Tuesday, October 3, 2023

King Darren: mother!

This is the fifth in my 2023 bi-monthly series rewatching the films of Darren Aronofsky in the year after he became the first to repeat as director of my top film of the year.

This was my fourth viewing of mother! in the only six years it has existed, so you know I like this one -- or at the very least am still trying to work out my feelings toward it. If it were the latter, though, I'd probably stop at two viewings. I'm up to four, with more coming probably every three years if I had to guess, because I do enjoy the exquisitely excruciating experience of this movie so much.

It also makes an appropriate way to kick off October, since this is, for all intents and purposes, a horror movie. There are no jump scares, no ghosts and goblins, just constant senses of unease, stress, anxiety and life unraveling out of your control. It may be one of the best psychological horrors of the 21st century.

Not everyone agrees with this. In fact, a cultural critic I respect immensely, Stephen Metcalf of the Slate Culture Gabfest, thought it was one of the worst moviegoing experiences he had ever had. He's ten times the intellect I will ever be, but he just doesn't get it on this one. And I don't think he's a squeamish guy who doesn't like to be confronted when he's watching a movie; far from it. He just thought it was garbage, and I don't think he could have been more wrong.

That said, I can understand why a person would feel assaulted by this movie. That's entirely the point. If you thought you were buying a ticket to something with a conventional narrative, and you got this, you might be disappointed.

But even if you did think it was a bait and switch -- I can't remember whether the ads suggested something more straightforward, though that seems likely -- I don't understand how you don't get oriented to what this film is doing and become enthralled by its assaultive nature. 

With some obvious exceptions, my favorite sorts of art at the ones that have so much to say that they become a veritable explosion of ideas. mother! is such a movie. So is Charlie Kaufman's Adaptation. So is Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York. So is Charlie Kaufman's I'm Thinking of Ending Things. (You get the idea.) 

A movie like this can obviously be sloppy. You might generously call Beau is Afraid that kind of movie, but I didn't care for Beau is Afraid. The key -- and what I think Aronofsky does so well -- is to have a grand design for this chaotic explosion of themes, ideas and images. mother! is a veritable symphony of thought-provoking notions.

Is it a version of the creation story and the fall from the Garden of Eden?

Is it an environmental parable?

Is it a study of new fame and the horrors of the paparazzi?

Is it a contemplation of the creative process?

Is it a consideration of depression and/or a mental breakdown?

Is it the pre-pardom anxiety of how children will destroy the house and the life you worked so hard to build?

Is it a more general sort of horror of manners where everyone you meet will say inscrutable things and sit on your unbraced kitchen sink?

Is it one of my beloved "uncontrollable slippage of time" movies, where events are speeding past you without any ability to slow their momentum?

The answer is: yes.

mother! is all of these things, which is why I think it's such a vital document, with such a terrific performance by Jennifer Lawrence at its center, requiring her to push herself to the physical limit and threatening to overwhelm her mentally and emotionally. Just like any great acting performance should do.

Of course, in this series I am focusing on how Aronofsky's works speak to each other and reveal themselves in each other, and I think this is a rather obvious corollary to the last film I watched for this series, Noah. Although I don't think that film is bad by any stretch of the imagination, Aronofsky seems to have realized he'd prefer to work out those themes in a less literal sense. mother! explores many of the same ideas about the toxic, irredeemable human species through set pieces that are in some cases explicitly biblical, but it doesn't have to stick sacredly to that most sacred of texts. It is enough that we understand the fall of man rather than needing to watch the literal beat-by-beat points of that fall.

There isn't another perfect partner within Aronofsky's work for mother!, though visible here are some techniques from Requiem for a Dream and the scope and scale of metaphor from The Fountain

In fact, it's occurring to me that Aronofsky may be split in his filmmaking identity in a way similar to Steven Soderbergh, for example, in that Soderbergh alternates between idiosyncratic personal choices and bigger budget popcorn movies intended to attract mainstream audiences. Except that I think neither version of Aronofsky is laid out on the same sort of platter as audience pleasers like Ocean's 11 and Logan Lucky. With Aronofsky you have head trips like The Fountain and mother!, and then you have fundamentally realistic movies like The Wrestler and The Whale, and never the twain shall meet. (Actually, they do sort of meet in Black Swan.) But neither mode is especially expected to rake in the dough at the box office.

It's interesting to me to note that given how much I love Aronofsky in mother! mode, the two films that have been my favorite of the year have been his two most extreme on the realistic end of his personal spectrum. This versatility just makes me value King Darren all the more.

The final film for this series in December will be the only #1 I watch for this series, my first reckoning with The Whale since I crowned it #1 in January. (You may recall that I didn't rewatch either The Fountain or the previous #1, The Wrestler, for this series, since I had seen them both for other reasons within the past two years.) 

There are a lot of people who really dislike this movie -- it wouldn't be Aronofsky if they didn't -- so it should be interesting to see if my views on it change at all with a year's distance from my first viewing. 

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