Review by Chiranjit Goswami
Posted on 29 November 2006
Source Warner Bros. 35mm print
As cinema attempts to maintain its status as the art form that has defined our modern era, the growing pains it has persistently endured during its short lifetime contend that the medium is just as capable of remaining a trivial amusement to its audience. Such is the seemingly inherent conflict between art and commerce that seems to have stubbornly latched onto filmmaking, an art form that is often restricted to the few privileged people who can afford its exorbitant costs. In fact, if one spends the slightest amount of time exploring cinema’s brief history, it becomes increasingly apparent that money matters at both ends of the equation since movie audiences have always placed far more importance on the product rather than the process. This is just an elaborate way to state the obvious: movie audiences care more about the films they spend their hard earned money on than they ever would on the methods of filmmaking that create the merchandise.
Hence, it’s not surprising when a young filmmaker who has been the recipient of an inordinate degree of media hype and probably a disproportional amount of fandom early in his career is harshly judged on the overt appeal of his latest film rather than the success of his or her filmmaking methods. This unfavourable equation for evaluating art, whereby the craft is ignored in favour of the final results, could be viewed in economic terms as the market correcting itself with a proper equilibrium being established. Of course, using such consumer-driven means to determine a filmmaker’s worth may be frustrating for the filmmaker, but it’s not entirely incorrect.
Quite honestly, though I believe the last ten traumatic minutes of Requiem for a Dream to be amongst the best examples of the intensity of modern filmmaking, I arrived at my TIFF screening of Darren Aronofsky’s new film, The Fountain, expecting the worst. After a reportedly hostile reception at Venice, Aronofsky’s film made its way to Toronto without much fanfare or anticipation, with most observers simply accepting the film as the massive failure his detractors claimed it to be. Having once depicted Aronofsky as a cinematic sensation after the success of feverish early films, critics suddenly seemed to be relishing the opportunity to brand the young director as a cocky charlatan posing as an alleged auteur and quickly relegated him to the company of fellow disgraced prodigies, such as Sofia Coppola and Richard Kelly, who had released their own labours-of-love earlier in the year at Cannes only to be greeted by a similar critical massacre. However, upon watching Aronofsky’s passionate project, I realized that I shouldn’t have feared the worst, but merely anticipated the inevitable.
Despite all the rumours of its incoherence, The Fountain is surprisingly easy to follow as Aronofsky basically weaves together three connected tales of two lovers by jumping back-and-forth between three time periods. Aronofsky places greater narrative weight upon the present day, where medical-scientist Thomas Creo obsessively seeks a cure for cancer, desperate to save his wife Izzi from the large terminal brain tumour that has seemingly sealed her fate. Even with intimate knowledge of her fragile state, Thomas is still unable to grasp how scarce their time together may be and consequently he snubs Izzi’s repeated requests to accompany her on a walk and continues his search for a scientific solution. While Izzi’s life fades away, Thomas repeatedly ignores the ethical implications of his work and continues to experiment on chimpanzees using an unknown substance found in specific South-American botany, risking his entire professional career and trying increasingly risky surgical procedures. Thomas is unwilling to accept Izzi’s mortality, at one point even arrogantly claiming that “death is a disease and there is a cure” and then going on to instruct his flummoxed research team that they must “stop aging, stop dying — that’s our goal.” Though their research results in impressive scientific advancements that could potentially restore youth, Thomas is reluctant to accept these serendipitous outcomes without finding a remedy for Izzi’s illness. Unfortunately, Thomas is so convinced that he is only moments away from making his own miracle that he becomes too distracted to spend time with his dying wife, who has accepted the physical and spiritual release that death will provide.
Meanwhile, during the Spanish Inquisition in the 16th Century, a conquistador named Tomas is summoned away from his attempted assassination of the Grand Inquisitor by Queen Isabel, who immediately requests that Tomas journey across the ocean to a concealed Mayan temple. Within the temple Tomas is to find the Garden of Eden’s legendary Fountain of Youth. Growing within the fountain is the Tree of Life, and Tomas is instructed by Queen Isabel to bring back the tree’s sap, which allegedly provides immortality to anyone who ingests the milky nectar. The sap will allow Queen Isabel to become immortal and thus withstand the attacks of her enemies within the clergy, who oppose her outcries against the inquisitions. If successful in his mission, the Queen has promised Tomas her hand in marriage and an opportunity to rule Spain together for eternity. Complicating matters slightly, the conquistador’s tale also serves as a dramatization of the novel that Izzi has been writing while battling cancer in the 21st Century. As her health gradually declines, Izzi implores Thomas to complete the novel by finding some measure of resolution to her hero’s destiny.
