Wednesday 26 January 2011

True Grit : Good and Bad Acting

Mattie Ross, 14, of Yell County Arkansas, riding out with Hollywood Actors Matt Damon and Jeff Bridges

Comes a time a script may call for a gruff, uncomplicated character and it may call too for a stereotype or a pastiche. It may call for an empty and vain man to rub up against him. But it does not call for those characters to be as two-dimensional and vivid as a standee in a cinema foyer, easy enough for anyone to nudge over.

[Although I haven't seen all of True Grit (not as yet released in the UK), from the  full scenes and copious clips I have seen from various sources I have got more than the gist and more than a flavour of the film. Crucially it's also more than sufficient to see where its strengths and weaknesses lie and to decide whether to watch it, or buy, it.]

A character can be a caricature but still be filled with life and charisma, downright convincing in its crudeness and simplicity. John Wayne couldn't help but do it in the original True Grit. Wayne himself wasn't totally believable but the character of Rooster Cogburn had some life to it; it had a personality and a presence. Jeff Bridges brings nothing to Cogburn besides a shell, a costume, a voice, and a single, not singular, demeanour. It is artificial, an attitude. It lacks colour. Bridges never makes it across the river between he and Cogburn.

One gets the impression that acting nominations are sometimes handed to the acting personage, to the aura of Jeff Bridges the man regardless of the performance. To Jeff Bridges the imposing and cool guy, who rides onto the screen to be himself with gusto. Other actors are themselves (and that is an awfully difficult thing to be) but those selves, as I have mentioned, would then step up to another level and another realm on "Action!".

Should acting be noticed? No. The character should be. There are characters, as there are real people, who demand to be looked at. That is something altogether different. Jeff Bridges and Matt Damon made me judge their acting because it was not invisible. Matt Damon's Texas ranger can be a (passingly amusing) comic character but he does not need to be one-note or self-conscious of his own creation to the point of self-annihilation. He is flimsy not in backbone but in flesh, in not being anchored to the place and the people around him. He is more real than Cogburn but not nearly enough to occupy the same reality as Mattie Ross.

I liked Mattie Ross. I liked her determination, how she plays little games with her elders, using her age and her predicament (her father has been killed) to get her way. There is an iron will and a liquid mischief in her. I like how she makes little noises, a small sigh, a dismissive harrumph, almost inaudible, in response to those who try to make her do what she does not want to do. I like her body language, defensive and confident all at once, the inflections and modulations in her words. She seems tough at first, and she is, but she is also tender and bright.

True Grit is a film with one person in it and two actors.

Great acting is in subtlety, no matter whether the character is subtle or not. The voice should be used to convey emotion not merely in volume or accent but in emphasis and tone. Acting is persuasive body language, intonation, and facial expressions. Two without the third isn't good enough. It's about creating something in 360 degrees, not just bawling or looking permanently miserable for an Oscar. It isn't playing it up without taking your character with you. It isn't hitting notes without paying attention to melody.

The trap represented by acting is that it, in some ways, necessitates inauthenticity, by which I mean that, in the real world, there are emotions and thoughts that do not register in any obvious or appreciable way. This perceivable 'acting' is what is expected, even by film audiences (as opposed to the Theatre, which needs to 'project' and which often embraces a deliberately less superficially 'real'* representation).

Hailee Steinfeld is excellent because she passed into the background (helped, admittedly, by the fact I wasn't familiar with her) and Mattie came into the foreground. Actually, because I believed every second she was on screen, Miss Steinfeld was perfect. She thoroughly deserves her Oscar Nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

*It is possible that something could feel real without being 'realistic' in the way it looks, much as many impressionist paintings do.

Wednesday 19 January 2011

Writing while Watching : Taxi Driver

I thought it might be an interesting experiment to write down, whilst watching it, what I was thinking and feeling about a film. These aren't notes that are going to be put together later. This is a charting of my experience of the film. I hadn't seen Taxi Driver before. I had an idea of the general plot but I didn't know any details. The following is only edited for spelling/grammatical errors.

