Friday, May 8, 2009

God and the Cinema Part VII: Darren Aronofsky

In his first four films, Darren Aronofsky has shown that he is one of the best filmmakers in the world right now. In my mind, he has made two masterpieces – Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler – one hugely ambitious, yet not quite perfect visionary epic – The Fountain – and a fascinating little film about math – Pi. While the films appear to be fairly far apart in terms of subject matter, they all share one theme in common. That is need. Each of the main characters in his movies need something more than anything else – they are will to sacrifice everything, die if they must, to meet these needs. They cannot help themselves. Everything else, God included, is shunted to the side.

Aronosky’s debut film, Pi, is about a mathematical genius Max Cohen (Sean Guillette), who believes that math is the language of nature, and that all numbers have a pattern. By looking at the patterns long enough, you can understand anything. His current obsession is trying to find a pattern in the stock market. By doing so, he could stand to make billions. He is pursued by two groups – a Wall Street outfit, whose interest is obvious. The other group is Hasidic Jews, who believes that the Torah, is a code sent by God, and wants Max to decipher it.

Pi is the Aronofsky film that most explicitly references God. Even the tagline of the film “Faith in Chaos” references God. Max is already paranoid at the beginning of the film. He lives behind a door with six locks, and only has one personal relationship – with his old professor. As the film progresses, Max sinks deeper into his paranoia. His super computer spits out a 216 number that at first appears meaningless, but that turns out to be much more than that. Both the Wall Street group, who think the number is the key to the stock market, and the Hasidic Jews, who believe the number represents the unspeakable name of God, and could help bring about the Messianic Age, demand Max to explain what the number means. But Max refuses. His headaches increases, as does his paranoia, until Max can no longer take. He drills a hole in his head using a power drill, and afterwards seems to be at peace with himself. He can no longer do math, but he’s happy.

What does Pi really mean? Is there a pattern to everything in universe that math can help explain? And if there is, does that mean that God doesn’t exist, or that he does? The problems become too big for Max to handle by himself, and the groups – which represent a clash between capitalism and God – force him to take desperate measures. Perhaps, there are some things man just isn’t supposed to know. Max comes to this realization by the end of the movie, and gives up. Does this mean that he is capable of overcoming his obsession and in doing so, can fully embrace God? Or can he simply embrace himself? I’m not sure.

The need for something else besides God comes into focus even more in Aronofsky’s second film – Requiem for a Dream. That film, perhaps the best ever made on the subject of drug addiction, concentrates on putting us inside the mind of a junkie. The four main characters in the movie – Sara (Ellen Burstyn), her son Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) – are all addicted to drugs, and are all willing to give up everything to get them. This film is not nearly as hopeful as Pi was – the characters here never find their way out of their obsession, but instead simply sink deeper and deeper into it, until there is no escape.

Sara’s story is the saddest. She is a lonely widow, with only one child who has become a heroin addict. She spends her days by herself watching infomercials on TV. Then one day she gets a phone call telling her she is going to be on one of those infomercials she loves so much. She becomes obsessed with fitting into an old red dress of her – that her husband loved, and that she wore to her sons graduation, a proud moment for her – so she starts taking diet pills (which are essentially speed) during the day and a sedative at night. Weeks pass, and no official invitation arrives in the mail like they said it would. She starts uping her dosage, and begins to hallucinate. As the film drags on, she completely loses touch with reality.

Harry is a heroin addict, who along with fellow addicts Tyrone (also addicted to heroin) and Marion (whose drug of choice is cocaine), they go into drug dealing, hoping to get enough money to open a store where Marion can sell the clothes she designs. But this, like everything else in the movie, is simply a pipe dream. Although Harry and Marion are “together”, sex doesn’t really interest either one of them – only their next high. Problems arise, money is short, and Harry convinces Marion to sleep with her therapist for money – causing them to argue and break-up. Harry and Tyrone head for Florida, but are arrested. Harry’s arm is infected, and he has to get it amputated. Tyrone is sent to jail, where he is abused and goes through a painful withdrawal. Marion continues to degrade herself, more and more, eventually winding up at orgies where she has sex in front of cheering crowds for money.

