Darren Aronofsky was born and raised in Brooklyn. After attending Harvard for film theory and the American Film Institute to study live-action and animation filmmaking, he made his senior thesis film, “Supermarket Sweep” (1991). His first full-length mainstream feature, the enigmatic “Pi” (1997), was made for roughly $60,000–sold to Artisan Entertainment for a cool $1 million–and went on to gross over $3 million. “Pi” won Aronofsky a directing award at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival and his reputation as a unique young filmmaker (at that time, 28) with a broad vision was unquestionably in motion.
Aronofsky followed “Pi” with 2000’s “Requiem for a Dream,” a film based on the harrowing novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr. A showcase for Ellen Burstyn (she’s stunning in the film), “Requiem for a Dream” is the kind of mature and grandiose cinema that can only come from a courageous and efficient director. The craftsmanship is undeniable (vivid) even as the movie works on your nervous system as a kind of inescapable Grinding Beethoven Overture (inducing nausea, claustrophobia and lofty doses of anxiety). The movie is definitely about Addiction with a capital A and the very nature of the story calls for some illustration of misery. Illegal drug addiction is all over the film–but the marrow of Aronofsky’s movie lay in its wholly original (have we ever seen it before?) portrayal of food addiction. This very human dilemma is presented with surgical precision, magnitude and intensity (largely due to Burstyn’s awe inspiring performance; once again, she’s heartbreaking).
After producing and co-writing 2002’s WWII horror film, “Below,” Aronofsky made his most ambitious and undisputedly his most misunderstood film to date, “The Fountain” (2006). Starring Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz, “The Fountain” defies categorization–although one could argue its qualification for earnest Sci-Fi. The flick found very little love anywhere and was dismissed rather abruptly (a shame–it’s a fascinating movie, and not worthy of the cold shoulder it received). The wild ambition of the film may have clouded and/or muddied the execution and reception (not an easy task making a film largely about infinity and immortality).
It was the one-two punch of 2008’s “The Wrestler” and 2010’s “Black Swan” that unquestionably marked Aronofsky as one of the finest American directors working in contemporary cinema. The two films are opposite sides of the same coin (both about physical sacrifice, the limits of dedication to craft or art, and the immeasurable isolation/plight of a performer’s psyche). Mickey Rourke’s “Wrestler” is a Herculean example of a perfect film performance (I defy anyone to find a false note in it). Natalie Portman’s determined ballerina is also a career-defining moment (her literal and figurative balance of fragility and strength is truly noteworthy). It is an easy conclusion to draw that both portraits were largely sculpted and carefully nurtured and fine-tuned by an overtly dedicated director. It’s no secret that Aronofsky is excellent with actors (all of his films have at least one or two remarkable pieces of acting in them). Any ferocious and brave (the primary ingredients of great acting; see Sean Penn, Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep) actor will testify that a great director is the proof in the potent pudding.
Aronofsky is currently (at last check) working on a film about Noah (see biblical figure with ark), reportedly starring Russell Crowe. This might be interesting subject matter for a director with an easily detected existentialist streak: Noah, a man who creates a vessel for the preservation (as commanded by God) of all living species and embarks on a tempestuous faith-testing journey.
Aronofsky seems an apt choice for such rich and purely cinematic fare. There’s the foundation for another great showcase of histrionics (to be sure). In lesser hands (Spielberg, perhaps?), a biblical yarn adapted for the screen by way of Obama era America could resemble a puffed up, patriotic, anthemic array of tripe. Not so with Aronofsky. His track record proves he willingly takes roads less traveled and aims for bold, daring, unconventional, genuinely influential routes. He makes movies that create zeitgeists–as opposed to preceding them.