An odd start...the camera circles as if in search of a production logo, happening upon a stylised taxi that looms from the steam. Eerie and epic: something wrong, something put right...a troubled hero is in the making...that hulking vehicle shrouded in the fog could be the batmobile...

He looks around the city. The image is fuzzy, nostalgic, disorienting. It's all about what this man sees - we get a close up of the eyes that lingers. I want to turn away...

Those who know what a film is about and where it might be going and those who don't know see two different films. It's a shame I know anything at all...

He wants a job...Travis (he has a name now) says he's fine, that he's on the up and up, but the camera says different. It sweeps in on him - although he's not being aggressive, the camera is bringing him in to our faces, revealing the aggression on his behalf, brushing the sand away from the ruins. It's letting us know...As of yet he's still De Niro and De Niro has history too...

Why can't he sleep?

He wants to remove the "garbage and trash off the sidewalks". It's matter-of-fact how he says it. He lists the people he hates, while he cruises. He lists the people he hates to himself: "wash all the scum off the streets".

His taxi is his world. He can make the rules in that bubble. He goes under a spray of water. He could have avoided it but I suppose he wants to be cleansed.

Is he exaggerating when he says "clean the cum...blood off the back seat" or is this a filthy New York on the slide? There is an impression that he might think this about himself. Where does the war come in? Has he seen the worst men can do? Can he only see the worst in them...

He goes to watch a dirty exorcise the demon? An inoculation of sorts perhaps. He does a little bit of what he hates. In a small way he seems to be part of the problem

"Days go on and on...they don't end" The voiceover narration comes across like a depressive The Wonder Years. It's nostalgic. It's wry. It's intimate. It can't help but be...can't help but sympathise because we are in his mind.

I like where this is going. It's grabbed me and yet it's barely gone anywhere - it's building like all good stories. It hasn't gone forward, it's deepened, like Bela Tarr's The Man From London truncated the noir template and stretched time...

He watches a girl (Cybill Shepherd - the character is still just an actress). "She appeared like an angel...they...cannot...touch...her" he intones in time with a slow motion that says he's smitten. Then we see him writing it, scrawling large letters indicative, in film parlance, of instability.

The film doesn't have a clear aesthetic, a palette or 'look' as so many do in 21st Century Cinema. It makes a refreshing change.

Political campaign. A new thread, new characters...can be disconnecting...can switch you off...but the 'angel' is here. Linking the stories, she sees Travis lurking in the cab outside the window. Now the Taxi Driver is the outsider in the world and in our story...beautifully done...He's guilty, he disappears as soon as he is confronted...

Driving around, the music is all romance and wistful...with what...the city? The whole world, through his eyes, is tipping from sophisticated and cool to gaudy, teetering alcoholically on high heels.

Rude conversation in the bar - but this usual misogyny is unusual because of what's gone before...

Travis watches and listens to the story - a crudely related sexual encounter = and smiles a little smile. Suddenly danger...something's's bubbling...that

This goes so much further than Scorsese's 'Gangster films'...the anger...the's born of more than hair-trigger insecurity or an's a fatal coalescence of the real, imagined, the psychologically ingrained...a trauma that is sensitive to the slightest imbalance, the slightest offense. But what's crucial is that the offense has a palpable presence.

The film changes moods quickly - back to the 'Angel' and her do you light a match when your fingers are broken?...nice...I needed time out...Travis is coming in...what does he want?? He asks her out..."most beautiful..." creepy and sweet. The dynamic is fantastic - will she lift him up out of the mire or will he drag her down?

My knowledge of the general outline of the plot is amplifying the tension...

"You're a lonely person" he says of her...he's talking about himself. Maybe he sees himself in her...

You can't pigeonhole him as a sad and geeky loner...or a man on the brink...he's more...he's complicated and slippery.

"You're gonna be my friend?" she says. Hard and soft...he can be charming...he has a puritan purity...he wants everything to be right and that stance has a mutant strain...a militant morality

A meeting for coffee...a little misunderstanding (a Scorsese trope)...awkward silence...when he doesn't know what to say..he says "you have beautiful eyes" Their gazes are so strong...the connection is believable..."I don't think I've ever met anyone quite like you," she says...she quotes a song: "He's a prophet and a pusher, partly truth, partly fiction. A walking contradiction." "Is that about me?" he asks "Who else would I be talking about?" The world revolves around him.

