In defence of ‘mother!’

WARNING: contains spoilers

Earlier this year, the infamous Razzie awards- the annual mock awards show that coincides with the Academy Awards- announced nominations for the year’s worst films. As per usual, and quite rightly so, there was space in the nominations for the likes of the Transformers, Fifty Shades and Pirates of the Caribbean franchises. This list, however, also saw the questionable inclusion of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘mother!’, a film that is a far cry from the vapid, passable films it shares company with. The nominations the film received for Worst Film, Worst Actress, Worst Actor and Worst Director come off the back of a deluge of criticism that the film received upon its release. The Razzies as an awards show aren’t designed to be taken too seriously; but they indicate that an almost general consensus has been reached that this film is a pretentious, soupy shock-fest of little substance and poor performances.[1]  In tabloid magazines, such as Grazia, Jennifer Lawrence has been ordained with a certified career blip because the film did not reach the box office heights she is used to with the likes of The Hunger Games and X-Men. In addition, the relationship between Lawrence and Aronofsky, which developed and then fell apart after filming, also became offal for the entertainment press. [2] In the meantime, ‘mother!’ was downplayed and over looked by critics, awards bodies and guilds, with the challenging issues that the film raises seemingly ignored.

This is not the first time that a dark, challenging female-centric film has failed to be acknowledged by the cultural establishment, for example Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin starring Tilda Swinton, or Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia and Nymphomaniac led by Kirsten Dunst and Charlotte Gainsbourg respectively. Some might argue that we don’t need to worry about this, because the likes of the Academy Awards, BAFTAs and Golden Globes aren’t necessarily worth respecting as they are so ‘weirdly subjective’ anyway, in the words of Cate Blanchett. These awards bodies only acknowledge films released at a specific time of the year, and only seem to celebrate films that reaffirm the Hollywood, film-making dream, rather than challenge it: see the recent successes of Argo, The Artist, La La Land, Birdman etc. Yet, when complex films about women are in such short supply, it is frustrating that brutal, stonking, belters of films are pushed to the fringes of small arthouse cinemas. Where are the column inches for Marielle Heller’s Diary of a Teenage Girl, Andrea Arnold’s American Honey or Sean Baker’s The Florida Project? I am not arguing that ‘mother!’ needs to be universally liked. The fact that it has managed to both enthral and revile audiences is, in my opinion, much to its credit; any film that rattles people to a state of unrest on either end of the enjoyment spectrum suggests that it is worth paying attention to. However, I would like to make the case that far from being the shambles that many critics and commentators would have us think, ‘mother!’ was one of the best films last year, shockingly timely and, in the opinion of Mark Kermode, a film that will ‘impress’ the further away you get from the initial ‘oppressive’ experience of viewing it.[3]

mother!’ offers so many different readings, but I think the most significant is the film’s critique of the concept of the female muse. Jennifer Lawrence’s character, ‘Mother’, is constantly referred to as the ‘inspiration’ for ‘Him’, Javier Bardem’s egocentric writer. This is because her time is consumed with nurturing their house and home. She is referred to as ‘inspiration’ again by ‘Him’s’ publicist, the ‘Herald’ played brilliantly by Kristen Wiig, and then by the multitude of people who come into their house before all hell breaks loose. I argue that it’s the treatment of ‘Mother’ as this symbolic, abstract figure that enables the violence brought upon her by everyone in the house. The arguably mild micro-aggression displayed by ‘Him’ at the beginning of the film, such as his constantly inviting all and sundry into their home, not listening to ‘Mother’ and making a mess and expecting ‘Mother’ to clean it all up, paves the way for others to do so, and worse. This manifests when ‘Him’ and his ‘guests’ ignore her, in particular when two slam themselves repeatedly on the sink and rip it off the wall and when strangers begin to paint her walls a different colour; when a male stranger propositions ‘Mother’, he refuses to take no for an answer then calls her a ‘cunt’(a scene practically lifted from the Everyday Sexism blog or the Bye Felipe Instagram account); and when the braying crowd, who have killed her baby, start to violently beat her up and only stop when ‘Him’ tells them to. The idea of a woman serving passively as ‘inspiration’, as a beautiful muse, feeds the idea that women, particularly when confined to a domestic space, do not have subjectivity. Instead, they are vessels and symbols for men to fetishize in the name of creativity. It is the denial of a whole, complex personhood that results in a woman becoming a patriarchal doormat. Not being listened to may seem like a simple annoyance, but the more people ignore her, the more danger ‘Mother’ is in. She is drowned out by the throngs of people who invade the home, before being owned, used and abused by them all. The ringleader appears in the form of ‘Him’.

