About ten years back, I went to a play at one of my local rep theatres. If I remember right, it was an American premiere, but I suppose that doesn’t really figure into the story. The next day, I was inspired to send a $100 contribution to the theatre, with the accompanying note. “I saw (BLANK) last night. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen at your theatre. But I admire the hell out of you for attempting it. Keep up the good work.” I received a positively giddy reply from the artistic director.
Two years later, I dropped my subscription when the same theatre put on a season that included “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” “A Christmas Carol,” and “My Fair Lady.”
I was reminded of this while reading through the controversy surrounding the reaction to Darren Aronofsky’s new movie mother!. It has received mixed/favorable reviews but has been the target of some very nasty barbs from audiences at large. The studio that released it, Paramount, has come to its defense saying, in part, ‘we don’t want all movies to be safe. And it’s okay if some people don’t like it.”
It’s a great debate. How do we value failed but noble artistic endeavors?
More on that shortly. First, a review.
mother! is awful.
You need more? Okay.
Aronofsky has made a number a movies about virtuosity and the price that must be paid for exceptional achievement. About the dangers that accompany any approaches near the divine. It was there in his first movie Pi and he has continued to explore it, often with astonishing vision, in later movies such as Black Swan and Noah. It is instructive to remember those two more recent movies when considering mother!, because in many ways, the new movie seems to be reconciling them, albeit in an extremely messy manner. The central character in mother! has no name – none of the characters do. She is a young wife played by Jennifer Lawrence, and she is rebuilding a home for her older husband, referred to as The Poet, and played by Javier Bardem. Because of the narrative open-endedness, in which surreal imagery and incident run headlong into essential human realities, you can see Bardem’s character as an Artist or as a Deity. In either case, his need for devotion is insatiable. And Lawrence, who may be interpreted as anything from subservient Woman to sycophantic Fan to put-upon Mother Earth, provides the never-ending supply of adoration that fuels excess, violence, and mania.
It is weighty material, and I admire the hell out of Aronofsky for trying. But it is hard to excuse the failure. The narrative is so poorly weighted that I found myself wishing it would simply end. The first half witnesses the slow invasion of the Home by outsiders who refuse to show any respect and eventually cause destruction. After an ellipsis which skirts overt the work of rebuilding (and, as the title suggests, re-populating), the exact same thing happens, only to a much larger and more horrific degree. The direction becomes chaotic, the action hard to follow. More windows and doors are smashed than there are windows and doors in the house. More people flood into the confined space than the space would allow. The level of atrocity grows higher and higher, with fleeting references to virtually every plague the modern world knows – from mass genocide to religious zealotry to environmental destruction. There are automatic weapons and acts of cannibalism. There is mass hysteria and there is human sacrifice. If Aronofsky had been able to find the vein of absurdist humor in the chaos, he might have been able to create something engaging. But Aronofsky is not Luis Bunuel, and his fatal flaw has always been that lack of humor.
The absence of names is a rather obvious acknowledgement that the director is not concerned with these figures as humans, but rather as symbols. As such, it is impossible to ever feel any love, fear, sympathy, etc. for any of them. The one exception to this comes in the brief early appearance of Domhnall Gleeson as the tortured Older Son of a couple visiting the Poet and his Wife. Gleeson gets no backstory and only the scantest of motivations for his terrible actions, but he is somehow able to project a humanity that is utterly lacking in the other characters.
It is possible to employ surrealism and explore deep metaphysical questions while keeping a narrative grounded in enough reality so that an audience can gauge its reactions. I already mentioned Bunuel, who perhaps did this better than anyone. Veiko Ounpuu’s The Temptation of St. Tony (2009) is a less-ballyhooed and more successful attempt along these lines.
Inspired by mother!, I now abandon the organized, coherent portion of the review, and launch into a series of random, scattered observations.
- The artistic obsession of Black Swan and the religious obsession of Noah merge in the figure of Bardem’s Poet/God in mother! Pretty nifty, huh?
- Aronofsky has a thing for blank muddied surfaces. The unblinking gray sky that Noah lingers upon is echoed in the similar texture/color of the partly plastered walls that Lawrence stares at in mother! And in hindsight, it may be there in the array of numbers in Pi.
- Despite these flirtations with the abstract, Aronofsky’s two best movies were his two most realistically grounded – Requiem for a Dream and The Wrestler. Maybe there’s something to be learned from that.
- It is very disconcerting to see the physical and emotional violence to which Aronofsky subjects Lawrence in mother! I cannot recall an older man brutalizing a younger actress with whom he is romantically linked to this degree since Clint Eastwood had the crap beaten out of Sondra Locke in Sudden Impact.
- The play to which I was referring in the opening is Peter Parnell’s “Trumpery.” (That has nothing to do with Aronofsky. I just tossed it in as an amuse-bouche.)
Okay, back to the original question. How do we value artistic ambition and scope when faced with failed experiments?
The past year has seen a number of art-house movies which got a degree of critical acclaim, and which I personally found lacking. Nicolas Winding Refn contributed the worst of these with The Neon Demon. Yorgos Lanthimos offered the best with The Lobster. Felipe Braganca fell somewhere in between with Don’t Swallow My Heart, Alligator Girl. I didn’t like any of these movies. I found the first half of The Lobster to be truly fresh and intriguing and was very dismayed to see it devolve into the kind of movie I have seen many times before in its second half. Still I would rather watch any of these movies than another Transformers. (Maybe not Neon Demon – God, I hated that.) At least these experiments move the needle. They push the conversation, even in failure. You don’t have to like them, but we should appreciate their existence.
I suppose in the end it is like the thing they tell you when you are applying to college. Colleges, they say, value academic rigor above all else. That means you rise to the highest level by taking the most challenging courses. However, there is an important caveat. You can’t fail all those tough classes. You have to reveal something of value, or else you would be better off taking a less difficult course load and passing the classes. Aronofsky failed with mother! But I have every reason to believe he will pass at least a few more challenging courses before he calls it a day.