Jan 23, 2011

A return trip to the dark side, please

Regular readers of this blog will know what a bee we have in our bonnet about dark sides. We are well aware that it could be just jealousy on our part, never having had one, coupled with resentment over the high esteem in which they are held. The time for dark sides, we think, was surely somewhere in our mid-teens, just after we had discovered the work of Joseph Conrad but before we had fully investigated the ouevre of Fred Astaire, when our primary aim in life was to be taken seriously by adults and wished they would realise just what a threat our aesthetic choices posed to their crapulously upbeat view of the world and rose-tinted false consciousness. Pah! It is true that we still get twinges of wishing people were more frightened of our aesthetic choices than they would appear to be. The old dream lingers that someone will browse our book-shelves, or dvd collections, and feel the hair go up on the back of their neck at the sheer balls-out bravura with which we poo-poo the merely pleasurable and meretriciously 'enjoyable'. But the fact remains that after 43 years on our allotted plot of earth, we nurse an undiminished reverence for delight and all who traffic in it. We believe that 'happiness writes white' is a challenge not a let-out. And nothing makes us happier than the gentleman's cigarette Bill Murray lights before as he exits the restaurant where he has just performed the Heimlich maneuvre in Groundhog Day. Except perhaps the three landings executed by each of Elliot's friends at the end of E.T. — one, two, three perfect ellipses carved out by their bike wheels on the forest floor. Heartlessness, either our own or other people's, does not strike us as all that interesting an emotional state state. Self-hatred, likewise, does not strike us as especially revealing or worthy of investigation, certainly not to the degree our leading actors and actresses appear to believe. Most of what passes for moral ambiguity, in the indie movie scene, turns out to be merely a moral scheme that's had its hair mussed, a deliberately muddied puddle. We won't go on, merely draw your attention to an article that appeared in The Sunday Times today in which we finally got some of these things off our chest. Excuse the slightly hectic tone.
'“Give yourself to the Dark Side,” urged Darth Vader in Return of the Jedi. His advice was roundly ignored by Luke Skywalker at the time, but these days, Google “dark side” and it brings up a long list, from Justin Bieber (“Bieber’s CSI cameo shows off his dark side”), to William Shatner (“Shatner’s trek to the dark side”). The latest to succumb is Natalie Portman, currently tearing up the awards circuit for her turn in Darren Aronofsky’s dark fantasia Black Swan. She plays an uptight ballerina who turns herself inside out in her efforts to win the approval of her despotic dance instructor. "In four years, every time you dance, I see you obsess, getting each and every move perfectly right, but I never see you lose yourself," he tells her. "All the discipline, for what?" "I just want to be perfect," Portman whispers back."Perfection is not just about control. It's also about letting go," he says, setting her on a crash course in Dark Side Development that involves staying up late, smoking cigarettes, taking drugs, making out with her girlfriends, and diddling herself when Mom’s back is turned. "We're going to strip it down,” he says. “Make it visceral and real.”

With its bullying insistence that all of us, even the Ninas of this world, have a dark side that needs coaxing into sulpherous bloom, Black Swan is the arthouse sensation du jour, a fable fashioned from the foremost aesthetic hang-up of our time. Aronofsky has made a film not just for every actress who has ever played ‘ugly’ in order to win an Oscar, but for every comedian who had had to recant of his comedic ways, for the Paul McCartney who winced when Lennon dismissed his songs as “tinsel and fairydust”, for the Steven Spielberg who conceded that Martin Scorsese’s filmmaking was more adult “because it appeals to our anxiety-ridden darker side”, for the Thom Yorke who once confided, "It annoys me how prettym y voice is", and for screenwriter Alan Ball who, when called in for a meeting with Dreamworks executives to talk about his script for American Beauty, was told, “’Could you just make it just a little more fucked up,’ which is not a note that you get in Hollywood very often. And I thought, ‘Wow!’ And that gave me free range to go a little deeper, go a little darker, go a little more complicated." It may have been the first time in the history of Western civilization that a creative artist was asked by his corporate overlords to make his work darker; but it was certainly not the last. Darker = deeper = good is one of our more unbreakable pop culture shibboleths. A dark side has become a must-have item on every celebrity’s wish-list, next to membership at Crunch gym on Sunset and a lunchtime table at Spago’s. You cannot move in Hollywood for bright young things seeking a little indie cred in down-and-dirty roles where they get to graffiti their own good locks, or saw off their own leg in symbolic severance of their years in the salt-mines of the Mickey Mouse Club. At this year’s Oscars, Hollwyood’s beautiful people will collect together, dressed in the world’s ritziest designer clothes, in order to applaud James Franco for his role in 127 Hours, in which he saws off his own arm with a blunt pen-knife, working through his own tendons like a butcher through gristle, and Portman for her enthusiastic bouts of self-graffiti in Black Swan. Said one critic of her performance:-
“Nina may be the most tightly wound character I’ve seen in a movie since Peter O’Toole’s homicidal Nazi in “The Night of the Generals” 43 years ago. Often sweaty, given to unnaturally tense little intakes of breath, plagued by rashes on her shoulderblades and prone to poking, cutting and splitting her skin and nails.”
Miss Portman will be wearing Dior.

