I’ve never been a fan of film. While my friends studied film and communications, dreaming of becoming directors, journalists and documentary film-makers, my attention passed over the latest blockbuster, the must-see arthouse flick or the searing naval-gazing documentary as if it was already speaking in a dead language to me.
I studied theatre at university – completed a masters degree and even commenced a PhD on the subject of writing and performance. There was more breath – more life – in a dozen stanzas of Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine or Shakespeare’s Macbeth than in almost any movie I had seen. Not that this always translated to live theatre – which seemed to want to replicate the shallow conventions of the silver screen. In my impatience for something more authentic, I’d often leave performances at interval, disillusioned between the promise and the delivery.
And so I’d return time and again to the text. That’s what fascinated me. But not just reading – I was drawn to writing as well. I wanted to understand what made great writing great. I wanted to follow the journey of writing to its end – or at least as close to its end as I could stand. And it was while starting this journey (that never ends) that I encountered one of my greatest teachers. And it all began with a single letter – H.
Helene Cixous’ Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing has been my constant companion for almost 20 years. She starts the book with the letter H – a ladder, but also her starting point – the first letter of her name. For me, it was the first letter of a surname that I had yet to come to grips with. Descending that ladder would take time and experience.
But something that struck me about Cixous’ thinking and writing was the way that she would expose the secrets of writing to the glare of the sun. To the scrutiny of the ever watchful reader. She points out that one of literature’s constant and recurring themes is the death of the woman. We see it time and time again – but the “death of the woman” that Cixous writes of is not the literal, ultimate disempowerment of death, visually and poetically reduced. It is something more visceral:
To begin (writing, living) we must have death … We must have death, but young, present, ferocious, fresh death, the death of the day, today’s death. The one that comes right up to us so suddenly that we don’t have time to avoid it, I mean to avoid feeling its breath touching us. Ha!
But so many writers avoid coming close to the face of death. They shy away from it’s sweet, pungent breath and they serve up the corpse, the lost girl, the fallen angel. These writers serve up death on a platter and name it “accomplishment” – and never once challenge us in our own complicity.We see it every day in crime drama on TV. It’s presented there – in the news – and in the streets where we live. But just because we see it, live it, breathe it – it does not make it art. By all rights, it should make it outrage.
And that’s exactly what I was left with at the end of a recent night’s viewing. It’s not that the writing wasn’t good. It’s not that the performances weren’t great. And it’s not that the twists and turns, the characterisation or the cinematography didn’t result in quality drama. Indeed, Black Swan, was far more than adequate in all these areas.
When Natalie Portman’s character, Nina, was challenged by director, Thomas Leroy (Vincent Cassel), to “be” the black swan, we knew that death was on the cards. To find, to share, to become dangerous with her performance, Nina would need to open the door which would lead to the other side – to that ferocious death that Cixous speaks of.
But for a movie that deals intensely with the creative process – and with the life of an artist on the ascendency – I was bitterly disappointed that when the fork in the road was reached, that the lesser road was taken. Not only did the narrative fail to become its own “Black Swan” in the choice of ending, it did so by betraying its audience. We became witnesses to a crime in which we ourselves played a part – the lights come up, we all applaud and go home.
Well, I for one, am sick and tired of seeing heroines killed for our entertainment. These lazy metaphors numb our senses and inure us to the daily atrocities that grace our screens. We need to ask more of our writers. Our artists. Our news readers. Our politicians. We need to ask more of ourselves.
And we should do this not just for ourselves, but also for the beautiful, complex, challenging and fragile women in our lives – friends, mothers, daughters, wives and lovers.
When I studied theatre, I did so because it was the art form that brought us, moment by moment, closest to life. And if you have been privileged to see such a performance – say Nick Cave, dangerously leering over the edge of the stage, or Norman Kaye in Swimming in the Light – then you will know that there are indeed, moments where the divisions between theatre and life disappear. It’s these moments that I love and why I am also drawn to social media in all its chaos and fresh ferocity – for in our own performance, in our own perpetual storytelling, we speak ourselves into existence one blog post, tweet or twitpic at a time.
If you are going to speak. Speak truth.