Saturday, December 9, 2017

Darren Aronofsky, part II: Winners don't use drugs


Because drugs are bad.  But the movie's still great.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Hubert Selby, Jr. and Darren Aronofsky (based on the novel by Selby)
With Ellen Burstyn (Sara Goldfarb), Marlon Wayans (Tyrone Love), Jennifer Connelly (Marion Silver), Jared Leto (Harry Goldfarb), Keith David ("Big Tim"), and Christopher MacDonald (Tappy Tibbons)

Spoiler alert: mild

The thing about Requiem For a Dream is that it's really just a more chemically-plausible rendition of Reefer Madness, and as much as it might be Reefer Madness done at the highest possible level of skill for all involved, there is no getting around Requiem's two most salient qualities: 1)it's populated exclusively by cartoon drug addicts, and 2)once its plot gets going (and this happens very quickly), it is unremittingly shrill, both in terms of its substance (of which there is not a great deal) and, especially, in terms of its style (of which there is an absolute deluge).

But plot, I said, though, like I'm fooling anybody, when everybody has already seen Requiem at least once, and everybody therefore remembers that it doesn't have one. Instead, it has a quartet of characters who briefly rise, and then rapidly fall, each riding a precipitous downward trajectory that, in the end, carries all four of them to the exact same place, which you might like to call "hell," if only you wished to be just slightly more literal than the film itself.

The word "story," anyway, is less weighted, and Requiem concerns itself with four stories, or just two, depending on how you slice it.  Two is simpler, and the first of them is about three models pretending to be Brighton Beach garbage people, Harry Goldfarb, Tyrone Love, and Harry's girlfriend Marion Silver.  Each has a thing for heroin that's started to become a little problem.  Indeed, we meet Harry one morning while he's robbing his widowed mother for her TV, which we quickly learn has happened often enough for it to have become a Goldfarb family tradition.  But Harry and Tyrone have begun to tire of their impoverished routine, and when the opportunity to join the business falls into their laps, they eagerly take it, naively seeing within it the realization of their dreams: for Tyrone, the possibility that he can make it in life, proving himself worthy; for Harry, a way to provide for his loved ones, and remind them that he does love them, no matter what he's done, particularly Marion, whose own dream, a small clothing boutique, seems to be near at hand thanks to his efforts, too.  For all of them, of course, it means there ought to be enough drugs to last them forever.

Does it spoil anything to say that this is wishful thinking?

Meanwhile, the second story revolves around Harry's mother Sara, and that beloved television.  It kicks off in earnest once Sara receives word that she's going to be a contestant on a game show, and, misinterpreting a lot of things about the offer, becoming positively convinced that any day now she'll be on TV, in her beautiful red dress and drowned with all the attention and love she ever wanted.  First things being first, however, she has to fit into that dress.  That means a diet, and, a diet proving untenable, it means a little pharmaceutical help.

Clearly, Requiem writes itself; there are essentially no surprises whatsoever to be found here, beyond the morbid details of just how badly each of its four leads can bottom out, as each one's respective dreams are replaced, scene by scene, with heroin and amphetamines and the gnawing needs of their addictions.  And you know that it's even more elemental than that description already makes it sound: if there was more to Harry and Ty and Marion and Sara in Hubert Selby's source novel, it has been refined almost completely out of Hubert Selby and Darren Aronofsky's screenplay.  Our four are nothing but senses of yearning and isolation in human flesh, which only drugs make whole, and not for long.

But that elemental approach has one undeniable benefit, and that's elegance: for Requiem really is nothing but its four sets of internal conflicts, commingling occasionally with the very small set of conflicts between the characters themselves, while almost everything that happens in the movie arises directly from the overdetermined, uniformly-bad choices its four quickly-sketched, two-note protagonists make.  And it cuts both ways, too, for any characters or events outside their circle are more akin to forces of nature, not unlike the passage of seasonssummer, fall, and winterwhich, in their turn, nearly divide this film's narrative into three increasingly-bleak acts.  Those non-people are thus treated with the appropriate sense of inhumanity, too, and that's how Requiem's single most-realized secondary player is either the heroin-peddling whoremonger who figures most prominently in the third, or "winter," or "ass-to-ass" act; or it's the host of a clamorously-cloying TV infomercial, whom we never actually meet in the flesh.

