Mother! is Awesome

There haven’t been a lot of movies I’ve seen in the past year or so that I thought were great. Last month I saw Mother!, and it was awesome.

Now, I’m not going to spoil the more disturbing things in this movie, so I don’t think I need a “trigger warning” for this post. In fact, I tend to think they aren’t necessary in most cases.

But in this case, there is a seriously disturbing thing that happens near the end of the movie in pretty graphic visuals, so if you are at all queasy watching gruesome things, you might want to skip this movie.

It’s trendy to say things like: this book/movie can’t be described in words. It defies genre and expectation. It’s wildly inventive. Blah, blah, blah.

But in this case, it’s really true. I can’t even guess at a genre that would make sense. Some call it a psychological thriller. It might be closer to allegorical magical realism.

Around ten years ago, I wrote a blog post about one of the best things that can happen in a work of art (talking about Joanna Newsom’s album Ys). It’s when the art is based on very concrete, clear events that have high emotional resonance, but then it is all abstracted into something more universal.

Honestly, this isn’t a groundbreaking idea. That’s essentially the argument of Campbell’s “monomyth” theory.

Darren Aronofsky has done exactly this in Mother!

Interpretation Spoilers. I don’t plan to spoil plot things (if this movie even has a “plot” to be spoiled). But I’m going to give my interpretation of the movie as a way to describe it.

Here we go. You’re warned a second time.

Mother! is a history of the world as described in the Bible, but it’s done symbolically in a single house. The character known as Mother is Mother Earth. The house is her domain/Earth. The character known as Him is God.

To give you a feel for how the symbolism plays out, I’ll try to describe some stuff in the beginning. Mother and Him are living in the house. Then a man shows up. This is Adam. Then his wife shows up. This is Eve. Him gives free reign of the house to them except they can’t touch his crystal thing (Tree of Knowledge), which has the power to let him write his profound poetry (the Word/Bible).

Mother doesn’t really understand why Him is letting these humans run amok without consulting her first. Eventually, they touch and break the crystal thing, so he banishes them from his office (the Garden of Eden). The couple’s children come, and they play out the Cain and Abel story symbolically.

This goes on and on. It’s all very obvious–even on a first viewing.

At this point you might be thinking: that sounds terrible. And if that was it, it would be terrible. Here’s where it gets awesome.

The whole thing is filmed in this claustrophobic framing of Mother. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is insanely good. She might be in every second of this movie. As people start to fill up the house/Earth and the people start to break things and overpopulate and pollute, she gets more and more upset and confused and scared.

Mother has no idea why any of this is happening, and there’s nothing she can do to stop it. One of the most chilling parts of the movie is when she asks one of the people who is breaking something, “Why are you doing this?” He replies, “Because He gave it to us.” (Or something like that. I don’t have the movie in front of me and it’s been a while to recall exact wording).

How many times have you heard this from certain politicized Christians when asked why they aren’t concerned about climate change and destroying the Earth?

To me, this is the point of the movie. It personifies the Earth and then puts the viewer inside of her mental state. It’s a terrible experience, but that’s the point. It’s supposed to make you think about your own actions in the world from a different perspective.

I do have some problems with it. For example, this obviously isn’t a great way to make the rational argument, because it basically boils down to: how would you feel if you were the Earth? The symbolism and message are so overt and strong, it leaves a bit of a sour taste at the end.

It’s quite interesting to see what most other people have written as problems with the movie. The first type of hater thinks the more disturbing aspects of the movie serve no purpose other than shock value. They think the movie is a pretentious and pointless “arty” film. Then they go on to point out: it’s not even that shocking or gruesome.

Of course it isn’t! That fact alone should make one consider: this isn’t what the movie is intending to do.

As I’ve pointed out already, this criticism can be dismissed as complete nonsense. The opposite is true. It’s too obvious what the movie is about, and hence it cannot be the case that the movie is about nothing and a pure shockfest.

The more interesting criticism can be summarized by this comment: “Jennifer Lawrence’s character infuriated me. She kept making reasonable requests, and everyone ignored them. It was like she had no agency.¬†She spends the entirety of the film in a state of traumatized bewilderment. It made me deeply uncomfortable and annoyed.”

Well, yeah! That’s literally what the movie set out to do. The fact that it succeeded in its goal shouldn’t be seen as some sort of negative criticism and a reason to hate the movie.

The real question is: were you annoyed enough to look at your own actions and make some changes, or are you going to continue to be the people you despised in the movie, wrecking the house of someone with no agency to stop you?

That’s what makes Mother! awesome. Not only does it evoke visceral reactions in those that watch it, but it asks the viewer to bring those reactions back to the real world and do something about it.

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Synecdoche, NY

I never thought the day would come where The Fountain would have a rival for greatest work of art produced in my lifetime. Charlie Kaufman has done it with Synecdoche, New York. I don’t want to say too much except, “Go see it now!”

In an attempt to not give anything away, but to talk about why it rivals Darren Aronsofsky’s brilliant work, it is basically about the same thing. The only thing. Fear of death. But of course, it wouldn’t be great if that was it. It also pulls in all that I love about modern art. It really isn’t as confusing as most would make it out to be either. The Fountain is probably the harder of the two to follow. But Kaufman’s film is more complex. More subtle.

So there is the post-modern paradigm. The greats of Pynchon or DeLillo. They try create these sprawling novels that keep splitting off in different directions: following different characters. They try to incorporate the ideas from math and science that say formal systems are incomplete or that uncertainty always exists. They try to self-reference themselves without contradiction.

Then people like DFW (David Foster Wallace for the non-initiated) come along and use the post-modern paradigm to reject it. You can’t self-reference without paradox. A self-reference creates an infinite recursion, but the novel itself is finite, so it doesn’t work. The very attempt at showing the incompleteness of the system creates a meta-system more powerful than the one in which it is trying to live. It is a rejection of post-modernism.

Kaufman says, “No! DFW, you should know better. You have some mathematical training. I’ll show you a return to classic post-modernism without contradiction. You can have an infinite recursion take up finite space. It just has to converge somewhere.” This is the brilliance of it. Let’s combine the only theme in art worth exploring (fear of death (note that I have a fairly good argument based on The Fountain that all things stem from this)), with a return to the classic post-modern paradigm. Where does the infinite self-reference converge to? Death of course! It was so obvious all along.

Don’t worry. I’ve given nothing away. A few more words are necessary, though. This movie is without a doubt the most demanding I’ve ever seen. Hopefully you have a degree in literature to catch all the references (Hedda Gabler, Death of a Salesman, White Noise, post-modern philosophy, etc). The details are so intensely packed in as well. I’m pretty sure you could just randomly flip to any 5 second period of the movie and I could point out some important detail.

Lastly, what does synecdoche mean? [From wikipedia] Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which:

  • a term denoting a part of something is used to refer to the whole thing, or
  • a term denoting a thing (a “whole”) is used to refer to part of it, or
  • a term denoting a specific class of thing is used to refer to a larger, more general class, or
  • a term denoting a general class of thing is used to refer to a smaller, more specific class, or
  • a term denoting a material is used to refer to an object composed of that material.

The movie takes place in Schenectady, NY. What an amazing play on words. DFW would be proud.

How great! Go now!