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Once, the musical

When you enter New York Theatre Workshop’s space on E. 4th St. to see Once, the musical adaptation of the 2007 Irish indie film (see my 2007 blog post on the film), the well-worn theatre suddenly feels like a party hall.  The stage has been transformed into a bar, replete with distressed old mirrors and sconce lights, and a low counter that serves double-duty as a place for spectators to get a pint before the play proper starts and as a secondary acting platform for the considerable talents of this musically distinguished and emotionally empathetic cast.

In Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s faithful adaptation, the Dublin community on which the story focuses is bound by its music making.  The cast is small by musical theatre standards, since the “community here,” usually represented by dozens of supernumeraries, is the close-knit one of Dublin street buskers and musicians who remain soulfully devoted to music as an expression of their pining spirits.

Steve Kazee plays “the guy,” a recently jilted, emotionally and artistically ambivalent singer/song-writer who at the show’s beginning, after a wrenching solo, has decided to abandon his battered guitar on the street as a kind of remnant of his own lost soul.

But “the girl” (like “the guy,” also nameless, an odd conceit borrowed from the film) overhears his ballad and brings him emphatically back to his music and to his life.  Played by the lovely, energetic Cristin Milioti (last seen at NYTW in Ivo Van Hove’sLittle Foxes), she drags him to a music store where she borrows a piano on which to accompany him in her resonant, equally soulful style.  Through sheer will and a bit of artfully withheld romance, she encourages him to resume his music-making in America, where he can reconnect with his departed girlfriend and have a wonderful life.

As in the film, music expresses the duo’s personalities and their yearnings.  The musical’s loveliest and most haunting number remains the Academy Award-winning “Falling Slowly,” written and performed by Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová, the original guy and girl who remain credited for the music and lyrics of this adaptation.  The ballad grows as a duet between the two, whose voices blend perfectly as their separate instruments play a kind of syncopated, already sad flirtation.

Although the pair fall in love as soon as they begin harmonizing together, the musical keeps them apart rather than uniting this typically central heterosexual couple as more conventional musical stories are wont to do.  In fact, one of the pleasures ofOnce is watching it resist the stereotypical formula.  The community that typically mirrors the central couple’s initial opposition—like the cowboys and the farmers who should be friends in Oklahoma—here are already united.

Walsh manufactures some humorous initial conflict between Billy (Paul Whitty), the music store owner, and the bank manager (Andy Taylor) to whom the girl and guy turn for a loan to make their album.  When the banker turns out to be a closeted musician (and a not-so-closeted gay man), he gives the couple the money and joins the band, overcoming Billy’s suspicion of capitalists to become part of the singing and playing ensemble.

In fact, that band of sympathetic brothers and sisters is one of the sweetest things about this very sweet show.  Director John Tiffany (Black Watch) keeps his instrument-playing and singing cast on stage throughout Once, John Doyle-style.  He guides them toward saloon-style chairs that line the wide proscenium stage in between numbers.  From there, they watch the action intently and provide the occasional musical punctuation or undertone.

The several acoustic guitars, an electric bass, a banjo, an accordion, a ukulele, a bass, and two violins, as well as a drum set employed in the climactic studio recording scene, compose the orchestra, all played by members of the cast.  The mournful ballads underscore the fated love story, and the musicians provide pre-show and intermission Irish pub music to persuade the audience into the Dublin world of Once.

And the audience loves it.  They approach the bar on stage willingly before the show and during the intermission, where cast and crew pull pints of Guinness and other beers.  Several spectators the night I attended danced with the musicians who sang together center stage, stomping their feet Riverdance-style and making that particularly Irish sort of merry before the central story got underway.

The pre-show party is a fun theatrical choice, shaking up, as it does, the conventional separation between performer and spectator.  The choice to create a pub-style environment that lets the show be small and intimate, signals from the start that Onceis not aspiring to more typical musical spectacle that would mock the more personal commitments at the film’s heart.

The guy lives with his father (David Patrick Kelly), a crusty old Dubliner named “Da,” above the vacuum repair shop they run together.  When the girl finds the guy losing heart on the street, she asks him to fix her Hoover, insisting that he make the machine “suck.”  Because she’s Czech—and Walsh gets a fair amount of mileage from her Eastern European seriousness—she soberly sets about the task of re-inspiring the guy toward his own talents.

He’s grudging at first, floundering on the shoals of lost love and confusion about his own ambitions.  But she’s insistent.  In the first act, in fact, she’s a bit too single-minded in her intention to repair his heart, and appears the stereotypical girl in the service of a guy’s future rather than her own.

But Walsh gives the character more nuances in the second act.  She has a child and a husband who’s on his way back to Dublin from a trial separation.  And although she’s drawn to the guy, she has a stalwart ethic that requires her to try to make her marriage work.  That the guy and the girl clearly love one another but don’t become lovers is a refreshing tactic for a musical.  Their attraction shimmers around the show, and their sad but somehow right failure to consummate their love makes Once wistful and somehow true about those complicated affairs of the heart.

