Robert here, continuing my series of the directors that shaped the past 10 years. Last week I wrote about a “love him” or “hate him” director that turned out to be mostly loved. So having promised such a man I feel like I let you down. I think I can do better with this week’s subject: Darren Aronofsky
Number of Films: Three.
Modern Masterpieces: Two. Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain (this is called baiting the hook.)
Total Disasters: None.
Better than you remember: Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain if applicable.
Awards: Requiem and The Wrestler receive Oscar Nominations for acting. The Wrestler gets the Spirit Award for Best Picture. The Fountain goes mostly overlooked (because The Academy has no idea what a good movie score sounds like).
Box Office: The Wrestler is tops with over 23 mil. The Fountain tops 10 mil. Requiem in very limited release (thank you NC-17) does 2 and a half mil.
Critical Consensus: The Wrestler is clearly his most praised film. Requiem gets mostly good notices though some critics are split. The Fountain confuses everyone.
Favorite Actor: Mark Margolis, who you might recognize as the pawn shop owner, the priest, and the landlord (respectively)
Let’s talk about:
Desperate obsession. Though I suppose you can make an argument that most great films are about desperate obsession. Isn’t Dorothy desperately obsessed with getting home? Isn’t Charles Kane desperately obsessed with being loved? Isn’t Rick desperately obsessed with Ilsa? Maybe… it depends on your definition of “desperate” and “obsessed.” For the sake of Darren Aronofsky’s films, we can agree that the desperate obsession of his characters is defined at the highest extreme possible. And perhaps that’s his biggest shortcoming (I feel the need to level a criticism early since the rest of this post will be complimentary, and a bit defensive). His films’ insights don’t seem to extend much further than: “desperate obsession leads to very bad things.” And thematically, each successive film doesn’t seem to tread any ground beyond this.
Darren Aronofsky is, however, a great director of actors. I mention this now because it's largely the performances by his actors that successfully counter-balance any troubles had by his films. Another criticism of Aronofsky’s films (though not by me) is that they posses a sense of stylistic overkill. “Style over substance” they say. To which I often respond that those criticizing a piece of art would be wise not to employ a phrase that’s cliché (please also refrain from describing a film as “the emperor has no clothes” thank you). There is no doubt that the director’s films are stylishly bold and often aggressive. But how does one make a film about mental collapse such as Requiem for a Dream without utilizing such an uncompromising subjective camera? And how can one suggest that the style and storytelling of The Fountain isn’t absolutely necessary to explore the minds of its characters (depending on your interpretation of course). Aronofsky’s films are certainly high style but they don’t suffer from it. They are, in fact, among the most inventive movies being made today.
And still it all comes back to the acting. Even if Aronofsky’s films are stylistically excessive (including brilliant contributions from talent such as Matthew Libatique and Clint Mansell) they are always saved by the acting. After all, these movies are really about people and how their inability to find joy in the mundane, mediocre world around them fuels their desperate obsessions for that which is ultimately unattainable; whether it be respect, love, saving a spouse or fitting into a red dress. And the portrayals of actors such as Ellen Burstyn, Jennifer Connelly, Hugh Jackman and Mickey Rourke are not just human and moving but often crushing. These are performances that easily counteract any possible stylistic distraction and become the emotional heart of each film. It takes great actors to steal the spotlight from Aronofsky’s audacious aesthetics. Yet they do, every time.
Heading into this decade, Aronofsky was the hot new thing, coming off the indie success of Pi. Requiem for a Dream was something of a companion piece, continuing the (as Aronofsky calls it) “hip hop montage” device of its predecessor. Seemingly a continuation of his winning streak, the film had few detractors (not including stoned college dorm-mates who dismissed it as a mere modern Reefer Madness). But eight years later when The Wrestler opened to much acclaim, more voices than I expected invoked memory of the director’s “last two disasters.” That second disaster was The Fountain, a passion project that collapsed and had to be completely re-thought with a smaller cast and budget. Too many critics savaged it as incomprehensible. Yet I couldn’t understand why reviewers could praise the opaque work of Lynch or Buñuel but find nothing worthwhile in this powerful film (which, quite frankly shouldn't require 100% comprehension to be enjoyed). Thankfully, the critical and commercial failure of The Fountain did not slow down Aronofsky.
I'm happy to see that, thanks to The Wrestler, Aronofsky has regained a place of high cinematic respect (though it’s no small shame that his least demanding picture should be his most highly praised). Hopefully he will not take it as a sign to shrug off his audaciousness moving into the future (which soon includes the ballerina picture Black Swan and a possible RoboCop remake). To quote Nathaniel: “Auteurs should all go for broke.” To quote myself: “If great movies always show us something we’ve never seen before, then it's awfully hard to make a case against Darren Aronofsky.”