Requiem for a Dream is an unrelentingly harsh movie from beginning to end. It is, at times, like being punched in the stomach. We want to look away, but we can’t. We sit there transfixed. The world that the addicts retreat to in the movie is one that is initially blissful, but soon becomes a nightmare. Nothing matters to them anymore – not each other, and certainly not God. They have delusions about themselves, and all the great things they will do, but they do not do any of them. They are stuck in a trap of their own making.

In The Fountain, Aronofsky most problematic, yet intriguing film, he tells three stories, set in three time periods, all which have to do with Tom (Hugh Jackman) trying to conquer death. In the present, Tom is a cancer researcher, trying desperately to find a cure for brain tumors, because his wife Izzi (Rachel Weisz) is slowly dying because of them. He breaks medical protocol by giving his research monkey an untested drug made from the sap of a tree found in Guatemala. The drug rejuvenates the monkey, at least at first, as it seems to have surprising powers.

The second story, which is a book that Izzi is writing, is set in 16th century Spain, where Queen Isabella (Weisz) sends a conquistador Tomas (Jackman) to the new world to find the tree of life. When he arrives in the New World, the Mayans at first stop Tomas from getting to the Tree of Life, but then he is identified as the First Father, a deity who sacrificed himself in order to create the world.

The third story is set in the future, and features Tom (Jackman) floating through space in an ecosphere with the tree of life. He draws sap from the tree in order to keep himself young, and travels towards a golden nebula, where he plans to plant the tree, and be able to bring Izzi back.

The Fountain is wildly ambitious, and is never less than fascinating, and visually stunning. That I don’t think it all quite comes together is a minor concern. The film is still one of the greatest achievements of the decade. In all three stories, Tom tries to concur death – and defy God – but in all three he eventually fails. In the present day, Tom has to deal with losing his wife to cancer, and trying to pick up the pieces of his life. In the future, Tom has to get over his own fear of death, and accept the fact that it comes to all men. The past is the most bleak, where Tom greedily drinks the sap from the tree in order to become immortal, only to have himself buried in leaves and flowers that burst from his body. Death is a part of life, and all three Tom’s eventually have to accept that.

Aronofsky’s most recent film, The Wrestler, at first appears to be a departure for him. It is certainly more visually “normal” than any of his other films. Yet, I find that it still does relate to his themes. Randy “The Ram” Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is like all of Aronofsky’s characters in that he craves something so much that he is willing to give up everything else for it. In Randy’s case it’s not math or drugs or death itself, but fame. He was once a famous wrestler and he got off on all the adulation he received when he was on top. The cheering crowds, the parties, the groupies, everything about it was great. Now, 20 years past his prime, Randy still craves that fame. He is down broken down – his body is giving out on him, his fans have left, his daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) hates him and he has no money. He’s stuck living in a trailer park, which he can barely afford, working part time at a grocery store and wrestling in front of smaller and smaller crowds, which brings him just a fraction of the adulation he used to get. He dreams of being back on top.

Randy only has one real “human” relationship and that’s with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper who understands Randy in a way that no one else really does. Her body is making it harder to do her job as well, and in Randy she finds someone who she can talk to. She gets something from Randy that he used to get from the crowd – unconditional love.

The Wrestler is about Randy trying, and eventually failing, to get his life back together. He reaches out to his daughter, and maybe able to repair things if only he wasn’t so selfish. He and Cassidy take tentative steps towards romance. But in the end, all Randy knows is the roar of the crowds. It’s his drug, and he sacrifices everything for it.

You could say that Pi and The Fountain are twin movies, and that Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler are twin movies. The first two are about characters who eventually are able to give up their obsessions, and accept life (or death) and move on. Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler are about characters who finally cannot leave their addictions behind, and suffer the consequences because of it. All of Aronofsky’s characters at one point or another are willing to give up everything for their obsessions. Whether it ends up good or bad from them is their own choice. In order to be truly happy – closer to God if you want – you have to leave those things behind you. If you don’t, you end up like the drug addicts in Requiem for a Dream or Randy in The Wrestler. All alone in the world, careening towards a lonely, desperate death.

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