Requiem for a Dream

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Wed Oct 11 11:08:37 MDT 2000

Sitting alone in her chintzy Brighton Beach apartment, overweight and
elderly Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) consoles herself with her two main
addictions: television and sweets. Her favorite television show is an
infomercial that features a self-assured man in a suit striding up and down
the stage telling his studio audience and forlorn people at home like Sarah
that they can turn their lives around. All they have to do is give up red
meat and sugar, and turn on to the inner resources each have within
themselves--something he calls "juice". When he utters the word "juice,"
the audience maniacally begins chanting the word in unison as Sarah stares
beatifically at the TV screen hoping that she too some day will discover
her own "juice."

Her son Harry (Jared Leto) is a junkie and small-time drug-dealer. When we
first meet him and his best friend and fellow junky-dealer Tyrone (Marlon
Wayans), they have seized Sara's television and are wheeling it down the
desolate streets of the industrial blocks near Brighton Beach in order to
deliver it to a hock shop, where they are frequent visitors, always with
the same TV set.

One day Sara receives an invitation to appear as a contestant on a
television game show. This represents the possibility of deliverance from
loneliness and inadequacy. She embarks on a self-improvement program to
make her more attractive for the upcoming television appearance. One of her
Brighton Beach cronies, played to the hilt by Louise Lasser, dyes her hair
red. This will match the red dress that sits in her closet, the one she
wore to Harry's high school graduation. There is only one problem: it is
now way too small.

She puts herself on a crash diet that excludes all sugar and fatty foods.
In doing so, she experiences withdrawal symptoms in a food-addict's version
of "cold turkey." When fantasies about cheeseburgers and pastries prove too
much for her to take, she looks up a diet doctor who prescribes 3 sets of
pills in different colors that must be taken morning, noon and night.

Meanwhile Harry and Tyrone have stepped up their drug-dealing in an effort
to break into the ranks of the big time and to achieve their own kind of
"juice." Some of the proceeds are targeted for a dress-design shop to be
run by Harry's girl-friend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), a junkie herself.

The ambitious plans of mother and son soon begin to unravel. Although her
weight begins to evaporate, Sara finds the side-effects of the drugs both
frightening and painful. She has waking nightmares in which her
refrigerator appears to advance toward her like a Frankenstein monster with
a life of its own. When Harry visits her to announce that he is presenting
her with a brand-new giant-screen television, paid for by revenues from his
expanding drug trade, he is alarmed to find his mother grinding her teeth
uncontrollably like a speed freak. When he tells her that she is addicted,
she answers that this is impossible. A doctor prescribed the pills, so how
can she be addicted.

But addicted she is. Unlike her son and his friends, she is a victim of
"approved" drugs which are every bit as harmful as those peddled on the
streets by her son. Director Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream",
based on his screenplay adaptation of a novel by Hubert Selby Jr., takes
these characters and shows with unstinting and gruesome honesty how
addiction can destroy lives. The powerful but deeply disturbing climax of
the film depicts the unraveling of mother and son, as the search for
satisfaction and acceptance proves elusive. Unlike the typical film about
addicts, which tends to view them as weak people with character flaws,
Aronofsky's film leads to a different kind of a conclusion--namely, that
society itself is flawed.

Although Darren Aronofsky is an extremely talented director and screenplay
writer, this film would have been impossible without Hubert Selby Jr., one
of the great American writers of the past half-century. Now over seventy
years old, Selby is best known for his collection of short stories "Last
Exit in Brooklyn" which like "Requiem for a Dream" depicts the sufferings
of working people and drifters living at the margins of society in the
hinterlands of Brooklyn. Although Selby is linked stylistically with the
Beat Generation, especially William S. Burroughs, I find him to be a
throwback to the Depression Era, especially the bleakly surrealistic novels
of CP'er Nathaniel West.

In an April 18, 1999 interview with the British newspaper, The Independent,
Selby takes aim at American society:

"The fascism in this country today is incredible. But things go through
cycles. Look at McCarthyism. That started in the 1950s and went through for
quite a while. So the basic pathology is always there. In this country, our
escape, regardless of what technology's around, has always been money. The
so-called 'bottom line' is God, over absolutely everything. So regardless
of what else is going on, there is that fix."

In dealing with the ups and downs of Selby's career, which during down
phases had him pumping gas or on welfare, the British interviewer who is
altogether sympathetic to the legendary writer, says, "I didn't mean to
upset you. It's just that America seems to hold a terror that England
doesn't. In England there's still a net. But in America you can be an
upstanding citizen for years and then suddenly through a combination of
unfortunate circumstances you fall and you are ... "

Selby completes the interviewer's sentence:

"Dead. And this is the richest country in the world, in every way possible,
and we have millions of children starving. Can you f---ing believe that!

Hubert Selby Jr. was the Brooklyn-born only child of an engineer and a
housewife who joined the Merchant Marines at the end of WWII, just like
Jack Kerouac. Around this time, he contracted tuberculosis. In an effort to
save his life, doctors removed 10 ribs so they could collapse his left lung
and snip out part of the diseased right one.

During his recuperation, according to a profile that appeared in the March
11, 1988 Los Angeles Times, he sneaked out for nights of drinking and would
pass out in snowbanks, only to be rescued by neighborhood friends. Soon
afterwards he also developed a $100 a day heroin habit. This led to a
90-day, drug-related prison stint and a four-month stay in solitary
confinement at Bellevue Hospital after attempting suicide.

This personal hell was occurring in the late 1940s, when he was also
hanging out with the characters who would form the inner core of "Last Exit
to Brooklyn" and "Requiem for a Dream."

Although "Requiem for a Dream" is an art movie bordering on the
experimental, it is currently playing at commercial houses all around the
country. It is not to be missed.

Louis Proyect
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