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Television in American Popular Culture Visit Press Americana
THE DRUG QUEEN:
OR, TV DREAMS AND REAL NIGHTMARES IN REQUIEM FOR A DREAM



“Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.”
“Grant them eternal rest, O Lord.”

 

In a world of reality and of an even more real illusion, people are trying to make their dreams come true. The nature of those dreams, however, is often determined by cultural and social influences. In a media culture, television is a system that controls dreams, but is also a means of escape from reality. When reality fails to satisfy people’s desires and dreams, then only one way remains to live the dream: live in the illusion. The borders between reality and illusion break down, and they become one. Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 film Requiem for a Dream is a perfect example of the role of television in this relationship between reality and illusion. Drawing from Aronofsky’s film, I will discuss television’s influence in the way people perceive the world as well as the addictions that the medium can create. I will specifically focus on Sara Goldfarb’s (Ellen Burstyn) character in order to observe more closely the influence of television on the female figure.

Dreams are quintessential elements of our lives; millions of dreams are shaped every day in people’s minds. However, it is important to take a closer look at the kinds of dreams that are constantly created throughout our lives and at the ways in which they are created. Far from the harmless dreams that help people move on, set goals, and succeed in their lives, there is also another side of dreams: the dark side. This is the point where life, creation, and future are suddenly replaced by destruction and death. Dreams can no longer be considered as innocent motivations for a better future, but they become means of regulation, means of imprisonment of the body and mind.

How is it possible for dreams, though, to promote these negative influences? We live in a society in which people are constantly bombarded by images that urge them to think in a way that others want them to think; their personalities are shaped by standards that others have already set before them and for them. Their freedom gradually and unconsciously becomes an illusion, and their only chance for freedom is to dream; dreams become the only way to escape the prison of everyday reality. Nevertheless, dreams are a valuable means of escape, and it is expected that such a regulative society would never leave a way out, open and uncontrolled. The fiercest attack against people’s dreams and freedoms starts from the heart of these same dreams; body and mind are slowly intoxicated from within.

The reason why this indirect kind of control becomes easy to achieve is that the formation of our dreams is deeply influenced by the environment in which we live. Taking into consideration the fact that the media has acquired great power – it is not randomly defined as the fourth power – this process of regulation becomes even easier to achieve and its effects even more dangerous. Media influence is great as people are more and more immersed in the reality that it offers them. Thus, media can effectively control and manipulate the masses. The standard perception of the perfect life, the perfect companion, the perfect house, the perfect looks, the perfect job, the perfect children is determined by the images that are presented by the media, and it should be noted that they often fail to offer a realistic version of everyday life.

People are frequently presented with an ideal world where everything is always perfect. This image has passed deep into the subconscious, and as a result many of our dreams are shaped according to that particular ideal. However, these dreams do not have a solid basis, and thus they can never become reality. Even if there is no human that can reach an ideal, the ideal has become the eternal dream and nightmare at the same time for many people – an eternal struggle to make the impossible possible. It would be valuable to consider the possibility that perfection may not be what society tries so hard to promote throughout our lives; it may be something subjective that is defined in a completely different way for each person. Even if there are people who have realized the futility of “objective” perfection, it seems that many still fall in the trap that the media has created.

The unattainable dream becomes the goal, and every action in our lives only aims to achieve the specific goal however far away it seems to be, which means that people become part of a race that never ends; they have to handle a situation in which their efforts to succeed always fail; the result is never what was expected at first; they only lose and never win. The result of the inability to succeed can easily lead people to a lack of self-respect and self-esteem, and eventually, to a descent into madness. This is one of the main points of Requiem for a Dream: to unveil the realities of modern life. Maybe the director Darren Aronofsky achieves this through hyperbole, but it is important to consider that the exaggeration of characters and images may be the only way to convey the realities of life to a “sleeping beauty” – a culture that has learned to be hypnotized and, in many cases, that unquestioningly accepts whatever is offered.

