Jason Bellamy: I first learned of Darren Aronofsky in 1998 when I stumbled upon an episode of the CBS show 48 Hours, back before the series was obsessed with mysteries. The episode in question was called “Making It,” and it chronicled the lives of various people who were, or seemed to be, on the cusp of losing their anonymity. Among those featured were author Nicholas Sparks, actor Vin Diesel and Aronofsky. Sparks, at that point, had already transitioned from modest pharmaceutical salesman to bestselling author with The Notebook, and Diesel, by the time of the show’s airing, had already landed a role in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which would become the most talked about film of that summer. Those men had, to one degree or another, “made it.” But Darren Aronofsky’s ascension seemed a little less certain. “Making It” documented Aronofsky’s efforts to sell his debut feature film Pi, the creation of which had been financed through the donations of family and friends, at that year’s Sundance Film Festival. And, sure enough, by the end of Sundance, and by the end of 48 Hours, Pi had a buyer. Aronofsky’s film was a success. But, at least in my mind, Aronofsky hadn’t quite made it. It’s one thing to find a studio willing to write a check to distribute a film that’s already in the can. It’s another thing to get that check ahead of time, to become a contracted filmmaker.
I begin with that story because today, 12 years later, Aronofsky has certainly “made it,” and yet he remains somewhat anonymous and/or indistinct. Perhaps his upcoming film, Black Swan, which we’ll cover in the second part of this conversation, will change that. But at the moment I wonder if Aronofsky’s name means anything to the average moviegoer, the kind of person who makes it to the theater about four times a year, perhaps to see a pair of blockbusters and a pair of Best Picture nominees. Between Pi and Black Swan, Aronofsky has directed just three films—Requiem for a Dream (2000), The Fountain (2006) and The Wrestler (2008)—so perhaps it’s Aronofsky’s modest output that keeps him somewhat overlooked. Or maybe Aronofsky’s films, though far from inaccessible or alienating, aren’t mainstream enough to make him a household name. (X-Men Origins: Wolverine 2 might change that.) But I suspect that the main reason Aronofsky isn’t better known among average moviegoers is due to his lack of a specific reputation or legend among film buffs. Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are each, to some degree or another, controversial films, but Aronofsky himself isn’t a polarizing figure. His name doesn’t spark an immediate opinion among cinephiles in the fashion of Christopher Nolan, M. Night Shyamalan or Alfonso Cuarón, to name some filmmakers who have been releasing movies for roughly the same amount of time.
Is Aronofsky’s relative nebulousness a reflection of the quality of his films? That is, has he made several good films but nothing that’s truly great? Or is it a reflection of the diversity of his films, which in subject matter and even style are fairly difficult to compartmentalize? Perhaps we’ll figure that out as we go through this conversation, because if there’s an obvious thematic through-line in Aronofsky’s body of work, I’m not sure I see it. If he has an immediately recognizable aesthetic, I’m not sure I’m aware of that either. All of Aronofsky’s films show characters struggling to find inner peace, I suppose, but that’s such a broad observation that it isn’t worth much. So let’s dive in and see what we discover, starting with Pi. I already mentioned that this was the film that got Aronofsky’s foot through Hollywood’s door, via success at Sundance, and so my question to you is whether you think Pi feels like a fully realized film that fits within Aronofsky’s larger body of work or more like an audition piece.
Ed Howard: Aronofsky’s career doesn’t have a thematic through-line? I have a one-word response to that: obsession. All of his films, and all of his characters, are to one degree or another driven by obsession and addiction. All of his films are about people whose tunnel vision, whose singleminded pursuit of a seemingly unattainable goal, prevents them from experiencing the wider and potentially richer life beyond their narrow perspective. In Requiem for a Dream, the addiction is literal and causes the characters to implode within their private hells despite the many opportunities they have to help each other. In The Fountain, the various iterations of the main character seek the fountain of youth as an end run around mortality, only to discover that mortality is essential to humanity. In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s Randy the Ram is so obsessed with his career that he mortifies his body in pursuit of renewed success, in the process sacrificing the potential for genuine human connection outside the ring.
And in Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, the math genius Max (Sean Gullette) forsakes happiness and contentment for the obsessive drive to understand—to understand the stock market, at first, and eventually to uncover the underpinnings of life itself, to decode a pattern that will explain the universe. This is a strikingly similar theme to the Coens’ recent A Serious Man: those who concern themselves with the meaning of capital-L Life too often miss out on the pleasures of life itself. This is, I’d argue, the central theme that unifies Aronofsky’s ouevre and provides the thematic foundation that you felt was missing. All of his films, despite their differences in style, tone and narrative content, can be boiled down to the idea that in pursuing our personal visions of the ultimate goal, the ultimate meaning, we paradoxically miss out on both the small details and the bigger picture. This concept is reflected in Pi in the form of Max’s next-door neighbor Devi (Samia Shoaib), who is an incarnation of worldliness and carnality and material pleasures. She brings Max ethnic foods as presents, and she’s kind and vivacious, with an expressive face and ready smile that serve as a stark contrast to Max’s stony expression and pinched emotions. The sound of her having sex next door, moaning and talking intimately with her lover, often accompanies—or triggers?—Max’s headaches, as though he’s reacting viscerally to this reminder of the life he’s missed out on. In the end, when Max’s mind is fracturing for good, there’s a brief shot of a man and woman’s hands folding together, followed by a shot of Max embracing an unseen woman, possibly Devi, a signal of his unspoken desire for the sensual pleasures that have been absent from his life.
With that said, Pi in many ways has all the earmarks of a promising amateur effort. It’s a rough and raw movie, with grainy black-and-white cinematography and minimal locations. It has the low-budget feel of a student film—which only makes it all the more remarkable that in terms of its ideas and its commitment to the subjective feel of slowly spiraling insanity, it’s actually quite fully realized. And it’s a film that neatly introduces Aronofsky’s career because it’s his most literal demonstration yet of a conceit that will drive his later films in more submerged ways: the character who’s trapped within his own mind.
JB: Obsession! I like it! I had traced that obsessive line through Aronofsky’s first three films, but I was thrown off by The Wrestler, which for most of the film is about a man earnestly trying to break away from his obsession, only to inevitably fall victim to it. But even though Aronofsky’s films don’t explore obsession in identical ways, I think you’re right that they’re all about obsession in one way or another. And that leads me here…
One of the things that I find interesting about Aronofsky’s filmography is that obsession is portrayed as a path to doom and to bliss, often at the same time. In Pi, Max finds contentment only when he metaphorically (and to some degree literally) erases the hard drive of his brain, thus ridding him of the obsession that had defined his life. In Requiem for a Dream, two of the characters find misery in breaking free of their obsessions, while two other characters find a tragic sense of peace while succumbing to their fixations. In The Fountain, Aronofsky’s most hopeful film, Tommy learns to let go of his obsessions and finds personal salvation and even transcendence as a result. And in The Wrestler, Randy makes a fully aware decision to surrender to his obsessive identity as the Ram and finds both joy and, in my opinion, sadness at the same time. All of these characters are healthier when not enslaved by obsession, but only one of them is unequivocally at peace as a result: The Fountain’s Tommy. One could argue that Max belongs on that same list, too. But we don’t see enough to know for sure. Pi’s conclusion is mysterious: Max sits on a park bench with the school girl from his building who delights in using him as a human calculator, and he smiles upon realizing that he can’t instantly compute a somewhat complex equation in his head. He’s free of his obsession with numbers, and this gives him an immediate peace. But at what cost? We don’t know. How long will it last? We don’t know.
In my opening I asked you if Pi feels like a fully realized work or an audition piece, and my own answer is that it feels like both. Like you, I see Aronofsky experimenting with themes that he would explore later, and with greater complexity, in subsequent films. I, too, see him experimenting with techniques that he’d reuse later, from Max’s quick-cut pill-popping routine, which he’d expand upon for the drug scenes in Requiem for a Dream, to Aronofsky’s fascination with patterns, which he’d expand upon in a slightly less overt way in The Fountain. No question, Pi fits within Aronofsky’s small but impressive whole, but there’s also a certain shallowness to this film, as exemplified by its repetitiveness, that makes Aronofsky’s technique feel unnecessarily showy. At times it’s as if Pi should have a watermark in the lower left corner that says, “This movie was directed!” In that way, it feels like an audition.
EH: I think that’s true, with the caveat that I’d apply the criticism even more forcefully to Aronofsky’s subsequent feature, Requiem for a Dream, which makes me think that in some ways Aronofsky’s first two films were auditions for what was to come. Aronofsky’s career arc reveals a director initially fascinated by technique for its own sake, before tempering these shallow tendencies with a deeper sense of purpose. In Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky seems as obsessed with showing off how visually clever he is as his protagonists are with their own fixations. We’ll come back to this later, I’m sure, but I think Aronofsky matured after Requiem for a Dream: the two films he made after that are richer, deeper, more complex in their examination of obsession and redemption, than his first two works. So yes, while Pi is undoubtedly interesting in all sorts of ways, it does sometimes feel like a student film in the sense that the director is wildly showboating, reveling in technique.
Which is not to say that this is always inappropriate. One thing that Pi does very well is capturing the subjectivity of its protagonist, and this has everything to do with technique. Aronofsky’s love of skewed perspectives, time-lapse photography and the straightforward presentation of hallucinations are integral to Max’s experience of the world. Max is someone who’s so out-of-step with the rest of the world that even leaving his apartment can be disorienting, and Aronofsky conveys this sensation with sequences where Max, front and center within the frame, reels as behind him the world speeds and lurches by. Alternatively, Max sits in his apartment lost in thought, and Aronofsky makes us feel the endless loneliness and emptiness as the numbers tick by on Max’s stock ticker, or an ant crawls along the wall, or Max’s finger hesitates over the “return” key on his keyboard. The film is repetitive, yes, but purposefully so, in that it immerses us in the rhythms of Max’s life.
In other scenes, Aronofsky captures Max’s visceral distaste for the messiness of other human beings: when Devi teasingly tries to straighten Max’s hair, we feel his discomfort with this unexpected intimacy because Aronofsky’s over-the-shoulder camera position places us in Max’s space, feeling cluttered and violated. The whole film has a similar queasy intensity, as though the whole world is a threat or a trap for Max. Hallucinations segue smoothly out of prosaic experience, as when Max becomes fixated on the shaking doorknob to his apartment—a scene that prefigures the horror of the refrigerator in Requiem for a Dream—or when he stumbles across a pulsing, bloody brain sitting innocuously on the subway steps. I wouldn’t argue that Pi is an especially subtle film, by any means—and Aronofsky in general is often as subtle as a drill to the skull—but just because the technique is often obtrusive, doesn’t mean it isn’t also often effective.
Indeed, Pi has a number of intriguing subcurrents that leaven its repetitiveness and crudeness. You mentioned the ambiguity of the ending, in which Max’s violent self-trepanation seems to free him from his obsessions and finally make him happy, a result that echoes the theories of Dutch med school dropout Bart Hughes, who believed that trepanation returned adults to a childlike sense of innocence and wonder. There’s some hint of this in the film’s final moments, as Max smiles beatifically at the neighbor girl and then looks up at the leaves on a tree overhead. The shot of the leaves, the film’s final image, had recurred several times earlier in the film, but here it acquires a somewhat different meaning. Before his homemade lobotomy, Max saw potential patterns everywhere in the world, and Aronofsky used images of leaves as symbols for the complexity of the unseen patterns that Max is trying to decode. In the film’s final image, though, we’re left to wonder if now Max is seeing the leaves for their own sake, enjoying their natural beauty rather than trying to fit them into a grand theory of life, the universe and everything. It’s notable, though, that happiness for Max is linked to the erasure of his intelligence and, quite possibly, even his personality. If he’s happy at the end of the film, it’s an unthinking form of happiness. In this light the film’s denouement becomes even more tragic and pessimistic, suggesting that the only two available modes of existence, for Max and possibly for anyone, are the extremes: either we engage fully with the world and struggle to understand, or we shut down and veg out. Neither option, as presented in Pi, is especially attractive.
JB: You’re not kidding. Just before Max gazes up at the leaves with that dumb smile on his face, there’s a moment when he looks over at the school girl with a somewhat sinister-looking gaze that reminds me of Norman Bates at the end of Psycho. It’s a fitting comparison, actually, because, like Norman, Max has been through the worst of it only to become locked inside himself, which isn’t any better. It’s a tragic conclusion but a triumphant one, too—Aronofsky is good at those—because up until Max submits to mindlessness his life has no joy whatsoever. As you said, this is enhanced by the cinematography: grainy black-and-white and lots of tight closeups, creating a feeling of dirty discomfort. Most of the film takes place indoors, and then within mostly dark rooms. About the only time Max gets any sunlight is in a brief scene in which he walks along a beach only to become consumed by the spiral construction of a shell he finds in the sand. He’s boxed in, almost literally, considering how all those computers in his apartment seem to be confining him against his will. It’s no way to live, and we could say the same thing about the characters in Requiem for a Dream, but at least they have joyful moments, drug-induced though they might be. Max is never happy. He’s just consumed.
As you said, the film is purposefully repetitive, and I think it’s also intentionally flat: Max doesn’t really have a character “arc,” more like a character undulation. Other than a few vague references from his mentor and friend Sol (Mark Margolis), we have no reason to believe Max has ever been any different, ever been “normal.” And that brings us to another defining characteristic of Aronofsky: the tendency of his characters to have lost grip on reality by the time we meet them, even if they manage to descend into madness even further. The trouble with this approach is that it puts a lot of responsibility on the lead actors to provide the film with some emotional nuance, and in this case Sean Gullette isn’t up to it. He evokes paranoia and vulnerability quite nicely, but his urgency and anger feel, well, played. When you begin a story at desperation and obsession, it’s tough to move the needle, tough to be more desperate and obsessed, without overplaying those emotions or resorting to extremes (more on that later, I’m sure). It strikes me that Pi is a film in which we learn more about the protagonist’s emotional state when Aronofsky uses Gullette as a prop instead of as an actor.
EH: That’s a fair description, at the least, of Aronofsky the developing filmmaker, as seen in his first two films. As a filmmaker and storyteller, Aronofsky is naturally attracted to the extremes of human experience, and there’s very little of normality in Pi or, for that matter, in Requiem for a Dream. The whole world of Pi seems skewed by Max’s obsessions, and as a result we’re always left wondering if what we’re seeing is filtered through his perceptions: this is especially true of the film’s kind-of-sort-of villain, Marcy Dawson (Pamela Hart), a businesswoman who’s trying to use Max for her own shadowy purposes, and who comes across as a sinister, grinning caricature. Pi doesn’t have a lot of subtlety, either in terms of the emotional range on display or the sledgehammer urgency with which everything is driven home. Sometimes this is okay—within its narrow range, Pi is certainly an effective, harrowing experience—but I still agree with you that the film would’ve benefited from a more nuanced approach to its subject.
What that more nuanced approach might have looked like can be glimpsed in the scene where Max has a conversation at a cafÈ with the Jewish mystic Lenny Meyer (Ben Shenkman), a character who, incidentally, seems like he could be transplanted as-is into A Serious Man. Initially, Lenny’s talkative presence and inquisitive probing simply annoy Max, but then Max can’t help but become interested when Lenny starts explaining his numerological analysis of the Torah. Max recognizes a kindred spirit, and in response shares his own thoughts about spirals, demonstrating the Fibonacci sequence with milk swirling in a coffee cup. In its attention to sensual detail and the beauty of abstracted imagery, this sequence stands apart from the intentionally flat and grimy visual aesthetic in the rest of Pi, which is thematically appropriate since it’s one of the few moments where Max is allowed a taste of pleasure, even if it is the pleasure of indulging in his obsession with patterns.
The scene reminds me of similar sequences in Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her and Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Blue. In the former film, Godard depicts swirls in a coffee cup and the burning end of a cigarette in such intimate closeups that the images appear cosmic, like galaxies and supernovas rather than miniscule details. In the latter film, the protagonist gets back in touch with the sensual materiality of the world by admiring the slow soaking of coffee into a sugar cube. Pi’s fleeting evocation of coffee spirals and smoke rings exists somewhere between these two approaches, suggesting both overarching universal patterns and an attentiveness to the small sensual pleasures of the everyday world. That latter sentiment is not one that crops up very often in Aronofsky’s first two films, even intertwined as it is with his protagonists’ obsessive natures, so it’s especially striking here. When Aronofsky expands his vision of the world to include joy and love and pleasure and the other positive emotions that are so often excluded from his rather pessimistic sensibility—as he does here and, most productively, throughout The Fountain, his most emotionally layered film—it can be quite powerful. When he wallows in misery and desolation, as he does throughout most of Pi and almost exclusively in Requiem for a Dream, his vision can come across as artificially restricting and limiting, as though he is willfully warping the world to live down to his worst expectations. I’m not arguing that pessimism is an invalid perspective for an artist, but Aronofsky’s sensibility, in particular, is at its richest and most affecting when his negativity is only one part of a larger and more varied picture.
