Cinema and Media Studies Darren Aronofsky
by
Tarja Laine
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0305

Introduction

Darren Aronofsky (b. 1969) is an acclaimed American filmmaker known for his psychologically disturbing films. Before studying as a director at the American Film Institute, Aronofsky attended Harvard University, where he studied anthropology and filmmaking. He secured a reputation as a “cerebral” filmmaker with his feature debut Pi (1998), a low-budget, surrealist thriller in which a brilliant mathematician aims to reduce the world to the purely mathematical. After the film’s critical success and his Directing Award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival, Aronofsky boarded on his first major project, Requiem for a Dream (2001), which follows the spiraling plunge into desperation of its four main characters, whose lives closely intertwine through various phases of drug addiction and pathological obsession. Aronofsky’s third feature, The Fountain (2006), received ambiguous reviews that, while acknowledging its visual and stylistic merits, often described the film as blatantly “pseudo-metaphysical.” The film failed at the box office, but now enjoys a cult status. By contrast, Aronofsky’s fourth feature, The Wrestler (2008), was released to critical acclaim. It stars Mickey Rourke as Randy “The Ram” Robinson, faced with a life crisis that has entrapped him in both bodily and mental pain, due to his inability to accept change (aging) or to grasp emerging opportunities. Like The Wrestler, Black Swan (2010) epitomizes the physical and psychological pain faced by the performers who use their bodies in extreme ways to express themselves emotionally. Noah (2014), Aronofsky’s sixth feature, is a biblically inspired epic that portrays Noah as a prophet who experiences hallucinations of an impending apocalyptic flood as messages from God. Aronofsky’s most recent feature is mother! (2017), a psychological horror film that, like Noah, conveys ecological themes through damage to the body of the protagonist, a central theme in Aronofsky’s oeuvre that is related to rationality (Pi), obsession (Requiem for a Dream, The Fountain, The Wrestler, Black Swan), and finally environmental ethics (Noah, mother!). Many of Aronofsky’s films have received divided reviews and even provoked debate. For instance, there was considerable controversy regarding the graphic scenes of sexual abuse that are interwoven with scenes of physical and emotional torment in Requiem for a Dream. But it also drew critical acclaim and garnered an Academy Award nomination for Ellen Burstyn, who portraits elderly widow Sara Goldfarb in the film. Noah caused controversy for its interpretation of Noah as the first environmentalist, instead of remaining faithful to the biblical story. Most recently, mother! received similarly divided reviews as The Fountain. On the one hand, the film received praise for its artistic vision, its allegorical narrative, and the performance of its main characters, but it met with disapproval for its banality, nonsensicality, excess, and pretentiousness. It was described by horror novelist Mylo Carbia as the most controversial film since Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971) after its screening in Venice Film Festival. It gained the reputation of being the most ambiguously received film in 2017, perhaps exemplifying the way in which Aronofsky’s films do not leave anyone indifferent.

General Overviews

At the time of writing there are two systematic book-length accounts of Aronofsky’s oeuvre in English. Laine 2015 is the first book-length study of Aronofsky, discussing his first five feature films. It provides a nuanced analysis of the aesthetic specificity of Aronofsky’s films, attributing to them a distinctively corporeal cinematic style, which reveals philosophical insights embedded in the aesthetic experience. Skorin-Kapov 2016 is a philosophically informed approach to Aronofsky’s first six feature films, which discusses the themes of life and death, addiction and obsession, as well as sacrifice and hope through an analysis of the visual style of his films. The third book-length study of Aronofsky is Burnette-Bletsch and Morgan 2017, an edited collection that provides a scholarly perspective on Aronofsky’s Noah from multiple vantage points. These include biblical studies, genre theory, and environmentalism. The work focuses on how understanding biblical narratives can enrich our understanding of faith. Similarly, Johnson 2015 argues that religious imagery in the cinema of Aronofsky renders the films into aesthetic experiences that are designed to invite the spectators to reflect on their own understanding of faith and spirituality.

  • Burnette-Bletsch, Rhonda, and Jon Morgan. Noah as Antihero: Darren Aronofsky’s Cinematic Deluge. London: Routledge, 2017.

    E-mail Citation »

    This collection addresses the interest in Aronofsky’s Noah among scholars who combine biblical and film studies. Its aim is to evaluate the film critically from various perspectives such as ancient traditions, contemporary religious and cinematic contexts, and the way in which the film appropriates the biblical story. The book concludes with different ecocritical approaches such as “the problem with the animal” and the construction of the film’s ecological message.

  • Johnson, Andrew. “Pain as a Pathway to Epiphany in the Films of Darren Aronofsky.” In Faith and Spirituality in the Masters of World Cinema. Vol. 3. Edited by Kenneth R. Morefield and Nicholas S. Olson, 111–124. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    This essay argues that the central theme of the bodily destruction in Aronofsky’s films functions not merely as a consequence of blind ambition, but as a pathway to existential bliss. His obsessive characters seeking personal fulfillment tend to achieve spirituality, but only after their bodies have been broken. This insight might lead the spectators to reflect on the link between body and spiritual transcendence.

  • Laine, Tarja. Bodies in Pain: Emotion and the Cinema of Darren Aronofsky. New York: Berghahn Books, 2015.

    E-mail Citation »

    The first book-length study into Aronofsky’s films, which explores the way in which his films invite emotional engagement by means of affective resonance between the cinematic and the spectatorial body. It argues that Aronofsky’s films have a distinctively corporeal style that engages the spectators in an affective form of viewing that involves all the senses, ultimately engendering a process of philosophical reflection through emotional dynamics.

  • Skorin-Kapov, Jadranka. Darren Aronofsky’s Films and the Fragility of Hope. New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781501307003E-mail Citation »

    The leading argument in this book-length study into Aronofsky’s first six feature-length films is that they all convey the power of hope gone out of proportion, and thereby becoming fragile. It analyzes the thematic and stylistic elements in the films from various perspectives such as psychoanalysis (Pi), Deleuzian philosophy (Requiem for a Dream), existentialism (The Fountain, Noah), genre theory (The Wrestler), and gender (Black Swan), including a transcription of the author’s conversation with the filmmaker.

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