A Beginner’s Guide to… Darren Aronofsky

To quickly explain these series of articles again, I want to be able to give a brief history of the director and then choose three of their films to discuss.The Beginner film would be for viewers who haven’t ever watched a film by this director (a good introduction, some may say), the Intermediate would be for those viewers who have a little background but still want to learn more about the director before coming along to Advanced, which would be the films by the directors which may be the least commercial or well known, but die hard fans of the directors would have watched.

Week Three: Darren Aronofsky

Aronofsky is an American film director, screenwriter and film producer best known for his films Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler (that film that revived Mickey Rourke’s career) and last year’s runaway ballet thriller, Black Swan, which was nominated for Best Film at the Academy Awards, gave Natalie Portman her first Oscar for Best Actress and appeared in many film critics top 10 lists of 2010.

For the first time in this series we are coming up against a director who actually attended Harvard University to formally study film theory as well as becoming a member of the American Film Institute to study both live-action and animation filmmaking. He won several film awards after completing his senior thesis film, “Supermarket Sweep”, which went on to become a National Student Academy Award finalist. Interestingly with Aronofsky, as I will look at a little later, his films (for the most part) seem to follow certain very stylised trends that appear to have been formed by someone who did actually study the technicalities of film. Whereas some of the past directors we looked at learnt about film based on either their upbrining (Tarantino) or their yearning for something more in a commercial setting (Almodóvar), Aronofsky is able to don certain techniques and manipulations of the camera due to an education that very much placed emphasis on the uniqueness of the mise-en-scene. He explores his characters on screen without warning by providing extreme close ups, even before the audience have learnt to become intimate with the character. As well as this, he is able to alienate his audience with the mise-en-scene, specifically through lighting and his very fast pace of editing.

Aronofsky’s first feature, Pi, was a low-budget production starring Sean Gullette that won Aronofsky the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and an Independent Spirit Award for best first screenplay. Aronofsky’s followup, Requiem for a Dream, was based on the novel of the same name written by Hubert Selby, Jr. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Ellen Burstyn’s very unique performance as a elderly woman addicted to television and the mass consumerism of the new century.

As well as film directing, Aronofsky has worked in producing and writing 2002’s horror, Below, starring Bruce Greernwood and Olivia Williams as well as executive producing 2010 hit, The Fighter starring Mark Whalberg and Christian Bale. He is currently working on development of the HBO series Hobgoblin and is set to direct the pilot.

As I mentioned before, Aronofsky has a very unique stylised mise-en scene and many of the ways that he moulds the image on screen can be seen throughout his filmography. Particularly in his earlier pictures, he used something called hip-hop montage, fast motion images and sound effects that simulate a certain action. This is specifically used on Requiem for a Dream to indicate drug taking throughout the picture. As well as being part of the narrative, it also integrates the audience into the feeling of the characters on screen as they become intoxicated by the images. Aronofsky is also a master of sound in my opinion, very much highlighting what is there, and sometimes what is not there as well by making small noises much louder and make them seem natural within the film’s diegesis.

Furthermore, all of his features have scores by Clint Mansell, which presents a theory known as auteur theory. He works with the same people throughout his films and once he became established, one is able to tell that a film belongs to him.

Beginner

Black Swan, 2010

Starring Natalie Portman, Vincent Cassel & Mila Kunis

The 2010 psychological thriller took last years awards season by storm, along with Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. With nominations flying all over the place including Best Actress for Natalie Portman, Best Director and in many cases, Best Film. The film follows the auditions, planning and rehearsing of a new production of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake by a prestigious New York City company. The company is run by Thomas Leroy played by Cassel, a man who thrives on the madness of his dancers and in turn, this is one of the first themes of the film; the joining together of sex, lust and madness. Cassel’s character has a history of sleeping with his lead dancers, and through manipulative techniques, Black Swan watches Portman’s dancer, Nina, become drawn into the darkness of his world.

