The Wrestler and the SwanPhilosophical Connections & Musings on the Nature of Obsession In the Worlds of High and Low Art

When it comes to making powerful and thought-provoking films, Darren Aronofsky has an impressive track record. He took on the issue of drug abuse in his 2001 film, “Requiem for a Dream,” and explored the uncertainties that come with immortality in 2006’s “The Fountain.” Of the five films he has directed, all of them share a central theme: the destructive nature of obsession. This theme is not explored more thoroughly nor more effectively than in his two latest films, “The Wrestler” (2008) and “Black Swan” (2010). There is a reason that both of these films were nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, and received multiple acting nods for both casts. Their raw insight into the human psyche, and how fragile it can truly be when faced with the possibility of fame, power, etc., is devastating to see unfold on screen-especially when watched as companion pieces. Watching them together is not just a suggestion, it is actually encouraged by the director himself:

“I’ve always considered the two films companion pieces. They are really connected and people will see the connections. It’s funny, because wrestling some consider the lowest art - if they would even call it art – and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves. At one point, way before I made ‘The Wrestler,’ I was actually developing a project that was about a love affair between a ballet dancer and a wrestler, and then it kind of split off into two movies. I realized pretty quickly that taking two worlds like wrestling and ballet was much too much for one movie. So I guess my dream is that some art theater will play the films as a double feature someday.”

[L-R] Mickey Rourke, Darren Aronofksy, Natalie Portman

“The Wrestler” and “Black Swan” are constantly mentioned when ruminating on the best films of 2008 and 2010, respectively. The beauty that comes with finding connections between the two films is that on the surface, they seem nothing alike. Wrestling and ballet are on two opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of what constitutes art, as Aronofsky was just quoted saying above. How interesting it would be to bring these films into a classroom, and use them as the basis for teaching students to compare and contrast the journeys of two polar opposite characters who go down the same destructive path with similar consequences. Their thirst for ambition and inability to maintain or repair relationships says a lot about the danger of becoming lost in something greater than yourself.

Before we dive any further-a brief background on each film, aided by the trailers.

The Wrestler follows Randy “The Ram” Robinson (played by Mickey Rourke in an Oscar-nominated performance), a pro wrestler who attempts to hold on to any shred of glory that he once experienced during his 80s heyday. He wrestles on the weekends for an independent promotional venue in New Jersey, and works at a supermarket during the week, with a manager and co-workers who could not care less about Randy’s superstar past. Randy is constantly behind on rent, forcing him to sleep in his van, but it’s easy to see where all of his money goes, since it is clear that he has formed a very close friendship with a particular stripper, Cassidy, (played by Marisa Tomei in an Oscar-nominated performance) at a local strip club. After Randy agrees to a 20th anniversary rematch with his most notable opponent, he begins using steroids to prepare for the fight, causing a heart attack backstage after wrestling in a particular brutal match.
Randy is forced to retire from wrestling for good, and begins working behind a deli counter full-time. Cassidy encourages Randy to reach out to his estranged daughter, Stephanie. In Cassidy’s mind, it is time that he begins repairing his relationship, considering his recent health scare. Stephanie refuses to accept any gifts or apologies from Randy, causing him to make an emotionally vulnerable play for Cassidy. Cassidy rejects him on the grounds that he is still considered a customer, regardless of their close friendship. Randy finally makes a breakthrough with Stephanie, and they agree to meet for dinner on a Saturday night. When Randy is rejected by Cassidy once more, they get into a heated argument at Cassidy’s workplace, and Randy finds comfort in the support of his wrestling pals, along with alcohol, cocaine, and sex with a random woman. Randy oversleeps the next day, and completely misses his dinner with Stephanie, causing her to kick him out of her house, and banish him from her life once more.
Randy injures himself at work, and goes on a rampage behind the counter before quitting. A customer’s insistence that Randy is “The Ram” from the 80s does not make things any easier. Spurred by this recognition and the realization that he has nothing left, Randy decides to wrestle once more, and reschedules his match with The Ayatollah. Cassidy reaches Randy right before he is about to enter the ring, and encourages him not to fight because of his condition. Randy explains that he has nothing else to live for except his fans. Cassidy explains that she’s finally here, implying that she’s ready for a relationship. Randy smiles, and heads into the ring to the sound of his adoring fans.
During the match, Randy starts to feel chest pain, and his opponent notices, encouraging Randy to end the match by pinning him. Randy ignores his advice, and climbs the ropes, getting ready to take a dive and perform his signature winning move that, in all likeliness, will kill him. In tears, he acknowledges his fans chanting his name, and takes the final leap…

