The Fountain

Those of you who have not seen the movie might want to look away. I suspect there will be spoilers.

The Fountain is this movie by Darren Aronofsky about a doctor, Tom, researching an experimental drug from the Guatemalan jungle in order to find a cure for his wife Izzi’s brain cancer. There are two other parallel timelines: an alt-historical treasure hunt framed as a story-within-story written by the dying Izzi to her husband, and a far-future psychedelic space voyage of spiritual discovery in the tradition of 2001 (not to mention a certain Tool video), which I think we are supposed to interpret as a manifestation of Tom’s internal conflict as journey of self-discovery.

Aronofsky has only made two other movies in his career. I have not seen Requiem for a Dream. I’ve kind of been avoiding it because of what I understand the content to be, ie too fucked up for my palate. I’ve seen Pi, and it has a similarly ethereal quality and nonlinear structure. Also a similar running thread of unpleasant head trauma raised to mystical significance, which may or may not turn out to be relevant.

The ‘fountain’ of the title is the Fountain of Youth, that thing Ponce de Leon was supposed to have been looking for in the jungles of Florida in 1521, the mythical spring of eternal life. But the theme of The Fountain actually ends up being death–fear of death, denial and acceptance, death as spiritual journey. Like Pi, this is an idea story. It fits into a tradition of nonlinear SF film with 2001, Solaris, AI etc. People tend to be annoyed by these movies. I tend to get really psyched about them. And I started to get really psyched about The Fountain, for the first twenty minutes or so, when it became clear that the alt-historical story-within-story was about a Spanish conquistador who, at the behest of his queen, had gone looking for eternal life, not in the bayous of southern Florida, but in the jungles of the Peten–and that the source of eternal life was not a fountain, but a tree.

The Fountain leans heavily on Mayan mythology, albeit in a revisionist sense. It focuses particularly on one image, that of the Mayan cross or sacred tree. Franciscan monks in the service of Cortes, upon encountering this symbol, mistook it for a muddled heathen desecration of the Christian cross, and used it as justification for summarily destroying every piece of Maya writing, art or culture they could get their hands on. Aronofsky’s lone monk does just the opposite: he takes the cross as evidence that the same God exists on both sides of the Atlantic, and the Mayan Tree of Life is the same one that grew next to the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Which is a fascinating premise, and one with which a lot of different stories could be told. Of course, a lot of those stories would very likely suck, and I’ve got to give Aronofsky credit for not turning this into a Da Vinci Code-style thriller. (Which I guess is what Pi was now that I think about it, but low-budget, with a kickass soundtrack and mystical head trauma.) Unfortunately, and despite having a reasonably kickass soundtrack of its own, not to mention the absolutely beautiful visuals, the story he did decide to tell doesn’t work.

Part of it is that he just tries to do too much. The movie’s only 90 minutes long, and he’s cramming in a near-future SF setting, a historical fantasy setting, and a far-future drunkass Tool video ripoff setting (no really, go ahead, watch The Fountain, then go watch the Tool Parabola video), and then trying to knit them all together into a coherent whole. So for the first twenty minutes, I was staring at the screen with my jaw around my ankles, thinking “Damn. Mayans, immortality, wierdass postcolonial commentary, psychedelia… this bastard is stealing all my thunder!” But after another twenty minutes, when he’s not done bringing in new crazy shit and is already dropping old crazy shit by the wayside, I start to lose hope.

At the center of this rapid spiral out of control (I think) is the least-developed and most abstract of the three parallel timelines: the music video bit, where an inexplicably hairless Tom, dressed up like a monk, rides a psychedelic spirit spaceship composed of a small lump of rock out of which grows the dying remnant of the Tree of Life into the heart of the Orion Nebula. Which we have been taught to equate with Xibalba, the Mayan underworld, thus allowing us to interpret this journey as another representation of Tom’s deluded effort to find the cure for brain cancer/drink the sap of the Tree of Life, and thus provide immortality both to himself and the dying Izzi. And that’s the wierd thing about my negative reaction to this whole thing: it’s all there. The connections are there, the clues are all made available to us. I am required only to follow the threads to pull it all together. Were this AI I was watching, or 2001 for that matter, I would be absoutely tickled pink at the opportunity to do just that–to find some wonked-out means to draw a line between that monkey picking up the bone and the baby gestating in orbit around the earth. So what’s the deal? Why am I so annoyed? It is because Aronofsky made everything too easy, because instead of a three hour epic he gave me a flip 90 minutes crammed so full of unaddressed ideas he had to dangle the important ones right in front of my nose?

Critics called The Fountain ‘inaccessible’ and ‘innovative’. I’m actually kind of surprised to find that I don’t think it’s either. I had no trouble following the three plots, intuiting how they were supposed to interweave. At the end I knew exactly what I was supposed to think. And through the whole thing, I couldn’t stop myself making comparisons. In this scene he’s cribbing from Kubrick, here from Soderbergh, over here from Charlie Kaufman (mostly Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). Why the fuck does Tom have to be bald to ride his crazy psychedelic spaceship? Why is he wearing that buddhist monk habit? Because Aronofsky wants us thinking of Neo, waking up in his tub of nutrient goo and putting on those coarse grey clothes that smack of Ultimate Truth. And yeah–I just kept coming back to that Tool video.

None of which, really, detracts from the flabbergasting beauty of the movie’s color palette and the nature of its visuals. Honestly, this movie is worth seeing just for that one shot of the hall in the Great Mosque at Cordoba in darkness, its shadows strewn with hanging candles like a field of stars.

