Over the weekend, my wife and I rented Black Swan. I am still dealing with the aftermath of having watched it. I know of at least one other person who has blogged about this movie after having seen it, so I feel a little bit unoriginal. However, despite trying not to write about it or even think about it, I just can’t stop, so originality be damned, I am going to write about it.
It doesn’t seem right to say that it was a great movie, nor does feel right to say that I enjoyed it. In fact, when it was over I was relieved it was over. At first, I didn’t think I liked it. I couldn’t wait for it to end fast enough. Afterwards, I tweeted that I felt like I had been beaten up. This movie was emotionally raw and took you on a harrowing, break-neck ride into the depths of a secret and horrible place in the human experience. And while at first, I mocked the ending, in the end it was one of the few movies that I have ever seen that had a real and appropriate ending that works. I once heard someone say that the hardest thing to do is end a movie well. Most movies that I have seen back this up. The set-up is great, everything is going well, and then the ending, while adequate, is either cheesy, contrived, forced or a clunky, random occurrence out of left field (yes, I am looking at you Dodgeball!).
(SPOILER ALERT! If you have not seen Black Swan yet and you do not want to have the ending (or possibly other elements of the story) revealed you may want to proceed with caution. You may want to skip ahead.)
This story did not deserve a Hollywood ending, no matter how much I was rooting for it. On so many levels, it may have been the most fitting and appropriate ending to a movie I have ever seen. For one, you have the parallelism of Nina and the character she is portraying (the swan) killing themselves in the end. You also have Nina foreshadowing this when she is with the two guys in the restaurant. When she tells the story of Swan Lake and its the ending, one of the guys trashes the ending. But Nina defends it as “beautiful”. To top it all off, in Nina’s twisted mind, it really is the perfect way to end. She has finally reached the summit of being the principal dancer, she doesn’t want experience the trip back down after seeing what happened to Beth on her way down. She for once has the approval of her mother, who was crying with joy in the audience. She has truly let herself go and given a perfect Black Swan performance, which she will probably never be able to recreate ever again. For this one shining moment, she feels that the pain of the mangled feet, the distorted body image (and ensuing purging) and the emotional suffering of the constant strive for perfection have finally paid off. But, she also realizes that this is only going to be one moment. That she will have to keep up the pain and the suffering, only the feeling of joy and relief after the future performances will not be nearly the same and they will not offset the pain anymore. So does the one thing that, in her mind, will permanently take away all of the pain. “I felt it – Perfect. I was perfect.”
The problem with all of this is that I don’t like seeing people (in real life or in movies) in pain or experiencing suffering, especially those who don’t seem to deserve it. (However, if you are a fictional character and you do bad things, I do want you to get your comeuppance.) And if there is anything in this movie, there is pain and suffering.
The worst part is that it is almost exclusively directed at the protagonist, who is simply trying to live out her dream. (Then again, is it really her dream? Or is it her mother’s? Discuss.) Add on top of this, that the protagonist is portrayed by Natalie Portman, whom I always find to be a fine actress who on the whole seems to play sweet and endearing characters. Maybe that is what made this an excellent casting move, besides that Natalie is a phenomenal actress. People who see the movie will be bringing the good feelings they harbor towards her along with them to the theater. Which then makes the rapidly progressing disintegration of her character even more gut-wrenching because you keep thinking “Why does this keep happening to poor, sweet Natalie Portman? I really want everything to work out for her.” I think this is especially true given that you really get thrown into her character’s life without much introduction and she really doesn’t do anything in the story to make you turn on her and start rooting against her.
Besides making me continuously ponder the ending, Black Swan also made me think about perfection and what it takes to get to the top of your field, including the price you pay for to get there. To be as perfect as you can be and to be the best in your field usually takes a considerable amount of work and determination, even for people who are geniuses or child prodigies. But is it really worth it?
Being interested in sports and athletes, I have read about or heard about a fair number of people who are considered to be at the top of their sport. For each of them, the story is the same. As much as I sometimes wish that I could trade places with an number of these individuals, in the end. I am actually extremely satisfied with the live I lead. Why? Because they are invariably jerks.
