Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Film #174: The Fountain

A dialogue:

FUTURE ME: Why are we doing this? I have work to do.

PRESENT ME: Well, I called you two here to talk about Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain.

PAST ME: One of my favorites.

FUTURE ME: Oh, I was so young in 2006. Not even forty. I was really into anything kind of trippy and obscure.

PAST ME: How did I get so cynical in my old age?

FUTURE ME: Hey, I still like it, but I don’t ever need to see it again. I stopped watching movies I’ve already seen years ago.


PRESENT ME: That’s kind of where I’m at now. I think I’m starting to agree with Pauline Kael that watching movies even a second time clues you into their tricks and faults. Only the best ones escape this. This probably means I’ve been watching too many movies.

PAST ME: I can’t see many faults in this one. I saw it on the big screen twice and it stunned me with its boldness and beauty. There’s really nothing like it.

PRESENT ME: The Fountain works most effectively on the big screen, I agree. But there’s a reason for there being nothing like it—it’s a sentimental mess, though occasionally moving. And a box office bomb–way too inquisitive and slow for the masses, even if it’s only 90 minutes long. But it’s brave and beautiful nevertheless.

PAST ME: I love it. It just hits me, and fascinates me. And there’s part of me that sees it as Aronofsky’s effusive love letter to his wife, Rachel Weisz, whom he clearly adores. Just look at all those loving close-ups.

PRESENT ME: They’re divorced now. She remarried James Bond—Daniel Craig.

PAST ME: Aww, that sucks. Man, where’s the love? And I can’t believe Daniel Craig is James Bond now. Weird choice.

FUTURE ME: You should see who’s playing Bond now—Benedict Cumberbatch.

PAST ME: Cumberwhat?

PRESENT ME: Guys, guys…back on point. I still find the conquistador segment of the story transfixing, and the future bubble, with the Tree of Life being sent up into a golden nebula, remains a helluva image.

FUTURE ME: We still don’t have any flying bubbles, but we did finally get the Hoverboard down.

PAST ME: So it’s the present day story, with Hugh Jackman trying to save his wife from cancer that you don’t like?

PRESENT ME: Yeah, that part—which takes up most of the film—feels stiff, soapy and badly acted, even with the post-Requiem for a Dream gift of a supporting role for Ellen Burstyn.

FUTURE ME: Requiem for a Dream. Now that still works. And I DEFINITELY don’t need to see that one again. I’m depressed enough.

PRESENT ME: I get ya on that. But, yeah, I do like how the film is a melding of the three time periods, as if they’re conferring with one another. Do you think the Jackman and Weisz characters are all the same person, only reborn in different bodies?

FUTURE ME: It would seem in keeping with the spiritually transcendent feel of the whole thing. Sometimes it feels a bit overwrought, this aspect of it.

PRESENT ME: When you look back on Aronofsky’s career, there does seem to be copious soul searching throughout. I get the impression he’s ingested a lot of drugs in order to find his spiritual center.

PAST ME: A friend I saw it with the second time said the director has obviously done a lot of DMT, evidenced by the very end, which he said is a pretty fair approximation of that drug’s effects. And I know from another friend Aronofsky’s looking to buy land in Costa Rica. That should tell you something.

PRESENT ME: I’m sorta glad I haven’t hung out with those friends in years. They were fascinating back then, but it was frustrating trying to keep up with their insane babblings. But, yeah, with Pi, Requiem for a Dream and Noah (which was his dream project, amazingly enough), Aronofsky does strike me now as a sideways religious proselytizer.

PAST ME: He did a movie about Noah? Noah’s ark Noah?

PRESENT ME: Yes. Don’t watch it. It has big tree monsters or something in it. They’re introduced about two minutes in, and that’s when I cut it off. I think the drugs have finally gotten to him.

PAST ME: Thanks for the warning.

FUTURE ME: It’ll definitely be the Aronofsky movie you’ll be glad not to see. It’s a real shame. He’s doing heavy metal Christian music videos now.

PRESENT ME: Anyway, I wouldn’t want to fix The Fountain. It’s a movie Aronofsky fought hard to make, although I understand it started off a great deal differently, with Brad Pitt attached as star in an action-packed Matrix-y kick-ass-fest. Pitt still acted as a producer on The Fountain.

PAST ME: I definitely prefer Pitt as an actor over Jackman, who I think works here best as the bearded Spanish conquistador, devoted to his queen and to the quest for the Tree of Life. I’ve just never been able to connect with Jackman as a movie actor, although Aronofsky did a good job of making him look radically different in each episode here.

FUTURE ME: Jackman’s much more charming on the stage. He’s a song-and-dance man. He’s won two Tonys (for musicals) in the past twenty years. No singing and dancing here, though. By the way, why was it that the Tree of Life was needed to save Spain?

PRESENT ME: It’s a little murky, but it has something to do with vanquishing the evil Crusaders who, with their fundamentalism, were destroying the fabric of the country and the world. More to the point, it’s because the queen said it was necessary.

FUTURE ME: I guess Aronofsky made that fairly clear, now that I think about it. But it wasn’t very compelling from a plotting standpoint.

PRESENT ME: No, but I accepted it without much complaint. That section of the film is pretty gorgeous and constantly thrilling. When we switch back to it, I still feel myself prickling up excitedly. The acting style here just seems to suit that setting, and on an art direction and costuming level, I think it’s really sumptuous.

FUTURE ME: But the Matthew Libatique photography is a little dark, no?

PAST ME: It’s a dark film in general. But I like Libatique.

