Certain film-makers tend to spice their films up with certain themes, often recurring. One Film-maker, One Theme is an exercise in dissecting and discussing the various intricacies behind those themes that make any single Film-maker's portfolio of projects so very interesting.
Cinema, like most mediums, never really stopped being a male driven force. Although it's true there are hundreds of A lister leading ladies in front of the camera, most directors, writers and producers are still male and thusly it's no surprise that Daddy Issues are so prominent in film. Spielberg popularised the theme and since then, many artists have bought their own spin to the fold. J.J. Abrams gave Kirk a fatherless upbringing in Star Trek and the strained relationship between the 13 year old lead of Super 8 and his father was one of the films key plot points. Even David Fincher has tackled the notion in his big screen adaptation of Chuck Palahniuks novel, Fight Club.
Our fathers were our models for God. If our fathers bailed, what does that tell you about God?--Tyler Durden
But we're not looking at those guys, well not right now. We're going to take a look at the king of independent movie making, Darren Aronofsky and how Parenthood plays into his films.
A bit of history: Born in Brooklyn to Jewish parents in 1969, Aronofsky went on to find himself at Harvard University where, in 1987, he shared a room with an animator and became interested in film. His senior thesis film won a Student Academy Award and in 1992 he received his Master of Fine Arts degree from the AFI Conservatory. In 1997, Aronofsky began filming π(Pi) which was funded solely by $100 donations by Aronofsky's friends and family. π(Pi) premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1998 and Aronofsky won the Best Director award as a result and in cinemas π(Pi) made more than 53 times it's $60,000 budget back in sales. In 2000 Aronofsky released Requiem for a Dream, another independantly produced movie, based on the novel by Hubert Selby Jr. It was controversial, critically well recieved and made a small profit upon release. For the next 6 years, Aronofsky struggled to produce The Fountain. Problems that arose were many including actors backing out of roles, sets being destroyed before filming had even begun and massive budget cuts. The film was originally greenlit at $70million, eventually produced for $35million and only took about $15million at the box office. In addition, the critical consensus was remarkably mixed as audiences struggled with the abstract presentation of the film and the slow sombre tone. In 2008 Aronofsky released The Wrestler which did tremendously well both commercially and critically and followed it up in 2010 with a sister piece, Black Swan, which fared just as well. They cost only $6million and $13million to produce, respectively.
π(Pi) doesn't have so much of a focus on the early personal life of it's main character, Max (Sean Gullette), and chooses to focus mostly on his unravelling sanity and obsessive pursuit of the 'formula of the universe'. He suffers from frequent cluster headaches as well as social anxiety disorder and the film hints that these conditions stem from an incident in his youth: Max's mother told him never to stare directly at the sun, but he chose to do so, accidentally blinding himself for a short time. This calls into question the relationship between Max and his mother, that he would go out of his way to ignore her and the fact that his father is never mentioned could serve to imply that he was never around. On a more abstract level, in his pursuit of the aforementioned formula, he deduces that it is 216 numbers long and not long after a Hasidic Jew begins to explain to him the relevance of that number in the Torah; that the Torah is a number based code sent by God and that there is a 216 letter word that is the unspeakable name of God. As Max realises that he understands this number and the formula, he seems to undertake a state of clairvoyance, almost as if he has been spoken to by God, the ultimate father. Later, when the Hasidic Jew and his associates try and force the formula from him he tells them that it has been 'passed' to Max and Max alone, much in the way that God might pass information to a prophet. Admittedly, from here it all goes downhill suggesting that there was no intervention by God but that Max might begin to believe as much in the face of all his academic knowledge suggests plenty about his life and his state of mind.
