We are following the back of a little boy.
The past and future are familiar countries. They do things similarly there.
The main characters of Requiem for a Dream spend all their energy and money and passion on trying to escape the present. They retreat into memories, they pin their hopes on a tale of the future. Now is always terrible and terrifying and terrorizing; then was wonderful, and soon will be bliss.
A mass for the repose of a soul into death. The OED describes an obsolete meaning: An invitation to one's soul to take the peaceful rest one has hoped for or earned. The earliest citation is from 1607: "Every man sings a requiem to his own heart."
A requiem is also a family of sharks.
Fluidity in Vignette.
The edges of this scene are vignetted. The movement blurs the objects even more. The effect is dreamy, hazy. White light bounces sharply off the surface to the left. The muted hues of all else make the yellow in the boy's shirt pop.
The other frames around this, when put together, create fluid movement, the result of being filmed with a Steadicam system. The image flows and sways like the images of one of the most famous boys captured by a Steadicam, Danny in The Shining. The angle is different here, though: Danny was shot at his own height, but young Tyrone is shot from an adult's height.
The little boy runs. The world blurs around him. The world is hard concrete. The world is detritus. The horizontal lines of his shirt reach toward the horizontal lines of the stairs, seeking symmetry.
The little boy is a memory. The little boy takes us running with him into the past.
We are following...
We run, moving forward through a present that is past. Are we chasing the little boy?
Who are the "we" named in the script? We are observation, we are sight and sound perceived.
We are not following the little boy. We are following the back. We are going back. Borne back ceaselessly into the past.
In the frame, Ty remembers and Ty is the one remembered. Remember derives from Latin: rememorare, "to call to mind". We enter the shot because Ty flashes back to his childhood, but we do not see it through his eyes: instead, we follow behind. We are not Ty; we are an observer to his memory.
Occasionally, to remember has meant the opposite of to dismember. The OED cites Herbert Spencer: "Mind is a synthesis of states of consciousness -- is a thing we can form no notion of without re-membering, re-collecting some of our mental acts."
Among other things, Requiem for a Dream is a Spencerian mind: it synthesizes states of consciousness, it collects and re-members the mental acts of its protagonists.
Spencer coined the phrase "survival of the fittest" and was a proponent of laissez-faire Libertarianism: the state ought never to interfere with such things as education, the economy, or health care.
The social context for the characters is shown only in quick gestures and broad strokes, but the requiem sung is all American dreamy: work, striving, buying, selling. Harry's not lying when he tells his mother he's "sort of a distributor" and works for "a big importer". It's all capitalism, and it gets in your veins and leads to rot. But the characters in power, the characters with money (Arnold the Shrink, Big Tim, the doctor, various dealers and gangsters) have only one use for people like Marion and Sara and Harry and Ty: to own them for pleasure and profit. Once that purpose is served, once power has reached the last extent of its exertion, the subjects of power find themselves tossed out, thrown aside, anathema. Uncontrolled memories and hopes mess up the money machine, but memory and hope are social ills the ruling powers know how to cure. Television is the opium of the people. The profit motive is the opium of the people. Opium is the opium of the people.
At the end of the film, Ty brings Harry to a hospital. There, Harry and Ty are arrested. In prison, Harry's rotten arm stinks. Doctors sever the arm. Our last vision of Harry is of him on a hospital bed, an angelic nurse telling him that Marion will be sent for, that she'll come, and Harry denies it. She will not come. He will not be re-membered.
Our final vision of Ty: on a prison bed, sweating, pained, jittery. The camera pulls up and Ty's memory of his mother returns to share the frame. His mind returns to that moment past, that moment of potential, when he could promise his mother that one day he'd "make it", and she could reassure him that he doesn't need to be a cog in a machine to be loved: "You don’t have to make anything. You just gotta love your momma."
These characters who have been working so hard to get to the past or the future end up in an unending present. Each is lying down: the men in pain, anguished by choices gone; the women in the bliss of delusion, thinking they have achieved the future they sought. They have been put either into hell, tortured by history, or they have been granted a palliative oblivion. The film has reached its endpoint, not the conclusion of life (which is death) but frozen flashburn moments -- in our minds, this is where the characters stay, this is their eternal now.
Peaceful Rest in the Perpetual Present.
Peaceful Rest in the Perpetual Present.
Anybody wanna waste some time?
The boy runs. Time stops for Tyrone while he remembers; time is displaced into memory. (He is fascinated by his new mirrors.) The boy runs to his mother. They live in the amber of dreams. Her arms around him deny time.
Time is a commodity in Requiem for a Dream, something that can be bought or sold, something that, like money or a mind, can be wasted. To be drunk or drugged is to be wasted, to be outside time, free of the commodity, or, more accurately, able to manipulate it. (Harry offends Sara when he calls her pills speed.) The film itself replicates the manipulation. Film unreels in time, and the editor controls, or tries to control, the time of the spectacle as it rolls into the time of the real -- the editor, like a skilled pharmacologist, determines how many of Aristotle's unities get shot up. Time stops being real.
The boy runs.
Throughout Requiem for a Dream still photographs serve as totems, fetishes, mnemonics, and traces of the past preserved. Sara has the picture of Harry's graduation: the family together, the red dress displayed in all its glory. Harry and Marion have photographs of themselves in happy, hopeful moments; one of those photos will get Big Tim's phone number written on its back: hope debased and erased, an image shattered by scrawled symbols.
I remembered a photograph of Ty's mother, but I've gone through the film again and again in search of it and haven't found it. Maybe it's there in a quick shot I somehow missed, one of those second-or-less traces that you can only happen upon, that disappear when stalked. It's more likely, though, that I have turned this frame into a still photo in my mind.
His name is Tyrone Love. He gets the best, most luxurious, most loving love scene in the movie. His love is not just the love of addiction (in all the implications of the phrase), but seems a genuine, even gentle love.
His memory loves his mother, his reality loves Alice, and our frame appears right in the tension between the two:
He spends a little time in his memory with his mother, then leaves his memory to go love Alice. At that moment, both memory and reality offer him a wonderland.
ALICEWhy don'tcha come back to bed, baby?
TYRONECome on now, Alice. Got plenty of time for that.
Mother and lover get melded. In the end, though, when he's strung out and alone, when his mind seeks the most solid solace, mother wins. (But then, Norman Bates knew that years ago.)
Whatcha doin', baby?
Nothin'. Just thinkin' 'bout you.
Let's not forget the whole statement Ty makes, however:
Tyrone says it with amusement and humor, but it is a meaningful statement in a film where nearly all the black men do far nastier things than Tyrone: some get shot, some do the shooting, and some push sex and shame. In what the script calls "Big Tim's Lush Studio", Marion gets the ungentle, unloving version of Ty's position with Alice -- what a bystander calls "ass to ass". (Marion hadn't thought she could be more debased than she was with Arnold the Shrink; Big Tim teaches her otherwise. Black men, in the world of this film, are always the nastiest.) Where Tyrone holds Alice's back to his front in mutual pleasure, Marion must be back-to-back with her compatriot in terror and degradation, a spectacle of "patty chicks" performing for multicolored men.
Nothin'. Just thinkin' 'bout you. And all the nasty things I'm about to do to you.
But all that is in the future.
Return to Frame
The little boy runs. We follow him back. The world blurs around us. Nasty things have not invaded this wonderland yet; the memory is one of purity and innocence and comforting naïveté. Once we've arrived, it's a place we might want to stay in forever.