Gnawing vultures from within - Concepts of Addiction and the Addiction to Concepts in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream"

Bachelor Thesis, 2008

42 Pages, Grade: 1,3



1. Preface

2. The Intoxicated Screen

3. Deranging the Models of Addiction: Requiem for a Dream
3.1. Sclerotic Veins and a Pound of Pure: Aronofsky's Use of Concepts of Addiction
3.2. Parallel Story Telling: Sara Goldfarb and the Other Addiction
3.3. Leisure Wear and Matching Luggage: Human Failure in the Modern Age

4. Blurring the Boundaries & Bridging the Gap
4.1. On Contents
4.2. On New Cinema Tendencies
4.3. Societal and Cultural Thresholds

5. Conclusion

6. Appendix

7. Bibliography

1. Preface

“Sugar man, won't you hurry/ 'Cos I'm tired of these scenes/

For a blue coin won't you bring back/ All those colors to my dreams.”

(Jesus Rodriguez, Sugar Man)

Evaluating addiction, one might easily reduce the topic to wellestablished constructs persistent in the collective society. The vortex to get pulled into presents itself as a highly complex building of thought. Therefore, in order to get a full grasp of the topic a variety of aspects have to be taken into consideration, such as sociocultural aspects, psychological and historical aspects, as well as physiological aspects. Moreover, myths and beliefs of addiction have to be scrutinized as these beliefs lead to misguiding but stable public opinions that mould the Western society at its very core. Since these established public estimations and concepts are a movement of safety within a society because they serve certain functions, one has to consider addiction as a combination of all of these aspects.

As the subject of addiction seems to pour out of numerous pores of scholarly areas, this paper is confined to the artistic area of depicting addiction in the literary sense, namely in film. To provide a brief kaleidoscope of the presentation of addiction on celluloid a few representational “drug movies” will be examined first, before moving on to the main topic of discussion, Requiem for a Dream directed by Darren Aronofsky in 2000. While the primordial question of the depiction of addiction in movies will be discussed, the main focus will be laid on the requirement of a more liberal definition of addiction inspired by the film. Since the paper will move from the concept of material drugs to the allexisting and overpowering construct of immaterial drugs, the discussion will attempt to blur the boundaries and call established and accepted concepts of addiction into question. It seems to be such a profound disruption into the beliefs of the postmodern society that more interest will be given to this aspect.

Culturally, this investigation is restricted to English speaking movies; erawise to the late 80s, 90s and 00s (Naked Lunch, Drugstore Cowboy, Kids, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and Trainspotting) to provide a valid presentation of addiction in movies that still have an enormous impact on our Western society. The main focus will be on the USA since its popular culture, including the American film industry, has developed to be the most dominant and powerful one world wide and in addition, because America has taken the strongest and most influential line against drugs both domestically and internationally.

Once extended the scope of the modus that constitutes addiction as an inevitable life choice of human failure in the Modern Age[1], the thesis will expand the idea of blurring the boundaries as well as widening several limits. Furthermore, it will prove this theory on a multidimensional level, regarding content, aesthetical and cultural perspectives. The angle of perspective will be expanded and will direct the reader from concepts of addiction to the addiction to concepts and therefore, open up a relatively untouched, or rather ignored topic within Cultural Studies.

2. The Intoxicated Screen

“Along with care, addiction as well as urge, are constitutive of every Dasein”

(Heidegger, Being and Time, in: Ronell, 29)

The fact that drugs are regarded as a cultural phenomenon, problem or simply a metaphor for its time, finds expression in the world of movies frequently. On the one hand this no doubt enhances cinema’s role in the creation of the signs “drug” and “addict”. On the other hand its representation has intersected with sociohistorical reality, which for itself demands attention (see Maurizio, 135). Therefore, cinema’s position is highly ambivalent: It is fabricating and reflecting reality at the same time. Moreover, it expresses socio cultural dissent but simultaneously has been responsible for the uncanny consensus that still keeps these dangerously narrowminded images reappearing in all sorts of cultural life. As Jack Stevenson underscores in is collection of essays ADDICTED – The Myth and Menace of Drugs in Film, “motion pictures serve as incubators and conduits of myth for modern audiences” (Stevenson, 11).

