Requiem for a Dream

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Wed Jan 17 23:08:46 MST 2001

Requiem for a Dream: Showing at the Dendy Brisbane

This film by Darren Aronofsky is adapted from the 1978 novel  by Hugh Selby
Jnr.  Selby is famous for "Last Exit to Brooklyn" (1964) a novel about the
horrors of a gay sub-culture in New York. The film deals with the lives of
four people:  Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her son Harry (Jared Leto),
his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelley) and Harry's Afro-American friend
Tyrone C. Love (Marlon Wayans).

The mother gets hooked on amphetamines because she thinks she is about to
go on television and needs to lose weight.  Harry and Tyrone try to make it
as drug dealers.  The idea is also to create a clothes designer business
for Marion. Their fate should not surprise anyone.

The film lasts for 102 minutes and details in the most harrowing way how
everyone and everything goes wrong.  We are spared nothing, absolutely
nothing.  At the end I walked out of the for- the-press showing absolutely
traumatised, and I was not feeling great to begin with.

I should of course have expected this from a film that had its origins in a
Selby novel. In a way I did but knowing intellectually and undertaking the
actual journey are two very different things.

What is good about this film?  Well the film is a sure and certain antidote
to any complacency about life in America.  The fatuous nonsense that CNN is
about to shower the world with over Bush's inauguration is brutally
exposed.  There is something  very rotten in  America. Moreover the
director, Aronosfsky, is bright and is I suspect  about to be The
Man.   His innovative use of a range of film techniques such as the split
screen is very effective and at times stunningly beautiful. Moreover Ellen
Burstyn is amazing in the main role.  This is American acting at its most
gut wrenching.  For these things alone the film is a must see, and the fact
that the Dendy is showing it confirms its status as Brisbane's premier
centre for serious Cinema.  The added bonus is that the film's  anti-drug
message is horrifically  (necessarily so) clear.

There are though things about the film's thematic structure that I would
like to explore.  It is for a start an absolute downer. 'Christ', I asked
my friend,  'Is life like that in America?'  She thought 'yes'.   I said it
could not be, because if life was like that then the film would be
impossible.  If everyone was totally fucked up, how could you get a book or
a film written?

I was thinking here of Engels' category of naturalism versus realism.
Naturalism undialectically posits the working class as victims and ignores
the potential they possess to become the agents of history and to make the
world anew.  That distinction was of some comfort to me.  But then over
coffee my friend and I had a trip through the number of families we know
who have been afflicted with heroin addiction.  The list was depressing and
this is Brisbane, not New York. So is the film naturalist or realist.  Well
the answer is that it is naturalist but then, I am inclined to think,  so
is reality!

The second thing I want to comment on is the fatal flaw that all the
characters had.  They desired.  The mother wanted to go on
television.  Harry and Tyrone wanted to be dealers.  Marion wanted to be a
fashion designer.  In a very Buddhist or Shopenauerian way their problems
and their suffering could be seen to follow directly from this desire.  If
the mother had been prepared to shed the past and her dreams of a husband
who found her desirable again then she would not have ended up on
amphetamines.  Similarly for all the other characters, it is desire that
traps them.

However I want to essay a non- Buddhist reading of the film.  I want to say
that the problem is not desire but the tawdry nature of their dreams.  To
want to go on a Quiz show is hardly the pinnacle of ambition.  What is
needed for these characters is for them to receive an education in desire
and not asceticism.

As the great Socialist William Morris said so memorably, we need 'to teach
desire to desire, to desire better, to desire more, and above all to desire
in a different way' (cited in E.P. Thompson, "William Morris", 1976:
791).  Looked at the film in this way the problem with the characters is
not that they desired but that they desired so little.



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