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Mother! (Darren Aronofsky)

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Rushmore   

It's been a long time since I was so unsettled by a film. It's certainly worth seeing and even beautiful in a certain horrible way. Maybe it's even great, though I'm not quite ready to affirm that.

The Gnostic interpretation makes some sense, though we've certainly reached the point by now when all alleged Gnosticism in movies should be looked on with grave suspicion. The mother-as-devil interpretation, though, is either some kind of joke or one of the most horribly wrong readings of a film I've ever seen. It just makes no sense. You would have to fight the film every step of the way to twist it into that shape.

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StephenM   

Hmm, I would have thought this thread would be a booming place on here. Have not enough people seen it yet?

___

I did not like the movie.  I found it ugly, unpleasant, and grueling to sit through, and I don't think its allegory leads anywhere particularly interesting.  But it certainly hasn't left my thoughts much since I saw it Sunday.

SPOILERS

As to interpretations: The idea of Mother as the devil, is, I agree, rather crazy, and goes against all the signals the film is sending us about who to sympathize with. But there is a way you can see her as a sympathetic rendering of a Satanic figure, finally rebelling against an unjust God's cruel system, in some sort of twisting of Paradise Lost. (I'm kinda thinking of The Amber Spyglass here, a little bit? Though that comparison is really tentative.)  But Mother clearly isn't set up as Satan in any normal way (she gets tempted, not the other way around, and since when did Lucifer give birth to Christ?), and you only get to that interpretation in a rather vague structural manner.  You certainly shouldn't end up seeing Bardem as good and her as evil, unless you're just willfully misreading.

I think the Gnostic reading has a lot more potential, though I find that Reddit poster's more-spiritual-than-thou shtick rather laughable. There's definitely a sense in the film's parallel/parody of the Biblical narrative that it's resurrecting a number of old critiques of that narrative, whether Gnostic or Pagan or New Age.  Accusing God of being inconsistent and unworthy of worship, or being needy and cruel, or imagining the Eucharist as cannibalism, or viewing the material world and humanity as irredeemably corrupt, or mounting feminist and environmentalist critiques of traditional theology, etc.  Of course, the movie doesn't actually add up to anything profound with all this material, just a bunch of sound and fury about how tough it would be to be Mrs. God if there were such a person, but, you know, there's not. So where does it get you?  God is only out for himself and can't be trusted, and humanity is incapable of decency or restraint on any level whatsoever?  None of that, to me, is edifying, or even all that compelling.  Your mileage may vary.

Edited by StephenM

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StephenM   

SPOILERS

As an aside, the number of reviewers who seem blind to how intensely Biblical virtually every incident in the film is, is rather remarkable. I found the the allegory pretty headsmackingly obvious by the time the man and woman broke the crystal, but I would think everyone should have picked up on by the time Cain and Abel showed up.

This review by Michael Koresky notes the Cain and Abel comparison, but only in passing, and seems to regard the early events of the film as realistic and grounded, claiming there's an abrupt turn away from realism in the second half.  Did he miss the first 2 minutes, with the earlier mother burning up and Bardem using the crystal to restore the house?  The whole plot is set up as mystical and allegorical from the first shot!  Koresky doesn't notice the flood narrative or the distribution of the Scriptures, and doesn't even mention there might be Christ imagery in the film.  He describes Cain and Abel as the moment that "forever taints the seemingly heretofore untouched paradise," skipping over the exile from Eden and the literal boarding of the door that happened moments before. Are secular audiences really this ignorant of basic Bible stories?

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Nick Alexander's Reddit friend wrote:
: It's a hard film to watch, but Jennifer Lawrence's character, in my opinion, represented God, and Bardem (who most people are calling god in their interpretations) represented the blind demiurge that created man so that they could worship him.

The problem here, for me at least, is that I don't see Bardem's character (or anyone else) "creating" mankind. Mankind just kind of shows up and ruins Creation -- which ties in to how Noah failed to depict mankind as the pinnacle of Creation, leaning instead towards depicting mankind as a failed caretaker of Creation but somehow separate from it.

Yes, the Bardem character feeds on the attention he gets from mankind. But he feeds on the attention he gets from Lawrence, as well.

