“The most terrifying fact about the universe is not that it is hostile but that it is indifferent, but if we can come to terms with this indifference, then our existence as a species can have genuine meaning. However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.” – Stanley Kubrick

Fighting paranoia with paranoia: Darren Aronofsky’s struggle to secure his place in Hollywood

By Shannon Blanks
May 27, 2004

If the universe is truly indifferent to the plight of man, can a hidden order exist behind the veils of what we know as reality? Is there a purpose to life, a pattern, an understanding to be reached? Here’s one theory on the subject: If mathematics is the language of nature, everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. If you graph the numbers in any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature. Or so Max Cohen believes. In Darren Aronofsky’s bold, fiercely assured and intelligent debut, “Pi,” Max Cohen taps directly into the central theme that has not only defined the still-evolving cinematic universe of Aronofsky (after all, he’s only made two films), but has thus mirrored his plight within the forever-tightening commercial constraints of Hollywood.

“A thought from today: Writing movies is like reverse paranoia. Paranoids see signs of a hidden order behind reality. When you write a movie you construct a world of signs which all point to the protagonist. The result is a fictional world which mirrors the world of paranoids. In fact, this may mean that Americans who spend hours in movies think that everything is going to work out and everything has an ordered purpose, like a Hollywood script. But the reality is that things don’t work out and everything is chaotic. Hollywood films have turned America into a land of paranoids. We must ‘fight paranoia with paranoia.’ ”

– Darren Aronofsky, in an excerpt from the Guerilla Diaries of “Pi”

Though far too poised, carefully constructed and calculated in his approach to ever be written off as paranoid, in just two films Aronofsky has utilized every cinematic trick in the book to peel back the curtain on the art of filmmaking, restoring humanity to a mechanical process seemingly devoid of life and creativity. In “Pi,” Max Cohen copes with the indifference of the universe by fighting against it, struggling to find meaning with mathematics.

“Requiem for a Dream,” Aronofsky’s brutal and breathtakingly brilliant sophomore effort, finds four disparate protagonists lost in a labyrinth of desperation and hope led astray through the exploration of addiction and misplaced trust. In this film, the characters attempt to warp their surrounding realities to meet their own needs through drugs, diet pills and sex but soon find their hopes and dreams deferred and ultimately broken when they crash against the harsh walls of reality. And though Aronofsky has yet to find box office success, critical acclaim and accolades have not been withstanding.

“Pi” crashed through the gates of Sundance, ultimately netting the film a distribution deal with Artisan Entertainment and the highly coveted Director’s Award for Aronofsky. Turning down offers to direct big-budget Hollywood films (such as “The Fast and Furious”), Aronofsky opted instead to pursue a labor of love (“Requiem for a Dream”), thus delaying his entry into mainstream filmmaking. But Aronofsky makes no secret of his desires to join the ranks of Hollywood’s upper echelon.

“I have a very big interest in making big Hollywood films, but I want to make sure that they’re different and unique.”

– Darren Aronofsky

Different and unique. Not words openly embraced in an industry that turns out makeshift products like a factory line. In the wake of the controversial yet critical success, but ultimately commercial failure, of “Requiem,” Aronofsky’s name has been attached to several big Hollywood films, the highest profile belonging to his involvement in Frank Miller’s “Batman: Year One,” which ended in his resignation from the project (it was eventually assigned to Christopher Nolan, promising young director of “Memento” and “Insomnia”). Similar to Max Cohen, Aronofsky finds himself struggling to find meaning and artistic creativity in a universe known for embracing banality and homogenized productions.

As a writer and director, Aronofsky can be credited as not only the image-maker, guiding our eye toward the important landmarks in a world of his own devising, but he’s also managed to establish himself as an auteur, that all too rare beast of a filmmaker whose films possess the focus of a singular vision and practiced discipline.

Implicit with the visionary-as-director’s Godlike ability to influence and inspire change is a responsibility to respect one’s ideals, an aspect of filmmaking called into question since its conception as a commercially viable product. As the struggle to be true to one’s vision as well as meet the costly demands of the commercial market continues to mount, we’re constantly confronted with the same questions. Can the artist be a salesman? Can art and commerce coexist in a creative and equally fruitful environment? Several rogue directors working within the Hollywood system have shown us that, though difficult, the path can be walked. Aronofsky has yet to find his place among those names.

A self-described “Jewish Brooklyn hip-hop kid,” Aronofsky absorbed the contrasting cultures around him, producing a unique amalgam of perspectives that have appeared in his films today. In just two films, he’s drawn inspiration from such diverse and distinct sources as the writings of Philip K. Dick, the religious practices of Jewish Kabbalah, chaos theory, German expressionism, hip-hop montage, the films of Stanley Kubrick and the cyber-kinetic stylings of Japanese filmmaking, among others. Successfully fusing these sources to create pieces of blazing originality and brash intelligence, Aronofsky has managed to work within his medium of choice without compromising his vision.

Yet he came upon his biggest undertaking and, to date, most painful defeat when he attempted to mount the production of “The Fountain.” A science-fiction film whose philosophical roots and complex storyline that takes place in three different time frames promised to be a breath of resuscitation for a dying genre. And yet in fall 2002, Aronofsky watched his $70 million production shut down and fall apart when it’s star, Brad Pitt, walked away from the project at the last minute. Though news of a leaner production with half the budget has begun circulating in the Hollywood rumor mill, Aronofsky has yet to successfully launch his inauguration piece into the Hollywood machine.

But if Aronofsky’s fate does indeed mirror that of his protagonist’s, then there’s still reason to believe. His films, despite their pessimism, hold out a hope for humanity and even suggest there being an order and meaning behind it all. Yet his stance seems to be: Though understanding the overall picture may be accessible to us all, the toll of the quest may be beyond any of us. And like the words of Stanley Kubrick reflect, peace of mind and good fortune lie within our ability to find one’s place in the world. Let’s hope Aronofsky finds his place within the filmmaking world soon.

Shannon Blanks is a senior majoring in film at the Savannah College of Art and Design in Georgia.

Related link: Darren Aronofsky Online, a fan site
Related link: Darren Aronofsky's filmography @ IMDb

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