Bob Crowley’s evocative set and costumes are lit beautifully by Natasha Katz, who gilds the actors with the kind of romantic, introspective warmth that seems to deepen their emotional complexity.  Many of the show’s scenes take place in squares of light that mark off the space, carving it into intimate encounters between pairs of characters–the guy and his father; the guy and the girl; Billy and his date.  Once, as a result, is an intimate, surprisingly quiet affair, in which between the numbers, the characters spend time simply talking to one another about their desires, hopes, and dreams.

The Czech background of the girl and her extended family—her mother, daughter, and cousins figure heavily into her Dublin life—is played for laughs.  The cousins, of all the musical’s characters, are cardboard stereotypes meant to elicit the national confusions and language humor that comes from immigrants navigating new worlds.

Walsh and Tiffany handle the film’s international flair with supertitles which, in a creative twist, project the English dialogue into the characters’ native tongues.  That is, the audience sees the girl’s exchanges with her family projected in Czech, and some of the Dubliner’s dialogue projected in Irish.  The actors speak in English with various degrees of Eastern European and Irish accents, none of which are pronounced enough to get in the way of comprehension.

The show’s choreography is light and unobtrusive, but occasionally inspired, as when the girl and the guy, in separate images, seem to sculpt the air with their arms, providing circles of warmth and intimacy into which one of the other performers walks.  For instance, the girl, downstage center, curves her arm out in front of her, and one of the other women moves into her embrace, leaning her back into the girl’s chest and circling her arm around her waist so that the girl can lay her chin on the other woman’s shoulder.

In another light but poignant dance moment, when the girl listens to the guy’s music on a pair of large headphones, the two other young women in the cast (both of whom play the violin) mirror her as she moves about the stage, their hands outstretched into the air with the exhilaration of listening to sounds you love.

Once is a charming production, currently selling out at NYTW and poised to move to Broadway in February.  The show’s investors premiered the production at Diana Paulus’s American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge before the move to NYTW; they apparently have always planned on a Broadway run.

When the show moves to the Bernard Jacobs Theatre, I only hope it finds a way to retain the intimacy of its appeal for a larger audience.  It would be a shame to sacrifice the pub-like atmosphere of the theatre, and the quiet simplicity of the acting and the singing, or to make the show wholly bigger for a Broadway crowd.

The appeal of Once comes from the appropriate scale of its ambitions—to tell a story through lovely ballads, sung from broken, yearning young hearts.

The Feminist Spectator

Once, New York Theatre Workshop, December 16, 2011.

Link to original post on Blogspot. 


Writer/director Maryam Keshavarz’s beautiful, disturbing film tells the story of two Iranian high school girlfriends in Teheran whose growing attraction and love for one another quickly hits the wall of religious interdiction and oppressive patriarchy. Filmed with a grainy realism, Circumstance is haunted by impending doom, even in its frequent moments of whimsical affection and erotic passionate.

The film’s opening scene sets the tone, as Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy) stand among their young peers in a school yard, all wearing identical, modesty-imposing skirts and jackets and hijabs that barely hide the two women’s beauty. Shireen slips an origami bird into Atafeh’s hand, a gesture of fondness weighted with the symbolism of impossible flight and escape that comes to define the girls’ relationship and their lives.

Although Circumstance follows the young women’s sexual and emotional relationship in the context of the Iranian theocracy, the film more broadly addresses the country’s human rights violations against women. A pervasive sense of surveillance quickly becomes the film’s visual motif. In that first schoolyard scene, after the headmistress dismisses the girls, we see Atafeh and Shireen hail a taxi to leave the school grounds. Keshavarz shoots the action from above in grainy black and white, as if through the lens of a security camera.

The image conveys the intrusive intimacy of being so closely watched. These images appear regularly throughout the story, reminding spectators of the omnipresent eye of the religious authorities whose word holds sway, even as the two young women seem blissfully unaware of how their every move is observed and catalogued.

Ata’s brother, Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), serves as the family’s in-house surveyor. He returns to the family fold at the film’s start, after an unexplained absence. Mehran was a talented musician who’s given up his gift after recovering from a devastating drug addiction that’s left his father suspicious and his mother forgiving. Mehran replaces his passion for music and drugs with religious fanaticism, surprising his wealthy, secular family with his new commitment to prayer.

Mehran becomes the vehicle through which Iranian theocracy infiltrates the micro-level of the family unit. His post-addiction paranoia translates into obsessive spying on his sister and the rest of his family. His eye supplements the state’s, as he installs cameras around his family’s home through which he observes their every interaction.

He also collaborates with the mullahs who become his new compatriots. When he begins to understand the physical and emotional reality of Ata and Shireen’s relationship, he engineers a series of confrontations in which the morality police round up and harass the two girls. Mehran comes to Shireen’s rescue in a way that forces her to depend on his manufactured generosity and allows him to manipulate her into an unwanted marriage.

While Ata’s family is well-off and initially protected from the authoritative whims of the local mullahs, Shireen’s parents were professors executed as counter-revolutionaries by the theocratic regime. The beautiful, doleful young woman lives with her uncle and her grandmother, tenuously attached to the relatives who tolerate the economic burden of her presence. Her grandmother adores her; a scene in which they dance together in the kitchen with a kind of joyous freedom is lovely, and contrasts sharply with those of her uncle trying to palm her off on another man by arranging a marriage before Mehran steps in to offer himself.

