Logline: Based on the novel by Hubert Selby, Jr., it follows the exploits of junkie Harry Goldfarb, his television-obsessed mother, his wannabe drug dealer friend Tyrone, and his cocaine-addicted girlfriend as their lives spiral out-of-control as a result of their respective addictions.

I’ve never understood people who go to movies demanding to be entertained. There are too many people I’ve encountered who haven’t liked a movie because it made them feel bad or scared them or disgusted them or asked them to relate to horrible people, as if the sole reason to visit the cineplex is to come out feeling positive and chipper. To these people I tend to exclaim the following:

Art isn’t about entertainment. Art is about catharsis.

If that catharsis evokes a sense of entertainment, then that’s great, but that’s not its purpose. Art educates, art inspires, art makes you feel, art makes you think, art makes you laugh. It purifies your emotions, lays them out raw and asks you to examine them. That movie made you feel bad? Good. That’s what it was meant to do. This one made you howl with laughter? Fantastic. Hopefully it was intended as a comedy. But if you go to a movie solely to be entertained, I fear you just don’t get it. I do understand not wanting to see something that bring you down with it, because that takes a strength of spirit we all possess but often ignore, but if you just give in, you will realize it will be worth it, and I truly believe you will be a better person for having that experience. Life isn’t all fun and games, and art isn’t about escapism. It can be, but it’s not a requirement. So just take some time out of your life to have such experiences.

This movie, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, tears you apart inside. It drags you down into the pit of despair felt by its four major characters, and no matter how much you struggle, you can’t break free. It’s a must-see for everybody, especially teenagers, but it’s a tough movie. Believe me, I know firsthand. It fucks up your day. It was the oddest choice I’ve ever had for a birthday movie, but I saw it right when I turned 18, and since it was “Not Rated” after Darren Aronofsky and Artisan rejected the “NC-17” rating handed down from the MPAA, I had to be 18 to see it. And man, the movie hurt. If you’ve seen it, you know what I’m failing to describe. I’ve always used what I read Aronofsky say in an Entertainment Weekly article from ten years ago, where he described it as jumping out of a plane, halfway down you realize you forgot your parachute, and the film ends five minutes after you hit the ground.

Or…here’s a better quote from the director’s commentary. (Yes, I technically watched it twice, as I wanted to get Aronofsky’s perspective, and I figured that I had already fucked up my Wednesday, so why fuck up my Thursday as well?)

“It’s about the lengths people go to escape their reality. And that when you escape your reality, you create a hole in your present. Because you’re not there. You’re chasing a pipe dream or the future. And then you’ll use anything to fill that vacuum. So it doesn’t matter if it’s coffee, if it’s tobacco, if it’s TV, if it’s heroin, if it’s ultimately hope, you’ll use anything to fill that hole. And when you feed the hole, just like the hole on [Harry’s] arm, it’ll grow and grow and grow…until, eventually, it will devour you.”

Sounds like a blast, no? It’s absolute hell to watch. And I became petrified of this movie, knowing that I could never watch it again unless I had a very valid reason to do so. I understood the concept of art as catharsis, but I’m not sure if I had ever encountered something this harsh at the time. And when I heard the Clint Mansell/Kronos Quartet score anywhere, from the Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers trailer to student films from college (where I’m afraid to say the score is overused to a considerably poor effect), I would actually freak out inside. It’s that evocative.

And so I only watched the film again when I showed my wife the film, and now I watched it a third time as a part of this project. And the third time hurt just as much as the first. But during my third time, I was no longer afraid of it. It’s painful, it’s impossible to feel good afterwards, but I finally welcomed in these feelings with open arms. Because I know that even the third time around, I was still learning. And the film teaches us by letting us hit rock bottom along with the characters. It’s a film that tells us, in no uncertain terms, that everybody has a fix, and anything in our lives can be that fix. It’s about how we struggle for connection, only to realize that even if we’re in the same room, touching each other, we’re each in our own selfish world. It’s about how addiction allows us to lose ownership of our bodies, as the sins of the characters take on physical manifestations, and as the film ends, each of the four has reverted back to the fetal position.

I was always aware of this fact, but it’s truer now than it ever was before in my mind — this is one of the most well constructed American movies of the last 20 years. Everything has meaning, every single nuance and camera trick and transition and CG flourish. (The last one especially is a major surprise if you listen to the commentary track and learn how many computer-generated effects there are, many of which are straight-up invisible.) This is a movie made out of the love of art, of emotion, of telling a true story, made completely free from the studio system. Much like his previous film Pi (which, yes, I still personally prefer), its strength is in its unflinching subjectivity, and it makes me want to finally delve into the writings of Hubert Selby, Jr. I have a copy of Last Exit to Brooklyn sitting not 20 feet from me, and I need to crack it open, read it, and then put in a request at the Seattle Public Library for a copy of Requiem. I think I want to finally buy the soundtrack, plus the redone orchestral version they made soon after. I think I’m finally ready for all of this. And I’m no longer afraid.

Darren Aronofsky understands catharsis. I don’t care if you don’t. Well, not entirely.

Free-Floating Thoughts

  • Now, more so than ever, it’s an undeniable fact that Julia Roberts robbed Ellen Burstyn of a Best Actress Oscar in 2001. Watch Ellen here, then watch Julia in Erin Brockovich. There is absolutely no contest.
  • Marlon Wayans hasn’t done enough to prove that his incredible work in this film wasn’t just a fluke, and that’s truly disappointing.
  • As a big fan of My So-Called Life, I’ve always enjoyed the work of Jared Leto, but to be honest, I’m glad he’s decided to dedicate himself to being a rock star instead. His shtick was wearing a little thin.
  • I’ve always been appreciative that everybody who had a major role in Pi shows up somewhere in this movie. It shows loyalty.
  • My favorite line this time around? “I love you, Harry. You make me feel like a person.”
  • I know Keith David is an incredible talent with decades of acting and voice work under his belt. But other than being the voice of Spawn, I can’t help but remember his role as Big Tim, and the close-up of his lips as he utters, “Showtime.”
  • The film’s overture gets stuck in my head like nobody’s business, to the point where if anything is happening that fits into two syllables, I insert it into the score. i.e. “Reading. Reading reading. Reading reading. Readingreadingreadingreadingreading reading…”
  • You want to unsettle yourself? The website for the film is still up and running. Go get lost in it. www.requiemforadream.com

On The Lighter Side…

I know this sounds messed up, but I have to say it. Whenever my two cats, Calliope and Marlowe, are sitting close while facing opposite directions, my wife will not hesitate to exclaim, “Asssssssss to assssssss,” said as disgustingly as it is said in Marion’s orgy scene during the film’s climax. It’s one of those situations that make me laugh and cringe at the same time.