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.


Katerina said...

You know what I love about this? It makes me want to watch it again and give it another try. When we sat down to watch The Fountain, I sat down to watch a Hollywood film and didn't particularly watch for anything deeper. A lot of the things that you talk about in this review, I did not see. Why? I do not know, perhaps I was not receptive or perhaps these things were too far hidden to easily discern. Does any of that matter? Not particularly... but I want to watch it again... I think I missed too much. Knowing the perspective that you come from, I want to watch it again and delve into it deeper. That's quite the accomplishment on your part ;)

Kahl said...

That's awesome to hear, that my perspective has that influence. I can understand how that could happen - expecting something else and being dissatisfied. There are several films that I've, unfortunately done that. The Fifth Element is one. I HATED it the first time I saw it. The previews had given the impression it was a serious sci-fi film on the level of Alien or something and when I saw it I was screaming "What is THIS schlock?!" But I sat and watched it again and it remains today one of my favorite fun films. My review of The Brave One talks about this tendency of Hollywood to "Sell" a movie instead of actually giving you an idea of what its about. They don't like to hint at anything that they think would be 'unpopular' and in general what they deem "thinking films" would be they gloss over them with the usual BS.

I hope you like it the second time around. I really am a fan of Darren Aronofsky. He's on my list of role models for writing and filmmaking. Somewhere near David Fincher.

Milena said...

I like Aronofsky and your review is great (as always ;)). I can see all those things that you spoke about, but something is missing... I can not quite point it out. I think the problem is that The Fountain is too visual while I would rather want something else... Aronofsky's idea is simply great. But there is a lot at one end and too little at another. It's more theatrical than real. Yet, the subject is not an easy one and surely hard to represent. One must appreciate the effort.

Kahl said...

Milena: Yes, this is definitely one of those films that one cannot just watch languidly on a Sunday afternoon. It's the difference between reading Metamorphosis and reading The Woggle-Bug Book. Neither is better than the other because they are aimed at completely different audiences, but one requires less cognitive processing for sure.

I always give credit to an artist who takes strides in representing complex ideas. It is proof that they actually thought about it...not like this guy in Honduras who leashes a starving, dying dog in the corner and calls it art - even once the dog is dead. There is no thought there, no effort.

Aronofsky is working on a new project, the story of Noah and his ark...only this won't be your average Charlton Heston-esque bible story to be played over and over at Easter. He makes mention of Noah's behavior after the flood and the psychological impact of being on of the only survivors of a global catastrophe. He's taking a less "glorious" and a more "human and real" approach to the story.

I can't fucking wait!!

Sara said...

This film turned me off at first, but I kept watching and it proceeded to pull me in and at the very end I got it! and it redeemed itself :).

I don't know what it was about the first part of the film that I could not get into, but I was glad I hadn't turned it off, which is what happens sometimes when I have rented a film and can't get into it.