Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Waiting Beneath the Surface

The previews flashed rapid, action-packed images of a vigilante killer; a woman fed-up and fighting back. They portrayed a story that glamorized violence because it was justified, for a cause. Set to exciting music with awesome graphics and Jodi Foster's sexy, svelte 40-something body, the trailers sold us a story that boasted all the worst ideas that a young woman could take from words like "Empowerment" and "Reclaiming Oneself" and "Bravery." To me, the previews were the ultimate in "trailer trash," because they didn't sell you the story- they sold ideas that the money men thought would hook an audience in and sell seats. They sold bullshit.

My fiance's cousin wanted to go see this movie called "The Brave one." I'd seen all the previews and was loathe of the very idea of seeing it- for what the previews claimed it was. So me, being the Reigning Goddess of Research ...decided to hunt down the script and read THAT first. So yes, I admit, I screened a movie for a 20 yr old woman as if screening Transformers for an 8 yr old, but with good cause. Not that I am some sage old woman, but at twenty I was still very much formulating my ideas of what it was to BE a woman. Hell, I still have soft-spots that need solidity; and not that I imagine she looks up to me as some kind of role-model, but I did not want to advocate an idea that I do not believe in by showing support and paying for her ticket. Call it an ineffectual liberal-esque protest, but that was simply my point of view.

The script I read moved me. What I found in the story was a woman- not hell-bent on murdering men or even scum-bag men- but rather a woman who struggles with how to survive when she already feels dead. Overly poetic? Perhaps, but wholly true. Ever step this woman makes is part of a progression, one that- in the director's perspective- has an ultimate end, an unavoidable end. Reborn of fear, this woman- losing her fiance to a senseless act of violence and herself being beaten nearly to death- takes a step, which many are led to believe is a logical act toward protection: she buys a gun. Having that weapon gives her a sense of security and yet, when first she uses it- in desperation- and she does take the life of another human being, she does not feel proud or vindicated or even justified. She is horrified by what she has done, yet the fear persists. This event only solidifies in her mind the NEED for that protection. If she hadn't had it, she would be dead. This is how the progression begins, and with each act her detachment from these men as Human Beings becomes less and less, making her decision to act easier and easier. Yet the woman's rational mind knows that what she does is wrong, it is her fear that compels her. She feels that she must do this, she must complete this progression of violence that was begun or she cannot rest. She must see it through to the inevitable end.

I have read so many reviews of this film that my head is filled with the trite, quippy dismissals that are regurgitated in one after the other. I do not know what critic or journalist was the first to make a comparison to 1974's Death Wish with Charles Bronson but every wanna-be hack writer since can take their tongue out of his/her ass and learn to think for themselves. The similarities are strained at best and if someone wants to make a comparison to another film, let's try something more relevant...and recent. Why not this year's Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon which comes complete with the "sympathetic Homicide Detective" and a gentle, mild-mannered vigilante protagonist pushed to the strained limits of their abilities to cope. Let us be honest people...we are hard-pressed to ever see any role played by Charles Bronson as anything other than a bad ass with a gun. I think it highly unlikely that we'll be seeing The Brave One V: The Face of Death coming out anytime soon. See, I can use IMDb too - only I've actually seen Death Wish and I'm not just relying on the one paragraph, poorly written synopsis. The Brave one has something that Death Wish lacks severely: credibility.

Every reviewer who walked into this film and came out to write that it was some "Girl-power" feminist version of Death Wish either didn't watch the movie and instead was the asshole sitting two rows in front of me with his lap top open and his cell phone on, or walked in already bound and determined to hate the film. And why not, it has Jodie Foster, one of the greatest threats to the good ol' boys: An intelligent, deliberate, and powerful woman. I dare you to find anything that qualifies as a "fluff film" on her resume after she turned sixteen. What appalled me when seeing the previews was the idea that the woman who so powerfully portrayed Sarah Tobias in The Accused would participate in a film that looked on the surface to be so painfully shallow and misguided. I should have trusted her judgment and never questioned the script. A Valedictorian of her French-speaking prep-school and magna cum laude of Yale, this woman wouldn't make such a senseless and irresponsible film as the one being advertised. Therein was the key. She didn't. And it is those who draw comparisons to films that senselessly glorify violence and Death Wish...that perpetuate the false peddlings of the trailers for this film.

