2010: A Year Of Black Swans

2010 has been a unique year in culture. It was a year of chaos and a million little details, the year of Twitter and hashtags, the year of ‘that Facebook movie.’ It was a year of significant endings, notably with Lost and 24 coming to a close after six and eight years respectively, and the publication of Mockingjay closing out the Hunger Games trilogy.

It was also a year of wonderful discoveries and surprises. This post is dedicated to those cultural events: moments that seemed to defy expectation and hope, or seemed to come out of nowhere, but in retrospect, made absolute and wonderful sense. Cultural items that approached the status of perfection in the midst of an unruly, chaotic year. Seven cultural moments that captured and defined this element of welcome surprise.

These are the Black Swans of 2010.

(1) Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan.

The fierce intelligence of Natalie Portman’s haunting performance alone would put Black Swan on this list, but there was so much more to talk about in Aronofsky’s always surprising, moving and terrifying ode to the relentless search for perfection. It’s a favorite theme on this blog, the lengths to which an artist must go to bring us the truth, the extent to which they must go into the darkness to bring back the light (particularly here, and here). Aronofsky’s beautiful, painful retelling of Swan Lake is a near-perfect capturing of this struggle, this destructive of question of how far we are willing to go for art, for the thing we love. The screenplay by Mark Heyman, Andres Heinz and John McLaughlin was a deft reworking of the tale, and Clint Mansell’s wonderful score masterfully interwove Tchaikovsky’s themes with a darker, more electronic menace.

(2) Wolf Hall.

Hilary Mantel’s extraordinary novel told the life of Thomas Cromwell in luminous, preternaturally poetic prose that had a rawness and directness as she incisively laid bare the brutal psychology of the man and his world, turning the events of Henry VIII’s time with Anne Boleyn into a superior, terrifying and ultimately haunting thriller. The sheer brilliance on display is staggering. The only response as a writer is to bow down before it, and then raise your game accordingly. One of the most best written, plotted and executed novels of all time; this is no exaggeration.

(3)(a) Colin Firth’s revelatory performance in The King’s Speech.

This wasn’t surprising in itself – the man is a fantastic actor, who sublimates the full panoply of human emotion into such subtle, compelling renderings – but what was surprising was the way it took him from his habitual under-the-radar brilliance to a more publicly noted recognition, which hopefully will result in an Oscar for Firth, who seems to be criminally underrated at these events.

(3)(b) Colin Firth’s sparring with Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech.

It was a huge pleasure to watch Firth’s tightly-wound, emotionally fraught monarch-in-waiting go up against the magisterial ease and laconic skill of Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist. Watching these two highly skilled performers go at it was never going to be anything other than excellent, but their scenes together truly elevated the movie. Both are extremely skilled technically, but both know how to submerge all that in simple truth, beautiful details that reveal soul, a life of emotional pain in the flickering of eyelids, a cry for help from a man with no voice, the response from the man with many who needs to find which is true. Exhilarating.

(4) Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’s score for The Social Network.

The way David Fincher used this brilliant electronic score to add the most important layer to The Social Network, giving it a deep, dark sci-fi edge, and adding the thrilling, exhilarating element of creativity and innovation happening before our eyes. The screenplay was beyond outstanding, one of Aaron Sorkin’s best, and Fincher was absolutely at the top of his game in the way he layered in the speed of thought, the scheming psychologies, the sheer sense of invention – but it was the score that made this movie exceptional.

(5) Kanye West, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

I blogged extensively about this album here. Simply put, this album was a raging against the light, a paean to creativity and innovation unleashed and uncensored. Thrilling to listen to, it laid out Kanye West’s interior world in all its fabulous, deranged and joyous glory. Given the darkness from which West had to emerge, it’s simultaneously all the more remarkable and all the more likely that he would return with a barnstorming, take no prisoners set of tracks is likely his opus, his masterwork.

(6) The rise of Emma Stone.

Her warm, witty, engaging ascension to stardom with her never less than brilliant performance in Easy A elevated Stone from her previous roles as cute, funny girl who stole scenes, to her natural arena: owning a movie from start to finish, and marrying a raw emotional soul to a killer sense of comedy and goofiness. Smart, engaging, warm, and funny as hell. It wasn’t unexpected, in fact it was long overdue, but the way it happened was one of the more happy surprises of the year. A true leading lady.