Edited by Peter T Chattaway

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Rushmore   
On 9/21/2017 at 11:17 AM, StephenM said:

This review by Michael Koresky notes the Cain and Abel comparison, but only in passing, and seems to regard the early events of the film as realistic and grounded, claiming there's an abrupt turn away from realism in the second half.  Did he miss the first 2 minutes, with the earlier mother burning up and Bardem using the crystal to restore the house?

(We should probably just say once that discussing this film at all without spoilers is impossible)

A question about this. Am I wrong in thinking that the woman seen in the very last shot is a different actress, but the woman burning in the opening shot (seen only in extreme close-up of her eyes) is Jennifer Lawrence? You'd have to check the DVD to be sure, but the fire at the beginning and the fire at the end looked like they used some of the exact same footage.

Edited by Rushmore

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23 hours ago, Rushmore said:

(We should probably just say once that discussing this film at all without spoilers is impossible)

A question about this. Am I wrong in thinking that the woman seen in the very last shot is a different actress, but the woman burning in the opening shot (seen only in extreme close-up of her eyes) is Jennifer Lawrence? You'd have to check the DVD to be sure, but the fire at the beginning and the fire at the end looked like they used some of the exact same footage.

 

SPOILERS

I thought it was three different actresses.  Hard to tell from the IMDb cast page.  But, I thought we were watching an endless loop, opening with the destruction of one, the creation and destruction of a second, and the creation of a third.

Edited by John Drew

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Evan C   
16 hours ago, John Drew said:

 

SPOILERS

I thought it was three different actresses.  Hard to tell from the IMDb cast page.  But, I thought were watching an endless loop, opening with the destruction of one, the creation and destruction of a second, and the creation of a third.

The woman in the last shot is definitely a different actress, and I assumed the one burning in the first shot was as well.

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Andrew   
14 hours ago, Evan C said:

The woman in the last shot is definitely a different actress, and I assumed the one burning in the first shot was as well.

The first shot went by too quickly for me to tell, but yeah, the actress at the end is definitely not JL.

I don't have time to write in detail this morning, but I look forward to reading the reviews linked to here.  A fascinating, disturbing film; Lawrence certainly deserves an Oscar nod for her performance here.

No time to link, but yesterday's NY Times had a worthwhile interview with Aronofsky and Lawrence.

And I can't resist a little snark:  I'm guessing Aronofsky didn't reach out to the Christian press for this one? 

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The woman at the beginning is *not* JL. I remember thinking that it was not JL when the film began. (And besides, doesn't the Bardem character talk about how he lost everything -- including his previous wife, presumably -- in a fire?)

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StephenM   
4 hours ago, Peter T Chattaway said:

The woman at the beginning is *not* JL. I remember thinking that it was not JL when the film began

Same.

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On 21/09/2017 at 5:17 PM, StephenM said:

Are secular audiences really this ignorant of basic Bible stories?

I wondered the same thing, but a recent unrelated conversation in a research seminar about Biblical adaptations within literature brought up some interesting, anecdotal evidence: a prof asked a group of undergraduates in a theology class if they could explain the basic premise of the parable of the Prodigal Son, and about 1/3 of the class had absolutely no knowledge of the story. This was in the UK, but it did make me wonder if the Biblical allusions in mother! might be lost on audiences who don't really have much practice in having to read a film like this one. A lack of biblical literacy would make the already-off-putting film feel totally bizarre or incoherent. And FWIW, I picked up on the environmentalist themes well before I understood the biblical allegory, which didn't really hit me until the Cain-and-Abel scenes.

Edited by Joel Mayward

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M. Leary   
On 9/21/2017 at 11:17 AM, StephenM said:

 Are secular audiences really this ignorant of basic Bible stories?

Very much so. And there is not too much variation between "secular" and Christian audiences. I have learned the hard way I cannot just drop OT or NT allusions into lectures expecting students to pick up on them - whether in the Christian undergraduate or graduate seminary context. This is in part a matter of sheer content knowledge, but also an issue of the narrative literacy which allows for people to connect referential dots on their own. Lots of well-documented reasons for both of those problems.

Edited by M. Leary

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1 hour ago, M. Leary said:

Very much so. And there is not too much variation between "secular" and Christian audiences. I have learned the hard way I cannot just drop OT or NT allusions into lectures expecting students to pick up on them - whether in the Christian undergraduate or graduate seminary context. This is in part a matter of sheer content knowledge, but also an issue of the narrative literacy which allows for people to connect referential dots on their own. Lots of well-documented reasons for both of those problems.