Another misunderstanding...people who wilfully expect the worst and see insults and attacks from all angles. Insecurity. The film is losing a little traction...I don't know seems to be moving towards a more streamlined version of itself, squeezing through a tight spot and scraping off its intricacies.

Politician Palantine: "I have learnt more about America from riding in taxi cabs than in all the limos in the country" what's "the one thing about the country that bugs you the most?" Palantine asks. Bickle says: "...full of filth and scum...get headaches it's so bad...flush it right down the f***ing toilet..." clever, normally it's the politician who inadvertently reveals his deep dark emotions to the regular guy and not the other way round.

His taxi takes in the city as is the city...

The romantic and yearning music is like...a mantra? It appears when he's not doing anything...a comfort blanket, something gone to repeatedly... 

A New York instead of the New York. his New York. He only sees the bad - trash in his car.

He's in a suit for a date...he's self-aware...something I wasn't entirely sure of before...despite the diary entries...

Lyric theatre "explicit...provocative..." film called "Sometime Sweet Susan" - taking her to "dirty movie" - a contradiction indeed. This is funny, uncomfortable. and sad.

"About as exciting to me as saying: "let's fuck", she says. She runs away: "I have to go!" "Wait a second!" It's scary and worrying...for her and him...she's good for him... She's seeing the worst in him too.

Clinging on to her, begging her on the phone...Halfway through his attempts to get through to her we pan across to a corridor down which he'll walk - he's not gonna succeed. The film knows it, we know it. There's a humour in the rhythms, the touches...the film is ahead of us and Travis...I get a hint of something inevitable...

"I think I've got stomach're only as healthy as you feel" he is paranoid....slow-speaking again...the world is what you make it...I worry for him and what he might do, I worry like an acquaintance if not yet like a friend. She did overreact I suppose.

It's sad, very sad. Unlike in Goodfellas or Casino, we care. He has redeeming qualities or at least qualities that can be redeemed.

An argument with a customer over the meter. What's going on with him. He's on the edge. Woman in the window...the customer's wife,'s sad for him but he's not whiter than white. He's a racist: "nigger lives there"... this place is pull someone out you get stuck in...pulling yourself out you sink further...customer says he'll "blow" them "right apart"... horrible and terrible, "you must think I'm pretty sick..." This is Scorsese's confessional. In fact he is Scorsese...Does the sickness in a director's films make him sick?

His laugh is sickening anyhow.

Travis looks at the other taxi drivers in the cafe. There's something new in his walk and his demeanour, head slightly higher, chest out...a confidence that he was right all along...he uses each encounter as fuel... He circles their conversation. He doesn't really talk. He takes in.

He looks at a crumpled 20 dollar note. Earlier a pimp had thrown it dismissively into his cab, having stopped a young (too young, as if there is any decent age) prostitute getting in. It plays on Travis' mind. He keeps it separately in his pocket... more guilt.

One of the friends says "bye..." and fires an imaginary gun at him...seems too cute...he didn't do it, the film made him. Thankfully so far Taxi Driver is almost free of 'look at me' inauthenticity.

It feels like he's going to explode and I want it to happen...I want it to relieve the dispel the migraine.

"I wanna go out and something", he says. 'Wizard', his friend, if he has friends, looks at him with concern. Releasing the tension will destroy him.

"I've got some bad ideas in my head..." The conversation is touching... they can't express themselves perfectly but they are there for each other. Wiz: "that job becomes what he is...".The film needs to mind that it doesn't become a poetic statement or somesuch...

Ominous music, looking out the BACK of the cab now. I am in no doubt, the film is spiralling down towards a violent conclusion.

The taxi's headlights are his eyes in the dark - prowling - the girl and her pimp 'Sport' appear again - hits the accelerator:
    "loneliness has followed me my whole life...everywhere..." The atmosphere is rich but it doesn't own the film or the people. It's not too claustrophobic.

