Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Swan Song

In October I did a post about the New Beverly Cinema and reminisced about other Los Angeles revival theaters that have faded into history. This past Monday, I was meeting a friend in South Pasadena for lunch, so I took a quick stroll down Fair Oaks Avenue to look at what was left of the Rialto Theater.

As I approached, I was saddened to see what an empty shell it had become. Posters for Rob Zombie's Halloween and Grindhouse still hung in the glass frames outside (I guess they had special screenings there). And then I saw the dreaded red tag on the door—"unsafe for habitation." Fortunately, since it's on the national Register of Historic Places, it won't be demolished, but it really needs an angel to provide the funding needed to restore it.

South Pasadena is a classic American small town, and when you take a walk down Fair Oaks, you're really taking a trip back in time. I can't believe that such a neighborhood would be unable to support a single-screen showplace like the Rialto.

I took these pictures with my camera phone. Man, talk about your Last Picture Show. The photo on the right shows a portion of the lobby, providing a glimpse of the art deco magnificence of the auditorium. It's got an orchestra pit, a balcony and one of those swooningly elaborate ceilings that hearken back to a time when "going to the pictures" was truly an event.

The last time I went to the Rialto must have been back in the early '90s, but I still remember how they'd ceremoniously open the stage curtains at the beginning of the program. Now that's showmanship! Do movie theaters even have curtains anymore? But even back then, they'd closed off the balcony because it was too much of an insurance risk.

The Rialto is supposedly haunted: stories abound that a girl slit her wrists in the bathroom, then made her way to the balcony to bleed to death; a man went insane in the projection booth (he must've been running Wings of Desire); and that there's even a phantom cat roaming the aisles!

This post's title has a double meaning (ha-HA!), so here's the second part—my review of Darren Aronofsky's Black Swan. Although still in limited release, it's generating a lot of critical praise and there's even some Oscar buzz.

It's the story of a neurotic ballerina, Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman) who is chosen to play the lead in a new production of "Swan Lake." Pressured to succeed by her mother (Barbara Hershey) as well as her manipulative director (Vincent Cassel), she's further stressed by the appearance of a competitor (Mila Kunis). Of course, she snaps and starts hallucinating events that never happened, the appearance of a doppelganger who shows up everywhere she goes. Oh, yes—she also happens to be transforming into a swan.

So how good is it? Well, it's crazy—I was often reminded of Polanski's Repulsion in that the main character is a sexually repressed woman given to hallucinatory episodes. The cast is uniformly excellent, with Portman bearing most of the weight of the story (including some really great dancing) and That '70s Show alum Kunis delivering a truly career-making performance as Portman's competition, a deliciously vulgar, free-spirited ballerina who makes Eve Harrington look like Mary Poppins.

Another standout is Barbara Hershey as the ultimate stage mother from hell. Wielding an implacable emotional grip on her daughter, she's infantalized Nina to the point that she's as naive as Sissy Spacek's Carrie. Winona Ryder appears as the diva who Cassel's director has cruelly dumped for the younger Nina, and she has a couple of memorable scenes, including a shocking self-mutilation.

Sumptuously photographed, the film is never grounded in reality, and viewers must either completely embrace it (as I did Aronofsky's earlier The Fountain) or dismiss it as complete whack-a-doodle. I embraced it.

It maintains such a high level of uncomfortable tension throughout. In one scene, Nina takes her director's advice to "touch herself" and enjoys a vigorous bout of morning masturbation, only to turn and see her mother sleeping in a chair by her bed. And she imagines a lovemaking session with Kunis' Lily, but Lily's face transforms into her own during a—ahem—critical moment.

I have to give Aronofsky props for his audacity. With each of his films, he keeps pushing the envelope. He hasn't yet become a "brand," thank God. He showed the world he could make a memorable "straight" film with the superb The Wrestler, and Requiem for a Dream remains one of the most horrifying studies of drug addiction available on celluloid. Plus, Ellen Burstyn was so so-o-o-o great in it!

Black Swan is full of moments that could be perceived as goofy, unless you're truly committed to the story and are willing to walk in Nina's slippers. Is it Oscar bait? Certainly it will be nominated for cinematography, and Portman and Hershey will get nods, but it's too eclectic for the Academy to consider it as Best Picture. I'm sure The Social Network will win that statue, and that's okay, too.

And you know what? If the Rialto was still open, it'd be showing Black Swan.


April said...

If I'm gonna go and watch Black Swan, I'd set my expectations very low. Let's just hope it'll come out good.

Russell Adams said...

I remember going to the Rialto on extremely hot summer days, and the theatre didn't have air conditioning, so the only relief was from an old-time swamp cooler. I didn't care. It was all about the experience. My favorite was the red-eyed gargoyle staring out at the audience from atop the screen.


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