Turn to the upbeat studio pabulum they are all supposedly in recoil from, and it’s scarcely any brighter. “There’s no denying it, these are dark times,” begins the latest Harry Potter, the “darkest yet”, in which our heroes spend most of their time crouched in a tent, debating the hopelessness of their situation, while the forces of darkness threaten to engulf them. That’s the kid’s movies. Amongst current entertainments aimed at adults, only Star Trek has dared deliver anything like the uplift of summers past; the rest — from The Dark Knight to The Terminator — all come plunged in terminal gloom, their brooding heroes pacing back and forth beneath skies the color of vengeance. When the TV show Battlestar Galactica ended on a rare note of optimism last year the chat-rooms were in uproar. We would appear to be bang smack in the middle of a new critical consensus wherein grittiness is close to Godliness, and everyone seeks a position on or close to the ‘edge,’ now as over-booked as Malibu beach-front property. Everyone is against the mainstream now, even the mainstream — especially the mainstream. “It’s a strange critical phenomenon that only works of art that are ‘edgy’ or ‘scary’ or ‘dangerous’ are regarded as in anyway noteworthy,” wrote Nick Hornby recently. ““Can’t we let them console, uplift, inspire, move, cheer? Please?” We are sold books on the promise of their being “dark and disturbing,” TV shows for being “raw, uncompromising, gritty”, pop lyrics that are “dark, edgy, angry,” even “raw, edgy” fashion shoots. Fashion shoots. As in: models, clothes. Album of the year, meanwhile, is Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, “an art-rock set that radiates an almost unbearable feeling of desolation,” according to one reviewer.

What happened? Wasn’t pop culture supposed to be a matter of cheap uplift, ambrosial optimism and the false consciousness of a Hollywood happy ending? A trip to the multiplex these days involves more radical alienation than a season of Brecht. "You have a responsibility for the way you make the audience feel, and I want them to feel uncomfortable,” says David Fincher, this year’s Oscar favorite for best director. "Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything's okay. I don't make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything's not okay." Really? It’s always a lie that everything is okay, and always the case that everything is completely screwed? That seems as comforting a fantasy as any purveyed by the latest Julia Roberts film, and yet it’s Eat Pray Love that gets it in the neck from Fincher and co. Maybe this rash of miserablism marks the final maturation of pop culture, now risen from its teenybop roots to arrogate the mantle of seriousness once associated with the High Arts. When the New York Times describes a play as “moving like an edgy pit bull, uncompromising in its complete disregard of solicitous and genial warmth” we take it for granted that a satisfactory aesthetic experience is being described. Similarly, when Carol Ann Duffy recently wrote in the pages of the New York Review of Books about a Ted Hughes poem that “seems to touch a deeper, darker place than any poem he’s ever written,” (it was about who Hughes was shagging the weekend Slyvia Plath committed suicide) we assume she meant it as praise. "Dark means serious,” commented Peter Steinfeld wrote on the Commonweal blog. “Dark means shadows. Dark means not evading the sad and inexplicable complexities of life.”

