Friday, October 6, 2017

mother!, and the pesky issue of humanity...

Dir: Darren Aronofsky
Viewed: from an old but sturdy seat at the Central-Kino in Mitte, Berlin


Some filmmakers have spoken about the one moment or scene that perfectly captures the spirit or intent of their movie. Eighteen years ago Mark Cousins used his show "Scene by Scene" to put the pliers to David Lynch and get the slippery auteur to speak directly about his intentions, with limited success of course. My favorite moment in this interview is when Lynch compares a film to a duck. I'm paraphrasing here, but it goes something like this: when you look at a duck everything about the animal's appearance points toward its eye. It's all swirling around this one bit.

The same can be said for a film. And just like the eye of a duck, the center-point needn't be in the middle. Screenwriting guides will tell you that the main conflict of the plot should be established in the middle of the movie, but the one scene that really captures the story in a nutshell can be anywhere. In my experience, however, you're likely to find the eye of the duck towards the end, when the movie seeks to transcend everything it has worked hard to establish.

For Jason Reitman, he made Young Adult with one scene in mind -- this was his eye of the duck:

We had spent 90 minutes with a character on the precipice of maybe learning a lesson and here she is being validated for every fucked-up motivation she's had. It's a powerful scene and since the whole movie is a dark and cutting look at human values, it is indeed a perfect representation of the entire movie.  

Part of a critic's job is to find the eye of a duck in a film, and it could certainly be different scenes for different people, depending on the interpretation and what a viewer is getting out of the movie. Searching for the duck eye is actually a great way to suss out the intent of the movie and figure out how successful it was at getting there.

This brings us to Darren Aronofsky's mother! (and thanks for sticking with me on the long and winding road), a movie that has been getting raked over the coals by press outlets that seem intent on giving voice to the worst aspects of our relationship to film. It's led to such wrongheaded articles, by people with no concept of how to engage with a movie that's even remotely challenging, never mind recognizing a duck eye. But before I continue that rant, let's not make the same mistake and neglect to actually talk about what mother! has to offer.

More than most, Aronofsky loves a good allegory, especially one that pokes around the big ideas of religion. PiThe FountainNoah, and now mother!, all dive deep into a heady mix of faith and obsession, the kind of stuff critics love to pick apart. But unlike The Fountain, a movie that may have a stronger message behind its abstractions, mother! is cloaking its message with an allegory that leaves little to the imagination. If it isn't apparent to you by the end of the movie that the main characters are God, mother earth, Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, then I really must assume you're unfamiliar with the Bible and possibly the very idea of an allegory altogether.

However, contrary to what some critics might suggest, being vague or mysterious in your art or storytelling isn't a sign of intelligence. And even though mother! is rather aggressive with his central message of how insane people can be in their mistreatment of earth, the movie still leaves plenty of details open to interpretation.

mother! starts off with all-consuming flames, and then the rebirth or renewal of the world complete with a new mother earth, Jennifer Lawrence, waking up in bed. She's still busy rebuilding the big house she shares with Javier Bardem's "Him", the creator -- in this case a poet of some renown, though we get the idea that it's been a while since he's done anything of note. He's frustrated, and she might be a bit worried about the bedroom aspects of the relationship but her love is still strong. We know this because every so often she grabs hold of something and we cut to a scene of a beating heart, one that shrivels up to something resembling a piece of coal by the end of the movie.

The love is lost as Bardem's Him becomes increasingly infatuated with humanity, which shows up first in the form of Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, our aged Adam and Eve, or as the movie credits them, Man and Woman. Bardem loves the stories Man has collected over the years -- the living he's been through. The trouble is, Man is dying and it's the reason he went looking for God and knocking on his door. Soon, the two sons of Man and Women show up, arguing over the last will and testament of their father and as the story goes, Cain doth slay Abel and things only get worse from there.

From the moment Man is given a warm welcome by her husband, Lawrence's mother earth is not comfortable with the way things are heading. These people are disrespecting her rules and being quite condescending about her and her work -- behavior that only intensifies after the death and the permanent mark that human blood has left on the house. But Bardem is infatuated and invigorated by these people. Soon, mother earth is pregnant with the son of God, and when Bardem finally writes some new words, he becomes an instant superstar with hordes of people showing up just to touch Him. These impassioned fans start taking pieces of the home, building shrines and eventually rioting and blowing each other up.

