Not Coming to a Theater Near You 2000–2009 The Decade in Review

The Fountain by Timothy Sun

The Fountain by Timothy Sun A.O. Scott wrote an article a few of years ago entitled “Where Have All the Howler’s Gone,” in which he lamented the absence of truly abominable films from our cinematic landscape in favor of an endless stream of mediocrity. Along with the lack of utter disasters, A.O. argued, came a lack of true masterpieces:

[M]asterpieces, after all, often arise from the same impulses [as catastrophes]: extravagant ambition, irrational risk, pure chutzpah, a synergistic blend of vanity, vision and self-delusion. The tiniest miscalculation on the part of the artist – or of the audience – can mean the difference between adulation and derision. So in the realm of creative achievement, the worst is not just the opposite of the best, but also its neighbor.1

Where are the films that are so breathtaking in their folly? And by the same token, where are the films that are so breathtaking in their conviction? The history of cinema is strewn with the dashed dreams and exorbitant budgets of its greatest – and worst – practitioners. Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, every Werner Herzog movie—these films are equal parts visionary masterwork and “WTF?” debacle.

The Fountain, I think, earns an honorable mention in the canon of The Inspired and Nearly Unwatchable. In an age where the play-it-safe, film-by-committee philosophy of filmmaking rules all, Darren Aronofsky’s heartfelt ode to everlasting love, transcendentalist spirituality, and utter incoherence sticks out like the Tree of Life itself, presenting an antidote to the slow death of passionate, film-as-life cinematic ambition. Through the parallel inter-temporal narratives of a Spanish conquistador, a present-day cancer researcher, and a future space traveler (all played, with wounded fragility, by Hugh Jackman), Aronofsky weaves moments of heartbreaking beauty as well as stretches of opaque crosscutting that jumble the three plot strands together into a total mess of unintentional comedy.

Despite its faults, this is a film that believes fervently in cinema’s power to make us feel, to transport us with not only images but ideas and emotions. With The Fountain, Aronofsky is aiming for nothing less than a reevaluation of our understanding of time, religion, space, and the myths that we create to explain where we come from and where we are going—in short, The Fountain is searching for the meaning of life. The obvious influence is Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but where that film succeeds in creating a nearly religious experience through its complete dismissal of melodrama, The Fountain is affecting only at its most effusively melodramatic. It is difficult not to be moved by Jackman’s performance; as his characters’ desperate quests to save their dying beloveds (a beatific Rachel Weiss) descend into rage-filled grief, one almost forgets about the murky intellectual pontificating that supposedly holds it all together.

Almost. The final act of the film is especially unfortunate: as Jackman’s astronaut hurtles through space in a giant orb, Aronofsky attempts to create a 2001-esque “Beyond the Infinite” plunge into visual spectacle, emotional catharsis, and intellectual epiphany. None of this is achieved. With, at this point in the film, no melodramatic heart for the audience to latch onto, the film buckles under the weight of its own overreach, resulting in the aforementioned unintelligible crosscutting. It would have been interesting to see Aronofsky’s original, more expensive Brad Pitt-starring version had the plug not been pulled, but if this is somehow the less elaborate production, its absence may be a blessing.

And yet, I still admire the damn thing. Like the films that A.O. Scott so sorely misses, The Fountain approaches film as a medium that can touch us urgently and powerfully, to change the way we see the world. The Fountain also marks what I see as a resurgence in purely visual, sensualist storytelling. Many of the best films of the decade – Children of Men, The New World, In the Mood for Love, Mulholland Drive – could have been silent films, in that the spoken word is secondary to the idea, feeling, and mood that the image creates. As in the great works of silent filmmaker F.W. Murnau, the camera is an expressive device in its own right—for these films, visual style is not a matter of looking “cool” (à la the Wachowski Brothers, McG, Michael Bay, etc), but the principal way a film conveys meaning. Aronofsky, who has been criticized for stylistic excess in π and Requiem for a Dream (and, perhaps because of such criticism, diverted toward a more stripped-down, Dardenne-esque aesthetic for The Wrestler) is, I think, a filmmaker who understands the power of the image beyond creating a hyperkinetic picture. As precariously as The Fountain walks the line between brilliant and laughable, it still represents an iconoclastic slap in the face to our lowest common denominator ideology of filmmaking, and for that, we could use a few more howlers.

  1. A.O. Scott, “Where Have All the Howlers Gone?” The New York Times, December 18, 2005.


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