You’ve probably heard that Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, mother!, is polarizing and controversial.

You’ve probably heard that it scored an “F” on Cinemascore.

You may have even heard Christian media voices condemning at as blasphemous.

Cinemascores, of course, have nothing at all to do with the artistry, beauty, mystery, and truth at work within movies. They have everything to do with audiences experiencing something and reacting: “That’s not what I wanted to see. You didn’t give me what I like.”

Sometimes, moviegoers react in protest because what they saw failed to intrigue, challenge, or inspire them. Sometimes they react merely because they were uncomfortable, and most people don’t go to the movies to become uncomfortable.

This is happening with mother!, especially among Christian viewers who are jumping to conclusions that the movie is nothing more than a hateful attack on the church. Feeling that the movie comes from a hostile imagination, feeling offended, and feeling deprived of that familiar, reassuring sense of being entertained, they protest.

In doing so, they may be expressing how much the church means to them. I’m glad that the church means something to them.

Unfortunately, they’re also demonstrating that they’re not listening. They’re not listening to other perspectives, to the artist, or — most importantly — to the movie itself.

Jennifer Lawrence plays “Mother” in Darren Aronofsky’s strange, poetic, and punishing new fever-dream of a film.

Before I share some of those other perspectives, let me give my defense of this film a little more context. (If you’re willing to read that, I’m grateful: It demonstrates a willingness to listen, and I’m not exactly accustomed to that.)

A couple of years ago, I watched a presentation by a popular Christian filmmaker. He presented a manifesto for Christians in the cinematic arts. He wanted to start a movement. He began by describing “the biggest problem we face today.” This “biggest problem” wasn’t poverty. It wasn’t the threat of nuclear holocaust or the threat of mass casualties to increasing natural disasters. It wasn’t our own sinful nature. “The biggest problem we face today,” he claimed with solemn conviction, is that young people are leaving evangelical churches.

He then presumed to present a primary cause of this mass exodus: there is better “entertainment” available to them elsewhere. Why would they stay in church when their desire to be entertained can be so easily satisfied elsewhere? The lack of high-quality Christian entertainment, he said, leads young people to immerse themselves in entertainment that exposes them to dangerous worldviews and offensive content. So, he declared, we must seize the resources available to us and create entertainment that will give them a safe and exciting alternative.

“I want three things when I consume entertainment properly,” he said. The screen lit up with his priorities in ALL CAPS.

First: “SEE WORLD VIEW REPRESENTED.”

According to the speaker, Christian moviegoers want movies that show them the world the way they already see it. They don’t want to be troubled by a worldview any different from their own. This, he implied, should be our priority.

This strikes me as complicated. I know a lot of Christians. And their worldviews different dramatically.

Second: “DON’T WANT TO BE OFFENDED.”

Christians who “consume” movies, says the speaker, want to avoid anything that would run contrary to their moral sensibilities, upset them, or lead them into temptation. “I don’t want to cover my eyes or ears, or to cover my children’s eyes or ears,” he said.

This, also, seems complicated to me. I know a lot of Christians. They are “offended” by different things. And what does “offended” mean, anyway? I recently came across these words in a comment on David Dark’s Facebook page:

“‘Offended’ isn’t a feeling. It’s a word we use when we don’t want to name our feelings.”

When we say we are “offended,” what do we really mean? Does profanity offend you? Profanity can be spoken in hate and recklessness. It can also express anger or hurt or injustice. It can also express that someone doesn’t have the language to express their frustration. Are we really listening? Does Jesus teach us to flinch and avoid people who are upset, or angry, or uneducated?

Third: “WANT TO BE ENTERTAINED.”

A slide from the manifesto in question.

 

 

 

The speaker says that Christians who go to the movies want to be entertained. He lists this among Christians’ top three priorities in their engagement with media.

We want to be entertained as opposed to… what? Being bored?

That seems extremely subjective. I know a lot of people — Christian or otherwise — who are entertained by very different kinds of work. 

If I’m not misreading this passionate culture-warrior, I suspect that he means that Christians want something comfortably familiar and agreeable — something we can enjoy without trouble.

But here’s the thing…

Art’s purpose is not to show us our own way of thinking. Art invites us to pay attention to our neighbors, especially those who are different than us, so that we can experience new things and, through patient observation, grow to understand and appreciate them, perhaps even embrace and agree with them.

