Today’s script reminds me of an Umberto Eco novel. Take your pick. I would have preferred Foucault’s Pendulum, but that one has been so tainted by the success of the Da Vinci Code that I don’t even enjoy thinking about it anymore. I like The Island of the Day Before more, but The Name of the Rose might be better as an approximation.
Of course, that can’t be all today’s script reminds me of, if you’ve seen the movie or read the script, I am sure you know what I mean. There is a pervasive Ugliness on display which, [maybe only] Kafka has captured before. Is Nina a psychological heir to Gregor Samsa? I am half willing to think so.
Perhaps, she is better described as a sister of Esther Greenwood… that can’t be right. I am forced to disagree with my own assertion.
The descent Plath describes in her pretend novel is once-removed from immediacy. And although a removal like that has blatantly metafictive implications, it is not what happens to Nina.
Hunter S. Thompson? He definitely captures the willfulness and the immediacy of this descent, and I never enjoyed reading his books either.
[What I am trying and failing to say is that I find the non-Eco-like parts of this script fascinating, but only in a clinical way.]
“Hard to read. There is no horror so terrible as the human mind: unhinged.”
I made this note after getting to page 50. Having finished the work and after reflecting on it as a whole, I stand by my middlish judgments. It is hard to read. And, as much as the script wants to be a metafiction in the vein of Eco, it wants even more to be a Psychological Horror Story.
I think it only achieves one of its desires.
In the end, what this script most reminded me of is a Darren Aronofsky movie. I know that sounds either vacuous or plainly stupid, but I mean it to be sincere and informative. There is no doubt that the person behind Pi and Requiem for a Dream would end up directing this movie. There is a factual sense in which, if this script were going to get made, it had to be made by him.
1. Can “we see” the description? Are the images clear and appropriate?
Usually I go with the very first images in a script as the initial example. I believe in going this route because they are of paramount importance in establishing your tone. Toneless first images leave me spinning as a reader, and I have no idea which genre I’m going to end up facing.
I won’t do that today because I, unequivocally, despised the opening images of this script. I despised them more when I got past the second slugline and discovered they were from Nina’s dream. I began to loathe these images somewhere around the middle when I realized that this was going to end up as an exercise in metafiction.
I suppose I like my symbolism with lots of vermouth.
We will begin, instead, with the images that follow the second slugline:
INT. NINA’S BEDROOM – MORNING
In the darkness, a pair of EYES. They belong to NINA, the
same dancer. She lies awake in bed, thinking about her dream.
The room looks like it hasn’t been redecorated since she was
a teenager. Stuffed animals. Dolls. Pink and frilly.
The door opens, throwing LIGHT on her face. Nina looks
towards the door and smiles softly at whoever opened it.
Nina sits up and hangs her BARE FEET off the side of the bed.
Like all ballerinas, she’s beautiful and her feet are
atrocious. Covered in corns, broken blisters and bunions. She
arches them, doing her first extensions of the day.
Is it wrong of me to see so much Gregor here? We begin in a bedroom after a transformative dream with images of body parts minus the body whole. EYES, then her face, a brief moment of her wholeness as she sits up, before we focus on her BARE FEET. This is disordered imagery. I can’t help but think this is a great way to present a character with a personality disorder. In other words, I like these images a lot.
However, I will raise an issue at this point which is minor, overall, but still important enough not to overlook.
What, exactly, is Nina’s personality disorder? Is she Borderline, or Schizotypal? She can’t just be obsessive-compulsive, because she has hallucinations. She has the perfectionist drive of a Compulsive, the self-lacerating tendencies of a Borderline, and the fantasies of a Schizotypal. She also has comorbid features of bulimia and kleptomania. I’m not sure, psychologically speaking, that such a cluster of symptoms exists.
Perhaps, the authors were aiming at a dissociative disorder [the sort of thing that used to be called multiple personality disorder] rather than a personality disorder. This is a bit of a catch-all diagnosis for anyone who struggles with their identity. Lots of symptoms can co-occur with this which are usually better labeled by thinking of them as personality disorders.
I am willing to grant this if the authors are willing to grant that this imbues their script with a self-refuting theme. If Nina has a dissociative disorder than her story implies something about authors in general, and these authors in particular, which makes the act of writing this story an act of self-abnegation.
I’m also just not convinced that they mean for Nina to have dissociative disorder, or that the choice makes sense if that is what they mean. The character of Lily acts as the first premise which supports this argument as she is a ridiculously cogent version of the personality disorder: the Histrionic type. If Lily has a personality disorder, doesn’t artistic symmetry demand that Nina have a personality disorder of an opposing type?
