Black Swan / White Lies
Categories: art, living

By Michelina Docimo

Nailbiting.  Watching Black Swan, perched at the edge of my seat, my emotions kept pendulating from beauty to brutal.  Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, is after perfection.  Reared and smothered by her single, unrealized ballet dancer mother, Nina is cloistered in her pink frilly bedroom, detached from NYC life.  A people-pleaser, Nina can dance but can’t stand on her own two feet.  Becoming more aware of her arrested development while auditioning for the lead double role in Swan Lake, Nina embarks on a grueling yin yang search.  Perfect as the pure white swan queen, she struggles to tap into her seductive dark side.

Up for five Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress, the film has a haunting effect of Cubist-like black on black shadows in the middle of the night.  Before the final Swan Lake scene, in her dressing room, Nina examines herself in the mirror and all she sees is shattered pieces of her spirit.  I don’t want the movie to end the way it does but in the end it is perfect.  It is art reflecting life reflecting art reflecting back at life to the point that the black and white become so muddled everything seems a heavy nebulous gray.  There is truth in Black Swan about the lies we feed ourselves and others.  The film is a microcosm of the inner workings of the psyche, family, friendships, and communities that expand into a global network of culture and economy; it is about keeping up appearances and letting our guard down, opening and closing, highs and lows, light and dark, male and female.

Surrounded by women, Nina lacks respectable male figures to offer balance.  Instead the ballet director, Thomas Leroy played by Vincent Cassel, mocks Nina for who she is, challenging her to be a better dancer by shedding her natural self and digging inside to find darkness rather than light.  The sorority atmosphere of the ballet is based more on values of jealousy and catty competition.  The “bad girl” role is glorified where as the innocent virginal female figure is scorned.  Even during the Swan Lake performance, Nina loses her balance when dancing with her partner, falls from grace as the White Swan and in an Eve-like way blames her male companion dancer.  Embarrassing the entire NYC ballet cast, the other dancers throw dagger looks at Nina for making all of them look like amateurs.  But when she appears as the Black Swan, dancing alone, she seduces the audience, en pointe nailing every turn, plie, and leap.  The audience roars in delight and fellow dancers congratulate her spectacular performance.

Ballet is considered the highest art form because the artist uses body and soul to express emotion; but as Nina gains perfection through art, her mind begins to deteriorate which leads to the collapse of her body.  So focused on her individual perfection of what she believes other people want her to be, Nina loses all independence. Every element is amiss.

Doesn’t this sound familiar?  Aren’t we living this right now?  I couldn’t help but draw a parallel between the film and the current changing cultural and economic landscape.  To me, Darren Aronofsky couldn’t have timed the release of Black Swan better, in the midst of a quasi recovery stage, an awakening from disillusion.  We feel uncertain.  To invest or not to invest?  To hire or not to hire? To party or not to party?  Everything is a question.  Change is the constant.  In the markets, in nature, in politics, in fashion – everything changes.  Serendipitously, I came across Nassim Taleb’s 2007 bestseller, The Black Swan – a book about learning how to anticipate inevitable surprises.  It was actually named one of the most influential books written since WWII and I admit, I had never heard of it.  As I read through a summary of the book’s points, I said to myself, this is exactly like the movie.  Taleb, a philosopher and mathematician, uses the metaphor of a black swan to explain events with these attributes:

  • It lies outside regular expectation.
  • It has an extreme impact.
  • Despite being most unexpected, people proffer explanations for it after the event.
  • Taleb’s “black swans” can be positive or negative events and can affect all aspects of our personal lives.   While spontaneity and surprise can be exciting, predictability can encourage positive black swans.  This may sound contradictory to the definition of a black swan as one of its criteria is that it lies outside of expectation.  At the same time, intense focus, preparation, and self-exploration can increase the likelihood of positive life events.  On the other hand, without leaving your mind open to serendipity, it is highly likely that you will miss the black swan phenomenon.  Living in cities and attending parties are Taleb’s suggestions on how to promote positive black swans from floating into our lives because it nurtures wider networks with people.

    When Nina takes a risk, venturing out into a nightclub with Lily (Mila Kunis), she loses control and experiments with drugs, men, and women.  It becomes unclear with whom we should find fault, Lily for exposing and manipulating Nina or Nina herself for making poor decisions.  How often have we made poor decisions and tried to cast blame on another person (like in Washington, Wall Street, Main Street)?  Many times we don’t support each other until it is too late.  We believe our success is based solely on how hard an individual works and dismiss lucky breaks that come by working in collaborative choreography.

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