Black Swan delves into the world of professional ballet, focusing on an extremely volatile young woman named Nina Sayers (played by Natalie Portman in an Oscar-winning performance). Nina dances with a prestigious New York company, and lives with her mother, Erica (Barbra Hershey). It is obvious that the two share an unsettling relationship. Nina is preparing for a new season, and excitedly mentions that she was promised to be featured more in the future. The director of the company announces a new production of “Swan Lake,” and even more interestingly, a new lead ballerina. Nina is desperate to win the part, but the lead role is a dual one-the White and Black Swans are portrayed by the same dancer. Nina has all of the grace, physical control, and technicality to play the White Swan, but none of the looseness and sensuality required to play her evil twin. This frustrates the director to no end, but Nina refuses to relax, and betray the slightest hint of imperfection in her dancing. When Nina fights back an advance from her sexually manipulative director, he senses the passion bubbling inside of her, and casts her as the new Swan Queen. A fundraiser is thrown for the ballet company; Nina is announced as the new Swan Queen, essentially forcing Beth Macintyre (Winona Ryder) into retirement. Beth drunkenly confronts Thomas and Nina, and is later run over by a car in what Thomas believes was a suicide attempt. Nina begins to hallucinate strange things: her skin peeling off, seeing her face on other women, and nightmarish visions of Beth stabbing herself in the face at the hospital (after Nina runs from Beth’s room, she drops a the bloodied nail file that Beth used to stab herself).
Despite her achievement in earning the lead role, Nina’s anxiety exponentially increases due to the arrival of a new dancer who indirectly threatens Nina’s spot at the throne. Lily (Mila Kunis) is a dancer without flawless technique. What she lacks in skill, she makes up for in alluring sensuality and uninhibitedness. Thomas warns Nina to stop being so frigid, and let go of control in the way that Lily does so perfectly. Otherwise, she may lose the role that she so desperately wanted. Lily attempts to befriend Nina for unknown reasons, and invites her for a night out on the town. Nina is suspicious, but her growing frustration with her mother motivates her to get out of the house, and join Lily. Nina rejects a capsule of ecstasy from Lily while they are out with two men, but Lily later slips it into Nina’s drink when she isn’t looking. Nina returns home with Lily, mouths off to her mother, and locks Lily and herself in her room. They begin having sex, until Lily seemingly smothers her with a pillow.
Nina arrives late to rehearsal the next morning, and sees Lily dancing in her place. Nina assumes that Lily drugged her on purpose, and caused her to miss rehearsal so Lily could take her place. It is revealed that Lily did not go home with Nina in the first place-the whole encounter was imagined. After another violent argument with her mother, Nina has her strongest hallucination yet, imagining herself literally transforming into a swan. She passes out, and her mother locks her in her room, attempting to prevent her from going to opening night of the show. Nina injures her mother in order to force her way out of the apartment, and forces Thomas to take her role back from Lily-the understudy who was all set to perform in Nina’s absence. Nina’s performance as the White Swan in the first act goes well until she hallucinates and causes her partner to drop her. Humiliated, she goes backstage and finds Lily preparing to take over for the Black Swan. Lily turns into a carbon copy of Nina (due to Nina’s hallucination) and attacks her. Nina shoves her into a mirror, shattering it. Lily appears unconscious; she quickly wakes up and attempts to suffocate Nina. Nina grabs a broken shard of glass and stabs Lily in the stomach. She stashes the body in the closet, and goes onstage to perform as the Black Swan with a passion that nobody has ever seen in her.
Nina kisses Thomas backstage in front of everyone, after she exits the stage to thunderous applause. Lily congratulates her in her dressing room, proving that Nina has once again hallucinated their entire confrontation. The mirror, however, is still shattered. She removes a shard from her own body and realizes she had stabbed herself. Dancing the last scene, in which the White Swan throws herself off a cliff, Nina spots her mother weeping in the audience. As Nina falls backward onto a hidden mattress, the theater erupts in thunderous applause. Thomas and the rest of the cast gather to congratulate her. Then they see that she is bleeding. She whispers, "I felt it. Perfect. I was perfect." The screen is enveloped by the stage lights and fades to white, the applause grows to a deafening roar, and it is assumed that Nina dies.

