Requiem For A Dream - A Sensory Masterpiece

Thoughts On: Requiem For A Dream

A spiraling descent into tragedy following the lives of a young man, his best friend, girlfriend and mother.

I've been meaning to cover this film for a very long time, and at long last, here we are. Aronofsky is one of my favourite directors of all time and was the artist that really pulled me into film. Requiem is by far my favourite of his films. I know it sounds a little strange, me liking on of the hardest to watch films ever, but we'll get into why later. Firstly, I just want to re-assert that this is one of my favorite films of all time. It's the picture that really opened my eyes to film, not as a form of mere entertainment, but art. And it's for this reason I'm a huge fan of Aronofsky's work - I mean, my first post ever on the blog was on Pi.

It's also with this post however that I can announce a few things. Firstly, the Playlists page has been updated with more categories that make navigating through posts easier, and will help me focus on providing as wide a range of essays and explanations as possible. What I mean by this is that I can look at the 50s and compare with the 2010s to see imbalances. Moreover, I can also strive to create more playlists that focus on specific genres like romance, or specific artists like Aronofsky. On top of that though I'm opening up a new series for this film alone. I did this for Pulp Fiction and even Dumbo as it allows me to zoom into details, to analyze everything I need to about a film without creating a post tens of thousands of words long. Seeing this and the addition of Quick Thoughts, I think it's apparent that the Thoughts On blog is evolving. Hopefully for the better... but only time can tell.

So, back to Requiem For A Dream. To pick apart this film I will be focusing on the 4 main characters in reverse order of significance and then bringing everything together. That means we'll be looking into Tyrone's, Marion's, Sara's and then Harry's stories. But, before that, I want to delve into the film as a conceptual piece, something we can learn to read film in general a little better from, and, in an around about way, introduce it. Without further ado, let's go...

The style of Requiem is obvious from the get go. There's an uncanny mixture of old and new. This is probably best exemplified with the famous score by Clint Mansell (Lux Aeterna in particular). It's a blend of classical and contemporary genres that culminate in a chilling, yet fluid, pumping, moving piece that perfectly matches the intensifying pace of the film. We also see old and new in the direction. It's the fast cuts, the beating rhythm of the editing and camera movement with use of big and small images that is both timeless and contemporary. This is probably best understood through the montage sequences of addiction (drug taking in many forms). The idea of montage of course pulls way back to Eisenstein with the notorious Battle Ship Potempkin as a best example of the juxtaposition of images to imply meaning as well as insist feeling. What contemporises this is the subject matter and technology. In other words the implimence of pushing off and the use of physiological markers such as cells recepting a drug. And all of this is packaged in a crisp, bright, sound driven frame that pops off screen, that glowers - the texture and cinematography perfectly capturing the grime, the attraction, the dull and the buzz of the characters lives. The best way to clarify this is by looking at a true classic of Hitchcock's:

On top we of course have Kim Novak's eye in the opening sequence to Vertigo, with the bottom being Jennifer Connelly's. Notice how Hitchcock is in control of his frame. He dyes it red implying danger, fear, lust, blood, death. The red dye mutes the screen, intensifying shadow, reducing a human eye to something a little more like this:

The mechanicism in the frame is inherent to Novak's character as she wanders around zombie-like for a large portion of the film. Aronofsky on the other hand saturates colour, making the azure iris pop out of frame. Whereas Novak's character is blinded by fear, by an idea of death throughout Vertigo, Connelly's character, Marion, has physical control, but is a slave to urges. The eye is a very important image throughout the film because it specifies an idea of destiny in tragedy. This is all because it's quite easy to attribute the fall of our 4 characters to external forces such as upbringing, poverty and isolation, but, as is made clear throughout the film and in this image, they start with control. As a film that centres around a downward spiral, it's intriguing to guess as to where and when it all went wrong. You could say the mid-point of the film serves as the point of no return . But, in my opinion, you'd be wrong. This is definitely where things get worse, but all of these characters start off lost. They start off with fundamental flaws in their character that don't flourish, but come to effect over the course of the narrative, allowing Aronofsky to paint one of the most poignant pictures of consequence ever put to screen. It's recognising this that we can see just why the eye is so important, why the framing, the cinematography are so integral to how we see the film. Not only is there the implimence of Marion seeing clearly, of having control over her path, but there is also a sensory input provided by the audience. In short, we too watch. The eye is a symbol of experience, asking us if we can learn where she and other characters have not.

