Aronofsky’s “mother!” | the tangled webs we ought to weave

Reader be warned: here be spoilers. Please, please, PLEASE go see this film before reading this article if you have any interest at all. It’s well worth your time.

If forced to describe Darren Aronofsky‘s mother! in one word (besides the endless superlatives I could toss its way), that word would have to be “difficult.” Around seventy percent of my brain function was devoted to figuring out what on earth was going on during my first viewing of the film, and, judging by its abysmal Cinemascore report card and box office haul, general audiences seemed to struggle even more. I suppose it doesn’t help that they might have felt duped by trailers that marketed it as a horror flick when the actual picture is…well, I guess a drama about a man and his wife dealing with unwanted visitors that descends into a sometimes horrific fever dream that’s just too hard to describe with coherence and conciseness. In that sense, mother! is extremely difficult to market, as it could only really jive with audiences whose sensibilities leaned more toward the arthouse and independent scenes, and Paramount still had the guts to release it in over 2,300 cinemas in the United States (which I applaud).

It’s not that mother! is an impossible film to grapple with; I’ve seen movies that are incomprehensibly opaque, and this is far from it. In fact, once you’ve unlocked the film’s central biblical allegory, the whole thing appears almost deceptively simple, and a second viewing makes the metaphors so obvious you’ll wonder how you missed them the first time around. Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, the great flood, the birth (and death) of the Messiah, they all make appearances here while Jennifer Lawrence’s mother earth suffers at their hands (and Javier Bardem’s God doesn’t seem to care).

But to walk away from mother! with the most surface-level interpretation is to settle for it in its most unsatisfying state. This film demands your scrutiny, to be revisited and restudied and picked apart piece by piece, and still it will feel as though you haven’t uncovered all of its secrets. The simple interpretation ceases to be so simple when you consider Aronofsky’s previous, failed relationship with actress Rachel Weiss and current relationship with Jennifer Lawrence; the film is so strikingly personal, there has to be some exploration of this present. Perhaps, too, it examines the creative process and the haggard relationship between the artist and their work. Even further still, it could simply be a brutal, feverish nightmare depicting the suffering of the neglected, the pain of unrequited devotion and love.

Even that central, baseline story of mother earth being ravaged, raped, and ruined by mankind while God turns a cold, blind eye can be read slightly differently if you consider Aronofsky’s penchant for communicating stories through unreliable narrators. Is this meant to be an indictment of God for turning His back on the rest of creation for the sake of some reprobate apes that continuously ignore His instruction and destroy His work and His home despite professing their “love” for Him, a love that pales in comparison to that of the earth itself? But then I remember that I am one of those unsavoury beasts smashing mother earth’s chairs and stealing her pottery, and suddenly I am forced to come to grips with a new perspective on the consequence of my own sin, the profound loss that resulted of God choosing me over the rest of His creation and the pain it must feel if it were afforded personhood. Now the heady haze of mother! no longer feels like something distant and intangible to me. It’s unsettlingly close.

The truth is that there’s no singular, straightforward reading of mother! that you can point to and say, “That’s it, there’s nothing more to it.” Metaphors bear double and triple meanings, and the whole thing folds in on itself over and over again until it’s tangled to the point where it can’t be fully untied. Yet I can’t help but try. A week and a half has passed since my first viewing of mother!, and I’m still lost in it. I’ve yet to find a convincing interpretation of elements like the yellow medicine and whatever that thing in the toilet was, and I don’t know if I ever will. Still, I can’t help but feel compelled to keep wondering, keep searching, keep digging through this gorgeous, many-tentacled monstrosity in vain effort to wrangle it in.

Films like this are the epitome of what cinema should be, to me at least. Pieces of audiovisual art that are so effortlessly potent that they can suck you in for hours or days not just trying to decipher the plot but the implications thereafter, ending in an experience that is simultaneously intellectual, emotional, and rousingly spiritual. Aronofsky has succeeded in producing the most spiritually stirring film I’ve seen since The Tree of Life, and I will not hesitate already to call it a masterpiece. This should be a standard for us in what we hope to achieve in the arts – I can only hope to create something with half the depth of meaning of mother! someday.

