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Black Swan

This 2010 film about a ballerina dancing the lead role in “Swan Lake” earned an academy award for Best Actress for Natalie Portman. It is a psychological thriller portraying the gradual loss of sanity suffered by the main character, due to her obsession with the role she was trying to play perfectly. Over the course of the film, she ‘becomes’ her character, and loses herself in the process. Portman played the role well, perhaps because she studied psychology at Harvard, earning her bachelor’s degree, and then beginning graduate school, writing scholarly articles that were published, and lecturing.

There were many Frenchmen involved with this film, and I believe that many of them had the great French film “Les Enfants du Paradis” in the back of their minds when they were making “Black Swan”. The two films are similar, in that they are both about actors and actresses becoming the characters they play and thus losing their own personalities.

At the beginning of the Middle Ages, the Greco-Roman theater, like the entire Greco-Roman civilization, was decadent. Entertainment consisted of watching slaves have sex, often in perverse ways. This ancient pornography was condemned by the Catholic Church, and so it ceased. Thereafter, during the beginning of the Middle Ages, the time often called the Dark Ages, there was little or no theater, few actors, not much entertainment. Merely surviving through the Dark Ages was so difficult that people did not have time for entertainment. When Europe rose up out of the Dark Ages, theater returned, first in the monasteries. It is ironic that the Catholic Church, which had condemned theater and so caused it to cease, was also the institution that revived theater, and the first amateur actors in the Middle Ages were monks. They performed plays to dramatize Gospel stories, or to teach moral lessons. Some of their plays were quite funny; all were amateurish by today’s standards; monks are not professional actors, and even compared to modern amateurs they probably seemed rather simple because they lacked the theatrical traditions that influence most cultured people today, even those who are not professional actors or actresses. Given the simplicity and amateurishness of those performances, I doubt that there was ever any danger of an actor or actress going insane because of a part he or she played. The late Middle Ages, when the Renaissance began, saw the rebirth of secular theater, in the form of acting companies that traveled around performing for profit. I am no expert in this, so if any of you know better I would welcome your comments, but as far as I know, these acting troops had to be very versatile, performing whatever was desired wherever they went, so actors and actresses could never become so identified with a single role as to completely lose themselves in it.

There are roles people play that are not on stage. During the Middle Ages, most people followed after their parents; if a boy’s father was a farmer, then he would very probably become a farmer. If a boy’s father was a knight, then he would very probably become a knight. Girls usually lived much like their mothers had lived. So, it could be said that in society there were certain roles to play, and people were born into them. Today, each individual has his or her own personality. Men differ from their fathers, and daughters differ from their mothers. Today, and especially since Jean-Paul Sartre condemned the living out of predetermined roles as ‘mauvaise foi,’ each individual must ‘find himself,’ which means that most people have not determined how they are to live their lives until they reach age thirty. Woe to those who get married before that, because if they find themselves and discover that they were not meant to be married, then they get divorced. Some people today never find themselves; they spend their entire lives going from one job to another, from one relationship to another, from one city to another. Always moving, changing, becoming someone new. This is somewhat like the pilgrimage about which I wrote in the commentary on “We’re the Millers”. There is one great difference, however, between this post-modern instability and the spiritual pilgrimage that is a life well-lived. Spiritual development implies change, but it is change with a purpose; it involves movement, but it is movement with a destination. Post-modern instability is change for no good reason; it is movement without end toward no destination. This pointless life, which so many today experience, is worse, in my opinion, than accepting a role and carrying it out. Certainly, I would like to develop myself personally, becoming ever more perfectly the person that I was meant to be; but if for whatever reason that would not be possible, then I would rather assume a stable role, living as my father did before me, instead of constantly changing for no good reason, and never maintaining personal relationships long enough for them to become truly great.