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.

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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].

Disney devours his children: deconstruction or unoriginality?

This essay was first published on Cloudbanks and Shimbleshanks in November 2014

For the relatively short time that cinema has been in existence as a medium of expression, one of the most prominent genres that has endured is the fairytale. This was largely, and most famously, spearheaded by Disney with Snow White and the Seven Dwarves in 1937 but came to encompass work by Powell and Pressburger, Guillermo del Toro and Terry Gilliam amongst others. The common trend in the past 5 years or so has been an emphasis on the re-interpretation of traditional fairytales, which have included amongst others The Princess and the Frog, Frozen, Mirror Mirror and Snow White and the Huntsman. Disney however, the ultimate motion picture fairytale factory, has recently taken this trend to an entirely new level by re-making live-action versions of its own animated films. From the newly released Cinderella to the live-action re-makes of Beauty and The Beast, Mulan, Dumbo, Tink (based on Peter Pan) and The Jungle Book, Disney is ploughing its way through its own archive material to produce new films. As the company effectively consumes itself, there are important questions to be asked about what this means: do these films embody a progressive deconstruction of Disney’s oeuvre or a cynical money-grabbing exercise in one of the most explicit forms of mechanised unoriginality to ever exist?

One of the most important ideas associated with deconstruction, a word adopted by Jacques Derrida in his various tracts on linguistics and metaphysics, is that texts exist beyond their authors: they undermine the possibility for authorial intent and exist in the world as a product of the cultural values in existence. Whilst it is inaccurate to say that Disney has deconstructed its own films because, according to Derrida, it is in the nature of language to deconstruct and not be deconstructed by any sort of force, there has been an attempt to undercut the idea of the author. This manifests in the way in which films are not treated as sacred, untouchable objects made by Walt Disney but produce other meanings to be explored and visually represented.

The best example of this is can be seen in Maleficent, a new story born from the 1959 animated film Sleeping Beauty that focuses on the quintessential villain Maleficent over Briar Rose and her relationship to Prince Phillip. The fourth wave of feminism has helped to encourage the production of fairytales where much more complex stories about women and women’s experiences are presented, and nowhere is this done better than in Maleficent. Where we once saw Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty sitting pretty waiting for their princes to rescue them, the new films have seen an emphasis on female empowerment; from Kristen Stewart and Charlize Theron as Snow White and Ravenna and Brave’s Merida taking up arms to save themselves, to a greater emphasis on emotional and financial self-sufficiency in Frozen and The Princess and the Frog. Maleficent, I would argue, does this in the most radical way, taking the tired narrative of 1959, producing new meanings about the characters in both films whilst simultaneously creating much more engaging and interesting female characters for men and women to understand.

In an unusual non-heteronormative move for Disney, who loves a good monarchy, Maleficent takes place in the Moors, the magical domain of fairies that explicitly rejects the idea of a king and queen and comes under constant attack by the kingdom next door. The film explores what is effectively date rape when the ambitious servant-boy Stefan tells Maleficent, the fairy with the biggest wings who protects the Moors from bombardment, that he loves her, before drugging her and cutting of her magnificent wings as bounty so that he can become king; thus forming the basis for her revenge. It explores the unexplainable but beautiful relationship that exists between Maleficent and Aurora, whom when she curses, Maleficent feels inextricably bound to;  where Maleficent’s capacity for both hate and love, and good and evil become inter-changeable, and where it is actually OK for her to tend to all of these; it explores the madness of a paranoid and guilty King Stefan(‘uneasy lies the head that wears a crown’ if I ever saw it- Henry IV Part 2 III.i.31) and almost completely casts aside the role of Prince Phillip, whose character verges on farcical, attacking the idea that love at first sight exists.