Philosophical Aspects of “The Wrestler” and “Black Swan”

1. Protagoras: “A man is the measure of all things; of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”

Meaning: Whatever you perceive to be true is true, and vice-versa.

The clip above shows how Nina’s paranoid delusions are coming true; no one believed her when she said that Lily was out to steal her part, and now Lily is her alternate. Nina is more than a little concerned about losing her standing in the show. She demands that Lily be kicked out of the show, simply because she received an upgraded role. Instead of respecting the director’s decision to keep Lily as Nina’s alternate, Nina has an emotional breakdown. If Nina’s obsession with being perfect had not taken over her life, she would have been able to relax, thereby fully embodying the nature of the Black Swan (the role she is in danger of losing).

This clip shows Randy attempting to make amends with his daughter, Stephanie. He takes her to the boardwalk, and explains why he's trying to become a part of her life again. You can see in Stephanie's eyes that she is not ready to accept his apology. Too much damage has occurred, and nothing Randy says will change her mind. Throughout the film, Randy is portrayed as an easy-going man with a smile and kind word for everyone. However, Stephanie cannot look past his faults, including his abandoning of her when she was a child. There is no convincing Stephanie that Randy has changed, no matter how hard he tries. She perceives Randy as a deadbeat father, and the audience is able to understand her pain in a way that they cannot help but also be ashamed of Randy’s shortcomings, despite the fact that he is the protagonist.

2. Heraclitus: “You can’t step twice into the same river.”

Meaning: Everything is constantly changing; nothing stands still for a minute.

This clip contains one of the most visually dazzling scenes of the film. Nina has just been drugged by Lily (Nina knows, but does not reveal this information). Then, they start to dance. Nina has unseen hallucinations, but they disappear within an instant. The atmosphere of the rave with the strobe lights and blacked out building make it difficult to get a clear sense of what is going on. Frame by frame, it is a literal example of how nothing stands still for a minute.

Movie Rush - The Wrestler (The Deli Scene) from Matt McNally on Vimeo.

Randy’s life is a constant roller coaster of luck and misfortune. He makes amends with his daughter for no less than a week before he ruins his chances for good by missing a dinner with her. He finds solace in wrestling on the weekends until he is faced with a life-threatening heart attack that forces him to retire. He tries to start a relationship with his friend, Cassidy, but she turns him down and causes him to think that he has nothing left to live for. Of course, she turns up and reconciles with him right before he’s ready to potentially die in the ring. In this clip, Arofnosky and Mickey Rourke discuss a particular scene where Randy reaches a low point, and has to serve other customers instead of wrestling in front of adoring fans. It shows how far he has fallen from the pedestal he used to stand on.

3. Socrates: Saw death as a liberation of the soul from the body.

The film ends with Nina’s death, and thunderous applause for her performance. The director sends for help, and asks her what she did to herself; her only response is, “I felt it. I was perfect.” Socrates saw death as liberation; the only way Nina could liberate herself from her obsession was to kill herself while trying.

Randy is all ready to enter the ring for what may be the last fight of his life.
He knows that he may not survive the experience, given his current physical condition,
but he knows that there is nothing else to live for, except the admiration of his fans. He’d
rather die in the ring than continue to live a life filled with regret.

Parallels and Differences between Nina and Randy’s Journeys

Broken Relationships
When we meet Randy, his career is practically dead on the table. He is old, beaten down, and flailing to stay afloat in the world of pro wrestling. In his glory days, he destroyed all of his most important relationships. It is not until he gives up wrestling that he attempts to get back in touch with his daughter, and begins to form a closer relationship with his friend, Cassidy. In the clip below, he asks Cassidy to go out for a beer, and gives her one of his action figures to pass along to her son. In his glory days, he would have only used a woman like Cassidy for her body. Now, he is starting to see the value in meaningful connections with other human beings outside of the ring.

Nina, however, is just beginning her journey. At the start of the film she enjoys a close, albeit disturbing relationship with her mother (the most discerning of viewers may pick up on the fact that Nina’s mother molested her growing up, which explains Nina’s childlike nature and extremely fragile state of mind). When Nina receives a taste of success, and her thirst for ambition grows, she takes a sledgehammer to her relationship with her mother, verbally and physically abusing her whenever she gets a sense that her mother is holding her back. Nina's urgency to cut ties with her mother is understandable considering their history, but she is even closed off to those who attempt to form a friendship with her in an effort to ease the tension surrounding the production. Lily and Nina are completely opposites, but that does not stop Lily from complimenting Nina on her performance, and trying to get her to open up. In the clip below, Nina's snobby attitude does nothing to alienate Lily, so she stands up, and storms out instead.