The need to escape from rough reality becomes evident from the first scenes of the film. The first image that the viewers see is that of a TV show that is presented to them directly as if they are really watching a show on television and not the film. In this way, viewers are drawn into the film and are instantly placed in the same position as the film’s characters. They become co-sufferers, victims of a reality that is not what they were dreaming of. The confusion that the illusion that television offers is depicted through a spiraling image, which causes dizziness, and that finally, turns out to be the TV show’s title. From the fascination that the TV show creates, the scene suddenly changes to the reality of Sara Goldfarb’s home. The viewer is made to sense the constant change between reality and illusion, not only in these first scenes, but throughout the film.

Sara Goldfarb from the first few moments that she is presented to the viewers is depicted as a woman desperate to escape reality - the reality of her son, Harry (Jared Leto), who is a drug dealer and user - and the reality of the fact that she is left alone without anyone to help her and give meaning to her life. Her only escape, the only source of joy in her life, is television. Her son, however, is even trying to deprive her of this last pleasure, as every now and then, he sells the TV set in order to gain some money and buy drugs. Every single time, Sara is obliged to purchase her TV set from the man that it was sold to.

In the scene when Harry arrives at his mother’s house in order to take the TV set, Aronofsky expresses Sara’s need to escape and shows that she has constructed her own reality by presenting the whole scene through a split screen technique. On the right side of the screen, there is a normal view of Harry removing the TV set. On the left side of the screen, the director employs a point of view (POV) shot where everything is presented according to Sara’s POV, which is through the keyhole of the room in which she is hidden in order to avoid her son.

What is especially interesting in this scene is that the viewers are presented with a part of Sara’s deeper psyche, in the sense that her inability to face reality is revealed. She can only deal with things by distancing herself from them, as if she were looking at everything through a TV screen, from the comfort and safety of her privacy. She is used to the feeling of distance from reality that TV creates, as, in Peter Weibel’s words, “In a media world, the world as event disappears and becomes a mere image, a spectacle and likewise a phantom.”

Sara’s attachment to the TV set also becomes evident by the fact that she has chained the TV to the radiator in order to prevent Harry from removing it. The chain, though, is not there to protect the TV set since Sara immediately gives the key to Harry. The chain is mostly used to symbolize Sara’s enslavement by television as she lives her life through it. The split screen continues throughout the scene and only ends when Harry exits the house with the TV set. At this point, the viewers are left with Sara’s reality that takes over. “This isn’t happening. And if it should be happening, it would be all right,” she says in a monologue during which she addresses her dead husband, Seymour. “You’ll see already. In the end, it’s all nice.” She does not want to believe the harsh reality that has fallen over her family like a shadow. Her only way out is another reality, that of the shows in the TV set. In a way, her words predict her future. But how nice can things really be in the end?

Out of Sara’s house, while Harry and his friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) carry the television in order to sell it, Aronofsky, once again, manages to stress the fact that people create their own reality through his use of different camera techniques. Most of these sequences depict different places of the city and are shot with a still camera. The viewers only see the two friends fading in and out of the shot or passing in front of the camera. Only in two of the sequences a moving camera is used and the atmosphere completely changes. In the still shots, there are feelings of calmness and tranquility, a feeling of solid reality. In the sequences with a moving camera, the viewers are presented with the reality of Harry and Tyrone. The audience follows the two friends’ movement, fascination, and speed. They, too, just like Sara, live in a different world, only theirs is that of drugs.

The connection of the two worlds of drugs and television, and the illusion that they both provide is represented through the image of the eye that is used throughout the film. The symbol of the eye is of primary importance; it's even featured on the movie poster. An extreme close-up of the dilation and contraction of the eye’s pupil is employed every time Harry and his friends are in the process of using drugs. This image is accompanied by other close-ups of syringes and blood cells that are used to represent substance abuse. However, it is difficult to avoid the relation between the image of the eye and the process of television viewing. The addiction and the effects that television can create through its influence on its audience can be compared to that of drugs. It creates a world of hallucinations far away from the real problems of life. The comparison of television with drugs becomes even more obvious as Aronofsky uses the same extreme close-ups in order to represent the process of viewing, as he had earlier done in the case of drugs. The only difference is that now the close-ups, instead of focusing on syringes and blood cells, focus on the lock of the chain, the remote control, and the power button.

