Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Auteurs #2: Darren Aronofsky

One of the premier film festivals in the U.S., the Sundance Film Festival in Utah is often known as the place for new discoveries and new filmmakers to emerge. Among them was Darren Aronofsky whose 1998 debut film Pi drew massive attention as he won the Directing Award at the festival. The film became a cult hit as the $60,000 budgeted film garnered lots of attention. Yet, it would be the film that would feature many of Aronofsky’s themes as an auteur. In 2010, Aronofsky returns with his fifth feature film entitled Black Swan as the film would confirm his status as one of cinema's finest filmmakers..

The son of schoolteachers in Brooklyn, New York. Darren Aronofsky grew up into a world where he managed to experience things that most kids didn’t do. Going to Kenya and Alaska on school trips as a research biologist and going to Harvard in 1987 to study anthropology seemed very far-fetched into someone that would become one of cinema’s most revered and original visionaries. Yet, it was in Harvard where Aronofsky dipped his toes into the world of filmmaking with a thesis film called Supermarket Sweep with friend Sean Gullette. After graduating in 1991, Aronofsky went to the AFI Conservatory to learn his craft as a filmmaker. It would be years until he would finally emerge with his first film.

Aronofsky’s feature-length debut film was the story of a math prodigy who discovers a mystery through the number of pi. The sci-fi thriller budgeted at $60,000 was shot in grainy black and white by cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who would shoot all of Aronofsky’s films except for The Wrestler. Starring Aronofsky’s friend Sean Gullette as Max Cohen, the film had this young man discovering the meaning behind the mathematical symbol that equates through 3.14. A complex film that recalls the paranoia of films like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, Pi succeeds in creating a film that also revolves on answers that Max is trying to find only to go way into deep in his journey.

While many of the sci-fi elements are more about the mathematical context of the film. It has the tone of a sci-fi thriller mixed in with heavy drama that revolves around Jewish mysticism and the stock market. Still, the focus is on Max Cohen as he spirals down into madness over this journey with everyone from stock brokers to Hasidic Jews going after him. Adding to the intensity of the film is the hypnotic, electronic-driven score by former Pop Will Eat Itself vocalist Clint Mansell, another key collaborator of Aronofsky.

When it premiered at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival that January, it was a massive hit where it won Aronofsky won the Best Director award. The film’s release later that summer was a surprise as the $60,000 budgeted film made over $3.2 million in the box office despite its limited release. It also opened doors for Aronofsky as he garnered accolades as well as the chance to direct his sophomore film Requiem for a Dream.

Based on Herbert Selby Jr.’s book about forms of addiction through four different characters. Requiem for a Dream would be the film that would give Aronofsky mainstream attention. With a $4.5 million budget and a star-studded cast that included Ellen Burstyn, Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, and Marlon Wayans. The film would be one of 2000’s most acclaimed films. Even as it would give Ellen Burstyn not just a huge comeback after years of being in small film roles and TV films. It would also bring an Oscar nomination for Burstyn while it Aronofsky got more attention when he premiered the film at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival.

The multi-layered story about addiction that revolves around four individuals. One is a woman named Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) who is an elderly widow who finds a new lease on life when she’s asked to participate on a game show. Hoping to lose weight, she takes on some weight-loss pills that would only bring more trouble to her life as her own son Harry (Jared Leto) is disturbed by this newfound addiction. Yet, Harry is also an addict of sorts as he along with his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are addicted to heroin. Yet, they also have dreams where Tyrone hopes to escape from the streets and make his mother proud while Harry and Marion hope to open a fashion store.

The film takes place into three acts and three seasons starting with a hot summer in Brooklyn where everything seems upbeat and fine despite the addiction of its characters. The second act is set in the fall where things start to fall apart. The third and final act in the winter has all of the characters really struggling and trying to redeem themselves. The structure of the film plus Aronofsky’s hypnotic direction really takes Selby’s novel into a world where reality and drug-induced fantasies collide. Notably a scene where Sara is haunted by an image of herself and Christopher McDonald’s infomercial host. Even as it has shaking images of the characters struggling.

