I'm the sort who believes in spoiling pretty much everything about a film. The way I see it, if a film can't withstand a spoilerific review then the film is ultimately probably not worth the time. So if you don't want the new Aronofsky film spoiled don't read the rest of this links-for-the-weekend post.
The way films are received at major festivals, most of which date back to the 1960s and ’70s (Venice, one of the oldest, celebrated its 74th anniversary this year), dictates how independent and prestige titles will be positioned for the rest of the year. That positioning will then influence the Oscars, which govern in turn the types of films that get made and celebrated. While most big film festivals are built on good intentions, the atmosphere around them has become oddly reductive. The same tightly knit group of critics gushes over the same dozen or so films, while ignoring movies that have no star power or a guarantee of later wide release. Sometimes this hype fails spectacularly: The Birth of a Nation was met at Sundance with standing ovations, only to wind up generating more controversy than box office dollars or awards nominations. [emphasis added] And for every wave of breathless hype, there are strong films that fall through the cracks, either because their premise is unsexy or the performances are workmanlike. A United Kingdom, a superior historical drama about race relations, arrived in theaters without much fanfare months after its Toronto premiere. It was too straightforward and understated to leave a mark in a festival environment where strong impressions are everything.
Telluride, Venice, and Toronto are the most egregious offenders of a culture that values hype over quality. Summer blockbusters needn’t rely on effusive praise to drum up hype, but festival attendees suggest that medium-sized films practically depend on them. The trailer for La La Land, which screened at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, informed us that it was "A Musical Masterpiece," "Soaring and gorgeous," and that "They don't make movies like this anymore." You have to wonder if those critics blush at those quotes now, especially after the multiple backlashes that followed the movie’s anointment as a presumptive Best Picture winner. The reverse effect—an overhyped movie that turns out to be a fiasco—is even more maddening. There were breathless reports about Ben Wheatley’s violent action comedy Free Fire after its premiere at Toronto in 2016, and it ended up being one of the dullest, most meandering films of 2017. The theatrical reviews of The Beguiled roundly criticized Sofia Coppola’s decision to excise a female slave from the original novel—something the glowing reviews out of its Cannes premiere rarely saw fit to mention.
With La-La Land there were the controversies about the "mansplaining" of jazz and a few other things, but since I generally make a point of never watching fictional narratives in film that purport in any way to be about music I never bothered to watch the film. I don't plan to catch mother! either.
But ... it's interesting to read about the film, particularly since one of the pieces about it has proposed that it's symptomatic of a potential problem in criticism these days, "explainer culture".
With the release of mother!, though, I fear that we find ourselves at a crossroads. Here stands a movie that revels in its allegorical power, a film that laughs at single-minded interpretation and objective truth. Why, then, are we scrambling to explain it to people? Why are people scrambling to have it explained? Are we now to a point where we have begun to reject the notion of art being different things to different people? Has the death of the author led not to the embracing of personal points of view but rather the birth of the explainer?
These are reasonable questions given the speed with which these articles hit the web. A person who saw mother! on opening weekend already had options for where to turn for an explanation of the film. They could go to Collider, The Telegraph, Vanity Fair, ScreenRant, or IndieWire, among many others. After watching one of the richest, most layered allegorical exercises in modern popular cinema, an audience member is just a few clicks away from finding out everything that they could want to know, never needing to work a single synapse under their own power.
There's no shortage of attempts to explain what the film is supposed to be an allegory about. There's plenty of talk about what the film is purportedly about but the camps are basically two-fold: spoilery and non-spoilery discussions. The critics who don't want to spoil the film tend to be the sorts of critics I find hard to take seriously. For that kind of film critic I might suggest that these are the sorts of people whose primary commitment as film critics is to the priestcraft of criticism as a sacred rite rather than telling prospective audiences whether they might want to watch the film. And yet the complaint above that film criticism and television criticism may have devolved in a post-Inception scene to over-explaining everything might still be a good point; it may also be instructive that whether or not the masses even bother to go watch Aronofsky's film the film critics as the veritable priests of the religion of cinema still get to do their thing. If anything the great obstacle to such unfettered allegorical musing may not come from the public but from the director himself, who keeps insisting on explaining what the film is supposed to mean.