Strangely enough, it faces another problem, which is the ambiguity of the term “drugs”. Films like Requiem for a Dream question the materiality of “drugs” which lead to addiction and shake the wellestablished image most Western cultures have about drugs[2]. Not surprisingly, exploring and exposing these tangents make this topic exceedingly fascinating and imperative. Regarding films as cultural documents, they have produced certain myths and stereotypes about drug life and addiction over the course of time. Misleading associations became culturally stable, such as xenophobic, class and race aspects, which classified drugs in a vertical and horizontal way, in a certain milieu and frame of process.

Drugs were labelled as a virus that comes from the outside to corrupt an otherwise healthy body on both levels individually and socially, which logically set up a rigid binary good/evil position. In the 1980s the depiction of drugs deteriorated and films were associated with violence, death and a whole range of socially dysfunctional behaviour. But what seems even more significant are angry depictions of “drugsassymptomsofinner citydecay” (Viano, 146) by some black filmmakers, such as Spike Lee. Initiated by Gus Van Sant, a different type of film, Drugstore Cowboy (1989)[3], hit the screen which presents drugs in a rather ironic, nonjudgemental manner and contains a famous sequence with underground cult figure William Burroughs, who proclaims:

Narcotics have been systematically scapegoated and demonized. The idea that anyone can use drugs and escape a horrible fate is anathema to these idiots. I predict in the near future rightwingers will use drug hysteria as a pretext to set up an international police apparatus. (DC, 1989)

As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick cleverly observes, “what had been a question of acts crystallized into a question of identity” (Sedgwick, 130). Therefore, the concept that addiction “reifies people and substances is pharmakocentric, and creates a cultural horizon” (ibid., 130) that makes it nearly impossible to expect and pursue a break from addiction. Deprived of their multiplicity and ambiguities, objects are perceived as fixed, values as absolute and knowledge as objective (see Maurizio, 153), which, obviously, leads straight into common fallacies. Sedgwick seeks to evade the strictures of a binary system and the dangers of stigmatization in favour of the multiplicity of paths and identities.

This is, to a certain extent, projected into Drugstore Cowboy (1989) where no trace of remorse, retribution or redemption can be found. In contrast to the often pathologized and stigmatized presentations of other movies of that age (such as The Basketball Diaries) Gus Van Sant “eschews the de rigueur cold turkey[4] scenes for avantgarde and surreal episodes of protagonist Bob Hughes being stoned” (Shapiro, 169). His situation and rebellious lifestyle, which includes robbing pharmacies with his three friends on a regular basis, is an epitome of anarchy versus control, the individual versus the state. As a main characteristic Bob revels in the routine of addiction, it provides a structure to his otherwise pretty pointless life: “I’m junkie. I like the whole lifestyle. It just didn’t pay off” (DC). The key statement of the film is that a ‘junkie’ cannot leave drugs alone. If he is under strain, “anything will do to relieve the pressure of everyday life, like havin’ to tie shoe laces…even a gunshot in the head” (DC). The emphasis is clearly on the absolute necessity of having to take something, anything, in order to forget about this painful living. Although Drugstore Cowboy achieves to circumvent some of the main stereotypes of the representation of addiction on celluloid, and also caters some anarchic thought in Burroughs’ sense, its way of presentation has to be critically scrutinized. Neither of the characters seems to be really hooked, there are no haunted features, no chalky pallor, no runny noses, even though drugs of all kinds are consumed consistently. Bob and his gang are catwalk junkies – goodlooking, unhurried and selfassured. But surely Van Sant elucidates without any doubt about Bob’s final decision to quit: “It’s not as if he sees the light. It’s just that he’s afraid of the darkness” (in: Shapiro, 171). Nonetheless, Van Sant incorporates an updated black humour into the drug situations which run from exaggerated sensationalism to natural realism.

