Monday, January 1, 2018

Darren Aronofsky, part VIII: Home invasion


Overstuffed, overindulgent allegory sometimes gets better than this, true, but it doesn't usually get this grasping, and I choose to interpret that as a point in mother!'s favor.  You, of course, can choose however you want.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (based on The Bible by God)
With Jennifer Lawrence, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Domhnall Gleeson, Brian Gleeson, and Javier Bardem

Spoiler alert: moderate, though its relevance is a dubious proposition at best

Like with Noah before it, I hated mother! the first time I saw it, though unlike Noah, it didn't take me years to get over my initial, visceral reaction—and "visceral" would be right, because one of my big objections to mother! was bound to the biological circumstances of my theatrical experience.  Specifically, it made me motion sick, and it's kind of hard to appreciate anything when you can't feel your face.

On a second, homebound spin, I wondered why: shot once again in 16mm by Matthew Libatique, in what's become Aronofsky's usual groove, it's damn near indistinguishable in visual construction from either Black Swan or The Wrestler.  It's hugely less-prettified than the former, but it's certainly not painfully cruel.

It's also at least as desperately concerned with a singular point-of-view as either of them, so that no more than a hundredth of the movie is anything but decapitating close-ups of its star, Jennifer Lawrence, or shots from directly behind Jennifer Lawrence's bewigged head, or shots that show what Jennifer Lawrence would've seen from her vantage point, had a cameraman not been standing there instead.  Perhaps the film was simply too muddy-brown; in any event, it's still Aronofsky's least-attractive movie.  Yet even through the nightmarish chaos of its final "act" (or whatever), there's an Aronofskian rigor to its intense ugliness that kept me from completely dismissing it out of hand, even while I felt like puking.

Fair's fair, however: in audiovisual construction it amounts to a radical departure.  Mother! represents the first time, in seven films, that Aronofsky has not relied upon his trusty composer Clint Mansell, and only the second time (after the uncharacteristically quiet Wrestler) that Aronofsky hasn't used Mansell to drive the film emotionally with a monumental-sounding, irresistibly-manipulative score, cresting in time with Aronofsky's own narrative climax.  Standing in Mansell's stead, then, is Johan Johansson.  Johannson was engaged to write a score for mother!, until Aronofsky decided in post-production that mother! wasn't really going to have one—at which point (presumably in recognition of Johansson's signed and executed contract), the composer transitioned to helping (or "helping") Aronofsky's usual sound designer, Craig Henighan, create a subtle (or "subtle") soundscape of noises, intended to impress upon their listener the uncanny, oppressive nastiness of its protagonist's perceptions.  Like the cinematography, it certainly works, though it too is not the most pleasant thing you could experience—and it's even more unpleasant in a theater, where the disparity between quiet and loud can be deafening, and colossal surround sound speakers can turn the tiniest little repetitious noises into aggravating infernal metronomes.

Well, you should know that I begin with the formal analysis/bitching just to get it out of the way, because this time, it's the least interesting part.  It's certainly not what got people talking about the film back in September.  No sir: that would be its terrifically controversial reception, especially with audiences, who awarded it an "F" Cinemascore, which, by that metric's idiosyncratic standards, means they stopped just short of burning the theaters down on their way to reclaim their ticket money.

And there's no denying that mother! is neither intended to please crowds nor designed to be readily understood (or understood at all!), and it is impossible to say what Paramount was thinking when they released it to 2000 theaters and marketed it like a fun lark with what looked like unwanted guests and a possibly-haunted house.  I went into it like most did, ignorantly suspecting that Darren Aronofsky (of all people) had decided, after the blockbusting of Noah, to reward himself with a lazy Sunday of a movie, turning in a standard horror-thriller that didn't tax anybody too hard.  By mother!'s second weekend, the dashed expectations and sheer weird indulgence of it all had become its selling points: come see the freakshow that pissed everybody off.  Through Paramount's egregious trickery, they were able to secure mother! a small profit; so, as cynical as their plan may have been, the moneymen did get exactly what they wanted.

