Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Symmetry Contains Explosive Energy

Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Symmetry Contains Explosive Energy

It’s easy enough to comment on the excess running through Darren Aronofsky’s films: the sex, the flesh, the drugs, the decadence, the violence, the loneliness, the despair–but what if the allure of his films lies elsewhere? What if the real reason we pay attention to them is because of the way the excess is packaged: in symmetrical frames, and sometimes in spirals that offset those frames? This video by Studio Little dances us through Aronofsky’s films, from ‘Black Swan’ to ‘Requiem for a Dream’ to ‘The Wrestler’ to ‘Noah’ to ‘Pi,’ showing us that, time after time, the element keeping us watching is the order, not the disorder.

Watch: Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ Are the Same Film

Watch: Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash’ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan’ Are the Same Film

It cannot be denied that Damien Chazelle’s ‘Whiplash‘ and Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Black Swan‘ are disarmingly similar. There’s the young naif at the heart of each film, Miles Teller’s Andrew Neimann vs. Natalie Portman’s Nina Sayers. There’s the overbearing instructor looming over each story: J.K. Simmons’ Terence Fletcher vs. Vincent Cassel’s Thomas Leroy. And there’s also the drive towards an artistic goal that ultimately leads a protagonist into the depths of his or her own creative self. And, as Fernando Andrés points out in this excellent video essay, which lays out considerable connections between the two films, both works focus on a particular body part that embodies the struggle at the story’s heart. In ‘Whiplash," it’s the hands; in "Black Swan,’ it’s the feet. Revisiting these two films in this form is edifying in and of itself, but the comparison so elegantly explored here also reminds us of something else behind all artistic endeavors: tenaciousness. Not quitting. Never thinking that one has done, to quote J.K Simmons’ sadistic but half-right teacher, a "good job." Suffering comes out of this kind of determination, and plenty of it. But that thing which we call, broadly, "art" comes out of it, too.

Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Assault on the Senses in ‘Requiem for a Dream’

Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Assault on the Senses in ‘Requiem for a Dream’

Given that the eyes and the ears are the only two sense organs film can access (setting aside ersatz experiments with scratch-and-sniff giveaways at theaters), if a director wanted to make sensory overload part of a film’s experience, the key would be to make visual and auditory elements larger than life, so that they practically jump out of the screen at the viewer. And that, it seems, is what Darren Aronofsky has done with ‘Requiem for a Dream," a film of addiction and humiliation for which the word "harrowing" would be a gross understatement. In this dynamic and startling video, Jorge Luengo focuses on Aronofsky’s jarring close-ups and aggressive in-your-ears sound effects to make an elegant point about the film: that its sensual experience is a mainline, if you will, to its thematic concerns. 

Watch: Eyes in the Films of Darren Aronofsky: A Video Appreciation

Watch: Eyes in the Films of Darren Aronofsky: A Video Appreciation

When Darren Aronofsky focuses on a character’s eyes, the story told will be different than the story told when Hitchcock does it, or Bergman does it. Aronofsky uses eyes to show precariousness, to show how close we all are to falling, at every moment. In Requiem for a Dream, we could say that Marion has already fallen. In The Wrestler, we could say that Randy knows he has fallen but is struggling to right himself, to pull himself back up. In Black Swan, Nina knows she is falling, but the particular fall she takes provides her with a toxic charge. This video mix by Vimeo user "WarmBakedBread" gives us a laparoscopic glimpse of the lives Aronofsky portrays, and invites us to witness de-evolution at its most thrilling.

Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Cinema of Extremities: A Video Tribute

Watch: Darren Aronofsky’s Cinema of Extremities: A Video Tribute

When watching this brief but dense video homage to Darren Aronofsky’s work by Edgar Martinez, one is reminded that Aronofsky never does anything by halves. The emotions he portrays are massive, embedded within timeless stories, and yet he manages, through his kinetic, sinewy style, to render these emotions with powerful detail, never short-changing their complexity. With The Wrestler, for example, Aronofsky managed to bring numerous unexpected shades to what could have been a cartoonish turn for Mickey Rourke–but at the same time, Rourke’s literal and figurative muscle was an unmistakable force in the film; part of the thrill of watching was following Rourke’s thrashing around his stage bounded by ropes, trying to correct there what he couldn’t fix outside those ropes. Black Swan displayed another aspect of Aronofsky’s work addressed here: relentless movement, a flow, for lack of a better word, that might make a film seem like one continuous, unpunctuated sentence, rather than a series of connected phrases. And Requiem for a Dream drew its energy from its daring–not trapeze-act daring, but a sense that the film was daring itself to go farther and farther into its portrayal of degradation and humiliation. There’s a tremendous amount of visual darkness in this tribute, which suits a director who seems to be constantly swimming in darkness and, at the same time, encouraging his viewers: come on in, the water’s fine. 