Nowhere is this seen better than when ‘Mother’ is breastfeeding her newborn son in a boarded up room that keeps the intruding guests out. In a film of claustrophobic close-ups, the shots of ‘Mother’ and her suckling baby feel softer, calmer and intimate whilst the bond between mother and child begins to strengthen. All the while, however, ‘Him’ looms in the background, watching them unblinking, unflinching, determined to show the child off to a hallway teeming with his ‘guests’. He does not care that ‘Mother’ has only just given birth, he does not care that she wants to keep the child safe and out of sight, he does not care that she wants to nourish and sustain him; he only wants to feed his own ego and vanity. In the end, he waits and watches with frightening menace, taking his opportunity to take the child from her when she inadvertently falls asleep. His entitlement can only come from viewing his wife as unequal to him: she is at times revered as a vague yet divine source of inspiration, but this also makes her vulnerable to whatever violent and aggressive whims and desires he is able to act upon her and her body.

mother-2017-005-jennifer-lawrence-hands-wall

As a result, ‘mother! is an explicit warning of the danger posed to women who are reduced to an abstract, symbolic concept instead of respected as multi-faceted, interior beings with their own thoughts, ideas and desires. The ‘muse’ figure is essentially a dehumanised figure and the consequences for the woman, as shown in this film, are nightmarish. The final twist of the knife comes at the end of the film, where the narrative circles back to its opening scene. Instead, however, of Jennifer Lawrence’s ‘Mother’, calling ‘Baby?’ to ‘Him’, it’s a new incarnation of a different woman in the exact same position. It suggests that this whole torturous experience is undeniably about to happen all over again. It would appear that men like ‘Him’ always have a second chance, they are redeemable. Women, on the other hand, do not have this privilege, but are merely inspirational fodder to be exploited again and again, one after the other from the patriarchal conveyer belt. Of all the characters in the film, the one who seems to understand this the most is the scene-stealing Domhnall Gleeson’s ‘Oldest Son’. In a frantic scene, ‘Oldest Son’ kills his younger brother in a fit of rage because he doesn’t believe that anyone in his family genuinely loves or values him, asking ‘Mother’ if she understands.  Later on, he returns to ‘Mother’ alone in the house and tells her, ‘You do understand. Good luck’.[4] This tense, quiet scene foreshadows all of the horror to come and the ‘luck’ ‘Mother’ will need to navigate through it. Additionally, it is immediately of no comfort that ‘Him’ appears to enfold ‘Mother’ in his arms; she is undoubtedly within the belly of the beast, deep in the clutches of her abuser.

domhnall gleeson

Whilst the film’s violence has been condemned by many, it is the rejection of a woman as a dispensable image to inspire men that feels so timely. Within Western art, women have all too often played the role of a figurative muse for men, with horrible consequences for their emotional wellbeing. You just have to look to the experiences of Elizabeth Siddal, Edie Sedgwick, Marianne Faithfull, Amelie Gautreau and Uma Thurman, who all suffered from the acute power imbalance at play with the men who ‘revered’ them and for whom they provided some sort of ‘inspiration’. Importantly, this film marginally pre-dates the allegations reported against Harvey Weinstein, and the increased, renewed scrutiny of men like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Quentin Tarantino, Louis CK and many others who work in the creative industries and have allegedly abused women. With the subsequent #MeToo and Time’s Up movements that have flourished in the wake of these allegations, the production of art will undeniably have to change. Women can no longer be used as mere muses and inspirations for writers and directors. What is ironic, however, is that such a reading of progressiveness can be taken from ‘mother!’ when Darren Aronofsky has come under criticism for his allegedly manipulative and ‘abusive’ practices: his direction triggered a well-documented panic attack from Lawrence during the process of filming, he banned bottled water from the set of Noah (2014)which led to Emma Watson falling ill, something he recommended she should ‘use for the scene’, and allegedly separated Natalie Portman and Mila Kunis to play them off one another during the filming of Black Swan (2010).[5] It is wildly frustrating that a film that critiques the patriarchal disposal of women in the name of creativity, is allegedly practised by the film’s very director.

