‘Black Swan’ and ‘The Shining’: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrors

April 09, 2011 | 7:27 a.m.

Kevin McLeod, who has made online games for productions in other media, including those for “A.I.: Artificial Intelligence” and the television show “Jericho,” created quite the stir in December with a guest essay here at Hero Complex that framed the second “Star Wars” trilogy as an underappreciated innovator in American cinema. Now, with “Black Swan” just out on Blu-ray and DVD, McLeod is back with thoughts on two controversial horror films of greatness that may require years or decades to be truly grasped by the mainstream audience. Spoiler alert: Key plot points of “Black Swan” are revealed in this post.)

shiningswan Black Swan and The Shining: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrors

Jack Nicholson in "The Shining" and Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." (Warner Bros. / Fox Searchlight)

The year of “Inception”: One film says it does, the other one does it without saying.

Someone is always saying how similar everything seems. Conscious or not it’s true. My 6-year-old nephew mistakes scenes in Pixar films from his memory faster than he can ‘Lego me’ a sandwich.  Superhero films, too, flow into one another: they’re injected with similar strains of comedies — suddenly they’ll writhe again — like action films we’ve seen before, from somewhere in the 1990s.  Some from the 2000s, replicating. The “Star Trek” film has its cantina scene; “King Kong” has its dinosaur chase. This reuse is so pervasive it even requires the blessing of a master: The trailer for “Super 8” is composed of shots taken directly from “Twister,” “Jurassic Park,” “ET,” and “The Lost World.” Maybe we’ve become remasters of  a type of mechanical reproduction, posing as something else. Able now to study every frame ever made, the directors of second- and third-generation blockbusters have become the temple priests of filmic myths and tropes — our synthetic conjurers. They don’t invent their visual motifs, they borrow others’ and the effect is like hopscotching through the canon: idiomatic expressions as visual moments. And idiosyncratic. The pieces tell a story, but they don’t add up to visual cohesion, to seamless structure. Capable of reproducing a tall building in a single bound, we are now in an era of cloning, a time in which all media begin to resemble one another and are strangely sustained by factoring in on themselves, without any continual exploration or evolution of meaning. Shot patterns, story patterns, conflict patterns all blend until endings become generic exercises in third-act mayhem. We are in a holding pattern. This is not the future of cinematic media. There is no future here in spite of countless high-tech and high-budget gestures that would like us to think otherwise. The keys to evolving film, to getting into the next generation, the next stage, lie in the hands of only a few filmmakers.

On opening night, May 23, 1980, the audience of the sold-out show at The Sutton on East 57th Street softly booed the ending of “The Shining.” It had watched a droning, slow, non-suspenseful film that ended undramatically in a photograph. They walked out still expecting an explosively terrifying bestseller adapted to film by the director of the X-rated “A Clockwork Orange.” Some at the time openly hated the film. Even Steven Spielberg was unconvinced: “I didn’t initially love the film but it has since become one of my favorites.” But something changed. The audience matured or simply wasn’t attached to the novel. Years after its opening the film acquired a large following that derived interest from the film itself. Eventually, Stephen King would be the only person to hate this best translation of his writing into film. This was a cult slow to arrive. What nobody knew initially, what they hadn’t seen that night, was that the next stage of film had been accessed. While most of us are still not conscious of it, however much we find allure in “The Shining,” another level of storytelling was advanced that night.

These days, scan the Internet: Books and websites devote themselves to Kubrick and his many skills with a camera yet despite all this study he remains as enigmatic as when he was alive (as though he is alive). Kubrick is broadly a time-distorter and a writer who tightly uses English against itself. Of all his films, “The Shining” is probably his height. It may be the last single masterpiece of film, and something we haven’t advanced beyond in thirty years: the first sustained neurological puzzle in film form. I use the word puzzle poorly. There is no word for what it really is. A game, a maze? It most closely resembles a video game (a linear capture of game-play), but until there’s a word for it, puzzle will do. A puzzle played across floors, stairs and mirrors, “inside” an intelligent being manifested as a hotel. The hotel has a face and many, many mirrors (and many types of mirrors, and only some that are literally reflective). Many of the mirrors even have a face — a puzzle unto itself, a puzzle Danny succeeds at playing but at which Jack fails, not even knowing it’s beating him, though sensing it (the source of his rage).

theshining Black Swan and The Shining: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrors

"The Shining." (Warner Bros.)

