Tag: The Office

Perfection in Art: Black Swan and The Red Shoes


Black Swan is my fourth favorite movie of all time, and The Red Shoes, which I watched on Friday night, has a fantastic shot at making the next version of that list. I watched The Red Shoes in part because I had heard it was a major influence on Black Swan from various reliable sources. The influence is pretty clear and they work superbly as companion pieces to each other. Not only are both about ballet (something I know little about, it should be said, so please excuse any technical flubs on my part there), but both also ask whether it is enough to be perfect at something, or if it’s even possible to be perfect at something, or if the price we pay for perfection is worth the payoff. The discussion of these ideas will necessarily involve spoilers, so please be warned that I will spoil both of these films several times over. If you’ve not seen one, take some time and get it watched before reading the rest of this. If you’ve not seen either, I don’t even want to talk to you! Begone, foul creature!

Perfection is a hard thing. It’s something you can aim at, wish for, but hardly ever reach. And perfection in the performing arts is even tougher, because, say, a ballet dancer is dependent not only on herself but also the composer, choreographer, her partner, and all the other people in front of and behind the scenes. Would Victoria Page (Moira Shearer) or Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) even conceive of the idea of perfecting their craft if they weren’t surrounded by people that helped them get to such a high level to begin with? I’d argue that they wouldn’t. Perfection in art is also tricky because we have to consider whether the artist’s opinion matters, or if it’s all on the audience to decide if something’s perfect. For example, I’d say that both Black Swan and The Red Shoes get really darn close to perfection, but might their makers see imperfections? Or, to look at it another way, do the people behind, um, 300: Rise of the Silver Surfer or whatever it’s called think that they’ve made a perfect movie even if (critical) audiences don’t agree? Quandaries built upon quandaries. So for the sake of this piece, let’s agree that perfection is possible in art and that it’s up to the artist to decide if they’ve reached that point since both movies concern themselves with an artist rather than a lowly critic and we should follow suit.

Red Shoes BRscreenshot-lrg-21

Nina Sayers is driven to perfection from our first introduction to her on until her tragic (?) end. She begins the film as part of the company of dancers overseen by Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel) but quickly rises to the become the principal dancer in the dual role of The Swan Queen who becomes the titular Black Swan. She possesses all of the technical skills to dance both parts but lacks the passion to perform the more sultry and emotionally motivated Black Swan role. It is this hurdle she must jump to reach perfection in her craft.

Victoria Page has less to deal with internally. She’s a well respected dancer and is employed early on in The Red Shoes to be part of the company run by Boris Lermontov (Anton Walbrook) who soon promotes her to the principal dancer role in an adaptation of The Red Shoes. The structure of this film is quite different from that of Black Swan as we actually see Victoria’s transcendent moment in the middle of the film and only then is the drama introduced. See, Lermontov doesn’t believe that a great artist can be great (perfect, even) if they have any other kind of passion in their life, including love for another human being. And it is Victoria’s unfortunate fate to fall in love with the composer of her ballet, the similarly talented Julian Craster (Marius Goring). So she is cast out of the ballet company and into Craster’s arms, but she’s never quite satisfied with giving up her best opportunity to become the perfect dancer under Lermontov’s tutelage. The final scene has the two men pulling her in their respective dimensions and, though she initially picks Lermontov’s promise of stardom and perfection, she ultimately realizes she can’t choose between them and instead jumps in front of a train.

Black Swan (17)

Ok, now that you’ve been reminded of the circumstances in each film, let’s talk perfection. The first question is whether perfection is enough. Well, that’s a little broad, so let’s narrow it down a little. Is perfection enough to cover the lack of other human emotion or connection that one might normally experience? Both films demonstrate this lack in not-so-subtle ways (one of the things I like best about these films is just how big and obvious they are. Yeah, it’s total melodrama, but I love that stuff if it’s done well and they both knock these emotionally charged balls out of the park). In Black Swan, Nina is almost childlike in her lack of experience with love or even friendly camaraderie that might develop in a work environment. We see plenty of examples of the other ballerinas in her company being friends but her potential for perfection has driven her to ignore everybody else so that she can focus solely on that one pursuit. And when one of those other ballerinas, Lily (Mila Kunis) does come on to her she’s at a complete loss for what to do. It’s through that connection with Lily, tumultuous and ultimately unsuccessful though it is, that Nina ultimately achieves her perfection. There’s a point where Nina must sacrifice her budding friendship/romance with Lily and even her sanity for dance. She does so and it comes at the price of her life, just another debt paid to the god of perfection. Victoria, too, pays that debt, though she already knows that she has the seed of perfection in here where Nina only believes that she does. I’ve already covered how Victoria chooses dance over love and then realizes that even the necessity of that choice is too much for her to handle so she commits suicide. Unlike Black Swan, The Red Shoes actually shows us the toll a “normal” life takes on those that have tasted perfection. She is not content to just be a wife and even sneaks off during her husband’s first performance to be in a show of The Red Shoes. It’s not like she wasn’t warned about Lermontov’s weird (though maybe not incorrect, as the film never demonstrates otherwise) ideas about love and art, either. In fact, she was present for her predecessor’s demise as Lermontov was informed of the previous principal dancer’s love affair and summarily dismissed her in the middle of a performance. Still, both women see the toll their quest for perfection takes or will take and both decide that the toll is “worth it,” at least before they both die.


