Saturday, January 08, 2011

American Grievers, Part Two: THE FOUNTAIN

"Death is the road to awe."

Was it an accident I watched Darrenofsky's THE FOUNTAIN (2006) the very next night after INCEPTION (see Grievers part one here)? There are no accidents in cinema when its imagery is way more high-def than your foggy day-to-day 'reality.' There's a handful of differences twixt the two: DiCaprio's brooding dreamweaver in INCEPTION becomes FOUNTAIN's Hugh Jackman, but they're really the same -- one bends time through dream-invasion, the other through past-life recollection.

THE FOUNTAIN's American Griever, Jackman, claims to love his wife (Rachel Weisz) but he dismisses her attempts to show him the wonders of the stars as mere imbecilic prattle. A visibly concerned neurochemist trying to cure her via ancient tree of life scrapings, Jackman's many lives/one master hero is even more dour and dull than Leo in any of his many 'American griever' sagas. Poor Rachel just wants to find peace and die but Hugh's too ridden with angst and devoted to his grief to give a shit what she wants.

In the eliptical narrative, director Darren Aronofsky skims forward and back through time (via Weisz's calligraphy hand-written journal) like we're skimming a glossy-paged graphic novel: a shadowed inquisitor is self-flagellating and plotting against a golden-hued queen and her seething conquistador, whom she sets off to South America in search of the same mystic tree. All well and good, but what makes FOUNTAIN such a classic American Griever saga is contemporary Jackman's blindness to Weisz herself. He loves only the thought of her dying, like a 'hurry up and die so I can drink to escape the pain and admire my drunken grief in the mirror" kind of thing. Weisz has seen the light but Jackman buries himself in sunless jungles in search of a light he can micro-manage (a tree can't talk back). All this, when the deathlessness of light already is eternal! Right? You can float like a Buddha all you want, Hugh. It's as phony as a tree dolla bill.

The parts in the beginning where he seems to die and be reborn into another aspect of self are very cool, but even then the film and he turn out to be kind of clueless about humility - the bedrock of enlightenment. When and if he dies, this humbler-than-thou seekr demands the whole earth shake and dissolve in admiration. He may meditate and look as self-righteously enlightened as Richard Gere, but the ego is a cunning focus-puller.

Personally, if I ever lost a parent as a child, or vice versa, my attitude might be more conventionally 'oh death, I'm mad at you!' Instead I  have a great grandmother who lived to 107, and her daughter, my granny, alive and bored at 97 (PS 4/17- she died at 102) is put on suicide watch at her home if she even jokes about going out in a bang not a whimper. So I'm going to represent, for her sake, that under-represented, pro-death voice: If your eyes are truly open, and life appears as it really is, infinite, then you know death is just the brief dream-filled prologue to life's 3-D space-time main attraction, whereon the fields of space and time are once more merged totally into the 'one' eternal I AM, the consciousness of which we are all reflections. Living in the moment is impossible without feeling this to be true; making peace with your own mortality is all it takes to get there, what your whole barrage of egoic distractions--your daily litany of judgment, desire and fear--has been so instrumental in avoiding. If you reach this place of contemplative serenity in the face of impermanence, the whole 'life is still life even if that life is less than lovely' jazz rings mighty flat. Our medical system is so fucked up, we'd outlaw death if we could, jamming a crowbar into the wheel of life and wondering where that grinding sound is coming from, and why the lines at Epcot are so long, and why so many people are being born with such cheap, knock-off souls.

I know it's a touchy issue and I don't mean to sound all-knowing or callous, but in not even daring to touch on it we're killing quality at the expense of quantity. I've known people who've pissed away their life savings keeping a vegetable hooked to a machine. And I've waited in lines. At Epcot. And had panic attacks in the pre-class crowds at the tonier yoga studios. And I've seen the limitless expanses of trash dumps, and mass production, and stockyards, and phone books... and suburban sprawl. Know who benefits from our fearful overpopulation? The soul-eaters, the reptilian overlords, and CEOs of giant conglomerates.

And the box office, of course.

What makes THE FOUNTAIN all the more troubling is actually its most interesting aspect: the way death is viewed as a form of public transportation; if you surrender to death in the right spirit you never really die. The tree of life herb they discuss might be meant as a sister to ayahuasca, and that would make sense, which is why it's so disappointing that the psychedelic aspect isn't explored so much as passed, like ship-shaped phantoms in fog, on the way to another tearful tantrum. I stood up a few times and yelled at the screen: "Hugh. we may already be immortal, soul-wise, so why cling to one body forever rather than find out?" It may well be that radiation treatments prolong your life if your body has cancer, but at the cost of warping the weave of your immortal soul, which is an electromagnetic field that can become permanently damaged by radiation, hence William S. Burroughs' description of the atomic bomb as a soul killer:
Can any soul survive the searing fireball of an atomic blast? If human and animal souls are seen as electromagnetic force fields, such fields could be totally disrupted by a nuclear explosion. The mummy's nightmare: disintegration of souls, and this is precisely the ultrasecret and supersensitive function of the atom bomb: a Soul Killer, to alleviate an escalating soul glut.
Imagine if in doing chemo we are prolonging our current life at the expense of mutating our immortal soul, like the Bridey Murphy witch in Roger Corman's THE UNDEAD. Now that is an awesome movie.

