On Darren Aronofsky

[I wrote this in early 2011.  I had just gone to see Black Swan, a film that impressed me very much.  I hadn’t watched an Aronofsky production since Pi, however, so I quickly viewed the middle films of his oeuvre in quick succession and then produced this essay in two parts.  I published it to the now-deleted anonymous blog I was then maintaining, where it received a fair bit of attention, and I repost an edited version here, under my own name, in honor of the controversy swirling around Aronofsky’s Noah–which I have not yet seen as of this writing.]

1. A Formalist Requiem

Darren Aronofsky’s body of work is both unusually diverse and unusually coherent.  He’s everywhere: a tiny apartment, Coney Island, outer space, a wrestling ring, the ballet.  This is because, as far as I can tell, he has a wholly visual imagination and is always on the lookout for more imagery, for more to see.  If it can’t be seen, he will invent it.  His visuality more than anything will lead critics to condescend to him in our still-Puritan culture.  A Puritan culture is one that mistrusts appearances—or else regards them as allegorical, referring to a higher reality.  The lesson of Aronofsky’s movies is, on the other hand, to trust appearances.  His is a pagan sensibility: whatever manifests itself to you may be a god, a theme literalized in Black Swan.  Because the gods manifest themselves, there is no distinction between their reality and ours.  This is the highest reality, and Aronofsky certainly films it as if it were.

The key work for my claim, counterintuitively, is Requiem for a Dream.   The Russian Formalist critics who flourished after the Bolshevik Revolution but before Stalin had a phrase useful for understanding this film: “the motivation of the device.”  What they meant by “device” was the actual form of a work of art, its colors, sounds, particular arrangement of language, etc.  The “motivation” is whatever the artist uses as an excuse to deploy such forms—in other words, the content.  So even a work that seems to be all content, according to the Formalists, just exists to put forth a certain way of experiencing reality. The Grapes of Wrath, for example, isn’t really about the Depression or protesting the treatment of the Dust Bowl migrants; it’s not about anything, because it is nothing less than the pleasure of the American vernacular, salty language, epic Biblical sentences, images of drought and flood and disaster.

To adapt this thesis, Requiem for a Dream is not really about drugs.  How boring would it be if it were?  “Speed and heroin fuck you up” is not a very interesting moral to a story, anymore than “Ballet can be rough” is.  Drugs are the motivation of the device.  Aronofsky’s device, in this case, is his whole repertoire of stunning audio-visuals: the perhaps now-hackneyed hip-hop montages; Marion at the pier turning in slow motion; Marion and Harry caressing each other in split-screen; Tyrone playing with mirrors and remembering his sun-dappled mother as his beautiful lover coaxes him back to bed; Sara Goldfarb cleaning and then dancing in the spectral time-lapse of her half-a-life.  Drugs are just the delivery system for the rush of this aestheticization of reality.  See, for evidence, Nicholas Rombes’s  Requiem // 102 project.

Does anyone really think this movie is anti-drug?  I stayed away from it for years because it seemed to have its cinematic afterlife in dorm rooms, where cackling, cringing boys watched it in the same cruel spirit in which they watched Internet videos of bicycle crashes or intoxicated women on spring-break.  The movie is the experience of the movie: it is drugs.

But this thesis takes us into dangerous territory.  The ubiquitous Walter Benjamin identified the art-for-art’s-sake attitude with fascism, since it encouraged humanity to regard its own destruction as a pleasing spectacle.  This describes the ending of Requiem: Marion becomes a commodity in the traffic in women; Tyrone ends up not free and clear but imprisoned indefinitely; Harry finishes mutilated in a hospital bed; and we last see Sara enduring the degradations of the asylum.  All of this is quick-cut beneath Clint Mansell’s onrushing, propulsively cyclical score, an irresistible crescendo of suffering that leaves one not depressed but exhilarated.  You know you’ve really had an experience.  And wasn’t it Walter Benjamin himself who said that experience was hard to come by, and still more to communicate, in modernity?

Aronofsky dares us to challenge him for presenting experience on such terms as the film’s ending by defying the canons of polite liberalism.  He shows you Marion’s degradation in a scene widely interpreted as misogynist pornography.  Tyrone, the lone black protagonist, ends up in forced labor under a Southern boss who calls him “nigger” in a redployment of slavery iconography.  Sara Goldfarb, portrayed with such verbal mannerism by the non-Jewish Ellen Burstyn that the performance nearly amounts to ethnic minstrelsy, is skeletal and shorn and gray and wasted at the end, an iconographic concentration-camp victim.  As for Harry, his literal dismemberment evinces a certain desire by the image sequence, if not by the director, to carve up the effeminate pretty boy.  We’re in rough waters here: sexism, racism, anti-Semitism; playing fast and loose with slavery and Holocaust imagery; degrading women or insufficiently masculine men.  All this for the pleasure of the text?  Only at this level can Aronofsky be presenting an anti-drug movie: if the film itself is a drug, then the drug will fuck you up in these ways, and is best avoided.