JB: I don’t dispute that in spirit, but I want to be careful that we don’t jump to conclusions. We both seem to agree, without yet diving into the details, that The Fountain and The Wrestler are Aronofsky’s richest and most affecting pictures. But are they his best works because they have more thematic nuance and less unrelenting horror, or, more so, because Aronofsky came into his own as an auteur, matured as a filmmaker (The Fountain notably came six years after Requiem for a Dream), and thus he refined his technique and sensibility in so many overlapping ways that it’s misleading to put so much attention on any one specific transformation? Put another way, are Aronofsky’s later films his best works because they are more dramatically and thematically nuanced, or is that a coincidence? And if it’s the former, does that mean that Aronofsky’s earlier works are inherently flawed because of their narrow-minded approach, or does it simply reveal what should be obvious, that we’re more apt to appreciate films that aren’t unremittingly disturbing?
I pose these questions to bring us to Requiem for a Dream, a film so upsetting to watch that I find it impossible to embrace but that I’m also reluctant to dismiss. I wouldn’t call it a “rich” film, but it’s definitely an “affecting” one, to use your previous descriptors. And so I find myself at odds with a movie that is grotesque enough to be almost unwatchable (in places) but which is conceived that way by design. I believe that Requiem for a Dream intends to unsettle me, it intends to be assaulting. It isn’t as aggressively disturbing as some of Lars von Trier’s films, but I think it considers nuance beside the point. And in theory I don’t disagree. From firsthand experience, I know too well that chemical dependency often fits all the words I’ve used to describe this film: upsetting, grotesque and assaulting. Addiction is complex, sure, but it isn’t nuanced—not to anyone other than the addict, at least. So on the one hand I’m unimpressed by the limited scope of the film. But on the other hand I find myself appreciating that Requiem for a Dream is one of the rare films to portray addiction as a destructive condition from which people rarely emerge unscathed. Aronofsky’s film isn’t nuanced. It isn’t varied. But then neither is drug abuse. As much as I’m opposed to “sledgehammer” filmmaking in general, in this case I wonder if anything else would, in the big picture, be a lie.
EH: See, my problem with Requiem for a Dream is that it does feel like a lie. I want to repeat, up front, that I’m not criticizing Aronofsky for being negative or pessimistic; that would be absurd. I have great respect for films and filmmakers that are clear-eyed about the horrors of life, that present a bleak and overwhelming vision of a cruel world, with little space for characters or audiences to breathe. Mike Leigh is often that kind of filmmaker. Catherine Breillat is. Maurice Pialat is. Joseph Losey could be, in films like Mr. Klein or La Truite. Some of the best horror adopts that attitude very fruitfully. I’m just not convinced that Aronofsky is that kind of filmmaker—or, rather, when he tries to be that kind of filmmaker, as he does here, it brings out his worst tendencies rather than his best.
There’s no doubt that drug addiction is horrific in real life, but rather than coming away from Requiem for a Dream thinking that Aronofsky has shown us an unflinching portrait of the ravages of drugs, I find myself feeling manipulated and icky. It’s a film that positions itself as exactly the kind of realistic, no-holds-barred portrait of addiction that you describe, but its realism is shallow because Aronofsky wasn’t yet confident enough as a director to guide us naturally towards his points. As you said about Pi, this film might as well have the slogan “This movie was directed!” emblazoned across the screen, and on top of that it might as well put its simplistic messages about media culture and the American obsession with fame into on-screen text, too.
Requiem for a Dream always makes me all too aware that the characters are suffering, not because they do drugs, but because Aronofsky wants them to suffer. (I have similar complaints about von Trier’s abysmal Dancer in the Dark, which does such a sadistic disservice to Bjˆrk’s fearless performance.) It becomes an exercise in a director torturing his characters, toying with them, holding out the hope of redemption before cruelly snatching it away from characters and audiences alike. A case in point: towards the end of the film, Jared Leto’s Harry is in agony from an infected arm that is radiating black lines out across his skin from a central festering needle hole. He goes to the hospital, where a doctor quite rightfully takes one look at this and realizes that Harry is a drug addict. And then, without treating this wound at all, the doctor calls the police, who take Harry away, convict him (for what, anyway?) and sentence him to a work team, apparently all without anyone ever treating or taking a look at his arm. It’s instead allowed to rot until the arm has to be amputated. Maybe I’m just naÔve, but even considering America’s often unfair and capricious medical and judicial systems, I find that this strains credibility—and I think it betrays Aronofsky’s determination to make his story as miserable, as soul-crushing and hopeless, as he possibly can. To be fair, all these details presumably originate in the source novel by Hubert Selby Jr., but Aronofsky co-wrote the screenplay with Selby, and Aronofsky crafted this script into a film. It’s his vision, and it’s a vision that wallows in the characters’ misery to such a degree that I find the filmmaking nearly as off-putting as the story itself.
Especially off-putting is the depiction of the pimp Big Tim (Keith David), who lures Marion (Jennifer Connelly) into a life of prostitution with the promise of drugs. As in Pi, Aronofsky once again makes the most reprehensible villain a black person with purposefully exaggerated features. And just as in Pi Marcy Dawson often seems to be baring her teeth in a huge, ravenous grin, in Requiem for a Dream Aronofsky calls attention to Big Tim’s smug smile surrounded by big lips. Aronofsky quite obviously uses the actor’s bulk—and, of course, his blackness—as a marker of menace, introducing him in a scene where his sudden appearance as he opens a door for Marion emphasizes how the little white addict is about to be defiled by this towering black man. I doubt Aronofsky intends to be racist, really, he’s just so heavyhanded that he can’t resist pouring on these kinds of details, exaggerating everything into a caricature of suffering and punishment.
JB: But, see, I think Aronofsky’s intent is to exaggerate. To say that he “can’t resist” these heavyhanded details is to imply that these scenes you mentioned stick out from the whole, as if one moment Aronofsky was making a subtle, measured picture and the next he lost control of it. For better or worse, Requiem for a Dream straddles the line of caricature from the very beginning—this is a movie that includes a woman being run out of her home by an attacking refrigerator, for crying out loud. And so while I think it’s fair to criticize the extreme closeup of Big Tim’s gap-toothed smile on the grounds that it cheaply leverages offensive stereotypes, I don’t think that shot, and the use of Big Tim in general, particularly distinguishes itself from the rest of the film. Because, see, I don’t think that Aronofsky positions Requiem for a Dream as a “realistic, no-holds-barred portrait of addiction,” and it wasn’t my intent to imply that. No, I’m looking at this film the way you looked at Pi, suggesting that its success isn’t showing what drug abuse is; it’s showing how it feels. It isn’t factual, it’s evocative. We follow the film in the third-person but we feel it in the first-person. So when I say the film uses a sledgehammer approach to avoid telling a lie, that’s different than saying that the film achieves (or even strives for) “realism.”
“Icky” is what this film is going for, but if you think that the film is passing itself off as realism, I suspect that the icky sensation you’re feeling isn’t the one Aronofsky was hoping to generate. It sounds like you’re disturbed by what this film suggests about Aronofsky as an artist, rather than being discomforted by the art itself. And I think that’s fair. In fact, my biggest problem with Requiem for a Dream is that it conjures an anxiety that I don’t think is difficult to achieve. You mentioned that this film, like Pi, could be stamped with the “directed!” label, and I agree. I wonder how much of this film’s effect is tied to Aronofsky’s technique and how much of it is tied to its gruesome-by-any-design episodes. I mean, really, can you think of a drama in which a character receives electroshock therapy that doesn’t make you cringe? Can you imagine a scenario in which a woman allows herself to be sodomized in order to get her drug fix that wouldn’t be heartbreaking? Do you think you’d ever be able to watch someone inject a needle into a bloody wound without feeling nauseous? I say no. These are all cheap horrors. They can’t help but succeed. There’s no denying that Aronofsky’s rapid-fire editing and Clint Mansell’s haunting score intensifies the unease one feels when watching this film. But how much? When an emaciated, unkempt Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) writhes in protest as a feeding tube is inserted into her nose, there’s little to enhance.
EH: When you say that this film is full of “cheap horrors,” that pretty much sums up my feelings about it. I admire Aronofsky’s technique in the abstract, all those hyperkinetic montages and split-screens and the increasingly frantic pace leading up to the parade of tragedies at the end, but in practice it’s mostly numbing and grating. Though I singled out a few moments that specifically bother me, of course you’re right that the whole film is of a piece. That sameness is part of the problem. Another part is that, while you’re also right that all those scenarios are inherently tragic, by the time most of them come together, flashed onto the screen in bursts of a few seconds long during the ADD-afflicted climax, the specifics of those individual moments can barely register. Aronofsky is delivering tragedy, but it’s often a somewhat generic tragedy, held at arm’s length, ironically, by the very techniques that Aronofsky intends to amplify it all. As heavy as Aronofsky’s hand is, as bad as he obviously wants us to feel by the end of this film, I don’t know if he ever achieves much more than rubbing our noses in the inherent unpleasantness of these situations. These characters are so simple that they’re reduced to a single, unsurprisingly ugly trait, a raw urge and nothing more—and I know, I know, that’s undoubtedly an accurate portrayal of addiction, but if we’re to feel some sense of loss about these specific individuals destroying their lives, there has to be a sense of what they once had to lose. As I said earlier, all of Aronofsky’s characters are driven and obsessed—it’s the central idea of his work—but only in Requiem for a Dream are the characters defined solely by their obsessions and addictions; hell, even Max in Pi is a more complex and rounded character.
Still, Requiem for a Dream does have some worth. Like Pi, this is a film that, as you pointed out, is excellent at capturing subjective experience through repetition and a grab-bag of stylistic tics. The drug montages, which break down the process of getting high into a series of ritualized gestures ending with a closeup of a dilating pupil, convey just why “habit” is such an appropriate term for recurring drug use. The constant use of fish-eye lenses and time-lapse sped-up motion eventually becomes tiring, but just because Aronofsky overuses the techniques doesn’t take away from the moments when he uses style well to convey the rapid passage of wasted time or to capture the disorientation and isolation of his characters. When Sara visits a disinterested doctor who winds up prescribing uppers and downers for her, Aronofsky shoots the scene with a fish-eye lens that distorts the examination room, placing Sara, her head bulging, in the extreme foreground, with the rest of the room, including the doctor and nurse, seeming impossibly distant and distinct from her. I also really like the split-screen love scene between Harry and Marion, an effective use of the device to capture the simultaneous intimacy and separation of these lovers, who even when totally consumed in one another’s bodies seem strangely disconnected from any deeper feeling. There’s no doubt that, at his best, Aronofsky’s stylistic gyrations are more than just showy fireworks. In the end, I find Requiem for a Dream so aggravating in part because I know Aronofsky can do better, because I know he’s not the simplistic shockmeister that he sometimes seems to be in this film.
JB: At least he isn’t anymore. And thank goodness for that. I think you were correct earlier that both Pi and Requiem for a Dream feel like audition pieces, or experimental films. The techniques Aronofsky uses are interesting in principle, but other than the hyper-cut sequence toward the end, in which images of suffering strobe at us like still photos scattered within a spinning zoetrope, I’m not sure how much mileage Aronofsky actually gets out of these techniques. For example, the split-screen love scene between Harry and Marion is clearly metaphorical, but it is so in a very intellectual way; I recognize the intended metaphor instantly, but I’m not sure the emotions of that scene are truly enhanced by the architecture (a criticism that should sound familiar after our recent discussion of Ozu). On the other hand, the split-screen sequence at the beginning of the film, in which Sara hides in fear of her drug-crazed son while he goes through a one-man good-cop/bad-cop routine on the other side of a locked door, hits all the right notes—putting both menace and fear in the same frame. It’s rather fitting that the scene comes early in Requiem for a Dream, because as the film goes on, Aronofsky begins to limit the complexity of his compositions, increasingly favoring tight closeups in which the actor’s face is perfectly centered within the frame, thereby emphasizing the sameness of their suffering—both symbolically and, I suspect, subconsciously.
As I suggested before, many of these closeups are ghastly and difficult to behold, particularly when they capture Sara—increasingly gaunt and sickly. I mentioned Psycho earlier, and by the end of the film, Sara looks frightfully similar to Mrs. Bates’ embalmed corpse. Maybe that’s why I never know how I feel about Burstyn’s “performance,” because so much of the character’s tragic downfall is attributable to the skill of hair and makeup artists. But if Aronofsky wants to use his actors as props, that’s fine by me. One of the most memorable shots in the film is the one of Marion putting on makeup before heading over to Big Tim’s: her green eyes shining in contrast to her thick black eyeliner, a single tear falling down her cheek. Or then there’s the “shot” of Sara manically cleaning her apartment, which is captured in a time-lapse sequence in which the camera slowly tracks to the left to follow Sara’s progress through her apartment: emptying out her dresser drawers; making her bed; vacuuming the living room; cleaning a spot out of the carpet; tossing all the contents of her refrigerator into a trash bag; and so on. One of those shots is as simple as it gets, the other is a complex directorial flourish. Neither of them requires an awful lot of acting. But in those shots, Aronofsky conveys deep emotional suffering as well as at any time in that film. Whether that reveals Aronofsky’s skill or underlines the emotional flatness of Requiem for a Dream—or perhaps both—is up to you.
EH: I’m glad you brought up the performances, which are probably the most praise-worthy aspect of Requiem for a Dream, even if, as you suggest, it’s possible to question just how much of the performances can be attributed to the actors and how much to Aronofsky’s stagecraft and stylization. Often, the balance seems to be about even. I too love that shot you mention of Marion putting on goth-y makeup as she receives a call from Harry, who’s in prison in Florida and using his one call to reach her. It’s a surprisingly subtle scene, as Marion begs Harry to come back home, the unspoken subtext being that, if she really believed he was going to be home soon, she’d have the excuse she obviously wants to avoid visiting Big Tim. Harry, hearing her desperation, lies and says he’s going to come home right away, but neither of them believes it for a moment; in Marion’s flat response, one can hear her acquiescing to her fate, accepting that no one’s going to rescue her. That’s when she allows a single tear to fall down her cheek, quickly wiping it away and fixing the ring of dark eyeliner around her eyes. She betrays only that trace of emotion, otherwise maintaining her flat affect and using her makeup as a mask to transform herself into a new person, a person who can do what she knows she needs to do to get her fix. I don’t think Connelly’s performance in this scene can be so easily dismissed. Aronofsky emphasizes her underplayed stoicism with the artificial lighting and the attention-getting makeup, but the actress also contributes a great deal to the emotional heft of that sequence.
I’d say the same about Ellen Burstyn. It might be tempting to think that her performance is all hair-and-makeup effects, but I don’t think it would be nearly as harrowing if not for the very raw performance at the core of all those decorative flourishes. The way she mumbles and meanders and repeats herself during her tragic visit to the TV station is heartbreaking, not just because of how decimated her face looks, but because of how naturalistic her portrayal of dementia is. By the end of the film, she looks and acts like someone you might really encounter, and edge away from, on a New York subway. Almost without exception, Aronofsky asks his actors to act within a fairly narrow range, and as a result these performances are all fairly one-note, but within that narrow range they are fine, expressive performances that would be affecting, I think, even if Aronofsky dialed back some of his relentless supporting effects.
I’ve been very critical of this film’s emotional flatness and contrived misery, and I don’t take that back, but I do recognize the skill and craft that goes into capturing these raw emotions so convincingly. Watching the premiere of the new zombie series The Walking Dead recently, lead actor Andrew Lincoln’s rather unconvincing reaction of grief and despair when confronted with the disappearance of his wife and son was a striking reminder of how hard it can be for an actor to tap into such dark places—and this despite director Frank Darabont’s attempts to accentuate the suffering through Aronofsky-like fast cutting and skewed camera angles. Whatever problems I have with Requiem for a Dream, one thing it does very well is tapping into those dark places, pushing these characters, and the actors who play them, to the extremes of human experience. And that’s a success that I’d say is equally attributable to Aronofsky and to his stars.
JB: Yeah, that sounds right. I think my larger point remains: that of the acting, stylization and hair/makeup, it’s difficult to determine where one thing ends and another begins. It’s all so tightly entwined. But that’s an analytical challenge; it’s not a black mark on the film. I don’t need characters pacing back and forth giving stage-friendly monologues, so if the lack of such scenes means that Requiem for a Dream is dominated by more prop “acting” than theatrical acting, so be it. It’s the ultimate effect I’m most concerned with, not the genetics of the approach.
Having said that, I’d like to mention what I consider to be the film’s most surprising and challenging moment, when within the closing montage of outright ghastliness Aronofsky finds Marion back at her apartment after her second trip to Big Tim’s. We’ve just watched her suffer the indignity of going “ass to ass” with a double-headed dildo as part of an orgiastic performance for dozens of men in suits. And we no doubt recall that earlier in the film Marion responded to fucking her psychiatrist for money by lashing out at Harry, and that subsequently she responded to her first experience with Big Tim by curling up in the fetal position in her bathtub. So as she flops down on her couch, we expect to see her break down in tears or to stare off into the distance with a traumatized blank stare to rival Sara’s vegetative stage. But she doesn’t. Instead she rolls onto her back, pulls what we presume to be a sizeable wad of heroin out of her pocket and smiles—a big, unconflicted, like-she-just-kissed-the-man-she’s-going-to-marry smile that Aronofsky ingeniously captures from above, the same angle he used to film Marion and Harry when they were high, the same angle he used to capture Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) and his girlfriend having sex.