Art, then, becomes an essential way in which I can follow Jesus Christ’s admonition to “love your neighbors.” How can we love our neighbors if we don’t develop a quality of attention that enables us to listen to, contemplate, and engage with perspectives and experiences different from our own?

I’m a Christian.

When I go to the movies, I want to encounter a wide variety of worldviews.

I am not afraid of things that make me uncomfortable. When I feel offended, that often reveals my own weakness and fear and desire to withdraw from an encounter with a person who has urgent needs.

I want more than entertainment. I want to listen, to think, to learn, and to grow, even if that means experiencing works of imagination that reflect convictions different than my own.

And when I engage with art, I find that my faith grows stronger, my capacity for loving my neighbors increases, my appetite for experience and education grows, and I have greater courage to go venture beyond the faith-dulling comforts of home.

So…

When I watched mother!, I saw how easy it would be to read it as a narrow, simplistic, anti-Christian allegory.

But I also saw all kinds of things going on that didn’t align with that reading, and that suggested other more complicated readings.

Mother is in tune with her house, a world of creativity that is being exploited, ignored, and rejected.

What I perceived most of all was a deep sense of compassion and empathy for the female figure in the film, for how her creativity was neglected, for how her pending motherhood was devalued and exploited, for how her hard work to make the world a better place was disrespected and destroyed.

I felt the “groaning” of creation, the cry of injustice from women, from nature, from the beautiful world that was spoken into being by a loving God but that is afflicted and tortured by definitions of God that are primarily concerned with all things male. 

While I’m still thinking through and discussing what I experienced, I found three things were crystal clear:

  1. I was not necessarily seeing my own worldview on the screen. I was hearing from a neighbor, based on his own experiences, and I was receiving some challenging ideas and questions. So long as I am concerned about beauty and truth, this can only lead to growth and wisdom.
  2. I was uncomfortable, and — yes — at times I felt offended. And yet, as I thought through what I had seen and engaged with other perspectives, I realized that those feelings of “offense” were more about me jumping to conclusions than they were about what the movie was actually about.
  3. And this was not about entertainmentThis was about art… which is better than mere entertainment. This was a call to a meal, not a treat; a challenge, not mere reassurance. This was a call for conversation, not applause.

As a Christian who grew disillusioned with conservative evangelical churches in America, I can tell you that I didn’t leave because I wasn’t “entertained.” I moved on because of the self-centered, insular nature of those churches I attended. I moved on because of an unwillingness to listen to (and thus love) our neighbors. I moved on because of a fundamental misunderstanding of the power and purpose of art.

I’ll share what I wrote down, in a sort of fever of inspiration, after seeing the movie.

But first, let me share some other perspectives from some of the moviegoers whose patient and observant interpretations have been blessed me with insight over many years:

Michael Sicinski (at Letterboxd):

On the one hand, it’s about the eternal struggle to create, with a blocked poet (Javier Bardem) sacrificing his wife and muse (Jennifer Lawrence) in order to bring forth genius into sick and hungry world.

But on the other hand, mother! is a feminist examination of the denigration of the domestic sphere. Lawrence is a literal home-maker for Bardem, working to restore his destroyed family house and keeping him in food and drink while he attempts to write. Once he is able to produce, she is regarded as extraneous, the home front a menial distraction.

The central portion of mother!, which is marvelous on both an intellectual and a technical level, emphasizes the Lawrence character’s needs and desires as trivial, the material demands of life as a nagging necessity for the vaunted poet. This is made evident when the older couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) show up, a kind of faux-benevolent home invasion that soon becomes one opportunity after another to humiliate “Her.” Eventually, a swarming group of the Poet’s acolytes takes over the house, treating Lawrence like a gauche interloper.

Like the suitors in Penelope’s home in “The Odyssey,” their sense of entitlement is both comical and shocking. At every turn, they seem to demand that “She” justify her very existence, and Lawrence’s beleagured character is cast as a shrew just for attempting to maintain basic order. Aronofsky asks us to consider whether artistic creation really demands the orgiastic anarchy and unmitigated violence into Lawrence and Bardem’s home devolves. And is Lawrence a “nag” for wanting her own work respected?

I find mother!‘s critique of gender and creativity compelling because it speaks loudly and indicts the very worst parts of me. When I write, I frequently have to pause because my wife or daughter calls me away, to tend to some domestic matter, or to share some interesting idea with me. Sometimes it’s frustrating. I would prefer uninterrupted solitude. But those flashes of frustration are momentary, because I recognize that I have made, and continue to make, the decision to live with other people, people I love more than I love myself or my work.

