REQUIEM'S MELODY LINGERS
BY LAURA HENNEMAN
In a season of sequels, Sandlers and Swartzeneggers, the haunting Requiem for a Dream stands out as this year’s best picture that won’t be nominated for an Oscar. Though the story is moving, the acting superb and the cinematography innovative, the film’s inherently controversial nature will deny it the recognition it deserves.
Requiem is the second feature film by Harvard graduate Darren Aronofsky, director of 1998’s Pi. Aronofsky is already a favorite at film festivals worldwide; Pi earned him the Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival and Requiem prompted a five-minute standing ovation at its Cannes screening (where it was not entered in competition).
Aronofsky began his work on Requiem by writing a screenplay based on Hubert Selby Jr.’s book of the same name. Selby had already written his own screen adaptation, and when Aronofsky contacted him and they compared their screenplays, there were many similarities. They worked together to combine their ideas and created a master script, and in doing so Aronofsky, who has said that Selby is one of the people who inspired him to be a writer, realized one of his own dreams.
Simply put, Requiem is a film about addictions killing dreams. The plot follows four characters from summer to winter and shows how their dreams crumble with the changing seasons.
In the opening scene, Harry (Jared Leto) is taking his mother’s television to pawn it for drug money. Harry’s mom, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) always goes and buys it back; this cycle has played out so many times that Sara has her own personal account at the pawnshop. Harry and his best friend, Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), dream of being able to buy “a pound of pure” so they will never have to search the streets again. They plan to sell drugs to earn some fast money and the initial success of their new business feeds their dreams of power and wealth. However, when they begin sampling the merchandise their downward spiral begins. Marianne (Jennifer Connelly), Harry’s girlfriend, dreams of designing her own clothing line and opening her own store. Harry and Marianne are addicted to their love for each other, and because their love is so pure at the beginning of the film, the impending deterioration of their relationship is even more tragic.
Despite the characters’ deficiencies, they are very likeable. The audience can relate to them and their dreams, and this draws us into the movie, making it real. The film is intense because we like the characters; we see ourselves in them and our own hopes in their aspirations. Like many real people, Sara takes comfort in a box of chocolates, and television is her psychological addiction.
Sara dreams of being on TV, and when she gets a call from an agency saying she has been picked as a game show contestant, she is ecstatic. She tells Harry later, “It’s a reason to get up in the morning…it makes tomorrow all right.” Sara’s goal is to fit into her favorite red dress before she goes on TV, so she begins to starve herself and eventually starts taking diet pills. All four characters struggle with their personal addictions, both physical and psychological, and when their stories end in a black screen the credits are almost a shock. The world of Requiem becomes so real that actual reality seems to intrude. Watching an audience leave this film is like watching people leaving a funeral some silent and pale, a few in tears.It is Sara’s story that makes the film unique; without it Requiem would be just another Trainspotting-esque, twenty-something drug movie. Aronofsky said the Sara storyline is what made him want to make the movie. Ellen Burstyn, already a Best Actress Oscar-winner (for 1974’s Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore) delivers an incredible performance. When she is on screen she is not playing Sara Goldfarb; she is Sara Goldfarb. Her emotions are real and raw, and the audience cannot help but respond to her deteriorating condition and dying dreams. When promoting the film, Aronofsky said that working with Burstyn was quite an experience. While on the set she would be entirely in character at all times, even to the point of becoming hypersensitive to noise and light. During scene breaks when Aronofsky spoke to her, he said that he could see Ellen way back inside the actress’ eyes just long enough for her to register his words. After that, he said, she would slip back into Sara. Few actresses today throw themselves so completely into a character, especially a disturbing one, and her genuine, true acting is the crucial detail that sets Burstyn’s performance apart from others this year and makes it so Oscar-worthy.
The young actors give impressive performances as well. Perhaps the best casting surprise was Marlon Wayans and his successful portrayal of a serious character. This is quite a departure from past roles in such films as Scary Movie and Don’t Be a Menace, but in Requiem he is definitely on par with his fellow cast members. His character, Tyrone, is ambitious and dedicated to his friends but it is love for his mother that is truly touching. It is implied that Ty’s mother has passed away, but Ty remembers her and wants to make her proud. Wayans expresses these emotions very effectively.
Connelly, who had her first major role as a teenager in the 1986 David Bowie fantasy Labyrinth and grew up to play Emma Murdoch/Anna in Dark City, continues to explore darker adult roles. Leto, first seen as the despondent love interest in television’s “My So-Called Life,” shows that he can play a true romantic. The chemistry between Marianne and Harry seems natural; the characters would do anything for each other until their addictions tear them apart.
Part of the tragedy of Requiem for a Dream is that the characters fail to recognize their own addictions. In their only extended scene together, Harry catches Sara grinding her teeth and realizes her problem.
“You’re on uppers!…Ma, you gotta’ cut that stuff loose. You wanna’ be a dope fiend?!?”
