DIRECTOR DARREN ARONOFSKY!
It's safe to say Darren Aronofsky has become one of the best visual storytellers in the world of cinema today. He really has. As a self described "average" writer, it's clear Aronofsky has become more comfortable and confident imbuing his films with a visual poetry in a way most his contemporaries are flat out unable to. Perhaps not quite Kubrick (no one is), but pretty closely molded. In terms of subject matter as well - Aronosky seems consistently interested in flawed characters and broken souls that battle with inner-demons and self-destructive tendencies. Which, as we all know, are inherently more fascinating to watch. So does that mean NOAH will follow suit? Certainly a troubled character, no doubt, but will the gargantuan studio tent-pole jive with Aronofsky's gritty independent roots? Well it's an answer we try to unearth before the flick drops into theaters next Friday. Lads, lasses...join us as we Dissect the 15-year career of Darren Aronofsky!
While I do believe Aronofsky's unflinching look at the horrors of drug addiction in REQUIEM FOR A DREAM is probably his most emotionally ravaging flick (I see you Ellen Burstyn), it's hard to argue that BLACK SWAN - the critical and commercial smash - isn't the man's finest film to date. I mean, adapting a high-brow ballet into a perverted assault of horror-fantastique...and directing your lead actress to an Oscar win in the process? Yup, that's one hell of an achievement! Not only that, the technical marvel that is BLACK SWAN also demonstrates how, in my opinion, Aronofsky has continued to improve his craft with each passing project. That's why, despite the subject matter, roiled production and overabundant CGI, I actually still have faith NOAH will - if not continue the trend - certainly be worth watching.
But back to BLACK SWAN. Viewed as an even darker companion piece to THE WRESTLER - Aronofsky's previous film - BLACK SWAN grapples with, intense psychological degradation, identity issues, the blurred line between sanity and insanity, and how the art of performance can, like a succubus, subsume one's entire soul. It's also a sordid meta-adaptation of a world renowned ballet, employing a play within a play framework that serves to jar, sway and discombobulate the viewer even more. It's a stunning film - from the dreamlike spotlight opening number to the heartbreaking climactic reveal - made even richer by Matthew Libatique's sumptuous cinematography. Throw in the gut-wrenching turn by the fully committed Natalie Portman, the sinister stylings of Vincent Cassel, the raw sex appeal of Mila Kunis and voila...we have cinematic alchemy!
Let's be clear, Aronofsky has yet to make a bad film. So it's only in terms of his limited experience, limited resources and miniscule budget (roughly $60,000) that we consider PI, his first feature, as Darren's "worst" flick. But actually, one could argue that the ingenuity and originality of PI are made all the more impressive by the lack of raw materials to work with at the outset. In that regard, the flick truly is a remarkable achievement. It has that ERASERHEAD quality of feeling like a student film, yet one that is wildly imaginative and even unprecedented. Couple that quality with the confounding mystery of the story - about a schizoid paranoiac mathematician who swears he's unlocked the universal equation of life - and a singular vision is borne.
The great thing about PI is how the visual and aural aesthetic comes to mirror the main characters' mind-state. The grainy black and white film stock, the fractured buzzing sounds and broken lighting schemes. These aspects quickly make us identify with how and what mad Max is feeling. Especially in those claustrophobic scenes in his apartment, the bathroom etc...it's like we become trapped in the dude's inescapably twisted mind. Dark, cluttered, messy, rotten...his dilapidated abode physically represents his own warped psyche. And we become trapped in his compulsively obsessed mind!
It seems Darren's most glaring trademark has to do with his visual aesthetic. First off, my man clearly seems to favor an image over a line of a dialogue, and in a show-me not tell-me medium like film...little else matters. To that end, Aronofsky has created his own visual language that marks a through-line in his body of work. Take for instance the Snorricam device that he constantly uses, whereby the camera is actually mounted onto the actor's body its filming. This elicits a jarring immediacy and an off-jointed visual that disorients the viewer. In addition, D.A. often employs equally hyper and stylistic intervalometer camerawork...you know, where images are sped up all around a stagnant image, usually at the center of the frame. The scene where Harry and Tyrone chill out, get high, listen to music, etc. is an example of such a technique.
