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.