It is also as a result of this that we have to be careful about completely embracing the film’s apparent environmental agenda. Aronofsky said himself ‘I want to make a film about Mother Nature. I wanted to make a film from her perspective’, and it is an interpretation that has been picked up by Mark Kermode and Naomi Klein. [6] Aronofsky believes he has made a film that presents ‘Mother Nature’, through allegory, suffering the horrors that human beings reap on the natural world, i.e. her. Whilst I am in favour of more texts that critique environmental destruction, climate change and take aim at the over consumption of selfish, ignorant human beings, using the figure of ‘Mother Nature’ to do this is unhelpful and dangerous. ‘Mother Nature’ is perhaps the most mythologised, idealised version of femininity ever thought up. She is a ‘mother’, she ‘brings life’ and she is ‘cruel’, all stereotypes constructed about/for women that are projected onto the natural world. ‘Mother Nature’ is, ultimately, a vacant, arbitrary symbol, representing bags of patriarchal dogma and we need to be critical of that. What is frustrating is that reading the Earth as a woman feeds into the problematic negation of subjectivity that the film does so well to portray. Indeed, focusing on a figurative ‘Mother Nature’ undercuts all the work ‘mother!’ does to critique the presentation of women as abstraction. It is so ironic yet, perhaps, unsurprising that Aronofsky, given his dodgy history of abusive practice towards his actresses and partners, encourages us to think of Earth embodied as a woman. This should serve as an enormous reminder to us that we must not limit our interpretations of texts to whatever the writer/director may or may not have intended.

In its presentation of the danger posed to female muses, ‘mother!’ is radical and unflinching. Art, in all its forms, is barbaric if it is leeched from or comes at the expense of the subjectivity and personhood of those close to the artist. Importantly, Aronofsky is not exempt from this and we must approach his diagnosis of his film as about ‘Mother Nature’ with a large, healthy amount of critical scepticism and a copy of Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’. Nevertheless, ‘mother!’ is an important film because it does so much to highlight that this construct of the ‘female muse’ is a dehumanising, unsustainable abuse of power. It is a performative, disorientating film that bombards the senses with unrelenting noise and visual horror, but that does not mean that it is a mess that lacks any political awareness. I would encourage as many people as possible to steel up some nerves, get a bottle of gin ready for the credits and watch this film. It deserves to be given some critical attention because its presentation of gendered power imbalance in art is so unfettered, so immersive and so appropriate in this era of #TimesUp. It reminds us that film should not just be reassuring, escapism; we need films that challenge us, hold up a mirror to the dynamics at play in the world around us and to give us the impetus to ask one of the most important questions of all: ‘what are we going to do about it?’.

[1] ‘Film Review: mother! is a pretentious mess’ http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20170914-film-review-mother-is-a-pretentious-mess

[2] ‘Jennifer Lawrence set to end things with Darren Aronofsky?’, Grazia, https://graziadaily.co.uk/celebrity/news/jennifer-lawrence-set-end-things-darren-aronofsky/

[3] Kermode and Mayo’s Film Review, BBC Radio Five Live http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05g6x9d

[4] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-vhra0KrIfs [accessed 28th May 2018].

[5] ‘Why Do We Let “Genius” Directors Get Away With Abusive Behavior?’, https://www.buzzfeed.com/imransiddiquee/hollywood-abusive-auteur-problem?utm_term=.bj3Gjm8QO#.hjrxNYnr3,  Imran Siddiquee, Buzzfeed [Posted on 25th October 2017, at 11:55 pm]; ‘Emma Watson fell ill on Noah set after Darren Aronofsky banned bottled water’, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/feb/17/emma-watson-noah-darren-aronofsky-banned-bottle-water, Ben Child, The Guardian, [Posted on 17 February 2014, at 12.48 GMT]; ‘5 Things You Didn’t Know About Natalie Portman’, https://www.vogue.com/article/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-natalie-portman, Maria Ward, Vogue [Posted on 20th August 2016 at 11:00].

[6] Naomi Klein contacted Aronofsky to note how ironic it was that the film was released whilst Hurricane Irma left a trail of devastation in the Caribbean and on the mainland USA. Also note later on Jennifer Lawrence’s description of her breakdown due to her immersion in the scene being ‘too much’, compared to Aronofsky’s satisfaction with the events that occurred during filming.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyZVUC5jeVw&t=162s [1:13, accessed 8th March 2018].

New Zealand: music we listened to

Spending six weeks driving around New Zealand with my partner opened up a lot of time to listen to music new and old. We got round to the albums that we really should have heard by now and wallowed in songs that have been ringing around our heads for years. I thought I’d share my thoughts on a few here. Out of all the albums we downloaded (thanks Spotify), two really stood out the most, demonstrating some of the very best song writing around at the moment.

