Cinematic endurance: why are filmmakers trying to make us squirm?

“Sorry for what I am about to do to you”

Darren Aronofsky Mother! premiere TIFF, 2017 

 

It is easy to see why Aronofsky should apologise before the curtains had even opened on his latest film Mother! Fooling the majority of his audience into the comfort of the likeable brand that is Jennifer Lawrence, Aronofsky has somehow managed to wrangle $30m out of Paramount to create a chastening cinema experience which, in my opinion, is the cinematic equivalent of sitting on glass, whilst being showered in McDonald’s szechuan sauce for two hours. You can find pleasure in it of course, but just don’t try to get comfortable in your seat. This isn’t necessarily anything new, arthouse auteurs have been doing so for some time. Todd Solonz revels in it once saying “My movies aren’t for everyone, especially people who like them”. Harmony Korine finds pleasure in it and Lars Von Trier provokes his audience albiet, with unsubtle aplomb. So why now are we starting to see it encroach on Hollywood?

 

In Mother!, the vague plot of Jennifer Lawrence’ Mother of the title welcoming in guest after guest of incongruous characters, seems innocuous enough. And they’re even familiar faces: Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Kristen Wiig (!?) so you must be able to trust them right? Unfortunately, everything is not what it seems, and the way it slowly and menacingly ekes out in line with the degradation of the characters surroundings. Paramount had so much faith in their director that it rolled out Mother! as a wide release, in 2,368 screens to be precise. They plastered their young star front and centre of all of the promotional material, both presenting their weapon and loading it with blanks (Fig 1). This isn’t Jennifer Lawerence from Hunger Games, Joy or Passengers. No, this is unlike any other Jennifer Lawerence, she is going to suffer and Aronofsky wants you to suffer too. It didn’t take long for Paramount to realise this was the case, going as far as to send out an invitation to the audience (Fig 2), one that wasn’t without controversy. Cinemagoers left giving Mother! a Cinemascore of ‘F’ and from my own experience 8 people decided not to endure the experience, leaving prematurely even before the final acts descent into hell. However, maybe this reaction was Aronofsky, and his casts’, intention. After all he has referred to it as a ‘punk movie’, which makes it all the more of a risk for Paramount to take, in an extremely shaky industry.

 

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But he isn’t the only director looking to torment you in the comfort of your seat; take Yorgos Lanthimos. A household name in the realms of arthouse, the Greek director is slowly progressing into the sun-tinged mediterranean Michael Haneke. Dogtooth remains one of the only great things to come out of the Greek financial crisis. Alps is an extremely bleak and absurd tale. The Lobster is both an ostensibly strange and charming piece of cinema, perhaps standing apart from the rest of his filmography. And his new film, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is, much like Aronofsky’ Mother!, a test in endurance. Getting under your skin is something that Lanthimos has built his career on, each of his films are purposely confrontational, and the same can be said for The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Continuing his working relationship with the rejuvenated Colin Farrell, Lanthimos has created a film which spends 20% of it’s time in a classic American diner which should, but does not, equal familiarity, 30% in an eerily well lit hospital; and 50% in a middle class home furnished to the nines, yet represents anything but comfort.

 

At times morbidly funny (You’ll likely regret even the slightest smile), the film navigates, through the lens of curiosity: a study of a relationship between a grizzled surgeon (Farrell) and a baby faced teenage boy (Barry Keoghan, the murmurs are true; he is disturbingly good). The film never lets you feel any form of comfort, the opening shot of open heart surgery forces you, in close up, to see the intricacies of what makes us tick, focusing long enough to make your body convulse. The dialogue remains stilted, as is Lanthimos’ style, here it used with unsettling effect. Throughout the film the camera moves from voyeuristic to stone cold close ups, slowly building to a horrific yet strangely muted crescendo and then seemingly; normality. Even Farrell said that the film left him Fucking depressed”. It is clear that with The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Lanthimos echoes the master of uncomfortable cinema; Michael Haneke.

 

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Always on the fringes of Hollywood, Michael Haneke has created film after film of unease. Long shots that linger without apparent sense, forcing you to examine every inch of the frame in the hope you can find a clue, a pointer, something which will give some semblance of filmic normality. Every film examining the darker sides of humanity. His debut film, Seventh Continent, builds and builds, full of the mundane that is tinged with a sense of dread, that eventually comes to fruition. Funny Games takes an everyday family and slowly torments and tortures them, with baby face antagonists. Haneke brilliantly pulling the rug from under the audience in its most famous scene. And Hidden is a masterpiece in voyuerism, with most shots lingering with deliberation to unsettle and frustrate the audience. He even ritually kills an animal in every film he shoots, he is a cruel and unforgiving director, to watch one of his films is to accept a period of endurance where very little obvious reward is promised on the other end.