Yes but why? Any attempt to answer why darker automatically means deeper invariably runs the risk of tautology. It just is. On January 23rd, 1918, the art dealer Paul Guillaume opened a three-week exhibition of work by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso in his gallery on the fashionable rue du Faubourg Saint-Honore in Paris. The exhibition catalogue was written by the poet Apollinaire, a friend of both painters, who described them in terms that would set the course for their critical reception for decades to come. “Like the orange, Matisse’s work is a fruit bursting with light,” wrote Apollinaire. Picasso’s work, on the other hand “offers a thousand opportunities for meditation, all illuminated by an internal light. Beyond that light, however, lies an abyss of mysterious darkness... is this not the greatest aesthetic effort we have ever witnessed?” Got that? Light = lightweight. Dark = the greatest aesthetic effort in the history of mankind. Matisse was aghast at his friend’s bias. “If people knew," he said, "what Matisse, the painter of happiness, had gone through, the anguish and tragedy he had to overcome . . . they would also realise that this happiness, this light, this dispassionate wisdom which seems to be mine, are sometimes well-deserved, given the severity of my trials.” For Matisse vs Picasso read Lennon vs McCartney, Spielberg vs Scorsese, Morrissey vs the Pet Shop Boys, or any other of the cultural multiple choices by which it is determined whether you are un homme serieux, with the soul of a Russian, or a irretrievable lightweight with the depth of a puddle.

Roll back to the clock to the pre-20th centuries and things start to lighten up, thanks to the reinvigorated hold of organized religion. The Renaissence is shot through with shafts of Godly radiance; in Paradise Lost, He is variously described as "the Eternal coeternal beam," "bright essence increate," and "pure ethereal stream,” obscured by his own brilliant light, an image unmatched in Western culture until the release of Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind in 1977. So maybe it’s the Godless 20th century that’s to blame. “Pessimism has become something of a fashion, and kind of intellectual pose to demonstrate one’s moral seriousness,” wrote Francis Fukuyama in the Times Literary Supplement, in 1993. “The terrible experiences of this century have taught us that one never pays he price for being unduly gloomy, whereas naive optimists have been the object of ridicule.” When Samuel Becket won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1969, they singled out for praise a “negativism that cannot desist from descending to the depths. To the depths it must go because it is only there that pessimistic thought and poetry can work their miracles.”

Never mind that Beckett is actually a lot funnier than that or that any serious investigation of the historical traumas which are supposed to plunge us into such high-toned despair in fact reveal the exact opposite: the stubborn persistence of human hope, whether in the form of Matisse’s hard-won happiness or the “tragic optimism” of Auschwitz survivor Victor Frankel. Those who have lived through tragedy experience no greater urge to relive it, aesthetically, than the next man; if anything their taste for douleurs is somewhat diminished. The people who take most delight in measuring the exact length, width, and depth of their dark sides tend to be those most comfortably removed from the heart of darkness’s epicenter, their moral authority that of a curious tourist. They are darkness’s groupies — it’s flunkies, its wannabes, it’s hangers-on. The English composer John Dowland, who was known by the tag Semper Dowland, semper dolens ("always Dowland, always mourning"), doubtless had good cause for his grief, but the cult of melancholy which swept Elizabethan England, as summed up in the figure of Shakespeare’s Hamletdressed in “the trappings and suits of woe” included many who just though they looked great in black. Likewise, the “Werther Fever” that swept Germany after the publication of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther; or the fashionable despair that beset European cafĂ© society upon publication of T S Eliot’s The Wasteland in 1922, and later characterized by Saul Bellow as “The Wasteland Outlook,” characterised by “the cheap mental stimulants of Alienation, the cant and rant of pip-squeaks about Inauthenticity and Forlornness". It was all perfectly caught by P G Wodehouse in his
Wasteland parody:-

