Film Review: “Black Swan”

The film “Black Swan” (director Darren Aronofsky) is one of the most unsettling pieces of art I have encountered in a long time.  The principles give fine performances: Natalie Portman as the ballerina who is challenged to look at her dark side and Barbara Hershey as the mother, who failed at dance herself and is now trying to live through her daughter.  But it is the craft of the director that is the source of the film’s psychological power.

 The camera takes us right into the action–from the opening shots, we literally walk with the characters, bounce behind them as they move from place to place, in an unnerving fashion.  The dancer soon reveals that she cannot tell fantasy from reality, and of course neither can the viewer.  Did that really happen? we are always asking, as is she.  Because she has been unable to crack the shell of her surface perfection, she is stiff and cold, not erotic and juicy, like the friend she fears wants to steal her lead in “Swan Lake.”  She wants to hurt someone–her domineering mother, of course–but she cannot, and so she herself must bleed.  This is the stuff of tragedy.

This film has the potential to reach deep into the psyche of every viewer, because these forces are present in all of us.  It was Freud who first put forth the theory that every human being has a death instinct and a life instinct.  When the death instinct is turned upon one’s self, it leads to self-destructive acts, including suicide.  When Eros, or the life force, wins out, the death instinct is sometimes displaced onto others in the form of aggression.  But Eros can express itself in human creativity and love instead of warring against the death instinct, he believed. 

That is the challenge of our ballerina in “Black Swan,” and indeed is the challenge of every human being.  First of all, we must become conscious of the dark side–whatever is unacceptable to us and we don’t want to acknowledge as part of us. It can be negative impulses like jealousy or it can be talents or desires that we don’t want to recognize, for one reason or another. 

But we are afraid–we don’t want to go there, because we might lose control, we think.  To acknowledge the dark side is not the same as acting upon it–it is merely bringing it to consciousness, so that we are not driven by our more unconscious motives.  Then we know what is real and what is not real.  Then we will not hurt ourselves or others and wonder why we do these things.  Then we are free to choose, to say yes or no, to go with love and creativity and to grow in ways we never thought possible.


What Brings Real Joy at Christmas?

For those of us for who celebrate Christmas, it is a holiday rich with potential–potential for joy and potential for angst.  I have experienced Christmases all along that continuum.  This Christmas some will be reminded of those loved ones who are gone from us and will be present in spirit but no longer in body; some of us will be far from our children; some of us will find it stressful to get into the Christmas festivities, while others will find it fun; some will be reunited with those they love and haven’t seen for a while; some will find their usual loneliness only the more acute; other will receive an engagement ring and the hope of love that will last so long as they both shall live.  Yes, the whole human catastophe! 

That’s what Jesus was born into, as well.  Mary’s long ride on a donkey, in the bitter cold.  No room in the inn.  The loving arms of Joseph.  Shelter in the stable.  The miracle of the star that brought promise to those struggling.  The wondering eyes of the shepherds.  The gifts of the Magi.   

I have had–well, I suppose it is 69 Christmases!  On the whole, I’d have to say that they weigh in fairly heavily on the sadness scale, for all the usual reasons: alcoholism in the family, divorce, separation from loved ones, loneliness.  But even the childhood Christmases, problematic as they were, had their lovely moments.  We never bought a tree–we went out into some farmer’s field, crawled under the barbed wire, and cut a tree down, which is what everybody else did, too.  The aunts and uncles and cousins came to my grandparents’ home, where we lived, and amazing smells emanated from the kitchen, while the men smoked, joked, and told stories in the parlor.  My little sister, Donna, always woke me up at 5:00 AM on Christmas morning, to see what Santa had brought.  My grandfather always gave each one of us children a shiny new silver dollar.  We children always gave our father, who worked in the oil field, a metal lunch box, which he promptly “lost.”  Years later, he told us that those metal boxes rattled in the car when the roughnecks returned from the oilfield, preventing them from sleeping. 

Now I’m finding that it’s the simple things that seem to hold me close and keep me warm: making gingerbread cookies with my grandchildren; seeing the Christmas boats go by on the Willamette; wrapping little “secret Santa” gifts; planning the details of a Christmas dinner; talking on the phone (unlimited minutes!) to those far away; seeing a dog in a silly Santa hat; trimming our tree; hearing the familiar carols; and most of all, feeling safe and feeling loved. 

That’s the prayer, then, that I’m sending out for the whole wide world during this special season: I wish that every single person–every man, woman, and especially every child, could be warm and safe and loved.  That’s the heart of Christmas for me.  Amen and amen. 


Two Americas

I’m concerned.  Really concerned.  We are creating two classes in this country of ours–the struggling middle class, plus those more affluent, and then a desperate underclass whose inhabitants have no way of being successfully integrated into our society.  And we’re not talking about a small number of people. 

Consider the following facts.  Around 30-40% of students, depending upon how you count them, drop out of high school.  And far too many who graduate from high school cannot read. ( I don’t mean “read well”–I mean “read.”)   Unwed mothers now account for 40% of births in our country.  One out of every five children is born into poverty–and that would be the Federal poverty level, which is actually far below what a family can actually live on. 