"Suddenly there is change" Travis is a filter of the world, a sewer from which steam rises. He lets it pass through him. He's a chameleon. He let his environment change him and now he will change it... he will stand up and stand out. A gun shop...the camera caresses the gun seductively in CU. Guns are being pimped - sold as "beautiful" etc.

Violence, exploitation, sex.

P.O.V. tracking down barrel of gun out the window. Scary.  He's buying everything...he doesn't want the drugs...doesn't want escape...wants change. He's preparing his guns, crafting them...the build up goes on too long, it adds nothing appreciable apart from the bare bones of what it shows...we know he's meticulous...this is stalling.

Did anything happen in particular to him in Vietnam? He sees evil, corruption, hears explosions on the streets - echoes of war or the birth of it. I feel like I need to know but I am also aware that it might undermine the film if I did know, if it spotlit 'reasons'...

Palantine's event...a brilliant shot...Travis arrives...we pan across and a bodyguard / security man appears with Travis now walking behind. If there was any doubt, now we know for sure what his intentions are... that's the essence of cinema: a visual language. Travis comes up to him. There's a new aura of mockery and menace ..."I saw suspicious people...over there". As throughout the film, the problem is him not them. Here he made them up, and to an extent he has done all along. I understand this character. The film doesn't grip entirely but it does build nicely around his changing mindset.

He's like a crazed child. Now he's pretending to want to be in the secret service. "Thanks a lot hell jesus" Travis says when the man says he'll send him an application. Evil and Good, disbelief, moral equivalence, right and wrong in zero gravity. Palantine's car arrives and the angles suggest that Travis is walking over and then (high camera angle) shooting - but he isn't. A cute fake  -  a trial run.

Looking in the mirror..."You make a's your move". He can't draw faster than himself. He can never win or lose or ever escape himself.

Mirrors have been used up until now to look askew, furtively at something...he's looking straight on...he is his enemy "Talkin' to me" cross reference from before:  "About me?" he asked "Who else would I be talking about?" she said

The scene crystallises his's a grandstanding that doesn't come artificially from the film's wish to impress...out of context this famed sequence was it makes sense: it's Travis... "I'm the only one here" ...He is...

There's still residual humour in the overkill of his aggressive stance - things might be bad (how bad, who knows) but he is seeing ghosts...nevertheless the irony is slowly dying. He is the antagonist. He practises his spiel, one I'm sure he won't get to say. He's simply getting his mind straight and his world view in order. Organised.

His list of enemies "the scum, the dogs, the filth" etc. is in effect the same target reiterated. They build up to an army in his head. Can he resist this invasion or is he welcoming it as an excuse and outlet for his rage?

It's like a dream turning into a nightmare...

Back in the cab...Where's he going? Who will he attack? Palantine? Why??

He's in a shop and a man pulls a gun. Bloody Hell. Travis shot the armed robber. I thought he would use the opportunity to try on his tough guy act. This is indisputably not an act. The camera flicks into a Hitchcockian overhead angle both shocking and dramatic (I'm aware of the new perspective but it doesn't take me out of the world). He's now a murderer but that doesn't matter. It's more about his mind. He's a hero son of a bitch.

The shop owner beats the armed robber's dead body. There's a lot going on : despair, prejudice, racism (the robber is black)...pain on both sides. The man's shop has been robbed again and again. It can't all be in Travis' mind...

The reasons for Travis' actions suddenly seem shallow. We believe he feels what he feels but we feel there must be a deeper motive, like there is for the shop owner - something which happened in which he wasn't a mere observer, where he was personally violated. If that is so, it is withheld. Rightly.

He writes a letter: "Dear father and mother..." says he works for the government...secret...pretends he's with Betsy...fantasy not a fantasist. Are they still alive? Are they part of it. "To a couple of good scouts". Seeing that Anniversary card hits me hard....very moving and not a squeak of sentimentality.

TV show. TV that he was rocking falls over just as woman on screen says "I love y-". "Goddamn....Goddamn" he's like he's cursed. He can't escape it. It feels like the film is moving towards Suicide. He doesn't want to hear either from the wicked or the kind.

Picks up Iris the young prostitute. Why Iris? Eye, flower...or just a pretty name. It's worrying and tense...the film isn't burning with quite the intense flame I think it wants to but it's timing is perfectly judged. It doesn't need to go faster or slower.