To get into this, we need to pull apart just what art is and how it works. It's likely you've heard (read) me go into this before, but in case you haven't, I'll say it again. Art is most simply a conversation between audience and artist. The words, phrasing, sentence types are all dependant on the medium you're using. For film, your vocabulary consists of colour, movement, cutting, editing, writing, acting, such and so on. In short, you are using a myriad of cinematic techniques to say specific things (we've gone into a few with the eyes above). But, conversation isn't as simple as words happening. There has to be a transmission of language - an understanding - for communication to function. What we then need to question is the space between the audience and artist - the space that 'words' must traverse. This space is quite simply an expressway. It's a fluid solution of emotion. What does this mean? It's quite simple. To produce something, a scene, shot or line, an artist must understand the feeling of it. To contextualise, we can use the opening sequence. The actors, director and writer want to convey a broken family through hostile emotions. This means that Leto and Burstyn set up an emotional power imbalance. Leto is the aggressive son with Burstyn being the passive mother. Quite simply, the emotion Leto uses is aggression with Burstyn using fear. On top of this the set is poorly lit with shadows cast, entrapping the characters. The cinematographer and director here are confining the actors, producing a hostile atmosphere by taking away spaces to escape to. Moreover, Aronofsky utilises split screen to quite simply split his characters apart. We have two sides of a story played out perfectly - and side by side, implying how close the mother and son should be, but simply can't be. To see this played out watch the opening scene with an eye for the artistic inputs of actor, director, writer and cinematographer.

What should be clear now is an idea of artistic intention. Good artists mean to say something with every stroke of their brush, with every movement, shift in the pitch of their voice, change in eye line, with every cut, every nuance of a frame, word, punctuation mark - everything. This meaning can come from an instinctual or pragmatic centre, but is always done with, by and for emotion. Producing art is almost like trying to say how you feel. With acting this is obvious, as it is with writing (though there are minute details that add nice intricacies in both). However, with visual story telling saying how you feel is quite hard as it's difficult to see a room, chair or lamp and see an emotion, to see happiness, sadness, disgust. This is because a director and cinematographer are working with inert, lifeless, unconscious entities for the most part. Humans don't have the capacity to read a chair, or beam light in the same way we do a face. But, still, a director and cinematographer must emote. They do this in two ways. They appeal to us and they imitate us. The best example I've used time and time again for the latter method is in Saving Private Ryan. Spielberg uses the camera to imitate the movement of a soldier through a battlefield. That is why everything is so emotionally intense. We feel like we are at war because we are made to feel as if we are seeing destruction, murder, bombs, tanks and guns from the perspective of a real soldier. To give another example I cite the original Alien. Throughout the film Ridley Scott uses subtle implimence to incite fear. You'll notice that there is almost always something in the foreground when characters are alone. This implies that we are hiding - that we, the camera, are the xenomorph preying upon an unknowing Ripley, Bret or Parker. Moreover, Scott emphasises this voyeuristic idea of horror with the POV shot. The most obvious would be Ripley running down the corridors, the camera taking her point of view is us, being forced to feel her terror, hoping there's nothing behind us, nothing about to jump out in front of us. We've been put in both external and internal perspectives. And it's through imitating observing bodies and central characters that Scott emotes. It's the slow movement of the camera with out of focus gadgets in the foreground that implies malevolence, something sinister. At the same time, it's the flustered, shaken camera movement coming down the corridors, that imbues us with Rilpley's fear. We can see these very techniques in Requiem for a dream - the POV especially. He uses this amongst other techniques to create a emotional and sensory attack. Before getting to that we still need to talk about you - the audience.

