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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part I

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The Conversations: Darren Aronofsky Part I

The Conversations is a House feature in which Jason Bellamy and Ed Howard discuss a wide range of cinematic subjects: critical analyses of films, filmmaker overviews, and more. Readers should expect to encounter spoilers.

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.

 

Pi

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.

 

Pi

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.

 

Pi

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.

 

Pi

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.

 

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