The Black Swan (1942) vs. Black Swan (2010)

Shut up, Meg!
Shut up, Meg!

Yo ho ho and a bottle of suck!

Posted: Oct 13, 2018 3:17 PM

Most people liked “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.” Few will admit it now, except in that contrarian way where you like to explain to other people how a terrible movie really isn’t terrible in order to prove how smart and sophisticated you are, but that movie made a buttload at the box office and those tickets weren’t bought ironically. Heck, I remember leaving the theater with some friends and desperately trying to convince myself that a movie I’d been waiting for since I was a kid WASN’T a steaming pile of crap.

Sometimes, whether in movies or politics or commerce, it’s decided that we all just have to like something and most of us follow along. How do you think people wind up wearing bellbottom jeans or basketball shorts so long they look like a kilt? That dynamic is one of the things this edition of KIMT’s Weekend Throwdown will consider as we pit an adventure on the Spanish Main against the unfocused indulgence of a Hollywood “IT” boy. It’s “”The Black Swan” (1942) vs. “Black Swan” (2010) in a contest that finds many things may change but the male gaze remains the same.

Do you even lift, bro?

Based on a novel by Rafael Sabatini, “The Black Swan” is set in the 17th century toward the end of the golden age of piracy. England and Spain have made peace and the English king recruits famed pirate Henry Morgan (Laird Cregar) as the new governor of the colony of Jamaica and gives him the command to bring the raping and pillaging to a stop. Morgan asks his old pirate buddies to join him. Captain Billy Leech (George Sanders) declares he’ll fly the Jolly Roger ‘til he dies but Morgan shanghai’s the drunk-off-his-ass Captain Jamie Waring (Tyrone Power) to be his second-in-command.

Now, if you were born after 1979, you probably read that and think this movie is about Henry Morgan because the name “Tyrone Power” means nothing to you. But Tyrone Power was one of the biggest stars in the history of Hollywood and so “The Black Swan” is all about Jamie and his more-than-a-little-creepy-to-modern-eyes wooing of Lady Margaret Denby (Maureen O’Hara), the steel-willed and very proper daughter of the Jamaican governor unseated by Moran. While romancing her in an era when NOT raping women was considered chivalrous and a woman hitting a man in the head with a rock was considered foreplay, Jamie also has to navigate the treachery of an English nobleman selling information to Captain Leech and save himself, Margaret, and Henry Morgan from betrayal and ruination.

"You can't fool me!  I know you're after me Lucky Charms!"

“The Black Swan” is a fairly low-budget affair once you get past its Technicolor sheen. All the scenes at sea are done with model ships, though they do look surprisingly good, and there’s relatively little action until the big battle at the end. Filming scenes of pirate intrigue and 17th century courtship was a lot cheaper than massive brawls or ship-to-ship combat using real ships. But at a trim 85 minutes, “The Black Swan” never drags and grabs the viewer with the magnetic performances of Power, George Sanders, Laird Cregar and veteran character actor Thomas Mitchell as Tommy Blue, Jamie’s pirate compatriot. Typically, Maureen O’Hara would be included in that list but while the film benefits from the powerful presence, Margaret is the stereotypical “I can’t stand this guy. Wait, now I love him!” role that has been the bane of actresses since the beginning of film.

With a believable story about high seas barbarism giving way to the comforts and limitations of civilization and a climactic sword fight between Leech and Jamie which manages that most difficult of movie sword fight tasks and actually looks like two guys trying to kill each other, “The Black Swan” stands the test of time to remain a solid piece of entertainment. Yeah, there’s a scene that disconcertingly reminds us of the “Stepin Fetchit” roles black folks used to be limited to on screen but if you can’t handle that, there’s going to be a whole lot of pre-1950 fiction in all sorts of media that will be off limits to you.

How can you be fat wearing that getup in the Carribbean?  You'd sweat off 20 pounds a day!

“Black Swan” has an 85% fresh rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes, 84% from regular viewers, and made $329 million worldwide at the box office. It’s also a giant dumpster fire of a motion picture that combines visual annoyance and creative pretention with a hideously sexist wolf of a story in woke sheep’s clothing. This movie sucks and sucks hard, which is a stunning demonstration of incompetence given that it includes a sex scene between Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis. It’s like sticking Dwayne Johnson’s arms and a Groucho Marx glasses and nose on the Venus de Milo and thinking you’ve improved it.

