Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Darren Aronofsky, part IV: Death is the road to awe


This is what actual art looks like, and hardly anybody even recognized it at the time.  Honestly, it figures.

Directed by Darren Aronofsky
Written by Dr. Ari Handel and Darren Aronofsky
With Hugh Jackman (Dr. Tommy Creo/Tomas/Tom), Rachel Weisz (Izzi Creo/Queen Isabella I of Castille and Leon), Mark Margolis (Fray Avila), and Ellen Burstyn (Dr. Lillian Guzetti)

Spoiler alert: moderate

You can trace Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain back at least to 1999, when the 30 year-old filmmaker, right off the success of his first feature Pi, learned that both his parents had been stricken with cancer.  They lived, in the end; but then, nobody lives in the end, and it set Aronofsky to thinking deep and hard about what it means to die.  Alongside his old Harvard chum Ari Handel (a doctor of neuroscience, apparently suffering some concerns about the academy, as anyone might), he wrote the first version of The Fountain, won funding for it from Warners to the tune of $70 million off the back of Requiem For a Dream, and even snagged Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett for the lead roles.  It was to be the broadest sort of mystical sci-fi epic—a journey of a millennium's scope, from the Mayan jungles of the colonial era to the furthest reaches of galactic space centuries in the future.  (It represents a curiosity without any special meaning, I suppose, that the two actors would later offer their voices to another director's voyage of time, for Terrence Malick.)

Pre-production began in earnest in 2001, and, ultimately, at least $18 million out of that $70 million budget was spent.  Sets ten stories tall were built, they say.  And then Blanchett got pregnant.  Pitt clashed with Aronofsky over story changes.  When the director proved recalcitrant, Pitt walked away, because he was Brad Pitt and Aronofsky was just some guy who'd made a couple of movies that, when you get down to it, had produced more cultural capital than they did box office profit.  The production went into stasis.  The sets were auctioned off.  Maybe they showed up in Apocalypto.  Who knows?  And so, as all things do, The Fountain died.  But it was not abandoned.

And once again—the irony, I assume, was intentional.

Aronofsky trimmed the project down to its essentials.  A new budget was prepared, a pittance for a movie that sought to combine period-piece granduer and space-operatic spectacle—precisely half of what it had been, $35 million.  Though Warner Bros. and their partners were still suspicious, they acceded to Aronofsky's request.  (These days, of course, it'd barely be a rounding error on a quarterly report.)  And thus, in 2006, The Fountain lived again—in purified form.

I have no idea what the longer, brawnier version of The Fountain could have been—compromised, I have no doubt, more expensive and perhaps more expansive, but almost certainly not better.  They don't get much better than The Fountain we already have, after all—although, as you know, this was hardly the feeling at the time.  Dividing critics and audiences alike (and not even into equal parts, frankly), The Fountain's fate was to flop.  But still it was not abandoned.  Eleven years on, it's grown somewhat in reputation; it has, at least, never been forgotten.  But then, what kind of head injury would it take to forget it?  I don't know if it will ever achieve the status of a consensus classic.  All I do know is that I loved it then—almost as much as I still love it now.

The Fountain, at 96 minutes and with a universe to get through, wastes no effort to ease you into its three scenarios—though the Bible verse that opens it at least gives you a clue as to the obsession that animates the film.  It's the verse about the fabled Tree of Life in Eden, denied Adam and Eve for their sins, forbidden to humanity in fear that they might live forever, and guarded by the archangel Uriel, wielding a great flaming sword.  It is this same Tree of Life that the conquistador Tomas seeks in the New World at the order of Queen Isabella of Spain.  He alone has survived to brave the Mayan warriors who defend the secret of everlasting life.  Much as this same man—or, let's say instead, perhaps the same man, for he looks like the same man—will remain alone, a thousand years hence, floating in a transparent bubble across the stars and toward a golden nebula, carrying with him a few hundred tons of soil, and a tree of special significance.  It has sustained him upon a voyage that, as far as we know, has lasted hundreds of years already.  But it is nearing its conclusion.

