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.