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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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Hacked In

Funny or Die Is Taking Over

FOD TV comes to IFC every Saturday night.

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We’ve been fans of Funny or Die since we first met The Landlord. That enduring love makes it more than logical, then, that IFC is totally cool with FOD hijacking the airwaves every Saturday night. Yes, that’s happening.

The appropriately titled FOD TV looks like something pulled from public access television in the nineties. Like lo-fi broken-antenna reception and warped VHS tapes. Equal parts WTF and UHF.

Get ready for characters including The Shirtless Painter, Long-Haired Businessmen, and Pigeon Man. They’re aptly named, but for a better sense of what’s in store, here’s a taste of ASMR with Kelly Whispers:

Watch FOD TV every Saturday night during IFC’s regularly scheduled movies.

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Wicked Good

See More Evil

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is on Hulu.

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Okay, so you missed the entire first season of Stan Against Evil. There’s no shame in that, per se. But here’s the thing: Season 2 is just around the corner and you don’t want to lag behind. After all, Season 1 had some critical character development, not to mention countless plot twists, and a breathless finale cliffhanger that’s been begging for resolution since last fall. It also had this:

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The good news is that you can catch up right now on Hulu. Phew. But if you aren’t streaming yet, here’s a basic primer…

Willards Mill Is Evil

Stan spent his whole career as sheriff oblivious to the fact that his town has a nasty curse. Mostly because his recently-deceased wife was secretly killing demons and keeping Stan alive.

Demons Really Want To Kill Stan

The curse on Willards Mill stipulates that damned souls must hunt and kill each and every town sheriff, or “constable.” Oh, and these demons are shockingly creative.

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They Also Want To Kill Evie

Why? Because Evie’s a sheriff too, and the curse on Willard’s Mill doesn’t have a “one at a time” clause. Bummer, Evie.

Stan and Evie Must Work Together

Beating the curse will take two, baby, but that’s easier said than done because Stan doesn’t always seem to give a damn. Damn!

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Beware of Goats

It goes without saying for anyone who’s seen the show: If you know that ancient evil wants to kill you, be wary of anything that has cloven feet.

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Season 2 Is Lurking

Scary new things are slouching towards Willards Mill. An impending darkness descending on Stan, Evie and their cohort – eviler evil, more demony demons, and whatnot. And if Stan wants to survive, he’ll have to get even Stanlier.

Stan Against Evil Season 1 is now streaming right now on Hulu.

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SO EXCITED!!!

Reminders that the ’90s were a thing

"The Place We Live" is available for a Jessie Spano-level binge on Comedy Crib.

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Unless you stopped paying attention to the world at large in 1989, you are of course aware that the ’90s are having their pop cultural second coming. Nobody is more acutely aware of this than Dara Katz and Betsy Kenney, two comedians who met doing improv comedy and have just made their Comedy Crib debut with the hilarious ’90s TV throwback series, The Place We Live.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Dara: It’s everything you loved–or loved to hate—from Melrose Place and 90210 but condensed to five minutes, funny (on purpose) and totally absurd.

IFC: How would you describe “The Place We Live” to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Betsy: “Hey Todd, why don’t you have a sip of water. Also, I think you’ll love The Place We Live because everyone has issues…just like you, Todd.”

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IFC: When you were living through the ’90s, did you think it was television’s golden age or the pop culture apocalypse?


Betsy: I wasn’t sure I knew what it was, I just knew I loved it!


Dara: Same. Was just happy that my parents let me watch. But looking back, the ’90s honored The Teen. And for that, it’s the golden age of pop culture. 

IFC: Which ’90s shows did you mine for the series, and why?

Betsy: Melrose and 90210 for the most part. If you watch an episode of either of those shows you’ll see they’re a comedic gold mine. In one single episode, they cover serious crimes, drug problems, sex and working in a law firm and/or gallery, all while being young, hot and skinny.


Dara: And almost any series we were watching in the ’90s, Full House, Saved By the Bell, My So Called Life has very similar themes, archetypes and really stupid-intense drama. We took from a lot of places. 

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IFC: How would you describe each of the show’s characters in terms of their ’90s TV stereotype?

Dara: Autumn (Sunita Mani) is the femme fatale. Robin (Dara Katz) is the book worm (because she wears glasses). Candace (Betsy Kenney) is Corey’s twin and gives great advice and has really great hair. Corey (Casey Jost) is the boy next door/popular guy. Candace and Corey’s parents decided to live in a car so the gang can live in their house. 
Lee (Jonathan Braylock) is the jock.

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Dara: Because everyone’s feeling major ’90s nostalgia right now, and this is that, on steroids while also being a totally new, silly thing.

Delight in the whole season of The Place We Live right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib. It’ll take you back in all the right ways.