Darren Aronofsky’s first four films show a vivid imagination, ambition and an incredible breadth of vision: Pi deals with Jewish mathematician who attempts to find the mathematical patterns underpinning human life. Requiem For A Dream chronicles the lives of three Brooklyn junkies and explores addiction in its diverse forms. The Fountain deals with the search for eternal life, across a timespan of a thousand years and The Wrestler deals with, unsurprisingly, American pro-wrestling.
Despite diverse subject matter there are recurring themes and messages that run through all Aronofsky’s films, most notably the idea that dreams have an incredible controlling power over people’s lives. In Aronofsky’s films dreams are often an escape from the harsh realities of his characters, and the illusiveness of their dreams often forms the tragedy in their lives. More features that unify all four films are consistently brilliant directing, spectacular performances, innovation and fresh and vibrant cinematography.
Aronofsky’s small body of just four films would suggest a bright young director about to break into Hollywood’s mainstream, however, at 40, he can hardly be considered young, and as it is now 10 years since his first feature film Pi, he can hardly be considered new either. The director has undoubtedly been a slowly burner thus far and missed out on the meteoric rises to fame of some of his contemporaries, but the widespread acclaim for The Wrestler and Aronofsky’s hiring for the forthcoming Robocop remake have just about made certain he will become one of Hollywod’s big players.
The quality of Aronofsky’s output is consistently brilliant, but not surprising, given his immensely privileged education and film schooling. He grew up in Brooklyn, the son of two Jewish schoolteachers who pushed him hard to succeed. After graduating from high school he was selected to attend Camp Rising Sun, an international summer scholarship programme for gifted students and went on to study at Harvard. Despite being immensely gifted academically, he was also artistic, and his two passions while a teenager were classic films and graffiti. This prompted him to chose to study the somewhat odd combination of anthropology with live action film and and animation as his degree at Harvard.
His thesis film Supermarket Sweep was immensely well received and he was honoured with the American Film Institute’s sought after Franklin J. Schaffner Alumni medal. The film also reached the finals of the National Student Academy Awards. Despite the considerable industry attention surrounding him, he failed to turn this considerable momentum into a feature film until five years later, when he began creating the concept for Pi.
This highly original film is based around the lead character Max Cohen’s search for the numerical patterns that lie beneath the surface of life, a little like the Da Vinci Code. Although a friend attempts to recruit Max to analyse the Torah numerically, the film does not preach a religious message.
Despite being innovative for its time, the film can be criticised for falling into the trend of self-conscious mental disorder and paranoia films like Memento or Fight Club, as Max suffers from chronic headaches and extreme paranoia manifested through sinister hallucinations.
However the parallels Pi has with these other films which now comprise a deeply clichéd genre should not diminish the immense achievement of Aronofsky’s film, even more so, considering that it is both a first film and was shot on a budget of just $60,000, raised mainly through $100 donations from friends and family.
With Pi grossing more than $3.2 million dollars, over 50 times what it cost to make, securing a deal to produce his next film, an adaptation of Hubert Selby Junior’s novel Requiem For A Dream was incredibly easy. The film came out in 2000, just two years after Pi and given a far more impressive budget of $4.5 million. This allowed Aronofsky to develop the use of techniques which he had used to create Pi’s distinctive visual style. The most notable of these being hip-hop montage, where a sequence of clips and images are shown, rapidly cut together, usually in fast motion.
The average 100-minute film contains 600-700 cuts, whereas Requiem For A Dream contains a staggering 2,000 plus. The most memorable example of this being when Harry and Marion shoot heroin. In no more than a couple of seconds we are taken through every stage of the drug-taking process in high-speed close-up, ending with molecule coursing through the veins and then a rapidly dilating pupil.
Some find Requiem For A Dream’s extensive use of techniques such as hip-hop montage, split-screen, snorricam (attaching a camera to the actor) and frequent use of fast-motion gimmicky. However the widely held opinion is that Requiem For A Dream is Aronofsky’s cinematic masterpiece.
After Requiem, Aronofsky once again lost his momentum, spending six years in the artistic wilderness before releasing 2006’s hugely ambitious The Fountain to mixed reviews. The film was originally intended to star Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, but after Pitt’s departure the film was cancelled. Aronofsky eventually managed to resurrect the project, with half the budget, thanks largely to the success of a graphic novel of the film which showed the studios there was interest for the film. Unsurprisingly however for a film that follows one narrative across three disparate time periods, and fell somewhere between science fiction and fantasy, it failed to find a market and failed commercially.
This is somewhat unfair as, despite the large amount of criticism the film has received (largely from people who failed to follow the plot) it remains a visionary directorial triumph, visually stunning and perhaps the best of Aronofsky’s films.
The Fountain’s failure to find an audience was in stark contrast to the reception of The Wrestler which has been immensely more appealing and almost universally admired. While Aronofsky’s previous films could be seen as films primarily for cinephiles, The Wrestler is a powerful drama and his only film we can call a true mainstream hit.
With the success of The Wrestler, Aronofky looks set to realise his potential and become a household name, as he is booked to direct the forthcoming reboot of Robocop and The Fighter starring Brad Pitt and Mark Wahlberg.
Given Aronofksy’s considerable early promise this seemed inevitable and his demonstrable talent; his impressive cinematic innovation seen in Pi and Requiem For A Dream, his impressive artistic vision demonstrated by The Fountain and his ability to direct powerfully dramatic performances in The Wrestler makes his success thoroughly deserved. If Aronofsky does not compromise his artistic credibility, he could revolutionise mainstream Hollywood film.