Michael Vick, Black Swan, and David Foster Wallace: An Act in Three Acts

12/20/2010 04:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"The only person standing in your way is you."
-Thomas Leroy, to Nina, Black Swan

"Nothing's going to change. That means I've got to change."
-Michael Vick

"It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master."

-David Foster Wallace --

As a former (and still occasional) film critic, I have the tendency to engage in what my friend Robert Ellis Gordon refers to as "thinking with the head and not the heart" when I'm talking about a piece of art. I get technical and clever and haughty and employ inefficient multi-syllabic descriptors to say stuff that everyone knows already. So I'm going to drop all that right now now and urge everyone to go out and watch director Darren Aronofsky's masterful exploration of the creative process, the ballet-opera Black Swan.

I'm mainly asking that because this article is about Black Swan. It's also about self-love and self-hate and redemption and redemption-through-creation and whether redemption-through-creation is any kind of redemption at all. It's about judgment and the need to judge. It's about football and suicide. Mostly, though, it's about what it means to give yourself fully to something, whether that something is a person or a game or a drug or a novel you're writing or a job you're doing or, sure, the starring role in a certain prestigious Tchaikovsky ballet. To "lose yourself" in it, as the saying goes (and as Vincent Cassel's Thomas Leroy directs Natalie Portman's Nina Sayers early in the film). Because we use that phrase a lot. We use it in hushed, reverent, respectful tones. But when you give a thing, when you lose a thing -- even if that thing is your self -- you never get it back.

What does this have to do with Michael Vick?

One of the premises of Black Swan has to do with the quote that begins this article: that Nina can achieve the perfection she craves by abandoning her "too perfect" technique -- by letting herself go, by getting out of her own way. Traditionally, the way we interpret that particular maxim is that we have to change such that we aren't in our own way anymore. That's certainly how Vick is trying to re-adjust his image in light of the dogs and the shootings and the prison sentence and the ever-present eyes that loom over every potential misstep -- every potential chance for the skeptics to say, "We told you so." Every chance to learn that the parties hadn't stopped. That the remorse was hollow and unfelt. That -- let's not forget football -- the record-setting three passing and two rushing first-half touchdowns were just a flash in the pan. That, ultimately, everything's an act.

No. Despite the past, and despite the expectations that the past brings to the present, we want to believe that people can change.

But there's another, darker way to interpret Leroy's statement to Nina. And it's far more prophetic. If what's standing in your way is truly you -- your fundamental you-ness -- then the only way to get what you want is to obliterate yourself.

Which brings us to the Wallace.

We witness throughout the film that Nina responds to stress via acts of self-mutilation, and as she delves further into her role these acts deepen and accelerate. But isn't the act of creation itself an act of self-hatred, a fundamental hunger to replace the imperfect and ephemeral (the self) with the perfect and eternal (the created art -- the abstraction of the self and its expression)? After all, if the artist were stable, content, self-contained -- from whence the need to move beyond the self at all?

And, of course, once the perfect is created, why the need for the flawed shell of a self that created it? Why the need for the mind, the master, that sowed the seeds of this fundamental self-hatred in the first place?

In many ways, this line of thinking inverts the typical Judeo-Christian religious hierarchy of the creator and the created. In this model, the creator itself is flawed, which is why the need to create exists at all. In this model, it's the act of creation that's the original sin, long before any hypothetical Adam flounced through Eden with any hypothetical Eve.

But, of course, we understand instinctively that there's something missing here. Why can't the beautiful not also beget the beautiful? Why the tension between who you are and who you must become?

What Portman's Nina fails to understand -- and what Rourke's Randy "The Ram" Robinson understood but refused to act upon in Aronofsky's earlier film The Wrestler -- is not that the metaphorical 'White Swan' and 'Black Swan,' the best parts and worst parts of ourselves, are ultimately the same person. She gets that. What she fails to understand is that White Swan and Black Swan are the same person -- and that's okay.

When I say it's "okay," I don't mean that it is good and fine and nice. That's too convenient and is also wrong and is also the shallow and uninspiring and despair-inducing kind of wrong. What I mean is something similar to what S.L. Price said in Sports Illustrated's November 29, 2010 cover article on Vick:

People speak of being conflicted about watching Vick, hating his crime and loving his game, as if the two can be separated. They can't. Think about it: Can it be that only hard time, earned by vile acts, made Vick the player he is now? For Vick to touch greatness, did dogs have to die?

Price's point isn't just that many of the 'great' things about Vick emerged directly as a result of his transgressions. It's that, more importantly, any attempts people make to compartmentalize the best and worst parts of ourselves into discrete and distinct entities are attempts to simplify their world into categories that can easily be judged. But the world doesn't work like that.

We are profoundly complex creatures. We cannot easily be judged. The best parts of ourselves are perfect -- and they are perfect neither because of our other imperfections, nor in spite of them, but rather because, as Whitman put it, we are large and contain multitudes. So when Nina Sayers creates, she can create something perfect with the perfect parts of herself, without the whole of herself being perfect. When Michael Vick plays superlative football, it doesn't mean that his past goes away -- but it does demand that we consider the whole of his personhood when we judge him. And when David Foster Wallace asks us to look around and marvel, "This is water. This is water." -- we should do it, even if he couldn't.

And what do we do with the worst parts of ourselves?

We lose them. And we live.