Maleficent, therefore, presents a progressive re-reading of an old text. Like with Maxine Peake’s recent turn in Hamlet, where the famous ‘To be or not to be’ speech was postponed until much later on in the play, the original 1959 film of Sleeping Beauty has not been rendered untouchable and sacred; a thing belonging to Walt Disney that should be unprivileged and left un-open to questioning. Rather, new readings have produced new meanings, which result in new representations that are much more in tune with the active, complex roles that women have in society. One other good example of this kind of attitude that Disney has adopted towards its own animated fairytales is Enchanted in 2007. Despite the presence of talking animals, people unpredictably breaking into song and a romantic ending, the film critiques the sensational way in which Disney has presented its fairytales; in particular the idea of characters wanting to marry as soon as they first meet. It has been possible for Disney to shine a lot on its own material and I think the results have been extremely promising.

With the new announcement only last week that Disney are preparing to make another live-action re-make (this time of Winnie The Pooh) however, the argument that Disney’s producers and accountants want to create new meanings from the texts they already have becomes slightly shaky. Of course this will happen anyway simply because they will be producing new texts; however, these serve to underline Disney’s authority over the production fairy stories, appealing directly to the nostalgia of audiences. Derrida describes in Spectres of Marx that deconstruction and the ideas involved with deconstruction can be seen as a certain radicalization of Marxism. As one of the most capitalistic Western corporations in existence, it would be ridiculous to think that Disney in any way is associated with the left. This can be seen in the way in which the company has become increasingly obsessed with making money at any cost. It began with the costly box office flops The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, John Carter and The Lone Ranger which lost the studio millions of dollars each. As a result, Disney has turned to low-risk, safe, tried and tested franchises and films; films they know already have big followings and will keep the money rolling in. First we heard the news of Star Wars being resurrected and then slowly more and more live-action re-makes of their animated films.

In his 1933 essay on perennial jazz, Theodor Adorno critiques the mechanization of the culture industry and the emphatic lack of originality in cultural production. I would argue that this is being unashamedly realised in Disney’s film schedule with its reduction in the number of original films due for production and release. Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Fairy Godmother in the re-make of Cinderella and known for more off-beat film choices, expressed her scepticism at the beginning of filming as to whether ‘a straight version would work’; questioning the extent to which a film that effectively just brings animation to life could be interesting. To Kenneth Branagh the twist of the film is that it is ‘classic’ and not a re-imagining or re-reading like Maleficent; however, regardless of how well the script is written, how good the acting is or how they have best made use of special effects the fact remains that this is not an original film idea. Resorting more and more to resurrecting and perpetuating old sagas, including Pirates of the Caribbean alongside Star Wars, in addition to its archive of animated classics, Disney panders more and more to old, previously successful formulas at the expense of imagination: creating new characters, stories and predicaments for audiences to admire and engage with.

All of this is problematic because Disney is setting a dangerous precedent: that films are fluffy, nostalgia fests to transport us away from the troubles of everyday life, instead of tools for critiquing culture. I saw the latest Cinderella and against my better judgment absolutely enjoyed being reminded of the film I saw in childhood: from the song ‘A Dream is a Wish Your Heart Makes’ to the comic fights between Lucifer the cat and Gus and Jaq the mice, to the awful singing from Anastasia and Drizella and that dress transformation. There were some parts of the film I really liked, for example the extremely sensitive portrayal of the prince’s relationship with his father; however, wouldn’t it be better to explore those relationships in other situations or contexts instead of using an old formula that you know will work? Disney, for better or worse, was a pioneer in animation and the live-action re-makes that are going to litter our cinematic landscape over the next few years don’t seem to be very brave ventures to me.

I would argue that a breaking point will be reached in the future where the cultural regurgitation of re-makes and sequels will no longer be creatively sustainable. There has to be an endpoint: where can Disney go after re-making everything it has already made, when it has rinsed its herd of cash-cows? If the studio wasn’t making so much money of this industrial unoriginality, I’d find some kind of enjoyment in the fact that Disney is consuming itself: it is the embodiment of paranoid capitalist culture doing what it can to preserve itself, by gobbling up everything it has ever produced.

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‘Saturn Devouring His Son’, Francisco Goya, 1823