While the violence increases, Aronofsky gives us one of those bravura scenes of technical marvel that pops up in his movies from time to time. As our pregnant mother earth is beaten, bruised and bloodied she stumbles from room to room, trying to find safe haven but only encountering more anger, despair and destruction. It reminded me of the scene in Being John Malkovich where we scramble and tumble from room to room within the actor's psyche. But instead of memories and traumatic events, we move though humanity's decent into warfare and oppression. Then, finally, the son of God is born and you can probably guess how well that turns out. As for the very end, let's just say it involves oil reserves.

Critics look forward to the new films of certain directors because there are some that practically guarantee you'll be given something to work with. Unless your name is Rex Reed, you see it as part of your job to engage with the film and unpack what it has to offer, and Aronofsky is a reliable purveyor of capital-"C" Cinema, for good or ill. As I mentioned before, there isn't a great deal to decipher in mother! as it is clearly a blast of vitriol at our history of mistreatment to the planet we're on. But of course there's more to a movie than it's message, and there's still plenty to discuss about all the ways it succeeds or fails in its delivery of that message.

But what's being discussed is not how unpleasant the movie might be due to its monstrous depiction of humanity, it's CineScore, a service that might be useful for predetermining US box office results, but is about as useful to determining quality as a thumb in the eye. Here's a headline from yesterday's news cycle: "Darren Aronofsky Defends 'Mother!' After 'F' CineScore," which is accompanied by the subtitle, "Director admits polarizing film is not for everyone."

If a new Michael Haneke movie got an F from CineScore, it would no doubt have led to a couple days of some snarky articles and a whole lotta whatevs. And the same should happen here. After all, Darren Aronofsky is the man behind The Fountain, fer chrissakes -- his middle name might as well be "not for everyone," but maybe The Wrestler caused people to forget his pricklier early works.

On the other hand, there's a perfectly obvious reason a CineScore F has made such headlines: it's a movie with Jennifer Lawrence, the actress who's captured hearts with Winter's Bone, The Hunger Games and Silver Linings Playbook, but has recently been capturing more shrugs with Joy and Passengers.

I'm not so sure how many CineScore obsessed articles would be written about a mother! that didn't star Katniss Everdeen, but I'm sure it would be far less. As it is now, new articles are still being published regurgitating Rex Reed's willfully ignorant suggestion that it's one of the decade's worst movies and as I type this the subject is still Vulture's most popular topic. The article called "Let's Talk About the Ending of Darren Aronofsky's Mother!" is so emblematic of what's wrong with people's relationship with movies today that I feel my stomach twisting into a knot when I try to read it.

"Was the baby thing a step too far?" "Was it necessary to have the mob yell gendered epithets at Mother?" These are actual questions published in an article associated with New York magazine -- an article that can't come to any conclusion at all about who the characters are or what the movie is about and only wants to wring its hands and fret about how loud and violent the movie got. And judging from some of the comments in this piece, I'm seriously doubtful that the person actually watched the movie from beginning to end. Maybe this Vulture writer really isn't aware that people in church line up to eat "the body of Christ" every Sunday. For the movie itself and selling tickets, this is ultimately an example of "no such thing as bad press," but for intelligent discussions about movies, it's some horrible bullshit. Looking around at any of the recent articles is a painful reminder of how dearly The Dissolve is missed... every... single... goddamn... day.

The questions one should be asking are about Aronofsky's intentions for these brutally intense scenes and how successful he was at pulling them off. As a piece of angry cinema that lashes out at the hubris, folly and ignorance of humanity, I'd say it's rather effective. It's a noble statement to make and I don't think he's at all interested in making it in any sort of elegant or delicate fashion. And for a movie designed to hit you over the head, it's beautifully shot, even if, in typical Aronofsky fashion, there's far too many close-ups. I'm not sure the guy knows how to shoot a conversation without shoving the camera up an actor's nose, but many scenes of Lawrence zipping around the house are expertly framed and fill the movie with unease, tension and dread in a way that feels rather effortless. Certainly the whole conceit of mother! makes his often clunky, theatrical dialog sound a whole lot better. This was something that plagued Black Swan, even if it the stilted lines were intended to reflect an altered dream state. I still don't think all those laughs were intentional.

