I wouldn’t want Requiem 102 to be summarised as a celebration of Darren Aronofsky’s film. It is a forensic analysis from multiple angles. One thing that our collective dissection does is to still the film and break it down into regular increments, preserving selected frames like thinly-sliced specimens on a microscope slide. On the one hand, that allows us to focus on the paused dynamics of composition and mise-en-scene, but it does break the rhythm of the film and gives an impression of exacting advance, when the film’s most committed and successful stylistic device is its accelerating, headlong dive into a nested crush of cross-cut degradation, each character suffering a discrete but parallel indignity. In short, Requiem for a Dream gets faster and faster.Requiem 102 resists its pull by meeting spiralling formal patterns with measured responses. Maybe this is how criticism works – not by walking in empathetic step with the film text, but by stopping it in its tracks and subjecting it to a level of questioning that might be humiliating or intrusive. At least, that’s the danger. It might be that we reconstruct those fragments into an object of renewed wonder, like one of Damien Hirst’s segmented farm animals.
Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll be contributing to the renewal of wonder. I fear there is little inside Requiem for a Dream once it is stripped of the power of jolting, jerking montage effects. I find the film needling, tiresome and obvious. Generously, I might suggest that it encapsulates the junkie characteristic of being needling, tiresome and obvious and thus achieves an expressionistic mastery of form to convey its core ideas, but it’s hard to make a virtue of obviousness. It’s a parable about addiction, where the bludgeoning message is that drugs. Are. Bad. Addiction will destroy you and thwart your ambitions as surely as shot follows shot follows shot. You can no more change your fate than you can alter the ending of the film you’re watching. From the first time I saw it, I recoiled from its hip, aestheticised grimness, from Jared Leto’s mannered, would-be-winsome but actually whiny line-readings (to me, they sound like scripted attempts at improvised speech, all repetition and perfectly timed stumbles), the animatronic twitches Ellen Burstyn is made to perform, the tired and half-hearted implication of television culture in the circuit of dependency, the fussy care over everything: Aronofsky’s characters are too trammelled by style, too slavish to the mechanics of a script that seeks only to manoeuvre them into position for their final tableau of mutual defeat to ever ring true. Even when he got around to The Wrestler, when he had the golden opportunity to just let us marvel at Mickey Rourke’s storytelling physique, he had to overdetermine everything and machinate it with a wholly schematic plot, as if again seeking the kudos of gritty realism but stomping it thin with structural simplifications. Maybe he’s found more complementary material in X-Men Wolverine 2, where at least his impulse to mythicise will work in his favour for once. Revisiting Requiem for a Dream has allayed few of my suspicions about its sincerity. I still find it excessively slick and lazily jarring: it earns its reputation as a gruelling, powerful experience by the easiest routes – heightened noise, explicitly debasing sex, ultra-fast cutting, relentless repetition. I wanted to be kinder and say something about how it reminds me of Jan Svankmajer’s object montages, especially in its personification of food and domestic appliances, but my heart isn’t in such a comparison. In retrospect, I understand more clearly that it is deliberately, artfully grotesque rather than ineffectually grounded, but I question the worth of its physicalised argument against abstract nouns (i.e. “addiction”); it feels like it flatters rather than repels and re-schools poverty tourists with its sensational sensory overload.
Sorry to be the first in this critical chain letter to crumple the page, but I actively disliked this film when I saw it ten years ago and I dislike it now, if less actively. I’ll stop complaining and get around to the task in hand, which is a discussion of the frame above. Having pawned his mother’s TV, Harry and friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans, a long way from White Chicks) have scored some “boss scag” and are enjoying it, accompanied by some thumping techno (somebody out there might want to correct my identification of the music, because I’m not even hip enough to stop using the word “hip” – personally, I wish they’d turn off the techno and put on the Sonny Rollins record you can see at the far right of the frame: the cowboy homage of Way Out West would be far more transporting for our strung out protagonists). Tyrone is doing an extraordinarily supple, serpentine dance, almost cast into silhouette by the shaft of light from the window in the next room (they’re getting high in the daytime, after all, always a bad sign), and when Harry scratches the record, suspending the beat for a delicious moment, Tyrone pauses, rather like this freeze-frame, as if the two of them in perfect sync. This vignette of their daylight, drugged reverie is captured in a single fixed shot, taken from high up off the floor and at a slightly canted angle, a shift from the movement and rhythm of the preceding scenes of shifting the TV or ingesting the heroin. Soft lights pepper the frame, and piles of cushions attest to the sluggardly droop that will soon overtake them once the dance-buzz dulls. They’ve created their own shadowed space away from the scrutiny of the sunlight outside, and their bodies relax accordingly, Harry with repose, Tyrone with co-ordinated bodily flourish. It is obligatory that drugs movies (Aronofsky insists it’s not a “drugs movie”, but a broader analysis of addiction, though drugs, whether prescription or not, are really at the heart of things here) will show the joys and delights before swinging the moral cosh and doling out the punishments that come with excess. This is one of those scenes of delight. How prosaic drug-taking is, it wants you to see. Don’t we all like to listen to music and bask in its effects? Don’t we all use music as a mind-altering assist, perhaps with a coffee, a beer or a cigarette? Couldn’t we all find ourselves in a scene like this? I wish Aronofsky didn’t fight shy of letting scenes play out like this for longer. He seems worried that it’s been a while since we were treated to a variation in technique or a rapid-fire montage or a hallucination or another step towards doom. The characters get to have a little fun and relaxation without the audience being thumped with any attempt to simulate their experience. We are above it.
[Although I’ve taken up my lonely place on the hater side of the fence (where’s my half of the split screen?), I’ll be following Requiem 102 attentively. Even if it doesn’t help me warm to the film, I trust that the accretion of wise words from people I respect and admire will send me back to it with fresh eyes and ears.]