What does that smile mean? Marion is happy to get high again, that’s obvious. But given that she’s never been a dealer before, we can only assume that this stash will run out (even if not for a while) and that soon enough she’ll once again be whoring herself out for a fix. I said earlier that Requiem for a Dream is mostly an emotional representation of what addiction feels like, both for the addict and those close enough to watch the addict’s plummet toward death or the proverbial rock bottom. But this scene, to me, is the one that best articulates addiction in an intellectual and even clinical way. One of the trademarks of addiction, like insanity, is repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. In Marion’s smile, sure, we see her happiness to get high, but I think we also see her delusion. Somehow, in that moment, Marion thinks that the drugs in her hands will protect her from going back to Big Tim, when, most likely, she’s only assured that soon enough she’ll be taking it up the ass again, literally and figuratively, to keep her habit going. For all the “drugs are bad” meaning that comes from the film’s graphic imagery, for me this seemingly beautiful image is its most sobering.
EH: That’s well said. Despite my overall problems with Requiem for a Dream, moments like that do confirm Aronofsky’s undeniable talent as a director, his ability to hit all the right emotional buttons. He always aims to overwhelm, to thrust his audience into the subjectivity of the experiences he’s filming, and if this impulse sometimes leads to the numbing lack of subtlety that afflicts this film, it’s also the wellspring of Aronofsky’s best traits as a director. His next film, The Fountain, would bear this idea out, as it indulges every bit as fully as his first two features in emotional excess and stylistic restlessness, but somehow constitutes a leap to the next level in Aronofsky’s filmmaking. Maybe, as you suggested earlier, the long gestation period between Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain allowed Aronofsky the time he needed to mature and to develop his singular vision more fully. The Fountain, though, was initially slated to be produced in 2002, as a big-budget feature starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, until this version of the film fell apart in mid-shooting due to “creative differences” with Pitt. Aronofsky then returned to the project two years later, cutting the budget by eschewing CGI effects, and replacing his former stars with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz.
The film is divided into three stories, which flow into each other and relate to each other in somewhat ambiguous ways. The central story, arguably, is the tragic romance between medical researcher Tommy Creo (Jackman) and his wife Izzi (Weisz). Izzi is dying of a tumor, and Tommy is desperate to discover a miracle cure before he loses her; like other Aronofsky heroes, he pours himself obsessively into his work. Jackman also plays a conquistador who is searching for a mythical Mayan tree of life at the behest of his queen (Weisz again, of course), who is under the siege of a religious inquisitor (Stephen McHattie). And Jackman also plays a bald mystic hurtling through space within a bubble of air that contains the now-dying tree. The structure of the film is ingenious, as these three stories together express the never-ending quest of humanity to defeat death, to overcome the transience of existence: the mystic is a future incarnation of Tommy, or perhaps Tommy himself, his life elongated by the tree’s power, just as Tommy is the conquistador reborn in a new form. At the same time, the conquistador’s tale is woven into the film as the novel that Izzi was writing in her final months, a novel that she purposefully leaves unfinished, bequeathing it to Tommy to write the final chapter. And the man in space, rather than literally being Tommy far in the future, is perhaps better understood as a symbolic construct, inhabiting an abstracted mental landscape in which he can work through his loss and his desperate desire to overcome death.
Aronofsky leaves much of this unspoken. After two films of stark literalism and heavy-handed symbolism, Aronofsky allows The Fountain’s symbols and themes to be more free-flowing and organic. The film culminates with a sequence that, in some ways, mirrors the interconnected structure of Requiem for a Dream’s finale, cutting between multiple stories and ratcheting up the pace so that images and events hurtle by at a dizzying speed. And yet the effect here is sublime. The film is about the quest for eternal life, but it ultimately leads towards an affirmation of mortal life, of the fleeting pleasures to be found in a finite existence. Tommy completes Izzi’s novel by leading the conquistador to his encounter with the tree of life, an encounter that suggests that, if there is an eternal life to be found, it is not on the terms we would wish it. At the same time, the man in space allows Tommy to rewrite parts of his own past with Izzi, revisiting a crucial juncture and turning away from the obsession that consumed him in the final months of his wife’s life. Instead of channeling his negative emotions into futile attempts to cheat death, he goes for a walk in the snow with his wife, enjoying the brief remainder of the time they have together. And finally he plants a tree over her grave, a gesture that resonates with the conquistador’s fate, with the man in the bubble’s fate, and with the Mayan myth of the “first father,” the story that structures Izzi’s novel.
Earlier in the film, the inquisitor says, “Our bodies are prisons for our souls. Our skin and blood, the iron bars of our confinement.” Though he is superficially opposed to the queen’s quest for eternal life, in fact his is simply an alternative (and particularly grisly) form of the obsession, a form that rejects earthly materiality in favor of an eternal spiritual life after death. Aronofsky’s film ultimately suggests that this obsession with the end of life, whether it takes shape as science or religion, prevents people from engaging with life on its own terms. Where Pi and Requiem for a Dream were about people who succumbed in various ways to their obsessions, negating their lives in the process, The Fountain is about acceptance, about the rejection of the dangerous obsessions that distract us from the pleasures and heartaches that make life worth living.
JB: We agree on the last part, but not quite on how the film gets there. Your description of the The Fountain’s three parts suggests a level of disparateness that I contend doesn’t actually exist. I agree that Aronofsky leaves the unity of the film’s past, present and future chapters refreshingly unspoken, and thus somewhat ambiguous, which explains why many of the film’s original reviews suggested The Fountain’s chapters are unified in theme alone. (Another popular interpretation, perhaps unduly influenced by the film’s somewhat misleading trailer, suggests that the chapters should be read rather literally—presenting multiple incarnations of a love that spans thousands of years.) But while I’m hesitant to imply that a film this rich has only one interpretation, having seen The Fountain at least 10 times I’m as confident as ever that, structurally speaking, there’s only one way to read it.
In my mind, The Fountain has one “true” narrative—Tommy and Izzi in the present. The story of Thomas the conquistador is, as you said, a narrative imagined by Izzi for her book, which ends with Thomas’ confrontation with the guardian of the tree of life. The story of Tom the futuristic Zen astronaut, then, is Tommy’s imagined conclusion to Izzi’s book. To understand how these stories fit together, we must first understand the motives for their creation. Izzi’s book is her attempt to reconcile her own death. The inquisitor represents the tumor taking over Izzi’s body, claiming new territory bit by bit and charting each conquest with blood on a map. Thomas’ search for the tree of life mirrors Tommy’s relentless pursuit for a miracle cure—one man overseas, the other one holed up in his lab, both men consumed by their efforts to overcome death. Though it’s never explicitly stated, I think it’s fair to assume that when Izzi began writing her story she was trying to justify Tommy’s absence in her final days, to herself and even to him. Eventually, though, Izzi realizes that Tommy won’t find the cure, and that the only way that she can be with Tommy eternally is for both of them to believe in some kind of life after death. Hence Izzi’s decision to make Tommy finish her story, because ultimately the discovery he needs to make is a spiritual and emotional one. He must come to terms with death.
At first it seems odd that Tommy’s final chapter would thrust the story ahead several thousand years, giving us a somewhat new character, futuristic Tom, but in retrospect it makes perfect sense. The Tom chapter borrows from Izzi’s fascination with Mayan culture, with Izzi represented by a dying tree and Tom racing to get Izzi to Xiabalba, a nebula wrapped around a dying star “where souls go to be reborn.” Tom, with his tattooed ring finger, is Tommy’s vision of his future self, perhaps imagined under the assumption that he will cure aging like a disease. On his arm are various tattoos that, like tree rings, trace Tom’s history with Izzi. But one of the rings remains incomplete, and when Tom goes to ink in the rest of that tattoo, he imagines Izzi in her hospital bed and can’t go on, can’t get closure (figuratively and literally), can’t accept her death.
Throughout the Tom chapter, Izzi’s voice haunts him: “Finish it!” It’s as if Tommy has spent a thousand years—in this case figuratively or, I suppose, literally—avoiding the end of Izzi’s story. But eventually, after remembering their past once again, he gives in. “All right,” he says, touching his ring finger. “I trust you. Take me. Show me.” It’s in that moment that Tom (and thus Tommy) realizes he’s going to die. In that moment he sacrifices his scientific outlook on the world for one of faith. And so it is that Thomas, facing the flaming sword guarding the tree of light, becomes Tom, in a meditative pose, willing to be struck down, willing to face death, willing to believe that somehow this isn’t the end. It’s that acceptance that leads to “eternal life,” just a different one than he was looking for—a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life, rather than Tommy’s scientific view of life in bodily form.
I go into detail about this reading mainly because I think it reveals how layered The Fountain is, how focused, how harmonious. As we continue to talk about the film, there are recurring themes that, yes, unite these chapters. But these themes crop up in each story precisely because it’s one story being told: a story of a husband and wife struggling to deal with her imminent death.
EH: I don’t think our readings are quite as different as you suggest. I agree, certainly, that the “real” story of The Fountain is the romance of Tommy and Izzi and their process of dealing with her approaching death. The other two stories serve as metaphorical constructs that reinforce this central story and its themes. And more than that, the two “fictional” stories within the film represent the two main characters’ attempts to grapple with death through storytelling: just as Izzi writes her coming death as a mythic adventure with Tommy as her conquistador, battling futilely but bravely for her sake, Tommy tries to rewrite his own past from an imagined vantage point in the distant future. Though Aronofsky does leave room for the whole film to be read literally as a story of reincarnation that spans thousands of years, I don’t think that’s an especially convincing or enlightening reading. On that much we agree.
It’s interesting, though, that you see the finale as an affirmation of “a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life,” whereas I think the film is, in part, about the secular experience of death. Despite all the mystical trappings, the core of the film is much more grounded. The film suggests that the scientist and the inquisitor make the same mistake in their certainty that the time we have on Earth is not enough, that there must be something more. Transcendence and spirituality and mysticism are elements in this story, but ultimately they are dismissed in favor of earthly materiality. The conquistador’s mythological adventure and the Zen spaceman’s journey are avenues into understanding the central story, but that central story is resolutely material, concerned not so much with what comes after death as what we can and should do before death. Tommy is comforted, not so much because he believes he’ll be reunited with Izzi in the afterlife, but because he comes to accept that the time they had together on Earth would have to be enough. In the film’s final act, amidst all the fireworks and the mystical visions, the most powerful moment is Tommy’s reimagined walk with Izzi, when he leaves his work to spend the day with her. It’s not the afterlife that redeems Tommy; it’s life itself.
We don’t know what comes after death, whether it’s nothingness, or reincarnation (a possibility explored through Jackman’s multiple roles), or some form of afterlife (a possibility suggested by the film’s multiple representations of going into the light). But whatever it is, it’s something separate and new, and since we don’t know, we should embrace life, should embrace earthly existence and the people we share that existence with. This is the message of The Fountain as I see it. It is an agnostic celebration of life and love. This is, it must be said, remarkably close to my own philosophy about life and death, so perhaps one reason that I find this film so emotionally engaging and so thrilling is because it makes such poetry and beauty of the idea that life on Earth is, quite possibly, all we have, and that we should seek fulfillment and transcendence within life rather than outside or beyond it.
JB: I think you’re absolutely correct that this film confirms the need to “seek fulfillment and transcendence within life,” but don’t ignore that Tommy is trying to do just that by investing every waking moment in his lab. Yes, he turns away from his wife in the process, hoping to find a miracle cure at the 11th hour, but he does so precisely because he thinks death is The End, that when Izzi is gone there will be nothing left. Izzi, meanwhile, who no doubt appreciated the beauty of the present, is the one who is fascinated by the concept of death “as an act of creation.” So, yes, Izzi finds herself no longer terrified by death (“I’m not afraid anymore”), and thus part of her motivation for leaving that last chapter of her book unwritten is to get Tommy to accept his own mortality and mortality in general. (The Tom chapter is set far in the future to acknowledge just how difficult it is for Tommy to let go of his desire to eradicate death.) But I think we’re overlooking quite a bit if we fail to recognize Izzi’s hope for, and belief in, some kind of afterlife.
First, of course, there are Izzi’s words in the present: her stories of Mayan culture—her fascination with Xiabalba—and of the Mayan guide who believed that his dead father became the tree that was planted over his grave. Then there are Izzi’s words in the past: her oft repeated claim that “together we will live forever”; if Tommy uttered those words, it would seem to confirm his obsessive delusion that death is a disease, but Izzi is the film’s sage. Then there’s the film’s religious imagery, from the biblical tree of life to the oft repeated shot of the gold altarpiece, before which Thomas the conquistador kneels—a glassy, circular bubble set within a sunburst of gold with a Christian cross on top, which foreshadows the image of Tom’s futuristic spaceship exploding within the nebula and his eventual vertical ascent toward the heavens. Then there’s Thomas’ transformation into the hovering Tom, just before he’s struck down by the flaming sword, which always reminds me of the terrific moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy puts his hand on his chest and makes a solemn “leap” of faith by willingly stepping out over the edge of a seemingly bottomless chasm; Tom, I believe, is likewise showing a belief in something beyond himself. And of course there are the frequent spoken and cinematic suggestions of death as “a road to awe”; The Fountain frequently shows Thomas and Tommy walking down corridors toward the light.
Now, in that final touching moment when Tommy steps into the light and has his awakening, he steps into his present, joining Izzi for a walk in the snow. So, again, I agree, this affirms our need to “embrace our earthly existence.” But let’s not forget that Tom’s breakthrough about his own mortality comes only after Izzi’s death—both in the Tommy chapter, with Izzi as flesh and blood, and in the Tom chapter, with Izzi represented by the dying tree. Like you, my personal philosophy about death is that we just don’t know what happens, and I’m grateful that The Fountain never specifically says what the afterlife is, or even if there is one. But to me the reason Tommy’s transformation is so triumphant, and the reason Izzi, in the quasi-afterlife, smiles back at him with pride, isn’t because he accepts that he will die but because he accepts that his death may not be The End. So when I suggest that The Fountain has a spiritual, religious view of everlasting life, I don’t mean to imply that it’s specifically Christian, for example, just that it isn’t purely scientific. This is a film about appreciating life in the moment, but just as much, in my opinion, it’s a film about faith, about believing that death isn’t The End—or at least allowing for that possibility.
EH: That’s well said, and perhaps I overstated the film’s secular aspects at the expense of its spiritual ones. What’s interesting about the film is how thoroughly it intertwines its evocations of a possible afterlife with its celebration of present-tense life on Earth. It is steadfastly opposed to the inquisitor’s form of religion, which concerns the mortification of the flesh and the rejection of earthly life; the film suggests that, whatever spiritual transcendence might be awaiting us after death, we should never live only for that moment. It’s about living for what’s on Earth rather than for the hope of what lies beyond. So while the film undoubtedly deals with Christian iconography and the hope for an afterlife, it essentially places the afterlife on equal footing with mortal existence. Even the image of the tree as a symbol for transcendence suggests that the afterlife might exist within the natural world: the Mayan guide believes that his father lives on as a part of the world, his body transmuted into a tree, its leaves and its fruit, so that his memory can be spread throughout the world, carried on the wind or in the stomach of a bird. Thus when Tommy plants a tree over Izzi’s grave, it’s a symbolic gesture acknowledging that her memory will live on within the world, even if her physical presence is gone—regardless of what other afterlife she may or may not have moved on to.
Still, there’s no denying that the film’s climax is deeply mystical, in a way that preserves the mystery of the afterlife while obviously propelling its characters towards their various encounters with what comes next. The conquistador eats of the tree of life and is transformed into flora bursting from the soil (like the guide’s father who becomes a tree, and maybe like Izzi herself once her own tree grows over and into her bones). The space traveler enters the heart of the dying star (earlier described as the Mayan underworld) and rushes joyfully into the light. Moreover, Aronofsky’s aesthetic sensibility here seems to be aligned thoroughly with the magical and the spiritual. The soaring music of Aronofsky’s musical collaborator Clint Mansell (who has scored all of Aronofsky’s films) is achingly spiritual in its tidal pulsing, which comes to a momentary pause in sync with the imagery’s temporary reduction to a single point of white light in the middle of empty blackness, presaging the explosive resurgence where Tom/Tommy hurtles towards his final moment of understanding. I think Aronofsky is tapping into mythic and religious imagery as a way of suggesting the plenitude of humanity’s imaginative attempts to grapple with the essentially unknowable nature of death.
The finale is a kaleidoscopic outpouring of brilliant imagery, as the spacefaring incarnation of Tommy climbs up the tree and propels himself into the vacuum, into a separate bubble that hovers above the tree—as elegant and profound a visualization of leaving one’s obsessions behind as Aronofsky has crafted thus far. The film’s visual effects were crafted largely not through CGI but by magnifying and filming chemical reactions occurring in petri dishes, so that the nebulae and star fields through which this space traveler floats are actually enlargements of the microscopic processes that occur within the human body and within all life. It’s appropriate that this film about the wonder and pain of material existence should imply, in its own means of construction, that the cosmic and the miniscule are unified: one can go looking for answers in the bonding of molecules or in the furthest reaches of the heavens and find the same thing.