He talks to her pimp. She's "12 and a half years old man" he says. This is horrifying and yet, by using age as the key to the horror, you make the rest of prostitution seem less unacceptable...I understand the choice but maybe an older girl would have been who is vulnerable despite her more mature age.

Going up to Iris' room..."when that cigarette burns out...your time is up" she says. "Your time is up" - death. "Your future's all used up" as Marlene Dietrich said to Hank Quinlan in Touch of Evil.

Travis says her name is nice. Reminds me of The Exorcist when Father Merrin called remarked that Regan's middle name (Theresa) was "lovely". There's something very affectionate and touching about liking someone's name  - like you cherish their soul and guard their identity...

Iris is lost too....drugs...what does she want?...she wants this life because it is the best that she can make of the hand she has been dealt - the rest is too far beyond to think about seriously.

I'm worried, really worried that he won't meet her at 1:00 like he said he would. The dark seedy corridors of this infernal motel are nauseating.

He does meet her...what a relief. "You're so square" she says. More talk of what's cool or not. Is he helping her, as he attacks her choices, or is he haranguing her? She's smart but her precociousness can't mask her youth. It's wonderful to watch these two feel for each other, forging a connection.

"Have you tried looking at your own eyeballs in the mirror?" she says. Eyes again, that stare that you can't hold...that holds the truth.

He tells her what Sport has been saying behind her back. "He doesn't he doesn't mean it" she says - it's heartbreaking. Iris and Travis are great, they are there, vivid and real enough to touch - Iris and Travis are great, not Jodie Foster and not Robert De Niro.

Her laugh is...I want to hear more of it...which is's natural, it doesn't worry about being cool or square. Travis says he's "going away for a while".

Iris and Sport in her room - tough to watch....all she wants is affection...he is emotionally blackmailing her....seducing...hugs...hypnotic...using...making her rely on him - This is more hateful than a scene of sexual violence or a punch and a black eye could ever be. The most disgusting and depraved of acts. "I wish every man could know what it's like to be loved by you" It's a seduction for which only a gunshot should be the climax.

A gunshot! (at the firing range).

Travis prepares...the music glides down and then stays poised in suspense, tipping over again and again, getting up over and over....He writes a letter to her "When you read this I will be dead". "There never has been any choice for me" seems certainly rings true.

It's well done how Betsy is rejected as a main character and goes back to the sidelines. There is no feeling that she has to be weaved throughout the film. This is what happens in real life - people come on and off stage.

An assassination is in the offing..perhaps...Travis' new Mohican haircut is too obvious on everyone's part. Palantine stretches his arms out like the statue behind him, trying to be a leader like all the others who came to be immortalised. Travis doesn't have a hero madman to look up to. He doesn't have any role model or...anybody.

Travis applauds. Why does he want to kill him?? Travis runs as soon as he is spotted. Guilt and fear return. He neither wants anarchy nor to be controlled.

His rage is focussed on specific representatives of strata of society that he is dissatisfied with...he doesn't do it indiscriminately. He gets to know his prey...feels a closer bond, a magnetic force. This is another good aspect of the film. It doesn't want to exaggerate.

Now Sport appears - good, he's going to get what's coming to him - I mean...oh no...he's going to be killed. This film isn't as hardcore as I imagined it would be...the darkness isn't overwhelming or fetishised.

"I don't know nobody named Iris" says Sport. Travis shoots him "suck on this" - again the gun is a phallic symbol, offering a brute climax.

The gunshot echoes and he walks into the motel. There is pained's a death...a coming apart...a degradation..the camera shifts around, reeling and is as if the motel is the underworld...He climbs the's awful...Iris is crying...he tries to kill himself but the guns are empty...again he can't escape himself...he is stuck in a hell...lost in the rings...he sits calmly and she cries...

He mimes to shoot himself...doesn't seem right... until it is revealed as a metaphorical suicide...he kills himself or that self in his mind... we float above and over the carnage as in Gaspar Noe's Enter the Void. We look over the chaos with a sense of catharsis, glory, and a little grief sobbing on her bed. Acceptance too.

