Monday, March 1, 2010

The Fountain


When this movie came out, I was out of the country, and it was not playing where I was. When I got back it wasn't on DVD yet. And then I just never got around to seeing it. Then one day I was sifting through trash on YouTube, and I thought, "I want to see just a few minutes of something truly beautiful." For some reason or another, the trailer for The Fountain popped into my head. I watched it, and then instantly added it to my Netflix queue.

When I saw Aronofsky's other movies, I always saw that he was talented, but I hated his choice of content. They always made me feel disgusted after I saw them. But at the same time, I always felt that in another life, he could have made one of my favorite movies. The Fountain is that other life.

The whole film is as beautiful as the trailer. And in a very real way, this was a pretty "feel good" movie. The emotions and revelations are complicated, and the sense of tragedy is always close at hand, but as the end-credits started to appear, I was filled with this inexplicable and renewed joie de vivre--something I never thought possible after an Aronofsky movie.

Enough with this experiential critique, though.

This film is polarizing. Lots of people hate it. I have to admit, a few of the images at the end are...jarring. They're quite grand, and if they weren't so profound, they would give me nigh-endless mocking material. Plus, the dissonance in the plot is unsettling even for me.

The Fountain tells three stories: One of a 16th century Conquistador in search of the tree of life, one of a 21t century scientist, struggling to find a cure for brain tumors so he can save his wife, and one of a 26th century somebody who's taking a tree in a space-bubble to a nebula surrounding a dying star. I know. It sounds like it has all the subtlety of a billboard, and all the restraint of Liberace. But it actually is full of subtlety. Aronofsky reveals image after image after image, but it takes a while for those symbols to sink in and for you to process their meaning, and then the meaning within the meaning.

The three stories' protagonists share the same actors. Hugh Jackman is the Conquistador, scientist and rocketman. Rachel Weisz is the Queen and wife. (If she is the tree too, that's a lot of make-up.) The stories merge together, especially towards the end. This almost chaotic merger has sent a lot of critics and movie-goers off on innumerable tantrums. Clearly, the majority of the Conquistador's story is the novel of the wife in the 21st century. I haven't read anyone's review who doesn't agree on that point. The real question is how the 26th century guy fits into the picture. From the bottom of my heart, I say it doesn't matter. Linearly, it's not clear how the story connects, but it is perfectly clear how it fits in thematically and symbolically. If I HAD to pick sides in whether the 26th century story is "real," (Doesn't this sound completely stupid? NONE of these stories are real.) my gut says that the 26th century man is the same scientist in the 21st century who inadvertently discovered a cure for aging. But fretting over banal specifics like "what happened" in the story is not the point of the film.

The message I got from this was that the meaning of our lives is not derived from avoiding death. Life and death are intrinsically woven together and lend each other significance and meaning. The tragedy Hugh Jackman's character narrowly avoids is cheapening his wife's life by refusing to accept the beauty of her death. Death is not, as he falsely reasons, a disease.

Tom (the Hugh Jackman character) has to reach the same conclusion as our dear friend Harry Potter did when he became master of death. As Dumbledore explains, "The real master of Death accepts that he must die, and that there are much worse things in the world of the living."

The score for this movie is simply remarkable. The Kronos quartet delivers a stunning performance. I encourage you to download "Death is the Road to Awe" on iTunes and see for yourself. I'm always amazed at how moving Clint Mansell's melodies can be when they contain so very few notes. But oh, how it works.

And that's another huge compliment this movie deserves. Aronofsky had his budget cut by forty million dollars while he was making this. It dropped his budget down to $35 million. That must have been a HUGE blow. But the movie feels neither incomplete nor lacking visually. It's a down-right triumph.

The movie leaves me in the same contemplative and strangely comforting mind-set as Schubert's "Der Tod und das M├Ądchen." I think both are lessons on the merit of going gently into that good night.

(For a really well done comparison of The Fountain to 2001: A Space Odyssey, see this article.)

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