The Farfield: Marmite Anxiety
The Farfield is an occasional series where I write about something other than gaming.
I got around to watching Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2012) recently and found it stimulating. I’m not convinced it says much about the grander scheme of things but, as a character study, I loved it.
As I usually do after watching a slice of television or cinema that I find engaging, I went online to see whether people had taken to it like a swan to water. Turned out it was a Marmite film. There seemed to be as many people who judged it insufferable, pretentious nonsense as those who thought it was high art.
And I experience this sudden pang of anxiety, that maybe the work has fooled me, maybe it is vapid rubbish after all.
Peter Bradshaw summarised it thus:
Black Swan is ionospherically over the top, and some of its effects are overdone, but it is richly, sensually enjoyable and there is such fascination in seeing Portman surrender to the madness and watch her face transmute into a horror-mask like a nightmare version of Maria Callas. It is exciting, quite mad and often really scary.
If one is to judge a film by how well it fulfills its intentions, then Black Swan is a success. It stands out from the crowd by dint of sheer audaciousness, and originality. On an intellectual basis, I thought it was ludicrous; on an emotional level, I found it a complete and utter turn-off.
There’s never going to be unanimous agreement about any film, but it was clear some were aghast that Black Swan had stolen so much attention.
Indeed, many of the ingredients of Black Swan are not unique. The artist chasing perfection to oblivion. Doppelgängers to represent suppressed personality. Body horror. There were some clichés I’d seen plenty already like the uptight protagonist coerced through a drink and drugs binge to open up. And there was that “seduction” scene in which the ballet director manfumbles Natalie Portman and she springs opens like a well-thumbed paperback to his grotesque advances: it’s difficult to figure out whether the film is merely relating a fictional happening or attempting to impart some dark wisdom about what women “really want”.
Aronofsky is the kind of director I should like more than I do but I found The Fountain (2006) too “constructed” and Pi (1998) not as engaging as I expected. Yet Black Swan came together for me and has some great moments. See, I am as fussy as the rest of you so I found myself going over the memories of Black Swan after seeing so much negativity about the film. I didn’t want to be the last person at the back cheering the Emperor’s New Clothes after it had become obvious to everyone else that there was nothing to see here. I don’t know why I have this reaction, an urge to soulsearch my enjoyment of something, unlike some others who react with outright aggression: how dare you suggest I’m stupid for enjoying this film/game/music! I’m more hardy when it comes to games after years of Electron Dance writing. If I liked a game, I liked it. If you didn’t, you didn’t. No one is at fault here.
There was another element at work with Black Swan, though. Over the last year, I’ve been producing a film containing elements that might be classified as preposterous or pretentious. Pretentious writing is something that I can shrug off, but pretentious film work – lacking the self-effacing sentiment which I usually use to shield myself – feels more sticky. Like the small-time humble developer who is forced to blow their own marketing trumpet for sales, it implies the artist behind the work has unshakeable self-confidence. The artist, if you did not already guess, does not.
But my YouTube works usually do poorly so I chose to go as far as I felt I needed to go. No holding back. If you keep polishing away every pock and scratch, you’ll end up with something bland, right? Right?
Like Black Swan, I expect my “short film about videogames” to be a Marmite experience. Much of it is open to interpretation. Some will probably hate it, do a sigh and a rollseyes. But not everyone. And that’s good enough for me.
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6 thoughts on “The Farfield: Marmite Anxiety”
I generally find that unpolished but outlandish things suit me much better than those polished to a mirror sheen. Excessive polishing doesn’t always result in blandness but it can be a risk, and I’d rather experience a piece of culture with one really crazy, brilliant idea (even if it doesn’t work perfectly) than a piece of culture with 100 tried and tested ideas which I’ve seen elsewhere.
Sometimes polish wins me over – I played Mass Effect 1 mostly because I was thrilled with its polish, and there is something deeply seductive about Super.HOT – but generally I’d rather turn over a bunch of rocks and marvel at the weird things I find there.