The ying to the yang of artistic intent is the audience's understanding. Again, we're cruising the emotional highway here. Our artist has emoted, but this is nothing more than a tree fallen in a dark, empty wood. The best directors, the best writers, the best actors all understand their audience. And who's the best at this? Well, arguably, as a director, it's currently Michael Bay. In terms of acting I think it's best to look at the likes of a John Wayne or Marilyn Monroe, but well stick with directing. Michael Bay quite obviously understands his target audience of teenage boys - just like Stephenie Meyer perfectly understands teenage girls. They know what's cool, what's enchanting, romantic, enthralling, exciting, mesmerising. This is quite easy grip in a basic sense. Teenage boys want dinosaurs, cars, soft-core porn and destruction. Teenage girls... pfff... I won't go there. If you know, congratulations. The point here is that there's surface level attractions that studios strive to innovate, replicate, capitalise on. But, knowing that teenage boys like dinosaurs doesn't mean you're going to make a billion dollars. You could probably make a killer trailer, maybe even a short, but not a feature film. You need a deeper understanding of your audience to do this long term - and I'm not ashamed to say I don't have much true insight here. You could pick apart a Michael Bay film and understand you need action sequences every 15 minutes or so, a complex plot that ensures this and a lot of shiny things to distract us from that plot, but the beats of this are Bay's art. What this all means is that one of a director's (artist's) best tools is their audience - you. This is easiest to see with horror. If I'm honest, not a great genre. Birth to present day, horror has been questionable. The best horror films aren't horror films. They are just films - in my opinion. By this, I mean to point out the likes of Repulsion and The Shining. These are fully fledged masterpieces that stand on the grounds that they are great pictures, not great movies with immense scares or great atmosphere. They have a complete package in other words. We're getting off track though. To understand how a director works with an audience it's best to look at mediocre horror films such as the Paranormal Activity series. Any franchise with 25,000 sequels is a gold mine in fact (I could easily be using Fast & Furious here). If you go into a Paranormal Activity film having seen any of the others, you know there's 30 mins of boring activities in the sunlight and day time with a cruddy well-off family. But, soon the night time footage starts to kick in as we warm up to the first strange occurrence - like... a chair... leaning... creaking... falling... thunk... over... ooooooo... creepy. And before we know it BOOOOM. BOOM. RAAAAAAGG. BOOM. And then the end sequence where bodies are accumulating, shaky, handheld cameras are darting around unfamiliar places, action rising, rising, rising, SNAPPPP. BOM. Fade to black...

An audience knows that this is what they have paid for. Guess what? So does the director, actor, writer. There's no glory hole without a willing dick and an accepting mouth. If there wasn't either you'd just have a confused creep messing with a hole in a wall. Not cool. Now, the Paranormal Activity series is a pretty standard glory hole. We know her pace, the feel of her hand, tongue, cheek. She's accustomed to the way our dick bends to the left just a little and how you have to speed up for the end with a slow soothing release to make sure we're finished to a tee. That was a bit disgusting and I'm sorry. But, you get my point. To further it, we need to imagine a comparatively good glory hole. Better still we need to imagine a surprisingly good glory hole. This is cinema in a nut (excuse the pun) shell. Everyone goes in with expectations, but hopes they are shown something new, different, exciting, original. And to be honest, our expectations are pretty low. We'll take a familiar hand as long as it's half as good as we remember, or at least tries to do something different...

... and it's there that we can drop the talk on dirty unsanitary holes you shouldn't be putting something as vulnerable as a penis in. I really am losing it today. No, Star Wars wasn't that bad - but it wasn't that good. Ok, let's wrap this bit up (this was a really mature post up until this point). By knowing what an audience wants a director can manipulate what they give. They can prolong the lead up to the jump scare, fake one, drop them completely. An artist works best when they are fooling the audience into thinking they are in control, that they have a grip on what's happening...


... before ripping the canvas out below them...

... leaving them flat out on their back and gasping for air. That doesn't mean that a director secretly has all the control. It merely means that they're part of the conversation. This isn't always a huge, obvious artist's device though. It can be as simple as the use of darkness, the glimpse of something better, when we know there's still a third act to come. Understanding that, let's, at long last, round off with Requiem For A Dream.

What makes Requiem For A Dream great is it's control over the senses through all of the discussed ideas above. It's the regimented pacing that rises perfectly, intensifies, softens, pulls back and pushes forward, hurtling constantly toward an orgasmic existential breakdown. There's the quote that needs to be on the posters: 'an orgasmic existential breakdown'.  This film hits me so hard because it literally hits me so hard. The first time I watched it, the ending had my heart pounding against my rib cage, I could feel it throbbing across my whole body, and I didn't dare breathe, I just watched and waited for the end, for the credits where I just stared. This works because my metaphorical heartbeat aligned with the pacemaking of the editing and direction of the film - and all of this work off an idea of emotion. The films I love most are the ones that have me in the palm of their hand, but also give me the opportunity to sit back and think about them afterwards. In the end this is Requiem in its entirety, utter emotional control combined with irrefutable artistic commentary.

And that's where I leave you. You know why I love the film, and I've hopefully given you some kind of tool kit to help you pick it apart, to see the way it speaks to you. Over the next few post I'll be telling you exactly what it has to say.

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