That said, I think the rest of it could have done just as well as a ten minute music video–and without trampling all over my favorite themes.

Hallucinations of the Hand of God

I was initially skeptical about the whole crazy viral-apocalyptic-subversive-time-travel-guerilla marketing for Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails’ upcoming concept album. Their previous album was just ok, rehashing some riffs and some themes from the glorious The Fragile; and ole Trent Reznor, formerly the wiry ball-lightning with its finger on the jugular pulse of the MTV teenager’s cathartic rage, was assessed in his burly, bald new incarnation by certain critics (myself included) to have retreated from relevance into his own head. This new campaign of hidden messages left on USB drives in concert venue bathrooms was definitely a new direction, but it struck me as being a little too derivative of LOST’s vast peripheral storyline of fake tv ads, fake websites and lowbrow book tie-ins, not to mention older examples of the same thing going back through X-Files and Twin Peaks to Lovecraft and Borges. I just didn’t think poor Trent could pull it off.

Then I found the mp3 for My Violent Heart. I thrashed around my office a bit–at least, to the degree that my headphone tether would allow–and after that I started paying a little closer attention. By the time I came across artisresistance.com, I realized Trent really has an agenda going here, and he (and his marketing crew) have put a hell of a lot of effort into building that agenda into something with a fair amount of depth and complexity, something that will suck in fans, challenge them to think and work together, unify them, and at the same time maybe direct all their cathartic rage at something real.

I can’t believe how deep some of these clues have been hidden, and people find them anyway. Coded spectrograms tacked onto the ends of mp3s. Obscure literary and biblical references. Even a bit of actual, low-grade hacking.

The premise of this whole fragmented, chaotic narrative is some kind of temporal anomaly that has allowed pieces of data from a seriously fucked-up, drug-addled, post-apocalyptic future to filter backwards into the present day, forming a sort of parallel timeline which just happens to work as a disturbing, angry, empowering parable for our own. Trent is playing all sides here: terrorist, fanatic, warmonger, conscientious objecter, social revolutionary, spiritual leader. And he’s doing it in such a way that he doesn’t have to be some incredible storyteller–he just gives us the fragments, and lets our own socially-ingrained tendencies to narrative thread them all together for him.

So now I’m hooked. They just put the whole album up for streaming over at yearzero.nin.com. I’ve listened to it twice straight through, and I’m starting on a third.

Turned on My Head

Funny how engaging with SF on this superficial level turns a lot of my fantasy-dependent opinions neatly on their heads.

I came across this post from Paolo Bacigalupi’s weblog (who I am more and more inclined to respect as both a writer and a person the more I read) about the use of superflous gadgetry for the purposes of worldbuilding in SF. At one point he refers to it as ‘window dressing’. At another, he references this other post by M. John Harrison, who I haven’t really read, but whose post makes me not particularly inclined to respect since he flies off the handle not a little. Anyway, the point is, back when I first read the M. John Harrison rant about “rah rah worldbuilding is superflous and description sucks as a storytelling tool” I *almost* completely disagreed. A huge percentage of my writing is entirely dependent on setting, description, long ass chunks of poetically stylized imagery. But now that I am actually trying to write in SF and trying to avoid having to completely reacquire all my storytelling tools while doing so, I come across this far more measured post on basically the same subject by Bacigalupi, and I’m like, “damn, I totally agree”. I don’t know how to write about nanotech implants and sentient tattoos and hypercellphones. I don’t know how to compose hip incomprehensible new terms derived from postulated future social trends and cultural collisions. And I don’t see that I need to. Then again, I’m not interested in writing far-future SF or cyberpunk. The only reason I ventured into SF at all is cause I wanted to take some cheap potshots at technology.

Perhaps that means my opinion on this subject isn’t worth squat. I’ll concede that.

But I have to say I do like what the proximity of SF has done to my perspective. I might hang a little bit closer to it in the future.

Gloom and Doom

Thinking about this near-future post-global-warming apocalyptic utopian SF thing I’m working on, there occurred to me what seems like a great way to seriously screw up the earth. But I don’t really have the SF skills or the particular inclination to gloom and doom to write the kind of story such a situation would warrant. So I thought I’d offer it up here in case anybody’s interested.

What would happen if you directed tactical thermonuclear strikes simutaneously at both poles? I mean, granted, you’d have to be comic-book-villain-level depraved to be remotely interested in any such thing. Plus you’d have to already be in control of a sufficient portion of the globe to allow missile silo sites ranged far enough apart to get the job done. Not to mention the megatonnage would be pretty fricking high to achieve the desired effect. This would have to be a SNAFU well past Dr. Strangelove caliber. You’d have to be Russia or the US, probably. But assuming all that…could you in fact achieve the kind of sudden, crazy, tidal wave ocean surge that Gore’s worst-case scenarios depict? Ruptured ice shelves. Polar bears, penguins, Inuits, Pacific Islanders all pretty much wiped out. Along with coastal cities. Nothing left but red states.

I dunno. Seems so obvious maybe it’s been done. Weather-control machines, sure. Lameass Sean Connery supervillain in the Avengers movie. Waterworld… nobody really explains how Waterworld happened, which isn’t surprising given the whole Kevin Costner complicitness. Likewise Day After Tomorrow. These are not works of hard Science Fiction, whatever else can be said for them. But as you can see by my example set, I am not the most well-versed SF fan. Which is probably why I’m swearing off the whole idea.

But you all have fun.