And throughout it all, Tommy himself remains earthbound and grounded, imagining, reading and/or writing about Mayan legends and transcendence in deep space even as, on Earth in his transitory form, he comes to terms with his own human-scale struggle to accept his wife’s too-young death, as well as his own eventual demise. No matter how strenuously Aronofsky’s images hurl the film into the cosmos, towards the barrier between life and death, there’s always that anchor of earthliness: a half-playful, half-sad snowball fight; the stark white vista surrounding the plain brown rectangle of Izzi’s gravesite at her funeral; the several-times-repeated flash of a younger, healthier Izzi, in a bright red dress, playing a game of tag with her husband; Tommy whispering to the back of his wife’s neck, the hairs on her neck standing up at the brush of his breath, evoking the textured surface of the tree of life that the space traveler tries to nurture towards Xiabalba.
The most affecting and potent of these earthbound images, though, is also the most heartbreaking. It’s an image that, for me, redeems the wallowing-in-misery sensibility that I detect in Requiem for a Dream. Tommy, in the moments immediately after Izzi’s death, assaults the hospital workers and then, desperately, tries to breathe life back into his wife, slobbering and weeping into her open mouth. It’s a bleak, horrible image—and one of the rare moments in all of cinema that literally brings tears to my eyes every time I see it—but whereas I felt like the misery in Requiem for a Dream was often false and contrived, this moment rings true as the unthinking reaction of a man who has just lost all of the hopes to which he had been so stubbornly clinging for so long. It’s one of those moments that ground the film’s more fanciful excursions in concrete reality, that provide an emotional center for the film’s exploration of love and loss and the hope for eternity. You described the film perfectly before, in a single word: “layered.” And at moments like this, all the layers fold together into a forceful, densely packed burst of emotional catharsis, before once again splitting, mitosis-like, into multiple planes of reality and existence.
JB: If we weren’t before, we’re on the same page now. Interestingly, though, the moment that brings me to tears each time I see The Fountain is a triumphant one: the moment when Thomas passes through the passageway of the temple and finds, sure enough, awe. “Behold!” he says, tears welling in his eyes, in what is easily one of my favorite moments in all of cinema. Talk about the power of one little word! It’s a moment that’s both specific and universal, revealing the overwhelming relief of a man who has spent so much of his life searching, a man who only in the moment that he finds what he’s looking for allows his previous doubt to flash across his face, while also revealing what it means to arrive at the end of a long journey. It’s a moment that at once affirms Tommy’s quest for bodily eternal life while suggesting with its biblical tree that such eternity is found only through faith (which, indeed, is how Thomas got past the flaming sword in the first place). As you already pointed out, the tree doesn’t give Thomas the kind of eternal life he was looking for. In essence, it kills him to create new life, which only supports your reading about the importance of embracing our earthly life. Still, Thomas’ “Behold!” moment is profoundly beautiful and beautifully profound. Back when we discussed Requiem for a Dream I told you that one of the reasons I’m conflicted about that movie is because, relatively speaking, I don’t think it’s all that challenging to evoke the emotions that dominate that film: despair, horror and revulsion. This is different. When Thomas says “Behold!” we don’t just see his awe, we feel it, as Aronofsky matches the narrative’s emotional crescendo with that truly magical image of the tree of life. (If 2011’s Tree of Life has a tree of life in it, I have doubts that even Terrence Malick can rival the magnificence of that image.) It’s not uncommon for films themselves to fill us with a sense of awe—that’s why we love movies—but it is rare that we feel awe in unison with an onscreen character.
And while we’re on the subject of favorites, I must double back to discuss Mansell’s score, which is absolutely my favorite of this young century. Like The Fountain itself, it effortlessly sways between themes of sadness, hopelessness and loss to emotions of passion, elation and triumph without ever losing its cohesiveness; it feels just as appropriate in the conquistador chapter as in the futuristic one. It blends the strings of the Kronos Quartet with some almost tribal drumbeats and mystical choral echoes—always dripping with consequence, lingering around the characters to convey heartache, urgency and romance, sometimes all at once. But more than anything, Mansell’s score is propulsive, moving us forward, forward, forward toward that fateful moment of consequence at which point, as you said, the score goes silent, leaving us floating uncertainly, as if thrust upward by a wave that just as quickly disappeared beneath us. And before we can fall, the score resumes again, in a bigger wave that propels us to The Fountain’s peak of emotional wonderment. It is, in a word, awesome. And as far as I’m concerned it might be the film’s most significant achievement.
EH: If it’s not the film’s most significant achievement, it’s certainly one of them. Mansell’s score, as played by the sympathetic musicians of the Kronos Quartet and Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, is perfectly attuned to the emotions of Aronofsky’s film. It’s a score of big gestures that churns with slowly building emotion throughout the film, building up to the epic catharsis of the ending, matching note for note the mounting intensity in Aronofsky’s images. Mansell’s scores for all of Aronofsky’s films have been effective, particularly the techno-industrial paranoia of his Pi score, but for The Fountain, just as Aronofsky launched himself to the next level in his filmmaking as though he was leaping towards an exploding nebula, Mansell joined his friend and collaborator by crafting the best music of his career.
That’s fitting, because The Fountain is certainly the best film of Aronofsky’s career as well (though I eagerly await the soon-to-be-released Black Swan). Interestingly, Aronofsky made this masterpiece not by retreating from some of the excesses that marred his first two films, but by diving headfirst into them. The film is every bit as emotionally raw and melodramatic as its successors. It’s stylistically hyper and heightens its emotional stakes through frenzied cutting and bursts of gaudy imagery—though Aronofsky also seems to have learned the value of slowing down for quieter moments. Even its symbolism is in some ways as obvious and broad as in the earlier films, though the complexity of the ideas Aronofsky is exploring here, as compared to the comparatively simple psychological states evoked by Pi and Requiem for a Dream, makes a big difference.
One of my favorite of the film’s symbolic constructs—and there are many, considering how thoroughly the film is constructed around parallels between its three levels of story—is the equivalence between Izzi and the tree of life itself. The connection is made explicit by the parallel shots of the bald spacefarer whispering to the tree, the bark of which is dotted with very human-like hairs, and the shots of Tommy kissing Izzi’s neck and reassuring her. In this way, Aronofsky connects Tommy’s obsession with saving Izzi to the spaceman’s obsession with saving the tree. If only he can find the cure, if only he can reach Xiabalba. Following this parallel further, the way the spaceman eats from the tree during his voyage suggests the degree to which our obsessions can provide sustenance as they become the sole reason and focus of our existence. Tommy’s obsession begins as a desire to keep Izzi alive, to cure her, but over time the obsession becomes its own justification: he increasingly pushes Izzi aside and pours himself into the work that he’s doing for her, and then even after she dies he can’t let go of the obsession. It sustains him, becomes his reason to live, the center of his existence, occupying the space once occupied by Izzi herself. The futuristic segment literalizes the degree to which obsession replaces love by making the tree a physical replacement for the absent Izzi. And in the end, the spaceman must leave the tree behind to reach nirvana, just as Tommy must let go of his quest against death to achieve some measure of contentment; only the conquistador doesn’t abandon his obsession, and as a result meets a fate nearly as grisly as the addicts’ misery at the end of Requiem for a Dream.
JB: Good observations. Somehow I hadn’t really considered that last part, perhaps because Thomas’ death is the perfect climax to the film’s fascination with death as a pathway to rebirth, which of course brings us to another of the film’s symbolic constructs: the use of circles as visual representations of an eternal life cycle—the circle of life, if you will. Circles are everywhere in The Fountain, most obviously in the form of Thomas and Tommy’s ring and Tom’s spherical space pod, but also in that glassy center of the altarpiece (which, by the way, appears to include strands of the queen’s hair); in the image on Tommy’s computer screen when he talks with Izzi at the lab; in the pattern of the floor at the queen’s palace chamber and at the hospital where Izzi dies; in the light at the center of the map where “O,” not “X,” marks the location of the hidden temple; in the beam of light on the museum floor, where Izzi stands and looks heavenward before collapsing; in that tunnel of stars through which Tom’s space pod ascends toward the nebula, and then beyond; in the tattooed bands on Tom’s ring finger and arm; in the multiple extreme closesups of characters’ eyes; and, heck, even in the brain scans of the monkey that Tommy puts up on the light board. “Circles, he leads us in circles,” grumbles one of Thomas’ fellow conquistadors at their camp in the jungle. He’s referring to the priest. He might as well be talking about Aronofsky.
Like you, I think that The Fountain is Aronofsky’s best film to date (and, like you, I’m excited about Black Swan, in part because I’ve always felt that Natalie Portman dependably turns in performances that match the richness of her material). The Fountain’s only weakness, in my opinion, is its occasional tendency to slip beyond emotional rawness into full-on melodrama and clichÈ, most glaringly in the scene in which Burstyn’s Lillian delivers the tried and true “You’re Reckless” lecture, which blessedly stops just short of a demand for Tommy to put his stethoscope on the table and leave her office. And having said that, I suppose that this is as good a time as any to turn our attention to what I believe to be Aronofsky’s second best film, The Wrestler, because that movie seems to divide its supporters and detractors almost exclusively according to whether people find it appropriately emotionally raw or unforgivably melodramatic. Me? I tend to think of it as appropriately emotionally raw and acceptably melodramatic, but we’ll come back to that later.
The Wrestler is most famous for reviving the career of Mickey Rourke, who in his portrayal of professional wrestler Randy “the Ram” stirs emotions both within the frame and around it, triggering thoughts of just about everything we know about the actor. As Randy, Rourke flashes the charm that made him a star in the first place and the magnetism and sensitivity that led people to call him the second coming of Brando. He utilizes the awkward athleticism that defined his lackluster boxing career. He mirrors, through the actions of the narrative, the addictive and self-abusing behaviors that ended Rourke’s first acting career and nearly his life. And, through the film’s many closeups, he displays the botched reconstructive surgery that makes it difficult to connect the current Rourke with his younger self. Around the time of the 2009 Academy Awards, for which Rourke was nominated for Best Actor, I remember Aronofsky making a comment to the effect that his greatest personal achievement with The Wrestler was preventing Rourke from hiding behind sunglasses on screen. He was joking, but maybe only slightly. With an emotional nakedness that is sometimes difficult to regard, Rourke consumes the spotlight in this film in a way that very few actors (or actresses) ever have. And that’s why I’d like to start our discussion of this film by asking you this question: Do you think of The Wrestler as principally Aronofsky’s film, or Rourke’s?
EH: This is going to sound like a copout, but how could it be anything other than both? There is no question that this film, in some respects, doesn’t just star Rourke but is about him, is about the associations we inevitably make in seeing him onscreen like this, about the meta-narrative implications of the actor’s own life in connection to Randy, about the all-too-obvious fact that when we regard Randy’s body, scarred up and distorted, supposedly, by years of pummeling and abuse and steroids, what we’re looking at is not a special effect but the actual body of the actor playing Randy. There’s a kind of sublime cognitive dissonance at work here, as we have to accept that Randy looks the way he does because of years of pro wrestling under increasingly strenuous and damaging conditions, while simultaneously knowing that Randy actually looks the way he does because that’s the way Rourke really looks. Sometimes in a film, an effect that modifies or exaggerates an actor’s form can be distracting if we become too aware of its artificiality, but here we’re forced to confront the opposite: in the complete absence of artificial distortions or special effects, Rourke’s body is already a perfect fit for Randy’s persona, as though the actor had lived his hard life, which so evocatively parallels Randy’s, merely as preparation for this role. Very few films have ever achieved such a perfect synthesis between an actor and his role, as text and subtext and metatext flow into one another continuously every time Rourke is onscreen. The result is disconcerting, as it’s hard to know where the boundaries between actor and character can be drawn, or if they even exist.
At the same time, this is unmistakably an Aronofsky film. It is Aronofsky who has built this character around Rourke, in some respects using Rourke as a raw material, and it is Aronofsky who shapes and channels the web of associations that flow through the audience’s reaction to Rourke/Randy. Randy fits comfortably among the other Aronofsky protagonists we’ve been discussing here. He is in some respects as much an addict as Harry and Marion are in Requiem for a Dream, substituting the visceral thrill of being in the ring, feeding off of the roar of the crowd, for the rush of a drug high. Like the long-term addict, Randy has learned to cope with diminishing highs and deeper lows. The roar of the crowd has dulled to an occasional lackluster cheer, as the euphoria of fame has faded into sparsely attended nostalgia shows and amateurish, low-budget wrestling events at small local venues. And his body is crumbling, creaking with age, showing signs of all the strain he’s put on it over the years; his muscles are still bulging, but in a way that makes him seem misshapen and lumpy rather than fit or strong. Still, Randy is driven to continue pursuing this career into the dead end it’s obviously leading to. Like the anti-heroes of Aronofsky’s first two films, Randy seems bent on hurtling himself towards destruction upon the rocks of his obsession, ignoring his obvious medical problems to inject more steroids into his veins, cutting himself up and subjecting himself to possibly fatal violence in a desperate bid to reinvigorate his career. Randy never has the clear moment of epiphany that Tommy does in The Fountain, though Randy is similarly torn between an obsessive internal urge and the pull of family and romantic connections.
Aronofsky tells this story—which, as you suggest, intentionally flirts with clichÈ and melodrama and occasionally embraces them outright—with a straightforwardness and directness that’s quite a change from the cosmic bombast of The Fountain. But the director’s signature touch is still felt. At one point, Aronofsky films Randy getting ready for his job at a deli counter as though the wrestler were preparing for a battle; the camera trails Randy as he walks through the supermarket’s employee-only areas, making it seem as though he’s winding through backstage corridors towards the ring, while on the soundtrack the roar of the crowd subtly fades in. It’s a smaller, subtler touch than usual for the hyperstylization-prone Aronofsky, but it’s recognizable as yet another example of his penchant for allowing external reality and internal dreams/fantasies to bleed into one another. And it’s a deeply moving moment, suggesting simultaneously that Randy is always mentally occupied with his wrestling career, to the exclusion of everything else, while also raising the possibility that Randy might find as much satisfaction in a more ordinary life if he were to commit himself to life outside the ring. As you said, Rourke occupies the spotlight in this film in an extraordinary way. But it’s worth stressing that it’s Aronofsky who’s training that spotlight on the actor, and because of that this film is not just an actor’s showcase but a remarkable collaboration between actor and director.
JB: Yeah, that’s pretty much the way I see it, too. To go back to my original question, if I had to pick one I’d say this is Rourke’s movie—because of the potency of the performance, because of the way it inspires thoughts of the actor’s personal journey, because of the way even Hollywood cynics were swept up by Rourke’s comeback and because when I think of The Wrestler the first thing that flashes into my mind is the movie’s instantly unforgettable promotional poster, featuring the Ram slumped over the top rope, his hair dangling in front of his face in a way that perfectly conveys not just the themes of the film but the way that Rourke has always been distant and mysterious even when in plain sight. I think even more than it’s a great film—and I do think it’s just worthy of being considered great—The Wrestler is a great moment in cinema, a kind of you-had-to-be-there event that sweetens the impact of everything that happens within the frame. But having said all of that, The Wrestler is Aronofsky’s film, too, in large part because he’s willing to let it be Rourke’s film. He cedes the spotlight. That’s no small thing for any director, but it’s a monumental accomplishment for Aronofsky, who over the first half of his short career seemed to be doing everything he could to capture our attention while remaining outside the frame.
Whereas Pi and Requiem for a Dream are defined by their showy technique perhaps as much as by their themes, with The Wrestler Aronofsky retreats into the background. The film isn’t without directorial flourishes, as you’ve already pointed out, but Aronofsky’s approach is comparable to that of a feature writer who allows the eloquent quotes of his subject to do the talking. In The Wrestler, Rourke’s face alone is eloquent. And just like great directing is John Ford’s doorway shots, Robert Altman’s slow zooms, Alfred Hitchcock’s judicious closeups, Michael Mann’s moody nightscapes, David Lean’s stunning panoramas and Martin Scorsese’s carefully choreographed follow shots, sometimes great directing is as simple as pointing a camera at an actor’s face. One of my favorite shots in the entire film is the one of Randy hiding in a bathroom stall with a steroid-loaded syringe, anxiously scanning the room to ensure no one catches him in the act of shooting up. Structurally, there’s nothing remarkable about that shot. It has no movement other than the actor’s. It has no metaphoric lighting. There’s nothing to its composition that would suggest it’s a powerful shot if you saw it mapped out on a storyboard. But the shot is powerful. Why? Because it’s pointed at Rourke’s face. That’s enough to make it superb.
Of course, there are shots in this film in which the cinematography enhances Rourke’s performance. I don’t mean to imply otherwise. And the follow shot through the employees-only area of the supermarket is an apt example of an instance in which Aronofsky simultaneously evokes the themes of his film and pokes us in the ribs to ensure he isn’t forgotten. But on the whole, The Wrestler is what I’d call a “point and shoot” picture. And in this case I mean that as a compliment, because it shows Aronofsky has the confidence and the common sense not to complicate the simple. One of the most unforgettable moments in the movie is when Randy allows a tear to roll down his cheek as he looks into the eyes of his estranged daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood) and tells her that he’s a screw up, a failure as a father, “an old broken down piece of meat” and that he just doesn’t want her to hate him. It’s one of the most poignant moments in the film, but it’s also one of the most jarring, because Aronofsky cuts from an unremarkable shot of Randy and Stephanie walking down the boardwalk to what seems to be the middle of this soul-baring conversation. It’s as if a shot bridging these two scenes was accidentally left on the cutting room floor. But even though the cut is awkward—the kind of transition that seems to violate Filmmaking 101—is there any denying that it works, that Rourke’s heartbreaking performance is so tremendous that how we get to the scene becomes irrelevant so long as when we get there we have a clear view? I don’t think there is. And maybe that’s why I consider this Rourke’s movie, while admiring the heck out of Aronofsky for allowing it to be.
