Thursday, 21 September 2017

Thoughts on 'mother!' (2017)

Spoilers ahead

I've not seen much of Aronofsky's work. Black Swan is a film I've never felt a need to watch again; same goes for The Fountain. If I were to rewatch Noah, it'd likely just be for the endless, burnt, grey landscapes. I generally find his films to be too on the nose, convinced of their profundity when that's actually lacking. As such, I wasn't expecting to like mother!, but to my surprise, I rather enjoyed it.

This isn't to say that it's not on the nose -- the allegory and s y m b o l i s m is so obvious in places that all I could do was grin ruefully. 'Oh Darren, you think you're being subtle, don't you?'

Javier Badem plays Him (he's the only character in the credits to have his name capitalised, by the way...), a poet whose home was recently destroyed in a fire. The fire has left him with writer's block, and he hasn't written a word since. His wife, the eponymous mother (Jennifer Lawrence), has rebuilt their home, and is trying to make it a paradise for the two of them. 

I say that she's rebuilt the home, but from the opening shot we know that all is not what it seems. The film begins with Jennifer Lawrence looking veritably demonic, wreathed in flame and staring down the camera (I knew going in to expect symbolism from Genesis, and for a while I was wondering if she was intended to be Lilith). We then see Him placing a crystal onto a stand in the burnt remains of his study. With that, the room is transformed from a burnt husk to how it was before. We see the house renewing itself, and mother herself coming to be in their bed.

Their solitude is interrupted by the arrival of a man (Ed Harris), who inexplicably claims that he was looking for a B and B. Him welcomes the man in and, much to mother's consternation, insists he stay. Later, the man's wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives. Her and mother's interactions are fraught with tension and passive aggression. The couple incur the wrath of Him when they sneak into his study (where visitors are forbidden without him), and accidentally break the crystal ornament. They are visibly contrite, though in a very childlike way, their faces turned downwards. Him then seals the study so no one can get in. Still later, the couple's sons arrive, the eldest angrily contesting their father's will, and in a fit of rage accidentally kills his younger brother. Him tries to separate them, and throws the elder son into a shelf, leaving his forehead cut.

Now, so far the symbolism is relatively obvious. The poet is God, mother is pre-and non- human creation (henceforth I'm going to call this 'earth'), the boorish and uncouth couple are Adam and Eve, entering the study and breaking the crystal is the Fall, their sons are Cain and Abel, and so on, and so on. There's even a moment where Michelle Pfeiffer is seen wearing a leaf-green bra, an obvious visual reference to depictions of the original couple wearing conveniently placed flora. The spot where the younger son died, where his blood stained the floor, is returned to repeatedly, the stain refusing to ever leave, and only growing thicker as the film progresses (the lingering of sin). However, as the film progresses, a straight point-by-point comparison with Biblical imagery becomes difficult.

For a start, and I may be latching onto a minor plot point here, the man is revealed to be dying when he arrives at the house. Furthermore, he is also revealed to be a fan of the poet, who had lied about how he'd ended up there in the first place. He wanted to meet Him before he died. What is interesting here is that, traditionally, it is held that death did not exist before the Fall from Eden, but the man is closing in on death before he violates the study. But maybe all Aronofsky wanted to do here was emphasise the importance of the poet's work, how deeply it matters to people, and to acknowledge the desire to know the creator.

Over the course of the film, the poet welcomes more and more people into their home, to mother's growing distress, especially after she falls pregnant. The people do not respect the rules of the house, they damage it thoughtlessly, curse at her, etc. When she become pregnant, this inspires the poet to write again, and over what seems to be many months as mother is close to giving birth when he finishes, he completes a new work. It is published immediately (literally, within moment of mother having read it), and sells out on the first day of publication. Mother prepares a dinner for the two of them, only for the house to once again become swamped, this time with adoring fans. This, it seems to me, is the delivery of Scripture to humanity. The poet says at one point something along the lines of 'Everyone understands it, but they all understand it differently'. 

As the house overflows with acolytes, the poet blesses them with ashes, and they start to share this blessing among themselves. Shrines to his image appear, ecstatic ritual is initiated, and a dark spiral into disturbing violence begins. His publisher, credited as the herald (Kristen Wiig), is seen shooting bound fans with bags over their heads point blank. A bizarre cage full of women has been set up in one of the rooms. The violence intensifies, with armed police arriving carrying assault weapons, seemingly to protect mother. When she goes into labour, the poet grabs her and carries her to safety. After she gives birth, the house is quiet, and the people bring them meagre gifts.

This is a moment where the imagery becomes complicated. The child is, obviously, a representation of the Christ (the arrival of gifts, the inexplicable hush that descends upon the house, etc.) -- but who, then, is mother? Mary, clearly, but previously she is indicated to represent earth, all those things wrought by God which humanity uses up, disrespects, and destroys. But, she then delivers the Christ-child. I don't know my Mariology enough to explain how this might work -- maybe she represents fecundity-as-such, with the poet representing the impulse to create through this.

The poet wants to show the child to the people, but mother refuses, holds the baby boy close to her breast, and it's only when she can no longer stay awake that the poet is able to take the child. He presents it to the people, who carry it above their heads and, within moments, kill it. Mother desperately tries to save the child, but is too late, and to her horror, sees that the people are ritually eating it, leaving the remains on an altar, and reciting the poets words from earlier in the film as they do so. 

Again, the imagery here is extremely obvious, the eucharistic consumption of Christ's flesh and blood. What is interesting here is that Aronofsky injects this with a haunting and violent primitiveness. Christianity is a religion overflowing with brutal, violent, bloody imagery, a religion whose chief symbol is a man being publicly tortured to death, whose central ritual is theophagy, the eating and drinking of God. By representing this in its totemic rawness, Aronofsky calls us to consider the darkness inherent to Christian religion -- when I say 'darkness' I do not mean this in a derogatory sense, but rather to emphasise that Christianity is a religion born out of a murder, and which symbolically recalls that murder every day in the Mass. To borrow a phrase from a friend of mine, this isn't 'lemon squash Christianity'.

