of urban meditation. The first section of the film talks about the environment the featured advertisers came into. We’ve all seen ads from the 1950s which have an air of a false stereotypical salesman’s pitch. With the young turks that took over in the 1960s, they began to create provocative ads that didn’t necessarily give the viewer information on the product, but evoked curiosity and emotion in them. The Volkswagen Beetle ads of the late 60s were a major breakthrough in American advertising, where the quirkiness of the product was acknowledged. Very straightforward taglines were used instead of just making the logo swallow up the space.

It was the firm Doyle Dane Bernach that brought us the Beetle ads, and the shockingly harsh (for its time) American Tourister luggage ad, as well as the hyper arty Braniff airline campaign and finally the I (Heart) NY image. Mary Wells, the Peggy of her time, was an incredibly inventive and creative copy editor who took her background in theatrics and applied it to advertising. The sense of drama in commercials is something that sticks with us today (think Budweiser frogs, Taster’s Choice soap opera). At the time these ideas were presented, the good old boy network in charge were confounded and even the clients were often times frightened at the possibility of risking their brand on such ideas.

The documentary focuses a lot on the divide between the business side and the creative side, particularly how in the old paradigm, the accounts people were over creative. In the 1960s, this was subverted with the creative types either becoming more aggressive or striking out on their own. The East Coast was also the mecca of advertising so no one was noticing when the West Coast firms began rolling out revolutionary campaigns. It was one of these firms that got the Apple Computers contract and brought up the “1984” Superbowl ad, introducing the Mac to us through a Ridley Scott directed ad. You never see the Mac once. This firm still holds the Apple account and came up with “Think Different” in the 1990s and the current silhouette iPod campaign.

The final segment of the film deals with the ethical responsibilities of the advertiser, in specifics how it ties to politics. They feature the Morning in America Regan ads from 1984 that are unlike anything out today, and epitomize the way an incumbent can run and win again. Some of the interviewees agree that the ads works, but from an ethical perspective they find it misleading because of the facts it ignored. Hal Riney, the man behind the Morning in America ad confesses that his habit of going purely emotional in his ads goes back to a childhood where affection was held back from him. In the majority of his work images of the Rockwell America is evoked in a cleverly deceptive way. If you are at all interested in media and the way humanity’s decisions can be shifted by the creative this would be a very insightful film to digest.

DocuMondays – Objectified

Objectified (2009, dir. Gary Hustwitt)

Take the toothpick. There is a particular design, Japanese in origin, where the toothpick had a designed head, almost like ridges. This head can be broken off as a signal that the toothpick is in use, always a good thing. It can also be used as a rest for the toothpick so that the point doesn’t touch any surfaces, like so. I doubt many of us view toothpicks with much contemplation on a daily basis, yet we use them fairly frequently. Objectified is a documentary looking at all those aspects of an object we spend zero time thinking about, but the interviewees has devoted their lives to examining.

Director Hustwitt, responsible for the similar and interesting documentary Helvetica, explores a very modernist approach to design. Apple is mentioned many times as a company on the cutting edge of premier, sleek design. One on the interviewees is Jonathan Ive, the man behind the iMac in all its iterations and talks about the focus on monitor tube of the first iMac to the now self-contained flat screen monitor of the current. We see the raw aluminum slate that is processed to create the frame of the MacBook laptop and Ive emphasizes all the thought that went into these particular materials in this particular shape, and how the average user will never think or realize this.

While there is much focus on industrial design, many of the commentators talk about the need to create new sustainable objects while simultaneously learning to find appreciation in the objects we already have. One of the interesting ideas in relation to sustainability is presented by Karim Rashid, a rather flamboyment and dynamic designer. Rashid posits that to solve the problem of landfills brimming over with garbage we design objects that are disposable from the start, and he includes high end electronics like cell phones and laptops. I have to say its intriguing to think of a cell phone with a high quality cardboard shell that could easily be tossed out and its sim chip placed in a new shell for cheap. Or even a laptop where you boot from a thumb drive and the computer itself is merely a way to interact with the data on that drive and access the internet.

Critic Rob Walker was the most enjoyable to listen to, as he presented the side of realizing that the objects one has already accrued contain more emotional value to the user than the Now object which is new and we are told we must have. He presents the scenario where your house is on fire and the things you grab as you run out are not those things that scored particularly well in a review you read somewhere, rather they are things that inform you about yourself in someway. Walker also discusses the corporate marketing around objects that he believes causes the quality of materials to be downgraded. He refers to this idea of desiring new as the New Now, which is designed to make the previous New Now become Then. All in all, a lot of interesting ideas presented by people who are experts in every sense of the word about design.

DocuMondays – Beautiful Losers

Beautiful Losers (2008, dir. Aaron Rose, Joshua Leonard)

Starring Shepherd Fairey, Harmony Korine, Mike Mills, Jo Jackson, Chris Johansen, Geoff McFetridge, Margaret Kilgallen, Thomas Campbell, Barry McGee, Ed Templeton
Artists have always precariously walked the line between commerce and staying true their vision, and culturally we consider those who are able to commoditize their work to have succeeded. The reverse of this is that elements of strictly commercial art have been adopted by artists who have no interest in marketing iconography. My personal understanding of art is probably summed up as “I like what I like”. And the art and artists featured in this film I like.
The documentary chronicles the work of artists who came up in director Aaron Rose’s Alleged Art Gallery in Manhattan during the 1990s. The vast majority of the personalities profiled here came out of the skateboard or punk scenes and ,when you look at the methodology of their art, it makes sense. Pop art has been the strongest influence in the work of these now fortysomethings, in particular retro advertisement art. Painter Jo Jackson states that she loves old advertisements for products that are now obsolete because the seductive properties of the capitalism behind it has died.
The frustration of many artists in this documentary is with how quickly their work was gobbled up by a system that looks to make everything a commodity. There were stickers and buttons being sold at Hot Topic adorned with their work and they admit it felt like having a piece of oneself taken. On the other side, graphic artist Geoff McFetridge was responsible for a Pepsi One advertising campaign and admits he was happy to do it, but also fearful of how the artistic community around him would react. Their reaction was very positive and Geoff hinges this on the fact that he never compromised what made his work his.
The male artists featured, particularly those from the skateboarding community, are constantly wavering the line between their adolescence and adulthood. A major turning point for a lot of them came during an extended stay and series of shows in Tokyo that ended when Margaret Kilgallen, painter and wife of Barry McGee, learned she was pregnant and almost simultaneously that she had cancer. Kilgallen gave birth to her daughter and about two weeks later succumbed to the cancer. The film focuses on this as the moment where a lot of the artists’ personal visions became clear and the air of “punk” lessened a bit. This became a Do It Yourself mentality that is a hallmark of contemporary youth culture today.