Jodie Foster does not carry this film alone, however, and I must speak out for Terrence Howard. His character is powerful in that he represents the conscience of the film and of Foster's character Erica Bain. As Erica and Det. Mercer develop a friendship it is his rational voice that acts as the only thing grounding her in the reality of the now and not allowing her to recede so far into the dark of her grief and fear that she is lost completely. Lesser actors may have portrayed Mercer as a straight up Clark Kent-type, so clean and innocent of mind that he has to be from another planet. Howard finds an excellent balance of idealism, soul-weariness and a legal means to be The Punisher. There is no doubt, when watching the Detective that he is driven toward ensuring that bad people pay their toll and it is when the question is posed to him of which is better, which is right and more effective- the legal system...or any means necessary, it is then that we truly see Terrence Howard shine as he is divided within himself.

The idea of justice is one that has for centuries weighed heavily on civilized cultures. The question is not only what is the most effective- eye for an eye, life for a life- but also what is RIGHT. And what is right? Do you know? I don't know that I do. I'm certain that our society as a whole has no real clue. One of the biggest fallacies in the promotion of this film is the description of Foster's character as a Vigilante. A vigilante is "one who takes the law into one's own hands." That is not where this journey begins for Erica Bain. She doesn't leave the hospital after being brutally beaten and decide she is going to kill evil men. What Erica's journey is lies more in the realms of self discovery. Do not scoff, I'm quite serious. In buying that gun, she did not make a conscious decision that she was going to kill people.

The gun has become a symbol in our country (ours especially) of security. Policemen have guns and they protect. Security guards have guns, their very name suggesting their purpose. Our military carry guns and they have been elevated to a status of sainthood in America. We have our right to bear arms - to protect ourselves. Its as if the idea that bad men carry guns died out with the advent of film, when cowboys with guns became the new heroes, and anti-heroes like Dirty Harry redefined our society's concept of cool. The more guns you have the more bad ass and indestructible you are. Look at our pop-culture icons. Neo in the Matrix...he had a fuck of a lot of guns.

So this is where her journey starts with this need for protection, to not feel afraid, to not feel vulnerable and isn't with the notion that she intends to kill anyone. The first time she uses it she is defending herself and had she stayed at the scene, the worst she would have suffered was likely a charge for carrying an unregistered weapon without a license. But Erica was still overcome by her fear...and now there is new turmoil because she broke the biggest taboo of human nature: she killed another human being. Each step along the path that she takes, Erica sheds more and more of her fear, but what she finds through Det. Mercer's friendship and counsel is that she is also shedding pieces of Erica Bain. He asks her at one point, when someone has suffered what she has, how do they cope and then carry on. Her reply is poignant to Erica's struggle.

"You don't. You become someone else."

Anyone who has experienced any sort of violent crime can identify with the passage that Erica must make. To cope she had to become someone else, and bit by bit the real her was slipping away. A piece dying with each act of violence that she then exacted in turn. Her rational mind, that part of her which was still Erica Bain and was a friend to Det. Mercer, struggled with the questions of justice. Although these victims were violent men, men who left victim after victim in their wake, was it justified to kill them when the legal system seemed incapable of holding them accountable for their crimes? This is truly a question that defines societies as civilized or barbaric. Erica Bain and Detective Mercer held this same question in their hands each representative of one aspect; the civilized and the barbaric. Unsurprisingly the balance between two stark halves grows more and more blurred and the end of this film leaves that question in your hands. What is justice? Is it possible to weigh barbaric acts with a civilized system or must the civilized, at times, act barbarically in order to define justice?

