When allegorical readings close doors instead of opening them.
If you’ve spent any time on the internet at all this past week, you’ll probably have seen an article with a title that goes something like this: “What mother! REALLY means”. Or perhaps “The meaning of mother!: Darren Aronofsky explains.” Of course, most of that is clickbait, but the impulse behind it is interesting. It plays into the idea that a film needs to be explained in order to be understood or enjoyed. Darren Aronofsky, the director of mother!, would probably rescind that notion. Although, the ways in which he’s talked about the film (hiding the “true” meaning of the crystal for example) proves otherwise. The film has been marketed as one big allegory for climate change. He explains in an interview with Collider, that “the structure of the film was the Bible, using that as a way of discussing how humans have lived here on Earth. . . . I sort of wanted to tell the story of Mother Nature from her point of view.” But the problem with the author (or any critic for that matter) stating matter of factly the one true allegory, is that it excludes all the other possible readings, and even the film itself.
When we focus too much on the allegory, we’re focused on something outside of the film. We start watching the film to suit our reading, and everything that doesn’t fit neatly into that reading gets pushed to the sidelines. In his essay on the use of allegory in Children of Men, Zahid R. Chaudhary discusses the nativity symbolism in the film:
“Allegory is often didactic because it seeks to explain the inexplicable, to express a truth that may otherwise be inexpressible. […] Allegory is a paradoxical mode of figuration: while it strives for a higher truth, it simultaneously risks an abundance of meaning that reveals the actual arbitrariness of the signs that allegory presses into its service.”
For Aronofsky, this higher truth is his allegory. But it is not up to the author to decide what the meaning of a film is. Indeed, Richard Brody of “The New Yorker” wrote a blog post this week entitled “Darren Aronofsky Says “Mother!” Is About Climate Change, But He’s Wrong.” For Brody, the film’s genius is in its depiction of the male author and his struggle for fame and love. Other viewers have found the film’s politics of hospitality and its similarity to Haneke’s Funny Games a worthwhile point of entry into the film. So clearly, the allegory shouldn’t be a “one size fits all” approach to film criticism.
There are a lot of films that evoke that similar “WTF” feeling. They’re films that make you rush to your computer and google the meaning. David Lynch basically dominates that category. But the important thing about Lynch, is that he doesn’t discuss his films much. And if he does, it’s never to confirm or deny his fan’s theories. Also to note is that his film’s are often complex in all kinds of ways: in the dialogue, the often non-linear narrative, the uncanny acting, the cross-cutting across genres, etc.
But mother! isn’t strange in those ways. The film has a strong narrative backbone that holds it up. And even though the dialogue is so heavy-handed at times that it borders on bizarre, it is bizarre in what it reveals, not what it conceals. In fact, the question that mother! prompts isn’t “what?” but “why?”.
But that is not the question that people are asking at Q&As and during interviews. In a piece in The Guardian last week, Caspar Salmon wrote about his hatred of Q&As that take place directly after screenings, calling upon Roland Barthes’ ‘Death of the Author’ theory as the alternative method for talking about film.
“the Q&A’s chief ill is that it removes the spectator from the very particular dream space that only films can occasion. The succession of images that are still floating about as so many evanescent moments and memories in your mind at the end of a movie will always be catastrophically disrupted by an earnest discussion about the audition process.”
There is nothing like watching a film late at night and walking out of the theatre and onto the deserted street. Walking to the pace of your thoughts, you grapple with what you’ve just seen, hoping that the film’s glow will stay with you until you get into bed and turn off the light.
So please don’t ruin it with your allegory.