But here is where things get really interesting -- when she sees what has happened to her son, mother picks up a piece of glass and attacks the people with it. They respond by calling her a whore, and they start kicking and punching her. The poet rescues her, but she breaks away and escapes to the cellar of the house, breaks open the oil tank there, and, despite his pleas not to, ignites it. The house, the people, the countryside around them, are all engulfed in flame. Only mother and the poet are left, though mother is horrifically burnt and the poet untouched. The poet carries her back up to the remains of his study. They talk, and she tells him that she doesn't understand why she wasn't enough for him. He tells her that nothing is ever enough, for if there were enough, there would be no creation. He cannot help himself, he is a creator. He asks her for the love that remains for him, and she grants this to him. He reaches into her chest, and pulls out her heart. She dies as the heart crystallises. He sets the crystal onto the stand, and the cycle repeats.

The ending is fascinating because it breaks from the Abrahamic narrative in two ways. Firstly, creation is depicted cyclically, which goes against the linear understanding of time one finds in the Abrahamic religions, and secondarily, we see creation rejecting the creator. Earth, tortured by that which is not it, humanity, rejects the will of the maker, and burns up his apparently favoured creatures. Throughout, the poet consistently indulges, cares for, comforts the people who arrive at the house, and mother simply cannot understand what he could possibly see in them. After the death of the child, he even tells her that they must try to forgive them -- and she refuses, and destroys them instead. 

The poet's consistent indulging of the people goes hand-in-hand with what seems to be a deep narcissism on his part, his refusal to turn away or condemn his adoring fans. But maybe, rather than narcissism, this is instead his recognition that, like it or not, humanity does adore him, and does act in what they take to be according to his will. He cannot bring himself to reject their love, or refuse them his, even at the cost of the earth and the Christ-child. There is a certain sadness or resignation on his part that he cannot help but create. The creator is as much a slave to his nature as the creature.

Friday, 1 September 2017

WAREWOLFF! by Gary J Shipley -- Book Launch

I happen to be friends with the people at Hexus Press.

Hexus Press, if you don't know, is a small publisher of avant-garde, literary horror. They've previously released two anthologies of short fiction, which contain some extremely impressive and disquieting work (Hexus II contains a story by my pal Lucy Brady).

Gary J Shipley has some short, nasty, cruel, brilliant work in Hexus I. Being rather thrilled with them, I looked up Shipley and bought one of his novels, Dreams of Amputation, which is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant books I've ever read.

So, naturally, I was delighted to learn that Hexus Press were publishing his new novel, WAREWOLFF!. And, last night, I had the pleasure of attending the book launch.

What can I say about Shipley? Reportedly, he's a perfectly affable chap in real life (an academic philosopher, no less). It's difficult to correlate that with the work he's produced. Dreams is a cyberpunk nightmare, the fun of the endless neon night such fiction tends to promise distinctly absent. It presents the future of the Anthropocene as one where the most despicable of desires finds technological expression (there's a disturbingly memorable scene in a harem of artificial, chimeric concubines). In Dreams, Shipley presents a world where celebrity is something easy to come by, if one equates it with fetishising being watched, with being on the other side of the voyeur's lens.


The launch place in a pleasant little book shop in Haggerston, with the unlikely name 'Burley Fisher Books'. One of the lovely people at Hexus had sent me on a mission to find a woodblock for the performance, which had proven to be far more difficult a task than it had any right to be, so I'd arrived early with it. After some chatting, and helping them set-up, I took myself off to a bar down the road as they did their final sound checks (I wasn't allowed to attend, so as to preserve the mystery surrounding the performance that was to come). The bar was sharply minimal, the only seating indoors being a cushioned bench that ran along the wall opposite the bar. Table service was welcome, and I settled in to have a drink and do some research.

The aforementioned Lucy turned up, and we had a few drinks as we waited for the performance to start. When the time came, we filed down into the basement theatre under the book shop. Virtually everyone, including myself, was dressed in black. 

One of the guys from Hexus read a short speech, introducing the evening's events. In a nod to the original Dadaists, (vegetarian) sausages, beer, and sauerkraut were to be served afterwards. He said he suspects that Cabaret Voltaire would not have approved. He also thoughtfully included a trigger warning for 'literally everything'.

There were four people on the stage; two reading from the novel, another reading from it and working the synths and other instruments, and the fourth be assisting with the synths, etc. 

The performance began with the clunk of a woodblock. 

Shipley's words were cast over us, with the synths growling, initially quietly, underneath. The speakers took it in turns, beginning each vignette from the text with a thwack on a woodblock. The language and imagery was everything I expected it to be -- vicious, grotesque, transgressive, obscene, and darkly comic (assuming your sense of humour is as strangely calibrated as mine). As the performance went on, the vignettes became more graphic, the noise from the synths became more violent, though the tone from the speakers was, if anything, ever-more Radio 4. 

The wall of sound increased, almost to an uncomfortable level. The lights flickered during a particularly lurid piece likening Palestine to... well, that would be telling. 

Someone towards the back laughed throughout. 

About 45 minutes later, the performance terminated. The apprehension someone at Hexus had felt that, maybe, the content was going just a little too far, and a Twitter hate-mob would manifest in our presence, appeared unfounded, at least for now. The atmosphere was genuinely convivial. Sausages were had (I had mine mustard). I bough a copy of WAREWOLFF!. 

Shipley was nowhere to be seen.