Darren Aronofsky’s Music Videos & Commercials (2011-2012)

Riding high off the success of 2010’s BLACK SWAN, director Darren Aronofsky turned his attention to a long-gestating passion project that aimed to reimagine the classic biblical story of Noah’s arc.  The logistical challenges of mounting such an ambitious project naturally made for a slower pace in development and pre-production, so Aronofsky filled his spare time (and bank account) with a series of music videos and commercials that would broaden his aesthetic portfolio.


Aronofsky’s first music video in over a decade would be for a collaboration between Metallica and The Velvet Underground’s Lou Reed called “THE VIEW”.  His last music video was for Clint Mansell’s “PI R SQUARED”, and was comprised of grainy black & white footage lifted directly from his feature debut; “THE VIEW” brings back that particular aesthetic, opting for an extremely high contrast, monochromatic look.  Perhaps inspired by Lou Reed’s fire & brimstone vocals (spoken plainly like a poet prophet rather than singing), Aronofsky also incorporates expressionistic flourishes like lens flares and unstable double exposures that complement the over-aggressive macho posturing on Metallica’s part.


Anti-drug commercials have always been hailed for their willingness to shock and horrify.  Easily the highlight of Aronofsky’s short-form work during this period, he collaborates with The Meth Project for a series of four spots that recapture the graphic shock and visceral horror of 2000’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM.  Through the four vignettes– individually titled “DEEP END”, “ER”, “DESPERATE” and “LOSING CONTROL”— Aronofsky drops us right into a vivid scenario involving someone caught in the grips of a severe meth addiction.  We see a girl slashing her wrists, another girl overdosing, a young man tearing his little brother’s room apart in search of cash, and a boy reluctantly prostituting himself out to an older man.  Each vignette starts out with an extreme close-up of the subject’s face, awash in bright light and looking to the camera while an inner monologue plays.  The effect is almost tranquil– that is, until Aronofsky dials the exposure back and ramps the film speed to real-time, pulling back with his handheld camera to reveal the horrific chaos unfolding around them.  The ads made quite the splash when they debuted in November of 2011, generating waves of chatter about the campaign’s effectiveness as well as the excellence of Aronofsky’s craftwork.  


Aronofsky closed out 2011 with a case of artistic whiplash, veering from the graphic grittiness of the Meth Project campaign to the glossy elegance of a perfume commercial for Yves Saint-Laurent.  The spot, titled “LA NUIT DE L’HOMME”, features his BLACK SWAN co-star Vincent Cassel as a black-suited lothario effortlessly seducing a trio of beautiful young women across the city.  Each of the three locales gets it own color code, helping us to differentiate Cassel’s location via strong swaths of orange, blue and red.  Aronofsky creates a moody, cinematic look that juxtaposes baroque elegance with the crisp lines of modernity.  The piece is also notable for its contributions by several of Aronofsky’s frequent collaborators, including producer Scott Franklin, editor Andrew Weisblum, writers Mark Heyman and Ari Handel, and composer Clint Mansell.


A 2012 commercial promoting pop icon Jennifer Lopez’s partnership with Kohls doesn’t particularly seem like it would appeal to an artist of discerning taste like Aronofsky.  Indeed, the bright, bubbly spot bears no evidence of his signature, maybe save for the string lights in the background that evoke the lighting aesthetic of 2006’s THE FOUNTAIN… but even then, that’s a stretch.  Aronofsky stages the piece as a single shot, strung together from multiple takes as Lopez dances and sings to the camera and undergoes several wardrobe changes.  It’s an admittedly slick piece of work, with Aronofsky’s relative anonymity behind the camera affording him the opportunity to play around with complicated technical ideas.  One could easily imagine Aronofsky taking the job just for the payday (especially while he was laboring to get an ambitious and risky passion project off the ground), but that line of thought does a disservice to the man’s natural curiosity towards his craft, which manifests through an eagerness to experiment with technique.  “JENNIFER LOPEZ” isn’t exactly memorable as a piece of advertising, but it is effective as a cohesive marriage of concept and execution.

When viewed together in the context of his larger body of work, these short-form pieces don’t evidence a substantial amount of artistic growth on Aronofsky’s part– indeed, pieces like “THE VIEW” and The Meth Project campaign find him returning to extremely familiar ground.  That being said, this period does show Aronofsky turning away from the inward-looking nature of his artistic approach and engaging with pop culture on a level that’s appropriate for an American filmmaker of his pedigree.  A longtime outsider and iconoclast dwelling on the independent fringe of Hollywood, Aronofsky’s brush with prestige in the wake of THE WRESTLER and BLACK SWAN’s twin successes meant he was now on the inside of the machine– a commodity that could be exploited for the material gain of others.  The challenge would now be maintaining that ferocious independence in the face of mainstream expectations and pressure.