Probably the greatest basketball player of all-time is Michael Jordan. While many people possess and have displayed similar talents and skills in the NBA, what most people agree upon is the ting that sets Jordan apart from all others is his determination, focus and “killer instinct”. This comes from the fact that he may have been one of the most competitive people to ever walk on the face of the earth. He HATED to lose. At anything. EVER. There is a story about how in the Bulls’ locker room or training camp there was a ping-pong table that people would play on. At one point, one of his teammates beat MJ at ping-pong. He got so mad about it that he bought himself a ping-pong table and dedicated himself to getting so good at ping-pong that he eventually came back and crushed that individual repeatedly at ping-pong and most everyone else. He was constantly pressing his teammates for weaknesses. If he found one, he would keep pressing at it and pressing at it until either that player toughened up (which rarely happened) or until he broke them and they wee run off (which happened frequently, see Sellers, Brad.) (For the details on these stories and many others, read The Jordan Rules by Sam Smith.)
While this makes for an all-time great basketball player, it doesn’t make for a particularly good teammate and probably not a person you would like to spend a lot of time around in general. That fact was evident even during Michael’s Hall of Fame induction speech. The speech was split the media at the time. Some people loved it and some people thought it was low class, because even at a time of reflection and looking back, Jordan was still bringing up old grudges and supposedly trying to settle some scores. It seems that his competitiveness never will let up, even if his jumping ability eventually did.
A similar story is Vince Lombardi. A few years ago, I read When Pride Still Mattered by David Maraniss, which is a biography of him and it wasn’t as much competitiveness that drove Coach Lombardi as it was precision and attention to detail. You might be surprised to hear that given that most people equate Vince with the quote “Winning isn’t everything. Its the only thing”. However, that is a misquote. It is a longer quote which actually reflects that winning truly isn’t the most important thing. What is truly important is doing things right and making the effort to win. In the end, he was a task master to the core. He had very precise ways of doing most everything and would expect nothing but absolute perfection. One of the other great traits about Lombardi was his ability to treat different players differently in order to reach them and get their full potential out. He would yell at one player more, because he knew it would get them fired up and focused, while he would yell less at other players that he knew would press more to be perfect and instead perform much worse. Unfortunately, it did not appear that this ability to read his players and act accordingly carried over to his family. In the book, the Coach seemingly ignored or turned a blind eye to his wife’s depression/alcoholism and had appeared to have rather poor relationship with his children. What made him a great, dedicated and driven coach, did not apparently make him a great family man.
There are many more stories along the same lines. So then the big question is, what really is more important to you? Is it more important to be perfect? To be the greatest of all time? Or is it more important to be the father or wife or son that you can be? Can you be both? While this post would seemingly be trying to make you lean towards being a better person and less of being a better something else, I truly don’t think there is a right answer. Part of the problem is that the above examples are a bit biasing. I am not sure that anyone could argue that the world needs top-level athletes or entertainers (although if you think so, I would love to hear your argument), but we do need top-level physicians, engineers, scientists and other countless other careers. What matters is what your answer to the question is, because it is your life.
I distinctly remember in medical school thinking that I could have gotten better grades if I really dedicated myself (I was content to get a grade of Pass in my pre-clinical courses, because I knew I would get better grades in the hands-on clerkships of third and fourth year, plus my chosen specialty of Pediatrics was not a particularly competitive one). But I also knew that the effort that would be required would not be worth the results. For one thing, I would have to be studying non-stop and cramming all of the time, never having any fun or spending any time with my wife (which in and of itself would make it not worth it). The other thing was that I knew what my limitations were. I was pretty that Honors was going to be out of my reach no matter what. I was just not smart enough. There are people with photographic memories, or close to it, and I was not one of those people. So, I could spend live, breathe, eat and sleep medicine all for the ‘glory’ of a High Pass. That was one equation that I could easily figure out the answer to. I wasn’t destined to cure cancer, operate on people’s brains or swoop in at the last minute to save someone’s life by transplanting a properly functioning organ. The easy answer for me was family and personal sanity.
But….I do wonder sometimes if that argument is just a justification of my laziness. Did I take the easy way out? Did I waste my talents to some degree? Sometimes, I worry that I did. Maybe I could have been the Michael Jordan or the Vince Lombardi of pediatrics. Then again, maybe I could have been Nina. “I felt it – Perfect. I was perfect.”