Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bodyslams to Pirouettes, Aronofsky Delivers

Professional Wrestling and Ballet - The two go together about as well as LeBron James and humility. One is considered a lowbrow spectacle of unsophisticated violence, aggression, sweat, and blood. The other is known as a high class, refined art form full of sophistication, grace, and class. (I will let you decide which is which). Turns out, however, the two are not so different, as I realized after seeing the gripping psychological thriller, Black Swan, the latest movie by Darren Aronofsky, who previously brought us the critically acclaimed movie, The Wrestler.

I know what most of you are thinking: "Did that loser just say pro wrestling and ballet are similar?" I can appreciate the apprehension, but (aside from the loser part) you might be wrong to automatically jump to such a hasty conclusion. Case in point - Aronofsky's interview with MTV, where he proclaims that The Wrestler and Black Swan should be considered companion pieces and that the two films actually started as one. Arnofsky states:

“I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art — if they would even call it art — and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves. They’re both performers. At one point, way before I made The Wrestler, I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies. So I guess my dream is that some art theater will play the films as a double feature some day.”

Think about it for a moment: Setting aside preconceived opinions on its value to society, wrestling - like ballet - includes unbelievable physical stunts, performed in unison between two, three, four, or sometimes more athletes, acted out in a choreographed story with heroes and villains, (or faces and heels if you prefer). In an excellent A&E documentary entitled "The Unreal Story of Professional Wrestling", Dr. Gerald W. Morton makes the following somewhat humorous, yet somewhat profound statement:
"If we look at wrestling as fake, then we're judging it for something that it's not intended to be. It is not a sporting competition. It is an exhibition. But would we refer to a performance of Hamlet as fake? No. Wrestling is drama. The word fake is irrelevant when wrestling is viewed as being what it really is."
He said that, not me, and he's a doctor. Anyway, back to Aronofsky's movies...

Walking out of the theater after Black Swan, I immediately began discussing the similarities between it and The Wrestler with my wife. She chuckled at first, looking at me with that disgusted roll of the eyes (married guys you know what I'm talking about), but quickly realized my comparison had some legs.

The first point being that, amazingly, Aronofsky has taken two less than mainstream industries and made Oscar-worthy movies that can appeal to the masses. You do not have to be a wrestling fan to appreciate and enjoy The Wrestler. And even the most burly wrestling mark can enjoy the ballet-filled Black Swan. (And no, I'm not referring to the... ummm... "scene" between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis). But then again, the two movies are not really about wrestling or the ballet are they? Instead, they are about the characters - disillusioned characters who will do anything to stay at (or reach) the top in two grueling, cutthroat industries and how their addictions to their profession take over their lives. Wrestling and ballet are just the vehicles of destruction. They are the antagonists. You do not have to understand wrestling or the ballet to understand the pain and downward spiral associated with both movies' main characters.

While The Wrestler had some comedic spots (no pun intended) and several heart felt moments, there are few in Black Swan. As a former wrestling star, down on his luck, clinging to what he feels is the only part of his world that accepts him unconditionally, Randy "The Ram" Robinson is shown as a warm, caring, if not juvenile (albeit flawed) character. On the contrary, Nina Sayers (Portman's character) has never been fully accepted. Not by fellow dancers, not by the head of the ballet company, not even by her weirdo Carrie-esque mother (brilliantly portrayed by Barbara Hershey). This has led to a cold and isolated life, filled with child-like routines and dreams.

Both films were shot from a lower budget perspective with qualities of a documentary. In fact at one point in Black Swan, a camera (held within inches of the back of her head) follows Natalie Portman, jerking and shaking with every movement. An almost identical scene can be found in The Wrestler, as we follow Mickey Rourke. This device says nothing about the comparison of pro wrestling and ballet (unless you are comparing pony tails of a washed up 80s wrestler to that of an aspiring ballerina's), but provides discussion for aspiring movie makers to be studied in film schools everywhere.

Ironically, Black Swan and it's look into the ballet world is the edgier, more gritty, more disturbing of the two films. And not just in the brutal and violent sense normally associated with wrestling, but in the psychological manipulation of the viewer. Colorful tights and characters apparent in The Wrestler are nowhere to be found in Black Swan. Instead, the entire film utilizes black and white. That is not to be confused with the movie being shot in black and white - instead, almost everything from the set, to the props, to the costumes are strategically either black or white. This is not only a metaphor for the story of Swan Lake (the ballet being performed in the movie) but more importantly, is a critical device to set the tone and theme of the movie and its main character. Black Swan is a true artistic expression with stunning (and shocking) visuals. While there are no chair shots, power bombs onto thumb tacks, or planchas through tables, Black Swan delivers (perhaps more than it's wrestling counterpart) in pulling the viewer into Nina's world to experience the physical and mental cruelty that she deals with by being an overly obsessed perfectionist. Aronofsky states:
“Most of my time, I’d be thinking, ‘This is an amazing closeup, but how am I going to let audiences appreciate this?’ Wrestling, it’s very clear how to show that. My goal there was to show how much it actually, physically hurt. People always think it’s fake, and my point was, ‘Sure, it’s fake, the outcome is already decided, but the stunts are not fake. These are real people falling onto a concrete floor.’ For me, what was so interesting about ballet was these athletes have done it for so many years — some of them start at four or five years old — and they make it effortless, so that you cannot see the skill involved. It’s almost impossible to experience how hard it is to get your leg over your head when you’re standing on the tip of your foot. It looks so easy. But when you’re up close, you can see the muscles ripping. For me, it was about, ‘How do I make that effort visually exciting?’ “
Visually exciting? How about downright disturbing? Not only do we get gruesome visuals, but we hear bones crunching and muscles ripping, causing us to squirm uncomfortably in our seats. It would seem I was describing a film set in the world of wrestling, not ballet, but that is what makes Black Swan complete. It utilizes a variety of methods - (lack of) color, sound, camera angles, symbols, metaphors - to engulf and shock the viewer throughout the entire movie. Darren Aronofsky seems to value film as a true art form rather than a cash grab. Refreshing in today's world of hallow big budget "blockbusters", sequels, remakes, and the newest trend - reboots.

Surprisingly, although I think it was very good movie, I was a little disappointed in The Wrestler. Perhaps a fan of the ballet might feel the same way about Black Swan. (I mean come on - a diving hurricanrana from a 1980s era American professional wrestler? Planchas were not introduced to the American wrestling scene until the mid-90s infusion of the Mexican Lucha Libre stars - duh!) But underneath the tights, elaborate costumes, and staged story lines, both The Wrestler and Black Swan manage to do what most successful movies do - reach down and tug at human emotions. Aronofsky not only tugs - he twists.

So what have we learned? Wrestling and ballet are pretty much the same, give or take a few "minor" details. (By the way, your 1,000 word essay comparing the Swan Lake ballet to the Mega Powers story line will be due one week from today). Black Swan is very good and definitely a movie worth seeing. And if you haven't seen The Wrestler, check it out too.

Black Swan is currently playing in theaters everywhere.