When Ata and Shireen are arrested on a fabricated morality charge, the cruel officials accuse Shireen of being a whore. They belittle her and threaten to hang her, just as the state hanged her parents. Ata is fierce on her friend’s behalf, and saved by the sage generosity of her own father, who bails her out by bribing the unctuous, dangerous mullah. But Shireen knows how limited her options are without money or a father to rescue her, and becomes trapped by the impossibility of truly being free as a woman in a deeply patriarchal, religiously driven social order.

Because Shireen’s lineage already puts her at a political disadvantage, Keshavarz establishes visually how the male-embodied state holds power over her very flesh. When Shireen takes a taxi from a party alone, the driver abuses her sexually, using her for his fetishistic pleasures.

Likewise, Mehran’s patriarchal hold over Shireen and his sister begins to leech away Shireen’s sexual desire and control. Watching her degenerate from a powerfully erotic young woman who plays with men but clearly loves Ata into a sexually and emotionally subservient wife is one of the film’s many heart-breaking narrative arcs.

Keshavarz directs her two, fresh leading actors with subtly and respect. Boosheri and Kazemy are lovely together as Ata and Shireen, communicating the stark contrast between what their newly matured bodies want and what their deeply constrictive public culture allows. They convey their love for one another with small gestures that Keshavarz captures with simple delicacy—one girl’s finger curling around the other’s as they stand in line at school or as they walk together with the men who comprise their social lives; the quick kiss Shireen gives Ata when she breaks a car window to steal a shimmering handbag she admires; and especially in the way the girls dance together, alone in Ata’s room, before Mehran intrudes on their pleasure. Their physical freedom, and the obvious eroticism of their bond as they dance together with delight while they watch “American Idol,” is at once moving and wrenching.

Ata and Shireen’s palpable attraction to one another provokes anxiety in the film’s spectators, if not in the other characters, about their fates. But although Keshavarz keeps the threat of danger flickering around the film, only the scenes with the mullah and Mehran actualize the dire circumstances in which the women live. Still, their lives are a series of close calls, each of which underlines the cost of female resistance and the gender hypocrisy of Iranian culture.

For example, Ata and Shireen frequent parties in Teheran’s underground, where young people dance to Western music, drink, do drugs, and experiment with sex in ways Keshavarz depicts as normal for 21st century young people. But these rites of passage are consigned to private homes, which Ata and Shireen enter by pretending they’re going to sewing circles. Their male friends, on the other hand, can range freely through Iranian society, without the sartorial or behavioral constraints that confine the young women.

Keshavarz also complicates the film’s gender politics by making Ata and Shireen’s male intimates rather harmless, suggesting that they are constructed into the gendered power of the state, rather than naturally assuming it. Ata’s ostensible boyfriend at first seems threatening. When he tries to have sex with Shireen—who soundly rejects him—he seems fully in command of his sexual power. But he turns out to be innocuous and young.

He and Ata team up with Shireen and Joey (Keon Mohajeri), a young man who’s gone to school in the U.S. and has progressive ideas about ideology and politics. Joey idealistically dreams of dubbing Milk, the American biopic, into Arabic, so that Iranians—he believes—will be able to see their own situation in the story of gay liberation in America. He wants his people to be inspired to change what he, speaking the film’s title, points to as their dubious circumstances.

Some of the film’s lightest moments show the four friends trying to speak like Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, or to simulate the film’s gay sex with the right tone of voice.  Joey’s faith that his work will mean something is touching even though the film clarifies that it’s also naïve and finally, in the end, fatal.

Circumstance is at its best when Keshavarz more indirectly shows the oppressions of a culture in which binary gender distinctions are so determining.  When Ata and Shireen join Ata’s family for a day at the beach, the director stages in the background another family lounging beside their beach blanket, the mother in full black dress and hijab while her sons and husband wear revealing swim suits.  Ata’s father, Firouz (Soheil Parsa), and Mehran also enjoy the privilege to inhabit their bodies publically, leaving their own women behind with only a small backward glance before they run into the waves.

Later, when Ata and Shireen find themselves alone by the water as the men are called to prayer, they take advantage of their exclusion from religious ritual to strip to their underwear and swim together.  The actors perfectly perform the sensual thrill of floating in your own skin along the surface of the water with someone you love.

The action in Circumstance is oblique and subtle, as characters’ allegiances gradually shift and their commitments change.  After Shireen marries Mehran, breaking Ata’s heart, she creeps into her friend’s room to confess that she wed her brother only so that she could be close to Ata.  Their sudden freedom to be together with the legitimate excuse of being sisters-in-law releases their erotic charge even more publicly.  At a family party, Ata and Shireen sit beside one another on a piano bench flirting so seductively, only the culture’s profound disregard for women’s sexuality would permit anyone to misrecognize their relationship.

Even Ata’s mother, Azar (Nasrin Pakkho), is complicit in her refusal to see anything but what makes her life livable.  She’s glad for her son’s return and unwilling to acknowledge the authoritarian religious current he brings into her house.  Given Azar’s lack of power, the film suggests she can do little but use her intentional blindness to help her survive.

