Aronofsky: A Shockingly Talented and Aggressive Filmmaker

1) Mathematics is the language of nature.

2) Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers.

3) If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge.

Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.

— Max Cohen, Π

It may strike the reader as somewhat odd to see the release of a Darren Aronofsky Collection consisting of only two films: the wrenching saga of hope corrupted to become despair encapsulated in Requiem for a Dream (2002) and the fascinating intellectual thriller Π (1998). Indeed the marketers of the set seem to have anticipated this response through their employment of the indefinite article. This is a Darren Aronofsky collection but by no means should it be considered the Darren Aronofsky collection.

On the other hand, there is a certain fittingness to packaging these two films together. Aside from being the early efforts of a shockingly talented and aggressive filmmaker, these films — while relating quite different stories — share an underlying narrative structure and a profound concern for the individual’s deeply embedded need for the patterns that inform his/her life. These patterns give meaning to what is ultimately an isolated existence. They create a sense of temporality; they establish a present and a future.

The regularity of the patterns structures the lives of Aronofsky’s characters. But by capitulating entirely to the sheer regularity, by allowing their complete self-immersion into the patterns to the extent that there remains no distinction between themselves and the patterns of their behavior, they ultimately collapse into a state of paralysis in which they lack all vestiges of autonomy. They no longer ‘will’ their actions, but carry on like sickly automatons they merely continue as they always have until they sadly wind down altogether. The patterns that had defined them become empty gestures; all meaning is vitiated and what had seemed like progress becomes an endless spiraling descent. No longer able to perform adequately their routinized existence, these characters have a choice: irrevocably break with the pattern or disintegrate into non-identity.

In Π, we follow the mathematical genius Max Cohen (Sean Gullette) as he pursues the numerical pattern that underwrites the seeming chaos of the stock market. Tacitly following Galileo’s famous dictum that nature is a book written in the language of mathematics, Max obsessively pursues his quest for a numerical explanation of the workings of the world. Max constructed his computer, Euclid, to assist him and with it he meticulously charts the rise and fall of stocks — always attempting to predict their next move, always hoping to discern the underlying pattern. Meanwhile, the entirety of Max’s life is suffused with patterns and regularities. Scenes depicting his severe migraines punctuate the film. Each instance follows a strict order. Max’s finger begins to shake violently, warning him of the impending attack. He then pops a handful of pills into his mouth and sometimes follows that with a subcutaneous injection, all in anticipation of the excruciating pain that is about to tear through his body. He becomes nauseated, shakes and beats his head. Each attack culminates in a hallucination followed by a blinding white light. Soon he awakens with a bloody nose.

Other patterns emerge: a beautiful neighbor who periodically brings Max food, a child who tests Max’s ability to solve complex equations in his head, a representative of a corporation desperately calling to enlist Max’s assistance, the repeated encounters with a Hasidic Jew named Lenny Meyer (the insidiously engaging Ben Shenkman) who elicits Max’s interest by demonstrating that Hebrew is “all numbers”, and the many visits to his mentor Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis) who gave up his life’s project of discovering the pattern behind Π and fears that Max is becoming mad in his pursuit of total understanding.

At one point during his pursuit, the computer Euclid crashes, but just as it dies it emits a string of numbers, seemingly without purpose. Max soon discovers that at that moment the computer became self aware; it saw the pattern behind its own processes. The pattern obscurely relates to the golden ratio and the golden ratio relates to spirals. Max now sees what he has been missing: if we are all spirals operating within an all-encompassing spiral then everything we do, everything we touch derives from and perpetuates these spirals. Now in possession of the numerical code that unlocks the chaos of the universe (the stock market, the secret Hebrew name of God, everything), Max finds himself not enlightened but enslaved by the pattern he identified. Like Euclid, Max becomes aware of his own processes, which are also the processes of existence itself. And like Euclid, this knowledge threatens to destroy him. But Max makes a choice; he abnegates and chooses to unlearn what he has discovered. The possibility of existence, Aronofsky seems to suggest, depends upon our willingness to stand in awe before its mysteries. Total understanding leads to sterility and death.

But if Max, in his drastic concluding course of action, turns back and eschews the patterns that threaten to engulf him, his counterparts in Requiem for a Dream are not so fortunate. Requiem charts the descent of drug addict Harry (Jared Leto), his best friend and fellow user Tyrone (an unbelievably convincing Marlon Wayans), his junkie girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn). Sara is a lonely widow. Her life revolves around television and sitting in the sun while gossiping with her friends. She no longer feels needed. She lacks purpose. Her old patterns (taking care of her son and husband) have fallen away and she seeks a new source of meaning. Not surprisingly, her new direction combines her nostalgia for a lost past with her favorite pastime: she hopes to appear on television wearing a slim red dress her husband loved. She visits a quack doctor and is soon addicted to speed, prescribed as diet pills. Meanwhile, Harry and Tyrone attempt to earn money as dealers without consuming all of their profits through using. Harry encourages Marion to pursue fashion design but she seems far more interested in scoring. They all hold on so tight to their little dreams that they fail to recognize that those dreams are inextricably connected with their addictions.

