Black Swan

Natalie Portman in Black Swan

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

17 March

 

Rudolf Nureyev born, 1938

Today in 1938, Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born, on a train near Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union. The son of a Red Army political commissar, he grew up in a small village in Bashkortostan and first learnt to dance Bashkir folk dances. His teachers encouraged him to go to Leningrad. He auditioned for the Bolshoi but became a member of the Kirov Ballet, which allowed him to travel widely in the West. Realising that his freedom to travel was about to be curtailed, Nureyev defected to the West while on tour in Paris, in 1961. By February 1962 he was principal dancer at the Royal Ballet, in London, where he danced with Margot Fonteyn, a partnership that would enhance both of their reputations. Their last performance together took place in 1988, when Fonteyn was 69 and Nureyev 50. A titan of 20th century dance, he also danced Swine Lake with a giant pig in his TV appearance on The Muppets.

 

 

 

Black Swan (2010, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

There used to be a girls comic in the UK called Bunty which would feature regular strips such as The Four Marys (four girls of different social classes, all friends together at a boarding school), Mum Knows Best (a girl’s fight against her over-protective parents) and Amazing Grace, Gymnast of the Future (no explanation necessary). Regularly appearing alongside would be ballet melodramas – The Phantom Ballerina or The Dancing Life of Moira Kent or Lisa, the Lonely Ballerina, just three of many. With a quick edit for sexual content, drug use and bad language, Black Swan would have fitted right in. The story of the sidelined ballerina who really really wants to dance but first has to overcome all manner of obstacles, not least her own lack of confidence, Black Swan is pure girls fantasy material and all the ballet clichés are here – the sadism of the life balletic, the bulimia, the controlling parent, the rivalry, bitchiness, the bitter older star, the rapacious choreographer, the lesbianism, perfectionism, and on it goes, one overheated item after another. Natalie Portman is the titular swan, the dancer finally given a shot as principal dancer in Swan Lake, and the movie tracks her progress towards finding her dark side, battling against the low opinion of others (and herself), the jealousy of others, the neuroses of the ballet world. The performances are worth hugging close to your chest – Winona Ryder as the older star just realising it’s all over; Vincent Cassel as the wild choreographer who wants it all; Barbara Hershey as the mad mother winding it all the way up to Joan Crawford; an effortlessly brilliant Mila Kunis as the sexy, confident and utterly untrustworthy friend. It’s a great big rampaging melodrama, the sort of thing Hollywood used to churn out in the 1950s, tear-stained, hilarious (if you’re that way inclined), an allegory for the transition from the fluffy bunnies of youth to the dark nastiness of womanhood. At the end, as Portman gets her chance to become the dark destroying Black Swan and dances for her life in a sequence choreographed to Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake, director Darren Aronofsky cranks up the editing, wheels the camera about and throws in one gothic revelation after another. This finish is highly reminiscent of another great ballet film finale, The Red Shoes, possibly as re-imagined by Douglas Sirk. Aronofsky, two years after another grand guignol peak behind the tatty curtain of public performance/private pain in The Wrestler, has done it again.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • A thumping great melodrama
  • Perfect casting, brilliant acting
  • It plays perfectly to and against Portman’s goody-goody image
  • Matthew Libatique’s bravura cinematography

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

Conspiracy – at Amazon

 

 

 

 

The Wrestler

Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler

 

A movie for every day of the year – a good one

 

 

2 December

 

 

Big Daddy dies, 1997

On this day in 1997, the wrestler born Shirley Crabtree in Halifax, England, in 1930, died. Crabtree came from a wrestling family – his father, also named Shirley Crabtree, was a wrestler, as were his nephews Steve and Scott Crabtree (though they both wrestled under the name Valentine). Shirley Crabtree followed his father into the ring in 1952 (the same year that Vince McMahon was creating the WWF brand in the USA). With his 64 inch chest and blond hair, Crabtree became a prominent blue-eye (ie hero type) and won the European Heavyweight Championships twice before retiring in 1966. He returned in 1972 as a heel (ie bad guy) with the character of the Battling Guardsman before returning again in 1974 as Big Daddy, named after the Burl Ives character in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Initially Big Daddy was a heel, an image that was reinforced when he formed a tag team with Martin Ruane, the 6ft 11in (2.11m) 685lb (311kg) wrestler known as Giant Haystacks, who would later become his arch rival. By 1977 Crabtree had returned yet again, again as Big Daddy, but this time as a blue-eye who wore a sequinned cape and arrived ringside draped in the national flag to the sound of We Shall Not Be Moved over the sound system. Big Daddy was, as his name suggests, big. This led to an ungainliness in his movements, though Crabtree turned this to his advantage by developing signature movements such as the Big Splash, which involved him dropping his bulky body belly first onto a prostrate opponent – at which point he would encourage the crowd to shout “Easy. Easy”. Big Daddy’s career almost came to an end when he Big Splash-ed Mal “King Kong” Kirk during a bout, and Kirk died (the coroner absolved Crabtree of blame, pointing to Kirk’s serious heart condition). Crabtree took the death personally, but continued wrestling into his 60s, though he became increasingly a static presence, against which lighter, prettier wrestlers would hurl themselves to little effect.

 

 

 

The Wrestler (2008, dir: Darren Aronofsky)

A reminder that Mickey Rourke is an actor who operates outside the pantomime arena, when he wants to, Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler is all about age, breakdown, decay and the everyday heroics necessary to just keep going. The fact that it stars Rourke, who famously abandoned acting to become a boxer, then returned to movies years later a collagen-lipped beat-up reminder of his former self, makes this film, at some level, the story of Rourke himself. And it’s a heartbreaker, the journey with the small-fry wrestler at the wrong end of his career, a tough guy with a heart of gold, a good word for everybody, a man who’s gone a bit deaf, works on the meat counter (nice touch) at a supermarket where he’s bossed about by a ballbusting dick, whose daughter hates him, whose lap-dancer girlfriend isn’t even really his girlfriend. It’s the insights into the wrestling game that make this film so powerful – the tanning salon, the hair extensions, the growth hormone and the painkillers, the eye-opening and eye-watering use of a staple gun. And Aronofsky and documentary cinematographer Maryse Alberti shoot it all arthouse – dark, handheld, grainy, many key scenes are so underlit you have to squint through the mood to work out what’s going on. As for plot – there isn’t much of one, we’re just following Randy “The Ram” Robinson from one indignity to the next, while he fumbles about trying to work out what to do with what’s left of his life now his career is over, or as good as over. Is it a metaphor for the baby boomers, more generally? It can be if you want it to be, though Aronofsky has learnt from some of the excess of earlier films (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain) and plays it straight. He’s blessed to have Rourke, and to have Evan Rachel Wood as the estranged daughter, Marisa Tomei as the girlfriend who isn’t a girlfriend. And to have all those New Jersey locations, looking every bit as busted, chipped and beaten up as The Ram himself. As for Rourke, wait till you hear his “I’m an old broken down piece of meat speech”.

 

 

Why Watch?

 

  • Should have been Rourke’s Oscar winner
  • Aronofsky’s best film – yes, better than Black Swan
  • Real insight into to how the theatrical world of wrestling works
  • Bruce Springsteen’s tender title song

 

© Steve Morrissey 2013

 

 

The Wrestler – at Amazon