The audience neither fails nor succeeds, largely because it’s unaware of the game being played, and primarily because Jack (our lead) has little idea how to navigate it. But the audience is aware of the puzzle unconsciously. It settles in long after the film converts from being watched to being seen. In fact it’s the reason the film rivets: There’s a logic hidden under everything and yet everything is disorienting. This is Kubrick’s ploy. Just watch the carpet pattern switch while Danny plays with his toy cars, as the ball arrives. Does the cut place him at the other end of the hallway or underneath where he was? Only your unconscious knows or struggles to know. And that’s where the real story of the film lies, not in the face value of mere story or image or reflection. Many words of the film’s dialogue directly refer to this puzzle, but they too are hidden in other usages or meanings. Now, why is this the future of film? Like any subliminal test of or probe into awareness, “The Shining’s” distortions operate on our neural fabric, existing well below our normal thresholds, which means Kubrick has “played” us to the edge of what we recognize as meaningful. It’s the edge of our consciousness. That edge is where media needs to head, toward the next stage of entertainment and visual language, where neurological realities—our conscious and unconscious renderings and readings of motion art experience– merge with fiction. Don’t ask me why, but I can sense it’s a quest similar to Columbus’ horizon. A horizon we can’t see past yet struggle to reveal. Maybe we don’t even know it’s there, but we can sense it. Kubrick is media’s Magellan. The only one who got there. Who’s next?

inception Black Swan and The Shining: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrorsThis year, “Inception” arrived as that innovation. The brain-game to end all brain-games. During interviews, Christopher Nolan even referenced Kubrick as an influence. It had “levels” and “tokens.” Yet it also had a never-ending voiceover to explain itself. It kept reminding us where we were, where we were going, and what we were going to do when we got there. And then the word from our sponsor: paradox, followed by a quote from Penrose, a genius that bisects math and the brain.  Expecting the ultimate, we were actually sent a lecture. But where I’m from, it’s best to leave explanations to the film language itself. When Alfred Hitchcock was forced to explain anything trapped in the story, he resorted to dialogue-obliterating techniques (like blasting a prop engine while Cary Grant is brought up to date in “North by Northwest”). Are movies cursed when they have to explain themselves? I think so. Somewhere, in some secret cave, perhaps this is a rule of masterpieces, that you are scratched off the list if you have to explain yourself. What I kept thinking during “Inception” was: If you have to explain a story, why tell it? Erasing a camera in a mirror is a nice trick (and this happens repeatedly), but erasing the audience is dangerous:  How does it relate to the other parts? Where is the cohesion? Is it just a token we cut away from?

blackswanposter Black Swan and The Shining: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrorsLater last year that cohesion arrived unexpectedly when “Inception’s” opposite appeared, a neurological puzzle that doesn’t try to explain itself, clever enough to seem supernatural, melodramatic enough to be current. At its center is a haunted intelligence that is met by increasingly expressive mirrors, where all its reflections tell a story. Turn your eyes to the only innovative film of the year: “Black Swan,” the true “Inception,” a film told almost entirely through its distortions while using a seemingly basic soap opera about a fable that’s pantomimed and rehearsed, and that penetrates a reality we can never be sure is there.  An inner version of “The Shining’s” outer.  As the film ends and we realize Nina has dreamed this at the opening — predicting the ending — we get the paradox without ever having to be told it’s there. Although brazenly shrieked at us, the distortions are never explained; not even Nina has the desire to ask why or how these things are happening to her. Her progress despite her shaky grip on reality, despite the hallucinations, tells us that she’s centering: she’s becoming, like us, more aware. But do we know what’s “real”? (Phrases about reality turn on themselves: LeRoy wants a “real” Swan Lake; mom says the earrings “don’t look fake.”). In this tale of mirror-penetration, your perception tells you what you see as reality and your awareness only gets you to the ending-beginning. You can’t really tell what’s real, nor does it matter. (in “Inception,” reality does matter.) Nor does the audience have even a basic grasp (until the end) of which bite is real, which drop is falling, which girl comes home, which reflection is real.  Her hallucinations and reality are expressed in increasingly distorting extremes that explore the inner mechanics of both the fable and the dance company (and even the film crew). “Black Swan” vs. “Swan Lake.” Two plots in search of resolution.

Reality-bending is not new. Time distortion isn’t either. But “Black Swan” migrates other genres in front of our eyes to distract us from the core of its tale. Imagine Rosemary as an Olympic skater or Regan (of “The Exorcist”) at the Actors Studio. Imagine they weren’t supernatural but instead, neurological — sensations, conflicts, phenomena. In “Black Swan,” a woman fights with herself as she interacts with and within two competing stories, both easily existing in our shared reality. By filming a fable and its players in a parallel story, Darren Aronofsky gets to intercut between reflective mirrors (Nina’s psyche) and the stories’ mirrors (the reflections of the audience, which is having its own disorienting time piling up the mayhem). “Black Swan” goads the audience into remaining alert — even the sound and audio tracks are vital to this. The stimulation arrives subtly then becomes apparent, and then the arc of distortion finally takes hold of the story we’re watching. When the ballet takes over, so does the distortion. The final wound is the proof. Or is it? By collapsing the film onto a bed at beginning and end, Aronofsky pulls the true warp on us: the lapse of reason, the question of infinity. It may be a simplification of “The Shining’s” complexities, but we’re no longer in a hotel, we’re in one person’s mind, fluidly.