For more of Andy’s thoughts on mother! and other films, you can check out his review at www.cinemainframe.com and follow him on Letterboxd.

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how to accept critique

“Separate the wheat from the chaff.”

Def: to separate things or people that are of high quality or ability from those that are not:
The first round of interviews really separates the wheat from the chaff.”
– 
Cambridge Dictionary

I grew up hearing this phrase. It was one of my Mom’s many Mom-isms, parental phrases repeated over and over again that, every time I heard them, made me quietly roll eyes and say “Mahhmm!” droningly to myself. It was especially used in my high school years, when after receiving a lecture or some chunk of motherly advice that my Mom was absolutely sure I needed at the time, she would close her dissertations with a sigh and a “Well, what do I know? I trust you to separate the wheat from the chaff.” Cue eye roll number two.

Leaving behind the days of my youth, I moved forward into the adult world with my eye on my passions. I’ve always been a creatively minded person, with my hands continuously dabbling in music, writing, illustration, and graphic design. And if you are a person even remotely involved with these practices, you know about the unfun part of putting your work out in the open; listening to critique.

It can be gut wrenching to have created something, feel especially proud of it, publish it for the world to see, then have someone find something wrong with it. Even if you’re looking for someone to find something wrong with it in order to get better, it still can sting in a way few other things can.

Unfortunately for us, it seems that our brains are working against us in that regard, whether we want it to or not. In an article published for BBC, psychologists Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone explain how, in many scientific reports, people would rather ignore reality, exaggerate their own good qualities, and shift blame onto the one critiquing than accept any comments that could bruise their good perceptions of themselves.

And to the Christian, this comes as no surprise that this is in our very nature. The Bible talks over and over again about the dangers of putting too much stock in one’s self, the very definition of the word “pride”. Pride has been labelled as one of the Seven Deadly sins, and the Scriptures are pretty clear about how God feels about pride;

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man who acts with arrogant pride.
– Proverbs 21:24

The pride of your heart has deceived you, you who live in the clefts of the rock, in your lofty dwelling, who say in your heart, “Who will bring me down to the ground?”
– Obadiah 1:3

Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin. – Proverbs 21:4

If you’re saying to yourself right now, “Whoa whoa whoa, Josie… I’m a Christian, I know pride should be avoided, especially in my walk with God. But don’t you think it’s a little much to be saying that feeling good about my own work is prideful? I should like my own stuff, right?” And by all means, like your own stuff! That’s a place many artists would love to be. But you shouldn’t be at that place at the expense of feeling wrathful toward people critiquing you.

But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
– Matthew 5:22

And oftentimes, we come to this place unwittingly, usually as a result of mistaken identity. In my journeys through the artistic realms, I have found that most artists would say that they struggle far more with insecurity than with pride. They have poured their hearts and souls into every piece of work they have made, and all they want is for people to like their work, and in turn, themselves. It is this mentality that causes artistic types to interpret critiques of their work as personal attacks on their self-worth, a self-worth that has been wrongfully placed in the work of their hands as opposed to their status as beloved of the Creator. Another form of pride to be sure, to try to define your personhood apart from the God who loves you.

So now we’re back to square one. No matter what we do, we are still prideful humans who think too highly of ourselves and the works of our hands. Even for the most tempered, even-keeled artist, it is difficult to prevent ourselves from feeling defensive when we seek out negative comments, even if we want to use them to make our work better. So what should we do?

“Separate the wheat from the chaff”.

Motherly wisdom always proves to be right in the end.

There are two necessary steps one must take in order to properly separate the wheat from the chaff;

  1. Take everything in.
  2. See what stays.

To understand this further, come with me to a wheat farm. It doesn’t matter which farm it is, who is running the farm or how they choose to harvest, because no matter where you go, the process is very similar. First, the farmer brings in the harvest. It does not matter how abundant or scant the yield is that year. They cut everything from the field and take everything in. And they want to, in order to pull in as much yield as possible so they can make as much profit as possible.

