This blog post is the inaugural post of the “Requiem for a Dream // 102 Project,” conceived by Nick Rombes as form of collective, distributed film criticism, modeled loosely on his 10/40/70 project, in which Nick “reads” three screen captures from a film taken at the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks. In this case, Nick has invited 102 contributors from across the film criticism spectrum to look at one frame from each minute of Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream, a movie that unsettled many audience members when it was first released to theaters ten years ago. For more about the project, check out the 102 Project’s “About” page and follow it on Twitter.
Requiem for a Dream famously offers one of the most visceral treatments of drug addiction in recent screen history. When I first saw the film with an old girlfriend, on VHS, over a decade ago, we both were so unsettled by the experience that we immediately left my apartment for an hour-long walk, despite the cold Illinois weather. These reactions can be attributed to the film’s visual and aural style, which becomes gradually more disorienting as the addictions of the four major characters deepen, emptying them out–physically and emotionally–in the process. By the end of the film, all four of the characters seem to be falling apart physically or emptied out emotionally, to the point that Marian’s makeup serves as a kind of mask hiding the natural self. The process of getting high is depicted as a series of flash cut images and sounds: a bag unzipping, drugs cooking, eyes dilating. Rush as routine. But all of the characters are seeking a fix in what seems like a lifeless world.
Although this shot is not a split-screen, the visual style here seems to echo the split-screens from earlier in the film when Harry (Jared Leto) and his mother, Sara (Ellen Burstyn) have been arguing over Sara’s ancient TV set, which Harry plans to sell to a nearby pawn shop in order to buy some heroin. Both of them know that Sara will go and retrieve that same TV set from the pawn store owner to satisfy her own addiction to a surreal self-help show, making the fight seem like an oddly choreographed dance, but the split screen helps divide mother and son from each other, despite their overlapping addictions. As Harry remarks later to Marian (Jennifer Connelly), “I asked myself, what’s her fix? Television, right?” Again, the frame seems to be split in half. In this case, we see Harry and Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), partially obscured by the metal railings, pushing the old TV set, a relic with rabbit ear antenna and a seemingly without a remote, down the Coney Island boardwalk during what was one of the film’s few quiet moments, while the roller coaster sits quietly on the opposite half of the frame.
The shot invites contemplation, and viewing the screen capture out of its narrative context, I found myself reading it as I might a painting or still photograph, looking at compositional balance and other details. It’s impossible to look at the shot without seeing the sense of decline or collapse creeping into the shot, a sensation that will only deepen as the film unfolds. The boardwalk is empty, except for Tyrone and Harry, and Coney Island, a place typically associated with innocent, if slightly tacky, fun, is abandoned. The lines of the boardwalk also lead our eyes to the roller coaster, stationary in both the still frame and the movie itself, that fills much of the left-hand side of the frame, reminding us again that the park is, or appears to be, closed.
But in looking closely at this still I find myself entertaining a couple of other readings: first, the rejection of TV as addictive seems like a typical extension of the same old rivalry between movies and TV: television is addictive and dangerous and leads to Sara’s self-destructive use of diet pills later in the film. Sara’s addiction seems all the more painful given that she is forced to use such a shabby, old TV set with a tiny screen. More crucially, however, the boardwalk–and the sightlines in this frame–seem to be leading us to the roller coaster in the corner, perhaps reminding us that film in general has been compared to and identified with roller coasters and the cheap amusements associated with locations such as Coney Island. Movies were often shown at amusement parks (see Anne Friedberg’s Window Shopping for a wonderful account of this history), and parks such as Disney World and Universal Studios are now devoted to celebrating motion picture entertainment. Movies themselves can be a roller coaster rides, and this film in particular, with its aesthetic innovations and its treatment of drug addiction–itself a kind of ride–will also prove to be a kind of roller coaster as well.