Even during the summer that opens the film, when all of the characters are brimming with hope and confidence in the future, Aronofsky takes pains to illustrate their isolation. A scene (presumably one of post-coital affection and caressing) between Marion and Harry lying in bed is shot as two separate images on a split screen. Although the characters lie next to each other, they occupy their own visual fields, cut off from each other. They speak words of love but the imagery reveals their utter and insuperable separation. They touch each other but from across an abyss. In the end, Harry realizes the enormity of the distance between them. After he has his arm (decimated from the ravages of repeated injections) amputated, he calls out to Marion. A nurse assures him that she will come but he dejectedly shakes his head: “No, she won’t”. And of course, he is right, but not because anything has actually changed. She never could have come.

Requiem for a Dream — trailer

Both Requiem for a Dream and Π are a film buff’s delight; both brim with foregrounded techniques; these are filmic narratives, not simply narratives captured on film. However, Aronofsky endeavors to avoid the preciosity that so often plagues directors who attempt to emphasize film’s capacity. Technique serves the unfolding of the story while simultaneously transporting that story to a specific sort of interiority. Certainly one of the most obvious techniques is the Snorricam. The camera is strapped onto the actor, generally so that it faces the actor. Thus the actor’s image remains stable while his or her surroundings shift in accordance with his or her movements. In a sense, this is a reversal of the point of view shot. We don’t see what the character sees; we see the character seeing while the world blurs into the background. The Snorricam allows for a special type of close-up. The character is put under glass; we almost feel as though we are violating their privacy. This feels so invasive because the only thing that these characters have is privacy; they attempt to reach out to each other but all true communication is foreclosed from the beginning.

The other technique Aronofsky repeatedly utilizes is what he dubs the “hip-hop montage”. The hip-hop montage often depicts the feeding of addiction: pill bottles pop open, hands clap over mouths, heroin burns and bubbles, capillaries and pupils dilate. At other times, these montages characterize the habits of loneliness: the bolts of the door are locked and opened, the keys of the computer are struck, the television crackles to life. All sounds are amplified to an extraordinary degree. Such are the voices of the objects that surround these lonely characters. In the absence of true human communication between individuals, the characters are immersed in the sounds emanating from their surrogates. The sound of the television is an echo of Sara, the metallic clinks of the locks reveal Max’s paranoia, and the sounds involved in getting a fix reverberate through Harry, Marion, and Tyrone. None of the characters can disengage from the patterns with which they have invested their lives. Only Max escapes but the price he pays is the loss of the defining aspect of his personality.

The producers of this collection have lavished these DVDs with extras. Both films include a commentary by Aronofsky and a separate commentary on each film by someone else associated with it: Sean Gullette, who plays Max, comments on Π and Director of Photography Matthew Libatique comments on Requiem. Both films also feature a look behind the scenes of the production along with several scenes that were cut from the films as released. The cut scenes only verify Aronofsky’s fine sense of pacing. Most of these scenes were perfectly serviceable but they do little to deepen out sympathies with the characters and would only serve to slacken the relentless drive that Aronofsky has created. The Requiem disc includes an interview between Ellen Burstyn and the author of the book on which the film is based, Hubert Selby Jr. While Burstyn may not be the most insightful interviewer (she tends to ask questions that only an actor or actress would think important), Selby is a bizarre enough figure to sustain one’s interest throughout their conversation. His view on the world is a heady mixture of Schopenhaurean pessimism and Sartrean despair. However, the finest extra on the DVD is the “Anatomy of a Scene”. Here we receive a detailed insight into the bit-by-bit construction of an integral scene that connects the Sara story with the Harry/Tyrone/Marion story through the use of hip-hop montage. It is a wonderful peek into the workings of a creative mind.

These films do not make for pleasant viewing. They are perversely beautiful and savagely enchanting. These images will not leave you unscathed. They simultaneously demand and repel repeated viewing. If the quixotic, brave but flawed release of The Fountain has left you scratching your head, take a look (again or for the first time) at these remarkable earlier films that are less concerned with the “other world” and more concerned with the difficulties we have in coming to know and living in this one.

RATING 9 / 10


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