This particular production requires the lead ballerina to play both the innocent White Swan and the seductive Black Swan. As the film progresses through the first chapters. the audience sees that Nina is perfect for the White Swan and Lily (Kunis) has the correct persona for the Black Swan. When the two compete for the parts, Nina finds a dark side to herself.

Aronofsky conceived the premise by connecting his viewings of a production of Swan Lake with an unrealized screenplay about understudies and the notion of being haunted by a double, similar to the folklore surrounding doppelgängers. Aronofsky cites Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Double” as another inspiration for the film. The director also considered Black Swan a companion piece to his 2008 film The Wrestler, with both films involving demanding performances for different kinds of art. He and Portman first discussed the project in 2000, and after a brief attachment to Universal Studios, Black Swan was produced in New York City in 2009 by Fox Searchlight Pictures. Portman and Kunis trained in ballet for several months prior to filming and notable figures from the ballet world helped with film production to shape the ballet presentation.

The reason for picking Black Swan as the beginner film is mainly because of the popularity of the piece and the sheer number of people who have heard of the film. On first look, Aronofsky is very clever at hiding the true nature of the film; at first it seems like an exploration of ballet, much like his previous film, The Wrestler. But this is one of the ways in which he is able to manipulate his audience without alienating them too much from the overall effect of the film. The opening sequence of the ballerina dancing to Tchaikovsky whilst the various transformations are taking place act as an introduction to for what is to come. A precise use of chiaroscuro lighting blocks the images so that to a point, they don’t even look real and by making these works roll majestically in front of the audience, the dancers become a little less human and a little more part of the dance they are performing.

The film is a great introduction to Aronofsky as it showcases one of his greatest talents, bringing out the darkness in his actors; something many directors try and fail. He juxtaposes their beauty, be it in their looks or their movements and even to a certain extent, in their dialogue with the dark sensuality of the actual film. He puts a lens of beauty and without making it ugly, under covers the deep undergrowth (much like Lynch). The film represents, technically some great work and puts the audience in a good position to understand the rest of his filmography.

Intermediate

Requiem for a Dream, 2000

Starring Jared Leto, Ellen Burstyn & Jennifer Connelly

The film which really started Aronofsky’s career, Requiem for a Dream is based on a novel by Hubert Selby, Jr and depicts different forms of addiction, leading to the characters’ imprisonment in a world of delusion and reckless desperation that is subsequently overtaken and devastated by reality. The film charts three seasons in the lives of Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn), her son Harry (Leto), Harry’s girlfriend Marion Silver (Connelly), and Harry’s friend Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans).

The majority of reviewers characterised Requiem for a Dream in the genre of “drug movies”, along with films like TrainspottingSpun, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. However, Aronofsky has said:

“Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs… The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, ‘Oh, my God, what is a drug?’ The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person’s head when they’re trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they’re trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. I thought it was an idea that we hadn’t seen on film and I wanted to bring it up on the screen.”

So this is where Requiem for a Dream was born; in the mouth of addiction, quite literally. But despite harbouring a hard hitting storyline, where the film really succeeds is through it’s amazing style. As intermediate film this week, I have to say, Requiem for a Dream presents the best, in my opinion, mise-en-scene wise of what Aronofsky has to offer. Aronofsky uses montages of extremely short shots throughout the film (as I mentioned above, sometimes named hip hop montage).While an average 100-minute film has 600 to 700 cuts, this features more than 2,000. Split-screen is used extensively, along with extremely tight closeups and long tracking shots (including those shot with an apparatus strapping a camera to an actor, called the Snorricam) and time-lapse photography are also prominent stylistic devices.

In order to portray the shift from the objective, community-based narrative to the subjective, isolated state of the characters’ perspectives, Aronofsky alternates between extreme closeups and extreme distance from the action and intercuts reality with a character’s fantasy but also aims to subjectivise emotion, and the effect of his stylistic choices is personalisation rather than alienation.