PRESENT ME: He’s at his best with Aronofsky–bet you can’t name one movie he’s done without him (Black Swan is a notable Aronofsky collaboration). I do love the way key shots are centered in a way that recalls religious iconography. Some of the work reminds me of Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, only tinted to a greater degree. However, the play between dark and light struck me sometimes as a visual cliché. I mean, is there any reason to have the surgery rooms lit like Don Corleone’s office?

FUTURE ME: Exactly. That was absurd.

PAST ME: I just though it looked neat. But maybe you’re right. I loved the twin shots of Jackman’s breath blowing against the hairs on Weisz’s neck and then onto the tree’s fuzzy trunk. That was immensely effective. You know, I think I’m compelled by that middle story just because I’m a goofy romantic.

FUTURE ME: How’s that gone for ya?

PAST ME: Not so well, I’m afraid.

PRESENT ME: Yeah, it’s been a hard road.

FUTURE ME: Uh-huh. Look, I can accept the darkness in the Spanish segment, particularly, because it’s contextually correct, and plus it adds to the menace inherit in that third of the story. It works, too, in the future section of the piece, because outer space is the setting. But, man, I can hardly remember now the “present day” part of the movie, except that it felt like an overly-intellectual Love Story to me, and that I became impatient with. 

PRESENT ME: Yes. Okay, two things I think we all can agree on: The visual effects have a wonderfully hand-crafted quality to them. I mean, I’m sure much CGI is used here, but Aronofsky and his team managed to conceal most traces of it. The future sequence is consistently brilliant, with its smoky, painterly travels through the ether and the odd sight of the live action backed in such a surreal manner.

PAST ME: This is true. Great effects, and also I should mention the terrific editing–it’s an economical movie in length, and it hops to and from each segment in inventive fashions. As to the computer involvement in the visuals, there are moments, approaching the nebula, that feel like we’re entering a CGI vagina. I dunno…maybe that’s a point Aronofsky was conveying there.

FUTURE ME: Yeah, and I suppose the tree is a kind of phallic stand-in. It’s a movie also concerned with the connection between sex and death, without being a very sexy piece (though there’s that rather chaste bathtub scene). I don’t think it knows what it’s saying here, beyond the “Road to Awe” theme that’s repeated throughout (by the menacing, opulent gatekeeper guarding the way to the Tree of Life, and then by Izzy, Rachel Weisz’s sickly present day character). I guess we can just leave it at that—both sex and death are the road to awe. The little death and all of that…

PRESENT ME: And is she named Izzy because she is the character that’s IS who she IS? That somehow she’s the character in the movie that most embraces her present? I mean, I know she gloms onto death gallantly and everything, but I think they fell down on that. She didn’t seem particularly special to me, even while throwing snowballs and romping around in the bedroom with her once-long hair. The film is radically humorless. 2001 has more laughs. The writing needed a little beefing up, I’d counsel.

PAST ME: That’s kind of cruel, but I guess you’re correct—Aronofsky didn’t rely on much beyond her sumptuous face and curious nature to illustrate her luminosity. Another point, getting back to the sex thing–not to get too gooey on the subject–but is there something there in the creamy white juice that Jackman’s conquistador wrings out of the tree?

FUTURE ME: Yeah, that’s there, but can we please not talk about it?

PRESENT ME: I do have to say, I find the climax to that story—and please excuse me for using that word—to be the most surprising moment in the film. It’s the moment we were waiting for—the confrontation with the Tree of Life, the film’s most mysterious character–and it leaves us shocked and breathless.

PAST ME: I agree.

FUTURE ME: Yep. Though I noticed they were careful in keeping that gunk away from Jackman’s beard.

PRESENT ME: Eww, you’re right. Moving on…

PAST ME: I bet the other thing you were going to mention is Clint Mansell’s score.

PRESENT ME: Exactly. It’s a wonder, just like his score for Requiem for a Dream, which was a masterpiece.

FUTURE ME: Yes, that’s the element of the film that’s beyond reproach. It completes its most important work.

PAST ME: It feels like a character unto itself.

PRESENT ME: That’s probably the best thing one can say about a score to a movie, though in some instances, it can be the worst.

FUTURE ME: Not here. It’s superb.

PRESENT ME: Okay, well, that was quick. One question, since we are gathered to talk about The Fountain while in the realm of science-fiction: Is this a science-fiction film?

PAST ME: That’s interesting. It strikes me more of a fantasy piece, but science does certainly play a role in it.

FUTURE ME: Believe me, there is no real science in it. It’s all a matter of the heart. As you get older, you find yourself faced with death often—the deaths of those you love personally, and the deaths of those you’ve never even met but to whom you were close to anyway. And you find yourself wanting to find a way to stave all that death off. But you can’t. We’re mortal. It’s something we have to live with. The idea of a cure to it, or some magic potion, increasingly escapes you, just as it escapes all the characters in this film. But I suspect—and I say this because I’ve never been in real love, except with my cats, which is not the same thing—the injection of deep emotion into the equation complicates things grandly. In the end, it’s a science-fiction film only by default of our own limited pigeon-holing of creative works into stifling categories, mostly for salable purpose. I mean, it’s got space travel and microscopes and telescopes in it and everything, so it’s science fiction, I guess.

PRESENT ME: So what does The Fountain have to say about death and life and sex?

FUTURE ME: I don’t see it as a movie about sex except peripherally. But on life and death, I think it states its case very clearly: There’s nothing we can do about anything but press on. Love doesn’t enter into it, except that it makes life’s inevitable conclusions that much more painful and yet transcendent.

PAST ME: It’s tough going, but I can accept that. What choice do I have?

FUTURE ME: No choice at all.

PRESENT ME: Okay. Well, it’s a thrilling movie to look at and consider, at least.

PAST ME: It makes us think, definitely.

PRESENT ME: That's good enough for me. 

FUTURE ME: Gotta get back to work. Are we done?


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