'The Purpose of Drama: Emotional Release or Awakened Sensibility? Thoughts while Rewatching Daren Aronofsky’s thriller Mother!' / Margarita Bassova
A silent, still exposition summons the audience to strip themselves to a state of tabula rasa and accept the invitation into the seemingly archetypal family home. The empty halls permeate the collection of dust tinged with cleaning and painting product, in unknowing anticipation of the forthcoming bombardment of chaos. The camera’s movements emblematic of the mother’s weary emotional state, as she scans their home, her home, with precision. Her frail, vulnerable characterisation and dizzy film orientation is the first indication of her submissive role within the relationship with the poet. A natural rhythm is established between the mother and the house, symbolic of their symbiotic relationship; she is its life source as the poet later echoes in his comment “she breathed life into every room…”. She is the cause for its beautiful regeneration and yet her efforts never seem to be enough… terror and destruction inevitably ensue.
Mother! (2017) is a highly critiqued, controversial film directed by Daren Aronofsky and starring central characters Jennifer Lawrence (the mother) and Javier Bardem (the poet). The first time I watched this film in the cinema, I was completely overwhelmed. I felt trepidation, fear, even horror… as well as endless admiration for my favourite director. Whirlpools of criticism on the film’s IMDB page accompanied my tram ride home, yet I failed to understand their depth. If the purpose of film is to perpetuate an (any) emotional state and leave you breathless, then Aronofsky’s transcendental absurdist film had left me yearning for more. Whispers of the meaning being “too obvious” or the evermore bizarre opposite end of the spectrum flooded the internet. I felt great. I watched it for the second time a few days ago in an entirely different space: huddled in a corner in my tiny room with my laptop on my lap in a foreign country (ok, I guess the UK isn’t that foreign). It was overwhelming to me how exceedingly different my experience had become. Of course, I still loved the abrasive allegories to biblical stories and symbolism related to the destruction of our beautiful planet – but I also gauged every small instance of imagery in relation to issues closer to home, particularly those swept under the rug. Perhaps my experience became vastly different due to the context of the cinematic space, perhaps it is the fact that I have been travelling for the last few months, so socio-political matters have become more prevalent within my mind, or perhaps it was just my mood on that viewing day. Regardless of what the reason was, it led me to properly consider a question that has been spinning in my head for years:
Is the purpose of drama emotional release or the development of a critical perspective?
While I do not want to suggest that these modes of thought are diametrically opposed, nor that one offsets the other, I am interested in investigating which our post-modern world prefers, and how technological innovation in the consumption of film has shifted the intention of the film-maker.
Let us first begin with the birth of all modern drama: Ancient Theatre in Greece. Aristotle, the pioneer of tragedy, proposed that emotional release is at the forefront of all drama. His poetics suggest that the audience should be injected with negative emotions such as pity, fear and sexual desires throughout the play to encourage a cathartic purgation once the action has been resolved. In this drama, it is necessary that the audience experiences a willing suspension of disbelief to fully immerse themselves within the theatrical space and allow emotional identification with the protagonist and their hamartia. It is notable that the construction of the theatrical space itself aids the illusion, as audience members are surrounded by the emotional reactions of each other, which superimpose to generate a shared space and collective consciousness. Watching Mother! in the cinema created the perfect initial space for suspension of disbelief, allowing oneself to be fully immersed within the film with grace to the surround acoustics and all-encompassing lighting. Aronofsky then reels the audience members into his illusion by displaying the defenceless characterisation of the mother. As her home is destroyed and she is rendered helpless the audience grasps onto her character and wishes for her safety, as if it were their own. The starting technique of placing the camera in the mother’s perspective similarly bridges the emotional identification between actor and audience, as we view the world from her perspective, inviting us to empathise with her as it inevitably crumbles, in pandemonium.
Aronofsky similarly employs Artaudian techniques by bombarding the senses with an array of visual and audio stimuli to provoke the viewer and encourage emotional release. He uses his classic Aronofsky style: quick succession of camera shots from pills, to eyes, to hands, to the beating of the wall’s heart – all accompanied by a high pitch screech, and reminiscent of his previous fantastic works such as Requiem for a Dream, Pi and the Black Swan. This bombardment comes as an even greater shock to the audience due to the startingly hushed beginning of the film; which is naturalistic in style (very unconventional from modern day dramas which employ realism) with an uncomfortable degree of silence. This renders it increasingly effective when he breaks the barriers, harshly and without remorse. Of course, he only continues to boost the audience’s negative emotions as the audience quakes in terror and disgust (you all know which scene I’m talking about). And, if you’re like me, you sheepishly curl onto your friend (@Sammy Raj) and cover your eyes with your turtleneck.
Let us consider a second mode of thought: the purpose of drama is to awaken a critical perspective from the audience by using the cinematic space as a metaphor for reality. Of course, there are countless individual interpretations, many biblical in nature, of the meaning of Mother, but for this discussion I will be using my somewhat obvious interpretation – that Mother is a representation of Mother Nature, and that the vast house is symbolic of Earth. As such, Mother! is logically the dramatization of all the wrong humans are doing to our planet, despite her consistent effort to care for us. To disaggregate this discussion further, let us consider two agents: the film-maker and the audience member. Whose responsibility exactly is it to find the purpose of drama? Should the film-maker be actively encoding the viewer with social messages via the use of meta-theatrical techniques or other stylistic elements? Or is it the viewers duty to come into the dramatic space with knowledge of his/her socio-political climate, in order to best navigate the narrative world and pull out relevant meanings?
