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Halloween 2k19 :Marathon Retrospective

Introduction

I’ve loved horror movies for a long time, but I’ve always found it hard to talk about it with others because of my lack of familiarity with the western cannon. As a kid I started off with horror movies like The Ring and The Grudge and subsequently got into Asian horror. Because of this I never ended up watching common American classics like A Nightmare on Elm Street.

This challenge was my chance to play “catch-up” and improve my understanding of western horror history. I thought it’d be hard because of how many slashers I’d have to watch. I’ve never liked blood – it always makes me feel queasy – so slashers were my natural enemy. However, I did look forward to movies like The Silence of the Lambs and The House of the Devil, because I like supernatural and psychological movies and I find them easiest to get lost in.

The biggest part of the challenge I was scared about was actually forcing myself to watch a horror movie everyday and then write a review within the day. Yes, I tell my friends what I think of movies all the time but writing my thoughts out is a lot more time intensive than casually speaking them. My biggest concern was having a competent review for each movie.

Now that the challenge is done- I thought it’d be interesting to go ahead and analyze the results and experience overall. Did I meet expectations? Was it everything I wanted and more? How did my reviews compare to aggregate sites like IMDb? Tune in and find out.

General Statistics

I went to Metacritic and IMDb and found the aggregate ratings for each of the movies I saw. The Metascore on Metacritic uses a scale of 100. I scaled it back down to a scale of 10 to make comparing the numbers easier.

The sample size is only the 32 movies I saw during the challenge, so take the numbers as you will. As I get more reviews up here I can do more robust analyses. This particular retrospective might seem more trivial, but it’s a fun journey nonetheless.

NOTE: Ratings may change as more reviews are added over time so if you view this well after the posted date- keep that in mind.

Title My Rating IMDb Rating MetaCritic User Score MetaCritic Meta Score
Hour of the Wolf 8.5 7.7 N/A N/A
Scream 9.3 7.2 8.8 6.5
The Thing 10.0 8.1 8.8 5.7
Zombieland 8.8 7.6 8.6 7.3
The Shining 10.0 8.4 8.8 6.6
Poltergeist 9.0 7.3 8.5 7.9
Green Room 8.3 7.0 7.2 7.9
The House of the Devil 9.2 6.4 6.9 7.3
Night of the Living Dead 9.5 7.9 8.5 8.9
Texas Chain Saw Massacre 10.0 7.5 8.0 7.5
A Nightmare on Elm Street 9.1 7.5 8.8 7.6
The Cabin in the Woods 9.3 7.0 8.1 7.2
The Silence of the Lambs 10.0 8.6 8.8 8.5
Shaun of the Dead 9.0 7.9 8.7 7.6
In the Mouth of Madness 10.0 7.2 6.8 5.3
Saw 8.1 7.6 8.1 4.6
An American Werewolf in London 9.1 7.5 8.8 7.6
Joker 9.4 8.8 9.2 5.9
Nosferatu 9.5 7.9 N/A 7.9
Cube 9.2 7.2 7.3 6.1
Black Swan 9.4 7.5 8.1 7.9
28 Days Later 9.5 7.6 7.7 7.3
Candyman 10.0 6.6 N/A N/A
Event Horizon 7.4 6.7 7.2 3.5
Friday the 13th 7.2 6.5 5.6 2.2
The Devil’s Backbone 8.8 7.4 8.7 7.8
The Others 8.4 7.6 8.7 7.4
Jaws 10.0 8.0 8.8 8.7
The Lighthouse 10.0 8.3 8.3 8.3
Hell House LLC 8.2 6.4 N/A N/A
Zombieland: Double Tap 7.5 7.2 5.3 5.6
Ringu 9.7 7.2 N/A N/A

Personal Analysis

Based on my ratings you can tell that this month was good for me. Out of the 32 movies I saw 8 movies that I would classify as a 10. Those movies were:

  • The Shining
  • The Texas Chain Saw Massacre
  • The Thing
  • The Silence of the Lambs
  • In the Mouth of Madness
  • Candyman
  • Jaws
  • The Lighthouse

Even though I’d say I’m more willing to give 10’s than other critics, I still find it amazing how many of the movies profoundly impacted me. On top of these 8 “unicorns”, an additional 4 movies made the A+ squad meaning that 37.5% of the movies I saw were good enough for me to want to recommend then to everyone. These additions include:

  • Night of the Living Dead
  • Nosferatu
  • 28 Days Later
  • Ringu

The distribution of these movies genre-wise is also something I’m surprised by. I didn’t think that I would rank any slasher up that highly, but Candyman and Texas Chain Saw Massacre were both so nuanced that I couldn’t help but be entranced by both movies. I love supernatural and psychological movies so that part makes sense.

