Film Column: Darren Aronofsky and parables of cinematic terror

Film Column: Darren Aronofsky and parables of cinematic terror
Photo courtesy of Rotten Tomaatoes

Most, if not all, people are familiar with the term, “feel good movie.” It incites thoughts of films like “The Breakfast Club” or “Forrest Gump” and all of the warm internal fuzzies that come along with watching them.

Audiences love to experience the feelings when Forrest finally marries Jenny or when Andrew pumps a victorious fist into freeze frame to the tune of “Don’t You (Forget About Me).” They give us that emotional escapism that we as humans crave from any form of art and they also have some nice moral takeaways to boot. Directors like Cameron Crowe, Rob Zemeckis and John Hughes made feel good movies a staple of their filmographies, and who could blame them? They are revered directors with films that are eminently rewatchable. So take the familiar great feel good movies and flip them on their heads into great movies that make you feel intensely disturbed. Now you have Darren Aronofsky.

Darren Aronofsky is an opinionated, pretentious and disturbed master of filmmaking. His films don’t just make you feel bad like ones where the dog dies at the end. They are more like if the dog was an adorable pup who gets trampled by a stampede of elephants for two hours. Many accuse him of being a mere shock artist director, but what sets Aronofsky apart from directors like Eli Roth or Tom Six of “Human Centipede” fame is that instead of just torturing traitless characters, Aronofsky uses his immense screenwriting and filmmaking chops to make you care about his characters before dealing with them in a painful to watch manner. Aronofsky also painstakingly infuses messages into his narratives. The well fleshed out character arcs and messages keep his films from feeling like mere shock seekers or gore porn like those of Eli Roth and Tom Six.

Darren Aronofsky’s breakout drama from 2000, “Requiem for a Dream” follows a few different people struggling with drug addiction as their lives spiral completely out of control. For the whole run time, the audience is forced to see these seemingly real characters that they care about slowly tumble toward insanity until the final scenes where their demise is accelerated to a disturbing crescendo. It is stressful and it isn’t fun to watch, but no one could ever say that it isn’t effective. If one of my friends ever started to do hard drugs, the first thing I would do is force them to watch “Requiem for a Dream” because for my money, there isn’t a stronger anti-drug persuasion in art than the one Aronofsky presents in that film. It is a perfect example of a great feel bad film. You’d be hard pressed to deny the greatness of its filmmaking, but that doesn’t mean you would ever want to revisit it. The films are as impressive as they are oppressive and that is exactly what Aronofsky wants.

To understand how Darren Aronofsky achieves this feeling in his films, you have to look at how he approaches horror as a genre. Something like the recent “It” remake would represent a conventional sense of horror in film. There is a monster and there are characters that must overcome their fear to defeat the monster. As the characters grow to overcome their fear, there are lots of fun scares. This isn’t a wrong way to approach horror. It can be great when done well as evidenced by “It,” it is merely conventional. Aronofsky runs from convention in his films. Something like “Requiem for a Dream” or “Black Swan” wouldn’t be viewed as horror by most because they don’t share those conventions, but if you watch them as the characters go through devolutions into madness, it is undeniably horrifying. Aronofsky is always trying to tell you something and he will hit you with non stop stress and terror to get his point across. To understand this fully, go to the theater and view “It” and then turn around and see Aronofsky’s new film “Mother!.” They are both horror films, but they couldn’t operate any more different.

It is amazing when art can make you feel something and communicate a message. Something someone else made with a specific purpose can translate that purpose through the functions of art. Something like John Hughes’ “The Breakfast Club” will make you feel good inside through expert filmmaking as it gets across the message of overcoming insecurity, and that is awesome. At the same time, Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” will stress you out and disturb you with expert filmmaking to get across the dangers of perfectionism, and that is still awesome. It is easy to appreciate when a film cinematically moves the audience to feel good because that is a pleasant experience. I think it is just as important to appreciate when a film cinematically moves to disturb an audience as most of Aronofsky’s films do. Just because it is unpleasant for the viewer doesn’t make it any less impressive than when it is pleasant. In fact, I’d say it is probably more impressive.

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