Requiem for a Dream gets much more deep into the failings of parents than π(Pi) ever attempted right off the bat. The film literally opens with a heroin junky, Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), effectively stealing his mothers television set so that he can score some more dope and she straight up allows it to happen. Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) leans against a door to stop Harry from getting to her because she's locked the TV to a radiator with a chain and she holds the key. Harry screams and yells through the door, asking why she's done such a thing, never once considering that Sara locked up the TV because her addict son has stolen the thing before. Harry then goes on to convince Sara to give him the key and off he rolls, Television set in hand. Let's try and break down how we know, from this scene alone, that Sara has failed as a mother to Harry. First and foremost, he's a heroin addict and she either doesn't know, or is willfuly ignorant of the fact. Second, she's allowed him to steal from her repeatedly and ignored his motive for doing so as well as the fact that he has broken any sort of trust that their family might operate on. Lastly, just when she acts as a good parent should and makes a stand on something she inherently knows is wrong, she literally lets Harry convince her to back down. This is an insane amount of detail to gather from one scene and it informs the relationships for the rest of the movie.
We later learn that Sara's husband (& Harry's father) has passed away at some point prior to the opening of the film, so once again we've got a case of fathers who simply weren't there. As Harry and Sara's relationship unfolds we begin to understand them each a bit more. They both truly love each other but have personal problems, Sara feels unable to assert herself to help or even acknowledge anything is wrong with Harry. She can't even help herself without the use of pills when she decides to go on a diet and in a sense this is where Harry becomes the more grown up of the two, worrying about Sara and warning her to be careful of the pills she's taking. Perhaps it's only because he has a history of addiction himself that he notices but he's onboard with the truth in a heartbeat, unlike his mother.
Requiem has more meat to it than just Harry and Sara though. Harry's two best friends each have parental issues that play a significant role, even if they are devoted less screentime. His 'business associate', Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), is haunted in drug induced states by visions of a simpler time as a child when he would run to his mother and promises to make her proud. All she asks for is that he love her forever. It's a jarring but effective scene compared to any in which Tyrone is happily slinging drugs to whatever bidder comes his way. On the other hand we have Marion (Jennifer Connelly), Harry's girlfriend, who we're told comes from a wealthy background but is utterly unwilling to make any contact with her father if she ever needs anything, be it quick cash for her next fix, or a long term investment so she can set up a legitimate business. At first she seems totally fine to take the money that Harry and Tyrone use selling drugs, but later as events begin to spiral out of control, their savings dwindle, and the couple find themselves without any junk to shoot, Harry and Marion find themselves fighting constantly about money. Eventually, in a bid to get out of a rut, Marion begins prostituting herself for money, at first for her psychiatrist and eventually to a Pimp throwing a seedy party for businessmen, all in a bid to avoid contact with her father.
In a way, Tyrone, Marion and Harry set up all three of possible relationships that we see in films; The troubled relationship between Sara and Harry that is nontheless reinforced by a genuine love, the honestly caring bond between Tyrone and his mother and the utter dismay that Marion shows whenever somebody suggests she contact her father. They aren't all developed with equal amounts of insight but they all leave their mark on the finished product.
The Fountain is far from a linear film: It has 3 stories, 6 main characters and 2 actors playing those characters. Or, as some people have posited, one long story, 2 characters and lots of reincarnation. Regardless, we're going to avoid the broad narrative and focus on some specific relationships...with that in mind, there will be some spoilers in this section so if you haven't seen The Fountain and want to stay fresh, it's well worth skipping this entry for now.
In the present day, we find ourselves following the lives of Tommy (Hugh Jackman) and Izzy (Rachel Weisz). Tommy is a scientist searching for a cure for cancer. Izzy his wife has got cancer. Their story ultimately is an examination of how they cope with Izzy's condition taking a sharp turn for the worst. Whilst Izzy comes to terms with her fate, Tommy is persistent in his aim to make a breakthrough and save Izzy although logically he must understand that he'll never produce a treatment that will be approved for use in time to help her. As Izzy explains that she is losing physical sensitivity, the two ultimately break down together. They come to know that there is so much they're never going to be able to do together. The film itself focuses on the love that they share but as an audience it's difficult not to consider that this is a couple who will never have children, will never truly create and will never make mistakes, or learn to properly guide anything, at least not together as a couple as they must have always imagined they would. In a way, that they are denied the opportunity to spawn a family, even a family that could never truly last as a result of Izzy's condition, is one of the more tragic elements of their story.
