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The Question of Intelligence: Mother!

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By Christopher Sharrett.

The release last season of Darren Aronovsky’s Mother! was the unfortunate occasion for another assessment of the American mind. The reviewer chatter at the film’s release was on the order of “What’s he trying to say?” At the theater where I saw the film, angry patrons made remarks like “What was that all about?” A disgruntled woman saw a young man standing in the back of the theater, waiting to sweep out the place. She said to him: “I’d be happy to clean the toilets for you if you can help me forget that movie!” I was especially angered by that remark. I wondered if she considered the young man’s current status in life, if he perhaps became reconciled to his minimum-wage job by thinking that his prospects would change, and that, at the moment at least, he could at least see free movies. But the old imbecile, who of course had no intention of doing anything for him, chose to express her stupidity by degrading the young man. Instead of considering her own limited intelligence and imagination, she picks on a boy by way of reminding him of his lowly social position. To me this was an emblematic American moment.

The American viewer never had an easy time with European films like Last Year at Marienbad (1961), but about a half-century ago had no trouble with films like Vertigo (1958, which wasn’t a hit to be sure), Elmer Gantry (1960), Advise and Consent, and The Manchurian Candidate (both 1962), films that at least challenged assumptions about power and received wisdom. To be sure, the public has always had an epistemological handicap that makes it refuse out of hand abstract ideas in works they see as a little peculiar. This may be the Puritan heritage, or the abysmal American educational system, or religiosity, or all three. Mother!, now on a fine Blu-ray, signals early on that it is a non-traditional narrative film, succeeding mainly as graphic art through some carefully crafted set pieces that make use of a whole range of the plastic arts from Bosch and Bruegel to the Surrealists. But in our dumbed-down culture, this is a legacy most people don’t know, or if they know a little about it, feel threatened by it, since it depends on realms of consciousness other than those catered to by coddling shot/countershot Hollywood storytelling. The blockbuster, in its current form, seems to me far more incoherent than Mother! in its total dependence on CGI-driven spectacle, and certainly duller and more insulting. But it is useless complaining about eternal American stupidity in the age of Trump, a coming-home-to-roost of ignorance, and perhaps a death knell, so a few words about the film.

Aronofsky has remarked that his film is finally about the human assault on the earth. This view works fine, but it depends on a notion of the female as Earth Mother and other symbology flowing from Jung, his forebears, and heirs. The film strikes me as available enough as a manic melodrama about the male’s assault, in various ways, on the female, the topic of the best melodramas. Mother! seems appropriate to our current moment because of its portrayal of total breakdown, its Gothic mise-en-scene, and its dependence on apocalypse for narrative closure. The Man (called “Him” in the end credits), is rendered as monster by Javier Bardem, who pulls up the sinister persona he has used in several performances. The Woman (called “Mother”) is an especially vulnerable Jennifer Lawrence, a nervous, distrustful image of the domestic female who thinks she finds her lot by renovating the couple’s home, the familial domicile inherited by Him. It is perhaps too-quickly coded as the House of Usher, emphasized through close shots of rotting floors, crumbling walls that seem to produce ugly faces, and an unhealthy atmosphere.

Mother 2Mother is trying to create a pleasant domestic space – but mainly to please Him, a writer who is blocked, and chews on fantasies about producing his defining work, a familiar story. But the emphasis here is on what the female will endure to “save the marriage,” the degree of torment she will endure on the assumption that the male brings a special wisdom that will indeed keep the marriage alive. It is an assumption that pervades the genre, but in this instance, especially given the trappings from the fantastic, I couldn’t help but think of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), a horror film closely-knit to its own genre, but if one can strip away all the devices, it is a melodrama about the manipulation of the female in the marriage state. (I might note that the film seems to allude to Polanski’s; the disc menu has an image very close to the poster art for Rosemary’s Baby.) The actors in the respective films, Javier Bardem and John Cassavetes, have sinister gazes inscribed in their features, which alone suggest their films’ ambitions. And in both films – and in some of the best melodramas – the man does everything for the good of the wife, his manipulations self-excused with the idea that he is making things better, that she will love it once she sees it, that his psychological brutality must be endured for the sake of his creativity, for the future, etc. Unlike Rosemary’s baby, Mother’s is the male’s sacrificial victim, rather than the new messiah of the male order.

Him’s need for public approbation is the device that begins intrusions into the domicile, first by an overbearing, manipulative couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfieffer), who externalize the male’s desires and ambitions as they portend other massive and violent intrusions by crowds whose rending of the house forms the apocalyptic core of the film. At the beginning of the auto-da-fe, the film enters the fantastique, and axiomatically calls on the viewer, one would think, to deploy the analytical consciousness used for, say, this year’s Get Out, whose style and substance went mostly unchallenged because its ambitions were so blatantly and clumsily noble.

The total destruction of the domicile long ago entered the melodrama, mostly via the horror film (e.g., The Crazies, 1974) as the contradictions of domestic life can no longer be tolerated, and as the male does what he wanted to all along – destroy the home and family utterly, and with them the female’s attempt to attain phallic authority (all this is embodied in Breaking Bad, 2008-13, which may indeed make it the most extraordinary TV series, but the major point becomes lost as audiences focus on the plot and characterizations alone). The conflagrations of Mother! signify a point of no return for the domestic scene and are expansive, the tableaux citing moments of violence of the last century and the current, with emphasis on the chaos, injustice, and total unreason that is the ground tone of our times.

Darren Aronosky is an intriguing but spotty filmmaker. Requiem for a Dream (2000) is, I think, an important film for spelling out the concept of its title better than its source novel. The Wrestler (2008) captures superbly the decay of our physical society (the images of a rusting Asbury Park, once a symbol of escape for the American family, are superb, though the New Jersey shore town has since been partially rehabilitated) as an outgrowth of failed, overbearing male ambition. Mother! certainly deserves more careful, close analysis, since it wants to make the claim that the reasons for the domestic melodrama are vanishing, along with the best things of our civilization. The bewilderment over the film seems to have worn off, but the film deserves closer reading than it may enjoy in the current film culture.

Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International, and a Contributing Writer for Cineaste. His book on Breaking Bad is forthcoming from Wayne State University Press.

3 Comments for “The Question of Intelligence: Mother!

  1. A very astute analysis. I’ve often had to encounter a sincere perplexity on the part of a very talented creative writing student who termed the narrative format of THE FALCON TAKES OVER 1942) as “cheesy”and could not comprehend Boorman’s POINT BLANK due to his lack of exposure to relevant European Art films such as LAST YEAR IN MARIENBAD, a brief split second homage to which appears in this 1967 production. I’ve patiently described the background and he began to understand that it was not his fault in comprehension but the fact that he did not have time (let alone the background) to see these films. In this era of deliberately manufactured junk food culture, the education process is hard but not impossible. However, there will be those who will rigidly choose not to comprehend and explore. A very good reading, as always Chris.

  2. Christopher Sharrett

    I think Boorman once suggested the influence of Red Desert on PB.

  3. Yes, he did in one of his interviews. Another film most of today’s students have not seen

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