VIDEO ESSAY: Virtual Animals: Building the Digital Ark

VIDEO ESSAY: Virtual Animals: Building the Digital Ark

[The script of the video essay follows.]

For most of us, our first encounter with a wild animal
happens through a screen: the camera has the power to bring us closer to an
animal than we are ever likely to get in the wild.  It is by sight that we become fascinated with
them, by sight that we come to know them, by sight that we mourn their

We are currently living through the world’s sixth mass
extinction event, the first to be caused entirely by humans.  By the century’s end, we are likely to have
lost half of the world’s species.  Film
will not only be the most intimate encounter we have with animals: for most
species, it will be the only encounter possible.

The fewer animals we find in the wild, the more we see on
screen.  The digital revolution has
enabled filmmakers to create an entirely new breed of animal, one that exists
only in the form of pixels.  Absence of
flesh and blood answered by an abundance of virtual animals.

Animals have always been a central part of filmmaking, and
animals on the screen have always had a complex relationship to their real life
counterparts.  One of the earliest films
made by Thomas Edison is of an animal execution.  In 1903 the rogue performing elephant Topsy
was sentenced to death by electrocution after killing her trainer.  Edison used the event as an opportunity to
show the power of alternating current, as
well as his state of the art film camera. 
Thousands watched the event, and many thousands more flocked to the

The celluloid used in film stock comes from gelatin made
from the rendered bodies of animals. 
Eastman Kodak had its own rendering plant so that they could monitor the
quality of the animal product that went into the patented celluloid used by
most filmmakers.  Before digital, when
you watched a film, the image on the screen was literally being projected
through animal matter.

With digital we usher in a new era in which animals might
play a different role on the screen.  For
Darren Aronofsky’s animal epic Noah,
Industrial Light and Magic created 14,000 virtual animals, none of which
involved the use of live animals in their creation.  Aronofsky felt it would be against the theme
of the film to put live animals in dangerous or harmful filming conditions.  The result is the most breathtaking collection
of virtual animals ever assembled.  The
film itself is a kind of digital ark, bringing thousands of animals to life
even while their real-life counterparts are likely to become extinct in the
coming decades.

Before Noah, CGI
artists more often used live animals on the set to serve as models for digital
versions.  The process is called
capturing.  In the filming of Ang Lee’s Life of Pi, four tigers were used to
create the unforgettable feline presence of Richard Parker.  One of them was reported to have nearly
drowned on the set. 

We know animals by sight. 
By seeing we know they have souls. 
Somehow, these souls survive even in their visual avatars, even when
what we are watching is not an animal at all, but a collection of pixels on a

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content
creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually
contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the
London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW
which boasts the tagline: “Liberating Independent Film And Video From A
Prehistoric Value System.” You can follow Nelson on Twitter

Jed Mayer is an Associate Professor of English at the State University of New York, New Paltz.

VIDEO ESSAY: Where Experiment Meets the Mainstream

VIDEO ESSAY: Where Experiment Meets the Mainstream

In an age of redundant remakes (Total Recall, Fright Night), attempted revamps (21 Jump Street, The Three Stooges) and even 3D re-launchings (Titanic 3D, Star Wars: Episode 1 – 3D) of past Hollywood fare, it’s easy to become disheartened at the current state of film and television. Then again, any sort of significant movement in cinema history stems from a desire to break free from the established filmmaking “norms” of that era (French New Wave, Italian Neorealism, etc.). Therefore, if today’s mainstream filmmaking temperament is rooted in simply remaking past scripts, movies and TV shows for new audiences—what is a strong way for select filmmakers to retaliate in an effort to create striking work? By absorbing the complex, original and impressionistic styles of post-1940s experimental cinema, the holy grail of non-traditional storytelling. And by surveying facets of some contemporary films, it becomes clear how influential experimental cinema is to today’s visual rhetoric.

One of the most important pieces of American experimental cinema, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) by Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, shows filmmakers turning the cinema of its time on its head. To read the script, Deren and Hammid’s film seems to be illustrating a woman’s feverish dream. Yet, at the time, audiences hadn’t witnessed a dream quite like this. Meshes took a conventional narrative, with characters, action, and music, and then restructured it into a circular story by repeating certain imagery, employing an offbeat editing rhythm, and using unusual camera angles to make everyday objects (a phonograph, a house key) seem ambiguously ominous. These stylistic traits are now readily evident in the works of such filmmakers as David Lynch (Inland Empire), Carolee Schneemann (Body Collage), Su Friedrich (Scar Tissue), and Barbara Hammer (Nitrate Kisses), among others. Further, the unforgettable visuals of Meshes—like a cloaked grim reaper with a mirror for a face—have bled into the pop culture via some music videos (e.g. Ambling Alp by Yeasayer).

