Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why people hate films about their own profession

Over the last few weeks, we've seen a slew of critiques of Black Swan from ballet dancers who object to its portrayal of their profession. At first, they were generally positive, as in this piece from the LA Times. But lately, they've become nasty and harsh, such as in the Montreal Gazette and the Guardian. Just today, The Guardian put out another piece wondering why Portman didn't do more of her own dancing. Real dancers apparently find the portrayal of dance in Black Swan unconvincing and clichéd. But does that make it a bad movie?

We see this sort of thing all the time. Last year, for example, the knives came out for The Hurt Locker, which was praised for its realism until actual soldiers from Explosive Ordnance Disposal units said it was a laughable pile of crap (see the Huffington Post and the LA Times). I can recall reading one critique that said an actual disposal would take around eight hours or more, as if that's what audiences wanted to see in real time.

So now it's happening all over again with a different film that was initially praised for its tremendous attention to detail. Natalie Portman had already studied ballet as a child, and spent a year studying intensely again in preparation for this role. She lost twenty pounds and did tons of research. Yet this is still not enough for some dancers who fault her for not actually managing to become a world-class ballerina in one year.

Some of this is surely typical awards-season nonsense where competitors smear each other with the hopes that it helps them win the big prizes. Opposing studios plant these "news items" as part of a negative campaign.

But also this is simply a fact of making movies: films can't ever get it exactly right -- and even if they could, they shouldn't.

Every art form has its limitations. Film has fewer than most because it combines so many of the other art forms. So although it can't do things like get into the mind of a character the way a novel can, it can tell stories very freely and efficiently. It uses not only words, but acting, costumes, music, design, photography, editing and so on to convey information to the audience.

But it must tell a story. Even the most minimalist film has plot points that make you consider the effects on the character(s). Introducing information, especially specialized information, that doesn't propel the story forward is a sure way to alienate the general public. And unless a film is meant to be shown only to professionals and experts, you'd have to assume that the general public is the intended audience.

Filmmakers love to be as realistic as possible, because it helps the audience to understand many things about the protagonist and the story. But too much realism is a hindrance. It requires that everything that's not already common knowledge will have to be explained at some point, which becomes very boring. You can't give a college course before every scene. Sometimes it makes more sense to use what people know and can understand, even if it's not quite right. Otherwise, the story suffers.

Defusing bombs is certainly more complicated than choosing which wires to cut, and they probably don't get handy timers with big red digital clocks to tell them how many seconds they have. But people can get that right away. How many people would recognize a real bomb if they saw one and know what a disposal expert was even trying to do? Likewise, ballet isn't a field which is well-understood by most. As a result, the more realistic it becomes, the more exposition you'd require and the less dramatic the story would be.

Exposition is the bane of every writer. So it is too for readers and audience members. The less we notice it, the better.

This also applies to other areas too, such as acting. Often you'll hear people from a part of the world complain that an actor didn't quite get their particular accent right. But most actors are very good mimics. Many times, they actually choose not to get it exactly right because only people who are from that area would understand them. The point is to be understood first; otherwise, no one cares. So actors will often adopt a compromise accent between an authentic accent and none at all, in order to have the "flavour" of whatever region.

(An aside, I recall Leonardo DiCaprio was praised for nailing his accent in Blood Diamond from people from Africa, but this was mocked mercilessly by people who didn't know African accents and assumed his was just a terrible "foreigner" accent.)

Having said all this, Aronofsky and Portman did a fine job and actually were far more realistic than the many critics claimed. For example, contrary to the complaints about vomiting just being a cliché, I have numerous friends who are dancers or who studied dance and they've said eating disorders and pressure to lose weight are rampant in the dance world. And driven parents do exist in the arts as much as they do in sports. These things may be cliché, but there is some truth.

If they really want to see a realistic ballet film, there's always Mao's Last Dancer which stars Birmingham Royal Ballet dancer Chi Cao. It's a superb film and is based on a true story. But even in that film, moments are simplified for ease of understanding.

Also, Chi Cao had the benefit of drawing on his own real-life experiences for the role in the movie. It's foolish to think that a non-acting dancer would have the range and real-life experience to allow them to pull off the role of Nina in Black Swan. That was an acting tour-de-force by Portman. It's hard to think of any other actor pulling if off, let alone a non-actor. An actual dancer in the role of Nina would have gotten only the dancing right and nothing else.

I'm not entirely unsympathetic to the critics of Black Swan and The Hurt Locker. As a trained musician with two degrees, I find it very difficult to watch films about music. Most filmmakers, though, don't have a clue about music, so resort to completely false clichés, e.g. genius and insanity go hand-in-hand. But many of the music films are supposedly "true stories" such as Shine, so there's no excuse. One of my favourite films, however, is Amadeus, which gets some things wrong but manages to convey the beauty and genius of music. Picasso said that "all art is a lie that helps you to see the truth." I can accept that. I just don't like when it is a lie that tells another lie.

But when a completely fictional film comes along like Black Swan, it's pointless to expect it to focus on only one aspect. It's a genre film -- a psychological thriller with elements of horror, coming-of-age, and other archetypes. Most of all, it's telling a story. Going to see it for a realistic portrayal of the dance world is like going to see Swan Lake for a lesson in ornithology. It's just missing the point altogether.

So if you do go to see a film about your own field or profession, lighten up and enjoy the film for what it does, rather than what it doesn't do (and probably can't and shouldn't do). Otherwise, the results are predictable and you'll just be wasting your time and money.


  1. Excellent points. Here's my own take on Black Swan, which roughly approximates yours.

  2. Excellent review and some important points made about the need for realism vs making a film interesting to the general public.
    It's all subjective when I watch a movie about journalism, PR or even basketball - to be critical of movies because they don't reflect our own experience in those worlds seems kind of ridiculous in the end.
    Agreed about Mao's Last Dancer too - well-told story, good acting and brilliant dance performances.
    There are plenty of films out there with expert dancing, terrible acting and the standard boy-meets-girl-saves-old-dance-hall-from-demolition for those who want 'realism' in their chosen art form

  3. NYTimes review gave "Black Swan" rating 100/100, but gave "Mao's Last Dancer" rating only 30/100. That is the problem