Requiem for a Dream (2000)

reviewed by
Louis Proyect


Retrospective: Requiem for a Dream (2000)

Sitting alone in her chintzy Brighton Beach apartment, overweight and elderly Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn) consoles herself with her two main addictions: television and sweets. Her favorite television show is an infomercial that features a self-assured man in a suit striding up and down the stage telling his studio audience and forlorn people at home like Sarah that they can turn their lives around. All they have to do is give up red meat and sugar, and turn on to the inner resources each have within themselves--something he calls "juice". When he utters the word "juice," the audience maniacally begins chanting the word in unison as Sarah stares beatifically at the TV screen hoping that she too some day will discover her own "juice."

Her son Harry (Jared Leto) is a junkie and small-time drug-dealer. When we first meet him and his best friend and fellow junky-dealer Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), they have seized Sara's television and are wheeling it down the desolate streets of the industrial blocks near Brighton Beach in order to deliver it to a hock shop, where they are frequent visitors, always with the same TV set.

One day Sara receives an invitation to appear as a contestant on a television game show. This represents the possibility of deliverance from loneliness and inadequacy. She embarks on a self-improvement program to make her more attractive for the upcoming television appearance. One of her Brighton Beach cronies, played to the hilt by Louise Lasser, dyes her hair red. This will match the red dress that sits in her closet, the one she wore to Harry's high school graduation. There is only one problem: it is now way too small.

She puts herself on a crash diet that excludes all sugar and fatty foods. In doing so, she experiences withdrawal symptoms in a food-addict's version of "cold turkey." When fantasies about cheeseburgers and pastries prove too much for her to take, she looks up a diet doctor who prescribes 3 sets of pills in different colors that must be taken morning, noon and night.

Meanwhile Harry and Tyrone have stepped up their drug-dealing in an effort to break into the ranks of the big time and to achieve their own kind of "juice." Some of the proceeds are targeted for a dress-design shop to be run by Harry's girl-friend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), a junkie herself.

The ambitious plans of mother and son soon begin to unravel. Although her weight begins to evaporate, Sara finds the side-effects of the drugs both frightening and painful. She has waking nightmares in which her refrigerator appears to advance toward her like a Frankenstein monster with a life of its own. When Harry visits her to announce that he is presenting her with a brand-new giant-screen television, paid for by revenues from his expanding drug trade, he is alarmed to find his mother grinding her teeth uncontrollably like a speed freak. When he tells her that she is addicted, she answers that this is impossible. A doctor prescribed the pills, so how can she be addicted.

But addicted she is. Unlike her son and his friends, she is a victim of "approved" drugs which are every bit as harmful as those peddled on the streets by her son. Director Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream", based on his screenplay adaptation of a novel by Hubert Selby Jr., takes these characters and shows with unstinting and gruesome honesty how addiction can destroy lives. The powerful but deeply disturbing climax of the film depicts the unraveling of mother and son, as the search for satisfaction and acceptance proves elusive. Unlike the typical film about addicts, which tends to view them as weak people with character flaws, Aronofsky's film leads to a different kind of a conclusion--namely, that society itself is flawed.

Although Darren Aronofsky is an extremely talented director and screenplay writer, this film would have been impossible without Hubert Selby Jr., one of the great American writers of the past half-century. Now over seventy years old, Selby is best known for his collection of short stories "Last Exit in Brooklyn" which like "Requiem for a Dream" depicts the sufferings of working people and drifters living at the margins of society in the hinterlands of Brooklyn. Although Selby is linked stylistically with the Beat Generation, especially William S. Burroughs, I find him to be a throwback to the Depression Era, especially the bleakly surrealistic novels of CP'er Nathaniel West.

In an April 18, 1999 interview with the British newspaper, The Independent, Selby takes aim at American society:

"The fascism in this country today is incredible. But things go through cycles. Look at McCarthyism. That started in the 1950s and went through for quite a while. So the basic pathology is always there. In this country, our escape, regardless of what technology's around, has always been money. The so-called 'bottom line' is God, over absolutely everything. So regardless of what else is going on, there is that fix."

In dealing with the ups and downs of Selby's career, which during down phases had him pumping gas or on welfare, the British interviewer who is altogether sympathetic to the legendary writer, says, "I didn't mean to upset you. It's just that America seems to hold a terror that England doesn't. In England there's still a net. But in America you can be an upstanding citizen for years and then suddenly through a combination of unfortunate circumstances you fall and you are ... "

Selby completes the interviewer's sentence:

"Dead. And this is the richest country in the world, in every way possible, and we have millions of children starving. Can you f---ing believe that! THIS IDEA OF EFFICIENCY AND THE BOTTOM LINE IS MADNESS." (emphasis added)

Hubert Selby Jr. was the Brooklyn-born only child of an engineer and a housewife who joined the Merchant Marines at the end of WWII, just like Jack Kerouac. Around this time, he contracted tuberculosis. In an effort to save his life, doctors removed 10 ribs so they could collapse his left lung and snip out part of the diseased right one.

During his recuperation, according to a profile that appeared in the March 11, 1988 Los Angeles Times, he sneaked out for nights of drinking and would pass out in snowbanks, only to be rescued by neighborhood friends. Soon afterwards he also developed a $100 a day heroin habit. This led to a 90-day, drug-related prison stint and a four-month stay in solitary confinement at Bellevue Hospital after attempting suicide.

This personal hell was occurring in the late 1940s, when he was also hanging out with the characters who would form the inner core of "Last Exit to Brooklyn" and "Requiem for a Dream."

Although "Requiem for a Dream" is an art movie bordering on the experimental, it is currently playing at commercial houses all around the country. It is not to be missed.

Louis Proyect
Marxism mailing list: http://www.marxmail.org

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