A great idea without an audience is nothing. It just blips out of existence. Achieving classic status requires engagement — a piece of art is great because of the response it provokes, the mental and emotional pathways it opens up. That isn’t always an immediate process. A film or novel might be an incredible work, but it might never have a chance to ignite the response that connotes greatness.
Darren Aronofsky’s latest film mother!, which is out now on Digital and available on Blu-ray and DVD December 19, divided audiences and critics. The film's allegorical story ran counter to expectations of a horror film or a Jennifer Lawrence vehicle. mother! begins by disorienting the audience, and ends in a visceral conflagration of chaos, none of which offers steady footing to viewers already uncertain of the film's ambition, but which rewards those open to the experience.
The divided initial reception is just the first stage of the film's existence in the public eye. We've seen this happen over and over, as filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to David Lynch offered up films that challenged expectations and confronted audiences with challenging material. The lesson of those movies, however, is that being "divisive" is far from a bad thing, and may lead to a very different impression on viewers down the line.
“Classic” status takes time. In 1990, David Lynch won the Palme d’Or with Wild at Heart, a film that re-cast The Wizard of Oz as a story about a lovestruck couple on the run. Two years later Lynch returned to Cannes with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a prequel to the canceled TV series. Fire Walk With Me stripped all the quirk and curiosity from Twin Peaks, leaving a bleak portrait of abuse and horror.
Fire Walk With Me was ridiculed at Cannes and met with a spectrum of indifference and hostility in regular release. The reception was similar to (though far more negative) what we saw with mother!; in both cases, people expected a less confrontational and idiosyncratic film.
Now, removed from the anticipation of a new chapter of Lynch's strange TV series, we can see Fire Walk With Me for what it is: a harrowing and determined product of obsession, a stellar example of Lynch’s abilities as a director, and a film with astonishing emotional power. It’s all about perspective. We can apply that lesson to Aronofsky’s latest film, and jumpstart the process of coming to terms with the rich images and ideas in mother!.
The equation that turns a film into a classic doesn’t always require time in the sense of distance from release; sometimes it’s just a matter of being in front of the right people at the right time. Great films have prompted severely divided receptions at turning points in the industry. The “New Hollywood” of the late 1960s saw several films embraced on shaky ground even as some audiences understood them to be important and singular efforts.
Bonnie and Clyde, with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway as the criminal duo, was a rocket that blasted away from mainstream studio conventions and made the careers of its two stars, but the film’s violence and sexuality, and cynicism about the morality of middle America, repelled as many viewers as they enraptured.
Pauline Kael nailed it, naturally:
When an American movie is contemporary in feeling, like this one, it makes a different kind of contact with an American audience from the kind that is made by European films, however contemporary. Yet any movie that is contemporary in feeling is likely to go further than other movies—go too far for some tastes—and “Bonnie and Clyde” divides audiences, as “The Manchurian Candidate” did, and it is being jumped on almost as hard.
That "different kind of contact" with an audience is reflected in experiences with mother!, which embraces a range of interpretations. The open allegory of Aronofsky's movie is classic, thanks to its use of Biblical imagery, while its deep confidence in viewers is utterly contemporary. More than that, in a time when film and TV offer mannered stories, the anarchy of mother! is refreshing and forward-thinking.
Sometimes people just need a push to see a film in a new light. That essay from Kael was instrumental in fostering acceptance of Bonnie and Clyde. Alongside that movie, films like The Wild Bunch, Easy Rider, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid upended commonly-accepted standards from studio movies, and confronted audiences by dispensing with familiar moral lessons.
No major director would be more familiar with being dismissed than Alfred Hitchcock, whose films – often populist entertainments with complex interactions guided by a simple moral core – were routinely disregarded by critics. Even the studio establishment skirted acceptance of Hitchcock, who was nominated for five Best Director Oscars, beginning with his first Hollywood studio film, Rebecca in 1941, but never won until he was given the ceremonial Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1968.
The ultimate example of a blown-off Hitchcock masterpiece is Vertigo, in which Jimmy Stewart plays a pretty skeevy guy who falls for a troubled woman, then attempts to make another woman over in her image – with Kim Novak playing both women, who turn out to be the same person. Contemporary response to the film in 1958 was indifferent, with critics calling Vertigo sluggish and dull, and audiences unwilling to engage with the same fervor they’d given to the director’s bigger, flashier films in the ‘50s.
The reversal of fortune for Vertigo came about due an unusual combination of two factors that are unlikely to ever be replicated. One is that no one could see it, as Hitchcock took Vertigo (and four other films) out of circulation entirely for about a decade. Closing down the chance for people to see a film isn't the safest tactic to build word of mouth – we can't recommend it – but in the pre-internet era it worked, at least this once.
The other factor was the wave of film criticism that flowered through the magazine Cahiers du cinéma in the 1960s. Critics looking at the output of directors like Hitchcock, John Ford, and other American mainstays began to see patterns of personal interest that coursed through multiple films in observations that formed the first stage of what became known as the auteur theory.
Those critics saw Vertigo as an intensely personal film that reflected Hitchcock’s own obsessions. This was before Hitchcock attempted to make over and even manipulate the actress Tippi Hedren in the same way Stewart’s character does, and long before those stories were publicly known. Now we easily see parallels between Hitchcock’s life and work and Vertigo, and it is wild to think they weren't obvious when the film was released.
Interpretations of mother! might evolve in the same way as the shock of the film's debut gives way to consideration of what Aronofsky reveals about his own art amidst the wild energy. mother! gives us an unusually open vision of the process of creativity, even filtered through the film's exaggerated allegory. There's no question that the movie is intensely personal; it's Aronofsky wearing his heart on his sleeve. That's unusual enough, especially from a filmmaker on his level, to make the film a must-see.
We see common elements in these now-classic films: a confrontational nature, a deeply personal approach to story and character, and a weight of expectations that led critics and audiences alike to approach each film in a specific way. Cycling back to Aronofsky’s mother!, all the same elements are in play. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll hold mother! in the same elevated position enjoyed by a film like Vertigo, but it is a good indication that the film’s initial divided reception was just the beginning of its relationship with audiences.
mother! is out now on Digital and available on Blu-ray and DVD December 19.