That argument gives us a traditional easy way out of these difficulties: he’s not really doing all those bad things that we good liberals hate, he’s just commenting on them.  By commenting on them, he gets legitimacy on traditional terms: he has made moral art, art that forgoes pleasure, or punishes it wherever it occurs, to deliver a higher message.  Thus art is redeemed from our suspicion that its very existence is immoral, a threat to the community.  The Soviet government agreed with this view of art.  They cracked down on the Formalists.  How could a pack of aesthetes, interested in pleasuring themselves, serve the People and the Revolution?  In this, the Godless Communists were in the Western mainstream, agreeing with their enemies, the Churches in the shared thesis that art must not be about pleasure.  Pleasure is a dangerous drug.  First you’re having fun, marveling at the world’s beauty, then you’re oppressing people.  Walter Benjamin, one last time: “Every document of civilization is a document of barbarism.”

Wilde said that criticism was a form of autobiography.  Accordingly, I have a confession.  I was startled to go online after watching Requiem to find viewers who wrote of how they cried at the end of the film or felt devastated at its conclusion, experiencing such sympathy for the characters that they had to weep for their tragedies.  But I laughed throughout the film, and I laughed most of all at its ending.  I thought it was meant to be a comedy!  How could anyone mistake these ciphers for full novelistic characters inviting our fellow-feeling?  These characters who bounce around like ping-pong balls between hope and calamity?  Oh well, perhaps I’m a sociopath—but I (rather self-servingly) doubt it.  I respond with empathetic emotion to other films, other Aronofsky films among them.   I could say in a psychoanalytic vein that those who weep at the end of Requiem are constructing a psychic defense against their true feelings of deep pleasure, but who am I to make such a judgment?

Suffice it to say for now that Aronofsky found one way, with his second film, to avoid the sophomore slump: he made a work of such over-the-top sensation that no one could possibly accuse it of timidity or ever forget it.  The real dream for which the title mourns is not that high-school banality, “the American dream,” but instead, simply, dreaming: experience without meaning or consequence,  existence in a better and richer and more beautiful version of life.  Aronofsky’s first film, Pi, ends by showing a character who drills out the part of his brain that allows him to perceive patterns and meaning in the seeming randomness of reality. At the end, at peace, he only perceives. I suggest that Requiem for a Dream picks up from there and explores that sensibility.  His third film, on the other hand, would prove to be too much motivation and not enough device. 

2. Ambivalences of the Transcendent

Requiem for a Dream, then, explored not drugs per se, but rather the idea of having a purely aesthetic—sensational; perceptible—experience of the world. Such an experience may mimic that of drugs, but Aronofsky explores it through the film’s style itself, which, whatever the filmmaker’s intentions, aims to give the viewer an overwhelming sensory experience, even at the risk of entering some dangerous sexual and political territory. Now let’s finish our story by exploring the rest of Aronofsky’s career to date.

No one likes to echo the conventional wisdom, but I must agree with the consensus that The Fountain is his weakest film, for what are rather boring artistic reasons: it has too much material too thinly realized, it solicits audience emotion that it doesn’t legitimately provoked, it reminds us of far superior films by Herzog or Tarkovsky, etc. The Fountain’s ambition is undeniable and admirable, and we should be ashamed for some of the reasons we don’t tend to like it.  We’re willing to expend the emotion of a kind of negative awe, something like the Sublime of the aestheticians, on the vast wreck that Requiem for a Dream creates for its characters, even though it does not really develop them into figures of novelistic depth. That is, our Sublime breathlessness at immeasurable suffering comes naturally to us. But when Aronofsky in The Fountain attempts to provoke positive awe at beauty and grace—in the just the same absence, it should be said, of realistic character development—we scoff and call it sentimental. There may be something wrong with us—Americans, or the middle class, or human beings: I don’t know where it all went wrong—but those are our standards, for better or worse.

The Fountain also goes wrong for a more interesting reason, though, one that allows us to give Aronofsky’s two subsequent films their due. The film famously almost didn’t get made when Brad Pitt, who was to play the protagonist, pulled out of the project, and I think this was more fatal to Aronofsky’s vision than one might expect. It’s not that Brad Pitt in particular is important, but The Fountain might have succeeded had its audience been able to bring to its characters, who are largely allegorical or figurative, some of the emotion they have in reserve for major movie stars, because movie stars are already themselves allegorical or figurative in our culture.  Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz are admirable actors, but they don’t have that stature.  This dryly sociological observation unexpectedly takes us close to the heart of Aronofsky’s vision.  Consider this quotation from a profile of the director: “The unifying theme of Aronofsky’s work…is a fixation on the body and its fragility.” Yes, but that’s only half of the unifying theme: the other half is the idea of transcending the body’s fragility. Hence the quest for pattern in Pi, for drug-fueled bliss in Requiem, for immortality in The Fountain: everyone wants something that will sustain us over and above the transience of our physical cravings or physical debilities. The paradox these first three films attempt to realize is not so much the impossibility of transcendence, but rather our lack of any access to the transcendental that is not itself material, embodied, earthly, immanent.  Consequently, Aronofsky’s early films seem to argue, we should make our peace with the necessity of our limitations: we should become aesthetes and enjoy the pictures as they pass on our way toward death.

