Anatomy of violence: The Darren Aronofsky interview
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Anatomy of violence: The Darren Aronofsky interview

The director of Mother!, one of the most heart-wrenching films in recent times, says that he in fact hates violence

brunch Updated: Nov 04, 2018 00:11 IST
Ananya Ghosh
Ananya Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Darren Aronofsky,filmmaker,Jio MAMI
Darren Aronofsky is undoubtedly one of the most disrupting, if disturbing voices in world cinema today(Getty images)

It is not every day that you get to interview someone like Darren Aronofsky, one of the most polarising filmmakers of recent times known for his genre-breaking and disruptive works. He is in town to be part of the Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival. As I enter the sprawling business centre of Taj’s tower wing, I find the Mother! (2017) director standing in the balcony enjoying the view of the Gateway of India glistening under the mellow sun.

“The moment you don’t show violence truthfully, you are glorifying it. You are making it something that is more tolerable. Even if you are not saying it out loud”

He quickly turns and welcomes me with a warm and firm handshake and promptly asks all the PR personnel, who were supposed to be ‘monitoring’ the interview to leave the room. As we sit down, he notices the interview pointers that I had scribbled on my palm. “What are those!” He makes no effort to hide his amusement. “Ah, you remind me of myself! I used to always have such inked palm!” he laughs, shattering the silence of the room and the ice!

“You have written it down in a hurry it seems” he adds. Under his intimate gaze, I start to feel like one of the characters from his movies on whom he has fixed his camera on extreme close-up, the over-exaggerated intensification that has now become his signature.

“I am a huge fan of your work and I can write a thesis on Mother! But I have just 10 minutes to do this interview, so I think will leave the fan-girling bit for some other time,” I blurt out. He breaks into another bout of laughter. “I am so sorry for the lack of time!” he says looking genuinely apologetic. With his easy laugh and quirky sense of humour, he doesn’t seem anything like the obsessed, somewhat deranged director I had pictured him in my mind based on his movies. But I decide to prod further.

The ultra-violent

Two of the most talked about films at this year’s Mumbai Film Festival have been Lars von Trier’s serial-killer movie The House That Jack Built and Gaspar Noé’s LSD- trip-gone-bad movie, Climax. Both are accused of being extremely difficult watch owing to their unabashed portrayal of visceral violence. Something Aronofsky is often held guilty of.

Aronofsky’s Jennifer Lawrence-starrer Mother! was probably the most polarising film of last year

Be it his debut film, Pi (1998), an austere black and white drama on a mathematician’s mad obsession; or the cult classic, Requiem for a Dream (2000), a deeply unsettling and bleak movie on the effects of drug addiction heightened manifold by hip-hop montage; or the Oscar-winning Black Swan (2010), a story of a young ballerina’s descent to madness while trying to perfect a role that can be best summed up as a ballet adapted for the Grand Guignol. Or Mother!, a Buñuel-like allegory on the impact of man’s plundering of Mother Nature shrouded with biblical metaphors that also happens to be his most confrontational film till date that was greeted with heavy booing at the Venice Film Festival last year.

“We wanted the treatment [of Mother!] to be that of punk rock music where you are screaming at and attacking the audience incessantly. We knew there would be people who will not be with us in this ride”

His films are never an easy watch and are often punctuated with disturbing imagery and violence. Be it Wynona Ryder’s character stabbing herself in Black Swan, or the self-inflicted lobotomy in Pi, or The Scene in Mother! where a mob is seen eating up pieces of a new-born baby. It is interesting then when he says: “Focus on human love, not human violence. Never stick a gun in a movie star’s hand.” I try to delve deep into the dichotomy.