Additionally, Aronofsky continues to work with collaborators he knows and trusts. Mark Margolis has appeared in every single film of Darren's to date, including the soon to release NOAH. Same goes for musician Clint Mansell, who has scored every one of Darren's pictures since making his composing debut in PI. Forging fruitful, long-lasting creative relationships with people who share likeminded sensibilities seem to be a trademark of most highly talented filmmakers. Mr. Aronofsky is no different!
With only five features to date, it's kind of tough to single out a hidden gem among Darren's canon, but since it was so universally panned upon release, let us attempt to bestow THE FOUNTAIN with the love it deserves. I mean, never-mind a mere movie, THE FOUNTAIN is a breathtaking, awe-inspiring experience. Both one of mine and John "The Arrow" Fallon's all time favorite flicks - THE FOUNTAIN plays more or less like a spiritual ode...or a love poem to death...than it does a typical 3-act narrative. I remember seeing the flick in theater, with maybe one or two other people in the entire house, and how profoundly affected I felt once the credits rolled. Emotionally steamrolled!
In a single (universal) story spanning 1000 years, multiple continents and represented over three distinct narrative strands - THE FOUNTAIN is about a man's dogged determination to keep his one true love intact, his wife, as her cancer progresses rapidly. As a past conquistador, a present molecular scientist and a future space-monk - elemental themes of circulation, repetition, growth, death, rebirth and ultimate consciousness are put forth. And not just put forth, but done so in a highly immersive, organically hallucinatory nature. It's a lofty flick, no doubt, which has long made it the subject of ridicule (it's too pretentious, too precious). But if you can look past that over-serious tone and try to respond to the flick spiritually and emotionally rather than intellectually, trust us, THE FOUNTAIN is one of the more rewarding ablutionary experiences to be had. And you know what? Because of the absolutely staggering organic microphotography involved for all the space-set special FX (filming chemical reactions in tiny petri dishes), I have a hunch this film's power will only endure and grow stronger as time unfolds.
It's no secret that Aronofsky's next flick - due in theaters March 28th - is the polemical biblical epic NOAH, starring Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly. The flick has had its fair share of publicly noted debacles, the latest being how Warner Bros. chose to test and market the picture. Ever worried about the religious context of the film, it sounds as if much of Aronofsky's control over the final cut was bypassed in order to satiate the masses. Of course, as iconoclastic as he's proven to be over the years, this hasn't really sat well with Darren. But before we expound on that, consider the films plot:
A man suffering visions of an apocalyptic deluge takes measures to protect his family a coming flood. Inspired by the Biblical story."
Now, apparently Warner Bros. tested three different cuts of the film - and changes the marketing spots for advertisement, causing quite a rift between the studio and the director. Here's what Aronofsky had to say about the fracas:
I was upset - of course. No one has ever done that to me. I imagine if I made comedies and horror films, it would be helpful. In dramas, it's very, very hard to do. I've never been open to it. I don't believe that." After much discussion and compromise, the studio announced on February 12 that Darren Aronofsky's version, not any of the studio's alternate versions, will be the final cut of Noah. "They tried what they wanted to try, and eventually they came back. My version of the film hasn't been tested... It's what we wrote and what was greenlighted." - IMDB.
Still currently unrated, NOAH also stars Emma Watson, Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Nick Nolte, Frank Langella and of course, no Aronofsky flick is complete without the presence of the great Mark Margolis.
Put simply, Darren Aronofsky is the f*cking man! Dude has yet to make a film that hasn't warranted the world's attention...he's that good he is at what he does. After marauding our senses with the Lynchian nightmare of PI, then upping the ante with the demoralizing truth of REQUEIM FOR A DREAM, hitting his absolute artistic peak with THE FOUNTAIN, reining it back to the relatable human drama of THE WRESTLER, and leaving us last with the symmetrically sinister BLACK SWAN...Aronofsky continues to peel back the artifice of Hollywood, and instead offer us a kind of character-driven horror that we can actually identify and relate to. Because he's so aplomb at navigating those waters, I do find it hard to believe the ambitiously giant arc of NOAH can do the same. We shall see!