SZA – Ctrl

SZA-CTRL-album-cover

The first time I came across SZA was when she featured on ‘Consideration’, the opening song of Rihanna’s 2016 album Anti. Her voice has the gravelly soul of the great Lauryn Hill, coupled with a gorgeous raspy softness, and I was definitely interested to listen to this 2017 solo effort. The opening track, ‘Supermodel’, is breath taking, and I’m finding it hard to think of another first song that is as arresting, intertwining musical simplicity with lyrics that epically twist and turn with the complexity of the person singing. Beginning with the unflinching bravado of ‘I been secretly banging your homeboy’, SZA swings between a gutsy, devil-may-care façade and a piercingly sensitive portrait of an insecure young woman newly and unwillingly single. Here’s an extract just to taste:

‘Ooh just get a load of them

They got chemistry

All they could say

We like brother and sister

Look so good together

Bet they fuckin’ for real

 

And they was right

That’s why I stayed with ya

The—the dick was too good

It made me feel good

For temporary love

You was a temporary lover

 

Leave me lonely for prettier women

You know I need too much attention

For shit like that

You know you wrong

For shit like that

 

I could be your supermodel

If you believe

If you see it in me

See it in me

See it in me

 

I don’t see myself

Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?

Wish I was comfortable just with myself

But I need you

I need you

I need you’ – ‘Supermodel’, Ctrl

Vulnerability palpitates here: she clings to the glorious image of her and her ex, looking at their relationship through the eyes of others and consolidating how well matched they were. What is so subtle but revealing in the next verse is the caesura of ‘That’s why I stayed with ya / The – the dick was too good’. Even when SZA’s words are telling one story or conveying one apparent response, the caesura indicates that there is something more powerful underneath, disrupting the lyrics and their delivery. The break between ‘the’ and ‘the’ comes across as a stumble or a stutter, as though she catches herself before she lets her emotions flow through again, shifting awkwardly back into the almost traditionally masculine bravado of physicality. It’s not convincing at all that she just stayed with her boyfriend for sex; the hesitating break suggests that by referring to his dick she is attempting, perhaps unconsciously, to obscure her emotional distress over the break up, or distract from the pain of it. In her attempt to show a lack of care, she demonstrates that she cares very, very much and herein lies the song’s heart-wrenching vulnerability.

This becomes even clearer because her bravado does not last long: the caesura is followed by the chorus, which comes with a series of repetitions, for example ‘see it in me’ and ‘I need you’, and a question, ‘Why I can’t stay alone just by myself?’ She is aware that she has a desire to be secure within herself, a desire to not feel lonely even if she finds herself alone, but she is nowhere near there with her self-esteem or her emotional independence. She implores with her ex that she could be his ‘supermodel’, perhaps suggesting that physical beauty is an important thing to him, something he values in a relationship. It also, however, suggests that this is something that she values too, because she wants him to see outstanding physical beauty in her. She is hurt by the fact that he has left her for ‘prettier women’, suggesting that there is something lacking in her beauty that meant she couldn’t make him stay. It is incredibly moving listening to a woman grappling with why her boyfriend doesn’t want to be with her. At times, she tries to be the archetypal strong, independent woman who needs a dick and not a man; but at the same time she is crippled by self-criticism and constantly looks beyond herself for happiness and acceptance in superficiality.

And so the album begins. It is truly an outstanding way to set the scene for the rest to follow, with my particular favourites coming in the form of ‘Drew Barrymore’ and the trippy ‘Doves in the Wind’ featuring Kendrick Lamar, which reminded me of Lamar’s ‘YAH’ from his Pulitzer-prize winning album DAMN. It has something of the Frank Oceanic about it too. The most famous song from the album, perhaps, is ‘Weekend’ which was given a Majestic Casual-esque makeover (sic ‘Funk Wav Remix’) by Calvin Harris. Whilst I am here for as much soul and funk as possible, the remix does lose some of the carefully crafted vulnerability of the original; the delicate mingling of devil-may-care and crippling self-doubt, where a young woman tries to embrace the freedom of temporary, flexible romance but definitely wants more.  Overall, SZA is one of the artists I am most excited about at the moment. I am rarely convinced by portrayals or depictions of love and relationships in pop culture, but SZA’s raw songs are fresh and original in their sensitivity.

