I saw Darren Aronofsky’s new film, The Wrestler, last night. I’ve always been a big fan of his work, from Pi, to Requiem For A Dream. I fell asleep during The Fountain, but then it was the day after a stag party and probably not the best environment. But the guy is wise, spiritually aware.
His films, it seems to me, are often about compulsive behaviour in one form or another. He understands, better than any other film director, the extent to which humans become trapped in repetitive, compulsive and destructive routines, because those routines give them some short-term pay-off, which ultimately stops them from ever getting genuine fulfilment.
The best example of this is Requiem For A Dream, which creates a whole aesthetic of compulsiveness, via its famous ‘hip hop montage’ sequences, showing the fetishistic preparation and consumption of drugs – lining up the coke, snorting the coke, eyes dilated by the coke – repeated over and over.
Speeding up the various drug events and putting them altogether strips away the individual contexts in which the behaviour pattern hides, de-humanizes it, and exposes the sheer repetition and compulsion of it. In the words of Hot Chip: ‘over and over and over and over and over / like a monkey with a miniature cymbal / the joy of repetition really is in you’.
Compulsive behaviour is most obvious with drugs, but humans can be trapped in all sorts of destructive behaviour patterns. The Simpsons, for example, had a homage to Daronofsky in which Homer Simpson becomes addicted to a high calorie rib burger.
In The Wrestler, we meet two forms of self-destructive compulsion, in the two main characters, Randy the Wrestler and Pam the Stripper. Both of them are addicted to their public personae – the sexy stripper working it on stage to the wolf-whistles of the men, and the hard-boiled wrestler winning in the ring to the cheers of his adolescent fans.
These public personae have their cheap pay-offs – the desire or adulation of strangers – but they ultimately stop Randy and Pam from achieving real fulfilment, from engaging in genuine intimacy. But they’re both too addicted to the routine, they can’t step down off stage. They are trapped in a pattern.
Breaking out of such patterns usually means having the strength to do without the short-term pay-off in the hope and expectation of more fulfilling pay-offs in the future. So much of life comes down to the ability to defer short-term gratification in favour of longer-term pay-offs. You can call it the Protestant work ethic or whatever, but in some ways, it’s what distinguishes homo sapiens from other animals.
The tragedy is that this ability is only marginally developed in us. We get addicted to our delusions, addicted to our own legends, and end up killing ourselves for them.