And Despair.
I am a bat that wheels through the Air of Fate
I am a worm that wriggles in a Swamp of Disillusionment
I am a despairing Toad
I have got dyspepsia”
It could equally well describe this year’s Oscar contenders, from Fincher — a despeptic toad if ever there was one — to Portman and Aronofsky, who once said, “Quite clearly, the planet is dying, and we are dying on it. To find that funny, or to find Paris Hilton's partying interesting, is beyond nauseating”*. Except that even Paris Hilton these days sports Alexander McQueen skull t-shirts and diamond-studded skull earrings, at which point, every self-respecting Goth knows the game to be up. When even Paris Hilton embraces her dark side, it’s time to cross over to the sunny side of the street. Or curl up with a season box-set of Glee.'
The Sunday Times
* One thing that has occurred to me since writing this piece is that there may be a reason this appeared in an British rather than American newspaper and it's tied to the reason Aronofsky/Fincher et al are, despite various testaments to their 'European' sensibility, a distinctly American phenomenon. Only in a culture driven by a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week effort to feel good about itself — which is to say, a culture driven by TV — does it make any sense for artists to define themselves wholly by their antagonism to that. This is my beef with both these directors: how reactive they are. Their darkness is an argument with the mainstream, and thus entirely dictated by it — in exact mirror-image. It is because Julia Roberts smile is so bright that Aronofsky feels compelled to tear strips, literally, off poor Natalie Portman. To the exact same degree that Jimminy Cricket wishes upon on a star does David Fincher wish to see that star implode beneath the weight of a thousand suns. Every statement they make comes freighted with the need to summon every banished demon, every dark thought an American news anchor has struggled to suppress. But if it's even got to that point — evening things up, injecting tone, apportioning out darkness like it was shade of paint — you're lost. I feel like saying to them: stop reacting. Ignore everybody else. You have complete freedom to say what you want. Now what is it?


  1. VadEr, man, VadEr. Also, Battlestar did not end on a note of hope, it ended (spoiler) with the central conflicts being waved away and all the characters ending their hard-fought journey by dying in a cave 150,000 years ago and then being forgotten. That's why most of us nerds were pissed. Dark has become Important and Serious because for the first half of film history everything had to be shallow and abyss-ignoring and happy-ending-y. If the Wizard of Oz had been made in 1969 Dorothy would have died from tuberculosis in the mental ward she had been committed to, and if Midnight Cowboy had been made in 1939 the two wacky pals would have gone to Florida and gotten rich owning a lemonade stand.

  2. @Anonymous: "for the first half of film history everything had to be shallow and abyss-ignoring and happy-ending-y..."

    This is simply wrong. In 1939, to take the year you cite, five of the 10 Best Picture nominees ended with the death of a primary character. At least two of them qualify as tragedies by any standard. I'm just pointing to those because they are among the best known; a search would reveal plenty of company. Nor do I think an argument for the shallowness of the movies on that list will be easy to maintain.

    I also wanted to say to Tom that this line, which I loved:

    " Those who have lived through tragedy experience no greater urge to relive it, aesthetically, than the next man; if anything their taste for douleurs is somewhat diminished."

    reminded me of this passage about Chaplin that I once encountered and posted at my site:


  3. Oh I love that quote. Thank you. To your point, I'm always amazed at how 'unhappily' so many classic Hollywood movies end, from Casablanca to Gone With The Wind, and how many modern movies which we think end unhappily do not. Taxi Driver has one of the worst, tacked-on joke-bow-tie endings imaginable — with Travis exchanging sultry glances with Cybill Shepherd in the back of his cab, while Elmer Bernstein's sax soars on the soundtrack, as if the whole film hadn't happened. The last time Betsy saw Travis he took her to a porn film showing sperm pulsing across the screen! I guess some girls are more forgiving when it comes to bad dates, although in my limited experience, porn movies featuring live sperm are not the sort of thing you bounce back from with ease. Certainly not with saxophones.

  4. HA! I never thought they were actually going to get together in Taxi Driver, but the looks do leave the possibility open, and that alone is sort of startling considering that she already knows what Travis's idea of a good time is.

    With pre-1960 movies, even sometimes when there was a Code-mandated ending, you ended up with something quite dark, as in The Letter, where not only Leslie Crosbie gets her comeuppance, but the woman she wronged so horribly is evidently on a road to ruin as well. Bette Davis always said she thought Leslie should have had to live with her deeds, but the movie as it stands widens the character's circle of destruction.

  5. Mr. Shone,

    I agree with your thoughts on this matter. Can I assume, then, that you loved "Summer Hours," as I did, and for many of the same reasons? It's an unsentimental but sad and truthful tale, in which any darkness is ameliorated by familial love. Meets Tarantino's Jackie-Brown definition of a "hangout movie," except I really don't like to hang out with the same people as he does, I guess.

    Yours, George Delmerico

  6. Hi George
    Yes I did like Summer Hours, and would probably prefer to hang out with the characters in that film than, say, Reservoir Dogs. Which is not to say that I don't also love Tarantino, up to a point, the point being Jackie Brown. Anything after that I haven't enjoyed. But I liked the mood in Summer Hours, and how flexible it was.

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