Thursday, November 05, 2009

Directors of the Decade: Darren Aronofsky

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.

Aronofsky and Rourke. Blurry.

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.”


Andrew David said...

Good one. Personally I think all three are masterpieces, but "The Wrestler" is my personal favourite. So much raw energy and battered heart from all three of the leads, and the filmmaking style itself.

Ryan Ray said...

I can't wait for Black Swan. I hope it is strange-good and not strange-bad!

Danny King said...

Great choice here, although I'm surprised you don't consider The Wrestler a masterpiece. It was certainly one of 2008's best films and has one of the decade's best performances.

Arkaan said...

The Wrestler is probably my least favourite Aronofsky film, but The Fountain/Requiem/Pi? Awesome.

Augie6 said...

He is definitely a director to watch and made 2008 a very good movie year.
But the pcture you showed with his finger in the air was to Rourke as he gave his acceptance speech at the Golden Globes. After that, to me, he has NO class. It will take a long time and some great filmmaking before I have respect for him again.

Seeking Amy said...

I would say all three this decade are masterpieces, but Requiem is head and shoulders his crowning achievement thus far to me. And for how unwatcheable and grim some people watch it, i've seen it many times.

I find it annoying that I didn't get to see the bird flipping for the Globes since i'm on the west coast. What the hell, the Globes are on the same time zone as me, why should I not get to see it actually live instead of pretend live?

Kyle Pinion said...

And to think, Darren and Frank Miller were *this* close to doing "Batman Year One" with Christian Bale in the lead earlier in the decade.

According to people who have read the script they wrote, we really dodged a bullet with that one.

Robert Hamer said...

@ Augie6: Because great directors all display the highest personal character and judgement at ALL times. [/sarcasm]

Personally, I thought The Wrestler was a real evolution for Aronofsky as a filmmaker. It showed that he could hang back and let the story develop without aggressive "style" (Not that such a thing was inappropriate for films like π and Requiem for a Dream). Sort of like Tarantino and Jackie Brown.

Sean said...

Three Things I Didn't Know Before Reading This Article:
1) That critics were/are split over 'Requiem For A Dream'
2) That 'Requiem For A Dream' is the lowest grossing of Aronofosky's 21st century films.
3) That anyone would dare dismiss 'Requiem For A Dream' as an update of 'Reefer Madness'

I'm not suggesting I don't believe you, but I am very surprised by that information. I can't even fathom someone watching 'Requiem For A Dream' and not beginning to worship at the altar of Aronofosky because of it.

I agree with Robert Hamer that 'The Wrestler' is admirable in its naturalism and subtlety, but I still think 'Requiem' is in a different class. I still haven't seen The Fountain...

Kelsy said...

Aronofsky sure knows how to make a harrowing cinematic experience. I don't think I'll have the urge to see Requiem or The Wrestler ever again. And I mean that as a compliment to how effective the movies are.

But I love rewatching The Fountain. It's beautiful to look it, and you can change you're interpretation with every viewing.

Victor S said...

I truly believe that not even Aronofski has any idea of what is going on in "The Fountain", and maybe that's why I love it so so much.
I've been telling everyone that comes to me saying that they didn't understand the movie that they were not supposed to understand, that it doesn't need to make sense.
And one of the many great achievements of "The Fountain" is how much it grows and changes on repeat viewings. Your perception is always different. Very few movies keep giving you new things to think about after a 3rd or 4th (in my case 10+) viewings.
And how about a new series: "Composers of the Decade"??? Clint Mansell certanly would be there.

Glenn said...

I'd agree that The Wrestler is the weakest of the three, but "weakest" isn't the right word. I didn't quite get that movie, but found it more of an admirable take, I just missed the deranged insanity of this first three movies and I hope the success of it doesn't deter him from attempting another Requiem or Fountain.

Ben said...

The fountain is my favorite film of all time (here you go, extremes). Its row power is mind-bogling.

I've found that Aronofsky editing style (because it oftens come down to that) is like a cinematic interpretation of human breathing, slow and calm at times, fast and uneven under pressure.

For requiem and fountain, I found myself physically shaken by the end. The editing coupled with Clint Mansell unbelievable score has an effect on you heart beat. I really do believe that. In this fashion, Aronofsky's directing impacts our lives, literally.


@Sean -- agreed. how some people hate REQUIEM. it just aint right.

@Ben -- interesting editing comparison. I'm sad that so few of Aronofsky's co-stars (i.e. crew) get oscar recognition. Clint Mansell??? Matthew Libatique, Jay Rabinowitz. shameful that Oscar ignores.

@Robert -- agreed that the confidence of hanging back was beautiful but...

@Glenn -- EXACTLY. I love those bold stylizations in Requiem and The Fountain.

Culture Snob said...

I love Aronofsky's use of the split screen in Requiem to create separation between characters where there is little or no physical distance between them.


@CultureSnob -- YES! the split screen is so wildly underused in movies, considering how flexible it is narratively/emotionally speaking

Branden said...

I have seen the holy trinity. I would rank it as The Wrestler, Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain.

I haven't seen Pi, yet. I want to see it.

Aronofsky's Batman would make Bruce Wayne a psycho that is holed up underneath Big Al's (Alfred) garage.

It makes me wonder about his take RoboCop.

Cory Rivard said...

"The Fountain" is easily my favorite film of the decade. To imply that it is gibberish is just plain short-sighted. I have watched it upwards of 4000 times, and the messages are all quite clear. It has actually very much changed my perspective on being alive. I feel like the whole plot can be summed up in one line that Ellen Burstyn says: "In the end we go out the same way we come in... kicking and screaming."
Basically, this is saying that on our way out of the vagina, we are flipping out... losing our minds... it's the worse thing that could possibly happen. And then... it's fine. It gives hope that all of this kicking and screaming and avoiding death will all amount to same realization and it reflects the journey that Hugh Jackman's character takes.

Also, I am very pleased that you used that picture of Aronofsky at the Globes. That's been my MSN picture for months. It's a joyful illustration of the bond that those two men have created together.

Great piece. The most exciting director working today.

DJ said...

"The Fountain" is such an underrated movie, and I think Jackman gives the best male performance of the decade.

Howler said...

I've seen all four, but I couldn't connect to "Pi" despite being interested in mathematics. I was probably too young for a film that challenging.
However, judging by what Aronofsky has done in the aughts, I'd probably call him the most consistent brilliant director of the decade (A-, A- and A-). My favourite by a small margin is "The Fountain"; not really because I think it's best-made, but because I could feel it with all my heart and I didn't care at all whether it really made sense.

Cory Rivard said...

If I could marry a movie... my last name would be Fountain.

martha said...

Aronofsky is a one of a kind director for sure. I will agree with other commenters here that 'The Fountain' is his best film, a film that you don't have to explain but feel. It's a masterpiece in every aspect (direction, cinematography, soundtrack, acting) and Hugh Jackman is shockingly outstanding. The most committed performance in recent memory, yet he wasn't nominated for an Oscar. I guess this year's Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button was better...

Bailey said...

I have only seen Requiem for a Dream and The Fountain, but they are two of my favorite movies. How Requiem wasn't awarded anything back in the day is still absolutely mind-boggling to me. It is sick, gut-wrenching and beautiful all at the same time. (And Ms. Burstyn threw her shit down in the most spectacular way. For shame, Academy.)

On the other hand, I'm kind of glad The Fountain wasn't recognized that much. That not very many people know about it almost makes it more special.