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January 5, 2011

What is and what should never be

Conventional wisdom would have us believe that it is always wrong to deny one’s true nature. As slack-jawed American children, our first lessons, doled out on “Sesame Street” and so forth, begin with “Don’t eat the paint chips on the window sill” but proceed almost immediately to “Be yourself.”

My friend Marcus brought the idea to my attention a few weeks ago in reference to the film “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” A feature-length metaphor for Tim Burton’s acceptance of his own quirky/grim nature, “Nightmare” tells the story of Jack Skellington, the Pumpkin King of Halloween Town, whose anxious longing for something more than scary finds a balm in his haphazard discovery of Christmas joy. Unfortunately, his efforts to adopt and spread the “giving spirit” lead to near-epic disaster.

There are, of course, countless other films that deal with the same theme. One of my favorites was written and directed by the great Preston Sturges; “Sullivan’s Travels” tells the story of a fictional film director who longs to be more than what he is. John Lloyd Sullivan (played by Joel McCrae) obviously is fashioned after Sturges, a director of screwball comedies. As the film begins, Sullivan has wearied of his lot and longs to do something more meaningful with his talents. Thereafter, he abandons his identity and hits the road in an effort to discover what disenfranchised Americans were dealing with on a daily basis. Sullivan’s intention is to make a great drama, tentatively titled “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”

(Yes, this is where Joel and Ethan Coen got the title for their Depression-era comedy loosely based on Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and it seems that “Sullivan’s Travels” has an even more persistent place in the Coens’ hearts as the concept of entertaining and/or representing the “common man” has been a consistent theme throughout their careers; it is the central theme to the writer’s block-inspired “Barton Fink,” for instance.)

In both of these examples, the central figure ultimately comes to the realization that his talents, his nature and, indeed, the community at-large, are better served by his accepting and embracing his basic nature and talent. Their journeys lead them to a discovery that their better selves were always evident; it was only a fuller appreciation of their gifts and circumstances that was lacking.

Most recently, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” has revisited the theme, and while it seems that the ultimate lesson is somewhat similar, the story is much more complicated, and the result is simply terrifying.

Natalie Portman’s portrayal of a tragically conflicted ballerina is one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences ever committed to film. Recognized for her ability to embody the virginal White Swan, Nina (Portman) is given the opportunity to star in a new production of “Swan Lake,” but she must also play the White Swan’s evil twin, the titular Black Swan, and her search for the darker character drives her mad. The film is brilliant in the ways that it represents this descent, augmenting Portman’s performance with a series of simple camera tricks that leave the viewer as off-balance as Nina, creating a circumstance where no perception can be trusted, and ultimately adding a handful of economical special effects that more fully represent the character’s detachment from reality and her imminent self-destruction.

It is evident, somewhat early on, that Portman’s character is “troubled,” even before she is pushed down the path toward her darker corners. Her mother, a dancer who sacrificed her own career to raise her daughter, resents her daughter’s life even as she imposes control in order to ensure that the younger dancer remains committed to her craft. Thus, it is suggested that Nina has long been committed to a life that is not necessarily her own.

While all of these stories are psychologically sound and satisfying as entertainment, I have to wonder about the consistency of this message.

Hollywood has rarely sold us a truth that has value beyond the price of a matinee ticket, so where is the lie in these stories? Somewhere between the concept of taking a personal inventory and choosing a path of self-improvement, we are consistently told that our home truth is the one to embrace, and at that point, as we sit in the theater, watching movies, the home truth is to keep watching movies. Who benefits from this, exactly?

This week’s assignment: Get some exercise. Seriously.