Mother! Is Freaking People the F@#$ Out!!
I have seasonal allergies, so I go to my allergist once or twice a week for allergy injections, with the hope that over time they'll reduce my allergies. I love my allergist's office, except for one nagging aspect: the television in the waiting room is always broadcasting one of those insipid house hunters/remodeling shows. I can't fully express my loathing for these shows, except to say this: they're a perfect encapsulation of the commodification and anti-intellectualism threatening to ruin our democracy at the moment.
Too much, you cry? Hyperbole, you groan? Maybe, but let's be honest, these shows are absolute drivel. They offer nothing beyond contrived - and entirely scripted - fantasies of privileged people finding and renovating a dream home that most Americans could never afford.
What on earth does this have to do with Darren Aronofsky's new film, Mother!, you ask?
Very little, except this one key point: people seem more outraged by Mother! - which makes them face uncomfortable notions about themselves and our world - than with the vapid state of entitlement-television or any other similar pop culture abominations. It's a sad fact that people would rather be dutifully renovating their 3,000 square feet - need to make it look pretty for resale value, after all! - than intellectually engaging with the world around them. I say this as someone who lives in the world and undertakes house projects, just like anyone else. I also appreciate a good, mindless bit of entertainment or activity as much as the next person, but I strive for some sort of balance between films like Mother! and films like, say, Anaconda. I love both, but for vastly different reasons.
Mother! is both easy and difficult to summarize. You can read it as a commentary on art or film making, and the tensions at play in its creation. Yet it's also rich with allegories and metaphors, ranging from the Bible to mythology to Kabbalah and more. The film takes place in a spacious house, yet still feels highly claustrophobic, as Aronofsky masterfully ratchets up the intensity and anxiety throughout. Characters are referred to in the credits only as Mother (Jennifer Lawrence), Him (Javier Bardem), Woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), and Man (Ed Harris), with each working on one level as ordinary - albeit disturbing - people while also serving as religious/mythological allegories. Lawrence's Mother resembles Gaia, Mother Earth - Bardem's husband/poet/Creator/Old Testament God/Him constantly refers to her as "Goddess." Harris and Pfeiffer seem to represent Adam and Eve - Harris even appears to be missing a rib, while Pfeiffer scorches the screen (and Mother's Earth) as original sin incarnate. Together they have two bickering sons, i.e. Cain and Abel.
Later on, while Mother is literally in the process of becoming a mother, the house is inundated with hordes of unwelcome visitors, who wish only to be in Him/God's presence, to feel His radiance on their sinful lives. As Him basks in this adulation, Mother gives birth and attempts to protect her newborn son, all while the unruly visitors become increasingly chaotic and violent. Aronofsky films it all as a manic, relentless sea of violent action that engulfs everything and everyone. When you realize the story at the heart of the film is one that lives on in perpetuity - with Him creating the world in his image only to see it destroyed, over and over again - it all falls into place: human beings are life-makers and life-takers, creators and destroyers, lovers and fighters, and always at war with ourselves over competing desires and ideologies.
It's completely understandable that audiences might be turned off by the sheer volume of high-intensity craziness that occurs during Mother!, but there are quiet moments too, eerie and haunting as they might be, that are deeply personal and revealing. I had a blast trying to make sense of the film's Biblical, mythological, and environmental allegories. But, then there's the blood and bodily organs and horrible violence and screaming, oh, the screaming. The end of the film feels like a half-hour long anxiety attack. I know people who will read that and be certain that this film isn't for them. That's fine! We all have our limits.
Even with my high tolerance for cinematic insanity, I was still in shock during most of the film. It's not that I question why someone might not like Mother!; it's that I'd like to figure out why so many people turn this dislike into vehement hatred. What does that say about audiences that react to a work of art with such outrage? Does it mean they're afraid to face something uncomfortable - even within the safety of a controlled setting like a movie? It's only made them feel things they don't want to feel. Is that so wrong? Can't we all still feel those emotions, process them, and move on? Isn't that the healthy way to engage with art, or life, or anything and anyone?
I watch movies to feel things, and in the case of Mother!, many of those feelings were difficult to face - anxiety, revulsion, terror, and inadequacy, to name a few. Mother! hit me like a freight train, repeatedly, until I felt almost as battered and bruised as Lawrence is near film's end. Yet this experience didn't lead me to despise the film; instead I appreciate it for making me think hard about how I feel about it all. That's a sign that a movie did at least something right.
There's enough in daily life that simply washes over us, including the stultifying and regressive reality TV genre. Now and then, we need to allow a challenging film or book or album into our lives, and not simply react to it, but to think about why we're reacting to it. Then discuss it with friends or colleagues, to have our horizons expanded by the thoughts and interpretations of others. We all need to reach outside our comfort levels more often. It's healthy to feel an amount of discomfort, to look inward and question our beliefs or ideologies. Mother! is the sort of film that encourages its audience not to love it or hate it, but to think, to feel, and to contemplate. I hope over time more people will come to appreciate that about Mother!, and other difficult, yet rewarding films like it.