So, in the present day, Izzy's going to die and Tommy doesn't want that. 500 years earlier and a similar scene is breaking out.The Queen of Spain (Rachel Weisz) is being hunted down by an Inquisitor and will likely be murdered upon her discovery so she sends a Conquistador, Tomas (Hugh Jackman), to search for the mythical Tree of Life which will grant eternal life to whomever drinks its sap. Tomas doesn't want the Queen to die, as he is loyal to Spain and so he takes on this quest and eventually finds the Tree hidden behind a Mayan Pyramid. After storming the Pyramid he is stabbed by a Priest who exclaims how First Father, a Mayan deity who created the world, sacrificed himself so that everyone else might live. The Priest then has a vision of First Father (for reasons that are wholly too complicated to go into here) and offers Tomas a knife asking him to slit the Priests throat. Like π(Pi) the parental link here is not so much literal as it is religious. The Priest is prepared for death by First Father and when his time comes, doesn't fear death. He even welcomes it, citing "Death is the road to awe." In this case, First Father represents the difference between the two Toms and Izzy and the Priest. Although death might not be pleasant, It's something that will come for us all eventually, so we might as well prepare ourselves for the great beyond and after all, what is parenting a child if not preparing it for the world.
Unlike Aronofsky's previous efforts The Wrestler is a film that wears it's heart on it's sleeve from the opening scene to the closing frames. It looks like a documentary and plays like reality and is a perfect deconstruction of a man whose life seems simultaneously alien and recognisable to anybody who doesn't earn a living as a professional wrestler. It's also the first film to tackle the theme of parenthood head on but we'll get to that in a moment and focus on the more subtle examples first.
There's no real plot to The Wrestler, it's an example of one mans last attempt to live on his own terms. Randy "The Ram" Robinson (Mickey Rourke) is a part time wrestler who is way past his prime. He's something of a legend among the circles he runs in due to his fame in his youth and the younger men that he works with are constantly telling him how much they admire him. He is usually the reason that they got into wrestling and they basically idolise him. He comes off as warm and always willing to give them a word of advice or give words of encouragement to them. It's a contrast from his often brash actions in real life where he is prone to giving in to drug abuse and waking up in awkward situations, or being unable to control his finances and getting locked out of his trailer home. It would be easy for him to relish in their admiration but instead he tends to act as a surrogate father to them. If Randy were a younger man who had simply fallen from fame earlier, it would be a weird display of over the top bromance but due to the age difference and a brilliant performance from Rourke, it comes across as utterly sincere and paints an oddly beautiful portrait of a world that is usually sneered at (Aronofsky himself has said that The Wrestler is a love letter to the 'lowest of arts').
In a truly juxtaposing fashion, Randy seems utterly unable to communicate or sustain any sort of real or lasting relationship with his biological daughter Stephanie (Evan Rachel Wood). When he decides to contact her midway through the film, she is cold towards him and it becomes evident that he has paid little or no attention to her for years. As it happens, Randy had chosen to abandon his family when Stephanie was a little girl in order to continue his lifestyle in wrestling. Given how he can barely afford to live alone, it seems to make sense that he would have to abandon his family to continue to pursue his passion, because how would he ever be able to sustain them as well? He slowly but surely builds up a relationship with Stephanie again after having suffered a heart attack, seemingly afraid that this was his final opportunity to make a connection and the two reminisce on times in the past when they used to be around each other. There's a certain reservedness to the both of them that proves that everything they feel towards each other has a truth to it; she does hate him because he was never there, she does love him because he can be this good man and he undoubtedly loves her but has clearly been a man who could never establish priorities.
At the same time, Randy has slowly been developing a romance with Cassidy (Marisa Tomei), a stripper at a club that he frequents. She has a young son whom she dotes on and their relationship is pretty much the polar opposite of Randy and Stephanie's. Although both Cassidy and Randy have 'undesirable' jobs, Cassidy is stripping in order to maintain a solid life for her son, as opposed to Randy who ran away from his family to continue his wrestling. Cassidy helps Randy to buy a gift for Stephanie and gives him advice on what to say and how to connect with her, because understandably, Randy knows less about how a young woman thinks than Cassidy does. Eventually, despite their initial spark, Cassidy pushes Randy away, exclaiming that she cannot let somebody she met stripping into her life for the sake of her son who she wants to protect from the truth of how she cares for him.
