Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Fountain

I've been looking forward to The Fountain for a long time, a really long time. I remember reading about it in 2001, a "post-Matrix" sci-film that would change the genre. As time passed, the project went through a lot of tumult, and it's great to see a director who sticks with his vision and gets it made, making some budget sacrifices, but keeping the essence of the piece intact. After such a long wait, the film itself wound up much simpler than I was expecting. The triptych narrative structure adds a lot of layers, but at its core this is a film about life and death, and the inextricable bond between the two.

The film opens with a striking battle sequence. I love the moment where Tomas is taken by the Mayans and carried to the edge of their pyramid. The flaming sword he encounters later is another really powerful visual, and then it's a jump cut hundreds of years into the future. I wish I knew nothing about the film going in because I'd imagine that cut would be absolutely mind blowing. As was, it's still pretty shocking to plunge into the future like that, into an entirely different world with its own rules.

I don't think there's one definitive interpretation of what is 'real' in the film and what's not. The way I saw it is that the present day stuff is what is real, and the present/future stuff is a mental construction, built by the two characters to allow them to deal with Izzi's cancer. This is made explicit in the fact that the Spanish stuff is connected to a book Izzi wrote. She has imagined herself as Queen Isabella, commissioning her love to find a cure for her disease. At one point, she refers to Tom as a Conquistador in the present, reinforcing this conception of him. I love the moment where she gives him this mission. The way she's lit with glowing white, asking him to make her "his Eve." The Spanish stuff is all very striking, the way we see Isabella hidden behind the grate at first, only gradually coming into view.

Understanding the film requires coming to terms with the way narrative progression proceeds across time. Tomas' quest for the fountain of youth is the same thing that Tom is seeking in the present. It's also the same as the man in the bubble, forever seeking the secrets of the tree.

While Izzi imagines Tom as a conquistador, he prefers to see himself as a Buddhist from the future, but the constant is that he's seeking that which will allow him to overcome death. In the early part of the film, the editing connects the Tom of the bubble with the Tom of the present, fitting because it's his hallucination. This is how he imagines his scientific work, part of an ageless quest for immortality. He knows that Izzi will die, and he sees himself continuing to work far into the future, until he finally finds a cure. The tattoos equate him with the tree, the rings representing the passage of time, from the one dot in the present to the whole covered arm of the future.

The film works in a different way from most movies. I didn't find myself with a deep emotional connection to the characters, the film may be about these two people, but it's concerned with bigger themes. We don't need to understand them as real, developed characters, and we don't get much of a background on either. From their subjective mental constructions, we can gain a better understanding, but the first half of the movie only gives us enough to care about them, and make the second half of the movie work. I think the telescope scene is sweet and sad, but I'm not desperately caught up in this love.

As a filmmaker, Aronofsky is not interested in creating traditional emotional reactions. Rather, he shows you things that are affecting on an intellectual level, you're moved emotionally. The visceral violence of the end of Requiem is designed to overwhelm you on a human level. It's not the fact that this is happening to characters we know that makes it awful, it's the fact that the stuff is just so awful, you can have no other reaction. Similarly, this film taps into imagery with a primal power, and creates emotions through engaging with the universal human interest in issues of life and death.

As the film progresses, Tom's obsession with stopping death begins to cause more and more problems with his life. We see this at a number of moments, when he doesn't go for a walk with her because he's working. In trying to save her, he winds up missing the last moments he could share with her, something that's reinforced when we see her with Ellen Burstyn, sharing real emotion. He can not live in the moment, see past her impending death and appreciate the last of her life.

When Izzi dies, the audience is placed in Tom's mindset. What makes it hurt so much is the fact that he just found out the solution is making the cancer recede. He could have saved her, but it's too late. His grief is mixed up with his failure as a scientist. At her funeral, Ellen Burstyn talks about her life, but Tom can't listen to it. He only sees his failure to save her, not the moments that came before.

This leads us into the mindblowing finale of the movie. The first hour or so is really well done, but I felt like it never took off into the realm of greatness. I've talked before about the idea of the moment in film, that the best films are the ones that feature moments where you just gasp, awed by the convergence of visual, sound/music and narrative to create a singular emotional reaction. I watch movies for those moments, to be awed and humbled, and that's what the end of this film does.

