How deep is the 'Black Swan' age divide?
The release of "Black Swan" this weekend continued to demonstrate what many in moviedom had suspected since the trailer blew up YouTube last summer: The movie could become an art-house sensation. At the 18 big-city locations the film played this weekend, Darren Aronofsky's supernatural ballet drama took in an average of nearly $80,000, which is a fancy numerical way of saying that audiences jammed theaters.
It's still far from resolved how well the Natalie Portman-Mila Kunis film will travel. Will it go beyond the urbane audiences who came out to see it this weekend and become a pop-culture juggernaut like the 2008 film "Slumdog Millionaire," another holiday-season genre bender? Or is it more akin to, well, Aronofsky's "The Wrestler," a well-received awards film that, at $26 million in box office, was nonetheless mainly a niche hit?
But one weekend into its release, one thing has become clear about "Black Swan." There's a generational divide. And despite its ballet-world setting, it's a divide that cuts sharply against older audiences.
In an informal poll of theater managers this weekend, distributor Fox Searchlight found that audiences were almost overwhelmingly younger than 50, with most 35 and under. "This is much younger than we usually get," Nancy Utley, co-president of distributor Fox Searchlight, said in an interview last week.
Meanwhile, critics about 50 or younger have embraced the horror-ballet combination almost universally: Michael Phillips ("an exciting fairy tale for grown-ups"), Andrew O' Hehir ("a memorable near-masterpiece") and Manohla Dargis ("shocking, funny and touching"), to name a few. Not so at the other end of the age spectrum. Some older critics liked it, but plenty didn't. David Denby, the L.A. Times' Kenneth Turan ("You won't be having a lot of fun at 'Black Swan' "), Rex Reed and Kirk Honeycutt ("trying to coax a horror-thriller out of the world of ballet doesn't begin to work for Darren Aronofsky") wrote skeptical or scathing reviews.
What's behind a split like this? Younger filmgoers, many of them coming of age after the worst of the Cold War and in a time of moral relativism, might say their generation is better designed to tolerate ambiguity. And "Black Swan" dwells in a place of deep ambiguity -- in its combination of genres, in its schizophrenic tone (is it high art or low camp?), in the very fabric of the film, in which we're never sure how much is real and how much is imagined.
OIder filmgoers might counter that their generation knows how to value subtlety and quiet. And as fun as "Swan" is, subtle and quiet it isn't. ("All the subtlety of a chain saw," Reed hectors.) In many ways, in fact, the age gap on "Swan" is the mirror image of Clint Eastwood's "Hereafter" -- a film that took quiet to a new level, and that was beloved by older audiences while younger ones mostly rolled their eyes.
Movies skew young or old all the time, of course. But the passions that this one tends to evoke -- Denby ends his review by suggesting that "someone should crack [an Easter egg] on Aronofsky’s noggin and bring him to his senses" -- seem particularly tied to age. As it rolls out, "Black Swan" looks likely to become a study in generational fault lines.
"Slumdog Millionaire" was, of course, a multi-generational crowd-pleaser. But in keeping with its director's provocateur reputation and the film's multiple interpretations, "Swan" is on its way to becoming something far more complicated, polarizing ... ambiguous.
Photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight
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