“I hate violence!” he quips. “But I treat violence honestly. I never try to trivialise violence. People have no problem with violence if there is no consequence. Films are incredibly violent. In fact, all types of cinema, across the globe are filled with violence. But mostly these create a fictitious world and a version of violence. I think this actually normalises violence. It never shows what violence really does to people who perform or receive the violence. It is similar to showing guns in movies. You never get to know how loud the sound of a gun really is. Or how much damage they really do. Watch a martial arts movie and you will see a lot of violence and no blood…or a single drop of blood dropping in slow motion to the ground…as if it is some sort of abstract dance. I am not interested in that. I don’t want to make violence sexy,” he explains adding that probably his version of violence makes for a more disturbing watch because his films depict violence as it plays out in reality.

He shocks to conquer: Aronofsky’s films are disrupting, disturbing and often difficult to watch. Scenes from Black Swan, Mother!, Pi and Requiem for a Dream (from top to bottom)

“I think the reason you react to violence in the kind of movies I or some of my fellow directors make is because we try to show what violence really does. The true nature of it. This is terrible and impacts not only the victims but also the perpetrators deeply. I am more interested in exploring this kind of violence rather than the one which has no consequences. The moment you don’t show violence truthfully, you are glorifying it. You are making it something that is more tolerable. Even if you are not saying it out loud.”

Deliberate cruelty…

But then, projecting the reality of violence without trying to make it a ‘tolerable’ watch can be trickier said than done. How does he draw the line? How much is too much? “It is important to know where the audiences are at that moment. You have to make sure that whatever you are going to show them is connected to what you have shown just before. Even if you want to push the audience, you can’t go to the very extreme as you want to take as many audiences as you can with you. Creating a disconnect with the audience is not really the aim of my movies!” he laughs.

“I think especially in today’s time, with extreme nationalism, the far right rising, it is becoming more and more important for a filmmaker to be empathetic to the effects of these movements on individuals ”

“When you make a movie, you create a story and take the audience through it. At that point the audience is not thinking about anything else. They are with you and they are living in your cinematic world through the characters created by you. So, when the characters make certain decisions or when certain things happen to those characters, there has to be some truth and reality to it so that the audience buys it in their state of trance. It shouldn’t be so jarring or out-of-context that breaks that trance. I am not looking at a reaction like: ‘Wow! That couldn’t happen! That’s impossible!’. The reaction I look for instead is ‘Whoa! That’s a lot and that’s intense, maybe too intense, but that could have happened’.”

The Mother of violence

However, he agrees that Mother! was not everyone’s cup of tea. “You want your work to be accessible. But I think we knew with Mother! we were making something different and weird and it was for the audience that wanted to watch something different and new. We knew from the very beginning that we are being very attacking of the audience. But we wanted the film to do that.

Darren Aronofsky, whose films are often stacked with symbolism and even biblical references, says that it is not a filmmaker’s job to explain a movie

“We wanted the treatment to be that of punk rock music where you are screaming at and attacking the audience incessantly. We knew there would be people who will not be with us in this ride. There are people who go to movies expecting to watch something familiar, and this one was not for them.”

Be disruptive

Aronofsky has always revelled in being disruptive and challenging the familiar. Quoting Neil deGrasse Tyson, he had once pointed out: “’Creativity that satisfies and affirms your world view is entertainment. Creativity that challenges and disrupts your world view is art.’” However, he explains that the two need not be mutually exclusive.

“In today’s world, you can’t afford to make films that don’t make statement, that don’t reflect the concerns of the society”

“I think a film that is entertaining can be art as well. Some of my favourite filmmakers basically make purely entertaining films that don’t really challenge you. But those are art as well. For example, a film like Titanic is no less a work of art. But I think what I meant was that it is important and also interesting as filmmakers to be socially conscious. To figure out what is going on in this world and hold a mirror up to it. I think especially in today’s time, with extreme nationalism, the far right rising, it is becoming more and more important for a filmmaker to be empathetic to the effects of these movements on individuals and to put it up in front of the world so that people can understand what it means to be an outsider. In today’s world, you can’t afford to make films that don’t make statement, that don’t reflect the concerns of the society,” he says.

Maybe, then, an honest reflection of an increasingly violent world requires such stark ultra-violence....

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From HT Brunch, November 4, 2018

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First Published: Nov 01, 2018 12:32 IST