Thursday, February 17, 2011

Stuff: Swan dive.

A few days ago I received the ballot for The Vault of Horror's Cyber Horror Awards. Though I have never voted in these awards and do not intend to this year, I receive these with clockwork regularly, a testament to the tenacity and open-mindedness of the award's prime mover, the indefatigable horror high priest and blogger Brian Solomon. My strict adherence to a horror award non-alignment pact isn't a reflection Brian's tireless community building efforts. It's strictly personal: The project of qualitative ranking strikes me as irrelevant in a genre as diverse as horror and the concept of fan awards causes me to break out in hives.

Still, the nominee list is not without interest, notably for the oddity of what surely must be this year's shoo-in nom for Best Pic, Director, Actress, and, most likely, Supporting Actress, Screenplay, and Sundry Lesser Awards (SLAs): Aronofksy's Black Swan.

The appearance of Black Swan on the list is bizarre insomuch as, outside the community of horror fanciers, I don't believe very many people would consider Black Swan a horror film. That source of all knowledge filmic, imdb, gathers it under the generic trinity of "drama, mystery, thriller." The vox pop of Wikipedia prefers "psychological thriller." Vanity Fair explicitly tackled the subject when "25 Questions" columnist Mike Ryan overtly titled his column "Is Black Swan a Horror Movie?" (He weirdly dodges the horror tag, getting right up to the point of using the h-word – "Not in the traditional sense. I mean, it’s not a gory Saw-type movie. But, for lack of a better term . . ." – and then refusing to pull the trigger – "Black Swan is one dark, fucked-up movie."). E Online was willing to drop the h-word in its review, but it was a rare exception. Notably, one few other pro reviewers to drop the h-bomb, Kirk Honeycutt of The Hollywood Reporter, does so dismissively: "The horror-movie nonsense drags everything down the rabbit hole of preposterousness."

For what it's worth, even Aronofksy was somewhat dismissive of the idea. In an extended interview for Art Voice, the director basically dismissed the entire concept of genre as a somewhat outdated crutch: "I'm not really much of a genre guy; this was my best attempt at a genre film. I think audiences don't need that anymore. Audiences are very sophisticated; as long as it's fun, and entertaining, and that's what I was trying to make."

In contrast, the horror fan community seems to have wholeheartedly decided that Black Swan is, indeed, one of their own. Every major horror news aggregator weighed in on the film as if its status was obvious. Bloggers regularly tossed it into the top half of their annual top ten. Indeed, some horror bloggers stretched the bounds of good faith reporting to count the flick as a fright film. Fear.Net, for example, took extensive quotes from Aronofksy out of context to suggest that he crafted the film with horror genre elements in mind. Quoting Aronofksy on the use of handheld digital cameras, the site explains, "He explained that the contradiction between the florid spectacle of the choreography and the intimacy of handheld camerawork ultimately served to distract the audience from the fact that they were in fact watching a horror film – until it's too late, of course." In fact, Aronofksy was answering a question regarding the difference in style between The Wrestler and Black Swan and how he was initially uncertain whether "the whole cinéma vérité, hand held thing was a big risk." When he talks about the camerawork pulling a cinematic rope-a-dope, he's talking about how the naturalistic feel of the hand held cameras sets viewer expectations against the surreal elements of the later film. Horror is never mentioned.

In fact, there's something kind of desperate in the elevation of Black Swan. Its position in the Cyber Horror Awards is unintentionally (I'm sure) comedic. It's pit against such laughably unmatched competitors – a novelty act import, a remake whose superior original is still fresh in viewers' minds, a pity entry from the wheezing decline of the "of the Dead" franchise, and an extended 3D gore-gag reel – that you can't help but feel that we're seeing representatives of the most disreputable aspects of the genre – remakes, splatter, gimmick flicks, tired franchises – offered up as a sacrifice to the god of cinematic respectability.

I'm not sure that I have much of an opinion in whether or not Black Swan is or isn't a horror film proper, but I do find one aspect of the whole thing interesting. Basically, I can't see how a film like Black Swan can be considered horror by any definition that would exclude the much reviled Twilight franchise. As such, I think Black Swan stands as an interesting example of how profoundly useless genre distinctions, as they are currently conceived, are in any meaningful discussion of a film's merits.

Before we go on, it's only right I defend the BS/Twilight assertion. There are, essentially, two main thrusts to the whole Black Swan-is-horror argument.

