Cinematic Showdown: Black Swan vs. The Tree of Life

PART 1

Megan and I recently went to see Black Swan.

We expected the film to be dark and (somewhat) depressing and visually striking.  Having seen Pi and Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, how could we expect anything less?  In fact, the preview we saw for Black Swan was the only one I’d seen in the last year that demanded that I see the resulting film.  It served me papers.  It broke into my house.  It left disturbing notes on my pillow.

And the film was no disappointment.  In fact, it was the scariest film I’ve seen in the theaters in the past few years.  It beats out a number of the films that I’ve seen at home, too.  But why?

It’s a matter of focus.

First, the focus on a single character, the ballerina Nina.  Because of this focus, the movie becomes paranoid, as does our perception of it.  We are so fixed into Nina’s view that we can’t tell when the things she’s experiencing are hallucinations or reality.  The truth is, though, that it doesn’t matter.  What Nina experiences are real experiences for her, and so they are for us, too.

Compare this to most “horror” movies (which, instead, are mostly “gore” movies) where the movie scatters its perspective among half a dozen characters or more.  Most movies can’t handle this – the writer or the director fails to breathe life into them – and they become symbols telling us how we are supposed to feel rather than works of living art that create feelings in us.

Second, Aronofsky has masterly control of the camera.  Watching this movie is like playing an old-school survival horror video game where what’s scary is not so much the monsters that you are facing, but the fact that the camera is out of your control.  A horror could be just off-screen and you won’t know until you walk into it (this is why I had trouble playing the Resident Evil remake; the anxiety it created was just too great).

From the beginning of the film, Aronofsky ties us closely into Nina’s viewpoint.  Before anything really strange or unnerving happens, we follow Nina on her way to the ballet, the camera just a foot or so behind her shoulder, the view jerky and off-kilter as though we, ourselves, are walking just behind her.  Every time the camera moves, we’re threatened with something that we weren’t expecting, and our only method of control is to close our eyes.

My suggestion: Don’t.

[Sidenote: Black Swan is the most horrific and amazing retelling of Swan Lake that I have ever seen.  I realize that, not having seen Swan Lake, this is not much of an endorsement.]

PART 2

Originally I was going to write this simply about a preview that we saw.  I wasn’t sure that I was going to like Black Swan, and thought that I’d having nothing to say about it.  And so, when I saw the preview of The Tree of Life I was blown away.  Another preview that has locked me in to seeing a movie.

For those of you who don’t know, Terence Malick directed The Thin Red Line, one of my favorite movies (of which there are really only a few).  It is an amazing film of lyrical beauty both in the philosophy, the language, and, especially, the images he composes on-screen.  It makes me cry every time I watch it.

The only other film of Malick’s that I’ve seen was The New World.  It was a great disappointment.  I saw it in the theater and felt that all of the gifts I’d seen in The Thin Red Line had been let loose without direction and, with no purpose, had soured into boredom.  The images were still visually striking, but there was no emotion to make the images anything more than a series of pretty pictures, something you might stuff into a calendar to decorate your year.

Then this preview.  It caused both Megan and I to tear up, and one thing we talked about after the movie was over was how it managed to do so.  All the other previews we saw were like flash paper compared to The Tree of Life’s fire.  As with Aronofsky, the secret relies in Malick’s mastery over composition and editing.  Most Hollywood movies (at least the previews suggest) are concerned with plot.  The images are subservient to what is needed to move the story forward.  With Malick, the story is moved forward through the images.

Anyway, I’m biased.  Here’s your chance to make your own decision.

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