All the actors in mother! perform exceptionally well, but especially Javier Bardem. Very few people could give the role of God as much grace as he does. And there aren't many actresses who radiate as much natural innocence, fertility and intelligence as Jennifer Lawrence. I've read some comments saying she's miscast here, but I think she's the first and last choice for this part. It's a hell of a demanding role and I think she nailed it. But I also can't help thinking that if audiences are walking away angry, it's mostly due to seeing an actress they love get stomped half to death. Indeed, this is perhaps as far from a crowd-pleaser as you're going to get.

And this may be where the movie doesn't succeed: at considering all the angles. Aronofsky has said that he wrote the movie in a fast and furious five days. Certainly, Werner Herzog would be proud -- in his conversations with writer Paul Cronin, the Bavarian says all movies should be written in a quick burst so that your movie will have a similar immediate and vital energy to it. Given the track record of Herzog's narrative work these past five years or so, maybe his writing advice should be taken with a grain of salt, but mother! has ended up with both the good and bad qualities you'd expect from a quickly written script. It does feel alive with that gonzo spirit -- there are moments when you think that just about anything could happen next -- and that's cinema gold, but when you're sitting with this movie afterwards, it's not hard to imagine some simple second draft ideas that could have made it slightly less misanthropic. Sure, it's a movie condemning humanity to a certain extent, and I'm all right with that, especially given the state of things today, but where's the one or two followers that are the tree huggers and the Aronofskys? Did I miss them? Or maybe they ended up on the cutting room floor? Either way, they could have played a slightly larger role, just so I don't have to think that all of humanity is a hopeless mess.

Before I hand it over to Padraic, I'd be remiss if I didn't offer my duck eye scene. One contender was  when Lawrence is trying to get a moment's peace in her bathroom and a grey haired man walks in. Lawrence, perfectly exasperated yells, "Get out!" to which the man replies with a sly smile, "Sorry, just exploring!" There you go. A small scene that captures much of the movie in a nutshell: mother earth fed up with people using excuses (in this case exploration) to ruin the last bit of perfect solitude she has. I laughed at this moment, and then I smiled when I saw that the grey haired man was actually his father Abraham Aronofsky.

I loved this little moment, but the real duck eye is probably the baby eating scene that seems to have upset so many people. People who, rather than engaging with the work and coming to terms as to why it's there and why it's so disturbing, simply think of it as problematic. But this does feel like the one thing it was all building up to.

Well, what say you, Padraic? I know you're not the biggest Aronofsky fan, but did this rank as one of the better ones or one of the more insufferable ones? And what did you make of the yellow powder drink and the frog in the basement. Those are two details I'm still pondering.



First of all Sean, thank you for the scene from Young Adult. I saw that film in the theaters, but couldn't have told you a thing about it. That was a good scene.

For the duck's eye, any scene with Lawrence screaming or enduring physical violence would have to be it for the film and Aronofsky as a whole. From Tomei to Burstyn to Connelly to Lawrence to Portman, Aronofsky loves his abused women (I can't remember what happened to Weiz in The Fountain, but as you know I blocked most of that one out). Like von Trier, there seems to be something inherently appealing for Aronofsky about the idea of taking our precious Hollywood actresses and wringing them out, physically and emotionally. Our man Lynch does this too of course, but Lynch's whole purpose is to show what Hollywood does to young women. And horror films do it to sell tickets, and Lifetime movies do it to get easy viewers. I honestly don't know why Aronofsky does it.

On the responses to the film, I guess I am fortunate to have been away at a conference, almost locked in a basement, for the past week, so the only review or commentary I've seen at all was A.O. Scott's, which I think was about as charitable a view as you'll see. Is Cinescore regular people? Rotten Tomatoes has it at 68% so it can't quite be the critical pile driver you're describing above. Run down their list and you'll see plenty of mainstream critics who like the film.

