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Is Black Swan the Worst Movie of the Year?

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Having just published a two-part essay on the Black Swan as a philosophical framework for thinking about our disastrous financial reform efforts, I am uniquely qualified to write about the Oscar-nominated movie, Black Swan. Ironically enough, anything I publish on the web about the Black Swan in complexity theory causes a storm of advertisements for the film Black Swan to appear alongside my essays.

I watched Black Swan with my wife last night and I have to say that it is one of the worst movies ever, truly an embarrassment to the high standard Nassim Taleb has set for all topics Black Swan-related, and truly an embarrassment for any Oscar-related association with the remarkable True Grit (which I loved) and probably also The King's Speech (which I have not seen).

What about Black Swan disappoints? Disappoints is the wrong word. What about Black Swan makes me want to stab myself in the stomach with a sliver of mirror glass? Let me count the ways.

1. Remarkably poor writing. The dialog is wooden, predictable and humorless. The story arc itself is flat and lacking in compelling story lines. Instead, the story relies on a series of set pieces:

  • Old ballerina (Winona Ryder) is discarded from New York City ballet company.
  • Young ballerina (Natalie Portman) takes her place.
  • Old ballerina's disintegration prefigures young ballerina's disintegration.
  • Wild Child ballerina (Mila Kunis) may (or may not) be a true "Black Swan" -- we know she could be a Black Swan because she takes drugs and has a tattoo on her back (while the White Swan ballerina only evinces symbolically significant skin rashes on her back).
  • Wild Child ballerina is more beautiful and talented and sexy than uptight, perfectionist White Swan ballerina.
  • We know the White Swan ballerina is perfectionist because her over-the-top striving has mutilated her feet, the instrument of her art.
  • The White Swan ballerina also has an uptight, perfectionist mother (Barbara Hershey).
  • Together, the mother, the old ballerina, the Wild Child ballerina, and the pressure of the leading role in Swan Lake drive the White Swan ballerina over the edge.
  • The White Swan ballerina needs to get in touch with her inner Black Swan (we know that because the director grabs her crotch).
  • The White Swan ballerina masturbates and has imagined lesbian sex to liberate her inner Black Swan. Sex and sensuality lead to evil and tragic outcomes!
  • Liberation of her inner Black Swan allows our White Swan ballerina to achieve "perfection" in her Lincoln Center performance, but only at the price of her life. She must die at her own hand, just as the White Swan does in the ballet itself.

2. Insipid and one-dimensional characters. The characters are underdeveloped, uninteresting, poorly acted (excepting Vincent Cassell in the role of the production's director) and overly reliant on histrionics to convey emotion.

3. Manipulative storytelling. Partly because the writing is poor and the characters are carelessly conceived, there is literally no way the characters can interact authentically. The White Swan mother and White Swan daughter clearly hate each other because they mirror each other's neuroses and unrealized ambitions and dreams. They are trapped with each other because neither can help the other grow beyond their neuroses. The White Swan ballerina's interactions with the Black Swan ballerina are nearly all hallucinated and so they mostly seem contrived and didactic -- they become "tell", not "show," moments.

4. Mediocre production values. I am no expert on ballet (although I love Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake musically), but the actual dancing and climactic performance of Swan Lake did not seem particularly accomplished. I would have expected more athleticism and -- this is possibly a flaw in the cinematography and staging -- more inherent complexity, drama and intensity. What I saw more closely resembled a performance of Swan Lake that Fox Television might have produced for half-time at the Super Bowl (Fox Searchlight produced Black Swan, Should we blame Rupert Murdoch?).

5. Casting celebrities. Does it make sense to cast "celebrity" actresses for a movie like Black Swan? I could not lose myself in the characters. I kept thinking:

  • Oh, there is Winona Ryder. She is looking older. Has she shoplifted anything recently? Can Lindsay Lohan adopt Winona as a model for how to redeem her career?
  • Natalie Portman shaved her head in V for Vendetta. Boy she was bad in Star Wars. But she did go to Harvard.
  • Mila Kunis sure was funny in That Seventies Show. And she was the voice of Meg in Family Guy. I wonder if she is still the voice of Meg in Family Guy.

Interestingly, I think the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences agrees with me. In a weak year for good movies, Black Swan did receive five Academy Award nominations -- for Best Actress, Cinematography, Directing, Film Editing and Best Picture. But the film missed nominations in a number of key categories -- Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup, Sound Editing, Sound Mixing, Visual Effects and Writing. Given the themes of the movie, these omissions are telling. I'd be amazed if Black Swan received any awards.

So I extend my apologies to Nassim Taleb. Hollywood should have filmed a movie called Black Swan based on his book. His movie would have been far better. And in his movie, I would have happily cast Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis and Winona Ryder as the stars.