(Z To A is an ongoing series: cumulative reviews of my DVD collection in reverse alphabetical order.)
Plot Synopsis: Based upon the novel by celebrated author Hubert Selby Jr., the story links the lives of a lonely widowed mother (Academy Award Winner Ellen Burstyn), her son Harry (Jared Leto), his beautiful girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). Requiem For A Dream is a hypnotic tale of four human beings each pursuing their vision of happiness. Even as everything begins to fall apart, they refuse to let go, plummeting with their dreams into a nightmarish, gut-wrenching freefall.
– From DVD Production Notes
It’s been close to ten years since I’ve seen Requiem For A Dream. Most would think, “Yeah, with good reason,” since Dream is one of those quintessential films you can only tolerate once (it pops up on just about every list on the subject; for proof look here, here, here, here and here).
Obviously, I own it, and yes, I’ve watched it more than once. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen this film. Watching Dream was a breakthrough for me. It was the first time I’d seen a director push his actors and visuals in a way the communicates pure feeling. In this case the feelings range from complete euphoria to unfathomable degradation and terror.
The film also poses some interesting questions about addiction. Concerning the stories of Harry, Marion and Tyrone, Dream is a standard cautionary tale, a spectacle for people who have no ties to the drug world (see Trainspotting, Drugstore Cowboy, The Basketball Diaries, Spun and countless others). The difference is the intensity of the performances, and out of the three I have to single out Jennifer Connelly as Marion. As for Jared Leto and Marlon Wayans, I think this is the best work they have ever done.
Then there’s the most talked about subplot of the film involving Harry’s mother, Sara Goldfarb (Burstyn). All she wants is to lose some weight and fit into a red dress. After struggling with her diet she begins a regimen of diet pills. It seems relatively harmless at first. It also seems like something a lot of people do every day: set a simple goal, struggle with it, then look for a shortcut.
This derails within a few short, nightmarish months. Sara’s addictions are just as bad as the other characters’, in some ways the worst and cruelest. She is already fragile, clinging to such a simple dream. While explaining it to her son she begins to cry: “What have I got Harry, hm? Why should I even make the bed, or wash the dishes? I do them, but why should I? I’m alone. Your father’s gone, you’re gone. I got no one to care for. What have I got, Harry? I’m lonely. I’m old.”
What happens to Sara Goldfarb makes this movie unbearable. It looks like it could happen to anyone’s grandmother. A few bad decisions with no safety net can land you in your own personal hell.
Not surprisingly Burstyn was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar. She lost to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockavich (2000). This has always bothered me and my convictions have stood the test of time. When you mention Julia Roberts in Brockavich people say, “I remember that. Julia Roberts actually acted in it.” But when you bring up Ellen Burstyn in Dream people have a visceral reaction. Some are so effected they get emotional and say they don’t want to talk about it. In short they have never, ever forgotten that performance once they’ve seen it.
The same could be said for me, although Dream has effected me in other ways. During my freshman year of college I undertook an exhaustive writing project about drug use in films. While researching I came across interviews and articles on Dream that have stayed with me for a long time. It was here I read about Aronofsky discussing “inner reality” in films, the drive to portray characters’ experiences in a subjective way. This has become more common in film over the past decade and I’ve come to believe it’s the highest art form around. It was this film and Aronofsky that introduced me to the idea.
And of course, I read about the startling effect it had on other people who saw it. One writer said that his experiences with strippers and sex workers were changed because whenever he looked at them he thought of Marion (my response: “I’m glad- also, fuck you”). I also read about cinematographer Matthew Libatique crying during a take on set, nearly ruining a shot. Aronofsky confronted him about it, but ultimately the shot ended up in the final cut.
Basically I learned that Dream carries itself outside of the viewing experience. It effected the people who made it. It effected those who saw it. It’s one of those rare films that sets you in another person’s shoes and forces you to empathize. This makes it more than entertainment or a piece of art.
It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, an observation from writer George Eliot: “If art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.” If anything Requiem For A Dream does this. It has that ability in spades.