Genre Count
Supernatural 3
Psychological 3
Slasher 2
Monster 1
Science Fiction 1

The movie I ended up liking the least was Friday the 13th, which I gave a 7.2. After A Nightmare on Elm Street, I was hoping that one of the other great slasher series could give me something meaningful to bite into. Unfortunately, despite having a few nice moments, the movie didn’t hit me the way I wanted it to. It’s funny- before I started the marathon I didn’t want anything to do with the movie, but after being spoiled by some great ones, I started looking forward to the ones on my list. Congrats slasher movies – you got a fan in me.

Relational Analysis

Review Source Mean Median Standard Deviation
Me 9.09 9.25 0.81
IMDb 7.49 7.5 0.61
Metacritic – User 8.03 8.3 0.96
Metacritic- Meta 6.82 7.3 1.56

My friends have always said I’m a film snob, and I’ve always maintained I’m not. But everytime I end up loving a horror movie (The Witch, It Follows, The Babadook…) it ends up being one of those divisive movies that gets good “critic” reviews but not so great user reviews. That’s what made the comparison of the major statistics so surprising.

My ratings were closest to the Metacritic – User ratings and also furthest away from the Metacritic – Meta ratings. It’s also interesting that that’s the only source that had a standard deviation well above 1. It seems like “critics” are more broad compared to a more “in tune” user base. I’d be interested in finding out why that’s the case, but that’s for another time when I have more data and better codding knowledge.

I also wanted to check out just how different my A+ movies differentiated from the way my counterparts ranked them. Maybe my self perceived greats were so good that they elicited similar reactions in others. I’ve excluded Nosferatu, Candyman, and Ringu because they have missing Metacritic data.

Title IMDb Difference Metacritic Meta Difference Metacritic User Difference
The Shining 1.6 1.2 3.4
The Texas Chain Saw Massacre 2.5 2.0 2.5
Night of the Living Dead 1.6 1.0 0.6
The Thing 1.9 1.2 4.3
The Silence of the Lambs 1.4 1.2 1.5
In the Mouth of Madness 2.8 3.2 4.7
28 Days Later 1.9 1.8 2.2
Jaws 2.0 1.2 1.3
The Lighthouse 1.7 1.7 1.7

The differences are promising in a certain light. Though my final rating for most of the above titles is higher than my counterparts, their position comparative to other movies on the list remains similar. I may give higher ratings – but those ratings are in line with (for the most part) the trend of rating horror movies. The biggest exceptions to this rule so far are The Shining and In the Mouth of Madness. Both movies are cult classics and I appreciated their depths into darker, more Lovecraftian themes. After looking it up, I found out that they’re part of John Carpenter’s “Apocalypse Trilogy”. When I found out I still had one movie, Prince of Darkness, to watch I felt tremendous jubilation.

In a more general sense, the ratings for The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Night of the Living Dead, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Lighthouse have the closest score distributions out all the movies. The Lighthouse is the most striking given that every source sans myself had given the movie an 8.3.

Review of Writing Style

When I first started writing reviews, I thought the process was overwhelming. I’ve always been someone who just focuses on plot and interpretation. I’ve always appreciated things like score and camera angles but never thought about how they impacted my viewing experience. Trying to find a way to incorporate discussion about all the elements was my first big hurdle.

My earlier reviews like , Review: The Hour of the Wolf, exhibit the issue clearly. When I mention certain things, they come off as static and feel more like statements that have to be there as opposed to streams of natural thought that followed from the previous one. This is mainly because I’m not the best at using commas, so translating my spoken thought into proper written work is… difficult to say the least. If you’ve been reading for a while, you may notice I use a lot of “-“‘s in my work. I don’t know how correct it is, but the feeling it creates feels natural.

Thankfully, my more recent reviews are more fluid, even if the difference isn’t as big as I wanted. Sentences extend for longer and there’s more voice and expression in everything. There’s probably a lot more, but I’m more interested in seeing where my writing is at in a year, so I’ll wait until then to take a deeper look.