What happens to people who grow up in a highly technological society, and who fail to gain even the basic skills and knowledge expected of a high school graduate?  They go to prison, that’s what.  One out of every 100 of our citizens is incarcerated–the highest percentage, as we say, in the civilized world.  And our prison systems have become a big business, totally draining the tax coffers of resources that could be used elsewhere–perhaps in preventative services and in education, so that more people could stay out of prison.

The fact is that our prison systems have become so expensive to maintain that we’re having to let prisoners out early–there’s no more room for them, and no more money to build more prisons.  A study done in 2005 of the California prison system, one of the most overcrowded in the nation, revealed that one inmate per week was dying because the state failed to provide adequate health care–for example, failed to treat an out-of-control infection.  Our prison systems all over this nation are overcrowded and rehabilitation is practically non-existent.  So what the state is doing, of course, is simply turning petty criminals into hardened and habitual criminals. 

What is the answer to this dilemma of the two Americas?  I hardly think the answer is to continue tax cuts for the rich, while the poor languish in poverty and hopelessness.  Do we really think we can keep these desperate and alienated citizens “over there”?  Read Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death”–no, we will be visited by our neglect, many times over. 

I don’t know what it will take to wake up this country.  Our soldiers in Iraq traverse the landscape in fear–every object might contain an IED.  We should know that this country is filling up with human IED’s–that is, people who have nowhere to go, nothing to do, and no dreams left to dream.  When they explode, no one will be safe.  



When I Fell in Love with a Gay Man . . . .

Long ago in a faraway place when I was a young woman, I fell in love with a gay man.  Had I been less innocent about sexual preferences and practices, I doubtless would have known that the gentleman was gay.  But I had grown up a Southern Baptist, in N. Louisiana, and I was hopelessly naive about such matters.

This is how it happened–the falling in love, I mean.  I was teaching English in New Orleans at the time, at a public school for gifted children.  One of my colleagues, a math teacher, was tall and handsome and brilliant and sophisticated, and we became friends.  He introduced me to opera and antiques and the pleasures of the French Quarter, where he lived in a three-story house, chock full of art objects he had collected over the years.  Oh, yes–he was also wealthy.  His world had never been my world, and I was eager to learn. 

Our friendship grew, and one evening we found ourselves cozied up in a dark cocktail lounge, having drinks.  Alcohol was another thing that I was fairly unfamiliar with, and so that evening one drink loosened my inhibitions to the extent that I leaned over and kissed my friend full on the mouth.  He was surprised!  But there were stars in his eyes, too, and he was pleased.  Pleased and confused.

We never spoke about what had happened, and then several weeks later, he told me he wanted to talk.  He told me that he loved me–and he told me that he was gay.  He said that after our kiss he had gone to a psychiatrist to ask if he could ever “change” and successfully marry a woman, and the psychiatrist had told him that this kind of treatment would cost a lot of money and take a lot of time, and that it probably wouldn’t work.  So my friend told me, sadly, that he had decided that we could never have a life together.  We remained close friends and companions.

These were the days, back in the 1960′s, when homosexuality was still considered an abberation, an illness that could and should be fixed.  And so my friend had come upon a wise and compassionate doctor who simply told him the truth.  I hope he also told my friend that being gay was OK, that there was nothing bad or wrong about it. 

Which brings us to the present moment.  After nine months of study, the Pentagon has reported that the great majority of soldiers (70%) believe that allowing openly gay men and lesbians to serve poses little risk.  Even most of those in opposition say that they have served with gay and lesbian soldiers to no ill effect (NY Times 12/1, p. A28).  Robert Gates, the Defense Secretary, has asked the Senate to repeal the ban, without delay.  Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, supports this position.  Then a proper transition period could ensue, in which regulations could be rewritten and troops could be educated about the change. 

However, given the tone and tenor of several Republican lawmakers, who say they will fight the change, the decision may be thrown to the courts.  John McCain said that the Pentagon survey should have asked service members if the ban should be repealed.  Since when do soldiers get to vote on whether or not they should respect one another?  Since when should any citizens be allowed to discriminate on the basis of skin color (as the military did for so long), sex (ditto), religion, or sexual orientation?

No one in this world should have to hide who they are, should have to “pass,” so that they can be treated like a human being.  No one should have to change a Jewish-sounding name, as some Jews once did; no light-skinned African American should have to pretend to be white; and no gay man or lesbian woman should have to lie about who they are.  Such deception is deadening to the soul. 

I’m still in touch with my friend from time to time–I called when Katrina hit, but of course the French Quarter was spared.  I remember the three other other gay teachers at the school.  Two of them are dead of suicide.  They were enormously creative men, and troubled.  They didn’t fit in.  My friend was spared from such an ending.  But he has been lonely, for long years.

Change is coming–it’s simply a matter of time–we don’t know how and when, but it’ll be soon.  At last, at last.  As Martin Luther King repeatedly told us, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”