Pi in Your Face

Director Darren Aronofsky makes films that resemble himself: smart and abrasive

High school, at the public Edward R. Murrow High, taught him mostly how to cheat and cut class. The only book he remembers reading all the way through was Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. But during senior year, he stumbled on something that made a lasting impact: Aronofsky and a friend went to Brooklyn's only mall, King's Plaza, to see a Hollywood movie he now can't recall. But they got there late and couldn't get in because the film had sold out. The two guys were determined to see something. "I saw a poster with a goofy guy with a Brooklyn hat, went in, and it turned out to be She's Gotta Have It. And I remember being just blown away. It spoke to me partly because I was from Brooklyn, and I really related to the hip-hop culture, but also the whole aesthetic of it was really refreshing."

His interest in film sparked, he still headed to Harvard in 1987. Although his first two years of college were "mostly about sex and drugs," there was no stopping him once he discovered moviemaking. "It was the first thing that kept me awake at night. I'd run out of my girlfriend's bed in my underwear to the editing room and not come back until I'd finished a cut."

A year after graduating from Harvard, Aronofsky headed to the AFI Conservatory, the Hollywood-based film school. During his time at AFI, he also got some important advice from one of his professors--Stuart Rosenberg, the director of Cool Hand Luke and The Pope of Greenwich Village, who told Aronofsky: "Make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, or scare the shit out of 'em." (Advice, it seems, that he's taken to heart.)

"But if you want to see a film that's right down the middle of the road, please, please don't come see Requiem for a Dream."
"But if you want to see a film that's right down the middle of the road, please, please don't come see Requiem for a Dream."


Pi shows at 8 p.m. Sunday, April 22 at the Hughes-Trigg Student Center on the SMU campus.

Requiem for a Dream shows at 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 25 at AMC Glen Lakes Theatres at Walnut Hill at North Central Expressway (director Darren Aronofsky in attendance).

The SMU Film Festival runs April 21, 22 and 25. Call (214) 378-1250 for info.

As good a stretch as L.A. was, Aronofsky knew he couldn't stay. He returned to New York in 1995 and began putting together the plan for Pi. He drew from friends (lead Sean Gullette was a Harvard classmate) and family (his mom made and served the food to cast and crew). And Aronofsky hit up virtually everybody he knew to help finance the picture, getting "investments" of $100 at a time and promising to pay them back, with interest, if the film made money. With a budget of only $60,000, it did.

In an interview, the director comes across as driven and serious about filmmaking but not the rude or self-absorbed guy we've heard about. Looking back at the shoot, Burstyn talks about how "considerate" he was. Where's Aronofsky's legendary arrogance? Except for the occasional slip ("I hope you're doing a big piece on me, baby! Not that I don't love tawking to you, my friend!"), he seems like a typical hardworking, middle-class kid who toiled his way into the Ivy League. Let him roam, and he talks about childhood friends he "met on tricycles" and about "what a gift, what a present" it is to work with talented actors--as if he were rehearsing for an appearance on Entertainment Tonight.

Requiem received an NC-17 rating upon its release when Aronofsky refused to recut his film. The rating was designed by the MPAA in 1990 to serve as a nonporn alternative to the X (an unofficial rating now, as then). This way, the thinking went, serious films aimed at adults could avoid the stigma of movies for lonely men in raincoats. But NC-17 films quickly acquired their own stigma: In the last few years, the rating has gone to trash such as Showgirls while more "respectable" films--Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut and Mary Harron's American Psycho--have been recut to fit the restrictions of an R movie.

Of course, if the MPAA was really doing its job, Requiem would never have drifted into its crosshairs. While the film is troubling, it's not violent, and what little brutality there is arises as a kind of punishment for drug use. The film does not posit shooting up as a smart career move. If anything, Requiem is so cruel a cautionary tale that it risks feeling sternly moralistic.

With Requiem, the MPAA was almost certainly responding to the final sequence--three minutes of grueling climax in which the characters are cast into private hells. The real problem isn't that the sequence is excessively violent or sexual--there's just a touch of each, and most of the action is implied--but that it's excessive moviemaking. Things happen too fast and too hard. One character ends up "performing" in front of an audience of malevolent yuppies, but her earlier arrival at a john's door--awkward, scared, still a little demure--made a far more eloquent statement of her decline than this appearance before a tribe of overgrown frat boys.

Aronofsky points out that scenes like this happen in America every day. "A lot of people who haven't been to bachelor parties or fraternity parties don't realize that this is happening behind closed doors every day in America. That scene is taken from something I witnessed."

Clearly, he wasn't trying for subtlety in that final scene. "This is a film for people who grew up on eight hours of TV, and five hours of Internet, a day. We're a generation overloaded by sound and images, and to reach audiences on that level, you basically have to take them somewhere super intense. And it was always meant that that three-minute climax was going to be a violent barrage on the audience--we wanted to bombard them. I wanted to make a roller coaster ride. One that smashed into a brick wall. At the fastest speed the film gets to, just smash into a brick wall." His voice lightens. "For me, I find that a lot of fun. There are people out there who like that type of movie. But if you want to see a film that's right down the middle of the road, please, please don't come see Requiem for a Dream."

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