Expectation and/or Preparation for Death
When Randy enters the ring for a match against his most notable opponent, he is fully aware that he may die. However, he has lived on this earth long enough, and experienced enough heartbreak and loneliness outside of the ring. When all is said and done, going into the ring and taking his last breath while surrounded by his adoring fans is the only way to put an end to the misery.
This is in contrast to Nina, a woman who is decades younger and ready to begin the prime stage of her career. Her hallucinations drive her mentally insane, but she never considers suicide as an option.

Coming Back to Reality
Randy hears applause in his head as he makes his way through the back of the supermarket. It is almost as if he is preparing to enter the ring. The applause comes to an abrupt stop comes out from the back, and goes behind the counter, ready to deal with demanding orders from rude customers, instead of the adoration of screaming fans.
Nina also deals with an illusion of grandeur at the beginning of the film. She dreams that she has assumed the role of the Swan Queen before the production is even announced, and when she wakes up from her dream-she remembers that she is just a background dancer living at home with her controlling mother.

Randy needs the adoration of his fans; he values it more than his own personal relationships, because he knows that his fans will never let him down. He makes numerous attempts to make amends with his daughter while spending time with Cassidy concurrently (as seen in the clip below; they are shopping for a birthday present for Stephanie). When he is shopping for a birthday gift for Stephanie, it is clear that he has no idea who she really is, and what she would wear. However, he is perfectly aware of what his fans want to see when he wrestles. He knows the desires of hundreds of adoring fans better than he knows his own daughter's. It is only in the wrestling world where he can do no wrong, whether he fails on purpose or not.

Nina could not care less about the opinions of anyone around her; as long as she believes in herself, she is satisfied with the work she can produce on stage, and therefore who she is as a person. This is why it’s so vital to pay attention to Thomas when he tells Nina that the only person standing in her way is herself. In the clip below, Nina spies on Lily rehearsing, and Thomas follows behind her. He marvels at Lily's imperfections, and tells Nina that Lily is not "faking it." Nina could be miles ahead of the competition, but because of her inability to let go and dance with passion, she is only slightly ahead of everyone else.

High Art vs. Low Art
Darren Aronofsky turns the tables in his portrayals of wrestling and ballet by going behind the scenes. It is no secret that pro wrestling is completely fake, despite the very real injuries. But, the sense of camaraderie and respect conveyed between Randy and his fellow wrestlers is heartwarming to see take place.
Meanwhile, the ballet world-filled with graceful and petite dancers who support each other and work in sync on stage-is rife with backstabbing, gossip, betrayal, and cutthroat competition. In the clip below, Nina is confronted by Beth, the former star of the company. The exchange is much more uncomfortable than the censored clip shown, and proves how vicious dancers can be to one another when their spot on the throne is threatened.

Relevancy of the Topic in a Classroom/Curricular Connections
Obsession is a new concept in adolescent minds, but it becomes a defining character trait and issue through teenagers’ lives. Basing a unit plan on the destructive nature of obsession would be more than relevant to students’ lives. A classic novel that is often taught in high schools across the country is The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. The novel deals with similar themes of obsession in a romantic sense. The feelings of passion that run through each character's veins in that story lead to their ultimate destruction, either physical or mental. (Nick is in anguish over his obsession with Gatbsy; Myrtle is killed because she foolishly attempts to stop a speeding car, thinking her lover is behind the wheel; Gatsby is murdered because George mistakenly believes that Gatsby slept with his wife; etc.) The Great Gatsby also focuses heavily on the changing nature of the "American Dream." Ambition and success are often linked together in the minds of American citizens circa 1922. The Great Gatsby reveals the dark side of success, and people who are consumed by it. Aronofsky's films do the same, and it would be much more satisfying and challenging for the students to tackle these films for analysis instead of watching a filmed adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Doing such a thing could have its benefits, but it is time for teachers to stop taking the easy route. High school students are tackling battles of obsession, self-hatred, thirst for ambition as they prepare for college and the real world, etc. The ins and outs of this topic could not come at a more relevant time in students' lives. "The Wrestler" and "Black Swan" will be difficult to teach without a literary connection, for the sake of pleasing the school district that may be against the full-blown study of film in an English classroom. However, using The Great Gatsby as the literary groundwork is a fascinating comparison that can tie everything together.


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