Love Darren Aronofsky’s mother! or hate it, and you will have plenty of company either way, it’s a movie worth thinking and talking about. At The Film Stage, Brian Roan rails against the attempts to decode its meaning as a pernicious outgrowth of “explainer culture,” in which art is approached as a puzzle to be solved rather than a mystery to be pondered, but one of the things that’s exhilarating about the movie is the multitude of plausible but apparently incompatible interpretations it’s spawned. Is it an ecological allegory, with Javier Bardem as an absent-minded god and Jennifer Lawrence as a frazzled Mother Earth? A horror movie about egocentric male artists and the women who thanklessly support them? Or are Bardem and Lawrence playing two halves of the creative psyche, he the public-facing glory hound, she the tender of fragile ideas? Maybe it’s about gaslighting, or the trauma of unwanted houseguests, or what a shitty partner Aronofsky was to Rachel Weisz. Or the Bible? (Definitely the Bible.)
Mother! is evocative enough to sustain all these explanations and more. But there is one person who needs to stop explaining what Mother! is about, and that person is its writer-director, Darren Aronofsky.
In the buildup to Mother!’s release, Aronofsky kept mum about the movie’s subject, and Paramount’s marketing followed suit. (The “F” grade the film received from the audience-rating service CinemaScore is a good gauge of how little theatrical audiences knew what they were in for.) But since its premiere, he has scarcely been able to keep his mouth shut. Aronofsky has been vague about minor details like why the title’s “M” is lowercase or what the yellow tincture is that Lawrence keeps pouring into her water glass, but he’s talked at length, if not always consistently, about the film as a parable of climate change and impending environmental catastrophe—an issue that frequently engages Aronofsky in his time between films. As the New York Times summarizes it:
“Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet. (Walking the wooden floorboards in bare feet is what finally got the part to click, Ms. Lawrence said.) The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.
Mother’s plot draws heavily on the Bible: Ed Harris’ character, identified in the credits as Man, shows up alone, then manifests a wound where his rib might once have been; he’s followed by Michelle Pfeiffer’s Woman, and then by their two sons, one of whom kills the other. But there’s no Biblical analogue for Lawrence’s character, and Aronofsky, who is not religiously observant, has played down the Biblical parallel as more of a structural gimmick than an end in itself. [emphasis added] That goes too for what seem to be its unavoidably autobiographical elements, which Bardem’s poet neglects his wife while catering to the adulation of his fans, whom he can’t bear to turn away even as his long-suffering wife begs for a little piece and quiet. “The fame stuff is purely a side effect,” he told IndieWire’s Anne Thompson. “When I was writing I wasn’t seeking comment about that, it was about the allegorical sense of worship.”
A structural gimmick rather than an end in itself? Couldn't that come off as "cultural appropriation" if this were some topic besides religion? This will keep coming back up as we go. But let's get back into this piece:
Humans being fallible creatures, artists’ explanations of the work they intended to make are often more intriguing than the work itself. But one hallmark of great art is that it’s about more than its creators intended, or at least that it allows people other than the artist(s) to find their own meaning in it. To his credit, Aronofsky isn’t shutting down alternate interpretations of his movie, but he also can’t resist providing his own: He’s like a magician so pleased with his own trick he can’t wait to show you how it’s done.
