Sweet Smell of Success

Sweet Smell of Success March 23, 2013

I just watched a commercial for… something involving “4G,” not sure what… which showed a man talking to a small group of little children. “Which is better: playing basketball in a huge stadium, or playing basketball in a little driveway?”

“Stadium!” a little girl answers.

“Why is that?”

“Because there’s more room for the fans!”

“Do you have a lot of fans?”

She thinks about it and then says, “Yes!”

“Do you believe in yourself?”

Now she looks like this grown man is maybe slightly slow, because of course she does: “Uh-huh.”

He high-fives her and a little later we get the tagline: BIGGER IS BETTER.

Maybe the best reason to watch Requiem for a Dream, which is how I spent Thursday night, is that it will make you instinctively shiver at this commercial.

Requiem for a Dream is a crude, sentimental movie. I genuinely don’t think it’s very good, and I don’t recommend it. It’s a screamingly directed junkie-downfall flick, which ordinarily I would be all over, but Darren Aronofsky takes things which almost always work for me and somehow turns them chintzy. I love comic-book framing (I was maybe the only American to pay twice–maybe thrice!–to see Ang Lee’s Hulk), I love Jennifer Connelly (and she’s legitimately excellent here–all the actors are great), and the movie even uses the one shot which until Thursday I would have said was guaranteed to make me fall in love with a movie. It’s the shot of Connelly standing at the end of a pier, gazing out into the ocean: the shot I talked about here and here, “just a beach and a pretty girl.” I have a totally irrational reaction to this kind of image but here it was just surrounded by too much melodrama.

The music is really amazing. And parts of the movie are undeniably effective. You show me a sweet lonely old Jewish lady getting addicted to uppers because her junkie son won’t visit her and yes, fine, I’m going to get weepy, are you happy now?

The “don’t do drugs, kids” angle was badly marred for me by the fact that literally every non-addict in this movie, except for some very sweet little old ladies, is a terrible person who is willfully cruel to the addicted characters. It seems somehow immoral to suggest that other people’s cruelty is an inevitable consequence of your own drug abuse–it seems like Aronofsky is saying, “this is how the world is, this is what addiction is,” as if cruelty is like drug hunger or DTs, rather than a specific choice the non-addicts in this movie make about how they treat the addicts. I’m not sure I can explain this reaction well, since of course I know that addiction makes you vulnerable and one of the things it makes you very vulnerable to is other people’s cruelty. So in that sense being hurt by other people is often a consequence of addiction. But the script here makes it seem inevitable, as if there’s no point in trying to address abuses by cops or doctors or jailers, and there’s a nasty undercurrent of “this is what you get,” as if the story being told is solely about the tragedy of drug abuse and not about the horror of abuse of power. I guess what it is, is that Requiem acts as if only the addicts in this movie really have agency and the rest of the world exists as a machine to give them the fruits of their addictions. But in fact the non-addicts make choices too, and they are without exception evil ones.

But Requiem does have at least one creepy, genuine insight. It’s really serious about this “dream” idea. All of the characters have some goal, some dream they’re striving to realize, and those dreams are wholeheartedly millennial-American: get on TV, own my own shop where I sell fashions I’ve designed, make enough money in the drug game to retire and finance the girlfriend’s dreams. Heavy drug use can make these dreams seem immediate, close enough to touch, almost within grasp, even as of course they’re actually receding every moment.

There’s a terrific bit in Augusten Burroughs’s Dry, which I relate to a lot: “The fact is, I have accepted Pulitzer Prizes, Academy Awards, met wonderful people, and had healthy, loving relationships, all in my mind, all while drinking.” Requiem gives an even more heartbreaking version of this retreat into the inner world, the inner audience, when that poor sweet Jewish lady admits, “I like thinking about it.” She likes thinking about being on TV–imagining it, hallucinating it in a diet-pill haze–even if on some level she knows it isn’t real. It feels good to think about, whereas the reality of an empty apartment feels like abandonment, failure, as if even the good parts of the self have gone away and left you totally alone.

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