A touch of summer cinema: The Fighter and Black Swan

The holiday horror film season is over, though the forgettable blockbusters – let’s not mention their titles – are still dragging their way like decaying corpses across cinema screens. Still, this season has been different: for the first time in memory, there has been a cluster of films that I’ve actually wanted to see. This is pretty exciting, really, because I like going to the cinema. I like the big screen and sound, the fact I’m shut off from the world. Still, it’s remarkable how often I leave the movie theatre disappointed, cursing, in particular, the scriptwriting. Far too often spectacle replaces story. Thankfully, the first two movies I saw, The Fighter and Black Swan, did not disappoint. Neither are classics, but they pull their weight, and, most importantly, are about something.

The Fighter Movie PosterThe Fighter (warning: spoilers!) tells the story of Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), an Irish-American from Lowell in Massachusetts. Trained by his crack-addict brother Ricky (Christian Bale), and managed by his controlling mother (Melissa Leo), Micky is a ‘stepping stone’ on the boxing circuit. Other boxers use him as a notch on their belt, a step towards a chance to fight better boxers. This is not helped by his family’s willingness to accept offers of unfair fights.

For the first three quarters of its running time, The Fighter is a careful examination of the dynamics of a dysfunctional working-class family, as seen through the lens of a boxer. While the film stays on this ground, it is a sound piece of filmmaking. As the unpredictable Ricky, Bale shambles charismatically, and ambiguously, through the film. Bale leaves us never quite sure whether to sympathise with or despise Ricky, though to the people of Lowell, he’s clearly a lovable larrikin. Wahlberg’s Micky is altogether quieter – a simple, honest type. If these characters are hardly original, they are drawn with more than sufficient insight. The female characters are given less room to move. Micky’s girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) is hardheaded and feisty bartender, while his harridan mother, manipulative and self-deluded. Still, his sisters get the shortest, most stereotypical, shrift. Together they’re a chorus of bitching, gum-chewing, big-haired, working-class women.

The social world of the The Fighter is not often seen in American films. The vast flood of Hollywood movies and two-dimensional television has a tendency to conjure an America that is little more than imagination. It is easy to forget how much of the country resembles the world of The Fighter.

Having set up the family tensions – will Micky ditch Ricky and his mother to improve his career, will Charlene stick around despite the family dramas? – The Fighter’s last act makes a fatal turn to the sporting movie. All the previous conflicts are replaced by a single, less interesting one: will Micky win the Welterweight?

Indeed, that The Fighter’s closest cousins are The Wrestler, Million Dollar Baby and the basketball documentary Hoop Dreams, indicates to us that there’s something very familiar about the narrative of a character from a rough neighborhood making good. Indeed, there may be something conservative about celebrating a narrative that the only way a working-class character can make it is through by being an athlete (as Bell Hooks’ has pointed out in relation to African-Americans in Hoop Dreams). We are asked to celebrate Micky’s ascent, rather than examine it. In this sense, The Fighter is the inverse of a film like Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, which, among other things, critiques the commercialization of the wrestling scene in America.

black-swan-poster-2010Aronofsky’s recent film, the engrossing Black Swan, revisits the same themes as his earlier The Wrestler, and indeed Requiem For a Dream: obsessive characters who are on a path of self-destruction.

Black Swan tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a perfectionist ballet dancer in New York who scores the lead part in Swan Lake. But from early in the piece, doubts are cast about whether Nina will be able to handle the pressure of such a part, and her world slowly starts to unravel. Strange sores emerge on her shoulders where wings might grow; she sees her own double several times. No doubt Portman’s performance is excellent as the insecure Nina, perpetually on the brink of tears, painfully self-conscious and insecure, awkward and sexually repressed – frigid as the demanding director Thomas (Vincent Cassel) says. Perhaps it’s the psychosexual aspects of the story – Nina’s movement from frigid and repressed to seductive killer – that are most questionable.