Second, the farmer places everything he has gathered into some sort of device. These devices can look very different, but their intent in the same. They stir up all the stalks and heads of grain that have come in, tossing them around in the air. Since the wheat grains are heavier, they bounce back to the bottom of the device and stay within it. Because the husks, shells, and straw surrounding it don’t weigh much more than a feather, they fly away with the wind or the blasting air of an industrial machine.

As artists, we must to the same thing in order to obtain the life-giving knowledge found in critiques. We first must take in everything. And I mean everything. Every helpful comment from a knowledgeable teacher, and every “f*ck you” from a random internet troll. Everything must be taken into account in order to get the most out of every statement. We need to remember that help can come from any part of the harvest, and we should not ignore grain left out in the field because it seems like there’s a scant yield from far away. Since we are hard-wired to reject statements that makes us feel bad about ourselves, our initial negative reactions and snap judgments cannot and should not be trusted. Any inclination to listen to those off-the-cuff rejections is our pride and misguided self-preservation getting in the way. 

Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. – Philippians 2:3

Before destruction a man’s heart is haughty, but humility comes before honor.
– Proverbs 18:12

The second thing we must do is to see what stays. This can be a complicated task, since everybody does this process a little differently. You will need to do some tweaking to find the way that works for you.

Do your best to return to a sober mind. If a negative comment is causing you emotional discomfort, ask yourself clarifying questions; “What about that specifically makes me feel bad?” “Why does it bother me?” “What part of me does it bother?” “Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” If something is really bothering you, talk to a friend or loved one about it in order to sort it out. It is by working through the emotional discomfort of highly negative statements that you will be able to let the chaff of negative comments float away. Once you get good at this, taking in and letting go of unhelpful, disdainful comments will become easier and easier.

Once your mind has been quieted, you will notice something interesting has happened. Because you put aside your pride and self-defensiveness and accepted all comments as potential harvest, you have blown away the chaff and are now able to see which critiques can be used as actual nuggets of nourishment for your artistic growth. But even this can become an interesting task if you get some comments that contradict each other. For example, I recently performed Genesis 1 for a class at college. One written critique I got from a classmate said that I should have gestured more during my performance. But another critique I got said that I gestured too much and should have let the story unfold. So now what do I do? How do I find the comments that are not just good, but best for me?

Here’s where we do our quality check with more clarifying questions, this time regarding the critiques themselves; “Do I know who said this?” “How experienced in my field is this person?” “How could this statement apply to my artistic growth?” “How could a different statement apply?” Toss all of the comments around in your mind. Test the critiques against your own artistic journey. By quietly mulling over these grains of wheat you have discovered, you will find that the most nourishing brain food will be the stuff that you use to further refine your craft over and over again.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. – Romans 12:3

But each one must examine his own work, and then he will have reason for boasting in regard to himself alone, and not in regard to another. – Galatians 6:4

Well, as is usually the case when children come into their own, it is with quiet awe that I can say that my mother’s statement on accepting critique proved to be true. And I hope that in reading this article, you were also able to take it all in, separate the wheat from the chaff, and let whatever grains of truth you find here nourish your soul. If you can let go of the useless chaff, you will find that the heaviness of the critiques you need will stick to the bottom and impact your artistic quality for the better.

pride and fear and the art in between

I hang out with a lot of “artistic types” on a fairly regular basis, both in collaboration on projects and in managing the day-to-day administrative tasks that so many of our type find difficult or distracting. I would even call myself an artistic type pretty readily. I’m a fan of both fences and freedom (in fact, I think the former actually engenders the latter). I’m organized, but in a very disorganized fashion. I can focus fully on one thing for a long amount of time, yet enjoy a high level of distractibility most of the rest of my life. I value fantasy, symbolism, and imagination because they illuminate reality and truth, or maybe just because they’re tasty.

