Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Quick Takes — The Apocalypse “Through a Glass Darkly”

By Mark Durrand

Without knowing from the outset that Darren Aronofsky originally conceived Mother! as a critical intervention into the increasingly fraught relationship between humans and the environment as symbolized through biblical narratives, it seems unlikely that the writer/director’s intentions would be apparent. In fact, even knowing what the film is ostensibly “about” still leaves me without any strong confirmation that it delivers its allegorical payload. Addressing only the acoustic domain, one would expect such a film – that is, one purporting to be of the avant-garde variety and dedicated to such a high-stakes concept – to employ sound in innovative and rhetorically forceful ways. And yet, with notable exceptions (particularly in regards to subtleties of vocality which I will address below), the soundtrack fails to venture beyond convention, even if it is a bit rowdier than the standard Hollywood fare.

The film is structured around Aronofsky’s idiosyncratic take on elements of the biblical tradition, mainly as informed by the Protestant Christian perspective (although the circular point of view the film projects is somewhat at odds with the teleological concept of time that prevails in most Christian systems). Mother! revolves around the relationship between a poet (Javier Bardem) representing the Judeo-Christian God, and referred to in the end credits simply as “Him” (note the capitalization), and his younger wife (Jennifer Lawrence) standing for the soul of Mother Earth and serving as the generative and restorative force giving rise to the house in which they live, and referenced in the end credits as “her” (note the lowercase). The house, in turn, operates within the director’s allegorical frame as proxy for the Earth.

Mother! opens in medias res with a conflagration that gives way to images of the charred dwelling undergoing a process of rejuvenation. “Him”/The Poet and “her”/Mother interact, uncomfortably, and shortly “man” (Ed Harris) appears at the door to the delight of The Poet and the annoyance of “her.” “Man’s” entrance is followed by a series of largely undiscernible events and the following day “woman” appears at the door (the wound glimpsed on the back of “man” resulted, indeed, from the removal of a rib). The pre-lapsarian state is short-lived indeed, as the couple commit the original sin of entering the Poet’s workspace – an act expressly forbidden by Mother – and recklessly shattering a shard of crystal kept reverently on display by “Him.” The film then proceeds as a series of vignettes following a more or less Dispensational version of the biblical timeline, beginning with the murder of Abel by Cain, and concluding with an apocalyptic immolation and the beginning of yet another cycle of the process.

The soundtrack for each vignette functions variously to bestow the house with a dense materiality, highlight the disquieting carelessness of the growing collection of “house-guests” (altogether representing the people of Earth), and within each episode creates an affective trajectory beginning at a low dynamic level followed by a gradual crescendo leading to a loud punctuation at the end. These increasingly maddening peaks of loudness in turn operate on a higher level to perform a longer dynamic trajectory from the almost bucolic beginning of the film to the raucous destruction of the house. None of this is especially innovative, which in itself may or may not not pose a problem. There is, however, a terminal flaw in Aronofsky’s recourse to convention, which becomes most apparent in a late scene in which “her”/Mother is ruthlessly beaten by a frenzied mob.

Rather than enhancing the affective and rhetorical force of this destruction, the sheer wall of sound strikes the sensorium like so many sonic body blows that actually distracts critical attention, and – even more significantly given the polemical intentions of its author – ultimately disables meditation on the escalating grotesqueries. In other words, the violent soundscape actually renders a less hideous field of representation. I do not feel as if I am watching the world end; I am merely watching an incoherently noisy mess. Imagine the difference had Mother been beaten by the mob in near silence with a few judiciously chosen hyper-realistic sounds punctuating the brutality. The juxtaposition a gentler soundtrack upon the representation of violence would form a familiar cinematic irony, but that convention would at least allow the sickness of the events to really settle into my experience of the film.

The film’s most critical affect – its ethos, perhaps, and what I believe makes it nearly successful in articulating Aronofsky’s allegory – derives from a deeply discomforting duality, simultaneously expressed, between the principles of extreme nearness and that of great distance. A claustrophobic intimacy is achieved through the camera’s close proximity to Mother even as she moves about the house, which forms a tense and irreconcilable counterpoint to her almost complete alienation from not only “Him,” but from the concerns of human players overall. This phenomenon is subtended also by comparison between their respective vocalies. His voice is resolutely authoritative; there is greater volume, and also a lot of low-end in the mix for Bardem’s voice that is reminiscent of what Michel Chion has called the “I” voice, particularly in the moment he chastises “Adam and Eve” for shattering the crystal heart of her previous iteration. In essence, his vocality is the sonic analogue to an empowering low-angle shot.

Contrastingly, Mother’s gently breathed vocality occupies an upper alto range ignored by the houseguests such that throughout the film she possesses no agency among the human melee. She is the voiceless subaltern in her own world rapidly colonized by humans recalcitrant to her quite reasonable pleas and disdainful toward her fundamental well-being. This distinction becomes overturned, of course, with her expression of abject grief in the moments before the “apocalypse” in which she achieves a powerful vocal register that partly shatters the house.

There is little doubt that our shared environment is a precious endowment worth contemplating, respecting, and nurturing. Aronofsky’s noisy polemic is thus a timely one. Through its soundtrack, however, Mother! appears only “through a glass darkly,” without much prospect of providing “face to face” clarity.


Mark Durrand is a Senior Lecturer at The University of Akron (Ohio), and holds a PhD in Musicology and a MA in Film and Media Studies from University at Buffalo. His research centers on music and sound in film from a phenomenological standpoint. His article “Hearing and Seeing with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West: Toward Re-thinking Audio-Visual Hierarchy” appeared recently in the Music and the Moving Image Journal, and he is currently co-editing, with James Buhler, a collection of essays on music and sound in action film.

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