Is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's tawdry thriller, a work of camp?

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Dec. 29 2010 3:17 PM

Dirty Dancing

Is Black Swan, Darren Aronofsky's tawdry thriller, a work of camp?

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Sontag claimed that camp is either "wholly conscious" or "completely naive." Black Swan is both. On one level, Aronofsky relishes the freedom of camp. An all-purpose permission slip, camp excuses the half-baked Freudian clichés that pass for psychology. It allows him to subject Portman's frigid Nina to all manner of sniggering torments, from a dirty old man on the subway to a "touching" session interrupted by Mother. And it justifies the hyperbolic crassness of the dialogue. (Winona Ryder, who plays the ousted diva, stumbles up to Nina and spits, "Did you suck his cock?") Some might say that Showgirls was a similarly cynical use of camp (others would contend that it was clueless), but in any case, it's possible to view Paul Verhoeven's pointedly vulgar film as a coherent satire: a star-is-born showbiz fable bluntly recast as a tale of prostitution. Tawdry as it is, Black Swan—set at Lincoln Center and not at the Stardust or the Cheetah Strip Club—aims higher than trash. It has grand statements and dark ideas to get across about artistic sacrifice and the price of perfectionism, but the more serious it tries to be, the sillier it gets—an attribute, one might say, of pure camp.

Except that Aronofsky misses one of camp's most essential qualities: its tenderness. There is nothing resembling love in his depiction of dance, which—perhaps by necessity, given the reliance on ballet doubles—is mostly filmed in choppy convulsions, with minimal attention paid to the human form. The treatment of his characters is even more abusive. A skilled mimic with a wide array of influences, Aronofsky surely recognizes that the backstage melodrama was a fundamentally campy genre long before Showgirls. Camp treasures the unfashionable and thrives on incongruity, and there are few spectacles as tragicomically out-of-place as the aging, obsolescent diva, as exemplified by Bette Davis in All About Eve and Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. The camp appreciation of these films points to the sensibility's latent edge of cruelty and misogyny, but those grande dames have always inspired a complex mix of horror, awe, affection, and even, for a queer constituency, a kind of identification.

But Aronofsky, to put it bluntly, just loves a freak show. The repulsions of Black Swan—sundry toe and cuticle injuries, plus Hershey gets her fingers slammed in a door and Ryder even stabs her face with a nail file—are in keeping with the grotesque abasements of his other films: the amputation and sex-show horrors of the your-brain-on-drugs extravaganza Requiem for a Dream and the staple-gun and meat-slicer mutilations of the Christ parable The Wrestler.

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The irony is that Aronofsky's boldly absurd New Age head trip, The Fountain (2006), was as close as any recent Hollywood movie has come to naive camp. A story of the quest for eternal life that culminates in a tragic encounter with the sap-oozing Tree of Life, it's set on three different planes of existence, in which three versions of Hugh Jackman battle Mayan tribes, try to cure cancer, and assume yogic poses against deep-space screensaver backdrops. Through it all, Aronofsky keeps a straight face. Risible as it is, the film's unshakable solemnity—its total excess of seriousness—is a source of unlikely power.

The problem with Black Swan is not that it "sees everything in quotation marks." It sees camp itself in quotation marks. A discussion of camp that predates Sontag's by a decade can be found in Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, in which one gay man introduces another to the pleasure garden of camp. He explains its nuances ("You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it") and distinguishes between Low Camp and High Camp. An example of the former would be a Marlene Dietrich impersonator. Expanding on the latter, he says, "Baroque art is largely camp about religion. The ballet is camp about love." Not so ballet in Aronofsky's film, and certainly not so the film itself. Turns out all those mirrors are an apt visual metaphor: Black Swan, at most, is camp about camp.

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Dennis Lim is editorial director at the Museum of the Moving Image and a regular contributor to the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.

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