And I struggle with pride and fear on a daily basis.

To me, these are the besetting sins of the artist, and the most restricting sins when it comes to creating.

How We Ought to Think

Pride and fear are both, in essence, thinking of ourselves as something we are not. Necessarily, this means that we are thinking of God as something He is not, as well as everyone around us. Paul is doubtless describing pride in Romans 12:3 when he says the following:

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

The remedy for pride here is, surprisingly, not to think of ourselves as less than we are; in fact, Paul spends a good portion of Romans talking about how we are to believe our status as a new people, made alive and free in and through Christ. It is belief in a higher truth that overcomes the old self, and here it is such belief that overcomes pride – and, indeed, fear. Here we are exhorted to think of ourselves rightly, faithfully, as God thinks of us: with sober judgment.

The Desire to Create

I’ve heard it said that the difference between artists and non-artists is that the latter look at art and say, “I could make that,” and the former actually make it.

As artists we somehow have the audacious belief that, amazingly, we are capable of creating art. Call it courage, call it idiocy, call it desire – we have found that creation is possible and even, dare I say it, fulfilling; so we keep drawing, we keep composing, we keep dancing or writing or acting or filming.

Artistic types are naturally gifted with an above-average measure of this desire. Unfortunately, we’ve also been “gifted” with a sin nature that degrades and twists this natural creative tendency.

The Twist

Pride twists our God-given tendency to create in many ways, like when we attempt to lift our art – and therefore ourselves – to the center of attention, so that we may be worshipped as Grand Artiste in the manner we desire. And I don’t think the terminology here is too dramatic. Pride is about being worshipped, and we as creators have to continually remember that we’re not capitalized by comparison to the Creator.

But it is also fear that twists us, because it is fear that whispers to us that we are less than – that we are so broken that we cannot be healed, that our art is worthless, that we are worthless, and that we’ll never get better. These are lies from the pit of hell, but the rebuttal to them is not confidence in our art or ourselves. It is confidence in Christ as Redeemer, Savior, Creator – in the One who can make us and the work of our hands, minds, feet, and mouths useful, beautiful, and true.

The Artist and Sober Judgment

The place we are to live is one of faith, confidence, courage, and resolve – these interrelated ideas are good and true when they rest on Someone outside of ourselves. To think of ourselves with sober judgment, we are believing 1) that we are created in God’s image, 2) that we have been gifted with creative abilities, and 3) that those abilities can and more often than not should be used faithfully.

Part of this sober judgment is accepting that we will never arrive at some perceived plateau of excellence. The product we create is only punctuation, and no one wants to read a book full of nothing but commas and periods and semicolons. The magic lies in the words and sentences – the process, the journey of creation, failure, redemption, tension, and re-creation, always further up and further in.

Within that process is our hope – that each day Christ can and does renew and refresh His distractible, forgetful, disorganized, prideful, fearful children for the work He has for us, and He will continue to do so.

no plateaus here | the artist and doubt

“To believe with certainty, somebody said, one has to begin by doubting.”

I remember vividly the sensation brought by reading that quote – of being both jarred and strangely comforted. I had been reading Shelden Vanauken’s “A Severe Mercy,” drawn into a world where a poetic mind spoke honestly about darkness, death, loss, love, and the harshness of divine mercy. The book was stunning (read it, if you haven’t), but the quote itself started me off on a long line of inquiry that is still being directed and rephrased and remade.

What is the place of doubt in the Christian heart and experience? More pertinently to us, what is the place of doubt in the life of the Christian artist?

Living in the question

As artists, we question. Mostly “why” laced with “who” and including the odd “what,” our work constantly illustrates what we cannot rectify. It was Madeleine L’Engle who said, “Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth.” Dance, visual art, drama, writing, music, et cetera, often seeks to show either a picture of what is, or an idea of what could be (sometimes including the horrific alongside the hopeful). As Christians, it’s particularly illustrative of our belief and of our struggle within those beliefs.