Are there “clues”? Of course, but maybe we can’t call them clues. There are signs of other mirrors. The Rorschach of Nina’s pillow design and Tomas’ wall-hanging. Her patterns and his are so similar and yet made slyly opposite. It’s clear Aronofsky bridges them complexly with a minimum of dialogue. The ballet’s set images come from Tomas’ interiors; these are his backgrounds while she rules the stage’s foreground. In fact, Tomas is so controlled, you wonder if he’s lecturing himself as he commands her to loosen up. His shock and surprise at the bite work both ways, and so does his chaste champagne toast, and the final lip meld after the Black Swan’s crescendo leaves him giddy and embarrassed — not the alpha’s typical reaction. Tomas needs his women unhinged because he’s so hinged, which is, of course, the root of the fable, where “Swan Lake” gets its meaning. In an early scene, we start to orient ourselves to Nina’s routine and then we watch her leave the studio, without her mirror; she strides alone.  Then it catches up to her. Later she passes herself on the street. Nina then begins mapping herself onto other people, onto proxies that teach her, warn her, provoke her. Her Mom and Lily alternate as aggressive “hers.” And really it’s Nina teaching Nina through a myth that she inhabits in left-right and outer-inner divides.

Unlike other films that practice a kind of aesthetic reproduction (a neat way of saying something looks cool), Aronofsky (and his writers) are going for a continual metaphor — a motion metaphor. Nina dreaming the transformation at the film’s beginning (going from simple costume to supernatural without cutting away) may cheat infinity, but it also gives meaning to the distortions that lace the film. This is the key strategy, this structure that flows through prop (mirror) and storylines, that indicates a desire to harness the total aspects of the storytelling. And there’s still Aronofsky’s contention that movies are drugs themselves, a metaphor that he’s used since “Pi.” But now the drug and the storylines have become one entity, the totality.

“Black Swan” should be the omen of change. Its tools are not as mysterious as Kubrick’s and much more applicable in real time. If the fad that soon fades is the reboot, maybe the next item on the agenda can be “Black Swan” 2mg. A drug for your eyes, searching for thresholds, coming to your local IMAX. The thresholds old Stanley suggests may be lurking there. They are the ones Darren toys with in specific terms, his music box. The blockbuster is the tool to reach it (and past it). Maybe, one day, even “The Shining” can be surpassed.

— Kevin McLeod


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Del Toro: Horror filmmaking is hostage negotiations

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ON THE SET: “Inception,” Hollywood’s dream heist

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Chris Nolan: “It won’t be the Riddler”

Clint Eastwood: I was offered Superman


13 Responses to ‘Black Swan’ and ‘The Shining’: Dark bonds and misunderstood mirrors

  1. Kevin says:

    I wouldn't go so far as to say Black Swan succeeds over Inception because it doesn't explain itself. Black Swan is not a complex film in the same sense Inception is. They both offer complexity in terms of characters and themes but Inception is also complex in terms of plot and the physics of its universe. It is not a weakness that Inception explains. Black Swan is a simple film, brilliant but simple and digestible (despite its oddities in content).

  2. Anthony Squires says:

    That was truly one of the emptiest reading experiences I've ever had, and makes me remember why "those who can't, teach semiotics in film school".

  3. Regular Joe says:

    First and last time I'll read an article on "Hero Complex". This was the worst kind of article- poorly written with grandiose claims the author can't back up. "The last single masterpiece of film"? I love The Shining- those bar scenes are my all time favorites- but really pal. You're mythologizing. Your own arguments undermine your point. If The Shining wasn't recognized as a masterpiece until much later, how are you ( a contemporary writer) in any position to pass judgements on the "masterpiece status" of any modern films? And as for modern cinema being nothing but a rehash…you need to expand your viewing horizons. There's this little continent called Asia over there…

  4. KBM says:

    Of course I can back them up. http://www.mstrmnd.com/log/802. A masterpiece can't be just a great film, it has to show people a new way of seeing. There are very few pantheonic films, and of course, film as a medium is losing quality. On the BFI's 2002 top 90 only Blade Runner and Shoah make the cut after 1980. btw, I will give you that Goodfellas, Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds are too close to call, but beyond this, there ain't nothing doing in world cinema that's changing our conscousness. PS: I didn't say modern cinema was a rehash, I said superhero films. Anybody learn reading comprehension these days?