Does it matter that Nina’s cluster of symptoms are, possibly, a bit false? Are themes which deny the results of Art permissible in Art? Is this something Art is even allowed to have an opinion about? [I’ll reserve my judgment on these until later questions.]
One more from page 84:
INT. BEDROOM – SAME 93
Nina closes the door. Sticks in the broken piece of wood.
A pain shoots through her shoulder. She SCREAMS,
instinctively reaching for it.
She quickly yanks off the sweater and looks at the vanity
Her back pulsates unnaturally. Tiny black tips poke through.
The door opens and catches on the doorjamb.
Erica starts POUNDING.
She digs into the open bump on her shoulder with her
Open the door!!!
Erica violently pushes and pulls, jostling the piece of wood.
Nina concentrates, takes hold of the growth and yanks.
Blood vessels in her eyes explode, making the white turn red.
Nina looks at the object held in her fingers: a sharp, TINY
BLACK SPINE. Like that of a sea urchin. Damp, feathery wisps
hang off of it.
The door flings open.
Erica rushes in and finds Nina half-naked, her skin inflamed.
For sure, that does the job it’s meant to do. It’s horrible and demented and not much fun to read, but it is, at any rate, effective.
2. Is the dialogue (a) free of exposition and (b) rich in subtext? This will include (c) unique voices for each character.
Part A) I didn’t make any notes about exposition as I was reading. Thinking back on the script now, I realize there is some in the set-up about the rivalries within the Ballet Company.
Most all of Beth’s story, especially, is given to us by way of exposition. The same for Lily’s story. Could that be trimmed out and left to the audience’s imagination? Probably. However, I don’t think, in any way, that exposition is a problem for this script.
Part B) In the last few reviews I parsed subtext for its components and figured that would be all there was to say. I am a bit dismayed that this script forces me into another declension of this word.
Black Swan is filled with subtext. It is the prized, character specific kind, and yet, I still have a problem with it—you very nearly drown in it. It’s the same subtext over and over again.
EVERY interaction between Nina and Erica (her mother) is laced with the idea that Erica has infantilized Nina, overprotected Nina, and tried to live vicariously through Nina.
By the end of the script, their interactions were grating on my nerves. I wanted to say to the authors, ‘I got this on page 15, change things up a little bit’. Doing this is like giving someone too much of a good thing, or forcing them to listen to their favorite song 100 times in a row.
Give us as much subtext as you can, just try and have it deepen as it courses through your story.
Part C) The character individuation is adequate. Leroy and Nina are the best of the main characters. Lily and Erica are the worst. Lily likes ecstasy and Erica is mommy dearest? I guess. I don’t know why either of these women makes her contribution to the story in anything other than a simplistic way. Still, there are so few characters, that they would be easily recognizable without their cues.
3. Do the writers understand the challenges and rewards posed by the medium in which they’ve chosen to tell their story?
Yes, this is a movie. Possibly, by default? Mental disorder does lend itself easily to our medium. If I started listing the proof of that in titles, I doubt that I would be done before this review is due. Suffice it to say that our friend K. from the introduction would likely have had a great career as a 21st century screenwriter.
Also, the locations and characters were restrained. A choice which I think speaks volumes about the writers’ self-awareness of their medium and their work’s potential to be produced.
4. Is there anything unique in what the writers present? Basically, do I have to hire THESE writers in order to get their original take on things? Are the rest of the writers’ ideas, based on this sample, likely to be original?
There is originality in the presentation of the metafictive elements.
The Psychological Horror Story elements are pretty derivative, though. [I think I’ve just tipped my question 7 hand.]
I mean, seriously, how many times have I seen maggots as a delusion? Maggots are gross and freaky and they still stir certain echoes but, there are things equally as creepy as maggots.
5. Do we have a hook (the first 2 pages)?
No, the first page is terrible. It ends up being insufferably symbolic by the end.
In my opinion, the existence of this first page dream, almost ruins the interesting metafictional ending in which Nina dies as a result of LITERALLY becoming the Black Swan. Both stories within this, story within a story, follow parallel trajectories, and the ending of the source material properly informs the meaning derived from its imitation. In my view, this is what it means to tell a story like this successfully.
So, what is so wrong with this opening?
It’s painfully easy and, because of that, very “on the nose” for me. I get that this is the night before the day that Nina will discover what part she plays in the upcoming production, and that this fact, in itself, lends realism to the idea that she would be dreaming about this, but:
She has to dream about THIS part of Swan Lake?
I felt the author’s presence in the heavy-handed nature of this symbolism. [Although, if I’m being honest, it didn’t bother me that much at first. Only as the script progressed did it begin to feel insufferable.]