Leading the spectator into a similarly humorous but much more controversial path, Trainspotting, directed by Danny Boyle in 1996, has been accused of glamorizing heroin consumption several times. Set in the soft underbelly of 1980s Edinburgh, it chronicles the lives of Mark Renton and his crew and wraps up the wheezes of the addict’s life and the plethora of squalors on the streets. What makes Trainspotting unique is its observations about the positive side of heroin from the user’s point of view. The message is clear but seems socially immoral: People take drugs because they enjoy them. For Renton heroin is both jailer and eventual liberator. Most of all it presents a selfchosen island of honesty. Taking a hint on the most telling comments of the movie, which are done in voiceovers, the statements are aimed directly at the audience. Renton challenges the primary stereotypes of heroin and emphasises the pleasure of it: “Take the best orgasm you ever had, multiply it by 1000 and you’re still not there” (TS). Furthermore, he despises conventional life and “all the things that really don’t matter when you’ve got a sincere and truthful junk habit” (TS). The praised junk lifestyle holds similarities to Van Sant’s Drugstore Cowboy, “it looks like a soft option, but living like this, it’s a fulltime business” (TS). Renton’s world is one without introduction and apology, another similarity to Drugstore Cowboy . Mark’s escape represents the triumph of the autonomous self, “rendered in the quasireligious, liberalhumanist language of spiritual salvation and secular selfimprovement” (Morace, 62). As Michael Gardiner argues, “heroin addiction shows a classic desire to make one’s own actions reiterable, to remain and to have effect” (91). In addition, it is a symbol of their rebellion against the straight and presumably conservative world. Renton and his friends appear as classic liberals on the freedom of drugs. Another striking point is the distinct shift in sociocultural emphasis from the decadent, bohemian addict (as shown in William Burroughs or even Oscar Wilde) to culturally middleclass figures. Thus, the story embeds the drug’s social environment to “mediate upon the paradigm shifts that ruptured traditional workingclass identity and community in the 1980s” (Kelly, 38). Hence, it demarcates a profound crisis in class identification and contextualizes drugs and addiction much more sociopolitically. Individuals seem to be products of their own choices but their choices are influenced by a society that has lost meaningful choice[5]. The film in comparison to the novel seems to be “evocative of a more generalized nihilism that infests 20somethings at the moment” (Kelly, 70). Numbing BirthSchoolWorkDeath experience is exchanged in favour for heroin chic and British coolness.

William Burroughs goes one step further and designates heroin not as a constituent facet of existence but “rather [as] an allconsuming way of life” (Gardiner, 43). Whereas psychologist Stanton Peele questions the concept of addiction viewed as a disease by considering it as a human tendency (see 37) (much more than Welsh/Boyle did), Americans cling to the belief of a pathologized addiction which can be cured[6]. Peele notes that “addiction is not a special reaction to a drug but a primary and universal form of motivation” (53). Burroughs affirms this thought and focuses in Naked Lunch on individuals who are intensely nervous or paranoid about their capacity for autonomous action; they are caught up in the thought that someone or something else governs them.