This is the ritual of Sara’s addiction. At the moment that she turns on the TV, the TV show that Sara watches starts once again creating expectations and dreams. The first image that she sees is that of Tobby Tibbon, the show’s host, who urges the viewers to call and join the TV show. However, what really gives meaning to the image on screen is the caption at its bottom that reads, “Join Us In Creating Excellence. 30 DAYS TO REVOLUTIONIZE YOUR LIFE,” while in the background a voice is heard saying, “You have more passion for living.” As Roland Barthes mentions, “Today, at the level of mass communications, it appears that the linguistic message is indeed present in every image,” and “in every society various techniques are developed intended to fix the floating chain of signifieds in such a way as to counter the terror of uncertain signs.” It is this message that attracts the attention of the audience and that urges them to be immersed in the illusory world of television.

The TV show Sara watches focuses on a healthy diet and healthy ways of life. At the same time, it promises miracles in thirty days – something that is completely unattainable. The paradox, however, is that the next shot is a close-up on a chocolate box that Sara holds in her hands while watching television. She imagines that she could be slim and beautiful, but, at the same time, she eats chocolate, thus, contributing to the opposite result. At that moment, her dream of being on television and treated as a star is only a dream that helps her escape every now and then. It is important to notice Sara’s look at this moment with her eyes wide open, focused on the TV show, resembling the eyes of a hypnotized person. She closes them only for a moment in order to enjoy the chocolate that she eats.

As Sara is absorbed in television, the ideas of control and influence, main characteristics of an image culture, are also presented through the other characters of the film. Harry and his girlfriend Marion Silver (Jennifer Connelly) are shown in an elevator, but the director chooses to depict the two characters as being observed through a camera monitor linked with the elevator’s camera. The constant presence of the eye can also be observed while Harry and Marion lie on the floor, drugged, in between Marion’s designs, forming the shape of an eye as the director employs a high-angle shot. The eye of the camera, the eye of television, are everywhere even if people are not aware of it. As Jean Baudrillard argues in Simulacra and Simulation, the "eye of TV is no longer the source of an absolute gaze, and the ideal of control is no longer that of transparency.” Thus, a parallel is created between camera and television as systems of surveillance and control. An escape from reality may be possible through drug abuse and television viewing, but there is no escape from the systems of control. Cameras are always there to capture our every movement, and maybe impose self-discipline, and television is always there to dictate how one should act, behave, dress, and think, and thus control humankind's whole existence.    

Sara may be about to feel the control of television on her - a control that has been accumulating and hibernating deep inside her for many years - when the phone rings and, even if it spoils the pleasurable moment of watching television, Sara is surprised as she hears a male voice announcing to her, “I just want to offer you a chance to be on television...You’ve already won.” The moment her dream comes true, Sara’s nightmare also begins. Some dreams exist and have value exactly because they are dreams. This is the curse: dreams coming true in a world of simulation where everything is actually dead – what Baudrillard calls in America “the tragedy of a utopian dream made reality.” Reality can never maintain all the qualities and characteristics that are responsible for a dream’s perfection. That is why Sara answers by saying, “I never thought I’d be on television.” Now that she has the chance to be on television she must try to revive her dream of perfection. She must become the ideal woman. 

Her first move is to look at a picture from her son’s high school graduation where she is young and beautiful, red-haired, wearing a red dress and lipstick. It becomes evident that she was a woman who was trying to fit into the image of the ideal woman, with a preference for the color red that is linked to passion, strength, and femininity. This is the image that she also wants to adopt for the appearance on the TV show, and she will try to recreate this image at any cost. Another reason that she wants to fit in the particular red dress is the fact that she had the approval of her husband when she was wearing it. In a conversation with Harry, she mentions, “Your father liked it so much. Oh, I remember how he looked at me in that red dress.” Thus, the red dress for her connotes that she is desired as a woman.

