The Artist's Role in Social Transformation
While the emaciated ghosts of 2016 cling to the air with a sickening pleasure, outrage will come with ease. But exhaustion comes in waves and complacency, and has a funny way of becoming your friend with time. For the artists, the natural response will be that of ferocious protest, as it should be. Art is dangerous; it is a loaded gun aimed directly at the heart. At its best, the art world is a living, breathing monster — ready to sink into your veins and blister your blood with a passion. It is the human soul incarnate. The storyteller seeks to uncover these fragments of aliveness and make them known. Curiously enough, stories, while often thriving in the realm of fiction, can often hold more truth in them than the day-to-day lives we occupy. This lends an artist the urgency to incite a real change, something much more than a simple call to action. Instead, it offers the opportunity to transform a person's perception of, not only the world, but of themselves. This is the art world’s revolution.
Historically, the art world is intricately linked with social transformation. Be it music, film, literature, or any other form of artistic expression, there is an artist trying to say something; however, the most effective way for an artist to invoke change is a source of much contention. Many have argued that the artist’s purpose is to speak to the masses and form their political opinions. That art is meant to be directly revolutionary by speaking to the public and stirring the need for change. So, we come to Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream.
The world within is spastic and mournful. It lacks the empathy to foster any kind of repentance. On the contrary, like many of Aronofsky’s creations, it thrives off of an obsession that leeches onto its host in an effort to suck it dry. It finds four human shells as they spiral through the depths of hell, all in search of one thing: pure unadulterated pleasure. The American Dream. Aronofsky has crafted a veritable masterwork in filmmaking. It's dark, gruesome, suffocating, and, somehow, completely impersonal.
The film hints at the intricacies of addiction and psychological isolation, but the sheer force of will in its message cripples the narrative and it ends up feeling closer to a two hour anti-drug commercial. While impeccably filmed, the characterization takes a backseat and makes it pretty difficult to fall into the Aronofsky’s world; rather, he’s hitting you over the head with it. This might make you think a bit, but it lacks the staying power to make a real difference (which it undoubtedly wants to do). Not to say a movie can’t be driven by the pure power of cinematic language. This is something Aronofsky mastered with his later film: Black Swan. What Black Swan lacks in subtext it makes up for in the sheer subtlety of its spectacle. The writing and the filmmaking inform each other to carve an emotional backdrop for Nina and allow her to drive the thematic tension of the movie. On the other hand, Requiem for a Dream spends so much time allowing its themes to drive the characters that the characters cease to be people at all.
This is the essence of soapbox cinema. While the desire to affect the masses is admirable, it is, perhaps, misguided and artificial in its scope — depersonalizing its own agenda and lacking any kind of deep truth. The true power of the art world comes in the spaces between the lines. The more outwardly political a work is the lesser its power. Universality is key in reaching people. Stories are about human beings (not pawns) and a piece of art is not successful because it portrays a class struggle; it is successful because that struggle can be understood and felt inherently.
The purpose of art is not to alter the masses; instead, it seeks to induce a revolution by reaching the individual and changing their perception of the world. Interestingly enough, focusing on an individual seems much more likely to affect the masses. In this way, art is indirectly revolutionary. So, we come to Trainspotting.
It has a lot in common with Requiem for a Dream. Both study the effects of drug abuse/addiction. Both boast an ensemble cast. Both are set around the same time period. And both stride along with an ardent energy. However, the execution couldn't be more different. Trainspotting follows quite a few characters that deal with addiction, but the focus lies on Mark Renton. He is a self-proclaimed heroin addict. We follow him through his addiction to heroin, his quitting heroin, his return to heroin, his detox, etc. This incessant cycle is his life. He has every reason to choose life, but he denies it. Instead, he chooses a course of moral nihilism and, to escape his sorrows, he falls into a world of heroin addiction and disassociation. The rest of the cast has a similar trajectory.
This dream of escaping from the mediocrity of an ordinary life is an innately personable idea. Everyone is searching for an escape. Perhaps they don't go to drugs, but the concept of listlessness is readily understood. And it's important to note how careful Danny Boyle is to not overtly take any sides on the drug debate. In fact, he makes heroin seem pleasurable. So, rather than telling us drugs will ruin our lives and placing all of the thematic weight solely in his expressionistic filmmaking, he allows the film distance and distributes the burden of that theme onto the characters themselves. Trainspotting spends its time making you feel the world of its narrative. The drug use, escapism, and loss seem real because the characters' base obstacles are universal. It makes you think twice about your day-to-day grind. It may not be telling you to change your life, but it makes you want to. This is what is missing from Darren Aronofsky’s journey through hell: intimacy.
That is, the truth presented in fiction and stories can be much more true than what is happening in the real world. The effect a story-truth can have on the individual is the source of a true revolution. A revolution that, instead of trying to change the world, alters the way one perceives it. This is not the time for dismantling. The next four years (at the very least) are going to be hideously, mind-numbingly, debilitating. In a world where cynicism comes much to easy, we need art that will brave the eye roll of the public and embrace a living, breathing revolution. This is the time to create something new.
This is the time for stories.