The fact that both die after achieving their perfection (The Red Shoes delays the death by an hour or so of film, but the effect is there) is another point worth noting. Death is the ultimate price but history is riddled with great artists who are driven to death by their art. Cobain and van Gogh paved the way for Nina and Victoria. Of course, the greatness of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” or Starry Night is kind of unquestionable, but did Nina and Victoria reach those lofty heights, or were they just dreamers? It’s a question left up to the audience, but I think the films both argue that they did realize perfection, if only briefly. Let’s look at the dances themselves. There’s no better way to judge a dancer than by her dances, and both manage to transcend the bounds of boring old cinema by using clever camera tricks and augmented imagery to show us just how good these ballerinas are. In Black Swan, Nina is constantly told that she needs to work on her passion if she’s going to truly transform into the role of the Black Swan. By the end, through all of the paranoia and failed intimacies, she does finally have enough passion to quite literally sprout feathers and become the Black Swan. It’s her shining moment and through an increasing use of CGI, director Darren Aronofsky shows us that she’s made it, she has fulfilled her promise as a dancer. Victoria, too, gets a little help from her directors, Messrs. Powell and Pressburger, to show off her fantastic dancing skills. Though The Red Shoes debuted around 60 years earlier than Black Swan, it is no less visually impressive and even inventive even without the aid of computer generated imagery. The Archers (as the directing duo was known) used myriad techniques to bring what was happening in the story (and Victoria’s head) to life. Early, it’s all a lighthearted dance; Victoria sees the titular shoes in a shop window and immediately imagines herself in them, dancing beautifully. She buys the shoes and from then is fated to die wearing them as they force her to dance and dance through dreams and nightmares, circuses and ballrooms and mindscapes, with people real and imagined, flesh and blood and cellophane. Through it all we are transported into the world of the fairy tale by way of intimate camera angles, early rotoscoping (placing a smaller frame containing Victoria among a larger frame of impressionist background and foreground and painting out everything but her from her little frame) and wire work. The DP, Jack Cardiff, even went as far as messing with the film speed during the dancers leaps into the air so that they would appear to defy gravity for just a moment, lifted by the sheer power of their dance and artistry. If these images and tricks aren’t enough to imply that The Red Shoes was a complete artistic success in the world of the film, the characters tell us. It’s only The Red Shoes that tempts Victoria back from her ordinary life and to her eventual death.


Now that we’ve talked about what the dancers give up to be dancers and established that both do reach a level of perfection, let’s talk about dying for art. In researching this piece I found two essays written for the Criterion edition of The Red Shoes, both of which cited a quote from Michael Powell where he considers the changing values of a peacetime society, “For ten years we had all been told to go out and die for freedom and democracy; but now the war was over, The Red Shoes told us to go out and die for art.” Yes, art is important enough for people to die in its name, I think. It’s sad when it happens, but there are worse things one can die for. Nina and Victoria share this belief and dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to their craft. Will a perfect artist (or an artist who achieves perfection in their art) necessarily die from the effort, or from being separated from their art? I don’t think so, but both of these films indulge their melodramatic sides and melodrama can and should amplify those self-destructive tendencies artists have to their logical – if maybe a little histrionic – ends. Dance is such a physical activity, too, so the stress and strain of being a perfect dancer also lends itself to the final end. When an artist achieves perfection, where else might they go? We are programmed to want to see people go out on top rather than extending their career at the risk of becoming something less than they were. See the groaning about the US version of The Office‘s overly long run as opposed to the proclamations of True Detective‘s greatness as it wrapped up its very definitively ended first season. We don’t want to see anybody who reaches so high fall because it means they’re human rather than some kind of otherworldly entity that has momentarily graced us with their presence. Death at the height of artistic achievement means we never have to be reminded that people can be petty or imperfect. That’s why these movies are fantasies and play with fairy tales. We are more willing to accept the ideas of perfection and art if they’re couched in these old old stories. The films are modern versions of those stories, reminding us that art can change a person and even drive them to ignore the impulse to stay alive in favor of the need to create. Nina and Victoria are at once cautionary tales and folk heroes, an admonition to avoid giving oneself entirely to an artistic cause and an example of what great art one can create when they do dedicate themselves to art.

