What If You Don’t Tell Me A Story?
The reviews for Darren Aronofsky’s film ‘Mother!’ caused an uproar – among audiences mostly, not critics, who quickly saw how the director had set out his stall. But in a time when Victorian linearity and 20th century realism still rule in literature, film and theatre the fuss was to be expected.
At the start of the 20th century, photography robbed art of the need for linear narrative, splitting the form into abstraction, modernism and surrealism. But although the same thing was expected to happen to literature (see various entries in my upcoming Book of Forgotten Authors) it did not. This was partly because literature was not affected by technology. Even now with electronic reading, a book is a book.
The traditional narrative forms stayed with us. And most films and plays, like books, still have a beginning, a middle and an end, and feature recognisable archetypes. This even intensified from Victorian times to the present; we like facts, and love books that blur the lines between fact and fiction. Why else are there so many biographical films?
But every so often something comes along that doesn’t play by the rules. Luis Bunuel and David Lynch built careers on surrealistic but strangely logical narratives, Monty Python effectively destroyed comedy by creating jokes without punchlines. Fellini introduced surreal films suggestive of purely emotional states, like ‘Roma’ and ‘City of Women’. Roman Polanski made ‘What?’, a film that plays out in a dream state, and James Ivory made ‘Savages’, an allegory about the rise and fall of mankind set over one day and night in the 1920s.
But one of the bravest and wonkiest films to adopt this approach was ‘Synecdoche New York’ by Charlie Kaufman. In this, theatre director Caden Cotard is mounting a new play. Armed with a MacArthur grant, he is determined to create a piece of brutal realism and honesty, so he gathers an ensemble cast into a warehouse in Manhattan and directs them in a celebration of the mundane, instructing them to live out their constructed lives in a mock-up of the city outside – which in turn becomes real. ‘The film is either a masterpiece or a massively dysfunctional act of self-indulgence and self-laceration’, said the Guardian. Expensive and more than a little impenetrable, it flopped.
But ‘Mother!’, although allegorical and non-realistic, seems to me to have a clear and obvious point in line with virtually all of Aronofsky’s other films. The drama is set in an American Gothic house lovingly restored by Jennifer Lawrence, where she lives with poet Xavier Bardem. Here, her happiness, privacy and home is invaded and ruined by his friends just as she falls pregnant with his child.
Every shot of the film is either tight in on Lawrence or presents her point of view. There are surreal touches throughout; a squirming thing jammed down the loo, a beating heart within the walls, a bleeding gash in the floorboards. Then things get really strange as the poet is mobbed by hysterical fans and Lawrence is first marginalised, then ignored and condemned. Problematically, by the time we reach an apocalypse, Aronofsky is repeating himself, massively overstating his case to hammer home the point about his archetypes – and that’s what they are, god and human, Adam & Eve (played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer), Cain and Abel – and long-suffering Woman.
It’s certainly not a hard film to understand and is very involving, so why were half the audience members in my row on their phones during the film (this was at BAFTA, the home of the supposed phone-shunning cineaste)? I think it’s fairly clear that many people either never encountered or lost touch with non-realistic fare, to the point where they simply have no idea how to process what they’re seeing.
Maybe they’ll have to learn, because the times we’re living in encourage more disconnection and strangeness in the arts.