 

Haneke, has never felt the need, and rightly so, to take on Hollywood with his style of filmmaking, each of his films are masterpieces in their own right without the need of a mass audience. Yet it is clear from some audience’s reaction to Aronofsky’s Mother! that maybe an adjective like ‘endurance’ is not something that relates to a casual trip to the multiplex. Then again, The Emoji Movie made over $130m this summer, so perhaps i am underestimating the pain audiences are willing to go through. So as Mother! struggles to make it’s budget back and The Killing of a Sacred Deer slowly builds to a wider audience through word of mouth, brilliant performances and festival buzz (It is currently open in nearly 100 screens); why is it that Hollywood is willing to embrace and encourage a cinematic endurance?

 

Do we simply like to feel uncomfortable? Do we want the screen to punish us? Is this a feeling similar to horror, where the unease stimulates the body, empathetically breaking the 4th wall? It seems unfathomable to want to feel ‘uncomfortable’, and there is certainly a sense of sadomasochism in enduring it. Moira Weigel came up with the term ‘Sadomodernism’ when studying Haneke’s filmography, and it can be seen in both Aronofsky and Lanthimos’ latest films;

 

“Sadomodernism expresses its suspicion toward conventional cinematic storytelling by denying audiences the pleasure of conventional narrative and/or subjecting them to pain.” 

 

In mainstream cinema we are taught to empathise with our characters, trusting them to guide us through a narrative which comes to an expected conclusion, never leaving its margins. And it is this empathy where cinematic endurance is most discernible. Mother! gives us a protagonist whose lack of omniscience is shared with her audience. In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, we never get the full picture in the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of the story and neither do our characters. In Haneke’s Hidden we are led down a path by a frustrated protagonist and the path never ends. In all of these situations, they ask us to examine humanity, and for the most part, the monstrosity of it. And this is where the aspect of ‘pain’, or in my opinion discomfort comes from. All of our characters are denied knowledge, and this allows a gap between the audience and its protagonist, where we attempt to piece it together. It is in this gap that we are asked to evaluate the characters and their humanity, a gap where we try to find answers by relating it to our own experiences and the society, or world, that we live in.

 

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Within this gap might explain why we have seen studios more willing to invest in this type of cinema. In the last two years, we have seen an uncomfortable rise in a hatred filled part of society which has now entered everyday media. You can’t avoid talking about Donald Trump, who seems to somehow be equally revered and reviled, but definitely revered by the Russians. He has, whether deliberately or not, been part of (Or led) a global movement which has enabled some of the most horrible facets of society to rise up. France only just beat out a far right candidate whose own father felt that Nazi gas chambers were quite candidly ‘a detail of history’. The UK voted in majority to leave the European Union, with immigration being used as a manipulative tool. Leading to some quite questionable views. Many young black Americans have been unnecessarily killed by police brutality, shattering the idea of a post racial society, that as Get Out brilliantly examined and dissected; never existed in America in the first place. It has been a year when questions of how we interact with one another and the world itself has come into focus; can’t we all just get along? So perhaps these films are our societal mirror. They are slightly distorted images perhaps, but the director holds it in our hand forcefully asking us to look closer and closer beyond the surface we’re shown.

 

The cinema is the best medium to reflect the realities outside the darkened room, whether it is given in an obvious form or allegorical, this is part of cinema’s importance. Aronofsky may not be as subtle as a Haneke in the allegories of his work, but by enduring Mother!, a film I both love but somehow can’t recommend, is where you can find the pleasure, is it sadomasochistic to do so? Maybe. Or perhaps like Lanthimos’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, it is humanity under the microscope, subjecting us to pain by presenting both a seemingly conventional revenge narrative, where a lack of compassion unsettles the more it progresses.

 

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Whether or not we see this trend of endurance cinema continue on a mainstream scale is hard to say. Mother! had its poor box office return defended by Paramount who stumped up the cash and Yorgos Lanthimos is a director who’s star only continues to rise and rise in Hollywood, his brilliant new film will only take it higher. Whether or not he takes his niche style and form with him is up for debate. His next film starring Emma Stone, The Favourite is far removed from his current canon. But in an industry that is losing more and more ticket sales each year, it is bold and admirable that studios are willing to risk losing even more by giving directors creative freedom to have a mirror in their hand, how they show us our reflection is up to them.

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