Anyone familiar with the tropes of gothic horror will find little new here, even if they are handled with surety. The blood and self-mutilation, Nina’s opposite appearing in dark corridors (echoing Jung’s notion of the shadow), the incessant and well-worn technique of filming Nina’s fractured image in a mirror, the breakdown of the line between reality and fantasy, Nina’s use of former (perfect) dancer Beth’s (Winona Ryder) personal effects in an attempt to somehow embody her – all of these are well-worn tracks in horror and thriller movies.

The characters are equally recognizable: Nina’s mother (Barbara Hershey) is controlling and obsessive, while the slightly too friendly fellow dancer Lily (Mila Kunis), undermines Nina. Adding to the clichés is the ‘brilliant’ but demanding male director who pushes Nina to the brink, at times coming on to her, at other times scathing. Black Swan’s problem is not that such characters don’t exist, but rather that the film has no critique of them. Instead, it accepts the terms of all of these characters. Each is an unexamined stereotype, without much depth.

We know, from early on, that this will not end well. This is a narrative that must end in psychic disintegration (A related film that comes to mind is Betty Blue). There will be no redemption. The terms of the narrative are already set – there is no internal critique of the dance world, in the way that The Wrestler so successfully critiqued the wrestling world. Whereas The Wrestler implied a political analysis, Black Swan is a narrow psychological investigation.

Black Swan’s narrative arc is in a sense an inverted version of The Fighter’s, and in many ways equally conservative. If The Fighter naturalises the path of the boxer, Black Swan romanticises the descent of a female artist to madness. It revels in Nina’s breakdown, inviting us into a voyeuristic relationship with it (partly though the cinematography which lingers lovingly on Portman’s delicate face, her sculpted figure; the finest moments of filmmaking are the dancing scenes). In the end, for Aronofsky, there’s something beautiful about Nina’s final descent. From the shadow comes perfection and creativity, indeed, for a female artist to achieve perfection, they must be destroyed.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Rjurik Davidson is a writer, editor and speaker. Rjurik’s novel, The Stars Askew was released in 2016. Rjurik is a former associate editor of Overland magazine. He can be found at rjurik.com and tweets as @rjurikdavidson.

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  2. I thought Black Swan was brilliant. The characters were indeed stiock protagonists drawn from fairy tale tradition and, to a lesser extent, gothic genre. But that’s the point. Swan Lake is the basis of the film, after all. It’s also a very interesting study of the closed world of classical ballet with it’s rigid hierarchies that mirror those of social class. The technical aspects of the film were high order, especially acting and production design. I read it as a psychological thriller with something to say about culturally proscribed notions of ‘excellence’ operate in smite art forms. That said, I was utterly engaged throughout. I didn’t find the psychological dimension at all narrow. The sex sub theme worked for me, too. Might even see it again. Will certainly see The Fighter and will revisit The Wrestler. Next on my list is True Grit.

    • I agree that the film was – with the exception of all those heavyhanded mirror-shots – generally well made. As I wrote, it was done with surety – engrossing. But I’m not at all convinced that the stock protagonists in the fairy tale tradition is ‘the point.’ Or if it is, I’d expect the filmmaker to do something more with them. The analysis of ballet with its rigid hierarchies; perhaps that is more to the point. But are Thomas and his position really critiqued? If so, what does the film say about it? Is he the antagonist of the piece, or is it Nina’s dark side that is the antagonist? I think probably the latter. In any case, I’d love you to elaborate, Anonymous.

  3. Anonymous!

    Are Thomas and his position really critiqued?
    If so, what does the film say about it?
    Is he the antagonist of the piece, or is Nina’s
    dark side the antagonist? I think
    probably the latter.
    In any case, I’d love you
    to – wait for it-

  4. Well, I guess your arty films are fine. But why can’t you review a movie like this one? I mean, how many indestructible robots does Black Swan have?

  5. Thanks for this. Aranofsky sure knows how to make an audience squirm. I was tempted to walk out of Black Swan for much of the first 90 minutes – the cliches were overblown, the characters thin stereotypes, as you rightly point out. He’s a nasty filmmaker, and doesn’t seem too interested in subtleties or nuance in his characters. There’s always a sense of inevatability about their downfall, and no (real) hopes of redemption.

