Message 50, “Cinema Spirituality: ‘Black Swan’ and the Battle of Good and Evil”, 3-6-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 03-06-11

If you have been attending the Gathering over the past year – and not falling asleep during my messages – you will recall that we have looked to a number of sources to find spiritual insight.  I hope that reflects the fact that life itself is a spiritual concern and everything we do is important in terms of finding meaning or purpose.  We’ve found spiritual truths in poetry, nature, baseball, native-Americans and in comic book superheroes – to name a few.  About a year ago, we looked at popular movies to see if there were topics or themes in them from which we might learn.  And so I decided to mine that particular resource once again.  What cinematic verities in 2011 can we find that speak to us on a spiritual level?  I hope there are at least three – what we will look at in upcoming Sundays.  In my mind, movies are simply new ways to tell a story – part of a tradition thousands of years old.  We learn, laugh, think and cry in ways that teach us something about life, about ourselves and about creation.

This year I have picked three Academy Award nominated Best Picture films for our consideration.  Today I want to consider the film “Black Swan” and its story of the struggle a young ballerina fights within herself – between conforming to the virginal and allegedly good and moral ways of her youth and the evil or dark forces that seduce her to be more worldly.  Next Sunday, I will look at the film “The King’s Speech” and how a monarch, used to power, prestige and privilege, is nevertheless confronted with the common fears of us all – and how he must both face and overcome them.  Finally, in our third week, we will consider the movie “127 Hours” and the true story of a young man who undertakes the most horrific of actions to save his own life.  How does he unleash hidden powers and strengths within himself – and how might we learn from this movie and his story to call upon our own hidden abilities we might wish or need to unleash?

As we just saw from the trailer for “Black Swan”, the movie is a disturbing psychological exploration of a young woman’s descent into insanity.  As a rising ballerina, she is chosen to perform the role of a lifetime – to star in the classic “Swan Lake” but in way never done before.  She will play both the pure and virginal Odette or white Swan as well as the conniving black swan Odile.  This performance will be like no other rendition of “Swan Lake” for it will literally and symbolically focus on the ancient struggle of good and evil – only this time it will be played out within the life of one dancer.  It will force its audience to confront the reality of this struggle – good and evil – within themselves.   Interestingly, as a story within a story, this is the same theme of the movie.  How does the virginal Nina, who has finally achieved the role of a lifetime, deal with new temptations and seductions?  Which force will win inside her mind?  Will she remain pure and innocent – or will she succumb to the encouragement of her director and her understudy to be more worldly, sexually aggressive and passionate – and thus a better a dancer?

The main character in the movie “Black Swan” is, as I said, named Nina.  She is a technically brilliant and driven ballerina who nevertheless seems to lack something extra – a verve, or passion or worldliness that gives any great artist the ability to be real and approachable.  Nina lives within a cocoon of child-like innocence.  Her bedroom in her mother’s apartment is decorated in frilly pinks and adorned with dolls and stuffed animals.  Her mother is over protective and, while urging her daughter to be the dancer she never could be, still holds her back from achieving greatness.

The ballet director is a hard-driving choreographer modeled after the great Georges Ballanchine – a man who fed upon young and innocent ballerinas – and made them into stars.  This director chides Nina for her innocence and encourages her to sexually awaken.  He appoints as Nina’s understudy a dancer who is her opposite – a technically mediocre ballerina but who is worldly, seductive and overtly sexual.  She may not be technically good but she exudes an earthy sensuality so needed for the role of black swan.  Nina is threatened by her competition.  Can she overcome her virginal and innocent inclinations and give in to the temptations posed by the director and her understudy – to lose her virginity, to drink, party and flirt with young men?  Will she remain a symbolic Madonna – or become, to put it politely, a fallen woman?  Will she be able to believably dance the role of Odile – the character in Swan Lake who is evil incarnate – the Black Swan?