The film-maker has a multiplicity of tools and techniques at his/her disposal to awaken the critical perspective of an audience member. We can consider Brechtian theatre which proposes an alienation technique: Brecht supposes that the use of contradictory elements of style within a production will remove the audience member from the imaginative space of the theatre and thus allow them to ponder on the social messages discussed with an unwavering sense of duty. For example, one may use extraordinarily happy music to contrast dark, brash dialogue to allow the audience member to disengage from the theatrical illusion. In this drama audience members should be denied any sort of emotional identification, and perhaps any emotional release at all. I’d argue that instances of absurdist tragicomedy within Mother! employ a similar technique. For instance, as the mother finds strangers painting her house and they respond with “you’re welcome” in response to her enraged inquiry I couldn’t help but laugh in the cinema at the sheer absurdity of the entire situation – I was removed from the emotional connection for a brief moment, suspended in time as I reconsidered the entire plot: more and more individuals invade a strangers’ home and she is left helpless, while the poet is seemingly basking in fame and spotlight. I also looked around and realised no one was laughing with me – Oh well. This brief removal from the dramatic illusion is often enough to allow someone to consider a deeper message before being transported back into the surrealist world. Riddled with enough of these techniques, and perhaps the audience member will never have a suspended disbelief in the first place.
I would like to suggest that the development of film technology itself has shifted the purpose of drama from emotionally driven to encoding social messages. Evidently, while Aristotelian drama began in large open spaces where a collective consciousness could be shared between all theatre goers and actors, most dramatic consumption is now localised to a small laptop screen and aided by Netflix. Of course, we can argue that cinema still exists – but how many of us still walk down to the Nova? (Although everyone should for $7 before 4pm Monday film deals). While the fact of this shift in dramatic consumption is not inherently negative, it does reduce one’s sphere of imagination as each little reflection of the laptop screen (and brief view of your double chin) snaps you back for a moment and reminds you that what you are watching is, in fact, fiction. I think this switch in consuming drama between my first watch (in the cinema) and second watch (on my laptop) had significant impact on what I took away from Mother! While my first viewing was dominated by an extreme emotional response (I cried when the film ended from being overwhelmed…), my second viewing was completely removed from this emotional frenzy and purely critical in nature. Of course, this could also be solely due to the fact that I had already previously seen the film, but I can’t help but wonder what my initial reaction would have been had I watched Mother! firstly on a laptop screen, alone.
If we remove the film-makers responsibility from the composition, for arguments sake, we can discuss how an audience member will awaken their critical perspective alone. Of course, this idea is already plagued by an obvious concern: the naïve viewer. It is safe to say that a staggering amount of the human population is unaware of the multitude of problems facing Mother Earth today (looking at those of you who do not believe in Global Warming). The naïve viewer is unable to grasp onto a perspective beyond their individual and subconscious needs. The naïve viewer may not understand the grief and pain in the mother’s weak attempts to protect her home as she quivers “Don’t touch that” meekly to strangers taking photos with the wound in the floorboards. In this instance the strangers symbolise the countless individuals perpetually and mindlessly consuming the wonders of our world without doing anything to ensure its repair. Consider how this could relate to voluntourism: the inflation of the self-ego by seemingly helping impoverished communities simply to leave them in a few weeks and plaster your experience over your social media, as opposed to gifting individuals with the tools to help themselves. The naïve viewer could not relate the harsh, abrasive fire imagery to the copious problems so close to home: the eventual loss of our beautiful Great Barrier reef or the countless children, families and elderly left to rot on Manus island in excruciatingly inhumane conditions while we live in luxury in a country that has swapped one old, white, male liberal politician for the next as if switching your diet from Coke to Pepsi would make you healthier. A naïve viewer could not understand how this film could tackle vast arrays of social problems within their own lives – like just how necessary it is to change the date of Australia day, because we do not want to be celebrating the slaughter and rape of our indigenous population. So, is it the fault of the naïve-viewer or the dramatist for expecting so much from a population so often far removed from the issues in our real world? I guess there’s no ‘real’ answer but ensuring we’re critically aware can only benefit ourselves and drama as an art form. Of course, this discussion gives rise to another problem: the potential for social control and political redefinition. From past-history we know that art can be manipulated as a social tool: consider propaganda in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia, or even the use of advertisements nowadays. Similarly, our political climate is in perpetual flux and thus if films are encoded with a message in a particular socio-political context, can we still rely on the fact that this meaning will not be lost in time? Does this render the purpose of the drama inevitably futile? I’d prefer to see this as an opportunity as opposed to a problem: the fact that life is not static redefines the role of the viewer as an active subject engaging with the dramatic material and allows drama to adopt a myriad of meanings over time.
It’s safe to say that writing this has left me with infinitely more questions that I began with, but I’ll save those for another discussion. I’d like to remind you that while the dramatic space has a unique and powerful ability to be used as a metaphor for a broader, socio-political context; this does not devalue any emotional response that an audience member has. On the contrary, I think the emotional impact one has in response to a film (particularly one such as Mother!) is necessary in order to understand the urgency and relevance of the messages transmitted. Lastly, I will continue to love Aronofsky for maintaining his wacky and bizarre style in the age of dramatic homogenisation… and I suggest you watch some of his films too 😊