One light-bulb moment in my dissertation research was finding a letter from an American woman to C.S. Lewis (don't remember if it was at the Wade center or in a printed collection of his letters) praising him for his creativity and imagination in Out of the Silent Planet. How, she wondered openly, did he ever think of such a new and original idea as fallen angels?

I note in passing that his next two books -- Perelandra and Screwtape Letters -- were self-expository, spelling out their own symbolism rather than depending on the readers to understand it. Not saying he was responding to that letter specifically, but surely to a culture becoming increasingly ignorant of any Biblical allusions.

When I taught The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe at a state university (circa 1990s), I did have a handful of students (in a class of 40) challenge me on the claim that it was a Christian allegory, insisting that I was reading my Christianity into a simple, charming, children's fable.

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On 9/25/2017 at 8:55 AM, Peter T Chattaway said:

The woman at the beginning is *not* JL. I remember thinking that it was not JL when the film began. (And besides, doesn't the Bardem character talk about how he lost everything -- including his previous wife, presumably -- in a fire?)

Agreed. My immediate thought was "Oh, okay, so what is about to unfold... it has happened before. The circle of life." That is, of course, where the heart/diamond/thing came from.

Edited by Overstreet

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I'm much more comfortable reading this film as a critique of humankind's distorted, patriarchal religious ideas than as a critique of God Himself. This looks to me like "Okay, people who believe we should glorify God but exploit nature and all things feminine, here is your worldview mirrored back to you." I know that's not necessarily what Aronofsky is saying, but I don't put much stock in what artists say their own work means. There is too much in this film that doesn't make sense if this film is offered as a protest against the God that the artist believes in. It makes more sense to me if the art is challenging us with "Really? This is how you think the cosmos works? This is the god you believe in, and this is how you think it's best to serve him?" It feels more like an indictment of humankind and the way they engage with the god they believe in than a proposition about who God is and how he works.

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2 hours ago, Overstreet said:

I'm much more comfortable reading this film as a critique of humankind's distorted, patriarchal religious ideas than as a critique of God Himself. This looks to me like "Okay, people who believe we should glorify God but exploit nature and all things feminine, here is your worldview mirrored back to you." I know that's not necessarily what Aronofsky is saying, but I don't put much stock in what artists say their own work means. There is too much in this film that doesn't make sense if this film is offered as a protest against the God that the artist believes in. It makes more sense to me if the art is challenging us with "Really? This is how you think the cosmos works? This is the god you believe in, and this is how you think it's best to serve him?" It feels more like an indictment of humankind and the way they engage with the god they believe in than a proposition about who God is and how he works.

So, if I'm understanding your reading correctly, mother! is more of a parody than a strict allegory, a hyperbolic critique which takes some of the negative aspects of fundamentalist religious ideology (anti-environment, anti-women, celebrity worship and political power grabs, exploitation or marginalization of the weak, etc.) and turns them all up to 11.

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Overstreet wrote:
: I'm much more comfortable reading this film as a critique of humankind's distorted, patriarchal religious ideas than as a critique of God Himself.

But does Aronofsky want you to be comfortable? :)

As near as I can tell, Aronofsky has studiously avoided answering the question of whether or not he believes in God. He avoided it during Noah (as far as I can recall, the closest he got was to say that he still believes the ideas he expressed in The Fountain), and he avoided it when William Friedkin asked him point blank whether he believes in God during a public Q&A that took place earlier this month (Aronofsky turned the question around by asking if Friedkin, who directed The Exorcist, really believes in exorcisms).

Personally, I am *intrigued* by the fact that God sends the Flood to avenge Creation in Noah whereas the Creation-figure essentially self-destructs against the God-figure's wishes in mother! -- the source of the judgment against humanity is the one major difference between the two films. But I don't see that as a statement about God so much as an indication that Aronofsky's use of God-figures is malleable depending on what he thinks the story needs. And in the case of mother!, he needed *some* internal story reason for the fact that all these people keep stomping around Jennifer Lawrence's house against her wishes. The obvious reason: because her husband lets them.

So on a certain level, I think the film's portrayal of God is incidental to Aronofsky's main concerns. Though he obviously likes playing with the biblical imagery etc. And, as one of Noah's big defenders back in the day, I do find it interesting to see where mother! dovetails with Noah and where it diverges rather sharply from that film.

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