photo manipulation by nacrowe
DARREN ARANOFSKY's film adaptation of HUBERT SELBY JR's 1978 novel REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (ARTISAN ENTERTAINMENT, 2000) is easily one of the heaviest, brutal and emotionally affecting american films i have ever come across. to this day i find it hard to watch.
and that is probably a good thing because this is the type of film that is meant to be appreciated by not necessarily enjoyed. the film is mostly an ensemble piece that follows the downward trajectories of four people, all aspiring and optimistic, but dragged under nonetheless into a death spiral due to the collective weight of controlled substances. in essence drugs are the main character of the film and novel. all four characters have their own reasons for seeking and partaking in them, but the drugs swallow all of them whole leaving nothing much like a gaping black hole.
again its a remarkable film. the cast (ELLEN BURSTYN, JARED LETO, JENNIFER CONNELLY and MARLON WAYANS) all provided nuanced career performances. the cinematography is superb, incorporating jump-cuts and parallel editing that provide rhythm and a sense of abandon that matches the initial optimism and sense of carefree abandon of each of the characters' initial honeymoon period with narcotics. later that same editing is used to denote their extreme anguish and distance from reality. its quite an incredible repurposing of a specific type of montage and visual language best exemplified previously in hip hop music videos of the late 90s. even the KRONOS QUARTET-performed CLINT MANSELL film score was so transcendent it has lived a life far outside the confines of this film.
for me personally, i remember rewatching this film in high school abroad when i was at a friend's house in KUWAIT. there is a particularly brutal scene near the end where a character debases herself in front of a crowd. not to give anything away, but all four characters don't end well. anyway, watching this film with some friends of friends that were KUWAITI was a harrowing experience since these guys thought that scene was hilarious, even titillating. for me that was my last straw with attempting to empathize with the people there. i have been all over the Middle East and abroad (living in 8 countries and visiting over 60) and the only country i openly dislike is KUWAIT. to me that country has no redeeming quality. the only people i respected their were the workers from NEPAL, INDIA, PHILIPPINES, INDONESIA, SUDAN and elsewhere that sacrificed and faced extraordinary exploitation and persecution in order to send remittances home to their loved ones. for me when i watch or think about this film, it reminds me how MORALLY BANKRUPT that country is and how i wished we had never saved them from their IRAQI neighors twice.
just my opinion. i lived in KUWAIT. twice.
this is a great film that is an absolute must-see if you are a fan of filmmaking in general. just go into it knowing that you'll be depressed afterwards. also i can't recommend the novel enough. HUBERT SELBY JR is a personal hero of mine and i think it is just such a gift that the two films based on his novels (the other being ULI EDEL's LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN) are modern classics. definitely seek both out and enjoy, errr maybe just appreciate them.
photo manipulation by nacrowe
one of my all-time favorite writers. and not just because he writes about the part of brooklyn my family is from.
in the united states there is this force-fed optimism shoved down our throats since birth through our education systems and mass media that basically propagates the narrative that if you work hard enough, good things will happen. reading any HUBERT SELBY JR novel essentially an exercise in looking the AMERICAN DREAM straight in the face and laughing at it. and not one of those belly laughs were you see the folly, but one of those nervous ones were you realize how much of your identity is swallowed up in this hollow fantasy.
the three novels of his i am familiar with are LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN (1964), THE DEMON (1976) and REQUIEM FOR A DREAM (1978). two obviously have been made into excellent film adaptations by ULI EDEL and DARREN ARANOFSKY, respectively. love them both but such will be the topic for another post. what unites them all is a sense of competing drives, not necessarily good vs bad, but constructive vs destructive tendencies brought on by ambition. the central question of his novels is "what is it that we want?" and "what is the price of attaining it to your psyche?"
his characters tend to have what SIGMUND FREUD would recognize as a very strong will to self-destruct, or as he termed it, a "death-drive." all of his protagonists (incidentally all share the name "Harry" in his novels) seek validation through community, money, vice, or otherwise and in each case they get into trouble. its almost like he chooses each novel as a way of elucidating different facets of how the AMERICAN DREAM is a hoax and a quixotic fallacy on par with any other human construction (family, religion, community) used to motivate a sense of identity. in terms of narrative the protagonist's character arc is inverted, as you undoubtedly encounter them initially at their highest point, the peak of their powers and sanity. from here on out its a downward spiral, with any solace in brief periods of calm merely red herrings making the free-fall to come that much more brutal and inhumane.
it is a dark, bleak and ultimately realistic portrayal of reality. when i read his work i am often thinking about my own motivations, goals and what the actual cost of such are. yes in america there is opportunity, but what is the price of the success we seek? what are you giving up to achieve it and fundamentally who are you at the end of that process? what has that process done to your sense of self? that is the gift of his work in my opinion. they are almost bitterly self-reflective in nature in a way few others are.
as a former english teacher i really appreciate the fact that his characters are so singular and well-constructed that HUBERT SELBY JR imposed a very unique writing style where he would not use quotes and never specifies what characters say what at the end of sentence. characters speak in all caps and by context you know who said what without being told. it is a really neat trick that just further showcases the depth of his writing.
other side note: THE SMITHS' THE QUEEN IS DEAD album is named after a chapter in LAST EXIT TO BROOKYLN. just saying.