Directors’ trademarks is a series of articles that examines the “signatures” that filmmakers leave behind in their work. In this installment, with the release of Mother!, we’re looking at the trademark style and calling signs of Darren Aronofsky as director.
Darren Aronofsky trained as a field botanist after high school. As part of his studies, he embarked on a backpacking trip across Europe and the Middle East. This inspired him, and he decided to attend Harvard, eventually graduating with a degree in film studies. He then went on to the American Film Institute to study directing. In 1997, he released his first feature film, the low-budget Pi. This film was well received by critics, and Aronofsky won the best director award at Sundance. Due to the success of his debut, he was offered the opportunity to make another film with a larger budget. That film became Requiem for a Dream, which was released in 2000. Requiem was again well received by critics, and made money at the box office.
After several production delays, his next film as director was released in 2004. The Fountain received mixed reviews, and was a flop in theaters. 6 years later, Aronofsky released his next film, The Fighter. Initially, it did not receive much recognition, but after winning the most prestigious award at the Venice film festival, critics began to take notice. That critical acclaim translated to box office success, becoming Aronofsky's most successful film yet. Later that same year, Aronofsky released Black Swan, which was also a hit with critics. The film would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and Best Director. Black Swan became a blockbuster hit in theaters. His next film was 2014’s Noah, a big-budget interpretation of the biblical story. The film was well received by critics, but not to the same extent as his previous works. Noah did find a lot of success at the box office. Aronofsky’s latest film is Mother!, which releases in theaters today.
So the question posed is, if you are watching a Darren Aronofsky film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Aronofsky’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:
Warning - This article contains spoilers!
Obsessively Destructive Protagonists
Despite tackling such diverse topics as drug use, artistic devotion, a Biblical tale, and the afterlife, Aronofsky’s films are best described as character studies. They are fiercely devoted to the main protagonist, who is obsessed with something. This obsession causes them to push themselves towards the brink, with often disastrous results. This is what drives Aronofsky’s films, the conflict between what the main character wants to achieve and the limitations or sacrifices associated with achieving this goal. More importantly, Aronofsky’s characters are aware of the destructive path on which they are travelling. In this way, his characters aren’t necessarily at the mercy of fate or subject to the typical hardships of life’s journey. Instead, they embrace the challenges awaiting them, even if they will never be able to overcome those challenges. Their obsession then becomes something that taunts them psychologically. They knowingly harm themselves in order to try and reach a dream that will always remain just outside of their grasp.
In Requiem for a Dream, the main characters are drug addicts. They all have dreams of doing something with their lives, yet are never able to transcend their conditions to achieve those dreams. Instead, the dreams themselves are what keeps them going. They become obsessed with the “what ifs” of life, rather than what is actually happening. The psychological impact of recognizing the fact that they will never achieve their fantasies is what keeps them addicted. In The Wrestler, the main character seeks glory in a wrestling ring. While pursuing this dream, he suffers a heart attack. He is told that he will never be able to wrestle again because of his health, so he retires. Removed from the sport however, he soon finds the wrestling ring calling to him again. In Black Swan, the main character is a ballerina who wants to earn the role of the Black Swan, the main part in a production. Yet this part comes with certain lofty expectations and resulting stresses. She sees the impact that this has had on past dancers, yet shrugs off their breakdowns as inadequacies. Once she starts to see the sacrifice that the role requires, she is too far along to give up.
First-Person Editing Techniques
Aronofsky uses kinetic editing techniques to evoke the perspectives of his characters. Since his films revolve so heavily around those characters, it is important that the audience understands what they are going through as clearly as possible. The best way to do this, it to essentially put the audience into the shoes of his characters. To accomplish this, Aronofsky uses a lot of first person perspectives and close-up shots. In The Wrestler and Black Swan, the camera is following behind the characters as they prepare for their performances. This helps the audience to get a sense of the environment around them. In first person perspective, we see Nina in Black Swan practicing. The camera swirls around, and then flashes back to her face with an uncomfortable expression. We see the struggle she is putting herself through in first-person. We begin to understand her physical pain as well as the emotional impact.