The film’s distancing itself from empathy is furthered structurally by the use of intertitles (Summer, Fall, Winter), marking the temporal progress of addiction.The average scene length shortens as the movie progresses (beginning around 90 seconds to two minutes) until the movie’s climactic scenes, which are cut together very rapidly (many changes per second) and are accompanied by a score which increases in intensity accordingly. After the climax, there is a short period of serenity, during which idyllic dreams of what may have been are juxtaposed with portraits of the four shattered lives.

I have to point out here, that the above section was copied from the Wikipedia page of the film because it was exactly what I wanted to say, and written in a form that was able to communicate the various techniques used throughout the picture.

I remember people saying to me that I must watch Requiem for a Dream and this resulted in purchasing the DVD but I also remember people saying not to watch the film if I was in a good mood as it would depress me, I was also told not to watch if I wasn’t in a good mood as I’d find it very hard to watch. After actually waiting quite a while to watch this wonder, I have to say, I was so excited and my adrenaline was really pumping by the end of the picture because the way I reacted was to immerse myself more into the movements for the camera and the acid trip that we follow the characters on, rather than try to sympathise with them any further than Aronofsky allows. He doesn’t want us to care enough about these characters that we want them to find the error of their ways and in turn, our ways, rather, he wants to us to become part of the characters on screen and follow them down deeper in their addiction. With one of the most beautiful soundtracks, the final sequence, the building up of all the tension to the final cutting moments (if you have seen the film, you will know what I have done there) make the audience unsure where to go next but all they do know, they have to come down.

Advanced

Pi, 1998

Starring Sean Gullette, Mark Margolis & Ben Shenkman

Pi is a psychological thriller written and directed by Darren Aronofsky, as well as being his debut film. It earned him the Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Screenplay and the Gotham Open Palm Award. The title refers to the mathematical constant pi. Like most of Aronofsky’s films, Pi centers on a protagonist whose obsessive pursuit of ideal leads to severely self-destructive behaviour.

Maximillian “Max” Cohen (Gullette), the story’s protagonist and unreliable narrator, is a number theorist who believes that everything in nature can be understood through numbers. He is capable of doing simple arithmetic calculations involving large numbers in his head. Max also suffers from cluster headaches, as well as extreme paranoia, hallucinations, and social anxiety disorder. Other than a woman living next door who sometimes speaks to him, Max’s only social interaction is with Sol Robeson (Margolis), his old mathematics mentor.

Pi features several references to mathematics and mathematical theories. For instance, Max finds the golden spiral occurring everywhere, including the stock market. Max’s belief that diverse systems embodying highly nonlinear dynamics share a unifying pattern bears much similarity to results in chaos theory, which provides machinery for describing certain phenomena of nonlinear systems, which might be thought of as patterns.

Looking at Martyn Glanville’s review in 2001, he says that, “Aronofsky’s rapid cutting keeps the pace up and many of his visuals are genuinely unsettling – Max’s hallucinations during his brutal headaches are reminiscent of David Lynch’s equally disturbing feature debut Eraserhead. Elsewhere, Aronofsky’s use of the bizarre ‘Snorri Cam’ (a camera strapped to the actor’s body, named after its designers, the Snorri Brothers) provides the ultimate in subjectivity, while a subtle use of both slow and fast motion contribute greatly to the depiction of Max’s chaos. Sean Gullette, who also co-wrote the film, plays Max so convincingly that when he begins trembling at another imminent migraine attack, you feel like it’s coming your way too.”

Pi really does show an audience where it all began with Aronofsky, as many of the techniques that I have previously spoken about from the later films are initially brought to life in his debut feature. In a world where the release of such films like The Matrix and Fight Club, enabled audiences to rethink the dynamics in which the world works, Pi was right there at the beginning of this trend. Mixing faith and science seemed like something that would never happen but more and more, the world we live in today sees the two (initially juxtaposing) worlds become meshed into something that tries hard to explain our existence.

By no means is this list extensive, for the rest of Aronofsky’s filmography is also equally haunting and should be viewed but rather I aim to just give a brief picture of where the director is coming from and hopefully will get a few more audience member’s interested in said director.

Keep following Front Row Reviews for the latest on Aronofsky and his new pilot for HBO, Hobgoblin.

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