Final Takeaway

Overall, this experience was great. Watching a movie and writing a review everyday was challenging but was also incredibly rewarding. I was forced to critically inspect each movie at multiple levels and ended up appreciating the craftsmanship at work.

The hardest part of the process was feeling like there was a constant deadline for each movie. Some of the movies hit emotional beats pretty hard and it was difficult to force myself to watch a movie the next day. Balancing a movie a day on top of work and everyday life was also challenging and something I should’ve prepared around more.

The more serious movies that were playing in theaters proved to be the hardest to review. Joker and The Lighthouse both moved me and brought up a lot of interesting points, but I couldn’t pause, write out my thoughts, and rewind to catch up with certain points like I could do back at home on my PS3.

I’m definitely planning on doing this challenge next year, but now I think I have some good changes to make the process more manageable. I definitely need more fun/cheesy movies to lighten the mood. Being scared and philosophically boomed is great but there’s a charm to less serious movies. At the very least, they would serve as a much needed change in current that would keep the experience fresh.

 

Approaching Reviews

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Why Write Reviews
  3. Context Matters
  4. Evaluating the Elements
    1. Story
    2. Characters
    3. Cinematography
    4. Interpretation
  5. Rating Process
  6. 10’s
  7. TLDR

Introduction

A cursory glance at my ratings would imply that I’m prone to giving incredibly high scores. In fact, one of the most prominent concerns I’ve heard from friends who have been keeping up with the site, is that my reviewing credibility felt shaky because my ratings seem inflated in comparison to counterpart ratings on aggregate review sites like Metacritic and IMDb.

The objection has never bothered me because I approach my ratings methodically and carefully. However, I can understand the concern and want to clarify how I approach reviewing. I’ll go through my though process and break it down. Hopefully, this will make my ratings make more sense. Everything is written in the context of movies, but the spillover to other forms of media should be intuitive.

Why Write Reviews?

Reviews are ubiquitous. Rotten Tomatoes. Metacritic. IMDb. Forums. YouTube videos galore. Everywhere you go, you can find someone talking about how they perceived or interpreted a work. For me, I originally watched reviews to find the “good” movies. After watching a string of movies I didn’t care for too much, I decided that I’d let the internet help me out. Before watching anything myself, I’d try and find a review first, so I could “ensure” the experience would be curated.

I learned the hard way, that just because someone has a review online, doesn’t mean that their interpretation of the content will line up with yours. That’s because our perspectives and interests obviously affect our priorities and our takeaways. Case in point- me.

For me, community and notions of belonging have been at the forefront of my thoughts, so when I see a film that attempts to grapple with the concept in cool ways, I tend to geek out. It’s why I loved and watched Aster’s Midsommar three times in theaters and am praying that the Director’s cut gets released in the states on Blu-Ray. But back to the point- despite my love for the film- I just could not get a lot of my friends into the movie. The same kind of love wasn’t there, because they didn’t have the same kind of predisposition.

The point here is that my reviews are indexed towards concepts and ideas I enjoy and find illuminating. I try and remain “objective”. That’s why I try and pay attention to every small detail and evaluate each element of the film on its own merits aside from my own personal taste. Despite that, biases are impossible to control. They come through and pervade through my thoughts and subsequently my reviews.

So why do I write despite knowing this? Catharsis.

Fictional media provides an escape and a refuge for different emotional intensities. The display of raw emotion and the ability to manipulate events and aspects of reality to highlight and bring hidden thoughts to light is something that only fictional representation can do. Whether it be a song, film, or written work – story elements can evoke something deep within. For me, the works I remember the most are the ones that resonated with a metaphysical presence inside . When I find a review, and the critic in turn brings up those themes or mentions elements that I find important, it creates a spiritual kinship. It’s like someone else gets it. But a lot of the times I couldn’t find those thoughts for certain films. So I write these reviews in the hopes of evoking the same sense of kinship I found. Maybe someone out there likes what I say and gets a good movie recommendation. Maybe they read my review and leave their own recommendation. Either way it’s a win-win.

Now that you get the why, it’s time to get the how.

