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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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Brock Hard

Brockmire’s Guide To Grabbing Life By The D***

Catch up on the full season of Brockmire now.

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“Lucy, put supper on the stove, my dear, because this ballgame is over!”

Brockmire has officially closed out its rookie season. Miss the finale episode? A handful of episodes? The whole blessed season?? You can see it all from the beginning, starting right here.

And you should get started, because every minute you spend otherwise will be a minute spent not living your best life. That’s right, there are very important life lessons that Brockmire hid in plain sight—lessons that, when applied thoughtfully, can improve every aspect of your awesome existence. Let’s dive into some sage nuggets from what we call the Book of Jim.

Life Should Be Spiked, Not Watered Down.

That’s not just a fancy metaphor. As Brockmire points out, water tastes “awful. 70% of the water is made up of that shit?” Life is short, water sucks, live like you mean it.

There Are Only Three Types of People

“Poor people, rich people and famous people. Rich people are just poor people with money, so the only worthwhile thing is being famous.” So next time your rich friends act all high and mighty, politely remind them that they’re worthless in the eyes of even the most minor celebrities.

There’s Always A Reason To Get Out Of Bed

And 99% of the time that reason is the urge to pee. It’s nature’s way of saying “seize the day.”

There’s More To Life Than Playing Games

“Baseball can’t compete with p0rnography. Nothing can.” Nothing you do or ever will do can be more important to people than p0rn. Get off your high horse.

A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way

Especially if you’ve taken someone else’s Plan B by mistake.

Our Weaknesses Can Be Our Greatest Strengths

Tyrion Lannister said something similar. Hard to tell who said it with more colorful profanity. Wise sentiments all around.

Big Things Come To Those Who Wait

When you’re looking for a sign, the universe will drop you a big one. You’re the sh*t, universe.

And Of Course…

Need more life lessons from the Book of Jim? Catch up on Brockmire on the IFC App.

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Oh Mama

Mommie May I?

Mommie Dearest Is On Repeat All Mothers Day Long On IFC

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The cult-classic movie Mommie Dearest is a game-changer. If you’ve seen it even just once (but come on, who sees it just once?), then you already know what we’re talking about.

But if you haven’t seen it, then let us break it down for you. Really quick, we promise, we’ll even list things out to spare you the reading of a paragraph:

1. It’s the 1981 biopic based on the memoir of Christina Crawford, Hollywood icon Joan Crawford’s adopted daughter.
2. Faye Dunaway plays Joan. And boy does she play her. Loud and over-reactive.
3. It was intended as a drama, but…
4. Waaaaaay over-the-top performances and bargain-basement dialogue rendered it an accidental comedy.
5. It’s a cult classic, and you’re the last person to see it.

Not sold? Don’t believe it’s going to change your life? Ok, maybe over-the-top acting isn’t your thing, or perhaps you don’t like the lingering electricity of a good primal scream, or Joan Crawford is your personal icon and you can’t bear to see her cast in such a creepy light.

But none of that matters.

What’s important is that seeing this movie gives you permission to react to minor repeat annoyances with unrestrained histrionics.

That there is a key moment. Is she crazy? Yeah. But she’s also right. Shoulder nipples are horrible, wire hangers are the worst, and yelling about it feels strangely justified. She did it, we can do it. Precedent set. You’re welcome.

So what else can we yell about? Channel your inner Joan and consider the following list offenses when choosing your next meltdown.

Improperly Hung Toilet Paper

Misplaced Apostrophes

Coldplay at Karaoke

Dad Jokes

Gluten Free Pizza

James Franco

The list of potential pedestrian grievances is actually quite daunting, but when IFC airs Mommie Dearest non-stop for a full day, you’ll have 24 bonus hours to mull it over. 24 bonus hours to nail that lunatic shriek. 24 bonus hours to remember that, really, your mom is comparatively the best.

So please, celebrate Mother’s Day with Mommie Dearest on IFC and at IFC.com. And for the love of god—NO WIRE HANGERS EVER.

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Breaking News

From Canada With Love

Baroness von Sketch Show premieres this summer on IFC.

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Breaking news that (finally) isn’t apocalyptic!

IFC announced today that it acquired acclaimed Canadian comedy series Baroness von Sketch Show, slated to make its US of A premiere this summer. And yes, it’s important to note that it’s a Canadian sketch comedy series, because Canada is currently a shining beacon of civilization in the western hemisphere, and Baroness von Sketch Show reflects that light in every way possible.

The series is fronted entirely by women, which isn’t unusual in the sketch comedy world but is quite rare in the televised sketch comedy world. Punchy, smart, and provocative, each episode of Baroness von Sketch Show touches upon outrageous-yet-relatable real world subjects in ways both unexpected and deeply satisfying: soccer moms, awkward office birthday parties, being over 40 in a gym locker room…dry shampoo…

Indiewire called it “The Best Comedy You’ve Never Seen” and The National Post said that it’s “the funniest thing on Canadian television since Kids In The Hall.” And that’s saying a lot, because Canadians are goddamn hilarious.

Get a good taste of BVSS in the following sketch, which envisions a future Global Summit run entirely by women. It’s a future we’re personally ready for.

Baroness Von Sketch Show premieres later this summer on IFC.

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