Before the end of the film, the Spanish sequences were Izzi's vision, her conception of Tom, an explorer seeking to help her. However, when she dies, the last chapter remains unwritten. It is up to Tom to imagine the finale, and that means the intrusion of his mental motifs, most notably the tree. Pi makes frequent reference to the Kaballah, and it clearly informs this film. My knowledge of the Kaballah comes primarily from the journey up the tree of life sequence in Promethea. I'd imagine you could easily map the stages of this film to the nine stages of the journey up the tree. The basic idea is to pass through the human world, and up towards enlightenment. To reach enlightenment, you must pass through the land of the dead and at the end of the journey, you are reborn.

One of the best moments in the film is when we see Tom in lotus position suspended over the Mayan guardian, prompting the Mayan to tell him he is the father of the world. This is Tom's fantasy, the idea that he could be the person to give eternal life to the world, and in the process, save Izzi. So, he proceeds out and finds the tree. While the tree is a reference to the Kaballah, it is explicitly name dropped as the tree of life from the garden of Eden. Tom seeks eternal life for himself, but when he greedily drinks the tree's sap, which looks not unlike sperm, an inseminating force taken into the vessel of his body. Tom is shocked when trees begin to grow out of him, he wanted eternal life for himself, ignorant of the fact that the act of giving life inevitably means giving up a part of yourself. The moment is a reenactment of the Mayan creation myth, Tom's death giving way to a new world. The moment also refers to Izzi's discussion of the man who had a seed planted on his grave so that a piece of him would be carried out into the world after he died.

These events are paralleled in the progress of the future version of himself. He moves out of his bubble, the prison in which he seeks a cure for death. He moves beyond this limited thought as he journeys towards his own symbolic death. I love the visual of him moving through the trippy environment, zen like in the bubble. He finally reaches the white, and everything goes black except for a small white dot on the screen. Then, in a phenomenally dazzling moment, all of reality rushes in, ripping his skin off and pouring him down into the cosmos. That is the moment I was waiting for, utterly overwhelming me with the power of the visual imagery. This is the same as the trees coming out of Tom, his life essence dispersed to create something new.

This leads us back to the past, where Tom is again offered the chance to walk outside with Izzi. Rather than work, he chooses to spend the moment with her. Then, he is left standing outside, looking at her grave, into which he puts a seed, acknowledging the reality of death and the fact that the end of life is actually an opening to rebirth, a passage into something new rather than a concrete ending. Earlier in the film, Tom was not content with the fact that they were improving Donovan's mental functioning, he worried only about his impending death. Now, he recognizes that it is more important to live life in the moment than to worry about the inevitability of death. He is out of his bubble and open to a larger world.

The thing I love about this movie is the way it tackles these massive themes that are very rarely explored in cinema. I've heard the film compared to 2001, and while I don't think it's quite that good, it stands with that film in terms of being a piece of visual philosophy, using the possibilities of the medium to make you experience an entirely other world, and attack a human truth in the process. The person whose work it most reminds me of is Grant Morrison. The cut to a bald man in lotus position instantly conjures GM, and his bubble is very reminiscent of Zatanna. But, more than that, the film fluidly moves between different realities, demanding the audience to accept everything as real rather than seek some kind of trick to read things. It's much like Flex Mentallo, in that you can arrange it into a linear story, which I did, but also look at is just a flowing experience of different worlds. Just because the Spanish stuff is a story doesn't meant that it's any less valid than the so called 'reality' of the film, and that's a very Morrison thing.

And the central theme of the film goes right along with The Invisibles. In The Invisibles, we are told time is soil for us to grow in, and this film sees death as a seed that will give birth to new life. They each answer the critical question of why do bad things happen to us. It turns out they happen because the bad things make us stronger, bad experiences are the fuel for creation, we can use the negative as a base for something new and good.

Morrison talked about the fact that people have trouble processing metaphor, and I think that's a large part of why the film isn't connecting with a lot of people. It's easy to dismiss this and say that the characters aren't particularly well developed and the multiple time periods are pointless and confusing, but that's to ignore the fact that it's all real. It's not easy to see beyond our world, but when looking at a film, or life for that matter, it's important to accept movement between realities and understand that what is real is not necessarily that which is physical. Anything that affects you emotionally is 'real,' and that's why fiction is important. Fictional characters can do more to change the world than real people. In the case of this film, the themes are important and central to the human experience. Aronofsky should be rewarded for challenging the audience with an unconventional structure and a surplus of ideas. I would heartily recommend this film, if you're interested, please go see it in the theater and tell the studios that unique, visionary films like this are appreciated and wanted.

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