Only Ata, in the end, finds her circumstances untenable.  She sees that her liberal father will inevitably have to acquiesce to the mullahs to retain his economic, if not political, privilege. She notes with horror as her father begins to join Mehran’s religious observances.

Ata understands her world will constrict even further unless she escapes while she can.  Following a dream that Shireen first articulated—and unsuccessfully begging her friend to come along—Ata bribes an official to let her travel to Dubai without her father’s permission, freeing herself into a life she imagines will allow her to embody freely the woman she has become.

Circumstance’s ending sounds a few false notes.  Perhaps Shireen’s fear of being hanged by the police is finally enough to force her to capitulate to husband, but in her final scene, it seems she has also, inexplicably, developed some feeling for him.  And occasionally, Keshavarz paints the mullahs and their henchmen as two-dimensional villains, when the subtlety of their evil is much more chilling.

Nonetheless, with its artful yet stark eroticism bumping up against scenes that reveal the unadulterated cruelty of an oppressive social system, the film is a powerful indictment of the disempowerment of Iranian women.  Circumstance provides a stirring, important picture of the crushing double standard between what women desire in private and what they’re allowed in public.

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

The Town

I’m often still surprised by my own gullibility. My faith in performance (and film and television—in representation, really) means that I’m eager to see a broad swath of cultural productions, and that I read, regularly, other critics, amalgamating their comments and making choices about what to see on that basis. The Town, Ben Affleck’s new film, got very good reviews when it opened last month, and although I missed it in the theatres, I watched it last night at home on pay-per-view.

What was I thinking? And how could I forget that most reviewers (sometimes women, included) don’t watch for the things that preoccupy me—representations of gender, sexuality, race, identity, and all the ways that narratives imagine or reconceive of social relationships. So I spent an evening with The Town, waiting for something interesting to happen to one of its two female characters—both adrift in a sea of men—before I realized that of course nothing would happen.

In this familiar male redemption tale, one woman is the whore, damned to remain a loser drug addict languishing forever in Charlestown, where the story is set, and the other is the Madonna, a Yuppie who’s invaded the neighborhood with her social ideals, her sustainable gardening, and her naïve faith in her own ability to make headway among the heathens. Each of them appears in the story for only one reason: to provide foils for the hero, Doug MacRay (Affleck).

Doug is a failed hockey star, drafted by the national league but unable to last because of his hot temper. He returns to his incestuous Charlestown neighborhood, where he takes up with the band of armed robbers who have been his life-long friends and street mates. Jem (Jeremy Renner) is his best friend, an unreconstructed hellion who despite spending nine years in prison, returns to the life of crime that’s the only one he knows. Jem is also a stock character; he’s the guy who can’t see another future than the doomed trajectory on which he’s been set since his birth.

Doug, on the other hand, left the ‘nabe long enough to see something different on the other side of the highly symbolic bridge that connects Charlestown to Boston. He’s sobered up by the time The Town begins, and although he’s still willing to have quick sex with Jem’s sister, Krista (Blake Lively), whose child might or might not be his, her addition to Oxycodone, cocaine, and alcohol is now despicable to him, the repulsive habits of a life he longs to escape.

In the film’s opening scene, Doug, Jem, and the pair of subsidiary slobs who comprise their merry band rob a bank. The sequence is full of gratuitous violence, with an inexplicable cameo by Victor Garber as the bank manager whom Jem brutally, needlessly beats. The assistant manager, Claire (Rebecca Hall), is enlisted to open the bank’s vault, then kidnapped to provide the robbers some measure of safety (I guess, it’s not clear and mostly serves only as a story device) as they escape.They leave Claire, blindfolded, at the beach, warning her not to open her eyes until she feels the water lapping at her toes, and threaten her with rape and murder if she identifies them to the cops.

The FBI is on to these guys, and scoop Claire up for questioning. Jon Hamm plays the crusading G-man, Special Agent Frawley, who’s determined to track down Doug and his band. He questions Claire, but she can’t identify anything but the tattoo on Jem’s neck, which she saw as he beat her boss. The FBI warns her to stick around, and then Doug comes by, ostensibly to “take care of” her, since Jem worries that she’ll turn them in. But, surprise of all surprises, Doug falls in love with Claire instead, and keeps his real identity secret.

And so continues the hero’s redemption tale, where the essentially good guy with the tragic back story tries to save himself through the love of a good woman. Doug, it seems, was raised by a criminal long incarcerated (Doug tells Claire that his father—played by Chris Cooper—has moved to the suburbs). He thinks his mother ran out on the two of them, a psychic and emotional wound the screenplay uses to explain Doug’s wild side. When it turns out (spoiler alert, but believe me, this plot point comes as no surprise when it’s revealed in the film) that his mother was intentionally overdosed by the local drug lord, Fergie (Pete Postlethwaite, acting with slimy, placid cruelty), for whom Doug’s band contracts heists, Doug gets his revenge and engineers his escape from the Charlestown life that can only, finally, kill him.

All the conventions of the genre flick by at the appropriate moments. Doug wants out; Jem forces him to do one more heist, robbing an armored car driven by a man the band knows is trigger-happy.The botched robbery lands the four men at the FBI for questioning, prompting Doug to speed up the timetable for his departure and his desire to take Claire along. But Fergie has other plans, insisting that Doug and his men rob Fenway Park or he’ll kill Claire.

