The Front Page: Dim Wits - Critics and Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain

[10 December 2006]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

When did moviegoers, including those in the so-called critical class, get so stupid? When, exactly, did they decide to turn off their brains, sitting back mindlessly and demanding that everything in an entertainment be explained to them? Was it when marketing became master of the cinematic domain, when test screenings and focus groups stole creativity out of the hands of the artist? Maybe it was during the days of the high concept, when narrative didn’t need to be deep or intricate - it just needed to connect instantly with an audience. Home video definitely drove a stake in the heart of cinematic intellectualism. Once everyone had access to the world’s wealth of film, the backseat scholarship began, and as a result, the creation of false perception.

Granted, viewing a masterpiece like 2001 on a 13” screen is not the proper way of determining Kubrick’s overall approach to science fiction, yet such an aesthetic has long since become the norm. As a result, all of these factors have fooled faux cinephiles into believing they understand the nature of movies. Unfortunately, every once in a while, they prove that, deep down inside, they’re insolent little scholars unable to think their way out of a plausible motion picture bag. Take Darren Aronofsky’s latest film, The Fountain. True, the Requiem for a Dream director fought hard to realize his vision of mortality acceptance set inside a surreal speculative fiction/period piece format. And it’s clear that, once first superstar lead Brad Pitt pulled out, Aronofsky had to substantially diminish his vision. But from the reviews being written, both in print and on the web, you’d swear the director had made his own arcane Inland Empire.

In case you missed it – and you probably have, since its flying out of theaters faster than a non-Pixar CGI cartoon – The Fountain centers on Izzy, played by Rachel Weisz, and Tommy, played by Hugh Jackman. She’s a writer. He’s a research scientist/doctor. She is dying of an inoperable brain tumor. He is experimenting with exotic plant life to find a potential cure. As their last days together become insular and unhappy, Izzy presents her husband with a present – it’s her most recent effort, an epic romance/adventure called The Fountain. In the book, a Conquistador is sent to find the Tree of Life by the Queen of Spain. She will use the existence of the mythical symbol as a way of stopping the Grand Inquisitor from usurping her throne – and condemning her to death as a heretic. Charged with his royal mission, the warrior travels abroad, where a Mayan temple supposedly holds the secret location for this holy relic.

The parallels are pretty obvious: a lady being undermined by a “cancerous” force inside her own domain; a dedicated lover intent on finding the “cure”; a battle being waged both internally and externally; faith being destroyed and reconfigured on highly personal and prophetic levels. The story within a story format is so stereotypical – and thus avoided by many modern filmmakers – that Aronofsky’s use is disconcerting at first. It therefore makes some manner of sense that overstuffed film critics, bombarded with every level of moviemaking formula in the motion picture pantheon, would react with some suspicion. Indeed, one doesn’t expect such obvious analogies in the ‘oh so clever’ current artform – and especially from Aronofsky. Even with his dedication to style over subtlety, such an apparent narrative ruse would seem beneath his talents.

As a matter of fact, it is. There is more to the ancient empire storyline than a simple metaphor for Izzy and Tommy’s trials. Clearly, these scenes are meant to forge a fascination with immortality, a question of what cheating death actually means. This is high stakes stuff, material moving at a level beyond most normal human’s hampered thinking capacity. Without going into massive spoilers, the Conquistador’s efforts expose the arrogance of battling transience. Similarly, the fate of the Queen seems certain. She can send all the soldiers she wants out into the New World, hoping to find a remedy for what ails her ‘dying’ regime. But the truth is, such solutions are many miles – and months – away. Anyone who thinks they can hold off the rollercoaster of religion for that period of time is simply foolish. In essence, the actions of the past participants in the story are predestined to fail. That’s the main message of the movie – death cannot be stopped, no matter how hard you fight against it.

So then, what’s the next step? Where does a story like this go from here? It’s at this juncture where many reviewers jumped the sensibility ship. Aranofksy does make a bold choice here – something many miss upon an initial viewing. Izzy explains to her husband that she couldn’t complete her manuscript. The last chapter has been left blank, and she gives her spouse pen and ink, telling him he must finish the story. The sentiment is crystal clear. She’s doing the hard part – dying. He has the second most challenging choice – how to respond to it. The book’s conclusion will reflect his feelings on the subject, and signal how he intends to approach her departing. When viewed in this more than likely light, the futuristic material that has thrown so many moviegoers for an illogical loop is suddenly self-evident.

