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Review: Black Swan


Whatever I was expecting when I settled into my seat to watch Black Swan, it wasn’t that. I watched it on the plane trip home from Ireland, a 7-hr-plus affair that I wanted to take my mind off of. And of course, the solution was movies.

As I mentioned in my review of Silver Linings Playbook, it’s fun and interesting to watch a movie without really knowing what it’s about. I vaguely knew – or thought I did – the story of Black Swan: a driven ballerina who pushes herself too far. And it is about that.

What I didn’t know is how dark the movie really is, or how beautifully shot, or how intense it gets. I didn’t know the viewer would be dragged into uncertainty and insanity along with Nina (played by Natalie Portman).

Summary: Natalie Portman plays the main character, a young woman whose delicate mental state is made clear early on. Nina’s drive for perfectionism in her ballet practice is egged on by her mother and the competition-based ballet school she attends. An important role, that of the Black Swan, will be awarded to a student soon when Lily (Mila Kunis) arrives to the school as a transfer student. As Nina’s obsession with the role grows, she defies her mother and becomes friends with Lily. When she starts hallucinating, having pushed herself to the end of her limits, the line between inner and outer realities is blurred.

Black Swan is beautifully shot. I’ll probably watch it again sometime, so I get the chance to see it on a screen larger than one built into the back of an airplane seat. It features dancers and includes gorgeous dance sequences, and it plays with light and sound the entire 108 minutes. It is also dark and dangerous and startling. I actually jumped and squealed at one point, unable to keep it in even though I was on an airplane surrounded by people. And I squirmed in my seat during the unexpectedly graphic sexual content, all too aware of my surroundings. But I watched, enraptured, through the entire thing.

It reminded me of A Beautiful Mind, because as the protagonist moves into insanity, the audience is dragged unknowingly along for the ride. It’s not until later that you realize perhaps not all is as it seems.

Maybe that’s the best description of Black Swan. It’s a dance movie, sure. But it’s just a dance movie. Not all is as it seems.


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Review: Eat, Pray, Love (the book)

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert has been on my list of books to read for ages – probably since I saw the movie a couple years ago and learned it was based on a book.

When I picked it up from the library, though, I was surprised at how small it is. How could a movie that inspired many people and even a major motion picture be only 18,805 words? (For some reason the word count is on the back cover.)

But Gilbert is an experienced and skilled writer, and she didn’t need a long book to tell her story.

She tells it in four parts: she gives the background of being in her early thirties and suddenly realizing she was unhappy in the life she was living, which naturally caused some grief and chaos for herself and her husband. She divides the rest of the book into her year of travelling after her divorce: four months in Italy indulging in pleasure, four in India pursuing devotion, and the final four in Indonesia searching for balance.

The book is interesting of its own accord: I enjoy reading about other people’s journeys. Gilbert knows how to give just enough detail for the imagination to do the rest. But she also talks about some huge and heavy topics, including love and depression. She talks about depression and loneliness as people who follow her home.

I identified with her description of depression:

“When you’re lost in those woods, you sometimes don’t realize at first that you are lost. For the longest time, you can tell yourself that you will find the path again any moment now. Then night comes again and again, and you have to accept that you are so far off the path that you don’t even know where the sun is anymore.”

Along with the heavier topics, she also talks about lighter things: language, food, and friends. She eats amazing pizza in Naples – “I love my pizza so much that I have started to believe my pizza might actually love me back.” She meets a friend who nicknames her Groceries because she eats so much. She finds a beautiful place to stay in Bali with a simple, habitual lifestyle. She helps another friend find a home.

Full of little insights, Eat, Pray, Love likely has something for almost every reader. Not every part of the book spoke to me, nor did I agree with all of Gilbert’s conclusions about life. But story meanders along in a way that invites you in, and draws you to the end, without being pushy or in-your-face.

One idea I really enjoyed was the idea of identifying your city’s word.

“He explained that the secret to understanding a city and its people is to learn its word. That there is one word for every city, and for most of the people who live there. And if your word doesn’t match the word of the city, you don’t really belong there.”

Perhaps identifying your city’s word is easier if your city is ancient like Rome (the city in question here). But I love the idea of learning the identity of a city. Does anyone have a word for their city?

And now, I’m off to rewatch the movie.

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Why Better Than Before changed my life

For most of my life, I’ve felt like a failure.

If I stopped to think about it (a sad task I try to avoid), I could list dozens of things that I’ve thought about and planned, but never came about: gifts I meant to give, projects I wanted to create, letters I wanted to write, meals I wanted to make, tasks I should have completed, and exercise I wanted to challenge my body with. DOZENS.

When thoughts of these failed projects, these things I could have, should have done but didn’t, I feel really unhappy. When I can’t get them out of my head, I feel sick and I can’t sleep. All those missed opportunities to better myself, bring creativity into the world, to make someone else feel loved. All things I failed to do.

“What is wrong with me?” I’ve always wondered (and still do sometimes, in spite of myself). I figured I must be lazy, or a terrible procrastinator – probably both.

Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better Than Before completely changed the way I see myself in this area, and I’m not exaggerating when I say it’s going to change my life. As I briefly mentioned in my review, her book identifies what she’s named the Four Tendencies – a framework of organizing people by the way they respond to expectations.

According to this framework, there are four types of people, based on how we respond to both internal and external expectations. Very briefly, the four types are:

Rebel – resists inner expectations, resists outer expectations
Questioner – meets inner expectations, resists outer expectations
Obliger – resists inner expectations, meets outer expectations
Upholder – meets inner expectations, meets outer expectations

As I read her description of Obligers, who struggle with inner expectations, I felt some important puzzle pieces falling into place. The description matched me completely, and I realized: this is what’s ‘wrong’ with me.

I’m not saying I’m never lazy and I never procrastinate. I am, and I do. But they don’t touch every aspect of what I want to do. This, my Obliger nature, is much larger.

Rubin encourages readers, rather than fight their nature, to learn how to help themselves and work with their own strengths. For Obligers, this means building external accountability into our own personal goals. It’ll be different for each person (one person might go to the gym on behalf of their future self, another might need to pay for classes, and still another might need to meet a friend or have a personal trainer), but we all need an external system.

As frustrating as it is to feel like I can’t just do all the things I want to do on my own merit, it’s incredibly liberating to have a solution. Now it’s just a matter of figuring out how to do it.

I could be wrong, but I feel like this Tendency knowledge is most valuable and enlightening to Obligers. I think we tend to be the hardest on ourselves in terms of our own expectations. Not to say that the other three types don’t have their own challenges, but understanding how to finally begin doing what we’ve wanted to do for so long is incredible.

Better Than Before is the first place I learned about the Tendencies. I’d recommend starting there, but I might be biased. Rubin has also published a new book entitled The Four Tendencies which goes into much more depth, and she discusses the Tendencies often on her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. I’m also a minor expert on the topic by now and I’m always happy to talk!

I haven’t figured it all out yet. I’m still trying to figure out how to build external accountability into something like a personal project. Maybe for a birthday card I’ll have to abandon the surprise and say something like “I’m dropping something in the mail for you this weekend!” to ensure it actually gets done. We’ll see how it goes.

But for now, I have hope that things can change, and that is enough.