Context Matters

Whenever I watch a movie, I evaluate it in the context of when it was released. A lot of the movies I’ve reviewed on the site are older ones and may seem outdated to people who only watch more modern films. To counteract any bias against older material, I try and place myself to the time when the movie was released.

A good example of this is Nosferatu. I personally didn’t enjoy having to wade through blocks of narration. But that was a limitation to film making in 1922, because audio technology hadn’t advanced enough to reliably allow for spoken dialogue. Holding the lack of audio against the movie would be my idea of an unjustified criticism because it targets an element of the media that the creator could not control.

However, this does not mean that bad visual effects/CG are okay. If a movie seems corny compared to movies now, it could have still seemed mind blowing 2 decades ago. If it seems bad in relation to its contemporaries, then criticisms are fair game. In this way, I keep praise and criticism of the finer elements in line with the expectations present during the films initial run.

Evaluating the Elements

There are a few key elements I look for and evaluate to determine a piece’s rating. They’re listed below along with some of their sub-components that make each of them up.

  • Story (~30%)
    • Exposition
    • Pacing
  • Characters (~20%)
    • Development
    • Consistency
    • Acting
  • Cinematography (~20%)
    • Score
    • Camera Angles
    • Color Palettes
  • Interpretation (~30%)

The percentages next to each of the elements roughly equates to its importance when it comes to my rating calculations. Obviously things like interpretation may or may not be prevalent depending on the nature of the work, but it would be equitably distributed among the remaining categories. This isn’t a definitive guide to my thinking, but should explain why certain problems I have are more or less impactful on the final score. In the sections below I outline my reasoning on the importance of each element and their relative influence on my enjoyment of the overall piece.

Story

The most important thing about any media – movie, television show, music video – is the story. Without a plot, none of the other elements have a sense of coherence. Thematic elements can’t be isolated as well because there’s no relation to some grander narrative. This doesn’t mean that the plot has to be robust. Some tales can be bare-bones and serve purely as a vehicle for more artistic elements. All that matters is that the story helps combine the elements into an accessible and meaningful package.

However, most stories take place in their own fully-detailed worlds with characters going on about their own lives. As such, any good creator needs to find a good way to give the audience background information without making it feel boring or out of place. Bad exposition scenes are a plenty and usually indicate bad writing in other portions of the movie. The rule of show don’t tell becomes more explicit here. Details and background moments become more powerful when we associate them with an event as opposed to a description of the same. I understand

No matter how deep a story wants to be, consistency in pacing is always a necessity. If certain portions feel rushed, then the impact of consequent moments may feel uneven or unearned. Personally, this is why I tend to forgive movies that are classified as “slow-burners.” This does not mean I like slow movies or prefer them. If a movie feels too slow, I get sleepy and irritable. Choppy pacing often leads to this feeling. For example, even though I enjoyed watching Shazam! , a lot of scenes linger on for too long, especially in the middle portion of the movie , which made the experience feel drawn out. I felt like I had been in my seat for 2 and a half hours instead of the actual 2 hours 12 minute run-time.

Characters

Stories are only as good as the characters that inhabit them. I’m someone who prefers strong dynamic characters that exhibit growth, but I don’t dislike static characters as long as they’re done well. Characters like Saitama from One Punch Man are static, but they’re so fleshed out and interesting, that the depth they present makes up for the lack of changes they go through. Good characters can make even messy plots bearable. They give me a point to latch onto and serve as the primary source of emotional investment. When they’re not present, the entire plot becomes less resonant.

When a character is dynamic, their growth has to feel natural. Their actions need to be in line with our their motivations. If they do something unnatural, it needs to be done for a thematic reason and recognized. Nothing feels worse than having a character go through a certain arc, to have that arc promptly reversed or ignored for no other reason than “the plot.” Suspension of disbelief requires a notion of predictability that comes from power scaling in the story and character decisions. When either of those tenets is deal with too haphazardly, disbelief sets in a lot quicker and becomes hard to shake off.

Once a character is established, the job of the actor becomes to give life to that role. Good actors/actresses make characters feel like they’re authentic. They naturally interact with plot elements that may not be there. There’s an emotional intensity in their eyes and actions that distinguishes them from the set pieces around them. Personally, acting for me is harder to point to. I feel like I can recognize acting that isn’t that great, but it’s harder for me to explain why. It’s just a feeling.

