Men in Tights

Posted on January 28, 2011 by

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The Social Network should be the film that encapsulates my generation of American men. So why am I traitorously demanding that everyone I know see Black Swan instead?

By Brian Dau

“You know what’s better than a million awards we don’t deserve? A BILLION awards we don’t deserve.” (Image via hitfix.com)

My favorite movie of 2010 is about ballet, though not because I have any strong feelings about tutus, pink slippers or interpretive dance. In fact, there are many ways in which the film isn’t about ballet at all.

More specifically, Black Swan uses ballet to tell the story of an artist’s internal struggle with her craft in the same way The Social Network uses the creation of Facebook to tell the story of male relationships.

I doubt my attachment to Darren Aronofsky’s surreal creation is the reaction Hollywood expected me to have to this year’s crop of films. After all, Facebook is one of the most defining inventions of my generation, and every 20-something (white) male in America identifies with at least one of the men in that movie. Certainly the Golden Globes bought in, awarding Best Motion Picture – Drama (among other accolades) to The Social Network and lending the Fincher/Sorkin behemoth all of the momentum as awards season begins in earnest.

The critical consensus seems to be that the Academy Awards will play out similarly, and while it’s great to see David Fincher receive the recognition he never got for Fight Club, it will be an absolute crime if Natalie Portman is the sole Black Swan contributor holding a metal statue by the end of February (though perhaps only because there aren’t any women in The Social Network eligible to win her award).

I doubt it took a lot of directing to draw the crazy out of this one, but Darren Aronofsky still deserves more recognition for Black Swan. (Image via hollywoodgrind.com)

I’m not exactly sure why The Social Network doesn’t capture the zeitgeist for me in the way that so many critics purport it does, but I suspect it has to do with a continuation of Fight Club’s search for what it means for a man to be a man in the modern age [read fellow ArtSTALK writer Patrick Bigsby’s analysis of the parallels between Black Swan and Fight Club]. Frankly, I’m still not particularly buying that I am a part of the generation of men raised by women (especially since I was raised by both a father and mother).

Thus, I don’t believe it’s as difficult to understand how to “act like a man” as Fincher’s films would have us believe. It is, undoubtedly, easier to be distracted (and Facebook may be a major culprit), but I don’t think we’re quite at the “nation of wusses” level yet.

Black Swan, on the other hand, doesn’t fall victim to the endless soul-searching and open-ended questions that follow Zuckerberg and his ilk. This is a film that knows what it wants to say and never wavers in its message. Admittedly, all but the least cynical movie-goers will groan at the idea of an artist making art about how difficult it is for artists to make art.

But Aronofsky is right. If it were easy to make the sort of transcendent art Nina Sayers destroys herself to create, then everybody would be doing it, wouldn’t they? The crumpled scraps of abandoned Next Great American Novels lying in trash heaps across the country is enough to prove how tough it is to achieve artistic success.

Pictured: the Next Great American Novel. I think I left the score for my Billy Mays musical biopic somewhere in here, too. (Image via D’Arcy Norman)

Yet it’s not enough for an artist to be extraordinarily creative. Along with the dedication it takes to become a master of his or her craft (as many as 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell), the artist must also contend with frequent failures, setbacks, and a general feeling of inadequacy in the face of every immensely talented person, living or dead. There may even be a scientific correlation between creativity and mental illness, including elevated rates of suicide among artists. While I am hesitant to put too much faith in these sorts of studies, the idea of the “tortured artist” exists because we have long believed in an intuitive link between artistic ability and a tendency toward self-destruction.

In a breathless 100 minutes, Aronofsky does an admirable job of accurately capturing this connection that we all understand but rarely communicate. Black Swan is terrifying, beautiful, and rings true in a way that The Social Network does not, despite how much more the latter film is grounded in reality. Maybe it’s strange that ballet dancer Nina Sayers speaks to me more than computer geek Mark Zuckerberg, but that’s exactly the sort of surprise that makes Black Swan the best film of 2010.

Brian Dau

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