Besides indulging the intentional fallacy, Aronofsky’s willingness to provide a decoder ring for his own movie robs its of its richness, and tying it to a single overriding theme exposes, or even creates, flaws in its overall schema. If Bardem is God and Lawrence is Gaia, then what are we to make of God’s vanity, his lust for adulation and his willingness to ignore his greatest creation’s cries for help? (What are the Judeo-Christian God and a pagan personification even doing in the same story?) Doesn’t it undermine the movie’s environmental message to suggest that our present earth is only the latest in an apparently infinite cycle of creation and destruction? Even more than the holes in its plot, the narrow parsing of Mother! as an ecological fable doesn’t account for its off-the-wall style [emphasis added], its free mixture of horrific and comic tones, or the bravura complexity of Lawrence’s performance. (According to Aronofsky, fully 66 of its 115 minutes are a close-up of her face.) Aronofsky’s description of Mother! is a lot duller than the movie he actually made.
If one of the sacred tenets of the religion of film and film criticism were to be presented in its baldest form it's that the film-maker can explain what he or she intends the film to be about but you're not supposed to do so in a way that rejects the interpretations presented by the film critics. After all, if they're venerating the film by dint of giving it their attention (i.e. entertaining it as entertainment serious enough to be considered) then you're not supposed to give them a checklist of things the film "must" mean. Aronofsky might be in danger of insisting that what the oracle at Delphi has handed down doesn't need priestly interpretation. But if he wanted to create a parable about the earth then it seems people have come to different interpretations. The reason may be simple, when you have generations of custom that permit the film critic to assert over against the director's statements that the film means X rather than Y you can't change that. We're getting a Blade Runner sequel and Ridley Scott's Deckard-is-a-replicant account of the film flies in the face of Ford's understanding of his own performance, Dick's intention regarding his own story, and the aims of the screenwriter. There's a point at which what the director claims the film has to be about just has nothing to do with the finished product. And so ...
Richard Brody says the film mother! is a satirical allegory about fame that is a meta-cinematic musing:
“Mother!” is Aronofsky’s reckoning with the struggles and temptations of the life of an artist, but it isn’t a work of autobiography or a self-portrait. It is, rather, a satire on a syndrome and also a self-scourging confession, not of any actual misdeeds or abuses but of possibilities—a self-cautionary tale that doesn’t have to be rooted in stories to which Aronofsky had unique or privileged access, because it’s the hyper-exaggerated version of stories that more or less everybody knows, even if only from their tabloid distortions. [emphasis added] Aronofsky offers, in “Mother!,” a report from the realm of art, of male artists, and both reveals and admits that many of them draw their artistic and personal sustenance from the blood of young women—that their art and also their domestic comfort depends on their virtual vampirizing of adoring young women who are attracted to their talent, their fame, their experience, perhaps even their money, but whose love is nonetheless utterly sincere and whose devotion is nonetheless utterly unselfish and ultimately proves far more self-sacrificing than they had ever intended
In Aronofsky’s vision, the destructiveness of the artist’s vanity goes hand in hand with the destructiveness of the crowd, of the individuals whose enthusiasm, whose fandom, whose fleeting or symbolic connection to the artist gives them their own toehold on the public realm, on a public identity. “Mother!” is a grand-scale tragedy of the commons, in which an artist becomes a celebrity, a public figure and a public resource, and then gets consumed by the members of the audience who draw upon them for a sort of sustenance, albeit factitious—an illusion that the artist himself fosters for his own advantage and gratification. (Aronofsky also scathingly satirizes the cold comforts of an artist’s works of faux-empathetic pride.)
Though the tone of “Mother!” is one of freakazoidal exaggeration, the film’s underlying subject—borders and boundaries—is unfolded with earnest consideration. The firmness of the boundary between an artist’s private life and public identity is one that Aronofsky imagines, in its absence, as a crucial matter of well-being for the artist, the artist’s domestic partner and family members, and for the members of the public as well (since members of the public, no less than artists, have the capacity to turn into monsters). At the same time, Aronofsky sees domestic boundaries that divide the artist from his partner—the division of domestic labor into the art and the life, the gap between the artist and his partner in matters far more important than age, namely, experience, accomplishment, worldliness, and wealth. If “Mother!” is a vision of an artist feeding vanity through love and fame, it’s also a vision of an artist feeding vanity at home through a love that has its own inequality, its own one-sidedness, built into it. [emphasis added]
As discussion has continued the man/woman, husband/wife relationship has come up as the over-riding metaphor. Someone at The New Yorker felt it was necessary to point out that if Aronofsky thinks his film is an allegory about climate change then the guy just may not understand at the most basic level what allegory even is.