And there are things to like. The film has Aronofsky's normal propulsive energy, which is by far the most appealing thing about his non-Wrestler films, and I agree that Bardem is genius casting: if anyone can be typecast as an idea, it's that guy. Lawrence probably is miscast here, if only because it's a distraction; I've only seen Winter's Bone and the Russell films, but it's clearly going to addle the Hunger Games people. But the acting is good, and the film is nearly impossible to stop watching and watch at the same time, which is a neat trick. The sound is extraordinary, and I was rarely bored - I almost fell asleep during in the moments after the baby's birth, but that is kinda what happens to Mother Earth too. I felt a lot of things at a level a bit below the surface, got a little bored when I realized the conceit of the film, but it picked back up and I was genuinely interested in what the cinematic apocyalpse was going to look like. I even got a bit sad at the end, as I thought back to "The Giving Tree." (An SNL paraody of Aronofsky's Giving Tree would be a hoot, but honestly, that book says more in a few pages than twenty of these things.)

I think what gets Aronofsky in trouble, however, are the claims that this kinda thing is capital 'C' Cinema. It's not. It's camp. It's technical proficiency. It's sometimes fun. But it's not really particular interesting on the level that I think you're claiming, and when judged by that standard, it's embarrassing. He's miles behind Haneke in the ideas department and von Trier has him licked in apocalyptic vision, and that's just the two directors who work in the same thematic realms. This is to say nothing of major auteurs like Lynch, Lee, Farhadi, the Coens, Anderson, Reichart, Assayas, Ceylon, Zvyaginstev, Linklater, and two dozen more. His obviousness really is problematic, because his films just don't seem to me worthy of that much introspection. As Sean Burns points out, Black Swan might only be good if you don't see it again. When the editor of The Onion writes your best film by miles, it might be a good time to put down the pen and do some great Kubrick-type adaptations. I too wondered what the yellow stuff was, but can't imagine how it would change the tenor and tone of the film. Actually, I don't really care what the yellow stuff was.

You conceded that the "burst" might be a problem, and that the film does not really present a balanced view of humanity (though I think there are a couple of Sierra Club types trying every once and a while to help), so I wont go too far in that direction. However. The central marrying of God and Earth and the environmental destruction are totally out of whack; the allegory is just wrong. When people (at least Christians in the West) were at their most religious, the planet was in great shape! The Middle Ages, for all their problems, were extraordinary for the planet. Population growth was static and worse during the plague. Serf labor allowed for easy crop rotation and the maintenance of common forests and fields. There was very little pollution, and the lack of decent sanitation left earth with all sorts of great fertilizer. Which means that in the film, when the crazies were most fervent for their "Poet," Mother Earth should be at her most relaxed. It's not exactly a major historiographical bombshell to point out that we started exploiting the resources of the planet when we stopped being particularly religious, but the film just totally misses it. This is why the misanthropy is misplaced and why the film tells us a whole lot more about Aronofsky than it does about people.

There is also: the fact that the film doesn't even bother to show God as different in the Old and New Testaments; the absence of God warning the people, even though the Old Testament is full of moments where God directly warns people not to do what they are doing (it should be Bardem warning the people to get off the sink); the complete romanticization of nature, as presumably Mother Earth was also Earth during periods of the Ice Age and when we were a boiling planet of lava; the odd God/Eve seduction which is hard to place with anything in any tradition; and finally, the just complete ignorance of scriptural tradition which places God's creation of nature as a place for people, as any real understanding of the beauty of nature has to start with the fact that there is not beauty without people to call it that. There is no nature without people; it's just stuff.

And as bad as the allegory is, this is the best the film has going for it, because any pretense that we might care about the story qua story, absent allegorical claims, falls apart early on as the film; it is just not an interesting or believable story at the level of people. Animal Farm is a great story because it's got a lot to say about the Russian Revolution, but it's also just a good story about animals. The story is what keeps Noah going, as the actual people doing stuff is pretty interesting (and the relative lack of violence and people in various states of degradation).

All this to say though that I'm not necessarily sure the big C is always what Aronofsy is after - there's a reason that most auteurs cycle through the same actors, or are content to cast actors rather than stars (here is where Paul Thomas Anderson really stands out). But Aronofsky obviously wants stars - he wants us to be thinking, "hey, that's Mickey Rourke (or Natalie Portman or Jennifer Lawrence) up there," all the time while we're also supposed to be seeing a character. I think it's fair to say that he wants attention, and he wants it beyond the arthouse circle. I also think it's fair to say he got it.



