Monday, October 12, 2009

Scenes that Hurt: Requiem For a Dream

Some movies are sad. Some movies make you want to cry a little. And some movies rip out your heart, throw it into the garbage disposal, and fill the empty space with oblivion. Because, it would seem, I'm more interested in the dark side of cinema, I'd like to examine specific scenes from films that do exactly what I just described. When I think of scenes that hurt, two immediately come to mind. For the sake of the readers, however, I'll refrain from beginning the series with these scenes. Instead, I'll ease us into our pain, starting smaller (though, to avoid suspense, and thus, pressure to get to these scenes I will reveal that they come from Platoon and Sophie's Choice, respectively).
To facilitate the transition, today's scene made an appearance in a previous post. The scene in question is none other than Ellen Burstyn's Red Dress monologue from Requiem For a Dream. I can't embed the video, but I can link to it. Obviously, the scene will be more powerful if you've seen the film, but I recommend familiarizing yourself with it anyway. It's still a fantastic piece of stand-alone acting.

Requiem For a Dream is tricky. It contains what may be the most cynical, cruel-hearted ending in cinema history, but one can easily make the argument that the characters brought their respective fates on themselves. If a character chooses to become a drug addict, a sensible viewer can easily assume that the character must be prepared for all grim eventualities made possible by their lifestyle.

This argument, however, cannot be made for Sarah Goldfarb.

Ellen Burstyn's character is a victim: of a cruel prank, of an impersonal system, of her own life. Sarah lives alone, having been abandoned by her family and friends. Her only solace is taken from a daytime TV show featuring her hero, Tappy Tibbons. By chance, she receives a fake phone call promising her a spot on his show. She wants to appear in her red dress, which she wore to her son's graduation, but finds she can no longer fit into it. A doctor throws diet pills her direction, she begins to exhibit detrimental side effects, but the clinic she goes to brushes her off. She falls into addiction, and never recovers.

This monologue is the one moment we see into Sarah's heart. Before this scene, she's been covering up her pain and loneliness, and after this scene, she becomes too far gone to be emotionally honest. All poor Sarah gets is two minutes: two minutes to try to convey where the pain is coming from, and why she feels powerless to stop it. And God, what a heart-wrenching two minutes it is. Everyone can relate to a feeling of abandonment, a search for meaning and purpose to validate a life. Everyone has felt alone. Ellen Burstyn's success is to become one large conduit for the loneliness of the ages, channeling buried thoughts and hidden emotions, displaying them for all to see. She affords us the chance to see a human being right before her plunge into the deep end. The last shot of the scene; Sarah standing alone, in front of her window, speaks volumes about the human condition. This monologue from Requiem For a Dream taps into a deep human emotion and runs with it. It is impossible for anyone with the slightest bit of empathy to not feel Sarah Goldfarb's pain. And it hurts. Good God, it hurts.

But in a good way. Ish.

What do you think? Am I overestimating the emotional impact of this movie? Since I'm starting a new series, do you have any recommendations of scenes that I should look at? What movies make your heart hurt?


  1. I'll make another comment when I have watched this movie. For now, I'm going to try to think of suggestions for the series.

    Just because I like harping on it, the part in Grave of the Fireflies when Setsuko is so sick she's hallucinating. The saddest part isn't when Seita discover's she's hallucinating, but rather when she offers him riceballs (which are actually rocks), which he doesn't take during his period of horror at her condition, and she replies, hurt, "You don't want them?" But, I'm also a pussy when it comes to sad scenes, so I may be overreacting. But it made me sad, because it's demonstrating the shadow of Setsuko that the girl has become.

    I can't think of anymore right now, but I know they're on the tip of my tongue. By the way, do you have a rotation schedule for all these series you're doing?

  2. Grave of the Fireflies is ripe for mining for this particular series. Thanks for the suggestion!
    As for a rotation schedule: originally, I had thought of assigning one for each day of the week, but I've decided against it. I think my writing on here can feel awfully perfunctory. So, to prevent this, I want to provide myself with lots of options that can be pulled out at any time. I think telling myself that I have to write a certain type of entry at a certain time would just kill any creative impetus that I could harness.