Woe to the woman Darren Aronofsky casts in his next movie. What fresh tortures will he devise for her? In “Requiem for a Dream,” Ellen Burstyn got her brain fried on amphetamines and electroshock, and Jennifer Connelly was sexually abased by sleazy corporate bros. As Nina Sayers, the ballerina in “Black Swan,” Natalie Portman peeled off her own fingernails, impaled herself on broken glass, and was sexually abased by Vincent Cassel. Now, in “Mother!,” Jennifer Lawrence is not doomed by drugs or delusion. She is sane, and extravagantly punished for it: trampled, beaten, burned, and sexually abased by a crowd of fanatics who worship her husband as a god. Lest all that not suffice, Aronofsky also has Lawrence prepare an array of elaborate tarts, savory and sweet, in her farmhouse-chic kitchen, as if she were auditioning for a Nancy Meyers movie. For me, the buck stops with baked goods. If the title weren’t already taken, this film should be called “Get Out
Aronofsky’s allegorical explanation also reveals a common misunderstanding of what allegory is. Allegory gives concrete form to abstract concepts: a snake standing for envy, a toad for avarice. Climate change is anything but abstract; if you’re not already scared witless by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, I doubt that the image of Jennifer Lawrence screaming herself hoarse as pseudo-Satanists toss her newborn baby around like a crowd-surfing rock star is going to do the trick.
And whatever the allegory is supposed to mean, let's not forget that Richard Brody has insisted that once the film is out there a director has to live with the fact that a film critic can say the film is an allegory about whatever it seems fit to say it's about, the director's commentary being more or less beside the point.
There’s a special kind of movie that invites questions from viewers and answers of the sort that Aronofsky offered, W.T.F. movies in which the drama itself is utterly unclear. Alain Resnais’s “Last Year at Marienbad” is an earlier example; “Inception” and the Showtime series “Twin Peaks: The Return” are recent ones. The questions that many viewers are likely to come out with are the basic ones: What’s the story? What’s happening? Who’s doing what to whom? Who are the characters? “Mother!” is not that kind of film. Its action is clear and linear; at any given moment, the identities of the characters and their relationships to one another are clear. A woman (Jennifer Lawrence) is renovating the house that she lives in with her partner (Javier Bardem). He is a writer, and when a fan and his wife show up at the house the man welcomes them, because he welcomes the appreciation, and then he extends his welcome to an extreme but plausible extent. Then, in the second part of the film, the woman is pregnant and the man starts writing again. His book becomes a big success at exactly the point that her pregnancy is nearly at term, and, when fans arrive at their house while she’s in labor, horrific trouble ensues.
What renders “Mother!” somewhat difficult to understand isn’t its complexity but, rather, its simplicity. [emphasis added] The action is so far out front, detached from backstory or worldly complications, that the psychology of the protagonists is nearly effaced. The characters are nameless, and their identities are nearly limited to what’s seen of them on the screen. The psychological causality of the action is of a nearly mechanical, windup obviousness—but those relationships are displayed in utter isolation from context and character. Unlike in “Twin Peaks” or “Inception,” what needs explanation in “Mother!” isn’t who or what but why. Yet my feeling about asking a director what a movie’s about is the same as the response, attributed both to Louis Armstrong and to Fats Waller, that is given to a listener who asks a musician what jazz is: If you have to ask, you’ll never know.