St Vincent – MASSEDUCTION

masseduction_st vincent

This was the album we listened to by far the most on our trip. I had been aware of St Vincent for a long time: the first song I can remember of Annie Clark’s was a collaboration with Grizzly Bear called ‘Slow Life’ from the Twilight: New Moon soundtrack (I don’t care what anyone says, the Twilight films were shite but the soundtracks most certainly were not. The soundtrack from this film, in particular, introduced me to Bon Iver, Band of Skulls and Thom Yorke); however, I had never taken the time to actually listen to any more of her music.

Initially, I got the wrong end of the stick with the title, reading ‘mass education’ and not ‘mass seduction’. This made the eponymous song, with its list of fetishes that get St Vincent hot under the collar, mildly confusing when I’d been expecting a manifesto on the importance of accessible, state-funded schooling. When I learned to read again (how ironic) it quickly became clear that this album is as passionate in its engagement with our hyperactive, hyper-sexualised pill-popping culture as I thought it would be about teaching. The tongue-in-cheek characterisation of sex, vanity and indulgence in songs like ‘Los Ageless’, ‘Sugarboy’ and ‘Savior’ are met with Jack Anatoff’s signature pulse-racing, electro-heavy production, creating a wacky Willy Wonka ride through the obsessions and repressions of modern romance.

These, however, are immediately offset and intermingled with songs that convey a real sense of desperation, the comedown after all the hype. Where individual grappling with anxiety, loneliness and regret, explored in songs like ‘Hang On Me’, ‘Happy Birthday, Johnny’, ‘Young Lover’ and ‘Slow Disco’, is projected onto a collective future that is severely bleak. In ‘Fear the Future’, St Vincent demands an anonymous ‘Sir’ to confront the seemingly inevitable prospects of war and swelling oceans which, I think, is a blatant address to President Trump.[1] The awareness of personal and political turmoil rubbing together and creating intense heat is centre stage on this album. They fuel one another and create a fast-paced, energetic trip that makes contemplation and reflection both necessary and unavoidable.

MASSEDUCTION excels because whilst heavy with complex synths, dark discussions of mental health and demonstrating palm-sweating horror at the damage we do to ourselves and others, it is never far from a wry wink or a cheeky elbow in the ribs. Much like the pills St Vincent describes raining down on us and propping up our lives, I listened to this album compulsively.

Other albums we listened to:

father john mistyIsolationKendrickBLL

‘Pure Comedy’, Father John Misty – emotional encyclopaedia that is also warmly scathing in its criticism of humanity’s current condition: Trump, misogyny, religion, social media, cultural revolutions all take beatings.

‘Isolation’, Kali Uchis – the love child of Amy Winehouse and Rihanna. The happiest sounding sad songs I’ve come across in a while.

‘DAMN’, Kendrick Lamar – I miss the challenging, experimental narratives of ‘Good Kid, M. A. A. D City’ and ‘To Pimp a Butterfly’, but Lamar’s lyrics have never been so performative nor complex than with this punchy, powerful album.

‘Melodrama’, Lorde – we couldn’t not listen to Lorde whilst in New Zealand (she’s from Devonport, Auckland). This album has become a certified modern classic and I would have loved for it to have been around when I was 20 and a mess. The sound engineering is great (see Jack Anatoff again) but the lyrics are gratingly immature at times; she’s perpetually self-deprecating but everything is always someone else’s fault too.

‘Konnichiwa’, Skepta – ‘Your ex plays in the Prem but you never see him taking a pen / ‘Cause if you can’t hit the G-spot when it comes to the spot kicks / Manna gotta wait on the bench’ is one of my favourite lyrics ever. More rappers need to pay attention to female sexual pleasure, please.

‘Ultraviolence’, Lana Del Rey – my go-to, come rain, shine, hell or high water. Del Rey and Dan Auerbach magic from beginning to end.

‘Big Little Lies’ Soundtrack – we listened to this so many times. A comprehensive textbook of blues and dream pop, featuring Charles Bradley, Michael Kiwanuka, Jefferson Airplane, Elvis Presley, Big Brother and the Holding Company, Agnes Obel, Alabama Shakes etc.

Personal playlists: featuring the likes of Tom Misch, Barney the Artist, Earth, Wind and Fire, Marvin Gaye, Jamie Woon, Sade, The Beatles, The Doors, Leonard Cohen, Kate Bush, Enya (yes, really), Ann Peebles, Eminem, Whitney Houston etc.

[1] Released in 2017, MASSEDUCTION is one of a string of releases by American artists in that year who are seething and incredulous at the political fallout of the 2016 presidential election (see also Kendrick Lamar and Lana Del Rey).