Nina (Natalie Portman) is a ballerina in a company that has seen better days. She still lives like a little girl with her mother (Barbara Hershey) and their relationship sits at some unknowable point on the dysfunction spectrum between “mother living vicariously through her daughter” and “mother sexually abusing her daughter.” The head of the company (Vincent Cassel) decides to stage a production of Swan Lake and picks Nina to star, displacing the aging prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) who had ruled the roost up until then. But while Nina’s dancing is technically perfect, she lacks the sexual energy necessary for the role and so perfectly embodied by the free spirited Lily (Mila Kunis), a new member of the company. Oh, and Nina spends the movie going more and more insane.

"This is my shocked face."

The first thing you need to know about “Black Swan” is that director Darren Aronofsky shot about 70% of this thing with a handheld camera like it’s a “found footage” flick AND IT LOOKS LIKE GARBAGE!!! The camera work isn’t so erratic that it will make you nauseous but that’s the best you can say about it. Big chunks of the film just flatly look bad and it doesn’t help matters that Aronofsky, a truly gifted director in other respects, has no freakin’ idea how to shoot a theatrical performance. I found myself actually wishing one of those music video hacks had taken over the director’s chair after the second day of filming.

The second thing you need to know about “Black Swan” is that there’s no real story here. There are a bunch of allusions to a bunch of stories but Aronofsky can’t quite bring himself to tell any of them. It’s a movie about the ballet where you somehow get through it without learning a single damn thing about the ballet. What’s the difference between a good performance and a bad performance? No clue. What’s the difference between a traditional rendition of Swan Lake and the “stripped down” and “visceral” version that happens during this movie? No clue. The movie tells us that Nina is technically perfect but emotionally barren in her dancing but never shows us what that means. Once Nina unleashes her inner passion, the audience wildly applauds but I defy anyone to actually tell the difference between that dancing and Nina’s supposedly frigid work before. Imagine watching “A League of Their Own” (1992) and winding up with no idea how you play baseball or watching “Rocky” (1976) and being confused about how this whole “boxing” thing was supposed to work. That is what it’s like to watch “Black Swan.”

"This is also my shocked face."

Besides ballet befuddlement, you also come away from this movie with zero understanding of the main character. Does Nina have a mental illness? Is she the victim of abuse? Is she a delicate soul torn asunder by a world in which she doesn’t belong? Is she genuinely sexually repressed or does she have a normal libido in a hypersexual environment? Does she even want to be a dancer or is that simply her mother’s influence? This “serious” drama can’t make up its mind about any of that.

And if you’re offended by the sexual politics of “The Black Swan,” where super-aggressive men pursue women like they’re trophies to be won and women respond with indifference until they eventually swoon before the onslaught of machismo, I don’t see how you can be any happier with “Black Swan.” This thing manages to combine two of the oldest misogynistic tropes in drama: Nina is not only the sexually repressed woman who must “get in touch” with her slutty side to become a complete person but she’s also the chick whose sexual liberation is inextricably linked to her mental instability. It’s two sexist melodramas for the price of one!

"Okay, I admit it.  The whole movie is basically my shocked face.  Got me an Oscar, though!"

The bottom line for “Black Swan” is that if some no-name director churned out the exact same film with two no-name actresses giving the exact same performances, the universal response would have been “What the bleep is this?” But because Aronofsky had previously made three legitimately great motion pictures {(“Pi” (1998), “Requiem for a Dream” (2000), and “The Wrestler” (2008)} and a piece of arty nonsense too many people convinced themselves was great {(“The Fountain” (2006)}, everyone accepted the brief glimpses of inspiration that flash and then vanish in “Black Swan” as a substitute for quality filmmaking. And yeah, I’m sure someone could explain to me how I’m missing some profound point or subtle theme they think Aronofsky is conveying but the techniques of post-modernism allow us to pretend anything is good as long as we ignore the reality of what it is.

This Weekend Throwdown goes to “The Black Swan.” It might not be perfect but you can watch it in 1942, 2018, or 2094 and still enjoy it. “Black Swan” has aged about as well as a hog carcass left out on a hot summer day. Its only value is that it makes it a little bit easier to understand how Aronofsky could make something like “Mother!” (2017).

Tell the truth.  You're also just waiting for The Bachelor to end like this.

The Black Swan (1942)
Written by Ben Hecht and Seton I. Miller.
Directed by Henry King.
Starring Tyrone Power, Maureen O’Hara, Laird Cregar, Thomas Mitchell, George Sanders, Anthony Quinn, George Zucco, Edward Ashley, Bonnie Bannon, Fortunio Bonanova, and John Burton.

Black Swan (2010)
Written by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz, and John J. McLaughlin.
Directed by Darren Aronofsky.
Starring Natalie Portman, Mila Kunis, Vincent Cassel, Barbara Hershey, Winona Ryder, Benjamin Millepied, Ksenia Solo, Kristina Anapau, Sebastian Stan, and Toby Hemingway.

This is not the sex scene I mentioned earlier.

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