The polish present in Valve’s games – well, when they made games – sometimes feels a little overdone. I felt like I was playing the perfect Hollywood blockbuster when I played Portal 2, whereas the original Portal was a pocket joy. The latter is more memorable to me, although the co-op of Portal 2 was superb.
Coming to this very late (I only recently discovered your wonderful website and am now gorging on a random selection of old posts on my way to work) I’m completely with you on Black Swan. Expectations help, I think, I fully expected insufferable pretentiousness but found a film full of the populist thrills of jump scare horror, sexy people being sexy and the familiar cliche of the highly strung professional coming undone. And I loved it for it, it wasn’t big or clever but there was enough to keep you thinking and it completely gripped from beginning to end. I struggle to see how anyone expecting a film about Russian ballet could call that pretentious.
I think it’s one of those words that is evolving and losing its original meaning, it’s a real bugbear of mine that the pretentious label is thrown at almost anything in popular media that isn’t cotowing to ‘what the audience want’ (irony being, we never know what we want!). Anyone trying to display some artistic expression in a film, game or piece of music is generally vilified as pretentious, niche or hipster. My point being: don’t worry about the labels. One of the biggest barriers to mainstream gamings evolution is a fear of being ‘pretentious’. If games don’t meet the review criteria and the forum feedback and give ‘people what they want’ (i.e. what sold well 4 years ago when production started) then that enormous dev budget may have gone to waste. Understandable fear, but an issue nonetheless.
I look forward to seeing your film in all its pretentious or otherwise glory!
Welcome YTYC – and I’m afraid that’s how I’m going to refer to you. I’d leave the comments open forever if spambots didn’t become obsessed with older articles, as I’m quite happy to see new discourse on old words.
I think it’s easy to get unstuck if a piece of entertainment tries to straddle both worlds – a highbrow art world and something appealing to mainstream popularity. It’s more likely to frustrate both groups (either it’s too dumb or it’s pretentious vapid nonsense). Black Swan is sort of there, it’s highbrow art body horror!
That Venn diagram intersection is exactly where I’ve been trying to pitch this site =) I’ve always wanted to put forward some interesting thinking that the mainstream gamer might not think about, but strip away jargon as much as possible. Hence, the now-defunct Marginalia series, which tried to bring academic ideas to a wider (developer) audience. Sometimes this works, sometimes this doesn’t. Wait, I’m talking about me again.
The film came out shortly after and I had nothing to worry about shouts of pretentiousness. I got some nice publicity from Kieron Gillen and RPS and a few others but, by and large, it didn’t seem to generate much debate or moaning: it wasn’t discussed much at all outside of the comments here. No one seemed driven to applaud or heckle it, so it probably failed to get under anyone’s skin at all. I knew it was a risk (opportunity cost of spending a year on one project) but them is the breaks, as they say. I was probably too meek trying to spread the word – I’d be terrible as a PR person.
Then was an ARG to drum up some interest in the next post (no, it didn’t work) and then the film itself, #warningsigns.
Thanks 🙂 Probably best on the name front, it got auto corrected anyway! And thanks for recognising I wasn’t a spambot (or am I?).
I know what you mean on the art/mainstream balancing act but actually think a lot of the best work in most mediums is found there. God Only Knows? The Shining? Mass Effect? All down to taste I suppose, and how you define mainstream, so will stop trying to justify there. Agreed the potential for failure is greater though, which I think is your point.
I would say your Venn diagramming on the site is pretty spot on, I am no academic or professional game designer but do enjoy a bit of intellectual analysis on videogames. Keep it up. You’ve pitched your stall and seen who comes rather than catering to anyone, I think that’s what I meant about the whole pretentious rant. Be good if more games could do that, unfortunately the cost and the publisher/kickstarter model makes that very hard.
Sorry to hear warning signs didn’t set the world on fire. I’ll be watching it tonight anyway, so another small victory for your PR campaign.
Oh and please ignore those 3 suggestions for art/mainstream, they’re way too mainstream to make my point. Think I’m dismantling my own argument!
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