    Still, somehow, this film ended up not being the disaster it could have been. The final 30 minutes were pretty enthralling, portman’s performance was good, the original score complemented the excerts from tchaikovsky’s swan lake, and the climax (though predictable) was moving.

  6. Why is it only the \descent of a female artist to madness\ that is reveled in?

    I think you might have been a bit quick to see the Wrestler as political commentary (although this is Overland, I suppose) and thus missed the more personal, as you say \narrow psychological\ aspect of that film.

    Is not Mickey Rourke’s increasingly self destructive obsession with his performed life as wrestler, the only life he feels can still give him meaning, just as romanticised in its way as Nina’s downward spiral?

    It is melencholy, yes, but I would argue the film invites us to see artistic self destruction as a tragic, but somehow noble outcome. To question it, yes, but certainly not to be repelled by it. Isn’t that the same thing as showing \something beautiful about Nina’s final descent\?

    In both cases, it is the beauty of taking things to the wall, burning out brightly, as well as the tragedy of individuals who, whether for personal or social reasons, or a micture of both, lead very lonely, narrowly focused but intensely passionate lives.

    My point is, I think you were implying some form of \sexism\ inherent in Aronofsky’s depiction of Nina’s downfall, and I just don’t buy that.

    Apologies, and correct me, if I’ve misread that implication.

    • No, you’re right, I do think there may be some kind of underlying sexism to Nina’s downfall (tragic female beauty must be destroyed), even if its depiction is ambivalent and contradictory. Perhaps I’ve overstated one side of the contradiction, but it was the side that struck me most after viewing the movie. (I’m not sure if there are feminist reviews around; I try to avoid reading other people’s reviews until I’ve pretty much written my own.) Important to this is the way she is sexualised – she is mostly ‘frigid’, or sexually ravenous – and this is related to her art. To play the black swan, she must become the evil seductress (femme fatale-type figure), in real life.

      You’re right that The Wrestler charts a similar course, but important to the film is Randy’s relationship to his audience. He also gives up wrestling it up for a while to work in a supermarket, which turns out to be horrible. These things bring his existence out into the social world, whereas Nina never really moves (except in the dance scene) out of the dancing world. Perhaps I’ve overstated it (and you’re right there’s the psychological dimension to it) but I think this is a difference.

  7. I dunno Rjurik.
    My review of The Fighter goes up in my local paper tomorrow. Like this:
    “The Fighter, stars Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg as two half-brothers, Dicky and Micky. Yes, that’s what they are really called. Dicky is an ex-boxer who once knocked out a champion, but is now a crack addict and all round loser. Micky, is a no-longer-younger boxer, trained by his brother and managed by his harridan mother who barges around with Mick and Dick’s six or seven harridan sisters in tow. Ma and Dick continually set Mick up in lucrative fights in which he gets beaten to a pulp. But when Dick ends up in jail, and Mick falls in love with a smart and big-hearted bar girl, Charlene (Amy Adams), he gets a chance to be free of his toxic family and make a go of it as a real fighter.
    Hollywood has created a whole genre of boxing films, that follow the same general pattern; working class white guy tries to rebuild his wretched life one last time, and has a final epic fight that he nearly loses. It’s something of a fantasy as most of the great American boxers have been black. But the myth of the stalwart, white, star-crossed blue-collar man with a heart of gold, dies hard. Wahlberg and Bale are fine as the two bro’s, though Bale seems to spend much of his time unaccountably trying to speak through duck-lips. The Fighter starts off as a tale about how hard it is to get away from toxic families, and slowly drifts off track. About two-thirds of the way through The Fighter, I realized that it was going to try and have it both ways, and say that when families are toxic and harmful, they’re still cuddly because they’re family.
    The Fighter is getting some attention as an Oscar contender, which probably says something about the quality of Hollywood films at the moment. The Fighter is not a bad film at all, but there are better boxing films around. If you feel you seriously need to see a good boxing film, the documentary about Muhammad Ali, When We Were Kings, is a better bet.”

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