Unfortunately many of us wait to ask ourselves these questions until we are faced with the choice and must act. It is easier to give the weight of the world to another to carry, and lay such decisions on others because to make a decision forces you to be accountable; not just for you and your own actions, but for the ultimate effect they hold over another. Day to day we face struggles which play upon our fears at some level. Our society, with its politics and the media, reflect how much of a grip we have allowed fear to have on us and if you look closely more are dying as a result.

I was given a different definition of 'Vulnerability' at a recent seminar. The speaker explained that Vulnero, in Latin means "to wound", and an 'ability' is the strength or skill to do something; you are able to do it. Vulnerability then is not that you are susceptible to being wounded, that implies weakness. By true definition it is "the ability to be wounded," or more meaningfully, it is that you have the ability to be wounded AND SURVIVE. Vulnerability is proof of ones strength. "The Brave One" does not reference Erica Bain's "ability" to stare down her attackers and to kill references Erica Bain's ability to recognize her fear and to not lose herself to it completely. It shows that she is vulnerable, but not defeated. Bravery is not the act of not being afraid, it is the perseverance of being afraid but going forward anyway.

"I always believed that fear belonged to other people. Weaker people. It never touched me. And then it did. And when it touches you, you know... that it's been there all along. Waiting beneath the surfaces of everything you loved." ~Erica Bain
The poster doesn't show a Charlie Bronson-type bad ass with a gun, or a cold-blooded killer,
but rather a woman with her head in her hands. Not much of a vigilante to be seen.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

The Road to Awe


Three stories converge, overlapping in time and space. Two lives, intersected, converge into one most unexpected. A man's fears and desires converge in one moment. Life and death become one. Love means letting go. Eternity is finality in repetition.

This is a description which would never make the back of a DVD box. Its a summation that, while thematically accurate, is merely the surface of the layered cake. That cake is bittersweet, with a story both tragic and inspiring, an ending both painful and beautiful, a meaning both literal and metaphorical. That cake is The Fountain by Darren Aronofsky. The name Aronofsky may not be familiar to you, unless you are a seeker of deeper fictions. He is most well known for his 1998 film π (Pi) or his more recent Requiem For a Dream (2000). It would be six years before he released his next film and to little acclaim. The Fountain, sadly, was not widely accepted and labeled "a pretentious, unfocused, and fussy mess" and "an artsy-fartsy disaster." One reviewer went so far as to compare it to Zardoz, a 1974 b-rated sci-fi catastrophe with Sean Connery, which does more for resurrecting the themes of The Time Machine than comes anywhere near touching The Fountain and leading me to wonder if the critic and I watched the same movie. All of Aronofsky's films are heavily laden with meaning. He's not a fluff-filmmaker. If you want fluff pick up a Nora Ephron film. Not to say her films aren't good, but you can watch them half asleep and still keep up. Aronofsky is aiming for something requiring full-consciousness and perhaps even a step beyond that.

π (Pi) analyzed man's pursuit of God, those who seek to understand the universe out of a desire for understanding and those who are filled with hubris and charge forward wanting only to control. Requiem For a Dream, however, explored the abysmal black of the human soul and the nature of addiction. The Fountain steps outward, out into realms that exist outside the human condition, outside the very shell of humanity to something far more universal: The nature of life and death.