This morning, on Twitter, someone asked me, “What was the point of the biblical references if the movie is basically about how much it sucks to be in a relationship with a male artist?,” to which my response was, “Exactly.” In other words, “Mother!” isn’t an allegory except by directorial decree. [emphasis added]
Fortunately, the movie he made is much more interesting than the one he thought he made
What we may be having a chance to rediscover, obvious point though it may be, is that directorial decree is never sufficient in and of itself to establish that a film is or isn't an allegory about what the director claims the film is about, even if the director wrote the script.
But it's Josephine Livingstone, who by her own account has read a bit of medieval literature, who highlights that Aronofsky's attempts to appropriate biblical tropes makes the film's narrative a mess. The intended allegorical level of the narrative, as stated, simply can't be squared with the literal "reading" of the plot.
Director Darren Aronofsky describes the film as an allegory which follows the relationship between masculinized God and a feminized Earth (played by Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, respectively), complete with biblical stories-within-the-story and suggestions that the Earth is not being treated as well as she deserves. That’s the story occurring on the symbolic level. On the literal level, however, the movie is about a bad marriage between a sexist husband and an oppressed wife. The clanging dissonance between these two levels of meaning—the allegorical and the literal—is what makes Mother! such a confused mess of a film. [emphasis added]
When the Mother is finally driven beyond the bounds of her tolerance and into insanity, we return to the movie’s beginning. The Poet rips her heart out. Her destruction is just one in a cycle, we see: the Poet is the cycle’s creator, and the cycle needs to happen in order for his work to be done.
Aronofsky claims that the film is a biblical allegory, and there are hints of this throughout. The most obvious clues are coded into the intruders who invade the “paradise” of the home. The doctor is an orthopedic surgeon with a ribcage wound. His wife breaks a crystal on the Poet’s shelf, which she has been forbidden to touch. They exude sex and undisclosed knowledge. Whether or not the wife sprang directly from the doctor’s own rib in a surgical setting is unclear, but it is obvious that she brings inappropriate knowledge into the house and is an Eve figure of temptation. When their sons arrive, they fight each other. The blood from their violence spreads and contaminates the Mother’s perfect floorboards.
The Poet is a God figure. He continually offers “hospitality” to the evil forces invading his home, at the expense of the safety and sanity of his wife. In an interview, Jennifer Lawrence has described how the movie “depicts the rape and torment of Mother Earth,” suggesting that the tension is between the divine spark animating humanity and the needs of the world that was created for them. By the end, the home is wrecked, Mother is destroyed, and fire comes to claim all they had built together.
According to Aronofsky and Lawrence’s statements, the Mother symbolizes paradise, and the Poet symbolizes a kind of God character who ironically facilitates the destruction of it (through climate change and other forces) by creating Man. But whatever type of lesson Aronofsky was trying to tell in exploring these deep and mythic themes, he adds a very serious layer of confusion by using a psychodrama about a marriage wracked by gender inequality as the literal level of the story. [emphasis added]
The great flaw in Mother! is structural: Aronofsky uses gender inequality, which is a social problem, as a metaphor for exploring mankind’s place in Nature, which is not—at least, not in the Biblical terms that Aronofsky claims to be working in. The director equates the destruction of paradise by mankind in the Bible with the social position of women, without acknowledging that women’s subjugation is not “naturally occurring” or God-given, but instead the result of social conditions. The symbolic story of the destruction of the Earth and the literal story of a woman suffering under patriarchy do not fit together, and Aronofsky ignores their rather glaring inconsistencies
It may be that whatever Aronofsky thought he was doing at a metaphorical level the social and relational dynamics in the character arcs have inspired a couple of women who work as journalists to say that the bad marriage narrative clashes with the invocations of the biblical narrative allusions in a way that renders the final "metaphor" too mixed to be effective. Then there's Richard Brody who just declares that the film is an allegory about the vanity of fame and that's that.
If Aronofsky wanted to make a film that directly addressed climate change as a topic he could have directed ... An Inconvenient Sequel, right? Instead he made mother!