EH: It really is no small thing for a director as prone to excess and overkill as Aronofsky to make a picture this intimate, where the focus is not on directorial flourishes but on the amazing performance at the film’s core. The film has an off-the-cuff realism that’s bolstered by the handheld camerawork and the casual tone of the performances. There’s an appealing awkwardness, especially, to the hesitant, flirty interactions of Randy and the stripper Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), who like Randy is reaching a pivotal point in her career where she’s going to have to realize that she’s past her prime in a job that demands youth. In one scene, Cassidy (Pam in her offstage life) takes Randy shopping to pick out a present for the daughter he’s neglected for a long time. Afterwards, the washed-up wrestler and the maturing stripper go out for a beer, and their patter, their uneasy flirting, is so much fun to watch and listen to because it feels somehow real. Rourke naturally overpowers the other, less central performances in this film, but Marisa Tomei, in this scene and several others, brings a lot to Cassidy’s slow-dawning realization that she, like Randy, needs to figure out how to transition into a life that doesn’t involve performing for crowds. As the two share their love of ë80s music and bitch about Kurt Cobain’s contribution to the death of hair metal, the chemistry between them is palpable and natural, not at all like the usual movie idea of romantic chemistry, but all the more affecting for it.
It’s interesting that a director previously known for his deterministic plot structures and showy technique should so thoroughly embrace the comparatively relaxed aesthetic of The Wrestler. Several scenes are even improvised, and feel like it: Randy getting into the groove of his deli counter work, making a game of it, playing to the customers the way he’d often play to the crowds who gathered to see him wrestle. In that scene, you can see Randy entertaining the idea of transitioning to a normal life, finding some fulfillment wherever he can outside the ring; he’s toying with the idea that he can have fun in a job other than wrestling, that he can still be himself even when he’s not Randy the Ram. Of course, this scene is mirrored by the later deli counter sequence where everything goes wrong, with the old woman who can’t decide how much potato salad she wants and then the customer who identifies Randy as a former wrestler, the final straw that reminds Randy of just how sad his life has become. There are other moments, small incidents filmed from a fly-on-the-wall perspective that enhances the film’s realism. Randy’s interactions with the neighborhood kids are touching, both as an example of how good Randy can be with kids—a stark contrast to the way he’s abandoned his own daughter, and perhaps a suggestion of what a together, cleaned-up Randy could mean to Pam and her son—and a sign of Randy’s constant need to be idolized and cheered on. The kids look up to him as a giant hero, and he feeds on that the way he feeds on the roar of the crowd at his matches. That desperate need for validation can also seem pathetic, as in the scene where he asks one of the kids to come play Nintendo with him, and only gets reminders, through references to Call of Duty, of how out of touch he is with this era. Randy isn’t just aging, he’s losing relevance, stuck in the era of Axl Rose and primitive, pixilated video games.
JB: Randy is stuck because he’s an addict. We used the word “obsession” before, but at least after his heart attack Randy’s lifestyle as the Ram could safely be called a full-on addiction. For Randy, it’s about the roar of the crowd, the adulation of the kids, the action figures, the video games, the autograph-seeking fans, the camaraderie of the wrestlers and a general sense of purpose. But as happy as those things make Randy, they’re also killing him.
That’s why when people referred to last year’s Crazy Heart as “The Wrestler in cowboy boots” it was as misleading as it was appropriate. Sure, like The Wrestler, Crazy Heart is about an over-the-hill entertainer with self-destructive habits who falls in love with a single mom while hoping to reconcile with his own estranged child. But the key difference between the two protagonists is that only one of them is being killed by the very thing he loves. In Crazy Heart, the hard-drinking habits of Jeff Bridges’ Bad Blake are incidental to and/or directly prohibitive of his success and big-picture happiness; the only thing that Bad Blake loses by not drinking is drinking. In The Wrestler, however, if Randy gives up being the Ram he might gain relationships with Pam or Stephanie, but in the process he’ll lose everything else that he loves—not just a leisure activity, not just a lifestyle but his entire self-identity.
If we look at Randy’s wrestling persona as an addiction, the two scenes at the deli counter make even more sense. It’s common for addicts who are stunned into recovery by a near-death experience to go through a period of euphoria, thrilled at the simplicity of life when not under the influence and empowered by their (brief) demonstration of self-control. That’s exactly what we see in The Wrestler’s first deli counter scene, when Randy realizes, hey, this isn’t so bad after all; I can do this! Alas, the other thing that’s common among newly recovering addicts is relapse, often to horrific extremes. In the second deli counter scene, when a fan confronts Randy with his wrestling persona—this film’s version of an alcoholic having a drink thrust into his hand—Randy falls off the edge, intentionally thrusting his hand into the meat slicer and quitting on the spot—not just from his job but from his effort at “sobriety.” Thus, his decision to go through with his rematch with the Ayatollah is the equivalent of an “I can’t stop being what I am, so fuck it” bender.
And that leads us back to the topic of identity, which is one of The Wrestler’s dominant themes. In the scene at the strip club, when Randy brings Pam/Cassidy a card to thank her for helping him pick out Stephanie’s coat, she rebuffs his intimacy by drawing a line between her professional and personal self. “You think I’m, like, this stripper, and I’m not,” she says, emphasizing the word “stripper” like it’s a slur. “I’m a mom,” she insists. For Pam, at least in her own mind, there’s a place where the public persona ends and the private person begins. “The club and the real world, they don’t mix,” she says. But for Randy there’s no such divide between the ring and the real world. He’s always the Ram because he’s always Randy—two intertwined public identities for a guy who is really named Robin. As with Mad Men’s Don Draper (at least until recently), the public act has become the private truth. On stage and off, there is only “Randy the Ram.”
EH: Very true. It’s a point that Aronofsky drives home by having Randy continually insist that he always be called Randy, while his real name keeps reappearing to remind him that he hasn’t always been Randy the Ram, and that the day might come when he’s once again “just” Robin Ramzinski. The doctor who sees him after his heart attack calls him Mr. Ramzinski, his ethnic real last name and the source of his animalistic stage nickname. His deli badge announces him as Robin, his given name but one he seemingly doesn’t identify with at all. The subtext here is that names mean a lot, and both Randy and Pam/Cassidy are very aware of that power. These are characters who are trying to craft their own alternate identities, to define what they’re called and thus what they are. When Pam insists that she’s a mom, not a stripper, she’s choosing to emphasize the part of herself with which she seeks to identify, even though in fact she’s both a mom and a stripper. That’s why she maintains the separation between Cassidy at work and Pam outside of work. When Randy meets her for the shopping trip, we learn that he knows her real name, but she wants him to call her different names in different contexts, so that she can maintain the illusion that Pam, the mother and private person, has nothing to do with Cassidy the stripper. There’s always the question of who she is at any given moment.
No such questions need to be asked about Randy, who’s always Randy the Ram. And yet, when the deli customer asks him if he used to be a famous wrestler—ironically, there wouldn’t be any question if not for the “Robin” nametag that Randy had been so ticked off about—Randy denies it. In light of the film’s sporadic Christian references, this is Randy’s version of Peter and the cock’s crow, as Randy repeatedly denies, essentially, that he knows himself. He’s denying his own identity, denying the very core of his being, which is why it drives him over the edge so completely: in rejecting the identity he’s assumed, both in the ring and out, he realizes just how much that persona has come to mean to him. As you say, Randy doesn’t neatly separate his public and private identities like Pam, who in talking about herself sometimes seems to consider her stripper self and her personal self totally different people.
Randy’s disconnect, on the other hand, might be described as a gap between his past self and his present self, a split that his entire current lifestyle is designed to minimize. He refuses to accept that he can’t—or at least shouldn’t—wrestle anymore. He refuses to accept that his time has passed, that he’s never again going to wrestle for sellout crowds at Madison Square Garden, that he’s no longer going to be the star of video games (the crude Nintendo game is a reminder of just how long ago Randy was famous enough for that honor), that his posters won’t decorate the walls of the current generation of boys, and his action figures won’t be in their toy boxes. It’s because of this blindness to his own diminishing relevance that Randy keeps participating in these bottom-of-the-barrel events that are more about blood and pain than the usual wrestling theatricality—Randy’s self-destructive addiction to wrestling leads him to events like the one where he rolls around in broken glass and barbed wire and gets stapled with a staple gun. It’s here that Aronofsky further explores the allusion that he had dropped, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, earlier in the film, when he has Cassidy compare Randy to the Jesus, not of the Bible, but of Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ: “they beat the shit out of him for two hours, and he just takes it,” as apt a summary as any of that movie. In the same way, Randy just takes whatever gets thrown at him, as though as long as he’s wrestling, it’s all the same to him. With Cassidy’s earlier reference to The Passion in mind, it’s hard not to look at that long sequence, where Randy is battered and streaked with blood, as the start of a road towards Golgotha that will end with the film’s final shot, of Randy standing atop the ropes with his arms spread wide before he leaps into the air.
JB: That last shot is a humdinger for so many reasons. As you said, there’s the religious allusion, with Randy willingly climbing up on his cross, sacrificing himself. But on top of that, there’s the scene’s extraordinary mixture of tragedy and triumph. The tragedy begins, of course, with Randy’s decision to wrestle in the first place, walking away from Pam, who by her very presence shows that Randy indeed does have something to live for beyond his adoring fans. But before Randy climbs to the top rope, there’s that wonderful moment when he looks back to the curtained opening of the dressing room area, sees that Pam is no longer there and shakes his head while wearing an expression that could alternately read as, “Fuck, I blew it” or “I knew that fucking bitch didn’t care about me.” The ambiguity is in Randy’s expression (another moment of Rourke brilliance), but it’s also a product of all the scenes leading up to that moment and the number of times that Randy’s view of the real world is surprisingly accurate or depressingly inaccurate (which is to say that we can just as easily imagine Randy blaming Pam as holding himself responsible).
Then Randy reaches the top rope, and it’s here that Aronofsky enhances the scene with his direction. The last time we saw Randy preparing for his signature “Ram Jam,” Aronofsky presented him in a pair of wide shots that as much as anything accentuated the undignified nature of his surroundings: a banquet room so small that Randy’s head looks as if it might bump one of the halogen lights mounted on the ceiling. Just like the film’s opening shot, featuring a post-match Randy sitting in an elementary school classroom, these shots of Randy’s first ascent to the top rope are all about his career descent. And so for Randy’s comeback match against the Ayatollah, Aronofsky mirrors those earlier shots. And this time what otherwise might seem to be a humble theater feels more like Madison Square Garden. This time Randy’s ascent isn’t ironic. This time Randy’s summit, though modest in respect to the peak of his career, isn’t something to be ashamed about. This is a genuine triumph—Randy’s legs surprisingly steady as he straightens up, the fans of the theater balcony applauding behind him, the ceiling of the theater nowhere near his head. In this moment, Randy is refusing to let his fear of death stop him from living the life that makes him happy. In this country we love people for that, we idolize them for that. We call that bravery and heroism. So our hearts swell for Randy. But as soon as they do, it’s as if the aching feeling in our chests reminds us of Randy’s fragile ticker, and suddenly this looks like suicide. Suddenly this triumph is tragic again; he’s an addict out of control. Randy thumps his elbow pads and tears well in his eyes. He’s overcome by…by…by what? By all of it, I suppose, just like us. And then he jumps. Wow! How many other films can you think of that squeeze so much conflicting emotion into their final frames?
EH: Part of the brilliance of that final sequence, as you point out, is how cleverly and subtly it exploits the visual language and narrative beats of the motivational film, the comeback story, which is a beloved genre in American storytelling. We do love seeing the underdog wind up on top, we do love seeing the down-on-his-luck former great claw his way back from defeat. And in that light Randy’s final wrestling match is stirring and exciting, a real Rocky moment where the hero who’s been beaten on, both literally and metaphorically, throughout the film, is finally redeemed and reinvigorated. Aronofsky evokes these emotions, not to undercut them entirely, but to intertwine them with the sadness and the sense of loss that go along with this in-the-ring victory. The irony implicit in the film’s treatment of the usual comeback trope is that the film’s final moment is simultaneously Randy’s exultant comeback and his tragic end. He achieves a measure of glory in the ring—and is genuinely moving in delivering his pre-fight speech about how much wrestling means to him—but outside the ring he’s squandered opportunities to heal his relationship with his daughter and develop a romance with Pam. Whether the film ends with his death or not—and the cut to black is theoretically ambiguous but in practice feels final—it’s obvious that Randy’s moment of glory here is destined to be fleeting, another brief victory in a life full of disappointments. He says that wrestling is his whole life, that he belongs in the ring, but he fails to recognize his own role in making that true: it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy for a man who has continually sabotaged any chance to create something meaningful in the world beyond the arena.
This tension is implicit in the contrast between Randy and his opponent in that final match. The Ayatollah, Bob (Ernest Miller), has moved on with his life in a way that Randy hasn’t. Before the show, Randy wants to talk about the match, but Bob just wants to chat about cars; he owns a used car lot and that’s his real interest now, not wrestling. It’s obvious that for Bob, this match is just a good paycheck, and during the fight he urges Randy to go easy, to just go through the motions so they can put on a decent show and then go home to their real lives. He doesn’t understand that this is Randy’s life. Bob says, when he sees Randy obviously struggling and hurt, that they can just end the match there, that Randy can pin him and that will be enough for the crowd, but Randy knows—or likes to believe, anyway—that it isn’t enough, that the crowds want to see the Ram Jam, and he’s determined to deliver what the crowds want, no matter what. So he climbs up on those ropes as though climbing onto a cross, to sacrifice himself, not for anyone’s sins, but for the pleasure of the crowd, the enthusiastic audience whose roaring and cheering sustains and fulfills Randy. It’s a metaphor, perhaps, for the entertainer’s complete submersion in his craft: Randy offers up his body and his being for the thrills of those anonymous throngs.
JB: For the thrills of those anonymous throngs, yes. But also out of respect for his art. One thing that touches me each time I see this film is how respectful it is of professional wrestling, while also recognizing the sport’s inherent goofiness and danger. In the final match, when Randy begins to struggle in the ring, Bob recognizes it and says, “I’ll take it from here,” then throws himself over Randy for the illusion of being backflipped. Heading into the match, both men know that the Ram is “The Face” and the Ayatollah is “The Heel,” and that tonight “The Face” will win, delighting the fans, but both men also know that whatever happens in the ring will be the result of Randy and Bob working together, creating the illusion of dominance where in fact there is teamwork. The Wrestler begins with a collage of promotional posters and trade magazines that give us a sense of the illustriousness of Randy’s professional wrestling career, but the real reason we know how good he was is because of the way that the other wrestlers respond to Randy when he enters a room. He’s a legend. And though it’s also clear that he’s an old man in a young man’s profession—it’s implied that all the other wrestlers grew up idolizing him—none of the wrestlers ever regard Randy as if the sport has passed him by, as if he’s irrelevant. In the match at the start of the film, Randy’s mohawked opponent is obviously more athletic, and both men know it. But professional wrestling isn’t just a sport, it’s an art—it’s showmanship. For as long as Randy gets the crowd on their feet and sacrifices his body for his craft, he will belong.
That sends me back to the Ram’s grisly match with Necro Butcher (Dylan Summers), which ends with both men bloodied from thumbtacks, glass, barbed wire, staples and who knows what else. From a distance, it’s a pitiful spectacle. Randy has become the professional wrestling equivalent of a porn star who rises to fame in her early 20s on account of having an incredible body and who 15 years later is trying to maintain her relevancy by treating her orifices as if they are experimental jungle gyms for Ripley’s Believe It or Not! To us, Randy’s desperation is unmistakable. But that’s not the way Randy’s peers see it. They revere him for the stunts, for his commitment, for refusing to let his physical decline impede his showmanship. Their reaction reminds me of a quote from another sports movie, Bull Durham, in which Susan Surandon’s Annie Savoy says of Kevin Costner’s Crash Davis, “You have to respect a ballplayer who is just trying to finish out the season.” That’s what Randy’s trying to do: finish out the (indefinite) season.
Randy’s match with Necro Butcher ends with his heart attack. And if that illustrates how dangerous professional wrestling is, all those other moments of camaraderie show how fulfilling it can be. As a sport, professional wrestling is “fake,” but it’s real enough to almost kill Randy and real enough to make him genuinely happy. It’s as if Aronofsky, working from a screenplay by Robert D. Siegel, is establishing that Randy’s decision to turn away from Pam isn’t only about feeding his ego. When Randy goes through that curtain and heads toward the ring, he’s heading back into the embrace of the people who have cared for him for so long, been there for him when he needed help. He’s heading back into the loving arms of the only family he knows. In that context, it’s hard to imagine Randy, or any of us, making a different decision. Back in The Fountain, we talked about how Tommy foolishly divorces himself from his precious time on Earth with Izzi. And so if we concede that Randy’s professional wrestling persona, in and out of the ring, has become his only reality, then in a sense Randy isn’t risking his life, he’s embracing it. Because for Randy, in the end, there is no life without wrestling. When that career ends, he’s dead anyway.