Each of these three films has a common theme: Obsession. π (Pi) is a man's obsession over knowledge, over the key to unlocking the mysterious of the universe written indelibly in the codex of mathematics-that which some call God. Requiem For a Dream is not just about the obsessions of addiction, but the obsessive nature of mankind's desires- the lengths it will take us in depravity in an attempt to obtain an unattainable, intangible 'something better.' Without question, The Fountain is man's obsessive quest for eternal life. What makes the ultimate story of the Fountain stand apart is the conclusion that Aronofsky finally offers up; one so simplistic and innocent in its formation that we should be stunned to have not grasped it before that moment. To those critics who proclaimed this film 'melodramatic', 'pretentious', 'snidely pseudo-spiritual', and 'too flawed to be more than film-cuttings for music videos' I can only shake my head and sigh, though I think that Artist and Filmmaker Julian Schnabel sums my feelings well when replying to Sydney Pollack in Sketches of Frank Gehry (2005):
"I wouldn't. I wouldn't criticize him. That would be like flies flying around a lion. Its like watching a movie like 'Apocolypse Now' and saying that Robert Duvall is over the top." - Julian Schnabel, on Frank Gehry (architect)
The story of The Fountain is a fairly simple one. A man's wife is dying and he is desperate to save her. The story is then divided into three, one in which Dr. Tom Creo is a doctor researching with monkeys to find a cure for Izzy's brain cancer. The second is Tommy, a man traveling through space in a sphere containing only a dying tree, which he is taking to a dying star. Finally there is Tomas, a conquistador entreated by the Queen of Spain to find the Tree of Life spoken of in Genesis to put an end to the blood shed and all too swift fall of Spain. In truth the conquistador is the hero of Izzi Creo's novel "The Fountain," and Tommy a wonderful parallel to the Mayan story of The First Father, their life-giver. As Dr. Creo struggles to come to terms with his wife's death and she comes to accept her own fate, she helps him to reconcile their connection through her novel and telling him to write the ending. This simple act not only forces him to come to terms with her inevitable death, but helps him to understand the eternal cycle (convergence and repetition) of life and death as she herself has come to understand it. Through it all the star Shebulba awaits her, where a dying star will absorb her dead soul and in turn give forth life.

"For every shadow, no matter how deep is threatened by morning light." ~Izzi Creo

Rachel Weisz, Darren Aronofsky's wife incidentally, gives a wonderful performance as Izzi Creo/Queen Isabel. There is a child-like wonder about her as Izzi begins to understand her existence in a new way. As Isabel she is more sure of herself, her goals. Yet she does not portray this dying woman without fear, without soul-weariness. And beside her, the hero of the story, the Conquistador on so many levels, is Hugh Jackman. He carries himself with the desperation, fear, and soul-consuming love of a husband forced to face the loss of his wife and in doing so, his own mortality. Although each of the three men in these stories faces a slightly different challenge, while ultimately seeking the same end, they are different men. The doctor fights against time to find a cure, allowing his anger and fear to rule him. The conquistador fights against those who would hide the secret to everlasting life from him, as his aim is to succeed for his Queen and win her love. The traveler fights against himself, his own hope and need crippling him as he struggles to conclude his journey to its rightful end.

Each story, written so movingly, weaves about one another with ease until finally coming to a unified point. Throughout the film there are circles...symbols of eternity as they have no beginning or end, this very idea solidified in the end as each man accomplishes the mission they started, its ending finding success in a fashion true to their goal, but unexpected and contrary to what they believed they wanted, contrary to what they more superficially desired.
Izzi: Remember Moses Morales?
: Who?
: The Mayan guide I told you about.
Tom : From your trip.
Izzi: Yeah. The last night I was with him, he told me about his father, who had died. Well Moses wouldn't believe it.
Tom : Izzi...
Izzi: [embraces Tom] No, no. Listen, listen. He said that if they dug his father's body up, it would be gone. They planted a seed over his grave. The seed became a tree. Moses said his father became a part of that tree. He grew into the wood, into the bloom. And when a sparrow ate the tree's fruit, his father flew with the birds. He said... death was his father's road to awe. That's what he called it. The road to awe. Now, I've been trying to write the last chapter and I ha
ven't been able to get that out of my head!
: Why are you telling me this?
Izzi: I'm not afraid anymore, Tommy.
The circle of life. Nature's Way. The road to awe. Whatever we chose to call it, Eternal life exists but not as man would have it, not as we would suppose it to be. And the reconciliations which must be made when our time of convergence comes is a question of letting go of those perceptions, those misunderstandings, ideas and preconceptions, letting go of that which we would control or possess to understand that we are all part of a whole; a continually flowing fountain which falls only to nourish that which will rise in our place. Darren Aronofsky understands this and through a philosophically stirring film with spiritually stimulating imagery of light he carries his symbolism effortlessly through from start to finish with a fluidity worthy of the film's name.