Saturday, November 11, 2017

Quick Takes — Mother! as Impulse-Image: Sound, and the Steepest Slope

By Jim Buhler

Darren Aronofsky’s Mother! is an exceptionally bleak film. It offers an ambitious and disturbing allegory of creativity and, evidently, “climate change and humanity’s role in environmental destruction”—though the final blast of total destruction is performed by the central, unnamed character played by Jennifer Lawrence, whom the credits identify only as “her” and, as Lawrence stated in an interview, represents the figure of Mother Earth.

Mother! has also proven a divisive film, less among critics, who have generally given it grudging respect if not love, than among audiences, who have responded with surprising vigor to a film that is faring poorly at the box office. The New York Times even devoted an article to its readers’ responses to the film, with one reader claiming that the film’s “repetitive theme of creation and destruction plays out more like Groundhog Day in hell than a biblical allegory,” a statement that encapsulates well my own experience. Throughout the film, the allegory is nothing if not heavy handed, but it is also not fully coherent. The various levels of allegorical content often collide in a way that gives the film more the heady, disorganized quality of a dream—or a nightmare—than an intelligible story.

The film is also closed-in on itself, almost claustrophobic at times, presenting what Gilles Deleuze would call an “originary world.” In any event, the film accords as well as any film of recent vintage with Deleuze’s category of impulse-image. The originary world of the impulse-image, Deleuze says in Cinema 1: The Movement-Image, makes “all the parts converge in an immense rubbish-dump or swamp, and all the impulses in a great death-impulse. The originary world is therefore both radical beginning and absolute end; and finally it links the one to the other, it puts the one into the other, according to a law which is that of the steepest slope.” Characters in Mother! wander in from some nebulous outside, but anyone who is sucked into the vortex of the house seems fated to remain (or if they leave, they soon find themselves back), and the longer they remain, the more destructive they become.

The house offers a world of immanence. This closed quality is also manifest in the film’s treatment of sound, which is virtually devoid of music and so makes it difficult for the film to offer a promise of an exterior, transcendent position. The most overtly musical moment in the film occurs during the apocalyptic sequence in the final act. Here, we briefly hear throbbing club music, the narrative situation forging an association of this music (and dance) with carnal urges and the breakdown of social order. Otherwise, music is used very discreetly in the film, invariably serving as a furthermost point of stylization in the film’s sound design, moments that are mostly reserved for Lawrence’s “her” communing with the house. Although the film is about creativity and explores through allegory issues of responsibility (or irresponsibility) in the creation of a world, the sound design mostly emphasizes realistic rather than stylized sound, which has the effect of presenting the world more as posited than created or constructed.

Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) reacts to the disruptions of Man and Woman.

The house creaks and groans with hyper-realistic detail as the characters move through it—this is especially the case in the early scenes that introduce Lawrence as Mother. This approach to sound gives the house an undeniably haunted quality, and the sound is effective in investing the house with the potential to become a character in its own right rather than simply a space for the action to play out. The Man (Ed Harris) and the Woman (Michelle Pfeifer) soon arrive, however, and if the house doesn’t stop making noises in their presence, those sounds more frequently move to the background behind the seemingly endless chatter of the guests. The house’s potential to become a character diminishes as its sounds recede into the background, and ultimately it haunts no one really, certainly not Mother, who seems if anything drawn to the house, nor her husband, “Him” (Javier Bardem), the self-absorbed poet who should be haunted by the past destruction he has caused. The house seems only to haunt itself, as it recoils from the endless cycle of destruction that it seemingly knows to be its fate. But the film seems to have little empathy for the plight of the house, just as the Poet has little empathy for the plight of his wife, from whom he'll nevertheless demand everything—over and over again.

During the final act, the house becomes populated with an impossibly increasing number of guests, and the action turns violent. The world, already closed off, seems to collapse in on itself, and the geography of the house grows more and more confused as the guests in the house devolve into figures of pure drive and impulse. The action in this final act also traces a rapid line of descent for Mother. She moves from the relative quiet of the upper reaches of the house where she initially escapes with her baby, through the chaos of the middle floors, to the final descent into the basement. Here, Mother traverses the steepest slope of the impulse-image. In this horrifying descent, she and the house are subject to increasing amounts of violence. The sound crescendos and increasingly relates directly to the guests or the violence the guests inflict on the house (and one another). Slipping through to the basement, Mother finds a degree of quiet again, but, despite the pleading of her husband, she destroys everything except Him in a fire. Before she dies, the Poet asks whether she will give him her heart from her charred body. She agrees, he takes it and transforms it into a crystal that will create the world anew, and the film begins again with a new Mother.

This structure of eternal return is another feature of impulse-images. The curvature, Deleuze says, allows beginning and ending to touch, creating a closed loop of time. Brooke’s post notes the significance of the sound of a pen scratching on paper that appears in both opening and closing credits as a framing device that insists on the power and violence of logos. A variant of this sound also appears in the middle of the film, when the Poet writes the poem that will renew him but also bring ruin to the house. The slope of the impulse-image, Deleuze says, either “makes it into a closed world, absolutely closed off, or else opens it up on to an uncertain hope.” In the sounds of the pen, in the sounds of the house, the film offers inconclusive signs of a world that might escape the cycle of bad repetition if only we could hear them as music.


James Buhler is on the faculty at the Sarah and Ernest Butler School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin, where he teaches courses on music and media. He writes frequently on music and film and is the author of Hearing the Movies, now in its second edition. He is active on Twitter (@jimbuhler), where many of the ideas in this short essay were first broached.

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