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Why Darren Aronofsky Makes My Top Ten Overrated List

Posted on January 18 2010 2:00 pm
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Editor’s Note: Ben Shapiro gives away the ending of “Requiem for a Dream” in this post. He also explicitly summarizes the sequence which gave the film its NC-17 rating. Reader discretion is advised.

David Swindle was kind enough to email me about his post earlier today responding to my piece at Big Hollywood (my post was entitled Top Ten Most Overrated Directors of All Time).  David offered me the space to respond to his response.  Since I respect David so much, I felt it was worth the time and effort to answer briefly.

“The article is a hyperbolic provocation, not to be taken seriously. Shapiro makes dumb statements …”

The “dumb statement” with which David takes issue is my contention that the auteur theory of cinema is “idiotic,” a declaration from which I do not backtrack.  In my own defense, many film authorities make the same claim (see William Goldman, the most prominent critic.)  Here’s Hitchcock himself (my #1 most overrated, but still great director) on the auteur theory:

“A lot of people embrace the auteur theory.  But it’s difficult to know what someone means by it. I suppose they mean that the responsibility for the film rests solely on the shoulders of the director. But very often the director is no better than his script.”

I certainly do not backtrack from my statement that no director could make a masterpiece out of “The Ugly Truth.”  David avers,

“Actually I bet if Stanley Kubrick directed it it would be a masterpiece.”

I’ll let the ridiculousness of that statement speak for itself.  Only someone who has not been forced to suffer the screaming mental anguish of watching “The Ugly Truth” could say that.  God himself could not rectify that piece of nonsense without bringing on a second flood.  (I do have to admit, however, that it would be fun to see what Kubrick would do with it – a few monkeys hitting things with sticks a la “2001: A Space Odyssey” couldn’t have hurt, and likely would have produced a better screenplay.)

What really gets David riled up, though, is my dislike for Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream.”  (NOTE: To make David happy, SPOILER ALERT this time – although I do have to say that spoiler alerts should not apply to films a decade old.  For those who don’t know, Darth Vader is really Luke’s father.)  Apparently, David likes “Requiem” so much that he is “out for blood.”  It is his “favorite film” ever since he saw it in high school.

Let me begin by stating that it seems to me that only a high school student could fall in love with “Requiem for a Dream.”  It is the kind of movie that sixteen year old high school students like to tell their friends about to demonstrate their sophistication.  In fact it is overwrought, degrading, and disgusting.  Showing the evils of drug use does not require having one of your lead actresses get buck naked, then shove a large dildo up her rear with another naked female on the other end doing the same.  Sorry – there are still bounds to what should be shown on screen.  The limits of decency and taste are still relevant. “Days of Wine and Roses” showed the evils of alcoholism without showing Jack Lemmon whoring himself out for booze money or contracting an STD from a strange homeless man in a barroom stall.  Somehow I think we can deal with drug use without showing every depraved detail possible.  There is a fine line between morality tale and exploitation.  Aronofsky purposefully crosses it by a mile.

Back to David’s critique.  He says that Aronofsky is the most promising director of his generation, better than P.T. Anderson and Tarantino.  Since Tarantino also makes my overrated list, and since I hated Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood,” I won’t bother to address that point – it seems to me that David and I simply have widely variant tastes on film.  One point I will concede to David – Spike Lee should have made my list.  (So should Tim Burton, by the way.)

David labels me a “liar” for suggesting that “not one of [Aronofsky’s] films has been a major commercial success.”  Really, now.

Let’s start by defining our terms.  When I talk about a film being a major commercial success, I generally refer to absolute monetary return on investment, not percentage return.  This is for a very simple reason – if we calculated percentage return, indie movies would very often top the charts (see, for example, David’s calculation of return for “Pi,” which can in no way be considered a “major commercial success,” since it garnered about $3 million – chump change in Hollywood.)

Using that criteria, let’s look at Aronofsky’s box office success.  “The Wrestler” did indeed have a budget of $6 million and grossed $26 million domestically.  Not bad, but this was not a “major commercial success” by any means.  By way of contrast, “Little Miss Sunshine” had a budget of $8 million and garnered nearly $60 million domestically.  The execrable “Napoleon Dynamite” had a budget of $400,000 and grabbed $45 million domestically. “Fireproof” had a budget of $500,000 and made $33 million.  “Juno” cost $7.5 million and made $143 million.  “Slumdog Millionaire’s” budget was $15 million, and it took in $141 million. “Paranormal Activity” cost $15,000 and grabbed $107 million.

How about “Requiem for a Dream”?  Budget: minor.  Domestic gross: $3.6 million.  Basically, it did as well as “Pi.”  So let’s not put that quite in the same category as “Titanic.”

Aronofsky’s most expensive film, “The Fountain,” was his biggest flop – by far.  The production budget was $35 million, and it made back $10 million domestically.  In short, give him more money, lose more money.  Restrict his budget, you’ll make some relatively minor gains.

Finally, David levels some ad hominem charges at me.

“I hate to get ad hominem here when I’ve railed so much against it in the past, but I think this is warranted: why is it that the author of Porn Generation: How Social Liberalism is Corrupting Our Future is obsessed with sex scenes in art movies? Why is that the only thing he can seem to see in Aronofsky’s four films? How many great films like Requiem for a Dream have fanatical social conservatives missed out on because they cannot handle an entirely non-gratuitous sex scene?  Further, is Shapiro so reactionary at the sight of a sex scene that he’s unable to see its context? …Shapiro should be trumpeting Requiem as a powerful cautionary tale with an anti-drug message so effective that it makes the viewer never want to take so much as an aspirin. He shouldn’t be attacking Aronofsky as a pervert. But no, he’s more interested in just generating some traffic for Mr. Nolte and Big Hollywood with an inflammatory article.”

While I see why David would level this charge, it’s inaccurate (just to correct the record, I do note the context in my piece for the graphic scene in “Requiem.”)  There are certainly sexual depictions in movies that I would consider useful (see, e.g. “The Pawnbroker,” where a woman’s breasts prompt a flashback to the main character’s wife being raped by a Nazi guard during the Holocaust, or “A Clockwork Orange.”)  Then there is stuff that is purely gross and demeaning to the audience as well as to the actors.  If a director can’t make his point without showing the kind of garbage Aronofsky shows in that aforementioned scene, he’s more pervert and less visionary, which is why he makes my list.

Next week, I hope to address my top ten directors of all time.  I’ll be interested to get David’s thoughts.

David Swindle’s response can be read here.

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