However, when she tries to wear the red dress, the zipper will not close, and the first cracks are formed on her fragile dream when she realizes that she must start a diet. She stops being on friendly terms with her aged appearance; she will do anything to change it. She takes a diet book titled Ten Pounds in Ten Days, which again promises unrealistic results and, thus, can only lead to failure. The diet book becomes a nightmarish object in Sara’s mind, and this point is stressed by the close-ups of the camera on the “nos,” that is everything Sara is not allowed to consume. While she continues reading the book, the TV show is heard in the background, “Be excited!” However, Sara does not seem to be so excited anymore.

When she actually tries to implement her diet, she starts having “withdrawal symptoms” as she cannot handle the lack of food. The egg, grapefruit, and sugarless coffee seem to mock her as she eats, and her desire for food grows even stronger. She tries to persuade herself that she will “feel better in the red dress than in the cheese Danish” although she does not really believe this. Sara forgets that the feeling she can get from wearing her red dress will only be instantaneous. She forgets that what really matters is to be on good terms with herself, her identity, and her appearance, instead of yielding to the images and stereotypes that are projected on television. The TV show, though, is always there to play with her mind and to advise her – even if it sounds more like a command – to fight for a perfect body. “No red meat...no refined sugar...no sodas” – the threatening voice of the host is heard in the background every now and then and echoes in Sara’s mind. The split screen that the director uses, once again, is revealing: Sara versus her refrigerator. The appliance that should be connected with concepts of survival, as it carries food, becomes now the enemy. Actually, there is a reversal of roles, one could argue, as television, which in this case could be characterized as the real enemy, is perceived as a savior, while exactly the opposite happens with the refrigerator. Sara’s life has been suddenly turned into a war of appliances.
  
The beginning of Sara’s destruction is her desire to achieve the unattainable. As she does not see the desirable results from the diet, and because it is so hard for her to follow, she seeks out other ways in order to lose weight. They key to an ideal appearance, as it is presented by media, is to replace her meals with diet pills. However, the pills function as drugs to Sara’s organism. Thus, her addiction to television and her dream of being on TV lead her to drug addiction. Her actions and behavior after she has taken the pills resemble those of her son when he is under the effect of drugs. Aronofsky manages to make this resemblance even more evident by presenting both scenes using short shots and fast forward movement in order to capture the restlessness and the tension of the characters.

Exactly because he has a personal experience, Harry is the only person close to Sara that acknowledges both her addictions, that to television and the one to pills. The problem is that he does not seem to be able to understand the fact that the two addictions are not so different after all. While he considers buying Sara a present, he says to Marion, “What’s her fix? Television right?...If ever there’s a TV junkie, it’s the old lady.” So he decides to buy her a new TV set as a proof of his love. Harry cannot conceive the effects that television can have on his mother. He does not think that it could harm her, as he believes that it is just an innocent pastime. He understands as a real addiction only his mother’s use of pills, and he warns her against them. However, Sara is not willing to listen to him. She is ready to do anything in order to make her dream come true, in order to escape the reality of her life. Both Sara and Harry try to live their dream, but only by coming closer to death, mental and physical. This unawareness of the effects of television is what dooms Sara and makes her a victim. Because, as Marshall McLuhan states, “any medium has the power of imposing its own assumption on the unwary. Prediction and control consist in avoiding this subliminal state of Narcissus trance. But the greatest aid to this end is simply in knowing that the spell can occur immediately upon contact, as in the first bars of a melody.”