I’m thankful that we are slowly coming to a place in the Body of Christ where the idea of Christian doubt is less and less the colloquial boogeyman. The Psalmist came to God with stronger suspicion and angst than anyone I know, and he got in the Bible for it. Even Christ never condemned a man for his doubt – He condemns him for his unbelief. Our incertitude often flows out of a deep, honest desire to trust, but a desire who’s answers have been found wanting, for one reason or another. In truth, Christ is the only One able to answer our qualms – even though He often doesn’t answer in the way we’d like (but all that’s another post for another day…).

If we refuse to acknowledge doubt, much less battle in it, we risk the falsehood of blind security. We look for the place where we (in our current frustrated and imperfect state) could become “enlightened;” where we have at last reached a full understanding of the things we had, until now, not satisfactorily mastered. Where we don’t need to investigate because we finally “get” it all.

It took until my fourth year at Moody Bible Institute to understand that I was seeking for just such a plateau. During my Systematic Theology class, some lecture or conversation or reading (I don’t remember which) stirred in my mind the understanding of looking for perfection. A place where one comes to the end of works well-done, where there need to be no more effort; “heaven” in the most boring sense of the word.

It’s appalling, actually. Here I was, sitting quietly in my seat, unknowingly convinced that all the grace and freedom I talked about was underlined with the firm belief that you can work yourself to a place where there will be no more conflict, disquiet, or effort. That you can perform your “works” so well that you make it to the absence of strife.

Besides that being an obvious theological mistake, it’s also a robbing of our joy through enrichment. In this life, we have messy things that constantly tug at us – relationships, ideologies, historical events, sins, convictions; contention in one thing or another. In bumping up against all that, somehow, we are made to mature.

Living in the mystery

While the absence of interactive relationship would mean a lessening of conflict, it would not result in peace. As human beings, we continue to find the qualms – even without the other bodies and souls who make it that much more evident. Running from times of uncertainty, however, will not ward them away. The vacancy of growth is death.

When we refuse to embrace the uncomfortable rub (within or without), the only alternative is stagnation and the extinction of our art. Without questioning, we cannot make art, and in order to query, we must admit there is much we do not know, even cannot know. The presence of the incomprehensible is essential. Paradox is a constant throughout our Christian faith; our spirituality is rife with reality that we cannot, in any way, satisfactorily answer. Trinity, sovereignty, union, sacrament, eternity – all of these are theological language for “you won’t understand it, so keep believing and enjoying it.” It’s crazy – something we artists should know plenty about.

Living in the mess

Let me take a moment to say that, in its essence, our doubt and our art are meant to be experienced in community. I know it’s at risk of becoming a buzzword for our generation, but community is an essential part of the struggle and gritty progress through contention. If you live in conflict while alone, it’s dissociative to your being. You split against yourself and have nothing to patch the hole.

In community, you experience the peeved reality of others’ quirks and questions, their idiosyncrasies and annoying bits. Those people are often the source of collision as well as the cushion for the blow. Thank God it is a mess and will not leave you the same as when you came.

Donald Miller says this in his book “Blue Like Jazz” (which, incidentally, has a lot of marvelous things to say about paradox, belief and distrust): “When you live on your own for a long time… your personality changes…There is an entire world inside yourself, and if you let yourself, you can get so deep inside it you will forget the way to the surface. Other people keep our souls alive, just like food and water does with our body.”

In His sovereignty, the God we love and serve helps our finite minds haggle and fail in our pursuit of truth. G.K. Chesterton said “The fatal metaphor of progress, which means leaving things behind us, has utterly obscured the real idea of growth, which means leaving things inside us.” As artists, especially as Christian creators, we should (we must) live in the world of growth – in the fracas-ridden ground of suspense and uncertainty. Not always uncertain, but embracing the paradox in our faith and the strength of our God, especially in our times of doubt.

I encourage you to let the tears and the confusions lead you to questions – ask, read, talk, pray. Realize that you are growing and will continue to mature to the tune of impossibilities. Be honest, and let those things fuel you onward.