Thursday, February 15, 2007

The Fountain (2006)

The Fountain (Darren Aronofsky, 2006)

It seems like Darren Aronofsky wants you to believe that the three parallel story lines of three different time lines co-exist in the same universe. It's Orpheus and Eurydice-type lovers, their pan-historical names are variations of Thomas (Hugh Jackman) and Isabel (Rachel Weisz), recur as 15th century Spanish conquistador and queen, 21st century cancer researcher and his cancer-stricken wife, and 26th century space explorer and life-giving tree. Yet viewing it like that, I felt, pushed forward the flimsiness of the connections of the story lines.

Instead, I viewed the three story lines of The Fountain as existing in different dimensions --- the 15th century storyline exists within the psychological framework of a dying Izzi, the 21st century object of maddened obsession by Dr. Tom Creo, who is rushing experimentations to cure his wife of her brain tumor. The 26th century storyline, where bald-headed Tommy lovingly feels a tree existing inside an intergalactic traveling bubble floating towards a dying star, looks unrealistically dreamy that I thought it's apt to appropriate it as more of Dr. Tom's fantasy sequence (post Izzi-death) than a look into the future.

My interpretation may be seen as a disservice to Aronofsky's scope and ambition. What I'm trying to imply is that there is only one storyline --- the two period pieces are introspective peeks at the minds of these troubled lovers. The conquistador plot introduces the film, before being transported into the surreal space bubble, that segues to the present tense plot.

Formally, we are introduced to the conquistador plot line through the unfinished manuscript written by Izzi. Strictly, that plot happens within the near-death mindset of Izzi and curiously, she sees herself as the queen of Spain, threatened to be put to death by the Grand Inquisitor for seeking eternal life. The queen assigns his trusted conquistador to accompany a Franciscan friar to New Mexico to search for the tree of life (evidenced by both Mayan and Judeo-Christian mythologies). The historical inaccuracies may be forgiven as literary devices to appropriate the general emotion of Izzi while writing her manuscript, conveniently unfinished as she still hopes her husband discover a cure for her cancer, the same way the queen hopes her conquistador discovers the tree of life before she is uncovered by the heretical inquisitor.

Interesting to note is that the 15th century plot line is grounded with Judeo-Christian religion as opposed to the 26th century plot line which graphically apes Eastern Asian religion and philosophy (Tommy practicing tai chi backdropped by passing stars; nirvana-stylized sense of accomplishment). It's a difference that becomes more apparent if the two timelines are viewed as the two characters' respective outlooks on life and death. Judeo-christian tradition sees death as an essential part of life, and to beat it is something of a natural abomination. Eastern tradition sees death as part of a cycle, through reincarnation or nirvana, as in Buddhist tenets. Izzi's manuscript is a creation of an experience from hopeful determination that death may be defeated, to a resolute acceptance that death is inevitable. Dr. Tom (whose dream sequence is the 26th century space travel to the nebula; the 26th century sequence does segue to Dr. Tom daydreaming in his laboratory) dreams of death as a disease, essentially curable, and despite several lifetimes, may eventually be defeated to earn the prize of reconciliation with a loved one. Thus, his dream sequence features Eastern Asian philosophical precepts that dictate hope for reconciliation with a dead lover.

The Fountain is as nebulous as it is visually astounding. Aronofsky, working with a $35 million budget (a lot less than what he was initially assigned with when Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett were still his leads), surprisingly creates wonderful setpieces and visual tricks that lend a helping hand to the surreality of the exercise. The space travel (the backgrounds were created by filming chemical reactions in a petridish) does elicit a response akin to viewing organisms trapped in a petridish. Actually, the entire film feels more like a bio-psychological experiment on the extent of love despite the threat of being truncated by death --- Aronofsky posits that his subjects (Dr. Tom and Izzi) would spurt out cultural-metaphysical-philosophical-religious psychobabble to resist the inevitabilities of life and love. Interestingly, despite the problematic shifts in tone, time, and emotions, the film feels more intimately justified as it is ambitiously underrealized.

This post is my contribution to the Jim Emerson's Scanners: Contrarianism Blog-A-Thon.


pacheco said...

When I saw the film, I loved it, but didn't feel it was quite as effective (as it could be) as-is, and I didn't want to accept the reality as it was presented to me. However, I didn't know how I would accept it.

Your ideas make sense to me, and really make me want to revisit a film I already loved even more. Well done.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Pacheco.