Finally, there is a somewhat perplexing segment set in the distant future, where we find Tom bald and encased in a clear bubble, travelling through stunning stretches of space and determined to traverse through a dying star named Xibalba, which the Mayans believed to be their entrance to the afterlife and a gateway to potential rebirth. In between Buddhist meditation, Tom appears to be haunted by memories of his life with Izzi and often becomes distraught when experiencing visions of his past. Within his bubble, Tom is accompanied by a chalky tree that seems to be providing Tom with a meagre amount of nourishment. Occasionally, Tom appears to be talking directly to the tree as if a spirit resides within its rings. Unfortunately the tree also appears to be withering away, which only increases Tom’s anxiety and frustration at the cruelty of time. Though this segment situated in some sort of astral plane initially appears bizarre in comparison to the other two narratives that Aronofsky has sculpted, the spacey scenes gradually reveal their purpose as the director uncoils his grand sci-fi saga.
As divergent as each description may sound, Aronofsky makes easily observable connections between each story in order to convey his interest in the idea of reincarnation. The most obvious association is Aronofsky’s decision to have his protagonists played by the same actor, as Hugh Jackman portrays medial-researcher Thomas, Spanish conquistador Tomas, and secluded space-traveler Tom. Meanwhile, Aronofsky’s fiancée Rachel Weisz plays serenely suffering Izzi, softly shrewd Queen Isabel, and whatever ethereal angelic presence accompanies Tom into the unknown gaseous clouds he journeys towards. Though their performances are nowhere near as ridiculous as rumoured, neither actor is stretching their skills, mostly due to Aronofsky’s focus on his grandiose themes and astonishing imagery instead of character development and narrative precision. No matter how much adoration and worship Aronofsky lavishes upon Izzi, Weisz’s role remains little more than an idealized, almost saintly, representation of a gracious and venerable feminine object of affection. Conversely, Jackman’s role occupies a great deal more weight within each temporal tale, but Aronofsky doesn’t really require his lead to expand his performance beyond looking grumpy, desperate, and dejected at the massive burden he must continually tolerate.
Aronofsky’s tactics in emphasizing recurrence are not only limited to casting choices, as the director decides to repeat key lines of dialogue and duplicate particular camera motions. In fact, a great deal of the young director’s visual techniques in The Fountain have been carefully designed with extensive consideration of the central theme. In order to set his continually solemn mood, Aronofsky uses a unified visual canvas throughout his film, with each time period enveloped by eternal shadows and occasionally relieved by bursts of brilliant golden light. Alas, while such a dark ambiance works perfectly in the menacing jungles of 16th Century South-America and the distant miasma of space, Aronofsky’s choice in atmosphere also results in some strange contemporary confines, as Thomas and his research team labour away in a dimly-lit laboratory that seems to be cutting electricity costs. Aronofsky’s filmmaking style has always drifted towards more lavish visuals, so one should probably allow him some latitude in the images within the sublime sci-fi epic he desperately intends to create. However, as beautiful as the images are within The Fountain, it still remains difficult not to ponder some rather shallow questions, such as how exactly these researchers perform their dangerous surgical procedures in the dark.
Aronofsky is more successful with several of his other creative decisions. In particular, the director’s most noticeable method of accentuating his ideas of reincarnation is to recreate certain visual sequences within each time period, easily conveying the repetition of actions over time by crafting parallel images. Perhaps borrowing from the production design in Soderbergh’s Solaris, Aronofsky also includes countless instances of circular imagery that he sprinkles through his compositions, most notably the wedding rings of his lovers as well as the bubble Tom drifts within. While these spherical images stress Aronofsky’s apparent belief in the perpetual movements of the spiritual world, the director vigilantly suggests our inevitable corporeal destiny by dwelling within numerous constrictive hallways and ominous doors.