  5. Sophie says:

    I agree somewhat with your assessment of Inception – too much narration – which really did leave me not caring for most of the story. I am baffled by the people who 'don't get it,' or who think the plot is unncessarily complicated. It is rather complicated, but it's all narrated and laid out for you, so what is not to get? However, Black Swan shoots itself in the foot with lurid and sensational imagery and content, and overt sexualization, and in that, I find it much ballyhooed but conventional Hollywood drivel. Is it real or is it not real? THat's pretty basic, and it's just that Natalie Portman gets to look pretty, lurid and ballet-goth all at the same time, that Hollywood is so aflutter about Black Swan.

    As for The Shining, unfortunately that build-up of tension, confusion and trepidation that marks the brilliant films of the 70s will not ever be approached by current filmmakers.

  6. Melanie says:

    This piece broke the cardinal sin of magazine writing: it bored me.

    Black Swan has been rehashed to death of late, and this dissection is swollen with pretension and pompous prose; Teflon verbiage that had my eyes sliding off the screen. I referenced the Star Wars article mentioned in the header…after reading that, it's clear that not only does McLeod not have his thumb on the media pulse, he's trying to get beats from a cold dead corpse.

    Please don't let this author back again. This was simply a waste of 5 minutes of my life.

  7. dano says:


  8. Jack Carter says:

    inception was cool, but plodding and sterile. black swan on the other hand is genius filmmaking. slow down and just consider the audio track. combined with the visual motion art, the experience is utterly visceral, and terrifying, and transforming. McLeod is dead-on: Aronofsky has hit the mark and should be encouraged to direct on a MUCH larger scale. our society desperately needs this. as for the comments above, it's shocking to see that so many readers of hero complex know so little about film, and even less about the operations of their own brains. today's blockbuster fanatics may be clones themselves and not know it. McLeod scares us: the blockbuster genre IS dying from repeated plots and tropes, and from the assurance that seekers of the same bland fantasies and mayhem will pay again and again for the familiar rush. it's a tough fact to digest when access to thrills is diminishing and we search for every more outlandish escapes. btw, McLeod's prose hardly approaches opaque or even complex. This piece made me think. I read it several times. And I am not afraid of being told that my culture is locked in a steely rut. Bravo, H.C.!!

  9. Brad says:

    I think that Inception must explain itself because the viewers need to understand why Leo and his team were doing what they were doing.

    A great example of the opposite of this is Shutter Island. I think they thought they had woven such a deep and interesting mystery but the reality was that there was no way any of these events could have ever occurred without some sort of outside influence.

    Finally, when things are resolved by either drugs or insanity I think it is much easier to leave the audience in the dark because we can accept that as an explanation when things go FUBAR. If the story is being told in what we are supposed to believe is "reality" I think the viewers are much less willing to accept some sort of twist ending if it hasn't been properly written into the story, which Shutter Island proved is not an easy task.

  10. MrBobert says:

    Nice observations. I consider BLACK SWAN my favorite film of 2010, and rewatching it on Blu-ray makes me think its a strong contender for best of the decade. I need to revisit the last decade in films to really confirm that.

    I think people who claim BLACK SWAN as being "simple" are not really paying all that much attention. The film's finale is devastating and transcendent. It begs the question, is that one fleeting glimpse of perfection worth all the pain in the world? Is it worth the rest of your life? It destroys your soul while simultaneously sends it flying.

  11. David says:

    Another great article. Your last one for Hero Complex got me to reconsider Phantom Menace, and this makes me want to re-watch Black Swan – a film that left me actively undecided as to whether or not I liked it. And I think good film criticism should get viewers to reconsider their likes and dislikes. To make film active and alive…. and important enough to argue about.

    And the article on mstrmnd about THE SHINING is a brilliant, well argued essay on a great multi layered film. Still hoping you have a follow-up planned about EYES WIDE SHUT.

  12. doug says:

    I think your general point that The Shinning and Black Swan fire similar emotional triggers is sound but I think you go a bit far in your praise of Shinning/Black Swan and your condemnation of Inception. For one thing the fact that "shared dreaming" is the central caveat of Inception suggests that its more about shared narrative experiences like going to the movies or playing video games. The fact that it doesn't resemble a dream in the way The Shinning or Black Swan do doesn't mean it can't have meaning in some other sense. Maybe Momento or Insomnia are closer to Black Swan and the Shinning because they're trying to get inside the head of a protagonist that's losing their grip on reality.

    Also reading this article you get the impression that there were no other good movies in 2010 outside of Black Swan. While they might not be terribly Kubrickian The Social Network and Toy Story 3 are both good stories well told and, in my view, worthy of study. Finally I think Mark Romanek attempts to bring a little bit of Kubrick into Never Let Me Go and while it might not be a masterpiece it's definitely a movie that stuck with me.

  13. Youngcrone says:

    Brilliant piece about an undeniably brilliant film. Even aronofksy doesn’t know the film’s brilliance because his unconscious ‘created it.’

    If you didn’t grasp ‘black swan’ you will not smell what the writer is cooking here. wake up and smell the Jung.

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