And, finally, in the present day, we again find the same man—in the guise of Dr. Tommy Creo, an oncologist—nearing a breakthrough of his own.  Soon enough we learn the conquistador's relationship to the doctor who shares his face: he's not real at all, but the protagonist of a novel about the search for immortality, titled The Fountain, and written by Tommy's wife, Izzi, as a way to cope with her own impending death by brain cancer.  Tommy copes otherwise, of course, and spends all his days, and too many of his nights, hacking apart monkeys' heads, and going through the entire organic chemistry book to try to find something, anything, that can save his beloved wife.  He does find something—a chemical derived from an old-growth tree found in Guatemala—and it threatens to upend the whole world.  It reverses aging.  It can, perhaps, end death.

As for the relationship Tommy bears to the man drifting across space centuries later, that, I'm afraid, is not even entirely clear once you watch the film, though a literalist reading of the thing suggests it is Tommy, after all, perhaps a little mad after all these years, having succeeded in conquering his own death—and having failed to conquer hers.

There are other readings, too, and you can find them if you like (the short version, anyway, is that Tommy's present, alone, is "real"), but The Fountain is not any kind of logical construct, but an emotional one.  Or a spiritual one.

That's how it's not the sin it honestly probably should be that Izzi's novel is hilariously awful, at least taken on its own terms.  Certainly, it is some of the most roaringly-ahistorical historical fiction you'll ever see—literally every detail of it, really, from the conspiracy that drives its plot, banking on the idea of the Spanish Inquisition as inimical to the Spanish throne, down to its depiction of the woman who united Spain, by marriage, as single, young, and horny for the conquistador her author has based upon her husband.  Which means, yes, we're watching a movie that's between 25 and 35% self-insert fan fiction about European royalty.  But even besides that, it's archly-written to an almost parodic extreme, appears to have two or three whole plot points, is kind of racist, and even the visualization of Izzi's novel within the film itself is, to some extent, a little cramped as a result of Aronofsky's straitened budget.  Though on this count the claustrophobic staginess of it can, in fact, be said to bolster its bona fides as a fable that enlightens the rest of the movie, rather than any drama in its own right.

And of course it's gorgeous anyhow.

And enlighten the rest of the movie it does, too, for no part of The Fountain intends to function without the others, and since "being unable to function without his better part" is its abiding portrait of its hero, perhaps even this aspect of the film is poetic and intentional.

Indeed, whatever we're supposed to make of the past and the future (besides the basic fact that this movie has the most uniquely, bizarrely rad starship of all time), the true beating heart of The Fountain absolutely exists in the present, this being the third act of an annihilating medical melodrama whose first two acts we simply didn't get to see.  As Requiem did before it, The Fountain revolves around two-dimensional characters rather than completely-rendered human beings as such, all the better to stand-in for ideas and feelings; and, again like Requiem but even moreso, it benefits beyond all reason from the performances that give those characters life.  The same technique is evident—bigger, bigger, ever bigger—and once again Aronofsky privileges the rawness and turbulence and red-eyed, spittle-flecked wetness of his actors, especially the fluid-spewing that Hugh Jackman brings to Tommy's grief and rage, while Rachel Weisz's Izzi is, as the screenplay says, reduced almost to an angel of passivity.

Now consider Brad Pitt, who would've had trouble enough just getting to "credible doctor."

The difference here (and there is a pretty big difference), is that this screenplay and these actors give Tommy and Izzi the littlest bits of definition—all crammed into corners, but noticeable all the same—and they are far easier to take seriously than the naked linear archetypes we knew back in Requiem, or even in Pi.  There's a brutal, human-sized selfishness that brings both to earth: his promethean struggle against the completely inevitable, by which he almost intentionally abandons his wife to face the void alone; and her infuriating refusal to acknowledge that her passing might, in fact, make her husband sad.