It is, of course, intentional.  This is a tragedy pure, and you are never meant to even suspect that anyone's going to get out of it unscathed, assuming they even get out of it in one piece; and the sense of doom Aronofsky lays over everything here is one of the most complete conjurings of mood the movies have ever managed.  That mood is reified misery.  Requiem has no other animating force.

What is astonishing, then, and perhaps miraculous, is that (despite its reputation) Requiem is nevertheless amazingly easy to watch—it's a gut-punch of a film, sure, both narratively and stylistically, but it's not like you don't see it coming.  So while the content is sometimes sickening (enough so that Aronofsky had to fight to have his film released unrated in lieu of an NC-17), and that content only gets more upsetting the deeper into Requiem's runtime we get, the person making the vessel for it is so intoxicated with the joys of putting all these terrible things on screen that he simply sweeps you along with them, in a great wave of machine-gun cutting and rigorously virtuoso filmmaking.  So a fellow could easily argue—albeit completely against the tide of public opinion—that Requiem is the single prettiest and most watchable movie Aronofsky ever made.  At the very least, it represents a great step forward from his debut picture Pi, which (after all) was designed at least in part to physically unnerve its viewer.

I mean, I'd argue it myself if The Fountain weren't right around the corner.

Requiem's technique is evolutionary, however, and it's certainly from the same wellspring of creativity.  (Or, more accurately, wellsprings, Reqieum marking the second of many collaborations between Aronofsky and his now-regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique and his now-regular composer Clint Mansell.)  Well, Aronofsky and Libatique's images are vastly more controlled and artful than last time (not itself a surprise, given the hyperbolic climb in budgets between the two pictures); but the soul rests in Aronofsky and new editor Jay Rabinowitz's construction of over 2000 of those individual images into one coherent whole, all propelled with terrifying urgency across 101 quick minutes by Mansell's most famous contribution to film music.  Rabinowitz would turn out to be Aronofsky's best editor, and there's a precision to Requiem and its twitchy, jumpy rhythms, reflecting in some ways the mindset of an addict, as he turns from euphoric mania and happy torpor to the anguished obsession to get those feelings back.  (There's that word, "obsession.")  But maybe my favorite little thing in the film is the metronome montage of Harry and Ty's initial success as drug dealers, and its repetition of sounds and images, anchored upon that uncanny slow-motion extreme close-up of Jared Leto's eyes shifting hungrily across his face, on screen for maybe a whole quarter of a second.

You could get lost in everything Requiem does: from that splitscreened early love scene (underlining a sense of inner alienation even in the midst of intimacy), to the disorienting alternation of perspectives in moments of crisis (i.e., almost the entire movie), to (of course) Sara's waking nightmares of staticky TV phantoms and living Cronenbergian refrigerators.  (Sara's apartment-bound arc, everyone says, basically recapitulates Roman Polanski's Repulsion.  And it does, in pretty specific ways, only Aronofsky does it more engagingly, and with an aging Ellen Burstyn in a fat suit who finds herself menaced by frightening visions of food—as opposed to a barely-breathing gamine, who finds herself menaced by frightening visions of men, specifically men like Roman Polanski, which would naturally frighten anybody.)

And surely we can't just overlook those weird Aronofsky-signature SnorriCam moving closeups—the best of which here ends with Jennifer Connely puking on us.  It's surprising just how few missteps Aronofsky makes in his great fury; the only one that really nags at all is the crashing metal sound effect that accompanies the seasonal act intertitles.  ("FALL [CLANNNG]."  It's ridiculously terrible.  Yet those little swooshy sounds between the cuts, while absolutely ripe for parody—and that fruit has certainly been harvested many times over the last 17 years—still remain pretty cool, even today.)  Overall, Requiem is so over-the-top and obsessive in its own right, that it's entirely impossible to tell whether Aronofsky was going for high camp or low camp, or, actually, he'd never even heard the term "camp," so shouldn't be expected to know what it means.

Either way, the poster for Requiem For a Dream is next to its definition in the dictionary... but even then I still don't think anybody's ever told Darren.

