You can call Darren Aronofsky many things, but what you can’t call him is unambitious. From a stylized depiction of a mathematician’s gradual descent into madness to a story of one man’s love and loss that traverses across a millennium to an unrelenting journey into the life-or-death stakes of the perfect ballet performance, Aronosky’s work has tackled an array of subjects that all bear his stamp: a pursuit of perfection shared unmistakably between himself and his characters.
Even when the reach of his ambitions has exceeded his grasp, Aronofsky has always made films that bear the mark of a director unwilling to compromise, for better or worse. His latest, Noah, no doubt represents his most enterprising reach yet. At once an epic Hollywood spectacle and a fable updated to deal with fears of an impending environmental apocalypse, Noah is a strange and enticing combination of big budget studio fodder and bewildering yet beautiful gestures of visionary auteurism.
So here’s some free film school (for fans and filmmakers alike) from the guy who made 3.14159 cool again.
The Body is a Medium
“Wrestling some consider the lowest art—if they would even call it art—and ballet some people consider the highest art. But what was amazing to me was how similar the performers in both of these worlds are. They both make incredible use of their bodies to express themselves.”
While Aronofsky’s films exhaustively explore the subjective worlds of his characters – from the psyches of drug addicts to harried visions of a would-be boat builder – he also realizes these worlds in overtly physical, embodied ways. Aronofsky’s films are often demanding trials for his actors and discomfiting experiences for his audiences.
But through his exploration of various bodies and what they are capable of doing, he finds the affective center of his characters. It’s a type of filmmaking that connects the psychology of the characters to the filmmaker and, by extension, to the audience.
Let the Story Dictate the Form
“Early on, I was very observant of film’s rules. Now I realize that audiences don’t care about that. They just want stories…My whole thing is that the story dictates the visual style, as opposed to Alejandro Jodorowsky or Wes Anderson, where their strong style is part of every story they tell.”
In Tad Friend’s excellent story on the making of Noah for March 17th’s The New Yorker, Aronofsky explains to the journalist the major differences between his first three features and his more recent three, as well as the evident stylistic rupture that took place between The Fountain and The Wrestler.
Aronofsky left his symmetrical, mathematic approach to framing and composition in favor of a realist, handheld aesthetic this side of the Dardenne brothers when making The Wrestler. Now, instead of imposing his style on the work, he lets the work dictate the style, and thus explores a range of formal possibilities (even combining past and present styles) when the story clearly needs it.
The Real Moment Exists Between Action and Cut
Aronosfky explains to Danny Boyle that rare moment of forgetting you’re on a movie set, when the image of the film comes forth despite all the distractions around you. He was even more explicit about this aspect of filmmaking in the New Yorker piece, explaining the draw of filmmaking the way a character from Requiem for a Dream might talk about drug use:
“The closest I get to the unconscious is between ‘Action!’ and ‘Cut!’ When the actor is in the Michael Jordan zone, dunking high above the rim in super-high resolution, I become aware of what the camera is shooting without seeing my screen—I’m in the movie, feeling what the audience will feel. And then, after ‘Cut!,’ the reality of limited time and money floods back, and I think, Fuck, can I get another hit before I’ve got to leave?”
Bring the Story to the Audience’s Doorstep
Many of Aronofsky’s characters are not inherently relatable. These are eccentric, obsessive characters living in highly specialized worlds and subcultures. While Aronofsky has now turned to the Bible for what is perhaps his most universally accessible story yet, he still has to surmount the inherent distance between Noah’s world and the audience’s.
He is, as ever, invested in making the idiosyncratic or exceptional story somehow accessible and relatable to his audience. For a filmmaker with a pronounced visual style and a penchant for tackling difficult subjects, he sure isn’t interested in alienating the people who venture into his films.
Do Another One
Some Ideas are Simply Incompatible with Hollywood
“Toss out everything everything you can imagine about Batman! Everything! We’re starting completely anew.”
Many as-yet-unproduced Aronofsky projects have floated around Hollywood, making headlines on your local movie news site/rumor mill. The most notorious of which is probably his Batman: Year One project, which sought at one point to realize a homeless Batman – a true Aronofskyan outsider if there ever were one.
With Noah, Aronofsky contended with the studio system and ultimately won, releasing a film that he fully endorses as his vision. But Aronofsky, whether making a grassroots indie or a nine-figure would-be Hollywood blockbuster, has the same uncompromising approach. He’s a true indie no matter the mode he’s working in.
We need filmmakers like this. Yet they also demonstrate exactly the creative parameters that a studio mode of filmmaking can and cannot handle.
Numerous testimonies from actors and journalists have repeatedly asserted that Aronofsky is surprisingly unlike his characters in an everyday sense. Where his protagonists are often broken, obsessive loners, Aronofsky is reportedly a talkative social butterfly. Where his characters are introspective and brooding, Aronofsky is jovial and colorful. Unlike many an auteur, rarely are Aronofsky’s characters stand-ins for himself or his own biographical preoccupations. The filmmaker sees cinematic storytelling as a way to connect with people and ideas that are thematically interesting, and that have perhaps been underexplored elsewhere in movies. Filmmaking for Aronofsky is not a mode of exorcism, but a vehicle for experience.
At the same time, it’s also abundantly clear that there is one area in which Aronofsky is unquestionably aligned with his characters, where he becomes obsessive and prone to introspection, and that’s through the filmmaking process. Based on the words of actors and journalists, it’s evident that Aronofsky approaches filmmaking with a clear vision that will not be shaken until it’s realized in full. Aronofsky’s protagonists, then, are very much like him in this singular aspect: their own obsessions mirror his approach to filmmaking itself.