6. Is the hook effective (the next 8 pages)?
I really enjoyed pages 2, 2A, and 3. This is where we first meet Erica and the subtext here is powerful. Erica, literally, feeds and dresses her adult daughter. If this “beat” had been deepened or, even, not constantly repeated, it would be an example of really fine writing.
Pages 3 and 4 feature Nina in transit to The Lincoln Center. Here we first see the double, although we aren’t calling her that, yet.
Pages 5-6 introduce us to the unidimensionally shallow other soloists before we meet Lily and are mesmerized by her overt histrionic nature. As a nice complement to Lily, page 6 also announces Thomas Leroy as our stereotypical artistic genius with his equally stereotypical predilection for taking advantage of his “groupies”. [Like the maggots, this is another trope I’ve seen way too many times.]
On 7, Leroy gives us uncultured types a rundown of the story of Swan Lake. Yeah, it’s exposition but, considering the fact that movies cast a much wider net than ballet, probably a wise choice. [I, was not familiar.]
While delivering this exposition, the authors make an even better choice. They have Leroy pace in front of his dancer’s randomly tapping some of them on the shoulder. This rattles in our minds as something we want to discover: What does this tapping mean?
Page 8 gives us our answer. These “tapped” dancers have been singled out for important parts. We also find out here that the lead of the White/Black Swan is open. Leroy has decided it is time to replace his lead ballerina, Beth.
The end of 8 marks the fiery reaction of this displaced ballerina.
Page 9 gives us the visually interesting scene of Nina invading Beth’s space. The displacing symbolism squares, when Nina exhibits kleptomaniacal symptoms by stealing Beth’s lipstick.
Pages 9 and 10 were extremely effective for me. We get to see our protagonist try out for and FAIL TO GET the part we’ve spent the first 9 pages building toward. Excellent technique.
7. Are there enough reveals to maintain the initial hook?
The script does a lot of things right structurally, but it also moves forward on the strength of some fairly lazy story choices. I’ve already mentioned the maggots, but I think most all of Nina’s hallucinations fall into this category. Perhaps I am prejudiced here.
I remember feeling the same way about A Beautiful Mind. Hallucinations, in general, are a magic elixir to take your story anywhere you want it to go. Can’t make your story work out naturally on your own? Introduce a schizophrenic-type character and have them pretend the elements you need to fit the climax you want. Again, I may be prejudiced, but this strikes me as lazy IF you don’t do the research on the disorder you’re imbuing your character with and make sure that all the symptomatic i’s and t’s get dotted and crossed.
[A Beautiful Mind is a great example of this because the hallucinations the fictional John Nash gets outfitted with in the movie are nothing like the hallucinations he actually had. At all.
I have to face the prospect that I am completely off in my assessment of this storytelling heuristic since both movies were praised, critically and financially. It is more than possible that I am requiring a standard of psychological authenticity which just isn’t required by most moviegoers. Acknowledging this possibility does not prevent me from coming outside these brackets to ask…]
How does the make-out scene advance THIS story? Are we supposed to interpret this as a psychotic narcissism? Since, in the end it wasn’t Lily, but Nina with whom Nina was having sex. Were the authors just rounding out their catalogue of personality disorders? A sort of, ‘well, we’ve mentioned all the rest, let’s complete the list and throw in something symbolic of Narcissistic Personality Disorder too’, I just don’t get it. It seems to be a shameless pandering of the sort you wouldn’t expect in a script with this kind of ambitions.
So, the idea of retelling the story of Swan Lake, literally, in the form of a ballerina confined to the medium of scripts, works. I like this a lot. In fact, I sort of wish I’d thought of it. Giving her a disorder which causes her to have to, literally, transform herself from an obsessive, over-protected, control-freak “White Swan”, into a licentious “Black Swan” also works. And I wish I’d thought of that too. Resolving this transformation by throwing the entire DSM at the protagonist, did not work for me.
That is my honest feeling about how this script works, but I still have to write out what the authors might have meant if they were going for a dissociative disorder rather than a personality disorder.
From page 102:
What did you do?
I felt it.
Oh my god.
Someone, get help.
Leroy looks back at her. She smiles.
It was perfect.
The APPLAUSE grows more and more faint. Her eyes glaze over
and everything goes completely SILENT.
Nina lies there motionless, a smile frozen on her face.
The implication of this is that an “artist” can not survive the completion of a “perfect” piece of art. I see no other way to interpret this, because Leroy, who has been established as our artist-in-chief up to this point, affirms Nina’s decision. The authors tell us,
Maybe Leroy gets it, but I did not. In spite of my disconnect with this metafictional conclusion, this script is still…
Rating: Worth Reading