David Cronenberg, who directed the movie in 1991, succeeded in delivering a sharp depiction of the explosive panic of the addicts, which lets them go through the most surreal scenes where typewriters degenerate into strange alien bugs, and fiction and reality of Burroughs’s own life mingle[7]. The characters are subjects of “mass control due to postindustrialism, uniformity and lost internal selfassurance which make them more susceptible to external forms of control” (Melley, 41). Quoting Peele, “the addiction industry expresses the sense of loss of control we have developed as a society” (Peele, 49), Burroughs and Cronenberg utilize the concept of addiction to represent other conspiracies against human agencies and uniqueness. These figures are not only addicted to junk (including bug powder) but to commodities, words, images, human contact and even control itself. This junk is a virus which exhausts the individual’s will and makes it difficult to distinguish one person from another and even harder to recognize persons from nonpersons, which is part of what Melley labelled as “phantasmagorical landscape” (55). Burroughs and Cronenberg view junk less as an inert commodity than as a “parasitic organism” (Melley, 42) that invades and controls the individuals. It reduces the human body to a single “total need” that knows absolutely no limit or control, “fife telescopes down to junk, one fix and looking forward to the next fix” (NL). Interestingly enough, the addict regards his body impersonally as an instrument to absorb the medium in which he lives” and considers “the human body [as] scandalously inefficient” (Burroughs, 131). Addicts are considered as limited insectoid creatures with special sensory organs for detecting junk[8]. Therefore, Burroughs’ and Cronenberg’s model of pervasive addiction offers radical challenges to liberal humanism, as its main thesis casts such doubt on human uniqueness and autonomy that it quickly becomes intolerable (see Melley, 44). Junk is not associated with lost autonomy but rather with a newfound selfcontrol. Intoxicated by the most obscure drugs, the junkie is a quasiimmaterial, spectral subject, a ghost, which explains Burroughs’s surreal junk universe and also depicts the paradox of bodily control inherent to addiction. Therefore, the subject of junk is highly ambivalent: While it creates the initial problem it is also the antidote.

Similar to British Mark Renton’s rejection of the “world of leisure wear and matching luggage” (TS), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) chronicles the escape from madness, absurdity and frustrations of normal everyday life and the vanishing of dreams. The journey leads straight into another, the Dionysian reality, influenced by the effects of all sorts of drugs. Like Naked Lunch, Fear and Loathing is semifictional and morphed into a piece of dog journalism, which tells a tale about the death of hope. A special time and notion of space led author Hunter S. Thompson and his main protagonist Raoul Duke to the “fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right” (F&L). For Thompson, who actually experienced a trip that was crucial to the inspiration of the story, this trip was only halfjokingly “a vile epitaph for the drug culture of the 1960s. (…) The whole twisted saga is a sort of atavistic endeavour, a dream trip into the past that was only halfsuccessful” (in: Shapiro, 277). Thompson left with the original American Dream, the one that celebrates greed and freedom, avarice and ambition, which finds expression in the very epitome of Las Vegas, representing a “huge slot machine in the desert built with mafia money” (ibid., 277). The trip quickly descends into horrific, swiveleyed, drugdemented chaos and violence with its “tendency to push it as hard as you can” (F&L). It is the vicarious thrill of such a public display of manic selfdestruction which holds the lurid fascination, by transgressing physical, social and psychological thresholds. Like director Terry Gilliam explains the rebellious nihilism: “Las Vegas [is a] total disconnection from any reality. Nothing has any meaning, it’s all ersatz. Everything is pretending to be something, but it has no reality” (in: Shapiro, 280). The lights flash, the noise is constant, the place never shuts. Duke, who sways through the movie “like a spider walking on cut glass” (ibid., 279), and Dr. Gonzo live a bizarre and anarchic reality, including a sense of madness, of pushing things, as well as themselves, to the limit, which, consequently, challenges authorities and convention. The movie “is about the despair of the American Dream never coming true” (Gilliam, in: Shapiro, 283). The two embark on a search for the American Dream while using their bodies as an interface between themselves and the world as a battlefield upon which they wage war against “reality” (May, 215). As May underscores later on, drugs are used as a vehicle to cross boundaries and transgress frontiers in the old pioneer spirit, frontiers that set and enforce social, spiritual and biological conventions. Hence fight is fought against their environment as well as their physical and mental being, blurring the very boundaries between themselves and the world. (215/6)

This is especially garish in the depiction of Dr. Gonzo, who is volatile, living his life like a near death experience on a daily basis. The excessiveness of their respective actions contributes to the spectator’s disorientation, “breaks up the linear structure and introduces the audience into a mediated drug experience itself” (May, 217). In comparison to Naked Lunch’s paranoid and panicstricken inertia Fear and Loathing presents everything that passes the heroes’ path by a combination of hallucinatory science fiction and biting satire. Drugs’ presence seems to be inevitable in order of the giant enema generated by Gilliam to function. Whereas Trainspotting promoted an anarchistic and stylish consumption of drugs, forming a radical social identity (“Fuck it, we would have taken Vitamin C, if only they’d made it illegal” (TS)), Fear and Loathing typifies drugs rather as a tool, using their bodies as vehicles to probe for new experiences of “reality” to face the lost Dream.

