To whom does a creative work belong once it is made and released into the world? Is it the audience’s, to do with as its members please, to determine meaning and worth? Does it belong to those who share it and take responsibility for promoting it to audiences? Or does the creative work yet belong to its creator no matter who else interacts with it at any point in its life?
Is the ownership paradigm itself perhaps the wrong way to reckon with creative works?
Mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s latest film about a woman plagued by the ego-centric behavior of her poet husband, begs these questions, but it does so accidentally. The film is over-eager to make a point. The less you know about that point, the better, either before seeing the film or after. As a metaphor, Mother! leaves room for each audience member’s reaction and interpretation of its images, sounds, and events. As an analogy, it does not. Mother! is ultimately an analogy, and a rather strident one. (I will not go into all that here; I’m certain you will have no trouble finding eager explainers all over the internet salivating to tell you want it all means.) Mother! is Jonathan Edwards’ spider dangling over a fire by a single strand of web – effective, sure, but damningly preachy and decidedly coarse. There are times for that kind of didacticism, and clearly Aronofsky, like Edwards, believes this is one of those times.
Aronofsky excels at creating high intensity cinematic worlds laced with mythological symbolism and horrors out of the subconscious. I watched much of Mother! through my fingers, but I was as scared to look away from the screen as I was to look at it, lest I miss one of his indelibly disturbing images. Mother!’s intensity is achieved via a soundscape heightened to the point that you feel your ears are newborn and exceptionally sensitive to sound and via a camera that hovers mostly about two feet from Jennifer Lawrence’s head like a specter intent on nudging her closer to the terrors that plague her home.
Mother! maintains this tenor from the moment it begins and only lessens it briefly in the third act before ratcheting it up again. It’s exhausting and ineffective past the first forty-five minutes or so. Like attending a heavy metal concert that starts loud and never quiets, eventually you’re just numb and incapable of engaging sympathetically with the film any longer. It’s more demo than performance, albeit an impressive one. Mother! is pitched to be divisive, to force a decision from its audience, but like so many preachy films, it appears to forget that “how” a work of art is about its purpose is more powerful than “what” it’s about. Mother! compels you to accept or reject its method, though it hopes to convert you to its message.
Mother! is a creative work to which its creator clings too tightly and does not want others, be they distributors or audiences, to have a say over what it means or why it matters. But a maker has very little authority in a consumer economy – “The customer is king.” If Mother! lives on, it will be because the audience takes it and does with it as it wills. This is not a metaphor. This is the world as it is, and it does not translate to the realm of the mythological, the eternal, the transcendent.
Cosmologically, consumer capitalism is a zero-sum game. Communal cooperation is the shape of the universe. Creator and created work together to care creation into wholeness. The responsibility, the costs, the joy, and the gains – all are shared. Self-effacing lovingkindness is the foundation of all that is, not ever-descending cycles of creation and destruction. We’re going somewhere in time not just returning to our vomit over and over again.
As an expose´ on what it’s like to live with an artist—as half of a double-feature with Birdman or Whiplash, for example—Mother! excels. The religious symbolism becomes metaphor, and the characters’ actions gain self-critical, universal resonance. As a diatribe about the “way of things” and how we “ought to be,” Mother! falls flat. It’s an abusive, self-satisfied film. If you can, I encourage you to take it as you will, for its own sake as much as for yours.
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