Forced to cooperate, Doug and Jem carry out the elaborate plan, which goes awry as they try to escape with the cash. Tipped off by Krista, who’s been scorned by Doug, that the men are planning to rob the park, Frawley and his compatriot, Dino (Titus Welliver of The Good Wife fame), set up an ambush that takes the lives of all but Doug. Dressed as a Boston cop, he watches his friends die one by one then saunters off, avenging his mother’s death by killing Fergie and his henchman, then taking Amtrak to Miami to start his new life.

Claire, the lovely idealistic woman who sees Doug’s goodness clearly, forgives him the lie that brought him into her life. Although she’s under surveillance by the FBI, before Doug leaves, through a kind of lover’s code, Claire indicates that she’ll follow him south when the coast clears. Frawley is frustrated by Doug’s getaway; the film’s funniest line has Frawley reminding Claire that his organization is national. But somehow, Doug escapes and Claire, too, is allowed to resume her life, with the hope of reuniting with her on-the-lam lover ever in the air. The film ends on a shot of Affleck as Doug presumably on the coast of Miami, watching the sun set and waiting for Claire to join him in the new, beach-swept life he’s finally achieved.

Ho hum, is all I can say. How many times does this story have to be told? Reviewers applauded Affleck’s authoritative filmmaking and storytelling; okay, fine, he knows how to shoot a getaway scene, and he builds suspense nicely throughout. But he’s delivered this story before in his debut film, Good Will Hunting, in which he was the character who stayed and Matt Damon the one who drove off to a new life elsewhere. Reviewers admire Affleck for getting under the skin of characters they say he knows so well, the Charlestown Irish who are fiercely loyal to their families and friends, for whom their slice of life off of Boston proper is their eternal territory, for whom marrying your buddies’ sisters and starting the cycle up anew for the next generation is considered enough. Sure, Affleck and Damon themselves made good, and Affleck seems to want to honor the neighborhood he knows so well by paying it continual homage in his films (see also 2007’s Gone Baby Gone).

But really, guys. At the end of 2010, can’t we consider the women in this perennial story as something more than agents of the men’s growth? Does Krista really have to be damned, both by snitching on Doug and Jem to exact her own revenge on Doug’s determination to leave her behind, and by her addiction to narcotics and alcohol? And do the feds really have to take her kid away to make the point? Bad girlfriend, bad mother, Krista doesn’t stand a chance.

But Claire, the pure and stalwart, who’s at first fooled by Doug’s impersonation of an upright citizen, but ultimately forgives him when she learns he’s not, because he so wants to be good—can’t that stereotypical character grow into a woman with a bit of agency? When will this stock character ever stand on her own, outside the choices that the hero makes for her? Hall plays Claire with a bit of gumption—she’s the Yuppie interloper in Charlestown, but she’s fearless, even thinks she can cross “the projects” by herself to get to work. But when she tells Doug that she gets harassed on her way through the area, he and Jem take baseball bats or golf clubs to the projects and beat up a couple of guys in revenge. Claire can’t handle anything herself, because the film is only about Doug’s quest to be good and get out.

What a waste. Affleck seems a smart guy. He’s a good actor (although the Charlestown accents he and Renner, as Jem, milk for all they’re worth sound too thick and fake) and an accomplished director. But why put that talent toward such a tired story? How many more times do we have to see the hero escape his doom on the backs of women, one good, one bad, both ultimately disposal?

It’s getting to be a real snore.

The Feminist Spectator

The Black Swan

Natalie Portman deftly defies the genre conventions of what would otherwise be a predictable, unsettling melodrama about an unhinged ballet dancer who goes not so quietly crazy just as her career takes off. Because of Portman’s uncanny empathy for her character, the over-the-top camera angles and story lines of Darren Aronofsky’s The Black Swan aren’t quite as irritating as they might be without a lead actor who brings such nuanced insight and intuition to the role.

Portman’s plays Nina, an utterly, single-mindedly devoted ballerina with a prestigious New York City ballet company. Her technique is perfect but she lacks the requisite passion for the leading roles. The company’s artistic director, a French-accented martinet named “Thomas” (but pronounced “Tomah”), rewards Nina by casting her as the white and the black swan in his “avant-garde” production of Swan Lake, but only after he attacks her sexually and she bites his lips defending herself in response.

One of the film’s most interesting insights is into the twisted relationship between male ballet impresarios and their female dancers. Vincent Cassel plays Thomas with a cruel sneer in his upper lip and a leer in his eyes as he challenges Nina to give up her quest for perfection so that she might convincingly portray the evil and seductive Black Swan with the wild abandon he conceives for the role. That he uses his own body against hers to force her to find her strength is part of what Aronofsky’s film wants to critique, but also partly what makes watching it uncomfortable. Thomas doesn’t even pretend there’s any other way to “get” the performance he wants from his star but to sexually humiliate her publicly and to push her physical boundaries privately. Nina wants the role so badly she’ll do anything to get it and then keep it, even as she becomes more and more deranged.As her relationship with Thomas gets more and more entwined, she begins to suffer from a kind of Stockholm Syndrome, idealizing and even identifying with Thomas and his mercurial cruelty.

