Film Reviews

Pi in Your Face

As a kid in Brooklyn, Darren Aronofsky used to steal into Manhattan, taking the D train across the East River to sneak into movies such as A Clockwork Orange and Eraserhead. These were R-rated, and he was still 15 or 16. "They were films," he says, smiling, "you weren't supposed to see." A decade and a half later, now established as a promising writer-director, he makes movies for those same restless young people.

As such, his films--on view, as is the director himself, during this week's SMU Student Film Festival--are unlikely to snag the audience pining for more Jane Austen remakes. His high-impact 1998 debut, Pi, was a Sundance hit that managed to create dramatic heat around irrational numbers, personal computers and the Kabbalah--it was, so the buzz went, a difficult movie about a genius, created by a difficult genius. A kind of Matrix for would-be intellectuals, the no-budget film was a hit with young cineasts after a guerrilla marketing campaign in which New York lampposts and sidewalks were covered with Pi stickers. Some fans of the movie imagined its creator to be as neurotic and brilliant as Pi's manic hero, Max Cohen: Rumors floated that here was a very smart, very cocky young man, a wayward genius so arrogant that people left meetings in tears.

Now 31, the Harvard-educated Aronofsky has generated a sizable reputation for both egomania and divine inspiration. With the release last year of Requiem for a Dream, he's beginning to generate a reputation for cinematic excruciation as well. (At the same time, he's gotten the ultimate mainstream nod: Warner Bros. has chosen him to direct the next film of the wilting Batman franchise.) Adapted from the 1978 novel by cult writer Hubert Selby Jr., Requiem traces the crack-up of four addicts--Harry Goldfarb (Jared Leto), his widowed mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn), his homeboy and his girlfriend. The three young uns score a very potent strain of heroin while Sara obsesses over TV and diet pills.

While Requiem is descended from postwar "social-problem" films such as The Lost Weekend (1945) and Asphalt Jungle (1950) and strung-out New York melodramas like The Panic in Needle Park (1971), the movie takes these grim genres and energizes them with a visual style akin to Godard and MTV. The movie makes promiscuous use of split screens, fish-eye lenses, rapid cutting, sudden tempo shifts and mad montage--including a sequence with boiling junk and a dilating eyeball that accompanies each scene of shooting up. As with Pi's kinetic techno soundtrack, hip-hop and electronica drive the film. Although it lacks the stark visual signatures of Pi--marked by the bold contrasts of black-and-white reversal film stock--Requiem shows maturity in both its cinematography and its performances (e.g., Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for her supporting role).

Requiem received a five-minute standing ovation at its Cannes Film Festival debut. Although reviews were mixed--the Dallas Observer named it a top-10 film of 2000--The New York Times hit on one of Requiem's most curious qualities: Aronofsky "is in as much of a junky delirium as his characters. It's obvious to say that moviemaking is his high, but it's also undeniable."

"There's definitely an audience for punk movies," Aronofsky says. "An audience that enjoys its movies black, with no cream or sugar. They want it straight up."

Aronofsky describes his Brooklyn neighborhood, Manhattan Beach, as looking like the row houses in the credit sequence of All in the Family. The director grew up the son of two teachers in this Jewish and Italian enclave next to Brighton Beach and two miles from Coney Island. As a kid, he had no special interest in making movies and was drawn instead to black-and-white photography and, by high school, to writing "angst-filled teen-age prose." He was neither a cinema nut nor a bookworm. But other influences developed. A friend's older brother introduced him to The Twilight Zone when he was 10 or 11, which played after midnight. "Every single Wednesday," he says, "I'd set the alarm to wake me up at 12:15 and sneak down to the TV and watch it without my parents knowing." While other kids in school did biographical reports on Thomas Jefferson and Abe Lincoln, he put one together on Rod Serling.

Another early hero was Bill Cosby, whose 1960s comedy albums Aronofsky listened to incessantly through his junior high years. "His sense of story structure and the way he set up jokes was a very big influence on me. I used to memorize and repeat his monologues to friends." Cosby's wry tales sketched an urban world similar to Aronofsky's. "He wasn't the guy who told jokes--he'd tell stories that had the payoff of a big joke at the end."

His early influences came from TV and old records, he says, partly because Brooklyn didn't have an art house. He went to Spielberg and Lucas films and relied on humbler venues. "I think one year, 1978, it was 'The 78 Cent Theatre'; in 1979, it was 'The 79 Cent Theatre.' It was a second-run, double-bill theater. But if you think about all the films in the '70s, we were really blessed, because they were basically art films. I remember going to see The First Great Train Robbery and The Brink's Job as a double bill--and both those films, if they were released today, would be considered independent art films."

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Scott Timberg