Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Fountain

Huh really? I’ve never covered a Darren Aronofsky movie? Shit that can’t be right.

And that’s what I love about having a blog things sometimes get surreal. Over five hundred articles in and I still haven’t found time to discuss one of the most fascinating cinematic voices of the generation?


Wow. Let’s change that shit forthwith.

Unfortunately, Black Swan despite getting a wider then usual initial release, is playing nowhere near me, so in order to combat this unjust dearth of Aronofsky I’ve decided to cover The Fountain.

Ever since it’s wounded puppy dog of a release, The Fountain has been a favorite of mine. I followed the development of the movie with bated breath through the initial heartbreaking collapse and miraculous resurrection. I read the graphic novel based on the original screenplay and every piece of news I could get on the film. And when I finally saw the movie it was just as strange, beautiful, sincere, and spiritual as I had hoped. There are not many movies that earn the word singular. The Fountain is one of them. The fact that it’s critical reception was mixed and the box office muted (to be polite) just made it feel me feel vindicated. Along with No Country For Old Men and Ghost World, The Fountain missed my Best Of The Decade List by a fraction.

That being said, the movie had fallen out of heavy rotation on my play list so it had probably been over a year since I saw it. And much like the time when I rewatched Blade Runner and realized “Holy Shit this was made in the eighties.” There were times in The Fountain where I could kind of see where the doubters were coming from.

Times I couldn’t help but note, particularly in the film’s problematic Spain section, that the earnestness bordered dangerously on silliness. That at times the endless procession of close ups of the principles’ faces bathed in luminous ethereal light, made it seem as though Afronsky was making nothing short of the world’s most ambitious L’Oreal commercial.

And yet how you react to a movie as open hearted, deeply felt, and astonishingly ambitious as The Fountain says less about the
movie and more about you. There may come a time when I watch The Fountain and feel nothing but a smug superiority. But if I do become such a rotten bastard that will be my fault, not the film’s.

Luckily that day is not today. The Fountain cast its spell on me as it always does even if it took just a little longer this time then it usual. When the universe shrinks to a pinpoint of darkness and then explodes in creation’s fury, my breath stopped as it always does... But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The Fountain tells the three planed story of death and the quest for immortality. Following a couple played by Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz across a thousand years and the reaches of the universe. To say that The Fountain tells an ambitious story in its 90 odd minutes is like saying Sgt. Pepper is a bit better then the average pop album. It’s Jodorowskian in its ambition and symbology. The Fountain is one of those movies that whose goals are barely recognizable when compared to other films. It doesn’t seek entertainment it seeks transcendence. And for long stretches of its runtime, particularly in the meditive, looping, space sequences it achieves just that.

It can’t be overstated how strange and appealing this section of The Fountain is. Much of the film looks simply like nothing that has ever been seen before. Aronofsky brilliantly shot chemical reactions to create an outer space that looks truly alien and bafflingly organic to the CGI trained eye. It is as if Terrence Malick made a Sci Fi film.

If the film is less immediately impressive elsewhere it’s only because it’s more parseable. It still has more visual imagination in a shot then most film’s have in their entirety. The way it matches shots of light filtering through the snow, to the reactions of cells, to the movement of the stars to the drifting of candles suspended in the darkness. And sequences, like Hugh Jackman’s soundtrackless walk after learning of his wife’s death sentence, the world drowned out by inner turmoil, are a gut wrenching mixture of style and substance colliding. The structure’s not a meaningless trick either. Afronosky uses the intercutting to harmonically reinforce itself, almost more like music then cinema. Watching Jackman watch his wife die is bad. Watching him do it simultaneously in three different eras is horrific.

Jackman and Rachell Weisz both do strong work. Jackman able to convincingly act as a grieving human anchor across a thousand years. Weisz though forced to play more of a symbol then a character, invests said symbol with warmth and gentleness, and Darren Afronsky shoots her to look like approximately the most beautiful woman who has ever lived.

The Spanish section is the one that does seem a bit hard to take now. It’s not bad, but it’s all played very arch (Which while making thematic sense given that it’s eventually revealed to be the romance novel that Weisz is writing. Doesn’t make the experience of watching it anymore enjoyable.) The segment eventually gets back on track, and in the climax (and prolouge) ends up providing some of the most arresting imagery of the entire film.

So is The Fountain a flawed movie? Perhaps but only in the way the best movies are. A powerful valentine to the potential of cinema and the depths of the human soul. Like Jackman at the end projected against time and space, life and death, and even fiction and reality, The Fountain remains my road to cinematic awe.


Neil Fulwood said...

The budgetary compromises hurt the film badly in its Conquistador sequence, but the otherworld space/heaven scenes more than make up for it.

This and 'The Prestige' represent the best work Jackman's ever done, and Weisz is lovely and magnetic and the beating human heart that ties the whole thing together.

Aronofsky's intentions with this movie remind me of that line about "a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?"

The Movie Snob said...

I am with you on this. I just recently wrote a piece about Requiem, but had considered doing The Fountain because people overlook this. They just become confused, so they dismiss it.

It's too bad Aronofsky didn't have final cut with this.

Anonymous said...

Yea when I first watched this movie in theaters I fell asleep, woke up, and it was at the exact same part! Well it just looked that way cuz the movie does some weird stuff with time lol but maybe I'll give it another look and see if it isn't actually good when you stay awake through it.

Alrischa said...

I'd love to watch this movie, but it's not easy to find. Pity to have to make such an effort to watch some quality when other rubbish is repeated every month on TV ;) Thanks for the interesting review.

J.D. said...

Excellent write-up on this underappreciated film. Have you listened to Aronofsky's commentary for it? He was pissed that the studio wouldn't allow him to license it to Criterion to do a special edition and so he recorded his own commentary track! Very interesting stuff...

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: Indeed this is a movie that tries for EVERYTHING. I already namechecked Malick and Jodorowsky, but I think it's a very Herzogian film as well. I do wonder if he saw the film. There are certainly new images in it.

@ Movie Snob: Huh I had no idea that Aronofsky didn't have FC. Still the movie is so much his DNA I don't know if they ever be seperated from him.

@Alrischa: I'd say it definitely worth it.

@ JD: I REMEMBER that. But I couldn't find it. Probably still floating around somewhere. Thanks for reminding me.

Ed Howard said...

This is an amazing film, and still Aronofsky's best, even though Black Swan is similarly bold and loopy and over-the-top, just in different ways. Aronofsky does his best work when he embraces the extremes of his sensibility, when he reveals himself as unafraid to come across as, yes, overly earnest, maybe even silly, unrepentedly sentimental and melodramatic, all the things that are so unfashionable in "cool" cinema. He's a very emotional director, or rather a director who chooses to focus his camera on over-the-top emotions, and doesn't just show us but encourages us to feel it along with the characters. Sometimes, as here, it works not in spite of its excesses but because of them.

Bryce Wilson said...

I agree, but I think The Fountain is really the one that started this for Aronofsky. Pi and Requiem are both very cerebral films (Requiem runs on raw pain but it's not the same feeling as The Fountain and The Wrestler). And I think such a naked film threw people for a loop.

But based on how his career has gone since then, I think if nothing else The Fountain will stand as a real breakthrough film for Aronofsky.