Haunting the proceedings as a cautionary object lesson is Beth (Winona Ryder), the aging (that is, over 30), once-glorious star of the company who’s forced into retirement so that Nina can take her place. All the dancers want to be Beth; when Nina sneaks into the older woman’s dressing room before her star casting is announced, she steals Beth’s lipstick, a pack of cigarettes, and a letter opener, totemic objects that Nina carries as talismans toward her own success.

But Beth’s precipitous tumble from the top to the bottom turns ugly when she won’t go gracefully into retirement. Instead, she causes a scene at a benefit party and then throws herself into New York City traffic, landing in a lonely hospital room where she languishes with ugly, disfiguring and debilitating scars. She sits in a wheelchair, her head canted down at a painful angle as she contemplates the cruelties of fate. Sadly, Ryder’s shrewish portrayal of the vanquished star mirrors too closely the details of her own career, and her one-dimensional, caricatured acting doesn’t help redeem her performance or the character. Nina, fascinated by the woman she’s replacing, visits Beth in her hospital room as some sort of weird penance for precipitating the star’s fate, but the visits aren’t instructive so much as increasingly macabre and violent as Nina’s reality begins to shatter.

Aronofsky signals his vision of his own leading lady with heavy-handed shots of Portman fragmented and multiplied by the various mirrors in which her life is continually reflected. In the claustrophobic apartment she shares with her equally insane mother, Erica (Barbara Hershey), a mirror by the front door is cut into pie-shaped wedges that breaks Nina’s image into pieces, and the three-sided mirror in which she practices and obsessively laces and re-laces her toe shoes ensures that even at home, she’s always onstage.

Nina’s mother, it seems, was a corps member herself before she stopped dancing to raise Nina. No father is evident, just the suffocating co-dependency of two women who represent different generations of the same dream. Erica both wants Nina to succeed and desperately needs her to fail, so that her daughter will cling to her, imprisoned in the child-like state Erica insists on preserving.Nina’s bedroom is lined with rows of white and pink stuffed animals that stare down at her bed, and every night, she goes to sleep with the tinny music box sounds of “Swan Lake” that her mother sets in motion to soothe her. Erica intrudes on Nina’s privacy, checking the ever-worsening rash that blooms across her daughter’s back, chiding her for mutilating herself and at the same time, helping Nina hide her wounds. When Nina is cast in the lead role in Swan Lake, Erica doesn’t set out to sabotage her success, but willingly abets Nina’s fast downward spiral when it begins.

The real agent of Nina’s downfall is the woman who might otherwise be her savior. Lily (a stunning Mila Kunis) arrives in the company from LA full of self-confident sexuality and the distinctly unballet-like languor of the west coast. Nina catches a glimpse of her first on a subway, distracted from her own image in its Plexiglas windows by Lily’s hair and the headphones she wears. Lily makes her first appearance at the studio by banging open and closed the door while Nina is dancing, causing her to stumble in her audition for Swan Lake. But Lily’s laxity proves a refreshing counter-balance to a ballet world in which young women are wound tight, can’t eat, throw up what they do get down, and like Nina, are so disciplined to be perfect that they have no lives outside their dancing.

Lily, the film’s own black swan, loves sensuality and sexuality in equal measure. After she and Nina get off to a rocky start, Lily visits Nina at home, shocking both her and Erica with her brashness.Undone by Erica’s haranguing, Nina impulsively goes to a bar with Lily, where she’s persuaded to take a disinhibiting drug that Lily insists will just relax her and only last for two hours, “most.”Tempted by her desire to be free of her mother, and by Thomas’s insistence that she “touch herself” as homework to help her loosen up, Nina lets Lily drug her cocktail and gets very uninhibited indeed.

The two women flirt with men who are deeply disinterested in ballet—to Nina’s shock, since the art forms her entire world—then dance together wildly in a scene shot in pink light and edited frenetically to represent Nina’s descent into drug-induced ecstasy. The evening ends when Lily makes a pass at Nina in a taxi, and Nina brings her home, to the shock and dismay of Erica, who tries to batter down her bedroom door while the two young women have very wild, hot, and explicit sex.

The sex scene is the film’s pivot point, as it demonstrates how much Nina represses for her art, and how passionate indeed she can be. High as a kite, Nina won’t stand for her mother’s interdictions, and pulls Lily into her bedroom, where they rip off one another’s clothes and practically swallow each other’s tongues. Aronofsky films and edits this scene, too, with close-ups of body parts and quick jump cuts that heighten the intensity, until he finally focuses in on Nina’s sexual awakening under Lily’s ministrations. The scene reveals that other side of the carefully controlled artist is a young woman of painful depth and desire, who revels in just the kind of passion Thomas has been so eager to induce.

But the next morning, things go quickly awry. Lily is gone, but the pole Nina uses to keep her bedroom door propped closed hasn’t been disturbed. Nina wakes hung-over and late for rehearsal, where she finds Lily already in costume, performing in her role. Immediately, Lily becomes a palpable threat to Nina’s ascendancy, and when Nina refers to their evening together, Lily accuses her of having a “lezzie wet dream,” and denies that anything happened. From there, Nina’s sanity teeters ever closer to the brink, and Aronofsky plays even more fast and loose with what’s real for her and what’s real for us.