The film’s release was indeed shocking for audiences as Aronofsky would collide with the MPAA over some of the drug abuse scenes and some strong sexual content in the film. Though it was initially rated a NC-17, Aronofsky and Artisan studios were able to get the film released under the unrated rating though Aronofsky would release an edited version of the film through Blockbuster and retailers like Target. Despite some of the controversy the film generated, it also gave the film a lot of attention as well as box office receipts. For Aronofsky, he would gain the attention of the studios as well as a growing following of cinephiles.

The success of Requiem for a Dream gave Aronofsky the chance to go for all sorts of projects. Among them was a chance to reboot the ailing Batman film franchise for Warner Brothers though it would eventually go to Christopher Nolan. It was also during that time that Aronofsky co-wrote and produced David Twohy’s World War II submarine/horror film Below. Yet, Aronofsky had another idea in mind inspired by his trips to ancient temples in South and Central America. Originally titled The Last Man, The Fountain was an ambitious project that revolved around the Tree of Life that spans into three different time periods. Originally was to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, the film explored Aronofsky’s fascination with death and the fear it had on loved ones.

The first stage of production with Pitt and Blanchett in 2002 fell apart due to various reasons. Even with a budget of $70 million, Aronofsky’s ideas for the film fell apart though he was able to resurrect it in 2004 with new ideas that cut the film’s original budget in half. With Hugh Jackman eventually taking over Pitt’s role and Aronofsky’s then-new girlfriend Rachel Weisz in the Blanchett role. Production went underway in late 2004-early 2005 at soundstages in Montreal. While it was clear Aronofsky had a lot of heavy ideas in mind for the film. The results of the film would divide audiences.

The film’s story of a man trying to find the Tree of Life through different time periods to save his beloved seemed like a great idea. Yet, the screenplay Aronofsky wrote, that was based on a treatment he co-wrote with Ari Handel, didn’t carry much depth as audiences knew what was going to happen in the end. Some other issues involved the visual style that was very different to his previous work. Notably Matthew Libatique’s cinematography was awashed with yellow, sepia-like colors throughout the film with very little lighting in several scenes. That approach proved to be distracting while whatever structure Aronofsky aimed for seemed lost in what he wanted to say.

The film’s premiere at the 2006 Venice Film Festival was met with a divided response. Critics booed the film at a press screening while audiences gave it a 10-minute standing ovation at its public screening. The mixed reviews from audiences and critics would loom over Aronofsky as he also admitted to the film’s shortcomings while hoping to have a proper DVD release of the film very soon with footage that didn’t make it to the final cut but not as a director’s cut.

If the ambitions and long-production headaches of The Fountain had overwhelmed Aronofsky. Then his next project was going to be a far more stripped-down affair with no visual tricks and no large set pieces. It would also be a chance for Aronofsky to go into an entirely different world that is somewhat foreign to audiences and that is the world of professional wrestling. Though professional wrestling has remained popular since its boom in the 1980s from the World Wrestling Entertainment organization that featured such stars as Hulk Hogan, Andre the Giant, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, and many others. Aronofsky wanted to focus on what happens to these greats when they face aging, health issues, and having trouble to leave that world.

Written by Robert D. Siegel, The Wrestler is about an aging wrestling superstar named Randy “The Ram” Robinson whose hey-day in the 80s is gone as he’s now wrestling for independent circuits all over New Jersey. After suffering a heart attack and his chances for a comeback to be failing, Robinson hangs out with an aging stripper who convinces him to try and make amends with his estranged daughter. The film was shot on location in New Jersey while the biggest surprise for the film came in its casting. With Marisa Tomei as 40-year old stripper Cassidy and Evan Rachel Wood as Robinson’s estranged daughter Stephanie. The biggest coup was getting the actor to play Randy “The Ram” Robinson in none other than Mickey Rourke.

Rourke was a big star in the 1980s whose career was hit by a series of bad decisions and his decision to retire from acting to have a brief career in boxing. While the mid-2000s saw Rourke appearing in more films and standing out, none of them were the big comeback roles he yearned for until Aronofsky came to him. Though Rourke wasn’t sure, Aronofsky finally convinced him to do the role as Rourke got help from former WWE legend Afa Anoa’i of the Wild Samoans to prepare for his role. With appearances from other pro wrestlers like Ernest “The Cat” Miller, Ron “R-Truth” Killings, and Necro Butcher. Rourke gave the performance of a lifetime as it would not only give him the comeback but also accolades and respect of the industry.

