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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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Holiday Extra Special

Make The Holidays ’80s Again

Enjoy the holiday cheer Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Whatever happened to the kind of crazy-yet-cozy holiday specials that blanketed the early winter airwaves of the 1980s? Unceremoniously killed by infectious ’90s jadedness? Slow fade out at the hands of early-onset millennial ennui? Whatever the reason, nixing the tradition was a huge mistake.

A huge mistake that we’re about to fix.

Announcing IFC’s Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special, starring Tony Hale. It’s a celeb-studded extravaganza in the glorious tradition of yesteryear featuring Bridget Everett, Jo Firestone, Nick Thune, Jen Kirkman, house band The Dap-Kings, and many more. And it’s at Joe’s Pub, everyone’s favorite home away from home in the Big Apple.

The yuletide cheer explodes Wednesday December 21 at 10P. But if you were born after 1989 and have no idea what void this spectacular special is going to fill, sample from this vintage selection of holiday hits:

Andy Williams and The NBC Kids Search For Santa

The quintessential holiday special. Get snuggly and turn off your brain. You won’t need it.

A Muppet Family Christmas

The Fraggles. The Muppets. The Sesame Street gang. Fate. The Jim Henson multiverse merges in this warm and fuzzy Holiday gathering.

Julie Andrews: The Sound Of Christmas

To this day a foolproof antidote to holiday cynicism. It’s cheesy, but a good cheese. In this case an Alpine Gruyère.

Star Wars Holiday Special

Okay, busted. This one was released in 1978. Still totally ’80s though. And yes that’s Bea Arthur.

Pee Wee’s Playhouse Christmas Special

Pass the eggnog, and make sure it’s loaded. This special is everything you’d expect it to be and much, much more.

Joe’s Pub Presents: A Holiday Special premieres Wednesday December 21 at 10P on IFC.

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It Ain't Over Yet

A Guide to Coping with the End of Comedy Bang! Bang!

Watch the final episodes tonight at 11 and 11:30P on IFC.

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After five seasons and 110 halved-hour episodes, Scott Aukerman’s hipster comedy opus, Comedy Bang! Bang!, has come to an end. Fridays at 11 and 11:30P will never be the same. We know it can be hard for fans to adjust after the series finale of their favorite TV show. That’s why we’ve prepared this step-by-step guide to managing your grief.

Step One: Cry it out

It’s just natural. We’re sad too.
Scott crying GIF

Step Two: Read the CB!B! IMDB Trivia Page

The show is over and it feels like you’ve lost a friend. But how well did you really know this friend? Head over to Comedy Bang! Bang!’s IMDB page to find out some things you may not have known…like that it’s “based on a Civil War battle of the same name” or that “Reggie Watts was actually born with the name Theodore Leopold The Third.”

Step Three: Listen to the podcast

One fascinating piece of CB!B! trivia that you might not learn from IMDB is that there’s a podcast that shares the same name as the TV show. It’s even hosted by Scott Aukerman! It’s not exactly like watching the TV show on a Friday night, but that’s only because each episode is released Monday morning. If you close your eyes, the podcast is just like watching the show with your eyes closed!

Step Four: Watch brand new CB!B! clips?!

The best way to cope with the end of Comedy Bang! Bang! is to completely ignore that it’s over — because it’s not. In an unprecedented move, IFC is opening up the bonus CB!B! content vault. There are four brand new, never-before-seen sketches featuring Scott Aukerman, Kid Cudi, and “Weird Al” Yankovic ready for you to view on the IFC App. There’s also one right here, below this paragraph! Watch all four b-b-bonus clips and feel better.

Binge the entire final season, plus exclusive sketches, right now on the IFC app.

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Everybody Sweats Now

The Four-Day Sweatsgiving Weekend On IFC

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This long holiday weekend is your time to gobble gobble gobble and give heartfelt thanks—thanks for the comfort and forgiveness of sweatpants. Because when it comes right down to it, there’s nothing more wholesome and American than stuffing yourself stupid and spending endless hours in front of the TV in your softest of softests.

So get the sweats, grab the remote and join IFC for four perfect days of entertainment.

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It all starts with a 24-hour T-day marathon of Rocky Horror Picture Show, then continues Friday with an all-day binge of Stan Against Evil.

By Saturday, the couch will have molded to your shape. Which is good, because you’ll be nestled in for back-to-back Die Hard and Lethal Weapon.

Finally, come Sunday it’s time to put the sweat back in your sweatpants with The Shining, The Exorcist, The Chronicles of Riddick, Terminator 2, and Blade: Trinity. They totally count as cardio.

As if you need more convincing, here’s Martha Wash and the IFC&C Music Factory to hammer the point home.

The Sweatsgiving Weekend starts Thursday on IFC

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