As a result of this rebuffal, Randy reverts back to his true inner self and loses control for an evening, drinking doing cocaine and sleeping all throughout the next day. Upon awakening he realises that he has missed an arranged dinner with Stephanie and rushes to meet her. When he finds her at her home she announces that she does not want him in her life anymore. He leaves her understanding that all he has ever done to Stephanie is set her up to fall down. Every kind act was a build up of hope and every cruel or stupid act was a hammer to the foundation of their relationship. In the end he loses out on the one person that most people would expect will always be there for him and finds himself returning to the only place that will take him: his surrogate family of the wrestling circuit.
The first thing you need to know about Black Swan is that it is a horror film. It's all too easy to hear about a Natalie Portman film about ballet and just roll with that thought but Black Swan gets very dark and bleak as it's proceedings fall into place and knowing that it is well and truly a horror film is perhaps the most important step in understanding the dichotomy that is the relationship between prima ballerina Nina (Natalie Portman) and her mother Erica (Barbara Hershey). Nina is a young ballerina living with her mother in New York. She has a rigorous workout schedule which she keeps to like clockwork and lacks any sort of social life. Her only connection in life seems to be with her mother and this shows in every action Nina takes and every line she speaks. She comes across as much younger than she is, like a small child who needs assistance to do anything of note. Erica acts similarly, as if Nina were a small child.
In understanding Black Swan as a horror film, it becomes entirely possible or even likely that Erica has opted to keep Nina in a child-like state in order to maintain control of what little family she has left. No father is seen or even mentioned throughout the film, Examples of Nina acting childish include her attempts to appeal to her casting director for a major role by 'dolling up' as a child would wear their parents makeup to seem adult. She explains to the director how she has definitely had sex in the past but later in the film it is strongly implied that she is discovering masturbation for the first time. Yes, it's entirely possible that she had simply never tried masturbation but had sex before, but is it really very likely? Erica meanwhile treats Nina as a child constantly especially in a scene when she presents Nina with a cake and Nina points out that she needs to keep to her diet. Erica reacts like a parent trying to prove a point, using reverse psychology to act upset and begin to throw the cake away to appeal to Nina's childlike nature to take the offering.
As a childlike figure of innocence, Nina finds herself struggling with the role of the Swan Queen as she needs to delve into darker territory in order to portray the Black Swan and here the lifestyle that Erica seems to have forced upon Nina seems to work as a double edged sword: Nina is technically proficient at everything she need to do to pull off the role but her steadfast determination to achieve perfection, a pursuit likely put forward by Erica, means that she lacks the passion necessary to truly inhabit the character. As Nina comes to understand her inner darkness she ultimately begins to descend into madness and it's here that the possibilities of how Nina and Erica came to be as they are gets interesting.
A person with no history of mental illness can be driven mad by stress or difficulty, but given Nina's portrayal throughout the film how likely is it that she's just snapped now? Perhaps she's had problems her entire life and the wall of innocence that Erica helped erect is a defensive measure to help protect Nina. And if Nina has had a condition throughout her life, what does that say about Erica who seems positively bipolar, bouncing from adoring nicknames for Nina to screaming about how she gave up an profitable painting career to raise Nina. Erica clearly has personal problems that are never fully developed and perhaps she's given Nina this fixation, but taught her not to react passionately to give her something to focus on without breaking down if one day it all goes away, out of experience? After all, people with mental illnesses are often likely to pass the gene onto their children. It's entirely possible that despite their unstable relationship throughout the second and third act of the film that Erica is truthfully the heroic character just trying to protect her daughter. Like all the real relationships in Aronofsky's films, there is no doubt that these characters truly love each other but there's so much more to a real relationship than just that. There's so many varying degrees other than just love that to not explore them would be facetious at best or outright blindness at worst.
If you've managed to stay with me this whole time by all means, I'd love to hear what you think. Any positive or constructive criticism is always appreciated or if you just have any thoughts on the subject matter above, feel free to type away.