EH: That’s an interesting way to look at it, and it highlights the very different relationships of Aronofsky’s heroes to their different obsessions and addictions. All of these characters are consumed by a singular object that begins to constitute their entire identity, but in a way Aronofsky’s career so far can be split in half between the two films about selfish addicts and the two films about selfless obsessives. Max in Pi and the addicts of Requiem for a Dream are entirely self-involved and self-contained, locked into cycles of addiction where there’s little room for anyone else. But Randy and Tommy are different. Tommy absorbs himself in research in order to try to find a cure for his wife’s tumor, which is both selfish (of course he wants her to live) and selfless, in that his whole life, his every waking moment, is dedicated to trying to help someone else. In the process, he sacrifices the scant time he has left with his wife, which is why his obsession is seen as damaging, something to get over before it consumes him, but there’s still a big difference between Tommy’s intense focus on finding a cure and the addict’s compulsive need to get high. Randy, similarly, is addicted to making people happy. He’s addicted to entertaining people. He’s addicted to being liked and idolized. He gets high on wrestling, but what he gets high on, one senses, is the adulation of the crowd, the knowledge that he’s providing thrills to all those people who come to see him. Tommy’s mistake is turning away from a life he already has. Randy, if he was to kick the wrestling habit, would have to build that life from scratch, and his hesitant, one-step-forward-two-steps-back attempts at building relationships with Pam and Stephanie show just how difficult that would be for him. It’s much easier, in the end, to simply throw himself headlong into one last glorious gesture inside the ring.
This is really what Aronofsky’s films are about: the difficulty and the challenge of living a good, fulfilling life, the difficulty of overcoming one’s obsessions and limitations to connect with other people. It’s much easier to succumb, to bury oneself in whatever drug, whether literal or metaphorical, is at hand. In that respect, Aronofsky’s career thus far describes, not exactly a hopeful arc, but an arc that is increasingly open to the possibility of change and redemption. In Pi, Max had to obliterate his mind and personality to break his obsessive habits. In Requiem for a Dream, the central characters are all swallowed up and destroyed by their addictions, even if some of them go to their doom with smiles on their faces. But then, in The Fountain, Aronofsky opens up the possibility that these obsessions needn’t be a closed loop, that things can change, that people can break free of these cycles, even if it’s necessary to metaphorically bend space and time in order to do so. In The Wrestler, Randy doesn’t have any such grand means to resort to. He led a tough life and made bad decisions, failed people he cared about, abused his body. And in the end, he doesn’t quite succeed in remaking his life or atoning for the mistakes he’s made—but then, maybe he doesn’t want to, and that final shot allows Randy to simply be himself, even if that means following his obsession towards destruction.
JB: It strikes me that Aronofsky is at an interesting point in his career. Through four films, he has consistently wrestled with obsession, yes, but he’s done so with enough differentiation that I wonder if we’re zeroing in on that through-line simply because it’s the most consistent theme in what is still a very small collection of films. In a little over a week, Black Swan will become Aronofsky’s fifth film, and I’m curious to see which Aronofsky it resembles, because for all their similarities Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain and The Wrestler are quite different from each other. And so if we consider Pi, for all its artistry, more of an audition piece, perhaps Aronofsky has reused some of the themes and shots from his debut film only because he wishes he would have used them better the first time around. Then again, maybe Black Swan will send Aronofsky back to the bleak darkness of his first two films. To this point, I’ve managed to avoid the trailer for Black Swan. But I’ve seen the poster, and I haven’t been able to escape the general buzz of anticipation (even though I happily have no idea what the buzz is about). I’m excited—partly because I’ve especially enjoyed Aronofsky’s latest two pictures, but also because Aronofsky is at that special point of his career when we’re still trying to figure out what kind of an artist he is. Twelve years ago, he was anonymous to me. Somehow I have a feeling that after Black Swan I’ll think of Aronofsky differently. We’ll see.
Check back for Part II of this discussion, in which Jason and Ed will react to Black Swan, around December 13.
Ed Howard chronicles his film viewing at Only the Cinema.
Review: Chasing Portraits Is Welcome Personal Testimony, but Its Scope Is Narrow
Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.2.5
Before World War II, Poland’s Jewish population was the largest in Europe, numbering over three million. Afterward, only 10% of that populace remained. Although the current right-wing Polish government prefers to suppress this fact, the 300,000 surviving Jews faced continued persecution at the hands of gentile Poles—themselves the victims (though to a much lesser degree) of Nazi persecution. Today, when the number of Jews in Poland is well under 10,000, one can visit the old Jewish quarters in cities like Warsaw and Krakow, where street kiosks sell small plastic caricatures of Hasidic Jews. On the streets, though, you’re unlikely to encounter any actual Hasids.
In her trip to Warsaw in search of her great-grandfather’s lost paintings, Chasing Portraits director Elizabeth Rynecki stumbles across these figurines. As she observes in voiceover, there’s nothing overtly demeaning about the miniature, jovial, cartoonish Jews, but the image they project doesn’t feel right, given local history. And one must agree that there’s an undeniable aspect of minstrelsy to them: Unlike her great-grandfather Moshe’s textured scenes of Jewish life in Warsaw, they’re almost certainly not self-representations. Given the Jewish culture that was destroyed in Poland—and whose richness is embodied by Moshe’s few surviving paintings—the grinning trinkets seem all the more like frivolous kitsch.
Rynecki’s discovery of these unsettling souvenirs is potentially one of the most interesting parts of Chasing Portraits, given that she happens across them while on the trail of lost Jewish art. As a curator at a Warsaw museum observes to the filmmaker, Moshe’s work depicts traditional moments of Jewish culture in a distinctly modern sensibility, attesting to the robustness of the Jewish culture on the eve of its destruction. In this way, his paintings are the opposite of the post-facto plastic caricatures, and Rynecki’s confrontation with the mass-produced simulacra of absent Jews is a moment when her highly personal documentary almost extends toward a wider perspective. But she doesn’t linger for too long on what the Holocaust and Judaism mean in Poland today, as she’s on her way to ask a private collector named Wertheim about how his family managed to acquire some of Moshe’s works.
Rynecki’s insular approach works well early on in the film, when she, in conversations with her father, outlines who her great-grandfather was and what his surviving paintings mean to the family. Of around 800 works that Moshe painted before he was murdered at the Majdanek death camp, just over 100 survive in the possession of the family, with an unknown number in the hands of private collections and Polish museums. That much is a miracle, but Rynecki—more so, it seems, than her father, a Holocaust survivor himself—wants to discover more. In the film, we see her consult with historians, compose emails to private collectors, and read excerpts of her grandfather George’s memoirs, in preparation for her trip to Poland.
Chasing Portraits is about Rynecki’s investigative process rather than Moshe’s paintings themselves; in voiceover, she narrates each step of her process as she takes on the role of amateur historian. And in maintaining an intense focus on her investigation—how she reads out the emails she writes to institutions, and shows us footage from each flight she takes from one corner of the world to another—the film raises probing questions that it dutifully bypasses. Her encounters with the Wertheim family are a case in point: The first Wertheim brother claims the family own paintings by Moshe because they bought it from a farmer, but the second tells the more plausible story that they have the paintings because their parents, resistance fighters hiding in the Polish woods, raided them from a bombed-out train.
In Rynecki’s narrative, these conflicting stories become a personal conundrum: If the paintings were looted rather than bought, she may be able to make a claim on them. In the end, it’s Rynecki’s growth, her decision about whether or not to become a claimant, that structures the film. But this approach means skirting over other thematic threads that might have emerged from this project, such as the ethics of museum versus private ownership of recovered art like Moshe’s, the meaning of art in desperate times, the politics of remembrance in Poland. Chasing Portraits is thus valuable as part of an expansive mosaic of personal testimonies to the legacy of the Holocaust, but it’s a documentary of sometimes disappointingly narrow scope. Its major contribution, as one museum curator suggests, may be to bring the works of Moshe Rynecki back into prominence.
Director: Elizabeth Rynecki Screenwriter: Elizabeth Rynecki Distributor: First Run Features Running Time: 78 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Review: If the Dancer Dances Diminishes Its Subject by Succumbing to Hagiography
The documentary is incessant about reminding us of the late Merce Cunningham’s achievements.2
More than once in Maia Wechsler’s If the Dancer Dances, a dance is described by one of numerous talking heads as existing only in the moment; once any movement or routine is complete, it essentially can never be replicated to an exacting degree. But the film inadvertently appears as if it’s trying to prove that poetic and insightful observation wrong, which becomes increasingly clear as we follow choreographer Stephen Petronio as he and his dance company work on a production of Merce Cunningham’s RainForest.
Wechsler’s depiction of the company seems unwilling to step out of Cunningham’s shadow, given the extent to which the members of the current production and Cunningham’s former pupils happily provide hagiographic accounts of the groundbreaking avant-garde choreographer and his work. In an about-face from the repeated description of dance’s unreplicable nature, the new RainForest’s choreographers and dancers set out to duplicate rather than interpret the work. The fawning over Cunningham, and the implication from the company that they’ll never be able to live up to his vision, only exposes an overbearing inferiority complex running throughout the documentary.
If the Dancer Dances really only comes to life when showcasing the company’s rehearsals, throughout camera movements that match the gracefulness of the dancers and compositions that incorporate multiple points of action. Wechsler’s observational methods in these sequences capture mini-dramas in themselves, such as when choreographers quietly confer, attempting to adjust the dance routine that’s playing out in front of them.
Still, rather than letting the audience simply observe the company at work and letting the process speak for itself, Wechsler incessantly reminds us of Cunningham’s monolithic presence via scores of interviews that laud his work process. The film’s constant lionizing of the man amid so much rehearsal footage has the unintended effect of sapping the dancers of agency. Throughout, it’s as if Wechsler is judging the company’s artistic decisions based on whether or not Cunningham himself would consider them right or wrong.
At one point in the film, a former colleague of Cunningham’s explains that the late choreographer, in an effort to ensure that his works felt fresh, tried to never be influenced by other productions. This anecdote rings of irony, given how the film includes numerous sequences of Petronio’s choreographers discussing how to ape Cunningham’s aesthetic in precise detail—and often in incomprehensibly abstract directions that even some of the dancers appear not to grasp. The film operates under the impression that for any present or future company to change any one aspect of Cunningham’s original vision would be blasphemous and offensive, which turns If the Dancer Dances less into the insightful backstage documentary it wants to be, and more into a gushing, sycophantic love letter.
Director: Maia Wechsler Distributor: Monument Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
Watch the Trailer for Ava DuVernay’s Netflix Series When They See Us
Netflix will release the series on May 31.
In 1989, the rape and near-murder of Trisha Meili in Central Park rocked the nation. A little over a year later, a jury convicted five juvenile males—four African-American and one Hispanic—to prison sentences ranging from five to 15 years. In the end, the defendants spent between six and 13 years behind bars. Flashforward to 2002, after four of the five defendants had left prison, and Matias Reyes, a convicted murder and serial rapist serving a lifetime prison term, came forward and confessed to raping Meili. DNA evidence confirmed his guilt, and proved what many already knew about the so-called “Central Park jogger case”: that the police investigation of Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise, conducted at the beginning of the Giuliani era in New York City, was motivated less by a thirst for justice than it was by racial animus.
Last year, Oscar-nominated Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay announced that she would be making a series based on the infamous case, and since then hasn’t been shy, on Twitter and elsewhere, about saying that she will be putting Donald J. Trump in her crosshairs. Trump, way back in 1989, ran an ad in the Daily News advocating the return of the death penalty, and as recently as 2016, claimed that McCray, Richardson, Salaam, Santana, and Wise are guilty of the crime for which they were eventually exonerated—behavior consistent with a presidential campaign that, like the case against the Central Park Five, was a full-time racist dog whistle.
Today, Netflix dropped the trailer for When They See Us, which stars Michael K. Williams, Vera Farmiga, John Leguizamo, Felicity Huffman, Niecy Nash, Blair Underwood, Christopher Jackson, Joshua Jackson, Omar J. Dorsey, Adepero Oduye, Famke Janssen, Aurora Perrineau, William Sadler, Jharrel Jerome, Jovan Adepo, Aunjanue Ellis, Kylie Bunbury, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Storm Reid, Dascha Polanco, Chris Chalk, Freddy Miyares, Justin Cunningham, Ethan Herisse, Caleel Harris, Marquis Rodriguez, and Asante Blackk.
According to the official description of the series:
Based on a true story that gripped the country, When They See Us will chronicle the notorious case of five teenagers of color, labeled the Central Park Five, who were convicted of a rape they did not commit. The four part limited series will focus on the five teenagers from Harlem—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise. Beginning in the spring of 1989, when the teenagers were first questioned about the incident, the series will span 25 years, highlighting their exoneration in 2002 and the settlement reached with the city of New York in 2014.
See the trailer below:
Netflix will release When They See Us on May 31.
Review: The Curse of La Llorona Is More Laugh Riot than Fright Fest
With The Curse of La Llorona, the Conjuring universe has damned itself to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.1
Michael Chaves’s The Curse of La Llorona opens in 17th-century Mexico with an all-too-brief rundown of the legend of La Llorona. This weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez) is quickly established as a mother who, in a fit of jealousy, drowned her two children in order punish her cheating husband. And after immediately regretting her actions, she commits suicide, forever damning herself to that liminal space between the land of the living and the dead, to snatch up wandering children to replace her own.
Flash-forward to 1973 Los Angeles, where we instantly recognize an echo of La Llorana’s parental anxieties in Anna Garcia (Linda Cardellini), a widowed mother of two who struggles to balance the demands of her job as a social worker for Child Protective Services and the pressures of adjusting to single parenthood. One might expect such parallels to be further expanded upon by The Curse of La Llorona, but it quickly becomes evident that the filmmakers are less interested in character development, narrative cohesion, or the myth behind La Llorona than in lazily transposing the film’s big bad into the Conjuring universe.
It’s no surprise, then, that La Llorona, with her beady yellow eyes, blood-drained skin, and rotted mouth and fingernails is virtually indistinguishable from the antagonist from Corin Hardy’s The Nun; just swap out the evil nun’s tunic and habit for a decaying wedding dress and you’d never know the difference. Even more predictably, The Curse of La Llorona relies heavily on a near-ceaseless barrage of jump scares, creaking doors and loud, shrieking noises as La Llorona first terrorizes and murders the detained children of one of Anna’s clients (Patricia Velasquez), before then moving on to haunting Anna and her kids (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen and Roman Christou). But this family is so thinly conceived and their behavior so careless and illogical in the face of a known force of evil that viewers may find themselves less terrified by La Llorona than overjoyed by her reign of terror.
Once Rafael (Raymond Cruz), a curandero whose healing powers promise to lift La Llorona’s curse, arrives on the scene, the film makes a few concessions to Mexican cultural rituals, as well as offers brief but welcome respites of humor. But after the man rubs down the Garcia house with eggs and protects its borders with palo santo and fire tree seeds, The Curse of La Llorona continues unabated as a rote scare-a-thon. Every extended moment of silence and stillness is dutifully disrupted by sudden, overemphatic bursts of sound and fury that are meant to frighten us but are more likely to leave you feeling bludgeoned into submission.
All the while, any notions of motherhood, faith within and outside of the Catholic Church, and Mexican folklore that surface at one point or another are rendered both moot and undistinctive in the midst of so much slavish worshipping at the altar of franchise expansion. Indeed, by the time Annabelle’s Father Perez (Tony Amendola) pays a house visit in order to dutifully spout exposition about the series’s interconnected religious elements, it becomes clear that the Conjuring universe is damned to an eternal cycle of rinse and repeat.
Cast: Linda Cardellini, Roman Christou, Jaynee-Lynne Kinchen, Raymond Cruz, Marisol Ramirez, Patricia Velasquez, Sean Patrick Thomas, Tony Amendola Director: Michael Chaves Screenwriter: Mikki Daughtry, Tobias Iaconis Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood & W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch
Stratton goes beyond the production of Sam Peckinpah’s film, on to its impact and reception and legacy.
The 1940s were the decade in which Hollywood attained what we now term “classical” status, when the innovations and developments of cinema’s formative years coalesced into a high level of sophistication across all areas—technological, visual, narrative. The narrative element is the focus of Reinventing Hollywood, film historian and University of Wisconsin-Madison professor David Bordwell’s latest deep dive into the aesthetics of film.
Bordwell begins with a series of questions: “What distinctive narrative strategies emerged in the 1940s? Where did they come from? How did various filmmakers use them? How did the innovations change the look and sound of films?” He then proceeds with quite thorough answers across 500-plus pages. The narrative developments were gradual and cumulative. While the earliest narrative cinema was static and stagebound, inheriting principles of storytelling from theater and the most basic novelistic tendencies, a richer narrativity developed throughout the 1930s, when the visual language of silent cinema melded with the oral/aural elements of “talkies” to create a more systemized approach to narrative filmmaking.