Cinematography

I appreciate cinematography, but it’s an element I’m not as well-versed at dealing with as the other ones I’ve mentioned. I don’t know the names of different camera techniques or exactly what a color represents, but I do sometimes catch onto certain shot compositions or set-ups and can appreciate them despite my lack of technical knowledge. I’m not good at understanding genres of music or what instruments are going off (outside of the basics like drums) , but I can feel the energy they bring to certain scenes and lose myself in them. What I’m saying is I don’t know why or what exactly is going on with visual or auditory techniques, but I appreciate them in spite of that. That’s what makes them so interesting to try and understand.

Sometimes when I notice patterns, I research what they could mean, and that makes the film cooler. This usually happens on a secondary watch when I know I should be paying closer attention to certain things. For example, when I first watched Kubrick’s The Shining half a decade earlier , I couldn’t really understand why the shots were so mesmerizing. However, while reviewing it this past year during my second watch, I realized how Kubrick had used one point perspective to make me gaze at certain scenes. I also appreciated the long running shots. I took them for granted and don’t see them used a lot, so I get more why they’re a big deal. Small techniques like these make the experience that much more layered. There’s always something else that can be gleamed from an advanced work, and unraveling the layers is pleasurable in end of itself.

Special effects are something I’ve taken for granted for years of my viewing. I never knew how much work went into certain scenes. After watching Carpenter’s The Thing, I had to do a double take on the release date. Despite being almost four decades old, the visual effects still elicited a primal response from me. I researched how they achieved certain “crunchy” scenes and gained a new appreciation for the effort put into practical effect works. A similar feeling came over me while watching Hooper’s Poltergeist. The CGI effects feel wonky to me, but the care and lighting in creating the scares is immaculate. Emulating the way shadows work on a set is crazy to think about when you realize how light works and flows. Some of it might feel corny to me, but I imagine watching this when it came out was a nightmare.

Interpretation

I love philosophy and spend a lot of my time engrossed in overthinking the meaning and symbolism of everything I read and watch. As such, the interpretative value of works is important to me. Watching how all the different parts of the work come together to demonstrate different themes is one of the most rewarding aspects of watching a story unfold from beginning to end, outside of the story proper.

The best works combine all their respective elements, juxtaposing them in different permutations to drive home certain themes. For example, Robert Eggers The Lighthouse is a film that exemplifies how to use synergies between different elements to cause the audience to ask thought provoking questions. The lighting and aspect ratio make the center of the screen become more resonant during some of the hypnotic and jarring scenes making them more visceral. The movie follows a static but deep character interacting with a dynamic but reclusive character. This helps keep the dialogue and interactions familiar but mysterious. Add on the shocking imagery and sprinkle mystery and suddenly you have a film that you can watch with all your friends and each of you can walk away with a new sense of awe and wonder.

While I appreciated the ambiguous nature of the some of the themes and questions, I don’t think a good movie necessitates it. If there’s a discernible theme that’s properly built up through the film, I’ll remember the movie afterwards. Themes can be simple. Themes can be nuanced. Complexity isn’t my primary concern. I care more about consistency and precision. A movie like One Piece: Stampede may not explore the depths of the human soul, but it reminds us of the power of friendship and adventure through it’s energetic animation and score combined with story beats.

Rating Process

After going through each of the above elements , I come up with a rough value of my overall feeling for the same. Yes- that’s right. After all this, it still comes down to a gut feeling. The separation of elements just helps organize my thoughts before my mind’s eye visualizes a score.

I start at a 0 and then add to the score based on how strong I felt each element was represented. Once I have the main score figured out , calibrating the decimal score is fairly intuitive process. I can’t describe it but it feels right. This does mean there’s not a huge difference, say between a 9.6 and a 9.7. Both of those movies would be huge recommendations from me. They’re more so just ways of prioritizing which movies do more well.

10’s

In spite of all of this, you may still be wondering – why do I give so many 10’s? I think it’s a paradigmatic issue. I don’t think perfection is possible or a healthy standard. To someone somewhere, there’s always a possible flaw. If that’s the case, then a 10 has to be representative of something else. If not an endorsement of perfection, it’s an endorsement of feeling.