An ironic argument coming from another junkie, but Sara fails to catch on. She asks, “How come you know more about medicine than a doctor?” and all Harry says is “Believe me, Ma, I know.”
But he doesn’t know enough to recognize addiction in himself. Though Harry realizes when Sara and Marianne have gotten in too deep, Ty is the only one to recognize Harry’s own addiction, and when he does, it may be too late.
Clint Mansell, the composer for Pi, wrote Requiem’s original score. Mansell used a combination of modern techno beats and string quartets to heighten the mood of the film. Mansell and the Kronos Quartet recorded the score. The movie’s main theme, a haunting, minor key melody that sticks with you as you leave the theater, is an immeasurable contribution to the work; the film would not be nearly as affecting without it.
Aronofsky, always an experimenter when it comes to film techniques, employs jump-cut montages wherever addictions are being fed, such as when Harry, Ty, and Marianne shoot up; the men sell drugs; Sara takes her diet pills, checks her mail and turns on the TV. This one element sets the movie apart. It could be argued that the montage style is overused (the movie is rumored to have over 2,000 cuts, whereas the average movie has about 700) but in this reviewer’s opinion, the editing strengthens the effect and ties the addictions together. By portraying these seemingly unrelated moments with the same editing style, the montages show that anything can be an addiction.
Another interesting technique Aronofsky uses is speeding up the film when the characters do their respective drugs. Sped-up film is also used with the montages to show the passage of time.
Another carry-over technique from Pi is the Snorri cam, a device that allows an actor to wear the camera on a harness. The scenes where the Snorri cam is used help us get inside the minds of the characters, and it is often employed in the most intense situations. The proximity of the camera to the actor shows the fine detail in facial expressions, and the look of desperation in the eyes.
With all the elaborate techniques and shooting on-location in Coney Island, N.Y., it’s hard to believe the reports that Requiem was made for a mere 4.5 million dollars. Keep in mind that this was just the original budget; Aronofsky has said that he’s not even sure what the final amount really was. However, though not much money by Hollywood standards, it’s a far cry from the $60,000 spent to produce Pi.
Though there are many effective camera angles and filming styles, there is one scene that does not measure up. After Sara has been taking the diet pills for a while, she starts to notice some negative side effects. She goes back to the doctor and the scene in the office is shot through a fish-eye lens. Whereas the other techniques were used to allow the audience to get into the character’s point of view, this lens jolts us out of the character and makes us feel as if we are ourselves, watching the movie while on drugs, instead of feeling we are inside Sara while she is on drugs. Perhaps it is a good thing that we get a break from intense identification with the characters, but stylistically the fish-eye lens is a reminder that Requiem is only a movie, and this realization weakens the scene’s effectiveness.
Requiem has a sleeker look than Pi’s gritty black and white style. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique, who worked with Aronofsky on Pi, uses lighting and filters to intensify colors and shoots scenes from odd angles to emphasize the characters’ distorted views. The film’s best hope for an Oscar is in Editor Jay Rabinowitz. The montage sequences alone are enough to earn him at least a nomination.
Shots of Harry and Ty wheeling the TV through the Coney Island setting are reminiscent of the Roman Polanski short, Two Men and a Wardrobe. In Wardrobe, two men carry a large wooden armoire around town and are oblivious to the criminal and immoral acts going on around them. In Requiem, Harry and Ty wheel a TV cart though an aging carnival town, oblivious to the danger they are getting into. While Aronofsky has said that Polanski (Chinatown) is one of his favorite directors, he also says he has never seen this obscure piece. Maybe this just shows that Aronofsky is on the right track to neo-noir greatness himself.
Requiem for a Dream is intimate and demanding. It draws its audience in and leaves them feeling drained but with a more positive outlook on their own lives. Most of us still have our sanity and all our limbs; it’s hard to take everyday worries so seriously after you have seen the total destruction of these four characters. If the Academy judges on emotional intensity and effectiveness, this film should sweep.
If it is judged on how well it gets its message across, nothing can compete. If you show a teenager Trainspotting, he still may come out thinking drugs are cool. However, show him Requiem and he’ll never touch the stuff. Requiem is an anti-drug ad on steroids.Despite all of its strengths and innovations, it is unlikely that Requiem for a Dream will get the acclaim and recognition it deserves. The Motion Picture Association of America rated it NC-17 for an explicit sex scene but distributor Artisan Entertainment chose to stand by Aronofsky’s vision and rather than cut the scene, released the film unrated. Business-wise, unrated films are risky; many theaters refuse to show them and they are hard to advertise, so audiences are typically small. Due to the power of the MPAA, it is also rare for an unrated film to be nominated for major awards. There is a small chance that the Academy will recognize the value of the film’s realism because the shocking images are neither gratuitous nor excessive, but are instead used to make an effective statement. The fact that an oddity like American Beauty can win Best Picture gives hope to a film like Requiem, but most likely it is tragically ahead of its time.