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How deep is the 'Black Swan' age divide?

December 6, 2010 |  7:30 am

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.

Yes, I'm sure there are many older filmgoers who appreciate the film's not-inconsiderable charms. But think of it this way. If you've seen it and are in a younger demographic, there's a good chance you'll suggest it to a friend. But would you recommend it to someone in their 60s or 70s? My own mother -- who is, well, I'll only say not younger than 50 -- is a studious fan of both ballet and art-house movies. She told me recently she's very interested in "Black Swan." I encouraged her to see it, then immediately began sputtering qualifications.

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.

--Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Natalie Portman in "Black Swan." Credit: Fox Searchlight


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Comments () | Archives (14)

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The movie is it's lesbian love scene; that's it. Young men love that stuff. Older audiences have been watching actors having sex for 40 years. You gotta have story and characterization to get us to give you our money.

I think you hit a lot of the deep questions in this article.

As somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about film, I love ambiguity, but it can be hard to remember that other people don't. A lot of people embrace it on the story level -- like the ending of Inception -- but when it comes to a film suggesting through it's genre ambivalence (high art or low camp?) that the film may not even take itself seriously, I think people don't know what to make of that.

Maybe that's especially true when they haven't been initiated into postmodernism. And it seems to me that a kind of postmodern and complex relationship that younger people have to irony is really a generational thing; maybe if you grew up with the Simpsons, it's just a lot easier to accept it.

I'm 72 and eager to see "The Black Swan".

I'm 40, and I think it looks like pretentious, post-modern drivel with lesbian sex thrown in (explaining my fellow "youngsters" who are better at being pretentious than recognizing it). Kenneth Turan, you are right on the money. I usually agree with your reviews, anyway.

Aronofsky is a very talented film-maker. However, his dark aesthetic is compromised by an immaturity and need to shock. There is nothing wrong with purveying nihilism or any of its sister tenants of art. However, when the auteur trumps the message, resonance is similarly lost. Bob Fosse he is not.

I'm 25, I've seen the film three times (twice in preview screenings, once in general exhibition). I recommended it to my 61-year old mother, who loved it and is recommending it to her friends who are close to her age. We both enjoyed it for the same reasons: a strong central performance and a wildly vivid story, with an uneasy tone and some genuine scares.

I think this age divide talk is mostly to drum up publicity (by Fox) or sell ads (by the Times). You either want to see a film or not, you either like a film or not. Some films are specifically targeted for a demographic, but Black Swan is not one of those. It's an art film by nature, with a leading lady that appeals to mass audience. Whether or not it plays to a mass audience will depending on word of mouth, marketing and an overall desire by the marketplace to see a film like this. I hardly expect Black Swan to gross upwards of $50-60M when all is said and done, but I expect it to be one of the major talking points of awards season.

I love that some people are commenting here with an opinion of the film even though they haven't seen it.

I had a chance to see it this past weekend. I will say this, if you have liked Aronofsky’s films in the past ('Pi,' 'Reqrium for Dream,' 'The Fountain,' & 'The Wrestler') you will like, and maybe even love 'The Black Swan'. And if you didn't, don't bother seeing it because he's just not the type of filmmaker who's work you'll enjoy. The acting was phenomenal by all of those in the film and should be seen for that alone. The film says a great deal about the price one must pay for perfection. Aronofsky makes films that cause you to really think and they get better and better after each viewing. 'The Black Swan' is no different.

Well, I hear think any film fan will love this movie, regardless of age, but yea it does make sense thou' that a younger audience will and are flockin to this movie. Its all about story isnt it? Im a huge fan of this movie,supense/thriller/horror/coming of age/fairy tale/soft porn lol just great film making , Im all for it. Im sure not alot of older folks liked Fight Club but loved Benjamin Button, in regards to your Clint Eastwood comment because of subject matter. But one thing is clear, F'in put this movie in wide release, I had to go all the way to ,in the rain....nevermind Im glad I did.

This is a media-invented myth.

Sophie, the only thing pretentious here is your opinion, which reflects "I've seen one I've seen them all." In saying that youngsters have trouble being pretentious and calling the film drivel with lesbian sex thrown in, makes it sounds cheap and boring when it is anything but boring. I saw it this weekend and it is a masterpiece, and by far my favorite film of the year. It is masterfully put together, well-scripted, and Ms. Portman, Ms. Kunis, Mr. Cassel, and even Ms. Hershey, and Ms. Ryder deserve Oscar talk, and Mr. Aronofsky should get that elusive Directing nod. And the sex scene is not just thrown in for the hell of it, it serves as a crucial turning point for Nina(Portman) You really have to see the film, I am not giving away spoilers, but before you assume anything be careful or else you will sound like the one who's pretentious here, and indeed you succeeded in doing so. Perhaps you should follow your own advice and recognize it. It's a superb film, and just for the record I'm 18

About this charge that this movie is "pretentiousness":

Turan doesn't say anything about pretentiousness; he's saying that the characters and their problems are too obvious.

From a pretentious movie, you'd probably expect the opposite: something lackluster that purports to be interesting if only the audience has the patience to understand it. Which is actually a much better description of "Hereafter."

That movie's problem, to my mind, wasn't that it was too quiet and slow, it was that there were no lines that were completely original or unexpected, and the supporting characters were two-dimensional. Why wouldn't I prefer something a little over-the-top compared to that?

Loved the Great Ballet and Great storyPlot with serious mental disorders shown in this film; very well done writers.............

Saw it with the wife and enjoyed it. I'm not sure what the deal is with the "amibiguity". I disagree with the reviewer. Most older people, like me, will watch the movie and think of David Croneberg or Brian DePalma. Anybody who follows those directors won't find anything new in this movie. It's a fun movie and has some good casting.


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