It turns out to be an infinitely agonizing study of grief and acceptance, each side entirely right and each entirely wrong, though the film, seeking to grapple with the enormity of death, must take a side eventually, and, seeing things as they are rather than as we'd prefer them to be, it takes Izzi's.  Indeed, it's the one thing that ever really stuck in my craw: in its mystical majesty, The Fountain errs hard upon the side of surrender in the great war, and implies that even if defeating death were possible, it would be an affront to both Creation and Creator.

But what a beautiful surrender!  (I cry through pretty much the whole film, at its sadness, and, above all, at its ecstasy in the prospect of transmutation and resurrection.)  The Fountain is, to my eyes, the most extravagantly lovely work in Aronofsky's canon, without even any serious contest; it's no surprise that it shares its makers with Requiem, Aronofsky's runner-up.  Cinematographer Matthew Libatique's camera is more still and serene, without losing its dynamism—The Fountain's more bombastic camera movements come now like bolts of lightning—though, as if to compensate, he and Aronofsky have made a work of totalistic, all-embracing color, specifically one color, or three, if you count black and white.  Every light source in The Fountain radiates gold, and on the rare occasions a white light shines, it is almost too luminous to bear, scrubbing the detail out of everything.  Aronofsky's explained the symbolic scheme, though he surely didn't need to, as representative of the never-ending conflict between the material realm and that of the divine—and, amateur student of Jewish mysticism that he is, it's hardly any shock at all that it tracks easily to a kabbalistic scheme.  The Fountain is unprecedently gold, I said, suffusing everything, and gold, you know, is the color associated with Teferit, the highest human sefira on the Tree of Life.  In some magical schemes, it's been made the realm of the dying-and-rising gods.  Certainly that is what our Tom is—even a Mayan priest shall mistake his fictional avatar as the First Father, the god whose flesh became the world.  But it's not exactly a mistake: he is the First Father of immortality, and now he's readying himself to live forever, in another way.

It is, in any event, an aesthetic that renders the whole film strange and full of uncanny wonder; like the performances, it's an element that permits The Fountain to exist as myth, rather than just a record of fictional events.  And fair is fair: if it were significantly longer than it is, it could, perhaps, have grown wearisome.  But The Fountain is brief, and extraordinarily concentrated, like almost all of Aronofsky's films.  And it is by far the most elegantly constructed; it barely seems like time has passed at all before it's over.  Credit, in part, must go to Aronofsky's best collaborator in the editing room, Jay Rabinowitz, who makes the disparate parts of their film whole with massively-interlinked match-cutting; a constant companion throughout The Fountain is the echoing of imagery through time, both in the editing and outside of it, from the obvious fact of the actor's faces serving multiple characters, to the very face of the universe itself, reflected in black rooms strewn with candles, and even in the plasma of a fluorescent light.  Once again, the rhythm of the tale rises and falls with composer Clint Mansell's holy score, until that very final moment of apotheosis, of letting go—in the heart of a dying star, in the dirt at the foot of a tree, in the snow at a wife's grave—and all of it centered upon the cosmic panorama built at Aronofsky's insistence by specialist Peter Parks with a water tank and some of the most evocative macrophotography anyone's ever conceived.  Aronofsky eschewed as much CG as possible; he wanted a spectacle that would hold up to the ravages of time.  He got that, and more.

2006 was one of those miracle years, just about as jam-packed with masterpieces as any year in movie history.  Still The Fountain towers above them all.  I am, by temperament, a populist; and though The Fountain is as ambitiously pretentious as any movie ever made, it is not austere or cold, but made for people, normal people, even if the person it was made for most especially, I guess, must've been Darren Aronofsky himself.  Still, like I said, I am a populist, and to me the movies are, by and large, just entertainment, even the pretentious ones.  I do not take great pains to differentiate between an "entertainment" and whatever the hell it means when something's called "art."  Everything is "art."  But if I were to use a different definition, an older definition, of art—a thing that transforms the terror of life into awe instead, or that obliterates the will entirely and replaces it, through tears, with peace, or even a thing that glorifies God—then I would still call The Fountain art, and it is one of the greatest works of art this lowly medium of cinema has ever achieved.

Score:  10/10

No comments:

Post a Comment