Personal Favorites: Requiem
For me, aside from all the objective study of form, film has always been about personal connection. The films that stick with me after years and years and repeated viewings all do so for a reason I can’t fully explain. They awaken a new emotion inside of me that I would never attempt to put into words. I think I can describe, however, why that emotion is there. I identify with what I see on screen and actually grow to better know and understand myself as a result of seeing the world and my experience in it through the filter of that film. If it sounds lofty, that’s because it is. It doesn’t happen often, but when it does, film can be an intensely intimate form of not only personal expression but also personal reception. As a result, I have decided to begin a new series entitled “Personal Favorites,” wherein I write about a film and why it has impacted me personally. These films are not my favorites because I “really like” them, but because upon first viewing, I seemed to know and connect with them immediately. Each time I see them, the experience deepens and richens and somehow I learn something new about both the film and me.
The first film I have chosen to write about is Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000). Brennan has already written about the film in the Watersheds: Darren Aronofsky post, but I wanted to go deeper into how identifiable the film is. As Brennan mentioned, it is a punch in the gut revealing the vilest aspects of human nature. Unlike others, I don’t find that the film glories in its own visceral brutality, nor do I think it does these things as a gimmick or to simply push boundaries. It is, above all, dedicated to visually representing the inevitable path of addiction, and it could not successfully do this without portraying wrecked lives, unabashed depravity, a void wherein love and empathy are swallowed, and an all-consuming sense of fragility, vulnerability, disillusionment, and regret. It is a truly emotional viewing experience as you follow these characters to the lowest of lows.
The film is often said to be “about drugs,” but it would be more accurate to say that it is about addiction. It does not hit you over the head with a theme or message. It is not filled with exposition. It does not attempt any kind of larger social commentary about drugs. It does, however, make you feel the pangs of addiction. On one hand, I don’t know anyone who does not understand addiction: alcohol, tobacco, television, exercise, food, pornography, another person, etc. On the other hand, I would say that only drug addicts understand it in the way that the characters in the film do. That is, the physicality of it may be specific to them, but the process is not. It begins with something fun and seemingly harmless. An early scene shows Marion holding out pills and asking who wants to waste some time. And that’s what it is: something exciting to take one out of the monotony of daily life to experience new emotions. Tyrone and Harry begin to sell drugs and the money starts to flow. Marion hopes to open her own store. Sara wants to lose weight the easy way. The things that these characters become addicted to are picked up initially to make their lives better, not worse. They have dreams (thus the title) and drugs seem to offer a way in which they can fulfill them. Of course, things get ugly. The money runs out and the drugs are not so easily available. The physical craving causes them to do whatever it takes to get their hands on them. They do disgusting things to get one more hit; and like the hole in Harry’s arm, the want grows larger and larger each time it is momentarily pacified. Their fates are tragic, and surely they are left wondering, “How did this happen?” “Why couldn’t I have just stopped?”
I don’t know anyone who does not understand this on some level. It may be more intense for some, but I think it is there for all. When I was looking at a user review for Black Swan on IMDB, I saw one who claimed that Aronofsky was interested in the fact that our wants force us to give up part of ourselves, a part which we need. The process is inevitable: We want, we lose ourselves in getting it, and we lose what we need. We choose to pursue the temporary pacification of a physical want rather than the lasting fulfillment of a spiritual need. The momentarily fulfillment of our wants creates nothing more than additional and increasingly intense wants. Before we know it, we’re stuck in a microcosm of what the characters in the film face. Actually, I would call the film more a visual representation than a macrocosm, and that’s what I love about it. The film personifies what addiction on any level is like, and it does so without needless exposition. As we face a world of temptations on a daily basis, I carry the film with me quite a bit. I understand the characters’ emotions if not the specific circumstances. I know the cycle but it often doesn’t stop me from repeating it. I would say that the characters’ fates represent the inevitable conclusion for drug addicts or addicts in general, but that is not true. Not every addict ends up in prison or in the hospital or even the grave (at least not as an immediate result to their addiction). Some probably display the semblance of a normal or satisfying life. Yet, carried to their most extreme degree, the emotions are inevitable. Relationships and love cannot grow, aloneness and loneliness will follow, the physical craving will be constant, and the loss of identity will eat away on a daily basis. They may not be in prison, but they wake up to one every day because they cannot control their own beings.
Some people’s kneejerk reaction to films about addiction is to preach moderation or to wonder at the characters’ extremity or to cite the supposed fact that they will never be like them. But that misses the point entirely. People are experiencing these things in many different ways on a constant basis. Preach moderation all you want, but you probably are addicted to something. And while it may not land you in prison or to an early grave, its cost is nothing less than the erosion of your own identity, your own soul. Again, the film speaks not simply to drug addiction but to addiction as a whole. And it illustrates visually what that path is like. I know that I identity with it, and I think everyone can in some way. You may think your life is the total opposite of those of the characters on screen, but that in and of itself may be a warning flag. Admitting is, after all, the first step. Requiem is a film that I love because my reaction to it is more existential than material. It forces me to look inward. We are all, in fact, unable to control our vices or sins or addictions. We are at the mercy of them. But, accepting that we are powerless leads us to the One who is all-powerful.