In Requiem for a Dream, Aronofsky splits the screen into two different shots of a sequence. He uses this split perspective to illustrate a separation between the characters on each side of the screen despite a physically close proximity. He uses this technique between the main character and his mother, and the main character and his girlfriend. This shows the impact that drugs have had on both of these relationships. In the same film, Aronofsky uses quick cuts to demonstrate the effects of taking drugs. The pacing of the film picks up as the drug use occurs, simulating the uncontrollable toll that the narcotics are having on the characters. At the same time, the picture is uncomfortable. Not only is the story difficult, but Aronofsky's unsettling camera work helps to hit home the harsh reality of drug addiction.
Horror Movie Tendencies
As Aronofsky's characters tend to become psychologically distressed, his movies come to resemble horror movies. Not only does he investigate psychological terror, but the films have other horror aspects as well. In Pi, for instance, there is body horror. The main character hears a ringing inside his head, and he is unable to bear it any longer. He ultimately decides to perform surgery on himself with a drill. In The Fountain, the conquistador storyline finds a man searching for the fountain of youth. His quest ends in success, but not in the way he envisioned. He misinterprets immortality for new life, and literally finds trees sprouting through his body in a painfully disturbing death.
The most frightening aspect of Aronofsky’s films is something that we have already touched upon. It is the fact that the things his characters want the most end up being the things that do the most harm to them. Indeed, in all of his films, Aronofsky works to create an impending sense of doom. In Noah, the coming flood is known, and it drives the main character's actions. However, even when they are safe on Noah’s arc, the danger remains. In Black Swan, Nina loses her sanity. She becomes unable to control herself, having committed completely to her role. The role of the black swan ends in self-sacrifice, and by becoming the Black Swan herself, Nina shares her fate with the character she portrays.
Expressionism is a method by which an artist offers a skewed perspective of the world around them in order to create or evoke a certain emotion. On film, Aronofsky uses the visual texture to express moods to the audience. Pi is a great example. The entire film is black and white, but the cinematography is murky, at best. The picture is never clear, or stable, or in any position for the audience to feel comfortable. Aronofsky’s goal is to show the chaos and unpredictability of the universe. The main character is trying to find a mathematical method to make sense of it all. He essentially wants to make everything black and white. Yet, as the film illustrates through visuals, the attempt to define everything in a simple manner only makes it more complicated and uncertain.
The Fountain also features a good share of expressionist visualization and structure. The film features several separate storylines which are never confirmed to be related, despite a few connections. As the story unfolds, we’re never sure which storyline is reality or imagination. The central storyline tackles the uncertainty of death, with the most realistic plot line featuring a woman who has accepted the implication of her terminal illness. This serves as a foil to the other storylines, where we see a desperation to defeat death. These alternate storylines are presented in a beautiful, fantastical nature, as if Aronofsky is inviting his audience to get caught up in the hope, yet never lets us forget the cold reality of life.
Consistency in Sound and Vision
Both in front of and behind the camera, Aronofsky has worked with certain people on several occasions. His most frequent collaborations are with his cinematographer and music composer. All of his films have scores that are composed by Clint Mansell. Mansell’s music starts with a foundation of strings, and then adds in electronic instruments. His music gives Aranofsky’s films a swelling, almost tense feel that goes along with their horror-like tendencies. Likewise, all of Aronofsky’s films except The Wrestler share cinematography by Matthew Libatique. Libatique focuses on maintaining a naturally-lit picture. Examples include the sunset contrasting in Noah, and the glowing star and candle light sequences in The Fountain. Libatique is also known for being able to adapt his style to the requests of his director. With Aronofsky’s films, he only uses one type of camera for an entire shoot, giving each picture as much consistency in picture as possible.
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