Every movie I give a 10 to is not perfect. They have flaws. The one characteristic they all share is that they’re so engrossing in the way they tackle their themes and precise in their presentation of their stories that the flaws become irrelevant. It’s not that they’re not there. It’s more so that the experience is so transcendent, that it wipes away any negative or diminishing thoughts. For example Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness probably has issues with it. I didn’t care though, because the whole time the story was happening I was excited by what was going and curious about the nature of it all. When the movie ended, all I could do was stare with my jaw agape.

TLDR

  • Reviews are subjective and based on taste and cultural preference.
  • I review elements of the movie in isolation and then in conjunction with each other – this helps good parts shine through.
  • Perfection does not exist. As such a 10 needs a different “rewarding” condition – I use emotional resonance as my criteria.

Becoming Swan: A Film Analysis of Black Swan

Introduction

In this analysis I’ll be taking a look at Nina’s (Natalie Portman) journey through Black Swan. I’ll be analyzing why the swan is so important and the philosophical underpinnings that make Portman’s transformation so haunting. NOTE- this is a spoiler zone. I will be talking about plot deals intricately so if you haven’t watched the movie yet, but plan on it, don’t read past this.

The Swan

The film starts off with a shot of a girl doing ballet. We focus on just her feet, noticing her precise and technical execution. The background is dark- there’s almost a supernatural aspect to the dance happening. The camera encircles Nina and her partner- then as quickly as the dance begins,it ends. It was only a dream.

This first scene establishes the story of Swan Lake as the backdrop by which the film operates. Nina is the white swan, pure and innocent and what follows will be her tumultuous journey towards becoming the black swan. But the scene has a dual function- on top of establishing the perceptual metaphor of the movie- it highlights the significance of the play in Nina’s life. The role of Swan Queen is quite literally something she idolizes. Why? Because ballet is quite literally the only thing Nina has going for her.

The Repressed Subject

Art is a form of escape for Nina. As a subject she has been restricted in almost every avenue- forced into a scenario that necessitates action and urgency. She’s 28. At this age it’s make or break and can determine how far her career can really go.

The narrative set up establishes just how repressed every other aspect of her life is. Despite being an grown adult, she still lives with her mom. That by itself isn’t the problem – it’s that she and her mom have a relationship akin to one a mom has with an child about to go through puberty. It feels unnatural and highlights the way she’s been conditioned and brought up.

Erica is abusive. You can debate on whether or not her overprotective tendencies are partially justified, but she does more than enough to suggest that she’s been emotionally and psychologically damaging her daughter. She constantly insinuates that Nina’s sexuality must be protected. Sexual pleasure and questioning has been prohibited- cast aside by the parental Other that determines the boundaries the child is and is not allowed to cross. Every-time Nina has a sexual experience it turns into something horrifying. Symbolically, the loss of this sexual innocence marks a passage into an adult- so by restricting it- Erica can ensure her daughter stays attached to her at all times.

This is evidenced at multiple times:

1. Nina’s room doesn’t have a lock – which is why she’s had to come up with a make shift solution to keep her mom’s prying eyes out. This is also why she’s so sexually withdrawn. She never had a sense of privacy long enough to engage in that sexual discovery that happens in adolescence.

2. Whenever Nina goes out with Thomas, her mom insinuates that he’s touching her or abusing her. While the accusations become more and more accurate over time, her tone doesn’t feel like it comes from a place of love as much as possession. It feels like Nina’s sexuality is a possession that only she is allowed to control.

3. She literally slaps her daughter for saying that she had sex. Instead of trying to comfort her daughter or ensure that she was okay post experience, her first response is one of anger and indignation.

On top of this, we see through the mother-daughter interactions that Nina’s not allowed to disagree. When she makes Swan Queen, Erica buys her a cake to celebrate. Nina doesn’t want to eat it because she feels nervous- that’s understandable. But instead of responding like a normal parent should, Erica lashes out – threatening to throw the entire cake. It’s passive aggressive behavior meant to guilt and shame Nina.

Regardless of Erica’s motivation, the result is an alienated child- Nina never got a chance to grow up and has been reduced to ballet. But ballet also becomes an escape. She stays later and later at the practice hall, because it’s better than coming home to the rules and dictates that make it impossible for her to find herself. Ballet here is a line of flight- a break through the madness and shackles imposed upon her by her mother. By becoming a star she can leave- maybe her career can flourish and she can financially escape. Or maybe in the act of becoming a true star, she can feel a sense of self- one strong enough to resolve the anxiety and loathing she’s internalized and experienced. Whatever it is – it’s freedom. It’s the only thing she can control anymore.

