Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
November 2006

'The Fountain' runs deep

Flawed as it may be, Aronofsky's huge risks somehow still pay off

The Fountain
Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Screenplay: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn, Mark Margolis, Cliff Curtis and Sean Patrick Thomas
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 36 minutes
Opened Nov. 22, 2006
(out of four)

Darren Aronofsky intends for The Fountain to be timeless, but perhaps this wasn't exactly the right time. We've grown cynical. Anything that goes for broke, we seem to scoff at. Ditto any semblance of sentimentality, spirituality or any number of other universal themes that may once have been commonplace.

At the same time, we've become accustomed -- too accustomed, probably -- to convention. Even our fantasies lack imagination sometimes. They're easy to digest and, too often, unchallenging.

Which may explain the icy reception to Aronofsky's long-gestating dream-project, The Fountain, a hugely ambitious, flawed, yet beautifully realized endeavor that has been in the works for six years, only to be met with bewilderment by audiences and critics alike. Not that the film's critics don't have a point -- The Fountain is messy in parts and doesn't seem to have enough meat in the center to justify its grandiose intentions about love, death and, yes, even the meaning of life. Perhaps it's only natural that a movie like this -- an experimental, historical, existential, sci-fi action romance that asks and answers impossible but fascinating questions -- would polarize audiences. Some see it as a masterpiece; others think it's a disaster. Internet critic Steve Rhodes said it's one of the worst movies he's ever seen. Then again, Steve Rhodes is an idiot. Others will no doubt put it at the top of their best-of-the-year lists.

It's not that I don't understand the criticisms -- I do. It's just that I think many critics are being far too dismissive of the movie. They see as overwhelmingly confusing what is actually quite simple. They label it "pretentious" when in fact it's much too earnest, and wears its sentimental heart too plainly on its sleeve, for it to really deserve that label. And since when did it become a crime for filmmakers to think big anyway?

One of the most interesting aspects about The Fountain, especially upon reflection, is the way it tries to both think and feel at the same time. The majority of movies try to do one or the other -- either play directly to the audience's emotions or solely to the intellect. But with The Fountain, Aronofsky tries to connect on levels emotional and philosophical, spiritual and cosmic.

To do so, Aronofsky tells a story -- yes, one story -- about a man who is basically trying to reconcile life and death. More than likely the man represents Man itself and the intrinsic desire for immortality. The story is split into three parts, all involving the quest of one man, Tom (Hugh Jackman) to save the woman he loves, Izzi (Rachel Weisz). In the 16th Century, she is the queen of Spain and he a humble conquistador charged to save the country and discover the tree of life. In modern day, she is his wife and dying of cancer, and he is a surgeon trying desperately against time to discover a cure. And 500 years in the future, as Tom floats in a bubble in outer space (conjuring images of the Star Child in 2001: A Space Odyssey) with the Tree as his sole companion, everything comes full circle.

Perhaps some of the consternation comes from the structure of the narrative itself; in my mind, the best way to understand it is to not try too hard to understand it -- to not try to piece together each segment of the plot as you would a traditional storyline. There may be three different storylines in three different time periods, but these are the same characters. Don't take it literally -- this is poetry, not prose.

It would be a mistake to try to understand each story individually. The three stories exist only in concert with one another -- or, rather, they are all the same story. That's why Aronofsky's jumbling of the narrative works so well. The three sections seem to be able to communicate directly with, or even lead into, each other. Thematically, they are interchangeable.

For evidence of just how vexing such a strategy is for people, look no further than Richard Roeper's completely inane "critique" of The Fountain on last week's Ebert and Roeper, which basically consisted of this (and I'm really not exaggerating): "I didn't get it I didn't know what was going on that was confusing it was stupid, I didn't understand what was happening I had no idea what was going on I didn't get it "

Guest critic A.O. Scott actually had to explain things to Roeper that weren't hard to figure out in the first place -- or certainly shouldn't be for a professional film critic.

Scott didn't like the movie, either, but his criticisms of the film actually made sense, and he actually came across like a halfway intelligent human being.

While it's true that many may exaggerate the film's quality simply because it's so different (the same way some people automatically like a movie if it has a twist ending), it's equally true that some seem to be blaming Aronofsky just for taking a chance. And for -- gasp! -- daring to openly deal with love and sentiment. I love to see filmmakers of Aronofsky's talent taking a chance. No, this is not Heaven's Gate or The Bonfire of the Vanities.

The Fountain is a difficult film to discuss, except with one who has already seen it. It's one that practically demands repeat viewings. There are a lot of different factors in play here, and while they don't all work, we do get a strong sense of the bigger picture once things begin to come together by the end -- and boy, do they ever come together.


You'll understand when you see it.

There's a lot to take out of The Fountain, which is why it is ultimately successful. It can be an emotional experience, or a thought-provoking one, or just a visually dazzling one. Indeed, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique created a visual aesthetic so rich and unique that, if nothing else, the senses are at least captivated. (The way the sections have visual references to one another, and how the overall look of each segment corresponds with the rest, is extremely interesting as well, but that's a whole different article.)

Bottom line is, there's something real and substantive at work here. Aronofsky originally envisioned the film as a $90 million epic a few years ago before studios and cast members backed out. But he returned to the project, pared down the material and created a smaller picture that nonetheless, he said, captured the essence of his original vision. In that light, the finished product is made even more interesting by what it could have been.

Indeed, the film could have benefitted from more screen time, which would have given more weight to the characters and given Aronofsky more time to develop his story, literally and thematically. Perhaps then the film's fantastical ending would have had an even greater effect than it already does. The film runs just 96 minutes; if it were, say, two hours long, we might really have something to sink our teeth into. As it is, Aronofsky -- who previously directed Pi and the masterpiece Requiem for a Dream -- has made something that, at the very least, is unlike anything else that hit theaters all year.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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