My point with 'American Grievers' is not to be controversial for attention but to illuminate a gap between romantic male characters in today's cinema and those of old Hollywood, when men related to their female partners in a direct and tender manner while remaining tough (not falling into rom-com territory) rather than soft but surly and self-righteous. Think of the rapport between William Powell and Myrna Loy in THE THIN MAN or William Powell and Kay Francis in ONE WAY PASSAGE and JEWEL ROBBERY. Think of Bogie and Bacall; Newman and Woodward; Taylor and Burton; Gable and Lombard; Gable and Scarlett --all instances of actors able to be both masculine and tender, deep and badass but also sexually healthy compared to the anguished loners of post-'82 American dramatic cinema, who can relate to a woman only when she's dead, so he can drink alone staring at her picture; or dying, and he can scream at her "I won't let you die!" Either way, she doesn't get a voice.

I must be preaching to the choir in the case of Aronofsky. In his last two films, THE BLACK SWAN and THE WRESTLER, death is practically advocated as the one truly badass artistic climax of performance, so I grant the benefit of doubt we're meant to side with Rachel Weisz's right to die vs. Jackman's tiresome "you're not gonna die!" tirades. This keen and subtle critique of America's blase' closed-mindedness towards any talk of death with dignity or eternal life as a reason to let go of a dying body is a subtextual touchstone for Aronofsky's last two films. The characters Jackman resembles are SWAN's Barbara Hershey as a micro-managing stage mom, and WRESTLER's Marisa Tomei as a single stripper mom wary of ex-client Mickey's headlock.  The trouble is that Jackman's the main character in THE FOUNTAIN. He's supposed to be the good guy. Would you want to see THE BLACK SWAN if Hershey's character was the lead, and Portman just an ungrateful daughter, ala MILDRED PIERCE?

In the end, Jackman may or may not get wise to the joys of nonexistence, but his life as a lotus-posin' baldhead taking care of an outer space yum-yum tree doesn't seem real, doesn't seem "earned," based on his record of glum tantrums. Meditation is where one goes to find the truth of what lies beyond our current mortality, the full immortal self that survives when the rest of us is burned away. Hint: the part of you that is immortal is not the part you think. If you imagine the total self as a movie projected on a wall, the immortal part is the empty rectangle-shaped white light that's still projected once the film runs all the way through. So why get attached to the shadows that make us one thing vs. another, that bring shape and form and illusory permanence? All movies are just light, with some parts blocked or shaded for effect. What makes Aronofsky's later films much better than THE FOUNTAIN is the introduction of artistic drive to that equation: dying in the service of Art equals a very cool resolution to the problem of life, regardless of your clocked meditation tree-time. As a doctor, Jackman's whole Hippocritic oath thing stops him from being true to the existential resolve of Mickey's wrestler and Natalie's ballerina, the ideal of deathless fierceness in the name of performance. Yet truly good doctors know when to stop torturing the patient with temporary stave-off measures and endless spinal taps and start encouraging them to enjoy their last remaining moments. Maybe, and this has been proven effective, slip them some magic tree trippy herbs rather than just bogarting the bag, so they know death is going to be a total gas.

The visuals of THE FOUTNATIN are quite impressive, but again you can have acres of hallucination and it's no more than eye candy for something that never seems to really happen, i.e. the transcendence of the duality of life and death into one eternal deathless state. In a word, it's not psychedelic. If you're going to be that deep, it's cool to not show self-righteous American grievers getting rewarded by the cosmic good fairy for their dour self-importance. There's more to Zen than baldness and Jason Patric-style sanctimony! Look at Jack and Rose in TITANIC, they loved a lifetime worth in a few hours, but ole Hugh doesn't care about a few hours, and that's the very definition of un-Zen. Imagine for example, Leo spending his last moments with Rose just lecturing her about how stupid it was she jumped out of the lifeboat to be with him... that's THE FOUNTAIN.

Fortunately, Aronofsky learned the lesson from its failure at the box office and with critics.  THE WRESTLER and THE BLACK SWAN would keep the best elements of THE FOUNTAIN--the even-keeled examination of mortality-- and sideline the relentlessly blind clingers. Aronofsky learned in THE FOUNTAIN that the best way to make a point about art and the death drive is by portraying artists in physically masochistic fields like wrestling or ballet. Without some true artistic pain, these greenscreened actors are as lost in the winds as Jar Jar off his meds.


  1. You are definitely onto something here about American cinema's goosey attitude toward death. It must be either denied or cartooned, but never can it be simply accepted. The same attitude, to my despair, pervades our culture as well, and is why my new novel tackles all those issues head on. Here's a link to it (hope it comes through as live once posted):

  2. thanks Bill! Your novel looks awesome.

  3. It seems that death is one of those themes that will forever haunt Aronofskys films, kind of like father issues haunt Tim Burton films...I mean, thats three films in a row he talks about death.

    Though in Black Swan and in The Wrestler death isnt as permiating a theme as in The Fountain.

    The Fountain is about death from beginning to end, while Black Swan and The Wrestler explore other themes as well. Amongst these is the idea of doing what you truly love, doing what fills you with passion.


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