Newspaper clippings on a wall...'Taxi Driver battles gangsters'. A sort of hero. They don't know how premeditated and merciless it was, or doesn't it matter? I'm torn, caring more about what his actions mean for his own peace of mind as opposed to the suffering of his victims....this is troubling...but to be expected.

Letter from Iris' parents to him is striking. Beautiful and poignant - her father's voice-over is the last narration we hear. We've stepped outside of his mind. Now people are seeing the best in him...

He denies being a hero when Betsy appears in his cab - again, he is aware. Is he clean of that dirt? He wanted to kill himself and only luck saved him. Is that Travis really dead? She gets out.

He flicks a final look in the rear-view mirror- he has spotted himself and takes up the challenge of this interior aggressor - it is a quasi-maniacal look, simmering with irrationality. Scorsese makes a poor decision. He should have left his state of mind suspended. Now Travis appears ill rather than an imbalanced man who can be righted. Maybe I want a happy ending...that's to the film's credit.

The credits roll. A good film, very good in some respects, but, despite a few delicate and unconventional touches, idiosyncratic triumphs and admirable restraint, never a great one.

Saturday 15 January 2011

John Carpenter Gallery : Under Siege

The people who live in John Carpenter's films often end up under siege. Whether holed up in a house, a police station, or a church, and whether alone or brought together in a pressure cooker of thick walls and thin glass, these people have a place to defend, a last safe haven.

The films below cannot only be seen as 'horror' or 'action'. They are like Westerns in which frontiers, geographical, physical and moral, are defended to the death.

From Top : They Live, Halloween, Assault on Precinct 13, The Thing, Prince of Darkness, Christine, The Fog

Tuesday 11 January 2011

Unstoppable, Bourne and the Action/Sports film

Watching The Bourne Ultimatum I was struck by how the narrative structure and character dynamics seemed to match the 'story' and experience of participants and viewers both in sport and sports films.

In The Bourne Ultimatum there is a competition, physical strain, a favourite and an underdog, tactics and plays called from the sidelines (the C.I.A.) and, finally, an interested observer (Nicky) who watches the outcome broadcast on television (and smiles at the desired result).

There are therefore three clear levels in the action/sports film : the playing field, those who control (coach) the playing field (in a nerve centre) and finally the fans who follow the action/game. Sport in all but name.

Playing / Controlling / Broadcasting and...

It is much the same in Tony Scott's Unstoppable. The competition is between a runaway train and two men (Frank and Will - telling names). Plays are called by Connie from the rail network's headquarters, in front of the usual bank of screens. All the while wives and daughters follow the media coverage. The presence of a rookie (Will), just graduated to the big leagues, adds spice to this sporting tale of heroic action.

 Playing / Controlling / Broadcasting and...


The battle in these twice-overseen arenas can take place between people (Bourne), or between people and a force that requires skill and determination to beat (Unstoppable).

*       *       *

These hybrid films can offer a more satisfying rendition of the thrill of sport than a bona fide, unmistakeable sports film. Sport is an important part of a lot of people's lives. We know the performers intimately. A sports film (whether a biography of a real sportsman or not) always has to fight against the veneer of artificiality, the trap of weak documentary reconstruction (Ali, Goal!, Wimbledon and so on), when presenting sporting heroes on screen.

They don't move like they would or act like they should. Even in films where sport, or a physically demanding art, isn't the true heart of the story, like in Black Swan, those in the know find it hard to watch an average performance passed off as exceptional.

In fact the only thing that can recreate the real skills and sensations of sport is sport itself. This brand of action films however contains many of those elements that galvanise a sports fan. An action film with the spirit of the sporting experience can properly recreate that buzz of excitement of man pitted against man or against machine and of an uncertain outcome - from the pitch to the stands to the living room.

Thursday 6 January 2011

Black Swan

"Attack it! Attack it!"

Black Swan leaves nothing behind the scenes, tearing through its tale with rude ferocity. Life and art flirt gracelessly. They converge magnetically. Performance and reality at long last become one at the top of the steps and consummate, consummately:

"I was perfect"

For Nina, life doesn't imitate art. It reflects it. When she puts on her make up she puts it on her reflection. Nina wants to see an ideal in the mirror. The performers think that they are in control, that they shape it, exercising, stretching, purging. Yet isn't it the image that calls the shots?