So, clearly enough, did Aronofsky himself, and there's nothing lazy about this particular Sunday, even if there is a fair amount that is odd or inexplicable or confused.  Mother! is Aronofsky at his most unrestrained and unrepentant, the artsy-fartsy auteur giving in to his most pretentious impulses and generating something absolutely un-populist as a result—most Aronofsky movies are made just for him, sure, but this time, the selfishness shows.

The irony has gotta be intentional.

The film tells the story, if that word applies, of a nameless, so-far-childless young woman, called "mother" in the credits (Lawrence).  She  has married a famous poet (Javier Bardem) and moved out with him to his remote country estate, and, in the intervening months or years, has tasked herself with rebuilding it, in her own idiom, after a devastating fire that the poet (called "Him" in the credits) recalls cost him virtually everything.  We can, at this juncture, perhaps draw some preliminary conclusions from the film's short opening gesture, which involves, in turn, a woman (not Lawrence), engulfed in flame; the salvaging of a crystal keepsake of unknown provenance; a strange effect that rebuilds the poet's house in moments; and the appearance of "mother," who comes to life in the bed, as if just created.

The poet and his wife's existence seems idyllic enough, if loomed over by some distant menace.  She is happier than he, for he suffers some manner of writer's block.  This changes when a man (called "man," and played by Ed Harris) appears at their doorstep one night, and the poet invites him in.  He is followed shortly thereafter by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer, called "woman," and now you really have no excuse not to get it).  "Mother" is terribly imposed upon, and scarcely makes her displeasure with her guests' presence a secret—and it only gets worse—but the poet is very reluctant to ask them to leave, for he craves their adoration and the inspiration they bring him.  Even when he casts the couple out of the sanctum of his study, for breaking his precious crystal, he still invites them back into his home for a wake, after one of their adult children (Domhnall Gleeson) semi-accidentally bashes their other kid's (Brian Gleeson's) head in with a doorknob, which the poet himself—or Himself—left carelessly lying around.  Doubtless you get it now.

Presumably Rory Gleeson's part was left on the cutting room floor, for the sound reason that Seth is boring.  (Hey, it's a cute touch, nonetheless.)

One of the takeaways from Noah—based on its own short retelling of the story of Adam and Eve and Cain and Abel—was that few things would've made Aronofsky or his fans happier than the sight of the man spending a whole anthology speeding through the Old Testament and New in his inimitable, hyperexpressionist style.  The joke's on us, sort of.  Mother! is exactly that, only sans the hyperexpressionist style (at least at first).  In fact, mother! begins intensely grounded for what announces itself loudly to be a feature-length allegory; its performances, especially, are shaped to be as plausibly emotional and human as possible, under these straining circumstances.  Lawrence in particular really does deserve commendation for carrying an insane Bible movie upon her back, playing a character who was literally born yesterday, and pulling it off as something recognizable in its motivations, frustrations, and fury.  Mother! often has more in common with the domestic drama it superficially resembles; thanks to Lawrence's human-sized reactions and the increasingly-ridiculous effrontery of her guests, it's  often an anxiously funny comedy, too.  In both these registers, it may be a movie about figures of cosmic significance, but they are, of course, unaware of their significance... well, with that one big exception.

And so it plays like a melodrama that transitions freakout-by-freakout into a nearly-unparsable assault of imagery and ideas, and the most stunning thing about it isn't its technique, but its quicksilver unwillingness to keep the shape of any single metaphor.  The outcome is a movie that feels like its creator decided to save time by making four or five different movies all at once, each with the same cast and same "plot," but all with vastly different goals.  Consider: when "mother," representing our fragile Earth, lives up to her screen credit, and has her child, and her child meets its inevitable fate, it's just as valid a reading to say that this beloved babe represents interplanetary travel.  Why not?  And therefore mother! is the tale of how humanity has squandered its potential by defunding NASA, which, after all, is sort of like tearing the future apart and eating it.  The difference isn't that this reading is reaching; it's merely that it's stupid.