In Pi, all earthly agencies want the mathematical secret so they can have worldly power; the solution to the problem turns out to be giving up the quest, drilling out the brain, being here now. The Fountain is similar and, in its beautiful way, still more graphic. The conquistador’s quest for immortality ends when the Tree of Life reminds him that there’s nothing special about humans, that life might mean flowers and not consciousness. And the space traveler’s quest ends with supernova: his transcendence, not wholly unlike that of the characters in Requiem, involves the total destruction of the flesh. Both films counsel acceptance, even passivity—an end to the intelligence. Requiem, which radically has no counsel at all, simply tries to induce this very state of mindlessness in the viewer.

Which brings me at last to The Wrestler and Black Swan, two films which make explicit what had only been implied in the first films: namely, that art itself might be our best or even our only sensible/sensual means of transcending the limitations of the body, the only fleshly way of getting past the frailty of the flesh.  And they accomplish this in part by using the figurative quality of its stars: the sadly washed-up Rourke and Ryder, the perfect Harvard alum Portman, etc.

The Wrestler does a lot of what Requiem largely declined to do.  Aronofsky, as if atoning for the somewhat vague allegory of The Fountain, gives us social and psychological realism—cinema as the novel. We get the sociology of the New Jersey working class in the era of manufacturing’s decline and the service industry’s drive to make entertainers of us all; we get a fully rounded performance of the central characters’ psychologies and a fair bit of their history as well. No one will accuse Aronofsky of either shallow sentimentality or its double, cruel aestheticism, here. Every tear is earned as Randy moves toward his rejection of all earthly and crypto-bourgeois comforts—family, health, romantic love—in favor of the simultaneous apotheosis and dissolution of his individuality through the performance of his art. What Requiem for a Dream does at the level of form—liquidating mind in sensation—The Wrestler essayistically examines at the level of content. Hence, the replacement of all the formalist techniques of the earlier film (split screens, hip-hop montages, music video aesthetic) with a documentarian’s style: we spend an awful lot of the film simply trailing behind Randy, as if we were with a camera crew, perhaps on a reality TV show gone wrong. This is on one level part of Aronofsky’s satire on a celebrity culture than goes all the way down to the ruins of the working class, to deli counter workers and strippers, but it’s also a genuine chastening of his own stylistic exuberance.

The Sublime may be Randy’s desire, but The Wrestler disciplines us by not really showing it; it’s Aronofsky’s one non-pagan film, declining as it does to image the transcendent. All the beauty in the film is fragile, earthly, anti-Sublime, and immanent: Cassidy/Pam, Stephanie, the beach, the boardwalk, the abandoned ballroom. When Marisa Tomei shows up at the end, we see Aronofsky’s most truly ambivalent moment. We hear the call of the flesh, its pleasure, its singularity, its necessity, and the humble ethics to which it summons us. To refuse it seems a tragedy, maybe even a waste. If we think this is Aronofsky’s best film—his most “mature,” his most “profound”—it’s because in it he least offends our ethical presuppositions.  And how can we criticize him for it, since he does so in the name of a social class that has been pulverized?

Black Swan trashes all that and, as Steven Shaviro notes, partially does so by becoming trash itself. I think it’s wrong to regard Black Swan as part of a pair with The Wrestler: rather, it is the earlier film’s undoing, Aronofsky’s flagrant fuck-you return to aestheticism, as the documentary style gives way to hallucination. Like all aesthetes, Aronofsky flees from the working class and heads straight for the domain of the aristocrats: ballet as against wrestling. Returning to the themes, such as they were, of Requiem, he dares you to call him a sexist pornographer, dares you to drag all the ’70s-feminist criticism out: why should there be a lesbian sex scene? why represent a woman as hysterical, crazy, competitive? why must she be punished at the end? Go ahead, be so earnest, the film seems to reply, because aesthetes love such critical sincerity, with its progressive-normative moralizing presumptions; they get off on it, because they can come back with such painful replies as, “Are you really so sure non-exploitative sexual representations can exist?  And why must you insist she’s being punished? Isn’t it really and truly worth it for that one perfect performance? And is life so great that we should prefer it to art?” Not in this movie, where the flesh is nightmarishly grotesque, where the sound of Nina’s mother putting her finger in the cake frosting is the same as the sound of Nina’s flesh peeling off.

Criticism is autobiography: personally, I reject the misogynist reading of Black Swan because my reaction to the film was one of total identification. I absolutely felt that I understood Nina’s struggle. To make good art one has to go to the darkest place, the forbidden place. One must countenance sex and death, and not in their Enlightenment rationalist modes—the one to be made safe by politics, the other to be defeated by science—but in their primordial myth state. The god may appear to you. The god may destroy you.  For briefly becoming Other, it is all worth it. It is, in its way, Aronofsky’s least mature film, deliberately so—a tantrum in place of a narrative. I look forward to whatever he does next.