From the film’s beginning, moments that seem true are suddenly proven false. In the bathroom of the ballet benefit party, Nina’s ragged cuticles begin to bleed and she can’t get them to stop, eventually peeling a three-inch strip of flesh from her finger. But when she’s interrupted by, as it happens, Lily knocking on the door, Nina looks down to see her finger miraculously healed. This girl bleeds terribly—her toenails break from dancing on them, her back bleeds from scratching, and blood continually reddens the water in which she bathes and washes. But we’re never sure if her wounds are real, and neither, it seems, is Nina.

[Spoiler alert.] In fact, in the film’s climactic scene, Nina seems to kill Lily in a violent rage, shattering her dressing room’s full-length mirror with her rival’s head and then dragging her body onto the cold tile of her bathroom floor. When Lily’s blood seeps under the door, Nina covers it with a towel and goes off to triumphantly perform the second act of Swan Lake, where she nails her performance as the black swan with galvanizing passion and rage, murderous in her seductress’s make-up.

But when she returns to her dressing room to dress for the ballet’s third and final act, Lily comes knocking on her door to compliment Nina’s performance. The body in the bathroom is gone and so is the blood. Nina redresses herself in her white swan costume, but as she pulls on her white feathers, she finds in her own abdomen the seeping red wound she thought she’d inflicted in Lily’s.With morbid fascination and a strange glint of triumph, she retracts the shard of broken mirror she seemed to have used to kill her enemy.

As she returns to the stage to finish the ballet exultantly, we’re not sure if this, too, is a hallucination. The white swan falls to her death and Nina falls to the mattress that catches her behind the set, where her fellow dancers and Thomas surround her, extolling her glory and her talent. He calls her “little princess,” the affectionate but diminishing name he once used for Beth (just as Lily predicted he would), then notices with dismay that her white costume is marred by a spreading stain of very red blood. But as she lies there, apparently dying, Nina says both “I was perfect” and “I felt it,” fulfilling her own expectations and Thomas’s wish.

In Aronofsky’s vision, she’s also finally become a woman, her technical perfection infused with the reckless passion of adulthood and her cocoon-like innocence stained with the menstrual-like blood of her masochistic wound. The swan in the story dies, and while it’s not clear if Nina survives or not, we’re supposed to think she’s at the very least killed off the part of herself that held her too-adult passion and desire at bay.

I suppose Aronofsky also wants us to consider the depravity of those who give themselves to an art that gives so little in return. The rewards, The Black Swan suggests, are fleeting, ephemeral evenings of triumph and applause, which fades too quickly as ballet dancers inevitably age. As my film-going companion, Stacy, pointed out, adoring fans are faceless and strangely unrepresented in the film. Nina peeks out at the audience before she performs, but it’s really the adoration of her colleagues that she craves and finally achieves when they surround her fallen body at the film’s end.

Aronofsky indicts the cruelty through which Thomas realizes his vision of Swan Lake by manipulating the already unstable Nina, but the writer-director’s camera also enjoys a bit too much how the story makes Nina suffer, and happily represents her as a martyr to her art.

Thriller conventions bring The Black Swan its rather perverse excitement, as Aronofsky keeps the viewer off balance, like Nina, through quick confusing cuts to a murky woman who keeps turning up in the troubled young woman’s fantasy/reality. When Nina’s masturbating, following Thomas’s instructions to “loosen up,” nearly at climax she turns her head and sees another woman sitting on the chair in her bedroom, watching her. The cut happens so quickly, it’s not clear if the woman is Erica, the mother, or another young woman whose face and figure recurs in Nina’s dreams/fantasies, who may or may not be a younger Erica or some other Nina-style doppelganger. I kept expecting some previous trauma that would explain Nina’s insanity, but Aronofsky never delivers a back-story to illuminate her strange psychology. That choice heightens the film’s suggestion that it’s her single-minded dedication to art—encouraged by her similarly obsessed mother—that’s driven Nina mad.

Barbara Hershey is convincing as the over-bearing, bitter mother who watches her daughter achieve the career she always wanted. Erica lives through Nina and resents her deeply, calling incessantly on Nina’s cellphone, which displays “MOM” in insistent capital letters as the phone bleats plaintively. Erica doesn’t seem to be employed, but instead sits alone in a small room in their apartment (how these two afford a three-bedroom flat in Manhattan is never explained), creating Munch-like paintings of her own (or is it Nina’s?) face, images that seem to scream and follow Nina with their eyes when she peeks into the room. Erica and Nina’s bond is both incestuous and ambivalent, as they’re attracted and repulsed by everything they mean to one another.

Nina’s fantasy hook-up with Lily also seems to sublimate her strange push-pull relationship with Erica, while at the same time, to represent the entirely incestuous, homosocial, female-dominated world of ballet. Strangely, though, it’s also a heterosexual world, in Aronofsky’s conception. Lily enflames Nina’s jealousy during a performance when she flirts with the callous guy who’s dancing the white swan’s romantic object. The only obvious gay man in this world is the accompanist, who finally slams the lid on his piano after hours of solo rehearsing with Nina, telling her superciliously that he has a life (she, clearly, doesn’t) and leaving her in the dark as the building’s lights shut down.