Jonnyflash said...

It is kind of related to your own interpretation, but I always felt that the 16th century was Izzi's book, written mainly to explain her feelings and struggle(and support) to Tom. The 21st century story is the only "real" story, the only one that "really" happens. The 26th century story is the final chapter of Izzi's book, written by Tom. I viewed it as him working out his issues of grief through this story, no dissimilar to the dream sequence theory you posit.

The finale of the film, where the 26th and 16th centuries converge, is Tom's way of coming to terms with everything, including his own guilt that he kept missing everything Izzi was trying to tell him, until it was too late.

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks johnnyflash,

I was actually quite tempted to interpret it that way, but it left me troubled with the way the 16th century line ended --- which I thought was very literary (fable-like), as opposed to the 26th century line's ending which was still consistently very dreamlike.

Yes, everything happens in the 21st century. The film feels a lot tighter viewing it that way.

Fei M. said...

I agree with the interpretation that there is only one storyline (the 21st century one), and the other two are fantasies. The 16th century story is clearly Izzie's book, which is rendered in Tommy's imagination (as in all the scenes were we see him reading the book). What really convinced me of this interpretation, which I got after the first viewing, actually, was how the three storylines ultimately converged back to the 21st century story, as well as the repetition of the words, "Finish it" (which has several meanings in this movie, the primary one being Izzie's request that Tommy finish the book).

I see the movie ultimately as a subjective rendering of how a man deals with the grief of his wife's death and his own mortality. This is perfectly in keeping with Aronofsky's past work, which made extensive use of the "subjective camera."

andyhorbal said...

I like what you've done with the film here. Too often film critics use their reviews as a space to figure out first what the filmmaker meant to say, and then how well they said it.

I prefer film criticism that says, What can I make/take from this film? Film criticism as an act of appropriation and interpretation: After The Fountain...

My interpretation may be seen as a disservice to Aronofsky's scope and ambition.

No critics' interpretation that is open-minded can possibly be a disservice to a filmmaker!

Oggs Cruz said...

Thanks Andy,

...and thanks to your blog for all the updates on the blog-a-thons.

Anonymous said...

After watching the movie several times I have come to an interpretation that is somewhat different. Basically, I believe that there are two realities; The 21st century and the 26th century which folds back into an alternate 21st century. The 16th century was the only fictional part of the story.

One of the key scenes in the movie was the scene in which Izzi asks Tommy to take a walk with him. From this scene alone there were two possible futures or choices Tommy could have made. Future 1: Tommy does not follow Izzi and goes into surgery. And Future 2: Tommy follows Izzi and she hands him the seed.

In following Future 1 - Tommy ignores Izzi and goes to surgery. In this surgery he makes his breakthrough with Donovan and discovers a compound which seems to basically cure aging and eventually the tumor. Down this path it led him to not accept Izzi's death, led him to obsess over finding a cure for her tumor to save her life, she dies, he mourns, he does not accept it, he works and finds a cure for aging, which he takes himself to sustain his life for centuries, all the while not able to accept the death of his Izzi. He takes Izzi in the form of the tree(likely from his memory of her talking about Moses Morales' father growing through the tree and Tommy planting a different seed over her grave that she did not give him). And ultimately Tom and Izzi(in the form of the tree) are in the ship in the 26th century speeding to Xibalba so Tom can bring her back to life... Tom hasn't finished the book.

In this ship Tom struggles with his memories of her. He believes he can bring her back and they both will live. In the final scenes Tom fights the memory of Izzi until she appears as queen Isabela. Finally he trusts Izzi and trusts his memories of her in real life and in her story which makes him realize that only through himself actually dying, finishing the story making Tomas die, and by the final acceptance of her death can he and she be at peace and they can truly be together forever....

He first chooses to change his future at that crucial moment between he and Izzi. In this, Future 2, he follows Izzi outside, abandons his work, she gives him the seed, he understands, and he accepts her eventual death and makes the best of his time with her while she lives. In essence, by choosing this path he has altered his own future, eliminating himself from ever having to obsess over finding the cure, and living through his denial into the 26th century. He has eliminated that future.

That is why the movie ends with Tommy, his wedding ring back on his finger because he never went and lost it in surgery, plants her seed, and is accepting her death.

so, just a little different interpretation, but that's the beauty of this movie. I love it!


Oggs Cruz said...

Thank you Robbie for that, it simply makes me want to revisit this.