Here's where I admit to having seen this movie again on a Tuesday night, to a much more crowded audience at the same theater I saw it a couple weekends ago, with five other people. And it was rather fun when the credits began rolling and the audience let out a collective groan, as if to say, "Thanks for ruining my night, Darren."

I think you brought us closer to what I wanted to get at in the first part, but kept tripping myself up with other thoughts on this film -- he's not deep enough for the Haneke and von Trier crowd and he's too abstract for the mainstream moviegoer. So he's the rare arthouse filmmaker who's really pleasing next to no one. You're right that it's not a big critical drubbing that Aronofsky's gotten, but it's a helluva drubbing from the mainstream entertainment press who've taken pleasure in rubbing his nose in an Cinescore F and picking apart his movie with all the delicacy of a spastic 10-year-old with a runny nose and a broken stick. I'd have no beef with an ongoing critical discussion of the movie, it's the avalanche of non-critical voices, with no sense of how to engage with art, that got to me.

Your first inclination is to put this movie up against the greats you listed, but on those terms, as you point out, it doesn't look so good, and it sure as hell doesn't fit in the multiplexes. So then it becomes this film that isn't good enough for critics to defend and is so pitiless in its worldview that even the small group of Aronofsky fans aren't going to come to its defense. Let's face it, the vast majority of audiences aren't going to enjoy watching a female character get physically and emotionally "wrung out" whether it's Lynch's commentary on Hollywood's mistreatment of actresses or Aronofsky's take on humanity's mistreatment of the planet.

When I rewatched the movie, a friend I went with was rather upset with the passive nature of Lawrence's character and asked if we really need anymore movies with these passive females, regardless of the commentary. It's a fair point, but it also reinforced my view of the duck-eye -- it's all leading toward this scene with the baby and her turn from passive to active. All these attempts at social etiquette and all this passivity was clearly intended to pay off by that scene of her causing the earthquake (or whathaveyou) and screaming something like,"You people are insane!" Those moments when she's fighting for her life in one room and one battle scene after another. and letting out those labor pain screams where everything gets all distorted -- really effective way of racking up the tension. And it's all designed to be this great relief when she gets fed up and burns it all to the ground. Or, you could argue that this moment is undercut by it being all too obvious to have the female character's actions and motivations hinge on her child being taken away. (What I learned through watching this movie with a couple friends is that if mother nature were an Irish lass, Adam and Eve would have been kicked out long before Cain and Abel showed up.)

But I will make one more effort to suggest that this movie isn't as simple as even the director seems to portray it. Aronofsky's willingness to speak up about his intentions was a mistake. There's a reason that directors ranging from David Lynch to Quentin Tarantino refuse to explain their own work, it totally colors the viewing experience in a way that isn't helpful to anyone. Tarantino is nobody's idea of a deep thinker but even he'll admit that he needs a few years distance from his work to make sure his subconscious didn't add a layer to the movie that he wasn't aware of. I think you did an excellent job, Padraic, of pointing out all the holes in the mother nature-God-humanity allegory; but I think the movie opens up rather nicely when you look at it as Aronofsky's self-critical take on the artist-muse relationship. The guy's gone through his fair share of broken relationships and to see this as his mea culpa -- of using his partners up and taking every last drop of love and inspiration before hitting the reset button with a new relationship -- is a bold admission. Maybe Aronofsky and Lawrence don't want to see it that way for obvious reasons, but it's hard to disregard it. In fact, it might save the movie for me.

The other reason I like this view is it shifts the pesky issue of humanity to the side a bit and puts the fair share of the villainy on God, if you will. (Given Aronofsky's admiration of Jodorowsky, I also like the twist of the director/god being the bad guy rather than the all-powerful-all-knowing savior figure.) Given Bardem's evil laugh at the end of the movie, this all adds up rather nicely. I believe this is how some of the early and more favorable reviews saw the movie, and at first I thought it was a rather limited interpretation, but maybe it's the element that holds it all together.

Like The Fountain, mother! is the kind of Aronofsky I begrudgingly admire. As I've said before, I like big swings that don't always add up to a homerun. Cinema would be better off with more Aronofskys and less of the unambitious arthouse twaddle that wins Sundance or gets nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. Filmmakers need to feel like they can take chances and fall flat on their face without getting eviscerated for it, or else cinema is doomed.

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