Each day, Sara falls deeper in her addiction and loses, little by little, her sense of reality. She starts sinking in her illusion of being presented on the TV show, shining and beautiful. The fact that her perception of reality has become by now completely distorted is made clear when, as she watches television, she imagines that it is she herself whom she sees on the TV show. In terms of cinematic techniques, the effect of Sara’s disorientation becomes even stronger with the employment of a curvilinear perspective distortion, or fisheye shot. This way, the viewer is immersed in Sara’s experience and becomes as disoriented as Sara herself. In her illusion, Sara sees her refrigerator moving and groaning, and, even if it is a part of the illusion, this refrigerator is also the only thing that connects her to reality, as she is taken out of her dream and she sees that she is not on the TV show. She is not the Sara Goldfarb that she imagines to be in her dreams. In order to make these nightmares disappear, she augments the dosage of pills and starts consuming them uncontrollably.

“What is the big deal about television? Those pills you’re taking will kill you before you even get on,” Harry says to her. But the illusion that television gives her is too strong to let go. “I’m somebody now Harry. Everyone likes me. Soon, millions of people will see me, and they’ll all like me...It’s a reason to get up in the morning. It’s a reason to lose weight, to fit in the red dress. It’s a reason to smile. It makes tomorrow all right,” she answers him. It becomes obvious then, at this moment, that Sara is bound to be lost in her illusion, into her madness. She is going to be "on television" for the rest of her life.

One of the strongest moments in the film is when Sara is depicted for the first time as completely lost to another reality, as a mad woman and not just as a junkie or as a woman in confusion. She stands before her mirror wearing her red dress and her gold shoes, with make-up on her face, dancing and fantasizing herself as a star. The viewer becomes part of her movement as she spins around and around, the camera spinning with her. Her makeup is heavy and careless; the lipstick moves away from her lipline. Her face reminds the viewer of a clownish figure and, in combination with her madness, produces an image with a terrifying effect, which is even more enhanced by the music piece Requiem for a Dream, played throughout the scene. Indeed, the viewers hear the requiem that accompanies Sara’s mental death as she has been completely detached from reality.

It is important to mention the fact that Sara’s appearance in front of her mirror is completely different from the image of herself that she has in her mind. The impossibility to achieve such a result is obvious. This impossibility is that drives Sara totally crazy. As she imagines herself on the TV show, once again, suddenly her image disappears from the show and a televised image of Sara reappears inside her home as a hologram. This presence in real space of a televised image expresses exactly the fact that reality and illusion have become one in Sara’s mind. Illusion has become her reality. However, Sara’s holographic image takes on a horrifying aura at the moment it comes to life. According to Baudrillard, “We dream of passing through ourselves and finding ourselves in the beyond: the day when your holographic double will be there in space, eventually moving and talking, you will have realized this miracle. Of course, it will no longer be a dream, so its charm will be lost.”

Immediately after Sara, Tappy Tobbin’s hologram follows, and his televised image appears in Sara’s house as well. The two idealized TV figures are there to criticize Sara herself and her apartment. They point at her, sitting in her armchair, her hair all messy, still dressed with her red dress, which now does not fit her because she has lost too much weight, the garment floating on her emaciated body. In addition, they laugh at the state of Sara’s apartment, not at all reflecting the image of the ideal home that is usually presented on television. Even the audience of the TV show is seen through the screen laughing at her while Sara tries to give an explanation about the situation in which she finds herself with a guilty and apologetic tone in her voice.

Her nightmare continues with her house being suddenly transformed into a TV studio with members of the technical staff removing the setting and props. The most threatening element, however, is the cameras that are aiming at a frightened Sara, resembling guns that are about to shoot her. This reminds us of Susan Sontag’s words that parallels cameras with guns by stressing that “[t]o photograph [and record] people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph [and to record] someone is a sublimated murder – a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” Exactly this idea is Sara’s fear, that through these cameras she will see her real image, an image that she desperately tries to escape.