5 Jawesome Things for the week of April 27, 2012

Another week with bonus Jawesome to make up for missing last week’s column.

1. Parks and Rec

Recently, 30 Rock has gotten some flack for just being a joke machine with little thought for character or plot. I can’t really argue against that, though I still really like the show. Parks and Rec does not have that problem. At all. The characters are what drives the show and the debate episode (written and directed by Amy Pohler) is glorious proof. It’s full of these people acting as we would expect and still being extremely funny. And then the show ends with an amazing speech by Leslie Knope which isn’t so much funny as it is just a great moment of TV. But that moment only works because we know her and her friends so well. The show couldn’t have pulled off such a real moment in its first or second season because the groundwork wasn’t laid at that time. This is proof positive that arbitrary limits on tv show running times are silly. Yes, the Brits generally like to end their shows before they get bad, The Office‘s 12 episodes and a bonus being the prime example, but just think of how much we’d miss from Parks and Rec if it had ended after two seasons.

2. Babies and weddings

Well, just the one baby. I am, of course, talking about Game of Thrones. Last week we got to one of the most shocking scenes in the second book on the tv show and it was executed much better than I expected it to be. It was a genuinely creepy scene and it gave me even more confidence in the show’s ability to get the book right. Which is good, because I’m also about 100 pages away from the end of A Storm of Swords, the third book in the series. There are so many weddings! Each one plays out differently and they are all quite fascinating. It’s an interesting thematic chorus: after each wedding the world is shifted in some small or large way and the next chapters are about the aftermath until the next wedding comes along and changes everything again. I won’t spoil who is getting married to who, but it’s all very interesting and often shocking.

3. Gotye – Making Mirrors

I guess I’m pretty late to this album, but I hadn’t even heard the super popular “Somebody that I Used to Know” until his appearance on Saturday Night Live (along with the very funny digital short parodying the songs strange but wonderful video). The rest of the album is pretty darn good, too. He goes through a lot of different genres, my favorite being his take on old-school soul, “I Feel Better”. He tries a lot of things on the album and the amazing thing is that most of them work.

4. Python

I don’t know why I watched this. I know I have a weakness for giant animal movies, but this one is one of the worst that I have seen. It is, at least, bad in a good way. I think all the proof you need is in the trailer, which shows the two brave choices that make this movie so Jawesome. The first is Wil Wheaton’s Pink Hair and the second is Casper Van Dien’s Miserable Mustache. Never before have two truly ugly folicular mistakes occupied the same screen along with a horribly rendered CGI snake and Jenny McCarthy (who has her own horrible hair). Also, there’s a silly fight scene and a protracted Psycho reference.

5. Catsitting

I catsat(?) for my grandmother earlier this week and man, that cat is Jawesome. Unlike my own cat whose attitude towards me ranges from indifferent to uninterested, Sweetie couldn’t get enough of my attention. She’s a smallish Maine Coon and very playful and purr-y. Here, have a video.

6. Vampire books

I recently finished the second book of Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s vampire trilogy, The Fall. It treats vampirism as a virus and that’s a cool touch but the writing never elevates above being strictly entertaining into the artfulness that GDT is capable of. You can spot his influence, including lifting scenes and plot points from almost all of his films (the subway setting of Mimic, the old man who wants to become a vampire to fix his body from Cronos, the auction scene from Hellboy 2 and so on and so forth) but this series could have been so much better if he’d actually written it. It misses his storytelling touch. I then started The Passage by Justin Cronin. I couldn’t remember if this was supposed to be a vampire or a zombie book and it ends up being kind of a mix of the two. It, too, treats vampirism as a virus but it’s scope is much more epic than The Fall‘s. The vampire apoclaypse happens relatively early and the book turns into a survival horror story akin to The Walking Dead or The Stand. It feels a lot like the best of Stephen King’s work, sprawling and personal at the same time. I’m only about a third of the way through the book and I look forward to seeing where it’s going. It is the first in a trilogy as well, so we’ll see how such a long story works for the topic. Luckily the writing is very good and the characters are interesting, so it’s got a good start.