There are even cases when Hollywood accidentally soars on the strength of some experimental films’ imagery—whether Hollywood realizes it or not. Case in point: Terry Gilliam’s 1995 sci-fi film 12 Monkeys is obviously inspired by (if not a remake of) Chris Marker’s La Jetée from 1962. La Jetée boldly told its story (of a man traveling through time in an attempt to save a post-apocalyptic Paris) simply by presenting a series of powerful still images and voiceover narration. But Gilliam’s film is not the only place a cinephile’s interest could be directed. For example, the image of the strained, blindfolded hero from La Jetée no doubt was in the mind of Steven Spielberg while making his Minority Report (2002). Who could forget the virtuoso sequence where Tom Cruise emerges blindfolded from an ice-cold tub to find a horde of crawling robotic spiders?  Cruise’s shocked face, frozen in time, mirrors the still image of the hero in La Jetée. In fact, imagery from Marker’s post-apocalyptic experimental masterpiece still shows up in other modern films (see the Jake Gyllenhaal character in Duncan Jones’ 2011 film Source Code) and music videos (e.g. Jump They Say by David Bowie) as well.

The most powerful impressions of experimental cinema in modern movies, though, are found in the works of filmmakers who are unabashedly rehashing the distinct styles of the avant-garde masters. For example, the abstract and vibrant visuals in Stan Brakhage’s film works (like The Dante Quartet, 1987) have left their mark on recent films by Paul Thomas Anderson (Punch Drunk Love, 2002) and Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, 2011). Love splits up the chapters of its narrative by spraying abstract pieces of art on the screen; Tree features a sequence that flies by city storefronts until they bleed into vibrant, overlapping colors.

We could also look at the audacious narrative risks in an experimental classic like Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Red Shoes (1948). The Red Shoes unexpectedly took its otherwise straightforward story about an ambitious ballerina and smothered it in psychedelic, voluminous colors and emulated elements of the surreal through bizarre imagery and costume design. The film was no doubt a psychological inspiration for Darren Aronofsky’s similarly ballet-themed Black Swan (2010). Swan even goes so far as to create similar fantastical characters (via hallucinations) and re-stage the earlier film’s distressed close-up shot on its heroine’s face during a climatic dance. In his Tetro (2009), Francis Ford Coppola takes it one step further by brilliantly restaging some Red Shoes-esque ballet dance sequences; Coppola even photographs them in the same 1:37:1 aspect ratio as Powell and Pressburger’s film.

In the end, perhaps the most profound (and possibly most important) sign of contemporary film’s wrestling with its experimental influence comes in 2001’s criminally underrated Vanilla Sky, by Cameron Crowe. Crowe’s film, like a plethora of other Hollywood films, is a remake of an already celebrated film (in this case, Alejandro Amenábar’s 1997 drama Open Your Eyes). In both films, a man is coming to terms with the life he lived and the (possible) life in front of him. Yet, unlike so many Hollywood remakes, Crowe is able to surpass the source material. Crowe does this by allowing the stylistic impressions of titan experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas to enter Vanilla Sky. Mekas, known for his prolific filmography composed of personal film diaries (e.g. As I Was Moving Ahead Occasionally I Saw Brief Glimpses of Beauty [2000]), has developed a fragmentary visual style, created by quick edits and strategically inserted (handwritten) title cards. What separates Vanilla Sky from Open Your Eyes is the way Crowe capitalizes on Mekas’ visual strategy: Vanilla Sky unforgettably closes with a vomiting of personal archival footage in order to convey an internal reckoning of its hero.

What all of these examples show—other than how the unique styles of experimental cinema have become embedded in certain filmmakers’ techniques—is how vital it is to challenge the norms or ideas behind “traditional” moviemaking. If it weren’t for the risks of a select group of filmmakers, most directors would still be thumbing through Hollywood’s Rolodex of remake-ready titles.

Nelson Carvajal is an independent digital filmmaker, writer and content creator based out of Chicago, Illinois. His digital short films usually contain appropriated content and have screened at such venues as the London Underground Film Festival. Carvajal runs a blog called FREE CINEMA NOW which boasts the tagline: "Liberating Independent Film And Video From A Prehistoric Value System." You can follow Nelson on Twitter here.