Wednesday, September 20, 2017
Okay: I exited the auditorium from a quarter-full screening of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’ (only two people walked out), went for a pint, got my thoughts in order, came home, poured another drink, cracked my knuckles, fired up the laptop aaaaaand … holy fuck fuckety fuck, I have no idea where to start.
I don’t know whether to write a straightforward review of the film – plot synopsis, quality of acting, effectiveness of cinematography and production design, you know, the usual kind of thing – or to come at it obliquely via a review of the reviews.
‘mother!’ – which is already starting to piss me off with its wannabe e.e. cummings fixation on lower case and its needless exclamation mark*, and I’ve only typed it three times – has been variously described, by some fairly high profile critics, as being About** the state of the nation, the Syrian refugee crisis, the creative process in general, Aronofsky’s creative process in particular, the dark side of fame/celebrity, a deconstruction of cinema itself, and the inability of Man to aspire to God because of our pettiness and selfishness.
Let’s start with the latter reading. Yes, the film is obviously a religious allegory. It’s obviously an allegory since it begins with Javier Bardem’s character (none of the characters are given names***, but Javier is billed as “Him” just to make it fucking obvious) placing a crystal on what is basically a mini-altar. What the crystal is and where it came from is revealed at the very end, but by then you’ll probably be too busy Googling Aronofsky’s address so that you can go round and punch him to care. What the placing of the crystal on the altar does is trigger a cosmic reset button: a burnt out house is restored to its basic, undecorated, structure and a lifeless husk in a bed revivifies in the form of a woman (Jennifer Lawrence). Which is basically like Aronofsky texting every member of the audience with the message None of this is real, everything’s a stand in for something else” followed by a parade of emojis, including thumbs up, fist bump, devil, angel and the shit emoji. To the best of my knowledge emojis symbolising human heart flushed down the toilet, eviscerated baby and film director giving his audience the wanker sign haven’t yet been designed, but I’m sure our Darren has put in a commission. Oh, and it also robs the film of any shred of tension – with one hour fifty-nine and a half minutes still to go.
So yes, it’s an allegory, and yes it’s a religious allegory since we have Cain and Abel (here depicted as spoiled millennial twats fighting over a will), God so loving the world that he makes a spectacularly bad parenting decision vis-à-vis His only son, and a self-aggrandising plea that said child’s death be forgiven. There’s also a tip of the chapeau towards the virgin birth inasmuch as Lawrence’s character demands of Bardem’s “how come you never fuck me?” I’m not a big reader of the Bible, but I rather think she was paraphrasing there.
But an allegory along the lines of ‘God gives us nice things but we can’t have them because we’re selfish gits’? Hmmm. Two problems: (i) the script so thoroughly puts the audience in sympathy with Lawrence’s litany of entirely reasonable requests that the exponentially burgeoning parade of interlopers put down things, stop breaking things, quit abusing her hospitality and, finally, get the hell out of her house that the only way the metaphor can work is that Aronofsky is slapping every member of the audience in the face with a j’accuse, rather than presenting them with a concept to mull over (a surefire way, in other words, to alienate rather than engage the audience), and (ii) he’s essentially cast his girlfriend as the living embodiment of humanity’s selfishness. Way to go, Romeo.
Okay. Let’s take it as a state of the nation piece instead. It’s quickly established that one’s home is not a safe place; that men treat women badly; and that slightly-embarrassed prissiness is the default mode of behaviour for the haves, spitefulness and vandalism for the have-nots and passive-aggressiveness for those stuck resentfully inbetween. As social commentary, the first two observations are thuddingly obvious and thrown out in a manner that adds nothing to any meaningful debate, while the third is reductive to the point of stupidity. The extended final act trades in the imagery of fan worship, religious cults, social upheaval, the police state, political factionism, oppression, anarchy and everything else up to and including the kitchen sink, the bathroom sink, the bath itself and most of the plumbing. Plus maybe the kettle, the teapot and most of the crockery.
As a deconstruction of cinema? That only works if it’s a genuine dismantling of the form itself (rather than the ‘High-Rise’ style orgy of onscreen destruction that it so patently is); moreover, any claim to deconstructionism is intellectually cancelled out by its plethora of borrowings: from Polanski, from Fellini, from Tarkovsky, from von Trier, from Wheatley, from Romero, from Fulci … even from Cavani if you squint hard enough. It’s a stitching together of other works, from the highbrow to the lowbrow by way of the obscure, and the only point I can see is to demonstrate just how damn much cinema Arofonsky has absorbed. Well, you know what? Tarantino does exactly the same thing, but makes it his own and never claims that he’s doing anything other than indulging a lifetime’s love of cinema. There’s no love of anything in ‘mother!’, just a leaking bile duct dribbling its nasty effluent over the screen for two hours.
An investigation into the creative process? Well, I personally know enough people who are creative – poets, musicians, novelists, filmmakers – to know that while certain terrors and traumas and obsessions go into the great melting pot of artistic creativity, none of these people are misanthropic and emotionally destructive. If ‘mother!’ is to be read as what someone has to go through in order to create – not to mention what they put those around them through, and the degree to which they leach off other lives and tragedies – then it’s possibly the greatest statement of anti-art and anti-thought and anti-creativity since Donald Trump, Theresa May and Nigel Farage were collectively conceived.
As a commentary on the Syrian refugee crisis? Only if you’re an inveterate fucking racist.
Here’s what I think it’s about, and we’re back in allegory territory: imagine that the entire history of cinema is a blog post. The people who go to the movies to be entertained are the people leaving a single comment on the comments thread that effectively washes their hands of it. The people who go to the movies to theorise and critique are the ones playing nice on the comments thread and genuinely trying to arrive at some form of collective agreement. Darren Aronofsky is the troll.
*With the sole exception of Powell and Pressburger’s ‘I Know Where I’m Going!’, exclamation marks have no freaking business in movie titles whatsoever.
**The whole thing is so stultifyingly pretentious – right down to its all-in-lower-case-except-for-one-character end credits – that it demands you accept it as being About something.
***Art film alert!