(7) The renewal of Southland.

I blogged about Southland when it first started on NBC here, and why TNT should renew Southland here. Despite the show’s diamond-hard brilliance, its brutally unsentimental yet deeply moving shooting, acting and writing style, such a renewal was not guaranteed. The show had a rough beginning, getting canceled by NBC mid-production on season two, but thankfully TNT realized they had hold of one of the sharpest, most real, raw and immediate cop dramas ever made, and did the right thing. The renewal was a true black swan event, seemingly impossible yet utterly necessary. It was above all a huge relief: in so many ways, Southland is unparalleled in the world of TV drama. Season three commences on 1/4/2011.

Honorable mentions:

AMC’s The Walking Dead, Christopher Nolan’s Inception.

The one…

If I had to choose one of these seven black swans to truly represent the defining cultural truth of 2010… well, that would be a tough choice. Of these, which was the most thrilling, exhilarating, perfectly detailed and beautiful moment of the year? Perhaps unsurprisingly, my choice would be Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which said everything about beauty, perfection, drive, talent, and creativity, and did it all with a melancholy and ferocious brilliance.

Next time, on Dreaming Between The Lines...

Coming soon in 2011… a review of Southland season three, a look at YA fiction, the state of TV drama, and more.

Happy New Year!

“These are dark times, there is no denying…”

In late November 2010, the David Yates-directed Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows Part I and Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were released. Two works of art that seemed to capture the moment with their raw immediacy, multi-layered complexity, roughness and beauty, emotional resonances and a wild sense of creativity and innovation at full throttle with ideas to spare. Two cultural phenomena that thrived on guest performances to enhance the core roles: just as Kanye brought on Jay-Z, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj and others, so David Yates did the equivalent with the continuous Harry Potter guest star roll-call of British acting royalty: Nick Moran, Bill Nighy, Peter Mullan, Rhys Ifans. West and Yates have given free rein to their creative interpretations of their material, while always maintaining absolute control of the big picture, the final product. Both Hallows and Fantasy are in some ways the ultimate expression to date of their creators’ mastery of their chosen art form, and are vehicles for their creators to innovate wildly within a solid architecture and structure.

On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West accesses excess, melancholy, and the crazy highs and lows of fame, in an ultra-confident, tour-de-force performance powered by absolute bravura and assurance. Along the way, he takes time to tear down the conceptual frameworks of fame, celebrity, and wealth, at the same time flaunting all of them. It’s a complex, contradictory work, this album, but it is multi-layered and rewarding, almost a concept album in its consistent presentation of Kanye West’s interior world, already revealed to us by his Twitter feed and the steady stream of free tracks from his recording sessions earlier in the year. He can tear himself apart, as in Runaway, exult in his status, as on Monster, or do both, as he does in Power, while underlying the whole is a sad, melancholy ambience, perhaps best summed up by one of his tweets from earlier in 2010: “Seems like I miss my loved ones the most when I stare out the jet window… There’s a nostalgia in the skyscraper lights.”

Melancholy is an emotion that is not in short supply in Deathly Hallows Part I, which is easily the bleakest, most emotionally brutal Potter movie to date. The seventh and penultimate film in the Harry Potter series begins with a close-up of the troubled eyes of Bill Nighy as the new Minister for Magic, describing the dark times that have befallen the world. Dark times indeed – this is without a doubt the darkest and most visceral Potter to date, thanks to J.K. Rowling’s unflinching vision, Steve Kloves’ subtle adaptation, and the thrilling, eerie direction of David Yates.

Yates has a keen eye for the urban and the gritty, married with an extraordinary sense for beautiful and lonely shot composition. Together with Kloves, he has added some great cinematic flourishes to Rowling’s narrative: whether it’s Hagrid and Harry escaping along a motorway with exploding caravans and cars flipping around them, or an enraged Voldemort bringing down miles of crackling pylons stretching off into the night, Yates has a strong, nuanced grasp of the translation from page to screen, knowing when to disappear, and when to enhance.

