With hindsight, many critics now view 1999 as a high point for cinema. Not only did this period unveil an embarrassment of riches, it launched the careers of directors and actors who would become the titans of Hollywood in the decades to follow. But while genre-bending novelty and meta-narrative were the order of the day at the end of the 1990s, the year 2000 was rather more conservative: Gladiator, Almost Famous and Erin Brockovich racked up the awards, with Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon often the lone representative of fanciful filmmaking.
One auteur, however, sought to push the envelope while delivering a brutally old-fashioned morality fable. Darren Aronofsky, following up his psychological thriller Pi, a shoestring debut that became a cult favorite practically overnight, adapted the 1978 Hubert Selby Jr. novel Requiem for a Dream, which follows the tribulations of four addicts in New York. Selby’s fiction is celebrated as a chaotic descent into the urban underworlds he knew — he had no creative training beyond the sound of the street — yet in Aronofsky’s hands, this raw material would serve a polished aesthetic. His Requiem is composed of lightning-sharp edits, distorted colors, exaggerated sound, fish-eye lenses, punishing closeups (alternated with chilly long shots) and rhythmic pattern-making that builds to a horrifying climax over a relentless 100 minutes.
The slickness of Aronofksy’s style made Requiem into a contemporary classic for any college sophomore dude half a semester into his first film class — the guy who thinks movies must be depressing and difficult to qualify as high art. In fact, apart from the in-your-face editing technique (Aronofksy calls it “hip-hop montage,” which, ugh), there’s not much complexity to this tragic arc: Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly) and friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans) are junkies high on a supply of heroin they meant to sell in hopes of improving their lives; meanwhile, Harry’s mom Sara (Ellen Burstyn) is taking prescription amphetamines to lose weight, convinced she’s going to be on TV one day.
All are lost to their drug-fueled delusions, and the finale covers a quartet of simultaneous agonies: Harry has an infected arm amputated while in prison with Tyrone, who suffers both withdrawal and racial abuse; speed-addled Sara is subjected to electroconvulsive therapy; and Marion reluctantly turns to sex work to feed her habit.
If it’s Marion’s degradation that sticks with viewers, that’s down to an oft-cited phrase bound to conjure the corresponding visual: “Ass to ass.” This is what a lecherous old fellow demands of Marion and another woman entertaining a debauched party of men in suits who howl their approval. The naked pair assume the position, each on all fours, so that a giant, lubed-up double dildo can anally penetrate both at once, the women pushing it back and forth between them.
Only the ass-positive youth of today can say whether this turn remains as shocking as it was 20 years ago. But back then, it was peak edginess to the aspiring film bro, a can-they-do-that-in-a-movie moment equally disturbing and titillating to the juvenile viewer. It’s the kind of detail that earns Requiem’s reputation as “too intense for some,” “hard to watch” and “the best movie you never want to see again” — the traumatic remove that helps to keep it slotted under 2001: A Space Odyssey and above Vertigo on IMDb’s list of the 250 top-rated films.
Because if you never revisited this grotesque melodrama, you might not realize how god-awful it is. “Ass to ass” lived on as a punchline for everyone from Deadpool to Daniel Tosh, a prime example of lewd cinematic overkill. It tips Aronofsky’s heavy hand, and for what? To hammer the message “drugs are bad” all the way up your colon? Marion is already part of a grim, dehumanizing sex show, but it’s not enough, especially after a decade of films that plumb the depths of heroin use — Drugstore Cowboy, The Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting, etc. Therefore, we get the dildo maneuver, a piece of one-upmanship more repulsive than the act itself.
If “ass to ass” were truly the harrowing signature Aronofsky wanted it to be — he must have liked the actor’s delivery, since he then cast that guy as a creep who masturbates in front of Natalie Portman on the subway in Black Swan — I doubt it would have this enduring comic heritage. It’s accidentally funny in how it discredits any empathy Aronofsky feigns for these characters; clearly, they exist to be punished, vessels for the baroque misery where an actual story might be appreciated, and the actors bear much of that indignity in their earnest attempt to bring his suffocating vision to life. (Jennifer Lawrence met the same fate in Mother!, his dreadful setpiece allegory of 2017.) It’s all brought home by the looping, throbbing strings of the Kronos Quartet on the soundtrack, your unmistakable prompt to Take This All Very Seriously, Or Else.
Now, thank god, most of us know better, and we treat “ass to ass” as an allusion roughly equivalent to a South Park gag of the same era. If you put an ass-to-ass sequence in, say, a Megan Thee Stallion video, fans would brush it off as tame. The concept was never going to survive a world of infinite, hyper-accessible porn and fetish content — what possible cachet does it have for a generation that grew up on “2 Girls 1 Cup”?
Aronofsky has himself to blame, thinking he could break a taboo for the hell of it, or maybe to force his stigmatizing anti-drug PSA into the conversation with the legendary titles of transgressive cinema. It was hollow and desperate, another trick to stun you into believing Requiem was courageous instead of scolding, unbound rather than shackled to stereotypes. Even for those once appalled and mesmerized by the scene, only a dimmed memory of that initial response is left. For an instant, two women were joined, improbably, at the anus. Just a second later, the spell of that bond was broken.