Far off satire and surrealism, the gruelling images of street life in Kids (1995) displayed by Larry Clark is a documentary confirmation of middleAmerica’s worst fears. The summer of love seems long dead; the kids are caught up in a nasty spiral of speed, junk, cold sex and diseases. As Clark’s hallmark, also present in Another Day in Paradise and Ken Park, Kids is a “postcard from worlds at the margins of society, whose inhabitants struggle to gain control of their lives through crime, sex and drugs” (Felsenberg, 251). Kids follows a group of teenagers for 24 hours and bangs right into the middle of excess in consumer society, which holds no comforting solutions or waves the didactic finger but merely shows the way things are. Thereby, it illuminates the film’s ambivalent function both as a seemingly random ‘sliceoflife’ glimpse and as a fully significant social document. Analogous to Fear and Loathing each one is bent constantly on pushing the boundaries to the maximum of his/her own particular chosen excess. As will be shown later on, equivalent to Requiem, nothing is commented on. The facts of life are simply accepted, also because the peer group is hermetically sealed and seems coherent. Drugs are an inevitable detail of the protagonists’ lives being consumed as a matter of course, the “minutiae and rituals of narcotics are part of the fabric of the society” (ibid., 253) in Kids . Unlike Trainspotting, there is no sense of taking drugs as an expression of rebellion or social statement of any kind. Clark’s “pornography of truth” (ibid., 254) holds a powerful sense of reality at its core. The insatiable consumerism and the nonexisting set of ideals unites the protagonists and produces no swift understanding, yet surrounds the audience with the detritus of the miniapocalypse. It is a strong reminder and an encouraging endorsement of the existence of another world.

Obviously, especially American popular culture has played a key role as the ambassador of values and beliefs throughout the world, marginalizing and demonizing drug users for a long time before these rather liberal types of drug movies have evolved. Blurring the boundaries and beliefs of what makes a drug, Aronofsky’s work Requiem for a Dream (2000) develops a different level of addiction, moving away from set models, expanding into more spacious modes, and deforming aesthetic beliefs and pathologic memory, which will be investigated in the following.

3. Deranging the Models of Addiction: Requiem for a Dream

“…desires exist that are not confined to the bare necessities of life and whose objects are more than a palette of substances.”

(Alexander &Roberts, 1)

3.1. Sclerotic Veins and a Pound of Pure: Aronofsky's Use of Concepts of Addiction

Discussing different depictions of addiction in movies in the above, young director Darren Aronofsky created a relentlessly morbid version of addiction in 2000 with his second film Requiem for a Dream . Unlike other movies Requiem illuminates the full horror of retribution in spades slowly but gruellingly and symbolizes a complex concept of addiction of guilt, despair, obsession, disease and striving for social acknowledgement.

Drugstore Cowboy and Trainspotting delivered drugs in a more dangerous, challenging and threatening scenario, a heroindriven life outside the envelope as a positive career option bringing routine, ritual and a perverse security into otherwise aimlessly drifting lives. In comparison to that, movies like The Basketball Dairies (1995) and Permanent Midnight (1998) promoted the diseasemodel of addiction, a portrayal of the heroin user as essentially weak characters that are tempted, fall from grace, suffer for their sins and are then redeemed (see Shapiro, 182). Requiem for a Dream is neither of them. It offers no soft options but is a fullblown delirium right into the sclerotic veins of American society and holds no cleansing catharsis. This is, to a large extent, due to the parallel storytelling of Sara Goldfarb that Aronofsky cleverly adapts to the big screen from the original novel written by Hubert Selby in 1978. In the claustrophobic world of Selby, drugs seem like a shortcut and escape from boredom, loneliness and despair. Offering an innovative definition of what makes a drug, it challenges conventional views and exposes authorities as well as culturally valid traditions of marginalization. As this disclosure is a huge part of the film it will be examined thoroughly in chapter 3.2.