If “Him,” played by Javier Bardem, represents God, he represents a deity who devalues creation and all things feminine. But there’s more to him than a God allegory.

Evan Cogswell (at Catholic Cinephile):

The question at the heart of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest bizarre fever dream heavily infused with Biblical allegories, is what happens when an artist abuses that power.

Mother herself is another allegorical character, with touches of the Virgin Mary, Hestia, and Aphrodite, but she is primarily drawn from Gaia, or mother nature herself. Whatever combination of metaphors mother is meant to represent, Lawrence draws on them all effortlessly, creating a sympathetic character who never seems gullible or foolish for blindly going along with her husband or pouring all her energies into refurbishing their mysterious house, another process of creation and a sort of vocation that no one, including her creative genius husband, appreciates.

Aronofsky has said that his original idea for mother! was to convey a feeling of dread and helplessness as one watches their home destroyed, an allegory of mother earth’s helplessness in the face of environmental destruction That is an easy interpretation to see, especially considering the selfless giving of mother to her husband and the increasingly disturbing string of guests he parades through their home because they love his work. At the same time, if the invasion of the home is a parallel to humans destroying the earth, it also functions as an example of a self-centered artist allowing his wife’s handiwork to be abused and destroyed because he wants all fame and glory for himself, not much different from an abusive artist trying to usurp glory from God or misuse His creation.

Mother reminds me of so many women — single or married, mothers or sisters or daughters — whose sacrifices and creativity have been neglected or taken for granted.

Alissa Wilkinson (at Vox), in a review that, she pointed out on Twitter, got a nod from Aronofsky himself:

… [T]here’s so much pulsing beneath this film that it’s hard to grab onto just one theme as what it “means.” It’s full-on apocalyptic fiction, and like all stories of apocalypse, it’s intended to draw back the veil on reality and show us what’s really beneath. On one level, Mother! is also about what partners of artists have to deal with (that Aronofsky and Lawrence met while shooting this film and started dating is … confusing). And, like Noah, it’s about humans’ proclivity to wreck anything good with their own unfettered desires and selfishness. It evokes The Fountain in its view of history; it evokes Black Swan in its uncanny ability to get into the relationship between women’s physical pain and the soul.

And in case it’s not clear, this movie gets wild. If its gleeful cracking apart of traditional theologies doesn’t get you (there’s a lot of folk Catholic imagery here, complete with an Ash Wednesday-like mud smearing on the foreheads of the faithful), its bonkers scenes of chaos probably will. Mother! is a movie designed to provoke fury, ecstasy, madness, and catharsis, and more than a little awe.

But if he’s directing with abandon, Aronofsky is also entirely in control. Nothing happens in Mother! he doesn’t intend. The apocalypse works just as expected. Bits of his earlier creations are present everywhere, but this seems like it could be in its perfected state. The world he’s created feels practiced and familiar and yet entirely new. But by the end, he burns it all down. Time to start again.

Do these reviews give you enough reason to pause and question the hastily hostile reactions and the narrow interpretations elsewhere in Christian media?

Here’s what I wrote as soon as I got home from the movie:

Note 1: I really didn’t expect to be writing what I’m writing now. I expected to roll my eyes, thankful to have merely survived another blast of Aronofsky intensity.

Note 2: Your experience may be very different than mine. The woman who sat behind my friends and me stood up as soon as the credits began to roll and said “Disgusting!

First impressions:

If Lars Von Trier so loved the world that he gave a rip about how women feel, then whosoever attended his movies would not feel revulsion, but would find themselves moved and rewarded.

Okay, that was a lame play on a famous verse—but bear with me. If the director of Melancholia and Dancer in the Darkdidn’t take such obvious pleasure in tormenting women (both the actresses and the characters) in his films, but rather sought to respect and honor them through sculpting expressions of empathy, we might end up with something very like Darren Aronfsky’s new film: mother!.

mother!—I’m lowercasing it because I’m told it’s the right thing to do—is Von Trier-esque in many ways except the most fundamental: it is a film of deep compassion. Compassion for women. For what is often understood as the “feminine” forces, the womb-like qualities, at work in cosmos. For women whose lives are creative works of art. For Mary, the mother of God. For the mothers and wives who devote their lives to the impossible challenge of making a family and a home. For women whose creative expressions are neglected compared to those of men.