Tommy is a man of science, someone constantly throwing aside the pragmatic and the emotional for complicated trials on untested treatments. He views the world in a way that most physicians/healers do – that is, they are demigods determining life and death with little interference from the spiritual. His is not a quest for inner peace. He is battling the almighty forces of nature, and he is determined to win. When he does pick up the literary mantle for his dying bride, he envisions an interstellar trip, Tree of Life in tow, to the novel’s otherworldly afterlife, a mythic realm of rebirth entitled Xibalba. There, he will cure the ailing icon, restore balance to his broken existence, and hopefully, resurrect his lost love. This is not some real time trip into another part of the galaxy, a 2001-style symbol of evolution or an A.I.-esque lesson in humanness. As much as the Conquistador material reflects the battle for life, the space bubble ride is a metaphor for the journey toward accepting death.

Since it’s presented in a continuum-tripping manner, certain sequences breathing into and breaking apparent existing scenarios, Aronofsky purposely perverts what is basically a pair of dream sequences supporting a disease of the week romance. It’s so clearly observable – the Conquistador’s tale ends like any good fable would, and the space story is the cathartic conclusion the plotline craves. Naturally, many critics have complained that, when you remove all the gloss and gimmicks, you are stuck with two rather dimensionless characters at the center, and while this may or may not be true, it strikes one as far more insightful than most of the complaints leveled against the film. A few writers have referenced Kubrick’s serious speculative masterpiece – always in an annoyingly inappropriate negative light – as a way of explaining how unexplainable The Fountain is, while others name check nonsense like Zardoz as a way of comparative contrast (frankly, the link is so tenuous as to be truly laughable).

Yet what’s obvious about most of the negative reviews is that intelligence is being systematically switched off the minute the screening starts. Part of the problem is something called CCC – cinematic catalog consciousness. Many in the film commenting community have been involved in the process for a very long time, and have seen so many movies in as many varying genres that their gray matters has been literally rewired to draw instant, often shortsighted conclusions. A music writer once opined that they could tell a hit record within the first 10 seconds of the needle hitting the vinyl. Movie reviewers suffer from something similar. Because of how their minds are bombarded with all manner of aesthetic elements, pro and con, puzzle pieces of perception start systematically falling into place from the opening frames. Many a cinematic scholar has lamented how a potentially good movie is more or less given up for dead by a mindset predetermined to instantly encode and appraise what’s being seen.

So maybe a few of these flummoxed critics gave up on The Fountain within the first five minutes, and ground their teeth until Aronofsky was through with his non-CGI sky show. But in far too many cases, it appears that usually sane cinephiles have simply missed crucial parts of the plot. Izzy makes it very clear that the characters of the Conquistador and the Queen come from her book. She mentions it at least three times, and Tommy never “sees” these scenes until he has her manuscript in hand. Anyone who argues that the period piece material is real and that the present day couple are the old ones reincarnated (or worse, made immortal by the Tree) is just plain stupid. The movie provides the clues to what these sequences represent. Not catching on is sheer cinematic laziness.

Even worse, the interpretations of the outer space material border on the retarded. Reincarnation is given another airing, while others have offered a bizarre combination of immortality and technological advancement as an explanation. One of the most outrageous examples argues that Tommy, devastated by Izzy’s passing, goes on a journey – like the Conquistador – to find the Tree. Once successful, he lives off it for 1000 years until, almost spent, he must enclose it in an interstellar vehicle and send it off to a kind of cosmic clearinghouse. There, some kind of extraterrestrial mumbo jumbo will occur, and everything will be right with the world. Of course, none of this addresses the absence of Izzy, why she only appears as a ghost-like vision during the trip, and why her disembodied voice keeps telling her husband to “Finish It”. When she gives her husband the writing set, she wants him to complete her book. The galaxy quest is that tale envisioned, nothing more or less.

After reading pieces rife with confusion, contempt and callous dismals, it’s clear that Aronofsky’s take on the Kubler-Ross conceits of death and dying did not resonate with most reviewers. And there is nothing wrong with disliking a film. People’s opinions are to be treasured, not trashed. It’s the very foundation of all criticism. But to go the extra mile and categorize The Fountain as unfathomable and incomprehensible is like rubbing salt in an undeserving wound. Is the movie creatively complicated? Yes. Does it hold on to many of its mysteries until long after the final credits have rolled and you’ve had a chance to sit back and consider them? Indeed. Is this just some motion picture masturbation about star-crossed lovers lost over three different millennia? Absolutely not. Such interpretations are proof that, when it comes to cinematic scholarship, many writers got in on their looks, not their knowledge. The reaction to Aronofsky’s The Fountain confirms what many in the movie community already believe. Film criticism is a dying art. In fact, from the looks of things, it may already be dead.

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