When one thinks of a swan, one usually thinks of a large, graceful, white bird, swimming in a pond—and it's always swimming (isn't it?), or resting elegantly on land...not walking or flying. Or, of course, the "ugly duckling" of Hans Christian Andersen fame. And the swan is almost always "white." That's just the color one sees when one imagines a swan. But not this swan.

The black swan (Cygnus atratus, from words meaning "swan" and "dressed in black") is one of the seven (or eight) species of swan, the largest of the waterfowl. They are part of the Order Anseriformes (waterfowl: ducks, geese, swans) and the Family Anatidae (subfamily Anserinae). Anser is Latin for "goose" and anas the same for "duck." While the bird is really only native to Australia and Tasmania, it has been introduced (and been successful) in New Zealand. Additionally, it has found a home all over the globe on private land, city parks, and in zoos—despite the swan's place in many a glass menagerie, it is a hardy bird that can do well in a number of climates.

Discovered around western Australia by the Dutch in 1697 and brought back to Europe soon after, the black swan has become—perhaps partly due to its not looking like a typical swan—one of the most popular species of the bird. In the wild, it lives in open waterways where it has plenty of room and plenty of room to look for food. Swamps or lakes with an abundance of vegetation, at or below the surface are preferred.

Swans don't dive, but they do use their long necks to reach below the water to get the plants on which they depend. Because they have long necks they are able to coexist with other waterfowl (notably ducks) without much competition for food (though this isn't always the case with all species of swan). Their diet consists primarily of aquatic vegetation of all kinds, though they also eat plants and grain found on land (occasionally water insects). Feeding is generally done at dusk.

Length: 1.1 to 1.4 m (3.6 to 4.6 feet)
Wingspan: 1.6 m to 2 m (5.24 to 6.56 feet)
Weight: up to 9 kg (20 lbs.)
There is some sexual dimorphism with the male somewhat larger than the female.

The bird has a red-orange beak with a white spot or band near the tip and bright red eyes. And while the bird has earned its name, it does have white flight feathers that can only be partially seen when at rest (if at all). Cygnets (the young) are grey or brown in appearance and have a dark or black beak. Both young and adult black swans have grey or black legs/feet.

The black swan's (as with all swans) long neck is due to extra vertebrae in comparison with its relatives. Besides as an adaptation for getting food, it enables the swan to have that graceful curve for which it is renowned. Only two species of swan have the truly "classic" curve, the black swan being one of them (the other being the mute swan). Other species tend to hold their necks in a more vertical position. As the bird swims, it tends to hold its wings—"elbows," as one source puts it—up slightly (a characteristic also shared by the mute swan). Sometimes the cygnets will ride on the back, between the wings.

This mostly non-migratory bird tends to nest in colonies. June or July is usually the mating season in the wild, though in the Northern hemisphere it has been seen to happen at various times of the year. Nests are built near the water (sometimes even partially on the water) and made of grasses and reeds which are placed (not really arranged) until a mound of sufficient size is made (as much as 1.5 m/5 feet across). Then the weight of the parents presses down the mound, making it firm and stable.

The female then makes a depression where the clutch of five to eight greenish-colored eggs will be laid (about a day apart). After done, the parents will take turns incubating them for around thirty-five days. When the parent(s) leave the nest, the eggs are covered with grass and reeds to keep them insulated.

After birth, the young remain close and eat the same food as the parents, foraging on their own once they have been shown what to eat. The young first fly at about two months but take long in leaving the care of the parents, usually not until the next mating season, after which they will join a small flock or pair up with a mate. Sexual maturity comes at the third year. Black swans will sometimes pair up as much as two years before actual breeding begins. Like most (but not all) swans, they mate for life—sometimes for as many as forty years.

Though the least territorial of the swans, the black swan will aggressively defend the nest and its young against any intrusion or perceived danger, including humans.