Duality

But to get to this freedom- Nina has to master the duality inherent to the role of Swan Queen- a journey that requires a mastery of herself. As evidenced by her early characterization and mannerisms- we know why she’s so effective as the white swan. Her childlike innocence combined with her pressures causes her to remain innocent but fragile. However, the black swan is the diametric opposite to these attributes.

The black swan is seductive, alluring, and chaotic. As Thomas repeats, portraying it requires an dancer to lose themselves in their routine. He notes that the issue with Nina’s performance is not in its technical execution. Her technique is flawless. Rather, what’s missing is an emotional intensity. A pure burst of affect moving across the scene. Technicality demonstrates a mechanic kind of mastery, but in order for art to cause a kind of catharsis in the audience, it has to have an emotional resonance to it that can’t be described or explained- only felt. This is why Nina struggles- because she’s been stunted of experiences and interaction- she can’t tap into those feelings. How does one understand seduction without understanding love and loss of love?

Shadow Nina is her mind’s response to this lack of information. The doppelganger serves as the inner projection of what Nina thinks the black swan is. It’s her minds attempt at creating a persona of what she needs to master and embrace. But because it’s so different from her, she runs from it and is scared of its presence. However, she eventually “overcomes” this fear.

Instead of trying to control and be timid towards the situations stunting her she lets the intensity of her emotions to serve as the catalysts to her action. These manifest in her actions and her delusions. From an early scene in act one, we see a shadow Nina come about. This serves as the inner projection of what Nina thinks the black swan is.

When Erica starts to yell at her when Lily comes over, Nina stops trying to argue with her mom. Instead of cowering away from her and giving in she acts like a teenager and acts rebellious. In this moment of symbolic growth she gives in to her frustration and angst and decides to experiment and try new things. Since Lily’s introduction into the ballet troupe, Nina has come to view her as a stand-in for the black swan. Unlike her, Nina is free-flowing and flexible. Her personality matches the aesthetic of her dance. She’s flirty, seductive, and playful.

When Nina comes home and gets slapped- instead of cowering from her sexuality, she uses her rage to have “sex” with Lily. The scene might be steamy, but where it really shines is in its symbolic meaning. We know Lily isn’t real in this scene- she seems to be the same shadow delusion Nina has seen the whole film. She transforms from Lily to Nina back to Lily and then Nina again at the end. The point isn’t just to highlight how tenuous Nina’s relationship with reality is. Rather it shows how she’s forming her “black swan” self. Lily is a template for everything the black swan represents. Having sex with her is opening her up to the influence, The constant transformations reflect her absorbing the perceived characteristics .

This is also why Nina sees Lily having sex with Thomas during the night of the performance. It’s most likely a delusion- but needs to happen. If Lily was the white swan, and Thomas was her beau, then the story dictates that he’s “stolen” by the black swan, Lily. Nina’s projection is necessary to cement her place and to drive her transformation fully forward. Now that the white swan has seen her partners infidelity, she must die. Nina must allow herself to die, so that “black” Nina can be born.

Becoming-Swan

At the end of the second act, Nina walks into her dressing room and sees a delusion of Lily getting ready to take her place. In a jealous fit of rage, Nina kills Lily and then drags her body elsewhere. What really dies in this scene is the barrier between the white and black halves of Nina.

In killing Lily, Nina has rid herself of the black swan proxy. She no longer needs Lily there to learn from because she’s finally assimilated the perspective and feelings of the black swan. Even the weapon of choice here is a shard of the destroyed mirror- the mirror between the dual sides of Nina. She literally uses the shattered symbol of her multiple selves, to destroy and absorb the sensual and chaotic side of herself.

Her makeup becomes more realistic- her feathers feel like they literally are growing off of her. In this moment, Lily isn’t the held back and repressed child, incapable of taking her own actions. She has become the literal embodiment of the swans. Careful and meticulous but filled with a frenetic energy. Both white and black – by removing the barriers between the sides of her identity- she has become pure artistic experience. It’s why the violence and pain she goes through at the end don’t affect her. It’s why her eyes are in a daze as Thomas stares at her in awe.

For a few moments, she had transcended all limits, and gave way to a beautiful, but fleeting performance.