People are her mirrors too, changing (but how much?) when she looks at them : a mother whose protective embrace will suffocate and destroy; a friend whose kindness and companionship is distorted by Nina's paranoia and instability. Nina doesn't have control, doesn't take charge until her fear and ambition reaches an operatic pitch only she can hear:

"It's my turn!"

She is a woman who never stopped being a girl. She is suggestible and changeable. She feels imperfect, like a child used to being called a Princess suddenly scolded. There is no love to break the spell or at least love that isn't cloying and conditional.

The first day of the new season and Lily bursts in late. From this moment Nina associates Lily with disruption and begins to view her as a usurper. Lily bursts everywhere - at work, at home, in her bed. With Lily now within it, Nina's unstable mind is at the point of breakdown. The lights of the studio shut down when she is stressed, far more serious than scattered horror beats. She doesn't know what is happening. People seem to invade her or are let in without realising ('Susie in the office' is always ready with information, a slang, a code). She hallucinates. Going out of her mind and growing out of her skin like the butterflies on her wall. She is "moulting", as Sheila O'Malley describes it, into adulthood and into a creature of pure imagination.

"What happened to my sweet girl?" "She's gone!"

Nina is being reborn. She is pushing against the people who manipulate her. The embryonic black swan makes its presence felt in the nightclub, the dull beat and pink haze approximating a womb. Taking a bath she comes gasping to the surface.

[The club scene recalls the opening "Jitterbug" from Mulholland Drive* in its heady colour, its dreaminess, the main characters set out from a background of dancers, silhouettes and images within silhouettes.]

The ballet gives her a character, a new shell into which to grow. She knows that ballet has eaten Beth, the former belle of the stage, and spat her out but she doesn't care. Art makes demands and not only on the body, twisting and cracking. Beth stabs herself with a nail file that could be a beak (as Ed Howard noted), declaring that she is "nothing". They live for ballet. It makes and takes their lives. Nina knows. But she wants to be something.

"I'm the Swan Queen. You're the one who never left the corps!"

Nina is uneasy around men and wary of her mother (always outside the door). She has no-one (her father is never mentioned) apart from Lily, whose uninhibited frankness disturbs her and excites her. The opportunity for rare friendship becomes mixed with nascent and bottled-up sexual feelings (sex is not the kernel of the film but one of the many aspects of Nina's slow-burning maturation/mutation). Something strong is growing out of her brittleness. The wicked rapture on her face as the feathers sprout is something else.

She is so weak, her white swan, that she can be smashed into tiny shards. The only problem is the white swan and the black swan are not the twins Odette and Odile, but the same person. Killing the white swan will kill them both. Suicide with a mirror's blade.

Nevertheless, they will briefly be released.

"...and, in death, finds freedom"

The final twenty minutes are appalling, sorrowful and disorienting. They are triumphant. Finally realising who she is and what she has done to herself, she calmly sits in her dressing room and puts on her make-up. Sadness and relief hiccup out of her and tranquility washes over her eyes. It is magical, as miraculous and spellbinding as her final transformation. By becoming lost in her role, she has found herself.

This is her crowning glory and her farewell. When we get to the end it feels, in retrospect, inevitable. Not predictable. It just had to be this way. There is an awesome feeling of catharsis. Like the ecstasy pill, Black Swan lasts a couple of hours, a perfect storm of extreme sensations (Nina's version of Edvard Munch's scream epitomises this).

She is whole. She is no longer fractured between childhood and adulthood or between potential and fulfilment. Jumping to the mat, a slow motion allows her, for a few seconds, to fly. The camera that stalked behind her head or whose gaze violated is now hers. And she is ready for her Close-Up.

*More often than not comparisons to other films are reductive rather than instructive. Black Swan is its own unique thing and yet I was reminded of All About Eve (the final mirror image especially) and the relationship of pleasure/pain between Norman Bates and his mother, revealed in detail in Psycho IV.