Some commentators have likened this movie to the age-old Biblical story of creation found in the book of Genesis.  In that story, which we all know so well, Adam and Eve are given free access to Eden – a type of heaven – in which existence is perfect.  Their only command is not to eat the fruit of a certain tree – the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  But Eve is tempted by the serpent – by Satan himself – to eat the fruit and to be like god.  Why should the Divine One alone have access to all truth?  Which should Eve choose – goodness and obedience to god – or evil and seduction by the devil?  Such is the dilemma faced by Nina and the temptations of a Satan like ballet director.

Theologians across the centuries have debated the meaning and the ultimate impact of Adam and Eve’s fall.  Are their ancestors – tellingly first represented by the evil Cain – doomed to be born in sin?  Are we the inheritors of their evil ways?  Are we born with evil intention?  Or, to the contrary, did Adam and Eve make a choice and thus we, too, make the same choice over and over again?  When we commit some form of misdeed – a lie, an angry comment, a selfish attitude or a failure to help others – are we choosing evil over good or have we been born with such propensities hard wired within us?

Of further concern to all of us in this debate between good and evil, is which side ultimately wins?  Are we good people who simply commit mistakes because of our humanity?  In other words, are most people inherently good such that good can be said to eventually win in our world and in most of us?  Or, is our world so dark and so filled with people who hate, who do not care, who are selfish and unfeeling – that it might be said that evil is the ultimate winner?  Is the Bible correct when it declares, “Who can understand the human heart? There is nothing else so deceitful.”  Is Christianity correct when it suggests that sinful humans can ONLY atone for deceitful hearts and evil actions through believing in the death and miraculous resurrection of Jesus?

How do we consider the idea of reward and punishment for being good or evil?  Why does it seem that so many who appear good suffer disease, disaster, and setbacks?   Why does evil so often appear to prevail?  Will eternity, in some form, sort this out?  Is there a heaven for the good and a hell for the evil?  Or, do those places even exist?  If they do not, what purpose is there in being good?

Finally, what constitutes our definition of what is good?  What is moral and right?  On the opposite side, what actions and things are evil and bad?  As many of us well know, elements in our culture consider me, a gay man, to be full of evil and sin.  I live an unnatural life contrary to the desires of god and other cultural norms of goodness.  Who is to say that my way is right and their opinion of me is wrong?  To boil all of this down to its core, is there some universal standard of goodness to which almost all humans agree?  Is there an ultimate source of Truth?

Each of these questions are addressed, in some form, by the movie Black Swan.  Ultimately, Nina gives in to her desires – she grows up and becomes a sexual being, she moves away from her mother and she acquires a passion that transforms her.  And it clearly influences her dancing.  In the climactic scene, Nina dances as Odile – the Black Swan – with such tenacity and exuberance that she literally inhabits the role of the evil temptress.  As we saw in the trailer, she even plucks a black feather from her skin.  In the movie director’s vision and opinion, it would seem, giving in to one’s darker desires offers reward.  Nina is fulfilled, awakened and dances like none before, once she embraces her more worldly desires.  Evil – if one classifies Nina’s actions as such – has its reward.  It has won.  Is this the message of the movie and what we are to learn – to embrace the dark side of ourselves and thus become more capable?  Within our dual selves – the light and dark sides of us – do we find genuine light when we embrace our darkness and stop repressing?

Indeed, according to Sigmund Freud and his theories on psychoanalysis, only through examining deeply repressed events in our lives can we come to terms with them.  In his view, repression of our so called darkest desires causes us to desire them even more and leads us to neurosis as in Nina’s case.  When we reveal them to our conscious minds, however, such temptations lose their power and we are better off.  Such a theory explains why those who engage in very strict diets often fail because they crave the foods they are denied – and thus often fail to stay on the diet.

As ground breaking as Freud was in his examination of our inner minds and what shapes them, he nevertheless assumed that what we repress is evil or dark.  In Freud’s view, homosexuality is a part of our darker selves.  My 44 year repression of it led to my discontent.  But my acceptance of it should have led to my freedom from its influence.  In Nina’s case, repression of her sexuality leads to her insanity but when she gives in to her desires, she is set free.  Implicit in Freud’s argument is that original sin exists.  Only those who are able to dig up their subconscious feelings of lust, envy, greed and hate can be freed from them.  As the Bible quotes Jesus, the truth will set one free.

