09 February 2011

Hallucinations Rehashed: Araki’s ‘Kaboom,’ Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’

The Pre-Portman: Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Maybe I go to the wrong sorts of movies, but when I’m at the cinema, I rarely get the feeling that I’m at a party and talking to someone who has been taking too many drugs. Two current releases expanded my horizons: Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan, which opens today in France and has been playing for weeks in the U.S.; and Gregg Araki’s Kaboom, which recently opened in the U.S., though its French run is winding down. It’s not so much that I felt that I was hallucinating, though I was pretty sure that everybody else connected with both movies was.

Araki used to make movies about pretty, sexually omnivalent young people in apocalyptic circumstances (Doom Generation, The Living End, etc.), but then, for a while, he branched out. Splendor (1999) applied his formula for shiny colors and attractive actors to the service of an update of Noël Coward’s Design for Living, with disappointing results; Smiley Face (2007) played his I’m-tripping-and-you’re-not tropes for comedy. The real breakthrough for this audience came in 2004, when he adapted someone else’s material — namely, Mysterious Skin, a novel by my Columbia classmate Scott Heim — and it pointed the direction I’d hoped Araki would follow. He was still talking about teens, but he’d grown up. Or so it seemed.

The road not taken: Araki’s Mysterious Skin
Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Jeffrey Licon, and Michelle Trachtenberg

Instead of moving forward, Araki now returns to the safe haven of polysexual paranoia with Kaboom, an appealing enough little movie that holds absolutely no surprises if you’ve seen Araki’s earlier films.

My environment may have contributed to my generally underwhelmed reaction: I saw Kaboom at the Brady, an independent cinema in the Boulevard Sebastopol, where I also saw Larry Clark’s Ken Park. Both movies feature teen sex and attractive actors (all of whom were over the age of 18 at the time of filming*) in extreme situations, and it’s perhaps for that reason that the audiences at the matinee screenings I attended were composed entirely of older, single men in raincoats.

Get it while you can: Temple and Dekker in Kaboom

But Ken Park achieves the remarkable feat of making viewers feel complicit in the exploitation (sexual and otherwise) of high-school kids by adults: just by watching, by feeling even the slightest titillation, Clark suggests, we’re every bit as culpable as the adult characters onscreen. You leave feeling dirty. Kaboom doesn’t attempt anything so complex or, for that matter, high-minded.

Teen exploitation: A scene from Ken Park
That’s Amanda Plummer getting a pedicure,
in one of the few stills I can publish on this blog.

Far from social commentary, or even a fresh take on his old ideas, Araki serves up a cheerful sex comedy that ends with a bang. He does work well with young actors, and I enjoyed the performances of Thomas Dekker (a veteran of TV’s Heroes), Haley Bennett, and Juno Temple (who impresses me more each time I see her).** But with my own youth slipping so swiftly away, I kinda wanted my 86 minutes back.

This is your brain on ballet drugs.

Aronofsky’s thriller Black Swan is the bigger hit: chances are you’ve seen it already, and chances are, I’ll write about it again, at greater length. What struck me most about this tale of black-and-white dichotomies and psycho alter-egos was that it can function as a foil to Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the movie that has inspired generations of little girls to take dance lessons.

It’s unlikely (I hope) that very young girls will see Black Swan at all, but I can’t imagine that Natalie Portman’s tormented, perfectionist prima ballerina will captivate them — or anybody — as much as Moira Shearer’s did.

Visse d’arte?

Part of the trouble lies with Portman’s performance. In fairness, she has a tremendous amount to do here, beginning with ballet dancing, in which she had little training, and continuing through countless special effects and a screenplay that makes extreme emotional demands on her even as it seems to care very little whether she’s sane. But Portman appears in virtually every frame of the picture, and yet she only sporadically manages to create a compelling character.

How it’s done right: Shearer and Walbrook in The Red Shoes

It doesn’t help that she’s upstaged by the hammy performance of Vincent Cassel (who nevertheless falls short of the mark set by Anton Walbrook in The Red Shoes) and the purely camp performances of Barbara Hershey as the mother and of Winona Ryder as the ballet company’s fallen star. The only real life in the movie comes from Mila Kunis, as a rival dancer, and I’m amazed that she hasn’t racked up more award nominations than Portman has.

Welcome to Camp Winona!

In both Aronofsky’s movie and Araki’s, we see the dreams and sometimes-drug-induced hallucinations of the central characters (played by Portman and Dekker, respectively), and both directors toy with our notions of reality. Aronofsky has a larger point to make — about art and perfectionism and striving to exceed one’s own limitations — than Araki does, but neither movie convinced me that either director had anything original, or particularly valuable, to say.

After all, if you think back to that trippy guy at the party, you’ll remember he was a bit of a bore — especially when you, by contrast, were sober. (Even if he was kinda hot.)

Temple, Dekker, and Bennett in Kaboom

*NOTE: Although the actors in Ken Park are above the age of consent, the film’s graphic sex scenes and dire subject matter prevented Clark from finding a U.S. distributor for the film.

**James Duval, the actor who was Léaud to Araki’s Truffaut in the earlier movies, appears in a supporting role in Kaboom.

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