The dizziness and the confusion that the scene provokes become even fiercer when Tobby, the televised Sara, and other members of the TV show start dancing to the rhythm of loud music, forming a circle around Sara. Throughout their dancing, the camera follows their circular movement in a POV shot that makes the viewers feel that they are in Sara’s position. The nightmare is completed with the appearance of the refrigerator that moves towards Sara demanding to be fed. In the ultimate moment of the hallucination, the refrigerator opens up to reveal an interior of fire and melting metal that is ready to devour Sara herself. Lost in her illusion, Sara leaves her house, and she is presented running on the snowy streets, out of her senses, with her red dress on, while the people around her pass by quickly in a fast forward movement.

At the moment Sara leaves her home, her madness becomes even more real, even more striking, because it is for the first time directly juxtaposed to the reality of the world. The way that people look at her and the way that they react is what really define Sara as a person. In John Berger’s words, the "reciprocal nature of vision is more fundamental than that of spoken dialogue” and only when the "eye of the other combines with our own eye to make it fully credible that we are part of the visible world” are we reassured about our identity and our existence in the world. In a culture where image is everything, some people care to have a behavior and appearance that will result in approval from the rest of the world. Sara’s effort, however, has the complete opposite result. A man she addresses while on the subway moves away from her, disgusted, saying to her "you’re whacked.”

Later on, she has obviously reached Malin and Block’s offices – the agency that chose her to be a TV contestant – and everyone is gathered around her listening astonished to her frantic speech. The paramedics arrive to calm her down, and they take her away while everyone is looking at Sara with eyes full of sadness and pity. Even when she is transferred at the hospital in an ambulance, Sara continues talking about her appearance on the TV show.

It should be noted, however, that neither the people who see Sara on the street nor the nurses and doctors at the hospital really care about her situation. Everyone is absorbed in his or her own personal problems, which is a sign of the media culture that we live in - pretending to unify people, but actually only alienating them from each other and from reality. The nurses, for example, chain Sara and violently feed her without paying any attention to her situation. Instead, they are discussing everyday instances of their lives, laughing and having fun. The doctors do not seem willing to perceive Sara as a human being. Even if they are psychiatrists, they do not even bother to focus on curing her soul. Their efforts only involve violent methods, such as ECP, that only make Sara suffer even more.

Sara’s addiction to TV and her effort to live a dream that could not actually be realized have not only led her to madness but also have left her completely alone. Her friends, who were helping her improve her appearance and were excited by the fact that Sara was going to be on television, now realize the truth. They were trying to live the dream through Sara, but they burst in tears when they see her dressed with the hospital’s suit, her hair white and cut short. For the first time, they can see the illusion and the fraud that is so effortlessly promoted by television – the promises that cannot be kept. The illusion sought in order to make life more bearable can be turned into an illusion with no way out, depriving people of their right to life. In the end, Sara is depicted lying in her bed at the hospital in a fetal position, still imagining that she is on the TV show. Christopher M. Moreno notes that the fetal position signifies “the eternal return of the drugged (Falling) body back into the social or medical womb, or what can be understood as rhizoidal spaces. Rhizoidal or womb like spaces anchor the characters’ bodies to other connecting spaces...where they absorb rest, nutrition, medical or disciplinary attention – precarious places that are open to the possibility of both hope and care, control and imposition.”

However, it must be taken into consideration that there is no real concern about the characters’ situation. There is no safety in the psychiatric hospital or in the prison where Tyrone finds himself mistreated at the end of the film. Far from Moreno’s argument, Sara’s fetal position only seems to reveal her vulnerability, but also the fact that she has found the safety that she has been seeking for, in her illusion. She is happy again: “In the end, it’s all nice.”

To conclude, living in a media culture has led people to find themselves in a liminal state, somewhere between reality and illusion. However, the lack of critical thinking towards television and other media can have, as an effect, humanity's complete immersion into the illusion. The dreams that television projects and promises can suddenly turn into very real nightmares with no escape. The unacknowledged addictions that television can create can be so strong that it can be fairly characterized as the ultimate drug queen. After all, it gives people what they seek: the eternal rest.

From guest contributor Dimitra Gkotosopoulou

August 2017

 

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