I’ve avoided reading reviews because I didn’t want other people’s interpretations in my head. And I am glad I did, because I’m playing with so many interpretations right now. And I think that’s the way it’s supposed to be. This isn’t a film you’ll “figure out.” It’s a film that offers you call kinds of readings worth considering, and it can substantially reward them. It’s not the monumental work of ego and pretentiousness that I’ve heard some people say it is.

And I did not go into this as an Aronofsky fanboy. Of his many films, The Fountain is the only one that has stuck with me. I admire his mind, and have enjoyed my interviews with him. But his films have often felt like too much style and not enough substance—like wild exhibitions of his power that ultimately point back to him instead of to some deeply meaningful takeaway.

I went into this expecting the usual Aronofsky bombast: sound and fury signifying, well, not nothing… but not enough to justify the hurricane force of his style.

The style is significant. The cinematography feels improvised, but the more you think about it the more you see how purposefully and carefully edited it is. It shows us just what we need to see, and there’s enough going on that I’m sure I’ll go on discovering more in subsequent viewings. Yes, it makes us feel trapped and desperate, but not in a way that makes me resent the director; rather, I feel I’m being asked to consider what the world feels like to Lawrence’s character (who just might be The World). It’s not about making the audience squirm, but approximating the experience of its central character—a character of mythic proportions.

And the sound design: Oh, my. This film’s force has as much to do with its meticulously crafted sound design as anything I’ve seen in a long time.

But here, perhaps for the first time, I feel that there is enough substance to justify Aronofsky’s style. (Yes, I know—style can be substance. What I mean is that every choice contributes to the richness of the whole, complicating the network of metaphors in interesting ways, rather than just being another heaping scoop of sensory stimulation.

Comparing this to music: This isn’t a symphony playing a shallow rock song or just showing off how loud it can be. This is a symphony playing a work that has a reason to be, a work woven from meaningful questions, and lamenting wrongs of a cosmic nature.

In locating this centrifugal force of a scorned woman’s rage, Aronofsky unleashes what we are already seeing happen in nature around us: the world striking back at mankind’s version of “God” and saying “You can’t rightfully worship a creator god who devalues the natural world of his own creation, who perpetuates or excuses its exploitation, or who oppresses the feminine.”

This film is not able to be boiled down to a Rosemary’s Baby remake, or a critique of Christianity, or a critique of religion in general, or an allegory of the artist and his muse (although all of those things have some merit). It is open to a thousand interpretations, not because it’s meaningless, but because it is making connections between realities in the manner of an ambitious poem. It is seeing correlations between people, archetypes, and phenomena. A good poem about the artist and his muse is a poem about God and his creation… is a poem about a marriage… is a poem about inequality… etc., etc., etc.

Most Aronofsky films have made me think too much about Aronofsky. This one does too. But this time, I feel like he isn’t so much thinking of drawing attention to himself as he is interested in drawing attention to a cosmic tragedy: the exploitation of women, the exploitation of nature, and the blindness of men in overlooking and devaluing what the feminine force of the cosmos gives and gives and gives.

Having said that, I would be able to enjoy this film so much more if I didn’t know about his past relationship with another leading lady and the child that came of it. I don’t want to think about those things as I watch, but I can’t help it. Yes, he offers a flamboyantly self-effacing portrait of the artist (and anyone with a god complex) as an egomaniacal monster; so there may be some attempt here at self-examination and making amends. But still… I’m not convinced that this stands as an expression of confession or repentance. It feels more an artist who has killed for inspiration and is now singing about the grief (as the song goes)*. [My friend Pete Peterson got to this lyrical reference before I did.]

And the fact that Aronofsky and this leading lady are now a new item makes the whole thing feel rather icky. I suspect that we will someday look back at this film and be as preoccupied with stories of the director’s relationship with actresses as we are when we talk about Hitchcock films… and that’s not a good thing. We should focus on the work itself and its possible interpretations, undistracted by the artist and his personal life. But Aronofsky is making that almost impossible.

Films I thought about while watching and then in the post-viewing conversation:
Melancholia (Von Trier)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (Dreyer)
What Lies Beneath (Zemeckis)
Vertigo (Hitchcock)
The Fountain (Aronofsky)
The Tree of Life (Malick)
Black Swan (Aronofsky)

I’m in no way saying that mother! is derivative. I think this film will stand the test of time and earn its place in dialogue with those films as a strong piece of work, superior to anything Aronofsky has yet made. He’s been a director who has intrigued me in the past, but I feel he’s made a significant step forward here. Now he really has my attention.

 

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