Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Is It Impossible to Make an Anti-War on Women Film?

Reading this dialogue between Mark Fisher and Amber Jacobs on Black Swan, originally published in Film Quarterly, and can't help thinking that I agree with both sides of the argument.  On the one hand, I, like Mark, originally saw the film and accepted its artifice, found it deeply moving, and thought it to be a deeply feminist film in the ways it portrayed women's bodies as this battleground for male design/male pleasure.  The body horror aspects- particularly the quasi-foot-binding- were particularly striking and have stuck with me through the years, even though I've only watched the film one other time since seeing it in the theaters. However, to Jacobs's point, the way the film presents itself as a film about the way women are pitted against one another does not leave room for departure, and entrenches the film in the rules and stereotypes it seems to be critiquing.  This makes it a horror film about, by, and within patriarchy, even if one considers the negativity of the angles it focuses on to frame it more against than for.

It makes me think about the old adage (attributed to Truffaut) about how you can never truly make an anti-war film, because every film about war must reinforce the notion that war is exciting and thrilling.  In a similar way, I wonder if you can ever make a film about the limitations of patriarchy, particularly as a male storyteller, without affirming its allegedly innate authority.   Natalie Portman's Nina in Black Swan is a character that is completely invested in the patriarchal model of womanhood, and certainly women who are meek, overwhelmed, and unstable (I'd stop short of saying "hysterical" as Jacobs suggests- I think she's drawn a touch more three-dimensionally than that) do exist.  One of the reasons I found the film compelling was because it contained a protagonist you don't often see on the screen.  But can you choose a protagonist like this, whose entire value system is defined within the horror of patriarchy, without making said central figure become an allegorical emblem of womanhood?

 In Black Swan, I believe Mila Kunis's Lily was designed to be a foil to this, but all of what we know of Lily is told from Nina's decidedly skewed perspective.  Nina believes Lily is after her role, because that seems to the rules of engagement, but there are several moments in which Lily couldn't seem to care less.  Nina sees in Lily her own expiration date, but she also desires the way in which Lily may just be free of concern about the patriarchal rules- that is, if this isn't just an act, an elaborate ruse to sneak her way into Nina's ballet shoes.  The film doesn't let us see Lily in just one way though.  It makes us want to believe the best since Nina is clearly crazy, but also makes us complicit in the lie that all women are catty and manipulative at their core.

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