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Technicians and Artists

Darren Aronofsky: a resourceful technician (Pi) of considerable range but little imagination (Requiem for a Dream), after attempting an artwork of his own (The Fountain), resigns himself to a career fixated on art, but capable only of chronicling it (The WrestlerBlack Swan).

Aronofsky's two most recent films are essentially the same movie—a drama about a second-rate artist with family problems, haunted by (the reality of / possibility of) aging, who pushes him or herself to suicidal limits, done with a tinge of body horror and closing with a performance—and I get the sense that it's the movie Aronofsky will make for years to come (which is no problem: both films are pretty good, with the second one being a bit more consistent than the first). Obsessed by darkness but lacking an inner darkness of his own, he has gazed deep within himself, tried his best tragic artist / egoist routine (in The Fountain, a film that is paradoxically both artless andarty) and found little aside from an intelligence for special effects and a film student's knack for imitation and transposition. Aronofsky's direction gives the impression that he's the only man who has ever lost sleep over being able to sleep well at night; he wants badly to be psychotic or tormented and in his films creates a fantasy of psychosis (at its most morally questionable in Requiem for a Dream).

In Black Swan, the comparison-minded have already found Polanski, Lynch (?), All About Eve and its variations, and Cronenberg (close but no cigar—D.A.'s handheld razzmatazz precludes the comparison; Cronenberg's visual autopsies require steadiness and evenness, so it's no surprise that he almost never shoots handheld and insists on using the same lens on every shot of a film). But the most apt point of comparison—or, more accurately, contrast—is Jacques Rivette at his most paranoid. There are affinities: the handheld 16mm camera (in Rivette's case a budgetary necessity, in Aronofsky's an aesthetic caprice), the emphasis on theatrical rehearsal and company dynamics (the script for Black Swan, originally titled The Understudy, was about the theater; the ballet was Aronofsky's idea), the interplay between text (Swan Lake) and action (the plot). But what separates an artist who aspires only to be a proper technician of the cinema (Rivette) from a good cinematic technician who wants only to be an artist (Aronofsky) is depth.

Black Swan is a machine, though a very entertaining one. All of Aronofsky's films are machines that exist to execute a looped theme; they are—to bring to mind an object returned to again and again in Black Swan—music boxes. Ambiguity is manufactured, Christopher Nolan-style, through precise formal control (see: the film's metaphorical color scheme, which extends from Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman's wardrobe to the paint in the hallway of Portman's apartment). In comparison, Rivette's improvisatory chaos, with its clashing acting styles and degrees of realism, forms fractal conspiracies: stare firmly enough into Out 1 or The Gang of Four and you'll find more ambiguities and contradictions as—and this is essential to his peculiar paranoia—the more one grasps the grand scheme of things, they less they seem to be the product of design. In Black Swan, all you'll see is that even the tissue Portman wipes her eyes at the gala is—like the stage set, the costumes, the rehearsal room, and Portman's own apartment building—neatly patterned black-and-white.

I definitely see the Cronenberg connection, though I agree it’s not located at all in the cinematic form. Some great, really gross prosthetics on display as well as a good, wicked sense of humor.
Very good post, thank you. There was a time when I considered Aronofsky great. Now I do consider Rivette great. (Though, unfortunately, I didn’t see the ones that you mention by Rivette.)
In my opinion, Aronofsky is not the greatest director who ever lived. Thankfully the internet provides legions of attack critics to disparage his work! Thank you for correcting this great injustice which is ‘film production’. No artist may go unscathed! Whether or not there is anything to appreciate in his work, I am glad we have you to count among the legions of people actively working to not talk about it. I believe we spend far too much of our time dedicated to appreciating the work of artists, and I’m glad we can come here to this bastion of… well, not art appreciation, I guess… this bastion of talking about someone better than someone else! Ahh, yes, there it is. I can’t wait for your piece on which artist is better than Rivette.
Have to agree with Iggy that Aronofsky’s pretensions to madness are undercut by the clarity of meaning and structure in his films. His obsessiveness is apparent, but there is nothing below the surface of his films that would lead me to believe that he has lived the song he sings about. And in no way do I mean to diminish Aronofsky’s craft; he is obviously very talented. But in order for the form of his films to equal the content (if that’s what he really wants, and I get the feeling that’s exactly what he wants based on the material he chooses to film) he’s going to have to loosen up a little bit and stop being such a watchmaker. A little incoherence goes a long way. To me, that’s the difference between Aronofsky and someone like Friedkin, whose films are drenched with chaos and malevolence (Sorcerer, Cruising, To Live and Die in L.A., and Rampage just to name a few) most notably at the level of structure, which makes the films themselves seem unstable and borderline, not just the characters. With Aronofsky I feel like we’re started to get to the point of diminishing returns. There were parts of Black Swan that reminded me of Stayin’ Alive.
One connection to Aronofsky’s work I haven’t seen mentioned often enough is perhaps the most apt one, Brian De Palma. It’s particularly noticeable within Black Swan which mixes the technical proficiency mentioned in your post, with a story that embraces operatic melodrama, meta-statements on the art of filmmaking and best of all, delectable sardonic humor.
I don’t see much cinematic connection between the two. I also don’t see much “meta-statements” on filmmaking. Nor much sardonic humor, actually.
“Was I good?!!?” The whole audience roared at that one, though there was a lot of deserved laughter throughout the whole screening. Without its consistent sense of humor, I probably would have crawled out of the theater from sheer discomfort at the volume of trichotillomaniacal imagery on display. Or the unmitigated pretentiousness that would have remained. But the dark comedy took the edge off both factors nicely and was a key factor in my enjoyment of the movie (more so than any De Palma I can think of, for that matter).
“But what separates an artist who aspires only to be a proper technician of the cinema (Rivette) from a good cinematic technician who wants only to be an artist (Aronofsky) is depth.” That’s exactly the core of the film- lacking depth. I mean, the symbolism is there, and it’s done in a very skillful way, but the problem is with what it conveys, which is not worth making a full film for.
Why are we forced to compare? Why do we need to hold Rivette (or anyone else) as an example to show why Arronofsky is not (as) good? I would much rather read constructive criticism about the film itself than personal opinions in the nature of “this doesn’t match up to that”.
“Black Swan is a machine, though a very entertaining one.” Precisely! I had just the same feeling after watching it. It’s ironic that the film per se lacks the “letting go” approach that the protagonist pursues.
Oh, giddy! A comparison article. This is better than that because I LIKE THE WORD ‘THIS’ MORE.

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