West’s grasp of when to disappear into the material is evident in Fantasy. On the guest star behemoth of the album, All Of The Lights, he weaves his vocals among the textures of no less than eleven others, including Rihanna, Elton John, Fergie, and John Legend. Also firm is West’s grasp of how to spin darkly psychological and fantastical tales, and when to foreground one or the other. Many years ago, I was fortunate to have the chance to talk with Philip Pullman about the His Dark Materials trilogy (Northern Lights / The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, The Amber Spyglass). He told me that while writing it, he had been looking to bring a darker psychology to the fantasy genre, something West does with acuity on Fantasy. A fierce psychological clarity is something that Pullman justifiably gets much credit for in his trilogy, but it is something that many critics miss when assessing J. K Rowling’s seven-book series.

The Harry Potter novels are sometimes held to be somehow softer than Pullman’s. This is not true; Rowling’s works are often chillingly dark, taking an unflinching look at loss, death, and the transformation of goodness into evil. David Yates’s direction of Order Of The Phoenix, The Half-Blood Prince, and The Deathly Hallows, lays this starkly bare. He foregrounds the bare-bones cruelty and horror and wrenching sense of loss, and makes it clear: when Rowling starts her novel with an epigraph containing the phrase “the grinding scream of death,” she means it.

But the Harry Potter series is not just about death and darkness: it is about warmth, hope, the power of true love, the beauty of friendship, and survival. Yates and longtime Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves understand this. The screenplays and films are full of lovely grace notes, some from Rowling, some added by Kloves and Yates.

Particularly effective was the addition to Deathly Hallows of a scene in which Harry starts an impromptu dance with Hermione when all seems lost. It’s a rare moment of release and joy in a bleak journey as they dance to Nick Cave’s O Children, before the signal fades into static on the radio they are listening to, and the hopelessness takes over once more. This scene is a brilliant textural touch, and also recalls another part of Rowling’s epigraph, the plea to the “blissful powers underground – answer the call, send help. Bless the children, give them triumph now.”

Yates is a master of such texture, such subtlety. West shows similar mastery of textural control on Fantasy, sampling Mike Oldfield and King Crimson, weaving the wistfulness of Bon Iver into several tracks, unleashing Raekwon’s angular chaos on Gorgeous, enlisting the RZA on opening track Dark Fantasy, and generally bringing together beats, sounds and guests raps with the inspired craziness of Doc Brown in Back To The Future, which could have been a subtitle to the album, just as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could have been the subtitle for Rowling’s series, or the subtitle to anything writers write, because deep down, this is why we do it – to remake our interior worlds outside ourselves, and exult in them.

One of Yates’s great strengths as a director is to access subtle truths in the performances of his actors; beautiful, naturalistic moments, often almost imperceptible. Gary Oldman’s wink to Harry at the Grimmauld Place table in Phoenix; Alan Rickman’s anguish conveyed in the absolute stillness of his face in Hallows; Jason Isaac’s twitchy, desperate despair. Ralph Fiennes’ many flickering emotions; there, then gone. Yates draws from all his actors the most heartfelt and minimal expressions. He has also coached superior performances from all three leads. Emma Watson in particular has accessed new levels of truth and reality in her portrayal of Hermione, more so even than Dan Radcliffe and Rupert Grint, although they too have become fully settled in their characters, able to do things in Deathly Hallows that would not have been capable of before now. Under Yates’s eye, actors’ faces become quiet, minimalist symphonies of expression.

Like Fantasy with its moments of reflection amidst the grandstanding beats, for example, following a quiet orchestral interlude with the rollicking All Of The Lights, Deathly Hallows is a film of contrasts: all beautiful stillness and furious motion. Visually, Yates has no equal in the way he conjures the visual architecture of isolation. His shot compositions are eerily beautiful and achingly lonely, and he has an unmatched eye for the “active tableau” – perfectly framed moments of stillness, full of promised motion in the convergence of their lines.

Of all the directors in the series, David Yates has brought the most effective blend of the magical world with the real, contemporary world. He has understood more than any of the others how to reveal Rowling’s truths with textural nuances; and he has committed to film some of the most realistic, if that’s the word, depictions of magic in the series to date, filming magic as a raw and dangerous energy, like a live power cable snaking with energy, unstable and violent in unskilled hands, beautiful and fluid in the hands of a master. Like the stuff of Rowling’s novels in the hands of the directors. Like West’s many muses, like his control of song structure, sampling, beats, raps and atmospheres.

West and Yates have proved to be the greatest wizards of all.