1. Black Swan is scary, therefore it is horror.

2. Black Swan uses horror tropes, therefore it is horror.

Even a cursory examination of the arguments laid out explicitly shows the problem: If accepted as true, the first assertion implies generic criteria that utterly fail to define the genre. Certainly, the assertion seems to hold for obvious examples. Watching endurance-fest torture porn might not be everybody's idea of good horror, but on the basis that it is meant to horrify us, most viewers would accept that, say, Martyr's is, indeed, a horror film. (Whether it is torture porn or not is a down the subgenre K-hole plummet I don't wish to take at the moment.) If one is flexible with the definition of "scary" and grants that the term can embrace all varieties of dread, shock, and unease, then the assertion starts to do a pretty good job of catching up horror flicks from the periphery of the genre. There are no jump scares or cringe inducing gore shots in Lake Mungo, but the film evokes a real sense of dread and sorrow that under the expanded definition of "scary" would allow us to call it a horror film. Here's the problem: there are countless horror films that, by design, just aren't scary and, even more problematic, countless films that nobody genuinely counts as horror that are truly disturbing. The retro-rom-zom-com Fido has some scenes of tension, but I doubt that the average viewer finds the flick scary in any real sense of the term. Even if you do, dear reader, I'm certain you can come up with at least horror title that, by design, doesn't bring the fear. And, on the other hand, I remember the doc Crumb filling me with a nihilistic depression that I would say qualified under our expanded definition of "scary." Though even I wouldn't honestly claim Crumb was a horror film. Arguably, we could try to defend assertion one by arguing that Crumb, or any other film I find expanded-scary, is a horror film for me and dismiss the problem of consensual categories; but this is the equivalent of admitting the proposition is false because it basically admits that there is no stable, general, useful distinction based in the reality of the movies as objects. Like the animals in Borges's Chinese zoological taxonomy, the field of movies could then be endlessly shuffled from person to person without developing any meaningful insights into the films themselves. For a genre to have any significance as a meaningful organizing principle, it needs to be shared by more than one person. (Tangentially, every now and then, on a slow day, somebody will trot out a list of "movies that are actually horror movies" and this is why the list is always bullshit: we all know that there's something more to horror movies than one dude announcing that a flick is scary.)

If proposition 1 gets us nowhere, proposition 2 won't get us much further. First, there's the question of what we're going to define as a horror trope. Many of the elements of Black Swan that viewers would most readily pick out as horror tropes – a narrative of mental disintegration, violence, the presence of a doppelgänger – are found in Fight Club, a film that I don't feel is widely considered a horror film. Heck, Adaptation features a doppelgänger. Even if we could define horror tropes as horror-specific and granted that their appearance in a film made something a horror flick, you'd have the problem of weird genre proliferation we saw with proposition 1. And, more to the point of defending my statement, you'd have to accept that stuff like Twilight was legitimately horror. Vampires, dawg. Shit's full of 'em.

Genre, as we use it in the wider horror blog-o-sphere, is pretty much a useless idea. If Black Swan is horror, then almost anything and pretty much nothing is horror in any meaningful way. And perhaps that's a good thing. Not that the result would seem much in doubt, but perhaps we should root for Black Swan to win and take its victory to mark the start of a new, more thoughtful way to think about what genre might mean.


Aaron White said...

All I can say is that my top five vampires include The Count from Sesame Street and Count Chocula ,both of which have a relation to "Horror" without being horrific.

Unknown said...

Given the right context, Chocula can be kind of creepy:

I admit I kind of like trying to stretch genres like this. Like how Yojimbo can be a Western but with samurai. So stuff like, "Well, it's got vampires in it, right?" I always want to reject just for being too easy.

Andrew said...

I would love to see Aronovsky direct a true-blue, straight up horror film....
You know, a picture about some psycho killer or something.

Sarah said...

Twilight: Eclipse is the vampire-iest and werewolf-iest movie I've ever seen. The wigs on the vampires and Kristen Stewart alone qualify it as a horror movie. It's also very incoherent, like the rest of the series.

I haven't seen Black Swan yet. I'm waiting for it to land at the $2 theater, which is the only movie theater I can afford.

Alice Sweet said...

I haven't seen Black Swan yet but have heard a few people classify it as horror. Based on the little I knew about it I never would have thought this... is it just so dark they don't know how else to classify it?

I don't know. Guess I should watch it to find out huh?

Desolation Den

Anonymous said...

Great and insightful post as usual, sir. Now ol' Jonny's got some thinkin' to do!


Adam said...

FWIW both the main reviewers in The Guardian described Black Swan in terms of horror. It wasn't just a horror blogosphere phenomenon.

I take the point about Horror being a label for Things We Think Are Cool in this particular internet gang, though.

CRwM said...


Point taken, though I'd add that French uses the term only once - "As her paranoia develops, the film enters familiar horror movie territory." - but uses "psychodrama" twice, places the film in the context of other ballet films (The Red Shoes, The Turning Point), and calls it "an equally traditional theatrical tale in which the off-stage life of an artist mirrors the on-stage performance until the point is reached where the two merge."

I'm don't think it's be fair to say he characterizes the film as a horror film, not primarily.

That said, Bradshaw - who never uses the "h" word - argues that the film is indebted to a couple of horror classics and makes a more convincing case for the film being considered a horror film. Still, it's an assertion he never makes. He prefers the term "psycho-melodrama."

Still, I'm sure a more comprehensive search of reviews would get us a handful of pro-grade reviewers who would classify it under horror. Though I stand by the fact that we'd see nothing like the uniformity of response from horror bloggers.

Gene Phillips said...

In my review of BLACK SWAN I noted something similar to what Arnofsky says: that SWAN is in some ways closer to Shaffer's play EQUUS than the usual horror-thriller. However, I do think that SWAN evokes a mood of "strangeness" (for lack of a better term) that aligns it more with horror films than with EQUUS or TURNING POINT. So IMO there's points in favor and points against.

Genre does need to be thought of as more an elastic band than a straightjacket.

Anonymous said...


You've done it again! I've chosen this article as one of my favorite of February, and included a link to it in my fifth issue of Spatter Analysis.

Check it out!