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Requiems: The Melodramatic Imagination of Darren Aronofsky

Requiems: The Melodramatic Imagination of Darren Aronofsky  (photo)

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Darren Aronofsky may have young hipster’s cred, established with his fast-cut, technically daring early features “Pi” and “Requiem for a Dream.” But look closely and you’ll see a purveyor of old-fashioned melodramas.

While the Brooklyn-born director often shows a surface fascination with the frazzled postmodern condition, à la the films of far chillier contemporaries such as Christopher Nolan, David Fincher or the Wachowski brothers, the core of his hot-blooded weepies are about lovers and mothers, fathers and daughters — the traditional stuff of family melodrama, in which “characters made for operettas play out the tragedies of mankind,” according to film theorist Thomas Elsaesser.

Though “Pi’s” Maximillian Cohen may be the least obvious of Aronofsky’s melodramatic characters, the severe-minded mathematical fanatic echoes Elsaesser’s observation that the “true pathos” of the melodrama derives from “the very mediocrity of the human beings involved, putting such high demands upon themselves trying to live up to an exalted vision of man.” This applies equally to Aronofsky’s entire gallery of scientists, wrestlers and ballerinas.

“Requiem for a Dream,” the most tripped out of his oeuvre, with its shaky body-cam cinematography and flashy split-screens, is a beloved cult fave among kids today. But the plight of the movie’s four spun Brooklynites is traditional melodrama, recalling Nicholas Ray’s 1956 classic “Bigger Than Life,” in which James Mason’s schoolteacher loses control of his life under the influence of external forces, in his case, the mid-century wonder drug cortisone. If this were tragedy, Aronofsky’s characters would make a difficult, highly conflicted choice with critical results; instead, they fall prey to circumstances seemingly beyond their control and hurl inexorably to their doom.

11232010_RequiemforaDream2.jpgWith “Requiem,” Aronofsky also shows his penchant for woozy lovers (the amount of tears Jared Leto and Jennifer Connelly shed would fill at least six hankies) and the relationship between wacko moms and their children. In Ellen Burstyn’s portrayal of diet-pill fiend Sara Goldfarb, for which she was nominated for an Oscar, the actress degenerates from a bloated coach potato to a thin-railed zombie.

Her metamorphosis reminiscent of the sad collapse of 1950s heroines such as Bette Davis in “Mr. Skeffington.” Burstyn’s character — like that of her fellow losers Leto, Connelly and Marlon Wayans — elicit sorrow via their sorry fates; as they lay in their beds at film’s end, curled up into fetal positions, they illustrate Peter Brooks’ notion that the purpose of melodrama is to convey a sense of moral good in a post-sacred world by equating victimhood with virtue.

Aronofsky’s next film, the long-in-the-works (and troubled) production of “The Fountain,” is a full-blown tearjerker. As Hugh Jackman’s conquistador/scientist/space traveler fights to find a cure for his dying wife (Rachel Weisz), the film jumps through epochs and treats the viewer to psychedelic visions of transcendence, but it’s stuffed with sentimental lines of eternal devotion (“All these years, all these memories, there was you — you pull me through time”) and a gushy yearning for lost love… watch Weisz, her long brown curly hair a-flowing, disappear away into snowy landscapes.

11232010_TheFountain2.jpgNone of this alone necessarily constitutes the mushy heights of melodrama. But Aronofsky’s self-serious tone doesn’t allow for subtler emotional tones. Even in the “The Wrestler,” with its inherently humorous subject matter, the kitschy world of professional wrestling, Aronofsky creates a “regretful old-warrior-weeper,” as critic David Edelstein writes in his review of the film. “Is Aronofsky being tongue in cheek? I don’t think he’s ever tongue in cheek,” adds Edelstein.

Mickey Rourke’s pathetic wrestler is another version of Burstyn’s Goldfarb, a swollen human being hooked on broken dreams and estranged from his child. There’s a wonderful break from all the emotional drubbing when Rourke’s Randy “The Ram” loses it working in a butcher shop, but ultimately, this is a story about a man who just wants to be loved: his tearful confession to his daughter (“I’m an old broken down piece of meat and I’m alone — and I deserve to be all alone”) is the film’s emotional climax and shows the “The Wrestler” to be yet another bout — not of the mind or the body — but Aronofsky’s bleeding heart.

“Black Swan,” Aronofsky’s new psycho-ballet thriller, represents the culmination of the director’s melodramatic tendencies. Natalie Portman stars as another obsessed and overly ambitious victim-hero, whose moral purity is without question at the same time as it brings about her downfall. And in the film’s contentious struggle between Nina and her mother, Barbara Hershey’s overprotective ex-dancer Erica, who has laid her failures squarely on her daughter’s delicate shoulders, Aronofsky follows the template of countless mother-daughter rivalries from melodramas past, whether it’s Mildred and Veda Pierce in “Mildred Pierce,” or Annie Johnson and Sarah Jane in Douglas Sirk’s “Imitation of Life.”

11232010_BlackSwan3.jpgIn many ways, though, “Black Swan” finds Aronofsky on his most solid footing. What elements might have felt pretentious in “Requiem” or overly saccharine in “The Fountain” work to a wonderfully delirious Sirkian effect in “Black Swan.” When Hershey’s Mommy Dearest briefly goes berserk after Nina rejects her offering of a piece of cake, it’s campy and effective, over the top and ever so insightful into the characters’ psychic wounds.

Rather than somber and portentous, “Black Swan” embraces the melodramatic imagination in all its lurid glory. With Nina’s extreme highs and lows, bloody toe nails, self-mutilating scratches, psychic breakdowns and an epic final fall — and all of it played against the elaborate backdrop of a majestic ballet performance with Nina fully decked out in majestic white feathers, “Black Swan” makes for the year’s most vivid melodrama since “Twilight: Eclipse.”

One wonders what Aronofsky’s newly announced “Wolverine” project will bring. Come to think of it, with its adolescent angst, quasi-family conflict and emotionally driven superpowers, the “X-Men” franchise should make for a perfect match.

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Rev Up

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Give Back

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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GIFs via Giphy

Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

via GIPHY

Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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