It would be a brave but failed experiment, however—naught but the most technically-audacious PSA ever made—if it were not for every human being on the screen, for despite not really playing human beings, they treat their characters as if they were.  And if no one quite comes off as fully-rounded and real (which was never this film's goal anyway), then they do at least convince as the avatars of their lunging need.  Indeed, our four are better than the script ever gives them a right to be; but, between them, Requiem finds its melodramatic heart, even though it is more-or-less bereft of the material that would engender any great deal of sympathy for its characters.  In this respect, I suppose it accidentally glances off the side of realism, insofar as heroin addicts do tend to be extremely annoying, unsympathetic people—a recognition which Trainspotting wholeheartedly embraced, and which Requiem somewhat elides, though certainly both films are triumphs of screen acting.

So let us praise the triumphant: Leto's driven emptiness rightly put him on the map; Connelly's performance of self-hatred barely-concealed proved she had more chops than she usually used; and above everyone does Burstyn commit to her cartoon, in every single shot finding the precise right notes of desperation and genuine sadness to make her crazed old woman not merely believable (a hard enough task already, given the tenor of her scenes), but genuinely heartbreaking, too.  Even Marlon Wayans, who has largely betrayed his potential since, is still amazing here, winding up (by far) the most likeable and multidimensional member of our ensemble, despite being given the least to actually do.  (But then, it's quite possible that one of the reasons Ty comes off as Requiem's most expressive and pleasant element is that his lines are ribboned with the most utterly anachronistic jive-talk, which Wayans turns out to be wonderfully personable at delivering.  And so, in this regard, it is perhaps best if you pretend that this is an affectation of the character, or even the actor, rather than do something stupid like look it up.  Because if you do that, you'll realize that Selby wrote his novel in 1978, and apparently just didn't bother to update his Index of Black Stereotypes for 2000, for when he wrote his novel's adaptation.)

In any event, pulling finely-tuned and fearlessly-emotional performances out of his actors has become as much of an Aronofsky signature as anything he's done with a camera strapped to somebody's chest.  And this differentiates him from the crowd of directors who conflate arthouse filmmaking with sterility; and it's doubtless the reason that Aronofsky, not quite alone, but lonely, has been able to make a career that is both commercially-successful and pretentious as the day is long.

Obviously, though, the best big thing Requiem does is terrifically pretentious.  It establishes another Aronofsky tradition: of pushing things that have already been pushed as far as they can go even further, and totally beyond the infinite.  In Requiem, this means a climax wrung out of his and Rabinowitz's absurdly ambitious cross-cutting.  Time and space are annihilated within it (one thread of this climax taking place over no more than a single night, the others over the course of weeks, months, or even years), while the action is locked entirely to the heaving miserablism of the film's infernal four-part crescendo, and we are compelled downward with it by Mansell's thrumming score.  And, in the end, Requiem truly seals the pit of despair it's made for us, with the fullest expression of the soul-crushing dirge that Mansell and Aronofsky have been playing with for the entire film, "Lux Aeterna"—known today as "that song that's in the trailer for every movie that wants to pretend it's even half as intense as Requiem For a Dream."

For good reason would someone like to bask in that reflected glory, though; it's just unimpeachable filmmaking.  (Truly, the only problem you could possibly have with it is, well, the one I kind of do have with it: Aronofsky makes the fates of all four of our heroes aesthetically equivalent, though it's abundantly clear that one of them still gets to live in a much nicer neighborhood of hell.)

But no matter, and that word "unimpeachable" is surely the only fair appraisal of Requiem as a whole.  I'm not the least embarrassed to say that I was one of its tiresome fans back in 2000; and Requiem's impact can be quanitified in terms of the great mass of teenaged Millennials who saw it and loved it, because it made them edgy movie hipsters (or, at least, let them pretend to be).  It was an odd response, in retrospect, to a movie that has the single squarest message you could imagine any movie having, and which, had it turned out to have been funded by a DEA grant, you couldn't have claimed to have been honestly surprised.  But in art, it's so often the medium that matters.  Coming back to it after a long absence, I remember why I felt the way I did, and the one surprise that Requiem does retain, 17 long years later, is that it still feels exactly as dreadfully thrilling as the very day it was released.

Score:  10/10

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