Furthermore, within every time period, Aronofsky returns to two specific methods of framing, each serving distinctly different purposes. First, Aronofsky applies numerous overhead views of the events, allowing his audience to achieve an almost divine perspective of his characters’ attempts to circumvent their mortality. This heavenly viewpoint is balanced by the somewhat abrasive intimacy provided by Aronofsky’s close-ups, in which the director allows Tom and Izzi to speak directly to the camera during their conversations. Applying such a technique isn’t exactly innovative, but Aronofsky’s chooses to frame Jackman and Weisz in closer proximity than most other directors, thus mimicking the warm position a viewer might have with a significant-other. While the snug framing sometimes feels like a frugal method to manage Aronofsky’s much-discussed budget by masking his restricted scope, it also provides a contrast to the distance and detachment often suggested when other, more respected, directors apply such methods.
It’s not accidental that Aronofsky alternates our perspective between the remote viewpoint of a deity and the affectionate angle of a mortal. Indeed, The Fountain is genuinely concerned with displaying the conflict between religion and science, with the present-day plot serving has Aronofsky’s most direct display of modern scientific practice, while the segments from other eras appear to be his musing on theological politics and spiritual tranquility. However, Aronofsky isn’t really interested in merely restating the simplified version of the argument and choosing sides. In fact, much like Aronofsky’s work on Pi, the director seems to view science as a means to achieve a greater understanding of our spirituality, but he also seems to believe our obsession with knowledge may cause us great torment and misery at our inability to comprehend the unknown divinity of life. Hence, all of Tom’s attempts to use his scientific knowledge to transcend our mortal existence never seem to achieve the results he requires, since science has its limits even when successful.
Nevertheless, The Fountain resists the ordinary impulse to posit Judeo-Christian religion as providing the answers that science cannot obtain. Not surprisingly, Aronofsky depicts the Grand Inquisitor as a devious, conniving, embodiment of evil, who is all too willing to denounce Queen Isabel as a corrupt and vain monarch. Unfortunately, the Grand Inquisitor’s description of the Queen as an arrogant ruler, bent upon challenging God’s will primarily for her own benefit proves to be somewhat accurate. Still, there remains little doubt that Aronofsky’s illustration of Western religion isn’t exactly flattering. Instead, with its constant emphasis on rebirth and reincarnation, The Fountain grants far more respect to Eastern philosophies and traditions, even allowing the culture to occupy a prominent position within Aronofsky’s most advanced era. The film allows us to witness Tom meditating within his bubble as he travels through space, clad in the robes of a Buddhist monk and often engaging in the motions of Tai Chi Chuan, before finally attaining something close to nirvana once he accepts his circumstances. Unfortunately, Jackman looks slightly silly while hairless and meditating in his martial arts garb within his transparent bubble, but that might be symptomatic of how comical modern Western culture often appears when imitating an ancient Eastern ethos (The Matrix anyone?).
Aronofsky’s fixation on Eastern philosophies is a natural consequence with his fascination with reincarnation as a means to constantly extend our existence and continue our cyclical journey, but Aronofsky is cautious with his assertions regarding spirituality, especially considering Tom isn’t exactly triumphant in attaining the physical immortality he so frantically seeks for Izzi no matter how often our hero repeats his quest or which approach he decides to apply. Instead, The Fountain finds other means of granting immortality, such as Thomas’ decision to honour Izzi by planting a tree at her grave, possibly creating symbiosis with nature by implying that the tree can flourish using her infinitely nurturing spirit, and also mirroring Tomas’ ultimate destiny. Perhaps more importantly Thomas preserves Izzi’s memory by completing her novel. By doing so, Thomas ensures Izzi’s immortality via her own form of artistry, which in this case happens to be her skill for mythical storytelling. This particular aspect of Aronofsky’s film feels very self-referential since the director has essentially created his own piece of art with the collaboration of his lover, Weisz, which in effect serves as a document of their own relationship—a sort of existential cinematic love-letter to their union.
Of course, Aronofsky isn’t completely satisfied with these small figurative measures of immortality. If we haven’t already clued into Aronofsky’s cinematic and spiritual conduit, we soon realize that both of Thomas’ tributes serve as actions that maintain the perpetual story that Aronofsky’s sci-fi epic thrives upon. Though his actual intentions remain vague, Aronofsky certainly implies that the seedling which Thomas has planted grows to be the withering tree that accompanies Tom into the gaseous heavenly bodies of space and it might even be connected to the Tree of Life. Likewise, Izzi’s story of Mayan mythology serves to chronicle Tomas’s battles against pagan hordes and ferocious gatekeepers. Soon enough all three stories fold in upon one another to form a strange sort of Möbius strip, or perhaps an odd little Ouroboros given Izzi’s own declaration that death could be perceived “as an act of creation.” What’s real and what is fiction is definitely a question Aronofsky’s wants his viewers to ask, but he’s certainly not interested in giving us conclusive answers. Unfortunately as trippy as the plot appears, my main grievance with The Fountain is that the scrupulously sculpted maze goes exactly where one might expected it to head towards, with little satisfaction when we arrive at our destination.