But the very word “truth” leads us to an essential problem.  From what authority do the Bible, Quran, Buddha, Freud and others call certain human desires evil?  And what authority determines what is good?  Some of you might recall a message I gave last spring entitled, “What is Truth?”  You can still find it online at our website.  Are any religions the source of Truth?  Is there any universal Truth?  Is there any definition of good to which everyone can agree?

When Friedrich Nietzsche declared that “God is dead”, many assumed that he believed there is no universal standard of what is good.  It is assumed that he believed goodness is defined by individuals according to one’s particular point of view.  This led to the concept of a “superman” – a human so enlightened that he or she alone could determine for himself or herself what is right and what is wrong – what is good and what is evil.

But many people have overlooked Nietzsche’s definition of good and evil.  In his view, morality is that which is defined by prevailing cultures and religions.  Ethics, on the other hand, are human actions that are governed by a sense of the other.  Are one’s actions ethical because they take into account another person’s feelings?  This gets to the heart of my argument in my message “What is Truth?”  Good and evil are determined NOT by arbitrary standards – what is good for Christians may not be good for Muslims for instance.  Instead, one universal truth – one universal definition of what is good and evil – depends on how we treat other people.  Is an action life enriching or life debasing?  Is an action one that we would wish upon ourselves or one that we would logically avoid?  Under this standard of truth and definition of evil, murder is wrong because taking the life of another does profound injury and is not something we wish upon ourselves.  Our human sexuality, on the other hand, is something good if it does no harm to another and if it is life enhancing – an expression of affection for another human being.

Nina therefore is not repressing her dark side any more than she is supposedly acting with purity.  By living according to a standard of innocence, she complies with a cultural standard of what is good.  But that is morality.  When she grows up and embarks on her own sexual journey, she has not embraced something dark.  I do not believe she becomes a Black Swan.  Instead, she has enhanced her own life.  That is ethical and right in a way that I believe most humans might agree.  She has not hurt anyone and she has only helped herself.  What we might look to as a spiritual answer to the ancient dilemma is – as I asked earlier – do one’s actions promote life and happiness in others – or do they not?  Have I acted according to the Golden Rule or not?  This is not god telling us what to do.  It is our common humanity which informs us.  Hate tears downs.  Love heals.  Violence hurts.  Compassion uplifts.  Intolerance divides and separates.  Embracing diversity unites.

As many of you who are familiar with the Swan Lake story know, evil does not triumph at the end of that ballet.  But neither do the forces of good win.  Ultimately, the ballet concludes as a tragedy with the Prince and Odette dying in their battle against tyranny.  They throw themselves into the lake where they drown – thus preventing the possibility that evil shall win.  This too seems to be the message of Black Swan the movie.  Goodness is often sacrificed on a righteous altar.  But Black Swan the movie asks its viewers to view the battle between good and evil in more complex terms.  By accepting and then releasing the supposedly dark side of our dual natures, it says, we become whole human beings.  Our inner black and white swans are a part of us and it is unhealthy, according to this theory, to repress either one.

My assertion, and one we might all accept, is that it is NOT darkness that lurks within us.  The characterization of pieces of our minds as dark or evil is simply what culture, religion and society have created and imposed upon us.  Instead, I propose universal standards which focus on human decency towards one another.  For me, that is the ultimate source of goodness.  If I do not wish to be stolen from, I should not steal from others.  However, if I wish to express myself in ways that only impact me or which ultimately benefit others, this must certainly not be seen as evil.

My friends, good and evil do exist but we must use reason and universal standards to discern them.  As we come to terms with parts of ourselves that others tell us are evil, we should not succumb to religious or cultural morality.  We fight too many struggles in our lives to have to deal with standards of goodness that are unique only to certain populations.  For those around the world who are simply asking for the right of free speech, for those who ask for democracy and liberty, for those who yearn for equal rights, for those who suffer discrimination because of their sexuality, race or gender, their appeals are good.  The arc of human progress is, indeed, a long one but it bends towards goodness and justice.  From our very beginnings as a species, such truths are self-evidently good……………….do our actions enhance life or diminish it?  That is the question.