Hence have we been subjected to a panoply of potential interpretations of mother!, almost all of which you can support from the text, even the batty ones, though, in true surrealist fashion, none of them capture every detail.  (Or maybe my knowledge of Judeo-Christianity is just insufficient; while the Fall and the First Murder and the Flood and the Crucifixion are all duly represented, this movie seems to have a whole lot of extraneous, Lynchian weirdness, that doesn't track to anything at all, notably that strange piss-yellow potion that "mother" keeps pounding in moments of great stress.)

But anyway, what we have, simultaneously, is a Biblical allegory; an attack on religion; an attack on humanity; a meditation on the art of filmmaking and, perhaps, screen acting; a feminist statement, about the oppression of wives and mothers under patriarchy; possibly a confessional statement, about the way Aronofsky related to the mother of his child, Rachel Weisz, that also happens to star his new girlfriend, Lawrence (which one can't help but perceive as a little bit perverse).  Above all, mother! seeks to take on the whole of human history in less than two hours and stages an unfolding universe inside a single home, and I'd be lying if I said it if it totally succeeds; its overborne nature is as much a weakness as a strength.  But, Lord, the ambition is intoxicating.

Personally, I think it's at its best when it's doing what Aronofsky says it does, which is to make an environmentalist statement that reflects his own anger over the state of humanity's rotten relationship with nature—and the single most interesting thing about mother! is indeed the way it places an unwitting mother goddess into tension with humankind's all-consuming need to create and define its own reality, whether that definition rests upon the contradictory rules of a desert sky-god or the self-destructive, Malthusian logic of modern industrial civilization.  (Aronofsky is still a master of subjective filmmaking, and, in its fashion, mother! is still something of a lark after all, using the language of psychological horror to force you to identify totally with "mother's" suffering on a gutwrenchingly personal level, even if you do only perceive her character as naught but an impersonal symbol.)

But that's just my opinion; not everyone shares it.  Take my girlfriend; she prefers the most-literalistic aspects of the film—that is, the crushing psychological abuse of a woman at the hands of a reckless artist, as seen upon symbolic but essentially human terms.  Who knows, maybe your favorite aspect will be its critique of religious zealotry, which in mother! takes on the form of this poet's rabid "fans."

The problem, then, is that by outright demanding that you choose your adventure, mother! can only ever satisfy about 80-90% of whichever allegory you actually want it to be.  Meanwhile, all the details from the rest wind up nothing but unwarranted interference.  For example: the environmentalist one seems awfully undermined by those bookending sequences of replacement, which, in turn, seem more of a piece with the domestic-feminist one; the domestic-feminist one doesn't make any kind of sense in context with those hideously bravura scenes of overpopulation and war; the Biblical gimmick becomes intensely obtuse in the final half hour, and it turns out it was massively frontloaded, as all Aronofsky ever gets out of the Good Book is the first half of Genesis, plus the Gospels, sort of, and Revelation, if you squint very hard; and, yeah, the public enjoys Aronofsky's cinematic poetry, but not close to this fucking much; and so on like that.  It's altogether just bothersome. Then there's the matter of "mother" being able to speak, however briefly, to a live human outside of her house—which I remind you represents the whole of creation—by way of a 911 call.  And this must be called jarring, if not ridiculously obnoxious, under any possible interpretative scheme.

Still, 80-90% is one hell of an awful lot for any allegory, especially when it's  an allegory for so many things at the same time.  The dripping pretension of it was what I hated the most the first time I saw it, I admit.  But it grew on me quickly.  It took three years before I turned back to NoahMother! got me within three days.  The point is, I suppose, that no matter how much (or how little) value you find in its specific details, it's an experience like no other.  Mother! is outright bloated with brilliance—if, by the same exact process, every flaw within it winds up magnified, too.

Score:  8/10

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