First of all, there’s a lot of films that I love. The kind of films I could talk about for hours on end, for all sorts of different reasons. But there’s one film that stayed with me long after watching (six years later and it’s still vivid in my mind like it’s playing on the backs of my eyelids).
Requiem for a Dream was the first film I watched that I considered ‘different’ to what I’d ever seen before.
I watched it for the first time at university in a lecture theatre. It was my first year, and it changed my life. There were only around eight people in the lecture and we were sporadically dotted around a theatre that could hold 500 (god forbid you’d sit next to someone you didn’t know), so it felt very much like a solitary cinema experience.
From the first few seconds, I was hooked. Much like the eye on the poster, my pupils dilated and I didn’t blink once.
Then, something happened.
Halfway through the film, just as things are escalating nicely, an alarm sounded. No one moved. It seemed as though it was part of the sequence – with quick, sharp cuts, haunting score and vociferous sound effects, the sound of an alarm only complemented the experience.
But after a half a minute or so, it dawned on us that is was a real fire alarm. The lecturer (a cool, interesting guy that had warned us Requiem for a Dream wasn’t great for a Monday morning) snapped into action and started herding all eight of us out of the building.
After milling around for half an hour, the eight of us started to talk to each other. At this point, it’s a little like The Breakfast Club in the sense that we’d never spoken before – but we couldn’t resist gauging what the rest of us felt about this film.
“It’s pretty intense, right?”
“I can’t stop thinking about it!”
“So emotional, too.”
An hour passed and we were still stood outside in conversation. This was weird in itself – usually no one would even turn up for a lecture. But we were still there, an hour after a false alarm fire scare. All because we needed to see the last third of this film. By uni standards, it’s unheard of.
Eventually (after thoroughly checking our lecture hall wasn’t alight), we ran out of time. Our lecturer looked apologetic and said we’d pick up where we left off next week.
The second he said it I knew I wouldn’t be able to wait.
I made my way home as fast as possible and searched for Requiem for a Dream somewhere (of course it wasn’t streaming on Netflix or Prime). So I actually bought it. Didn’t illegally download or rent – I bought it and watched the last bit alone on that Monday afternoon.
The following Monday, I went back to the lecture and watched the second half again, too. I didn’t experience the desire to watch something so desperately as Requiem for a Dream at uni again or in ‘real life’ really.
Thinking back, this was probably the moment I fell in love with film and found out that psychological dramas are my genre of choice. But what makes Requiem for a Dream such a standout film in my mind?
Firstly, the filmmaking alone is extraordinary – with unconventional, effective editing including rapid-fire jump cuts. Supposedly, director Darren Aronofsky (The Wrestler, Black Swan, Mother!) wanted to achieve a hip-hop montage style to show a loss of control – the average 100-minute film has around 600-700 cuts, Aronofsky’s film has over 2,000.
This intense style only heightens the utterly depressing narrative of four individuals whose addictions take a turn for the worst. With disturbing scenes ranging from Harry Goldfarb’s (Jared Leto) wound botulism and Marion Silver’s (Jennifer Connelly) depraved sex scene to Sara Goldfarb’s (Ellen Burstyn) heartbreaking ‘I’m somebody’ monologue, it makes for a severe watch and not for the faint-hearted.
Interestingly, although featuring heavy use of drugs, it has you questioning – what is a drug? Sara’s search for stardom involves weight-loss amphetamines. But they’re ‘ok’ drugs, right? Compared to heroin, anything looks tame. But Sara still experiences the same effects and withdrawals. Her unhealthy desire to ‘be someone’ is just as dangerous as Harry’s addiction to hard drugs. It’s an interesting concept presented in an ‘attack-on-the-senses’ kind of way.
What’s more, the themes captured by Aronofsky in Requiem for a Dream are still relevant today in terms of chasing fame (a fix, if you like), happiness and wellbeing. Although drug use is still prolific in our world, we have equivalents that are just as addictive and damaging.
In early 2018, the Journal of the American Medical Association found that Snapchat was causing a rise in body dysmorphia due to the use of filters to achieve a ‘perfect’ look.
Similarly, a national survey by Pitt’s Center for Research on Media, Technology and Health found that use of multiple social media platforms is more strongly associated with depression and anxiety among young adults than the total amount of time they spend on social media.
Another study by The Royal Society for Public Health (RSPH) found that Instagram ranked worst for having an impact on young people’s mental health due to FOMO (fear of missing out) and unachievable ‘perfect’ lives and bodies.
The list goes on.
So really, is our world/generation any better than those chasing a quick fix? Isn’t that what we’re doing by posting reviews on Letterboxd or uploading multiple photos of our holiday to France on Instagram?
But why are we doing it? Why are we hooked?
Because it feels good.
With every ‘like’ we receive on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter, dopamine is released into our brains – just like cocaine and amphetamines. And because of this, we seek out instant gratification to feel it again. But it’s a vicious cycle.
Once you’ve felt good, you want to feel it again and ironically, the more you give, the more you lose yourself. You start to do more to feel good about yourself, just like the characters in Requiem for a Dream.
Marian initially says no to selling her body, but realises it’s a quick and relatively easy way to get her fix. Similarly, Sara ends up being sectioned after setting unachievable goals that deep down, she knew she wouldn’t be able to meet.
Just because we’re not snorting it up our noses or injecting it into our arms, doesn’t mean it’s not physically and mentally affecting us.
And although it may seem like it, this article isn’t about warning people of the dangers of social media – we’re all seemingly aware. Plus, it can be a great thing. It’s why you’re reading this right now.
But the point is, it’s all too easy to be horrified and even disgusted by Requiem for a Dream when realistically, we’re probably only a few decisions away from this. So every time I watch Aronofsky’s creation, I’m reminded of both how much I adore it, how it gets more relatable each year and consequently, how terrifying it is.
by Shannon Watson
Shannon Watson (She/Her) is a Creative Writing and Film & TV studies graduate. She’s a born and bred East Midland-er, passionate about bringing creative opportunities to her hometown of Derby. She’s a Stranger Things superfan, lover of Cillian Murphy and an 80s pop culture slave: “Sometimes you’ve gotta say, what the fuck?”