(Sources: www.chaffeezoo.org/zoo/animals/blk_swan.html www.auburnweb.com/paradise/birds/black_swan.html www.scz.org/animals/s/bswan.html, www.britannica.com)

I'm TERRIFIED of black swans. I have been since I was six or eight. My family was visiting my grandmother for a vacation one summer, and as we often did, we went to the Alamaba Shakespeare Festival (a theatre complex, not an event) to see some play or another. Now play, schmay, the important thing about this place to a kid was there was a playground! And a hill to roll down! And a pond with DUCKS!! So we'd usually take bread to feed the duckies after the play.

One other thing, the theatre is famous for having a pair or two (depending on the year) of australian black swans on their lake. Beautiful animals, really unusual, and very few people keep them well. This theatre does.

So little wuukiee, in a jumper, teeshirt, pigtails and barefoot is feeding all the pretty birdies. And oh, look! There's mr black birdie over there all by himself with mrs black birdie, I bet they want some food and friends too!

So silly me walks over, throwing bread at the larger male, swimming fretfully around the female sitting on the edge of the lake. Suddenly he rears up in the water, swims at me, and starts RUNNING towards me, honking fiercely and puffing himself up, until with his neck stretched he was nearly as tall as I was. Thinking he just wanted the food and wanting to get away as fast as I could, I pulled the WHOLE loaf out of the bag and yelled "Here, take it!!!" and made a mad break for the car.

My parents, between laughing so hard they could hardly speak, explained that no, the swan was not hungry, the lady swan had a nest and he was being a good daddy and protecting it from anyone who came near. I was indignant because I just wanted to be friends. But to this day, I'm terrified of black swans.

Due to the ubiquity of social networking, I have, for the past few weeks, heard many references to a film called "Black Swan", which seemed to be an important movie, and one that people liked, although not without some controversy. I knew nothing about the movie, and since I rarely watch movies, I thought that it would be yet another phenomenon that would blip on my cultural radar and then fade away. But a friend wanted to see it, and so I ended up seeing it, in a small, cramped arthouse cinema. When I went in, all I knew was that the poster had a scary face of Natalie Portman, and I think my lack of foreknowledge made it a much more enjoyable film. I would suggest that anyone going to view it do so with as little preparation as possible, which also means you should stop reading right now.

One of the results of my lack of preparation was the fact that I was unaware of what genre of film I was watching as the movie begin. Something that I was still unaware of after I had finished, and which is still a subject of debate. The film opens with Nina, played by Portman, getting ready for a performance at the New York City ballet company where she is a dancer. Nina is an incredibly hard working dancer, who is well practiced and technically proficient, but lacks the artistry and passion to be a prima ballerina. Her ballet company is putting on a performance of Swan Lake, and the director wishes to cast one dancer in the roles of both the White Swan and the Black Swan. He believes that Nina can play the innocent White Swan, but lacks the passion to play the Black Swan. Her main competition for the part is Lily, played by Mila Kunis, a dancer whose dancing and personal life is more spontaneous than Nina's.

So for perhaps the first hour of the film, I thought that the movie might be heading into quite abysmal chick flick territory, being the story of a repressed girl with various abusive adults (such as her lecherous director and smothering mother) crushing her delicate self. And then there is a single scene that seems to head into horror movie territory, which is then revealed to be an anomaly. Which is then revealed not to be. From about the halfway point until the end of the movie, there is a series of bait and switches where the audience is left wondering if they are watching a realistic psychological portrait of a young woman with mental issues...or something that is about to break out into a full-fledged horror movie.

As Nina begins to embrace the Shadow side of her personality, there is also a series of scenes involving sex and drugs that gained some notoriety for the film. The masturbation scene (abruptly and hilariously interrupted) and the (possibly? probably? definitely?) hallucinated sex scene between her and Lily are both good scenes, but the movie doesn't depend on their sexual explicitness to capture the audience.

The most impressive thing about the movie is that it probably communicates the most horror with the least gore possible. A person who is prepped and ready to see a horror movie will take great and disgusting scenes in stride, because they have categorized it as being different from waking life. However, while we still think we are watching a realistic movie, seeing someone rip at their cuticle is shocking and cringe worthy. During the climax of the movie, the eerieness of some of the scenes is shocking in a way that gore could never be.