As Bordwell notes at one point in Reinventing Hollywood, “[p]rinciples of characterization and plot construction that grew up in the 1910s and 1920s were reaffirmed in the early sound era. Across the same period there emerged a clear-cut menu of choices pertaining to staging, shooting and cutting scenes.” In short, it was the process whereby “talkies” became just “movies.” Narrative techniques specifically morphed and solidified throughout the ‘30s, as screenwriters and filmmakers pushed their way toward the discovery of a truly classical style.
While the idea of a menu of set choices may sound limiting, in reality the options were numerous, as filmmakers worked out a process of invention through repetition and experimentation and refinement. Eventually these narrative properties and principles became conventionalized—not in a watered-down or day-to-day way, but rather codified or systematized, where a sort of stock set of narrative devices were continually reworked, revamped, and re-energized. It’s what Bordwell calls “an inherited pattern” or “schema.”
Also in the ‘40s, many Hollywood films traded in what Bordwell terms “mild modernism”—a kind of light borrowing from other forms and advances in so-called high modernism, such as surrealism or stream-of-consciousness narratives like James Joyce’s Ulysses: high-art means for popular-art ends (Salvador Dalí’s work on Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound being a notable example). These techniques included omniscient point of view, the novelistic ability to traverse time and space (ideally suited for cinema), and involved flashback or dream sequences. This “borrowing of storytelling techniques from adjacent arts […] encouraged a quick cadence of schema and revision,” an environment of “…novelty at almost any price.”
Such novelties included “aggregate” films that overlaid a plethora of storytelling techniques, such as Sam Wood’s 1940 adaptation of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, which employed multiple protagonists, complex flashback sequences, and voiceover narration drawn from the most advanced theater. Perhaps no other film embodied these “novelties” so sharply as Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, an “aggressive aggregate” that amounts to a specifically cinematic yet total work of art, weaving together not only narrative techniques such as multiple character or “prismatic” flashbacks (screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz’s term), but also drawing on elements from music, painting, and photography, as well as Welles’s first loves, theater and radio. In some ways, Citizen Kane may be seen as a kind of fulcrum film, incorporating nearly all that had come before it and anticipating most everything after.
Though Bordwell references the familiar culprits—Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, and, of course, Citizen Kane—he doesn’t just stick with the A films, as he goes deep into the B’s (and even some C’s and D’s), in an effort to show the wide-ranging appeal and effectiveness of these narrative models no matter their technical execution. He also alternates chapters with what he calls Interludes—that is, more intensive readings illustrating a preceding chapter’s discussion, homing in on specific films, genres and filmmakers, and not always the ones which one might expect. There’s an interlude on Joseph Mankiewicz, for example, a sort of intellectual master of multi-protagonist films like All About Eve and The Barefoot Contessa, and the truly original Preston Sturges, whose films pushed narrative norms to their absolute limits. There’s also an intriguing interlude on the boxing picture and the resiliency of certain narrative tropes—fighter refusing to throw the fight and thus imperiled by gangsters, for example—demonstrating how Hollywood’s “narrative ecosystem played host to variants.”
Reinventing Hollywood is a dense read. Its nearly 600 pages of text, including detailed notes and index, isn’t for the academically faint at heart. Often Bordwell offers frame-by-frame, even gesture-by-gesture analyses using accompanying stills, mining synoptic actions and tropes across multiple films of the era. The book can read strictly pedagogical at times, but overall, Bordwell’s writing is clear and uncluttered by jargon. Despite its comprehensive scholarly archeology (and such sweet academic euphemism as, say, “spreading the protagonist function”), the book is leveled at anyone interested in cinematic forms and norms.
The title is telling. Clearly, narrative cinema was already invented by the time the ‘40s rolled around, but in Hollywood throughout that decade it became so systematized that it progressed into something new, indeed something that exists through today: a narrative film style that’s evocative enough to affect any single viewer and effective enough to speak to a mass audience.
Part of the charm of what was invented in the ‘40s is the malleability of the product. Narrative standards and conventions were designed for maximum variation, as well as for revision and challenge. And perhaps no decade offered more revision and challenge than the 1960s, not only to film culture but world culture as a whole. By the mid-to-late ‘60s, the old Hollywood studio system had expired, leaving in its wake a splintered version of itself. Yet despite the dissolution of the big studios, the resilience of the classical film style engendered by those studios was still evident. Popular narrative films retained the clear presentation of action borne in earlier films, however much they shuffled and reimagined patterns and standards.
One such movie that both embraced and pushed against Hollywood standards is director Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 western The Wild Bunch. It possesses such richness in both themes and execution, in form and content, that there’s a lot to mine. With its tale of a band of out-of-time outlaws scamming and lamming away their fatal last days in Mexico during the country’s revolution, it revels in and reveres western conventions as much as it revises them.
The film carries a personal elusive impact, particularly on first viewing. In The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film, journalist and historian W.K. Stratton quotes filmmaker Ron Shelton on this phenomenon: “Something was different about this movie…it was more than [just another shoot-‘em-up] but I couldn’t figure out what…I’ve been trying to answer that question ever since.” The book examines the epic making of this epic film, and goes a good way toward explaining the reasons behind the film’s unique power. Stratton is a Texan and also a poet, and both of these credentials make him perhaps the ideal candidate for exploring this pure piece of western poetry.
Stratton maps the story of the film from germ to gem. Conceived in the early ‘60s by stuntman Roy N. Sickner as a somewhat typical “outlaw gringos on the lam” story, the property evolved over the course of the ensuing years as much as the country itself. America in 1967 and ‘68 was a vastly different place than it was in ‘63. Stratton notes how “[t]he picture…would never have been filmed had not circumstances come into precise alignment. It was the product of a nation torn by divisions unseen since the Civil War, a nation that was sacrificing thousands of its young to a war in Southeast Asia…a nation numbed by political assassination…where a youthful generation was wholesale rejecting values held by their parents.”
A film made in such turbulent times required its own turbulent setting. If America had become no country for old men, and Vietnam was no country for young men, then Mexico during the revolution was no country for either. Stratton gives brisk but detailed chapters on the Mexican Revolution, filling in the tumultuous history and social geography for what would become a necessarily violent film. But just as the film could never have been made in another time, it could also have never been made without Sam Peckinpah. As Stratton notes, Peckinpah was a Hollywood rarity, a director born in the actual American West who made actual westerns, and a maverick director who, like Welles, fought against the constraints of an industry in which he was a master. Peckinpah was a rarity in other ways as well. A heavy-drinking, light-fighting proto-tough guy who was also a devotee of Tennessee Williams (“I guess I’ve learned more from Williams than anyone”), Peckinpah was a storyteller who could break your heart as well as your nose. His second feature, the very fine Ride the High Country, was tough and tender; it was also, coincidentally, another story of old outlaws running out their time.
Stratton traces the entire trajectory of the film’s making, from the start-and-stop scripting to the early involvement of Lee Marvin, right on through to every aspect of production: its much-lauded gold-dust cinematography (by Lucien Ballard, who early in his career worked on Three Stooges comedies “…because it gave him a chance to experiment with camera trickery”); the elegant violence, or violent elegance, of its editing; and its casting and costuming.
The chapters on those last two elements are particularly rewarding. Costuming is a somewhat underlooked aspect of westerns, simply because the sartorial trappings seem so generic: hats, guns, boots, and bonnets. Yet period clothing is so essential to the texture of westerns because it can, or should, convey the true down and dirtiness of the time and place, the sweat, the swill and the stench. The Wild Bunch, like all great westerns, feels filthy. Wardrobe supervisor Gordon Dawson not only had the daunting task of providing authenticity in the costumes themselves—much of them period—but of overseeing the sheer volume of turnover. Because Peckinpah “planned to make heavy use of squibbing for the movie’s shoot-outs…[e]ach time a squib went off, it ripped a whole in a costume and left a bloody stain.” Considering the overwhelming bullet count of the film, in particular the barrage of the ending, it’s no wonder that “[a]ll the costumes would have to be reused and then reused again and again.”
But perhaps no aspect was more important to the success of Peckinpah’s film than its casting. While early on in the process Marvin was set to play the lead role of Pike Bishop, the actor, thankfully, bowed out, and after the consideration of other actors for the role, including Sterling Hayden and Charlton Heston, in stepped William Holden. As good as all the other actors could be, Holden projected more of the existential weariness of the Bishop character, a condition that Marvin’s coarseness, for example, might have effaced. Stratton agrees: “There could not have been a better matching of character and actor. Holden was a…deeply troubled man, a real-life killer himself…on a conditional suspended sentence for manslaughter [for a drunk driving accident, a case that was later dropped].”
This spot-on matching of actor to role extended all the way through to the rest of the Wild Bunch: Ernest Borgnine as Pike’s sidekick, Dutch Engstrom, emanating toward Pike an anguished love and loyalty; old-time actor Edmond O’Brien as old-timer Freddie Sykes; Robert Ryan as Deke Thornton, Pike’s stoic ex-partner and now head of the pursuing posse; Jaime Sanchez as the doomed Mexican Angel; and perhaps most especially Warren Oates and Ben Johnson as the wild, vile Gorch brothers. (While Oates was a member of what might be called Peckinpah’s stock company, Johnson was an estranged member of John Ford’s.)
Along with broad, illuminating biographies of these actors, Stratton presents informative material on many of the peripheral yet vital supporting cast. Because the film is set and was filmed in Mexico, much of it verisimilitude may be credited to Mexican talent. Throughout the ‘40s and ‘50s, the Mexican film industry was second only to Hollywood in terms of quality product and critical prestige. Peckinpah drew from this talent pool for many of his film’s key characters, none more indelible than that of General Mapache (to whom the bunch sell guns and, by extension, their souls), one of the vilest, most distasteful figures in any American western. For this role, Peckinpah chose Emilio Fernández, a.k.a. El Indio, recognized and revered at that time as Mexico’s greatest director. Apparently, Fernandez’s scandalous and lascivious on-set behavior paralleled the unpredictable immorality of his character. Like almost everyone involved with this film, Fernandez was taking his part to the extreme.
Stratton goes beyond the production of The Wild Bunch, on to its impact and reception and legacy. A sensation upon its release, the film was both lauded and loathed for its raw violence, with some critics recognizing Peckinpah’s “cathartic” western for what it was, others seeing nothing but sick exploitation (including in its bloody treatment of Mexican characters). While other films of the time created similar buzz for their depiction of violence, notably Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (a film often compared to The Wild Bunch), the violence of Peckinpah’s film was as much moral as physical. All one need do is compare it to a contemporary and similarly storied film like George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a winking high-jinks movie in which, in Marvin’s resonant phrase, “no one takes a shit.”
Everyone involved with The Wild Bunch attributes its power to Peckinpah and the environment he fostered in its making. “[S]omething remarkable was occurring at…rehearsal sessions,” writes Stratton. “Under Peckinpah’s direction, the actors went beyond acting and were becoming the wild bunch and the other characters in the movie.” Warren Oates confirms this sentiment: “…it wasn’t like a play…or a TV show […] It was our life. We were doing our fucking lives right there and lived it every day […] We were there in truth.”
Stratton considers The Wild Bunch “the last Western […] It placed a tombstone on the head of the grave of the old-fashioned John Wayne [films].” One may argue with this, as evidence shows that John Wayne—especially the Wayne of John Ford westerns—is still very much alive in the popular consciousness. Yet there is a fatal finality to The Wild Bunch, a sense of something lowdown being run down. The film is complex and extreme less in its physical violence than in its moral violence, as it transposes the increasing cynicism of 1968 to an equally nihilistic era, all while maintaining a moving elegiac aura. No image or action expresses this attitude clearer and more powerfully than the bunch’s iconic sacrificial end walk, four abreast, to rescue one of their own, to murder and be murdered into myth. If the film is a tombstone, Stratton’s book is a fit inscription.
David Bordwell’s Reinventing Hollywood is now available from University of Chicago Press, and W.K. Stratton’s The Wild Bunch: Sam Peckinpah, a Revolution in Hollywood, and the Making of a Legendary Film is now available from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Review: The Heart of Someone Great Is in the Details of Female Friendship
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman.2.5
Jennifer Kaytin Robinson’s Someone Great presents a vision of New York that makes the bustling metropolis feel like a small town. The film’s setting is a utopian playground where everyone seems to know everyone else and bumping into friends and acquaintances on the street is a regular occurrence. Robinson exploits the narrative possibilities of this framework, as all it takes for three friends, Jenny (Gina Rodriguez), Erin (DeWanda Wise), and Blair (Brittany Snow), to dive into another misadventure is to simply turn a corner.
The film plays like a mixtape of various sensibilities, partly beholden to the self-contained form of the bildungsroman; surely it’s no coincidence that a James Joyce poster hangs in the background of one scene. Set to an eclectic, almost perpetual soundtrack of songs, the film follows Jenny, Erin, and Blair as they float on a wave of spontaneity. The friends are gung-ho about having one last night on the town, and as the they make plans to attend a music festival on the eve of Jenny moving to San Francisco, the film makes a vibrant show of every fallout, every sharp turn in mood and behavior across this journey, which also finds Jenny grappling with her recent breakup with Nate (Lakeith Stanfield), her boyfriend of nine years.
In the world of Someone Great, a flashily decorated room is an extension of a person’s personality, every object a vessel of human memories. Jenny is wounded, and the film tenaciously homes in how everything around her feels like a totem of lost love. Robinson elaborates on Jenny’s pain as much through the young woman’s exchanges with her two best friends, each dealing with their own emotional troubles, as through the neon-dappled flashbacks to Jenny and Nate’s time together. But if Jenny, Erin, and Blair’s scenes together are marked by an infectiousness fueled in no small part by Rodriguez, Wise, and Snow’s incredible rapport, the vignettes of Jenny and Nate’s past feel comparatively inert—an almost steady stream of generic and often awkward articulations of how it is to fall in and out of love.
Someone Great also gives itself over to a needlessly somber tone whenever Jenny reflects on her relationship with Nate, and the effect is so self-serious that you’d think she’s the first person to lose a lover in human history. Her breakup certainly stands in sharp contrast to Blair’s own split from her long-term boyfriend (Alex Moffat), the fallout of which is treated as an offhand (and very funny) joke. Fortunately, though, Robinson is always quick to reorient the focus of her film, sweetly underscoring throughout the value of Jenny’s friendship to Erin and Blair, and how their bond is bound to persist regardless of the hard knocks these women weather on the long and often bumpy road to romantic fulfillment.
Cast: Gina Rodriguez, Brittany Snow, DeWanda Wise, LaKeith Stanfield, Peter Vack, Alex Moffat, RuPaul Charles, Rosario Dawson Director: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Screenwriter: Jennifer Kaytin Robinson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 92 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Cannes Lineup Includes New Films by Terrence Malick, Céline Sciamma, & More
Perhaps as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t make it onto the lineup.
This morning, the lineup for the 72nd Cannes Film Festival was revealed, and just as notable as what made the cut is what didn’t. Most notably, Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in America and James Gray’s Ad Astra were nowhere to be found. Gray, whose had four of his previous films appear in competition at the festival, is still working on Ad Astra, which seems destined at this point to make its premiere at a fall festival. As for Tarantino, who’s still editing this ninth feature ahead of its July 26 theatrical release, Cannes artistic director Thierry Fremaux told press this morning that there’s still a chance that Once Upon a Time in America could be added to the festival lineup in the upcoming weeks.
Terrence Malick will return to Cannes for the first time since winning the Palme d’Or for The Tree of Life with the historical drama and ostensibly mainstream-friendly A Hidden Life, previously known as Radegund. Ken Loach and the Dardennes, both double winners of the Palme d’Or, will also debut their latest works, Sorry We Missed You and Young Ahmed, respectively, in the competition program. As previously announced, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die will kick off the festival on May 14, and Dexter Fletcher’s Rocketman will screen out of competition on May 16, two weeks before the film hits U.S. theaters. (The Director’s Fortnight and Critics Week selections will be announced at a later date.)
See below for a complete list of this year’s competition, Un Certain Regard, out of competition, and special and midnight screenings.
Pain and Glory, Pedro Almodóvar
The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio
Wild Goose Lake, Yinan Diao
Parasite, Bong Joon-ho
Young Ahmed, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne
Oh Mercy! , Arnaud Desplechin
Atlantique, Mati Diop
Matthias and Maxime, Xavier Dolan
Little Joe, Jessica Hausner
Sorry We Missed You, Ken Loach
Les Misérables, Ladj Ly
A Hidden Life, Terrence Malick
Nighthawk, Kleber Mendonça Filho and Juliano Dornelles
The Whistlers, Corneliu Porumboiu
Frankie, Ira Sachs
The Dead Don’t Die, Jim Jarmusch
Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Céline Sciamma
It Must Be Heaven, Elia Suleiman
Sybil, Justine Triet
Out of Competition
Rocketman, Dexter Fletcher
The Best Years of Life, Claude Lelouch
Maradona, Asif Kapadia
La Belle Epoque, Nicolas Bedos
Too Old to Die Young, Nicolas Winding Refn
Share, Pippa Bianco
Family Romance LLC, Werner Herzog
Tommaso, Abel Ferrara
To Be Alive and Know It, Alain Cavalier
For Sama, Waad Al Kateab and Edward Watts
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee Won-Tae
Un Certain Regard
Invisible Life, Karim Aïnouz
Beanpole, Kantemir Balagov
The Swallows of Kabul, Zabou Breitman and Eléa Gobé Mévellec
A Brother’s Love, Monia Chokri
The Climb, Michael Covino
Joan of Arc, Bruno Dumont
A Sun That Never Sets, Olivier Laxe
Chambre 212, Christophe Honoré
Port Authority, Danielle Lessovitz
Papicha, Mounia Meddour
Adam, Maryam Touzani
Zhuo Ren Mi Mi, Midi Z
Liberte, Albert Serra
Bull, Annie Silverstein
Summer of Changsha, Zu Feng
EVGE, Nariman Aliev
The 2019 TCM Classic Film Festival
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory.
