This is Your Brain on Art House

When I’ve asked my students over the last couple of years what drug films they’ve seen, I’ve been surprised to hear Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream (2000) cited far more than any other film. I already had a sense of Requiem’s expanding audience since its limited theatrical release in 2000. It quickly joined its source material, Hubert Selby Jr.’s 1978 novel of the same name, as a cult favorite. (Selby co-wrote the screenplay and appears briefly in the film.) Users at film websites rave about it. Youtubers play around with its visuals and its score. List makers call it an all-time great drug film. There’s even a puppet version which, forgive me, will serve here as a synopsis.

But what surprised me was its popularity among adolescents. Among my students, even those who had not seen it knew classmates in high school who had watched it together and who had urged them to check it out. It seems that Requiem’s burgeoning status as a cult favorite encompasses not only a reputation among adult film enthusiasts, but also word-of-mouth circulation among audiences who may or may not have permission to watch its “unrated” content.

By contrast, Steven Soderbergh’s drug film Traffic came out in wide release the same year, to massive critical and commercial success, but I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone under the age of twenty-five today who has seen it outside of class. Not for nothing this similarity, though: in both Requiem for a Dream and Traffic, knockout punches on the perils of addiction come in graphic scenes of upper-middle-class white girls being held in sexual captivity by black beasts. The question that inevitably arises about drug films is their relationship to the historical exploitation genre, in which an ostensibly anti-drug message serves as cover for lurid entertainment. Many viewers describe it exactly in those two registers: as an intoxicating sensory experience and a powerful Just Say No polemic. I think it would be unfair, based on this reception dynamic, to reduce the intensely wrought Requiem to the status of, say, a Reefer Madness. But the film’s drug content does, in a perhaps more interesting way, come from that era. 

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