First of all the obvious will be illuminated, which is the classical material drug consumption of the three young characters Harry, Tyrone and Marion. The drug vortex of Harry and his friends develops slowly and easily. It starts with a convenient high, some hip DJ performances and parties, which also highlight the important sociological aspect of drug consuming. The convenient stages of being high merge with the sociability of drugs, as the “drugs kept the bond between them cemented” (Selby, 183), and catalyze wild dreams about their future. Harry and his fellow Ty want to make it big and retire from the streets and from their constant drug habits, which include all sorts of drugs, like amphetamines, cocaine, hashish and most dominant, heroin. But before this dream can turn into reality they plan to ‘score’ a pound of pure heroin and sell it in order to live off the profit in the long run (see pic.1). Oddly enough, this venture seems quite naïve, considering the harsh life in the streets of rundown Coney Island, New York, which for itself bears quite an ambiguous dichotomy[9]. Harry’s dream is projected onto Marion, for whom he organizes to get an own shop in order to sell her designed collections of clothes.


[1] To avoid any confusion, the term “Modern Age” will be used here as a sign for our society, roughly ranging from the beginning of the 20th century until now, including certain values, beliefs, and cultural products.

[2] This seems all the more relevant since sweeping legal and cultural decisions are made as if we knew for sure what drugs are and do (see Maurizio, p. 137).

[3] Successively, the titles of the mentioned movies will be abbreviated as follows: Requiem for a Dream (RD), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (F&L), Trainspotting (TS), Drugstore Cowboy (DC), Naked Lunch (NL).

[4] “Cold turkey” is an often used metaphor to describe the typical withdrawal symptoms of the drug addict.

[5] Blatant in Renton’s famous tirade “Choose” (“Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance (…).”)

[6] Addiction and the homosexuality stem from the same discursive impulses, hence, the myths surrounding homosexuality are strangely similar to the myths that shape public opinions of addiction.

[7] E.g. the scene of Lee shooting his wife in a Wilhelm Tell manner is not part of the novel but part of Burroughs’s actual life.

[8] For Burroughs, junk intoxication is the only way the junkie can avoid hideous reembodiment, which only occurs when the junkie becomes sober and experiences the disgraceful desire for more junk. More precisely, junk consumption generates a dynamic of embodiment and disembodiment in Burroughs’ story. The addict’s dilemma in Naked Lunch is whether to risk struggle with his own body in order to regain control of it.

[9] Coney Island is controversial in many ways, for instance, its sociohistorical development (from a amusement holiday resort, the epitome of the American Dream, to a rundown, neglected lowclass place nowadays), psychogeographically (belongs to NY but is dislocated from the vital heart of the city by water and also suffers from the stigma of the halfbrother), etc.. Of course, this works well for Selby’s story in a broad sense and on different levels, which cannot be examined here.

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Gnawing vultures from within - Concepts of Addiction and the Addiction to Concepts in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream"
University of Paderborn
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"A very creative and innovative approach of the topic of addiction and drugs. Formally correct, thoroughly researched and highly entertaining to read!" (zuständiger Prof. für diese BA-Arbeit) Im Anhang befinden sich hilfreiche Bilder, die die Bewegung der Geschichte unterstützen.
GNAWING, VULTURES, FROM, WITHIN, Concepts, Addiction, Concepts, Darren, Aronofsky, Requiem, Dream
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BA Anika Meier (Author), 2008, Gnawing vultures from within - Concepts of Addiction and the Addiction to Concepts in Darren Aronofsky's "Requiem for a Dream", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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