What, finally, to make of The Black Swan? Aronofsky has created an absorbing, if sometimes repellent, Grand Guignol of a film about artistic cruelty and excess, one that might be laughable if the leading performances (Portman, Kunis, Cassel, and Hershey, especially) weren’t so heart-felt, layered, and persuasive. Portman’s shattered poise, shaky vulnerability, masterful artistry, and desperate desire for both success and real connection make Nina a character who’s difficult to wrest your eyes from. Even as Aronofsky dismantles the foundation of her world and her sanity, and keeps the viewer equally unable to distinguish fantasy from reality, Portman holds us squarely on Nina’s side, hoping she’ll be victorious against all the forces lined up against her.

Too bad that Nina’s victory requires a self-mutilation so extreme, she can only succeed by succumbing to her own death. That’s a message that’s not good for the girls.

The Feminist Spectator

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The Kids are All Right, Redux

After I posted my own blog on the film, I read several other responses from queer bloggers and LGBTQ folks in mainstream internet outlets —Jack Halberstam on Bully Bloggers, Kate Clinton at The Huffington Post, and Mark Harris at Entertainment Weekly, for only several example—and wanted to add an addendum to my own post as a result.

I enjoyed Cholodenko’s movie and don’t feel at all ashamed to say it. I don’t go to mainstream Hollywood films expecting radical ideological positions; call me conservative, call me liberal, but I don’t expect that particular form to be the one in which we save the world.I’m happy for a mainstream film that depicts lesbian relationships at all—how many, after all, can we list?

Isn’t this why The Kids are All Right bears what Kobena Mercer called so long ago now “the burden of representation”? Because there are so few representations of lesbians in the mainstream, everyone brings to them their own investments and standards, and it goes without saying how impossible it is to please everyone.

Yes, as Kate Clinton notes, the movie is in some ways the same-old same-old, and there’s no good lesbian sex “with skin.” But as Mark Harris says, Cholodenko seems more interested in what makes a long-term relationship than in sexy representations of lesbian moms. He thinks The Kids is one of the best films ever to describe what marriage means and how it looks. But some people think it didn’t do justice to long-term lesbian relationships, either.

Sure, the movie isn’t perfect. How could it be? As Sarah Schulman says on Bully Bloggers, it’s an achievement that it got made at all, a testament not only to Cholodenko’s skill as a filmmaker (given her track record with High Art and Laurel Canyon), but no doubt to her ability to move through Hollywood deal-making structures that of course will have some bearing on the final product. To expect otherwise is unrealistic.

But can’t we look at what this film does and acknowledge that while it doesn’t do everything, it makes a contribution to however liberal a discourse about lesbians—white, upper-middle class, LA lesbians, who co-parent in a committed relationship; in other words, a certain type of lesbians—in the mainstream imaginary?

I found the film funny, moving, and observant about what it means to work through the ups and downs of a long-term relationship.And despite my own choice not to parent, I admire women who buck the odds, adopt one another’s biological children in conservative states like Texas, for only one example (where, had the movie been set there, the story might have been utterly different), and use their daily lives as a site of their activism.

The relationship Cholodenko depicts isn’t mine, either. I’ve been with my partner for 21 years, but we don’t call one another “wife,” as they do in the film. In fact, we cringe at that language, and want no ceremony of any sort (marriage or commitment) to mark our relationship. But we live in New Jersey, where we did take advantage of civil union legislation, in large part because we want to be able to make health care decisions for one another should it become necessary (and it will).

Implicit in some negative discussion about The Kids is judgment against the kind of lesbian families or relationships the film represents. Calling the film’s central relationship only normative seems exaggerated. Lesbians (and gay men) who want to marry might be assimilationist, but are there so many lesbian and gay families that they’re already widely recognizable and accepted, especially outside the west coast urban context in which the story plays out?

Doesn’t the film at least add to the number of public, mainstream representations of a family form that might still be alien to many people who see this film? If Nic and Jules seem “just like us” to many of those viewers, is that a bad thing, really? Some lesbiansaren’t just like the mainstream and don’t aspire to be. But some do; should they be judged badly for that?

It seems to me futile to prescribe what’s “truly” radical in a lesbian relationship, or to suggest that any mainstream representation is just bound to get it wrong.

The good thing about The Kids are All Right is that it gives us something to argue around the perennial question of how the margins should be represented in the mainstream.

I hope, in 2010, that lesbian/gay/bi/trans/queer social movement activism can accommodate multiple efforts on multiple fronts.It’s desperately important that we keep reimagining different ways of being people, reconfiguring the relative value of sexual practice, and re-envisioning potentially new arrangements for domestic structures.

I’d hope there’s room for work like Cholodenko’s alongside work by more formally and ideologically radical artists, like, for only one instance, Holly Hughes, whose newest performance, The Dog and Pony Show (Bring Your Own Pony), I just had the pleasure of seeing at Dixon Place in New York.

I’m personally eager to see both ends of the spectrum, and everything in between, and to treat it all with the kind of critical generosity I think it deserves.

The Feminist Spectator

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