7. Looper and Prometheus trailers

Looper is the the third film by Rian Johnson and it is getting a big push which will hopefully vault him into the public’s interest. The trailer is fantastic at showing the plot (a man who kills people for the mob from the future by means of time travel gets shaken up when he is tasked with killing his future-self) and the style, which is quite different looking from his two previous films (Brick and The Brothers Bloom, both of which appear on my Top 100 List) which were quite different from each other. Prometheus’s newest video isn’t a trailer, necessarily, but it is an intriguing and very well made introduction to Michael Fassbender’s character. If you want to go into the film knowing nothing I’d suggest that you don’t watch it but it is a very interesting watch. I like this kind of advertising, since this won’t be anywhere in the film itself it isn’t spoiling the viewing experience like seeing that zero-gravity shot from Inception every other commercial did and it’s giving us more Fassbender which is always appreciated.

There you have it, two bonus Jawesome Things. What kind of Jawesome Things have you seen?

Book Review: Company by Max Barry

With Company, author Max Barry, writes a fine entry in contemporary satirical business writing. As silly a genre as that sounds like it is a well populated one, with The Office (both versions) and Parks and Recreation and even The Crimson Permanent Assurance (the short film in front of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life about a company in the middle of a takeover which suddenly turns into a pirate ship/building and assaults their new bosses with the weapons available to any average office worker) being both popular and well received by critics. It is a genre that stretches back to Bartleby, the Scrivener, that endless source of high school and college papers about disaffected cogs in the corporate machine that sometimes grind to a halt with only a small, quiet “I would prefer not to,” as a rallying cry. Everyone, it seems, from Mr. Martin of James Thurber’s The Catbird Seat to Company’s own Jones (he’s not given a first name because the nametag at his new job shows only his last) gets annoyed at the politics and demeaning nature of corporate life but only some are in a position to do anything about it.

Jones, the newest employee at Zephyr Holdings’ Training Sales division arrives at work only to find that Zephyr is nothing like other companies – or is it too much like other companies? There’s the inter-office romances, the way some departments fight with others over silly things like office supplies and meeting room schedules, and a missing donut can bring about a complete corporate restructuring. And then there’s the things about Zephyr that are a little strange: the fact that nobody can tell you what Zephyr actually does, the way that the company exists solely to make other parts of the company do things (Marketing, for example, only markets to other departments), the attractive receptionist who is never at the desk and parks her sports car in the front parking lot, the CEO that nobody has ever actually seen. Yes, something strange is happening at Zephyr Holdings and the only man who can get to the bottom is Jones.

Author Max Barry

The problem with the book, unfortunately, is Jones. He’s just kind of boring. He doesn’t seem to have any real distinguishing characteristics. It feels like Max Barry was going for the everyman idea so that we would go along on the journey with Jones but I became less and less invested in his part of the story as the book went on. In fact, he has only one or two real acts that make him seem like a real person and not just an archetype. The first leads him to the heart of Zephyr while the other involves what he finds there. They are actual things that happen and we begin to see him as a fully developed character, but only just. Thankfully, almost everybody else in the book is more fleshed out. Jones’ Training Sales co-workers are jealous, lustful, neurotic, sad, power-hungry in turn and they’re interactions are delightful. Then there’s the nice-car-driving receptionist, Eve Jantiss, who starts off an alluring, mysterious but likable character and morphs slowly into something very different. She’s probably the best creation here because she seem so real. Her desires are human desires amplified to their full, horrifying potential. I don’t doubt that people like Eve exist, it’s just unfortunate that they do.

Company is a satire at its heart and it does the satire well. There’s the corporate speak, leveraging market vectors and so forth, and the increasingly ridiculous things Zephyr does in the name of the bottom line. It is quite a funny book. The real comparison point for this book is the woefully underremembered 1998 film The Truman Show. No, Jones isn’t being recorded for a constantly airing reality tv show where he’s the only one that doesn’t know his world is a lie, but there is something bigger going on here. And, like The Truman Show, Company manages to find some degree of emotional truth by the end. Jones doesn’t figure much into this part of the book, other than as a catalyst, but his coworkers are able to overcome their petty politicking and corporate gamesmanship to realize that they are more than just people that work together. They are, effectively, people that live together. They spend so much of their time together that when they finally stop one-upping each other they find that they genuinely like one another. There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s given with enough sugar to make the medicine go down quickly and easily.