One of my biggest questions about the movie is what type of message is being communicated in the climax. Although many different people have different views on what the movie was "about", to me it was primarily a movie about confronting the "Shadow" part of the personality, about realizing that fear, anger, lust and ambition are emotions we all have inside ourselves. I thought the movie was very accurate in depicting a world where, despite a surface changing of mores, women are still expected to be basically asexual and passive. So Nina's embracing of her Shadow is, as is suggested in the film, what frees her from the prison she has placed around herself, and also what releases her artistic ability. And yet, it can only due that by destroying her Self, and (perhaps) physically wounding her a great deal. Of course, a film where Nina realized she had these darker impulses, and then managed to integrate them into her personality to become a healthy, well-adjusted adult would have been a much, much duller film, but I also find it somewhat unfortunate that the film suggests that the only way that women can admit lust and desire into their lives is in a frenzy of self-destruction.

"Take it from the vision."
--Nina, to the pianist.

Black Swan tells the story of a repressed ballet dancer whose technical brilliance allows her to dance the White Swan in Swan Lake, but not the Black Swan. She needs to be able to do both to shine as lead dancer. As she engages the part, she begins to release a very dark side, madness she has kept in check. Our obsessed dancer's efforts and desires create a dangerous synergy with her own unstable brain, with terrifying consequences.

This could almost be a female Fight Club, but the script has its own obsessions-- and I immediately assumed (correctly) that men had written it. Make of that what you will. It could be a companion piece to the director's earlier The Wrestler, another clever though exploitative look at an unbalanced performer. More accurately, it is the dance world's Naked Lunch. The effort required to achieve greatness in art can exact a frightening price.

Black Swan has a plot exploitative and lurid, which comes to an entirely predictable conclusion. Its treatment of female characters often seems less than enlightened. These same criticisms, however, could be made of ballet or opera. Swan Lake, certainly, stripped of the stylizations and technique used to carry the story, would suit an old pulp magazine, and might fail to win accolades for its depiction of women. Ballet, like opera, features sensationalist subject matter and exaggerated characters. Furthermore, as the audience usually knows the story, they cannot help but anticipate the ending. The script to Black Swan, then, reflects its subject matter. You may or may not excuse its excesses on these grounds. Judging from the film's generally favourable response, most audiences have, at least, excused its excesses.

The cast give excellent performances. Natale Portman proves convincing as our troubled protagonist, a victim of a disturbing stage mother, an abusive choreographer, a jealous ex-star, and her own personal demons. Mila Kunis, hitherto known as Jackie from That 70s Show and Meg from Family Guy, gives an eye-opening performance as Lily, the dark counterpart to Portman's obsessed, tightly-controlled artist. Lily drinks and smokes and does drugs. She sleeps around off-stage, and speaks her mind backstage. As the story develops, we wonder how desperately she wants Nina's part. I also found myself wondering to what degree she exists, and how much of her personality comes from Nina's need for a shadow self. Lily, in scenes real and imaginary, helps guide Nina into darkness. As Nina descends, her performance as the Black Swan improves, but she loses touch with reality.

Special effects help illustrate our dancer's transformation. While occasionally cheesey, they blend nicely with more grounded views of the world. Nina’s skin turns to pustuled swanflesh-- no, that's the light playing tricks with her veil. Her feet grow webs—no, her battered and compressed toes have fused where they bleed.

The film passes through clever choreography, fractured visions, and sexual scenes to its horrific, if anticipated, finale. We're left with a well-directed, well-acted, thrilling film—and questions about whether we need excess to entertain us, and whether Hollywood believes women and artists can suffer for their art and still thrive.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Mark Heyman, Andrew Heinz, John J. McLaughlin
Natalie Portman as Nina Sayers
Mila Kunis as Lily
Vincent Cassel as Thomas Leroy
Barbara Hershey as Erica Sayers
Winona Ryder as Beth Macintyre
Benjamin Millepied as David
Stanley Herman as Uncle Hank

I prepared this without knowing Glowing Fish also intended to post a review. Make what you will of similarities in our responses.

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