In 2014, on the occasion of the fifth annual TCM Classic Film Festival, even as I took the opportunity to raise a glass to an event that encourages audiences, especially younger ones, to acknowledge and embrace the past, I indulged in a little public worrying over the festival’s move toward including a heavier schedule of more “modern” films whose status as classics seemed arguable, at the very least. The presence of Mr. Holland’s Opus and The Goodbye Girl on the festival’s slate that year seemed geared toward guaranteeing that Richard Dreyfuss would make a couple of appearances, causing me not only to wonder just what constitutes a “classic” (a question this festival seems imminently qualified to answer), but also just how far down the road to appeasement of movie stars TCMFF would be willing to travel in order to bring in those festivalgoers willing to pony up for high-priced, top-tier passes.
If anything, subsequent iterations have indicated that, while its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger “I’ll have what she’s having,” if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics. Maybe it does. Because objections like that one were forced to fly in the face of the rest of the TCMFF 2019 schedule, populated as it was by other equally questionable attractions like Sleepless in Seattle, Steel Magnolias, Hello, Dolly!, and Out of Africa, all of which crowded screen space in the festival’s biggest auditoriums.
Speaking of amour, it was that most mysterious of emotions that was the biggest rationale other than filthy lucre for clogging the schedule with not one but two Meg Ryan “classics,” a weeper that’s broad by even the standards of borderline-campy weepers, a bloated musical nobody seems to like, a would-be epic best picture winner, and even the bromantic sentimental indulgences of the Honorary Greatest Movie for Men Who Don’t Love Movies. Because the theme of TCMFF 2019, “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” virtually guaranteed that room would be made for some of the festival’s least enticing and overseen selections, under subheadings like “Better with Age” (Love in the Afternoon, Marty), “Bromance” (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Shawshank Redemption), and, in a love letter to not romance but instead a movie studio, “A Celebration of 20th Century Fox” (Hello, Dolly!, Working Girl, Star Wars). Of course, each of those subheadings had their glories as well (I’ll get to those in a second, after I stop complaining), but it’s worth noting these selections because they seem clearly representative of the sort of programming choices that have become more dominant in the second half of TCMFF’s storied and much appreciated existence, choices that may signal a further shift away from discoveries, oddities, and rarities and toward even more mainstream appeasement in its near future.
For all of the problems that seem to be becoming hard-wired into TCMFF’s business model, however, there was plenty to get excited about as well, even when one of the weaker overall schedules in terms of cinephile catnip made maximizing the festival experience a little more challenging than usual. If that “Love in the Movies” header seemed at first a bit too generic, it also proved elastic enough to accommodate some pretty interesting variations on a obvious theme, from dysfunctional relationships (A Woman Under the Influence, whose star, Gena Rowlands, had to back out of a scheduled pre-screening appearance), to erotic obsession (Mad Love, Magnificent Obsession), to habitual obsession (Cold Turkey, Merrily We Go to Hell), to romance of a more straightforward nature rendered in various shades of not-at-all-straightforward cinematic splendor (Sunrise, Sleeping Beauty, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Tarzan and His Mate). Why, there was even a couple of straight shots of undiluted movie love in the form of François Truffaut’s Day for Night, adorned by an in-person visitation from the film’s star, Jacqueline Bisset, and a grand screening of my favorite film, Robert Altman’s Nashville, which Pauline Kael once famously described as “an orgy for movie lovers.”
My own obsessions this year ran, as they usually do, toward the unfamiliar. Six of the 11 films I saw were new to me, including the obscure, ultra-cheap film noir Open Secret, which pits John Ireland against a secret society of small-town Nazi sympathizers; the deliriously racy and surprisingly violent adventure of Tarzan and His Mate, entertainingly introduced by Star Wars sound wizard Ben Burtt and special effects whiz Craig Barron, whose pre-film multimedia presentation electronically deconstructed the Tarzan yell; and James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge, starring Mae Clarke and Kent Douglass. Also among them were two major surprises: Dorothy Arzner’s romantic drama Merrily We Go to Hell, a gloriously cinematic roller coaster of love, codependency, and betrayal starring Fredric March, forever testing the audience’s tolerance for the boundaries of bad behavior, and Sylvia Sidney, who displays a range that will surprise younger audiences who may only know her from her later work; and the rollicking, hilarious, fast-paced snap-crackle-punch of All Through the Night, in which a gaggle of Runyonesque Broadway gamblers headed up by Humphrey Bogart develop an uncharacteristic patriotic streak when they uncover a Nazi conspiracy brewing in the back alleys of the neighborhood.
As evangelistic as I tend to get about making new discoveries at TCMFF, the familiar can also be revelatory. My two favorite experiences at the festival this year were screenings of F.W. Murnau’s almost indescribably gorgeous and primally moving Sunrise and a beautiful DCP of Nashville, with screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury and actors Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, and Ronee Blakely in attendance. (At one point, Blakely held court like Barbara Jean in rambling pre-meltdown mode and innocently gave away the ending of the film.) The joy contained in the five hours of those two films wasn’t necessarily matched by the gorgeous restoration of Anthony Mann’s powerful Winchester ’73, the exquisitely expressionist delirium of Karl Freund’s Mad Love, or the revelation of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty, with its roots in the music of Tchaikovsky, as the partial fulfillment of the ambitions of Fantasia, the studio’s great folly. But then again, it didn’t have to be. It’s enough that those are all movies worthy of and inspired by true movie love, which is precisely what they were received with by TCMFF audiences.
Of course, the obsessive, orgiastic nature of movie love is itself the underlying subtext of any film festival, but at TCMFF that subtext is consistently resonant enough that it seems inextricable from any given moment during the long four-day Hollywood weekend over which it unspools. Some festivalgoers get dolled up in vintage clothes and five pounds of customized TCM-style flair to express it. Others rattle on endlessly about their irrational devotion to Star X and Director Y, or how some obscure B noir blew their goddamn minds, and they’re usually surrounded by a pack of fans with similarly hyperbolic stories to tell. And still others just tilt their heads down and barrel through the long lines, breathlessly scurrying between theaters in pursuit of something they’ve never seen or perhaps never even heard of. (I’ll let you speculate as to which category I belong, though I will say I have never worn a fedora or brandished a silver-tipped walking stick in public.) A good friend and former TCMFF regular once told me that the best way to be cured of a particular obsession is to suddenly find yourself surrounded by those whose individual enthusiasms match or exceed your own, and sometimes it seems that the first-world trials of the TCMFF experience as they have accumulated over the past five or so years, and contrasted as they have been by the multitude of peaks the festival has offered its most ardent fans, have been devoted to road-testing that theory.
However, no matter what TCMFF devotees do or say in between programming slots, the movies remain, providing a constant opportunity to either plumb the depths of cinema history or to simply go for the good times. With all intentions pitched toward continued prosperity, the greatest challenge for TCMFF as it enters its second decade might be finding a better balance between those deep dives and the allure of skimming the perhaps more lucrative shallows. And if genuinely great films and even greater chances to experience films one can only experience in a setting like TCMFF keep getting slotted out in favor of familiar dreck like When Harry Met Sally and Steel Magnolias, it isn’t unreasonable to imagine that TCMFF 2029 might, to its inevitable detriment, look and feel considerably less classic than it does now. No, it’s not time for sackcloth and ashes just yet when it comes to this beloved fest. But I’d be lying if I said, to purloin and repurpose the concluding sentiment of one of this year’s big TCMFF attractions, that the ultimate resolution of that dilemma don’t worry me just a little bit.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 11—14.
Review: Instant Dreams Intimately Ponders a Casualty of the Digital Age
Willem Baptist’s film is a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital.2.5
Throughout Instant Dreams, director Willem Baptist returns to footage from “The Long Walk,” the 1970 short film in which Polaroid co-founder Edwin H. Land pulled from his coat a black device that bears an uncanny resemblance to an iPhone. Land envisioned a day in which instant photos could be taken by a device the size of a wallet, which we would use to document every moment of our lives. This dream came spectacularly true, of course, beyond even Land’s wildest fantasies, ironically paving the way for Polaroid’s irrelevancy. Polaroid stopped manufacturing instant film in 2008, an event which Baptist rues as a symptom of our increasing impersonality as a globalized culture that’s grown to take its information overload for granted. “The Long Walk” haunts Baptist’s documentary as a kind of death prophecy.
Seen in stock footage—and in the famous photo on a 1947 cover of the New York Times in which he holds up a snapshot of himself, nearly appearing to have two heads—Land proves to be one of Instant Dreams’s most fascinating and enigmatic figures. In a contemporary light, pictures taken by Polaroid instant cameras have an eerie and poignant power, as their imperfections, such as their blotchy yet vibrant colors, evoke expressionistic art. These photographs reflect the frailty and subjectivity of time, while digital images are ageless, changeable, easily distributed ciphers. The power of Polaroid pictures resides in the effort they require to create, as people had to carry a bulky camera around and wait several seconds before producing a fully developed snapshot. Following several Polaroid cultists, Baptist shares their lament for an intimate and communal culture that’s potentially been forgotten in the wake of our ability to have pristine images whenever we want them.
Stephen Herchen is a scientist who helped to buy the last remaining Polaroid factory in the Netherlands, and he’s working with a group of specialists to revive the technology, as instant film was born of a complex chemical recipe that Herchen has yet to crack. (Baptist looks on as Herchen’s pictures take nearly 30 minutes to develop, rather than a few seconds.) Meanwhile, New York magazine city editor Christopher Bonanos, author of the book Instant: The Story of Polaroid, documents the growth of his son with his stash of Polaroid film, and German artist Stefanie Schneider takes photographs with the expired stock that she keeps in the vintage refrigerator of a trailer that’s parked somewhere in the California desert.
Herchen, Bonanos, and Schneider speak over the documentary’s soundtrack, which Baptist assembles into a free-form essay on the spiritual differences between analog and digital. The filmmaker portrays analog as a kind of magic, born of a conjuring which he dramatizes with trippy images of photographic chemicals, while digital technology is represented by chilly metallic graphics that connote anonymous efficiency. (Instant Dreams exudes that simultaneously real and staged quality of an Errol Morris film.) It’s a sentimental vision, and one that provokes a question that Baptist doesn’t attempt to address: In a time of technological marvel, in which we carry what are essentially supercomputers around in our pockets, why are so many of us so miserable, so convinced that we’re living in a dark age?
The rage and ennui of our present culture is cultivated by the ease of modern media, in which we’re eternally plugged into stimulation that cancels itself out, leaving us feeling both stuffed and hollow, as well as interchangeable with one another as receptacles for corporate product. Our primary camera is now our phone, which can do hundreds of other tasks, while the Polaroid instant camera only takes pictures, relics which cannot be shared with the click of a button with other people. To long for the Polaroid, or for other objects of nostalgia such as VHS tapes, is to long for a sense of specialness and remoteness. The subjects of Baptist’s documentary seek disconnection from the cultural hive mind.
These meanings are often only implicit in Instant Dreams, and it’s a pity that Herchen and Bonanos aren’t more overtly in tune with their yearnings. They tend to speak in platitudes, which Baptist attempts to render mystical with hallucinatory imagery and a retro synth-y score that’s reminiscent of Vangelis’s compositions for Blade Runner. While Instant Dreams offers an appealingly nostalgic trance-out, it’s often short on detail, especially in terms of Herchen’s struggle to create the instant film technology, which Baptist reduces to exchanges of jargon in atmospheric laboratories. The film’s ruminations gradually grow repetitive and unfocused, especially when Baptist branches off into a fourth narrative, following a young woman who savors digital technology the way that the other subjects do Polaroids.
Schneider steals Instant Dreams from her co-stars, however, taking bold photos of young women out in the desert, cannily milking the limitations of the expired film stock to create mini canvases that suggest fever dreams. One scene is unexpectedly erotic: Schneider takes a bath in a tub outside with a beautiful model, their legs intermingling as the latter tells of a dream that suggests a metaphor for instant film. This image embodies the intimacy that Baptist’s subjects believe Polaroid stock to represent, merging the film’s emotional ambitions with its hypnotic aesthetic. In such moments, Instant Dreams truly comes alive.
Director: Willem Baptist Screenwriter: Willem Baptist Distributor: Synergetic Distribution Running Time: 91 min Rating: NR Year: 2017
Review: Rafiki Is a Feat of Representation, If Familiar in Execution
The audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked.2.5
Wanuri Kahiu’s Rafiki is a salvo in an ongoing cultural war in Kenya over the rights of LGBTQ people, and as such, it’s difficult, and maybe even irresponsible, to judge the film in a vacuum. Homosexuality is illegal in Kenya—punishable with up to 14 years in prison—and Kahiu’s film is officially banned in the country, though that ban was temporarily lifted for a week last fall so that it might qualify for an Oscar nomination. As a romantic drama, Rafiki turns out to be conventional in most senses except that its star-crossed lovers are two women—but then, particularly in Kenya, that makes all the difference.
Rafiki’s radicalism, hardly evident in its form or narrative structure, becomes more apparent when the film is situated in the context of state censorship and socio-culturally dominant homophobia. Adapted by Kahiu and co-writer Jenna Cato Bass from a short story by Monica Arac de Nyeko, the film takes its cue from that most over-alluded-to of romantic texts, Romeo and Juliet, complete with feuding families, illicit liaisons, and impossible love.
Kena (Samantha Mugatsia) and Ziki (Sheila Munyiva) are the daughters of two small-business magnates opposing each other in an upcoming city council election. They live on the outskirts of Nairobi, in an area characters refer to as Slopes, which Kaihu presents as a relatively secluded community. The story plays out over a limited number of distinctive locations—such as the church that Kena and Ziki’s families attend and consists of a purple-clad Anglican preacher leading sermons under a purple tent and a food stand where the young denizens of Slopes eat, with its nearby van on blocks where Kena and Ziki can have some privacy.
As young romantics are wont to do, the two women fall in love despite the immense familial and social pressure to avoid anything of the kind. And in addition to the mutual animosity of their respective families, they have the stigma that homosexuality carries among their friends to worry about. Kena hangs out with a pair of hypermasculine guys who routinely hurl epithets at the taciturn man everyone in the neighborhood knows is gay; when Ziki’s clique of friends start suspecting Kena is her lover, they react with a surprising outburst of violence. With its handful of locations and its small cast, Rafiki emphasizes the inescapable social gaze this queer couple is subjected to: The supporting characters are liable to pop up in any given place, making anywhere but the abandoned van a potentially threatening space for the two women.
In a country in which homosexuality is seen by a majority of the population as imported Western decadence, the audacity of the film’s assertion of a queer African identity shouldn’t be overlooked. Rafiki announces its intent with defiant opening credits, streaked with spray-painted neon colors and blasting feminist African hip-hop. But this rebellious energy also dissipates rapidly after the credits: While Christopher Wessels’s cinematography is drawn to saturated colors that recall the punkish animation of the credits, there’s a staid quality to the film that belies the intensity of the visuals. Major scenes play out with characters summarizing their feelings in sketchy dialogue, as when Kena’s mother (Nini Wacera) exposits Kenyan women’s motivations for being more homophobic than men in the midst of an argument.
While Kahiu proved herself a visionary filmmaker with her 2009 short film Pumzi, her visual ideas here are often sentimental short cuts: slow-motion close-ups of a smiling Ziki to suggest the character’s sexual longing for Kena, and slow-motion shots of birds in flight to symbolize the couple’s desire for freedom. Ziki herself, with her flashy, colorful braids and broadly sketched character arc, is little more than a romantic fantasy—and perhaps purposefully, as Kena is clearly the main character, drawn to Ziki at least in part because of her distinctive look. But it seems odd that a romance about two women should recapitulate a structure in which only one of the pair—the one in the position of looking—gets a full character arc. Regardless, Rafiki’s slotting of two African women into this familiar romantic structure represents a radical and important upending of contemporary Kenyan sexual mores.
Cast: Samantha Mugatsia, Sheila Munyiva, Neville Misati, Jimmy Gathu, Nini Wacera, Patricia Amira, Muthoni Gathecha, Dennis Musyoka, Nice Githinji, Charlie Karumi, Patricia Kihoro Director: Wanuri Kahiu Screenwriter: Wanuri Kahiu, Jenna Cato Bass Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 82 min Rating: NR Year: 2018
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