The one aspect that remains clear throughout all of Aronofsky’s filmmaking bravado is that he is convinced of the enduring nature of love within our infinite universe. Indeed it feels as if Aronofsky wholeheartedly believes love to be the only constant aspect within eternity and that his faith in that concept cannot be shaken. It’s the viewer’s reaction to this particular facet of the film and Aronofsky’s resolve that probably makes or breaks evaluation of Aronofsky’s efforts. Even if it’s disguised as a sci-fi film spanning centuries, at its emotional core The Fountain remains an earnest melodrama regarding a couple’s enduring love. Such sincere sentiment and genuine passion may be blissful for some, but I’m certain most will find such overtly emotional, almost maudlin, material to be downright awkward, if not embarrassing, within its sci-fi surroundings.
Whatever labels critics may smack onto The Fountain as time passes, the film certainly proves Aronofsky is brave enough to continue applying his brash brand of filmmaking to any material that captures his imagination. Alas, Aronofsky’s abundant ambition is what persistently trips him up in The Fountain, as his resolutely brazen style seems ill suited to such impenetrable topics. Perhaps what’s difficult for many to handle is that Aronofsky is so decisive with his creative decisions regarding such daunting subject matter. While mankind has struggled throughout time with these imposing issues of faith, science, and existence and most of the audience members have probably dedicated a significant portion of their lives exploring such important questions, Aronofsky appears certain of which direction he must take and even more confident of the path he’s chosen for his viewers.
Frankly, Aronofsky’s confidence becomes evident within the severely elaborate style he applies in The Fountain, and such a palatable degree of conviction feels slightly arrogant, especially since other respected filmmakers have made much more meditative and pensive films exploring similar subject matter with comparably subdued stylistic liberties, often resulting in a more contemplative and tranquil mood for their material that allows for ambiguity within their message. Hence the films of such masters as Bresson, Ozu, and Tarkovsky often find passionate support in viewers with opposing viewpoints regarding theological questions and basic existential issues simple because the humble style of their films appeals to universal aspects of our inherent humanity. Conversely, Aronofsky’s techniques are abrasive, and seem determined to convey his own specific vision, which severely limits the scope of its appeal by restricting the extent of our potential connection with his deeply personal material unless we share his perspective on the subject matter.
Despite The Fountain’s frequent turns into the ridiculous, it’s hard to harshly reprimand Aronofsky for explicitly embracing his inspirations and taking such bold risks. Realistically the harm in being so audacious and genuine is relatively minimal no matter how abstract the concept appears. Yet it’s strange how many observers have scolded Aronofsky for taking such artistic risks and trusting his creative instincts. It’s particularly frustrating so soon after Robert Altman has passed away since many critics have complemented the master by professing that even Altman’s failures remain interesting projects to watch in retrospect. I’m actually not arguing the point or disparaging these words of praise, but the protests against Aronofsky’s ambition are wearisome in contrast to the tributes offered to Altman. By no means would I claim Aronofsky to be Altman’s equal at this early stage of his career, particularly given the disparity in the volume of their work and the disproportion in the accomplishments each director has amassed. However, what the two directors do share is a willingness to stick to their vision without compromise, which often results in lukewarm, if not negative critical reception.
Though The Fountain fluctuates in quality from frame to frame, I’m more astounded by the critical outcry against Aronofsky’s grand aspirations. Quite obviously, The Fountain is a divisive film and its vague haze of themes will either be accepted as thoughtful or discarded as silly. Yet it also seems evident that no matter how inconsistent The Fountain may be at times (and I’m still not sure how exactly Aronofsky manages to waste Ellen Burstyn’s talent), it still displays Aronofsky to be a skilled filmmaker who has meticulously arranged his film to convey his specific vision. Such effort should be commended even if the results are muddled, since these types of projects are usually characterized as “interesting failures” in retrospect. It’s just unfortunate we aren’t as gracious when evaluating these projects during our initial reception of the work, because sometimes flawed filmmaking is more interesting than the finished film.