For Aronofsky, the film was a major hit as its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in 2008 was a major surprise. The film would give Aronofsky the prestigious Golden Lion for best film while the film would garner several critics prizes as well as two Oscar nominations for Mickey Rourke and Marisa Tomei. The film was also a major winner at the Golden Globes, a month prior to the Oscars, where Rourke won Best Actor in a Dramatic Film while Bruce Springsteen won an award for the title song. In the world of the pro wrestling community, the film was widely praised by former and current pro wrestlers with WWE chairman Vince McMahon also giving praise for the film by promoting it on his program. Rourke also made an appearance at Wrestlemania XXV where he punched Chris Jericho as part of a wrestling angle proving how much the film meant to that community.

If The Wrestler explored a man on the way out of his beloved trade, Black Swan is about a young woman finally achieving her dream role only to succumb into madness. Aronofsky’s exploration into the world of ballet is an intriguing one yet not something fans of Aronofsky’s work should be totally surprised by. The film centers around a young woman named Nina Sayer whose years of being in a New York City ballet company has finally paid off when she gets the lead role for Swan Lake. While she is a gifted yet technically-proficient ballerina that can hit all of the things needed for the persona of White Swan. What she doesn’t have is the sensuality and passion of the Black Swan.

The film stars Natalie Portman as Nina Sayer as she starts off as this innocent, child-like young woman in her 20s getting the role of a lifetime. Yet, she becomes troubled by her limitations that prevent her to play the Black Swan as the company’s director Thomas Leroy looks to another young ballerina named Lily for the Black Swan. The character of Lily is played by Mila Kunis who would exude all of the sensuality, passion, and carefree persona that the character of Nina is lacking. If the presence of Lily is troubling her, so are a few key people that surrounds Nina. It’s not just Vincent Cassel’s creepy Leroy that would make some off-putting suggestions for Nina to get into the Black Swan character. Nina’s mother Erica, played by Barbara Hershey, would fret over the mysterious rash that Nina has on her back as well as her ballet career that Erica never was able to capitalize on in her younger years.

The film is a play on not just surrealism when Nina starts to discover her dark side but also all of the things that she would encounter including a darker version of herself. One of the film’s key moments is when Nina makes a visit to the company’s former premier ballerina in Beth MacIntyre, played by Winona Ryder. The visit would reveal not just the pain it would take to become the perfect ballerina but also the psychological toll it would have as Beth would make a violent spectacle towards Nina. That scene along with other scenes including a lesbian sex scene between Nina and Lily would play into Nina’s troubled mind that was increased by a drug Lily dropped into Nina’s drink.

The film would eventually lead to the climatic Swan Lake ballet that has Nina front and center as all of her emotions and mind games would come into play. It is definitely Aronofsky’s most dazzling and surreal film of his career so far. Not surprisingly, the film’s protagonist would carry the similarities that all of Aronofsky’s protagonist would endure. Not just madness but also obsession, aging, and self-realization. Unlike the protagonists that Aronofsky had covered, whether Nina had faced was true or in her mind remains unknown. It is definitely Aronofsky stepping up his game as a director proving that he can warp the mind of his viewers.

With already five feature films to his credit and a hell of a career it has been. Darren Aronofsky is definitely going to be a director that will keep people excited. While he’s lined up next to direct the sequel to the much-maligned 2009 X-Men spin-off film X-Men Origins: Wolverine that will be simply called The Wolverine. Some hope Aronofsky will bring more to the famed character as well as doing something different with the superhero comic-book blockbuster genre if 20th Century Fox actually allows him to have some control. Another project Aronofsky wants to do is to re-boot and update Robocop which had been in the works for years but got shut down when MGM filed for bankruptcy. Whatever Darren Aronofsky will have up his sleeve. He’s got five films to prove that is definitely one of the best rising talents working today.

© thevoid99 2010

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