Erik Jaccard and Yasi Naraghi team up once again to watch and dissect a Rachel Weisz film, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, and find that they are unable to resist talking about colonialism and Weisz’s perfectly sculpted eyebrows.
Dir. Darren Aronofsky
Erik Jaccard: Let’s start with brief reflections on our initial encounters with the film. I honestly don’t remember all that much about my initial viewing. I was living in Scotland and I’m pretty sure I watched it first on DVD sometime in 2007. Having previously watched and enjoyed both Л and Requiem for a Dream, I recall being excited about the film simply because of Aronofsky’s involvement. Also, as we have established here previously, I have a thing for Rachel Weisz, so that was a plus. My memory of the film itself is muddled. I remember wanting really badly to like it, and, in that spirit, I probably gave it more credit than it deserves. I convinced myself that the connection between the film’s three narratives was clear enough, and that any confusion created therein could be excused by the consistent repetition of central motifs (mortality, the quest for the unattainable when the attainable is right in front of us, the role story plays in helping us make sense of our lives and our grief). However, I find the fact that I’ve thought so little about the film in the ensuing ten years telling, as I don’t think there’s very much about it that is actually memorable. At the time I didn’t know that it had originally been a much more ambitious project, with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett cast as the leads and twice the budget. I’m not sure whether having that knowledge then would have mattered, given that I was already inclined to be sympathetic to the film’s limitations. In any case, I came into this viewing far more skeptical of the film’s merits. Or, perhaps, with a different idea of what those merits were.
Yasi Naraghi: Similar to Erik’s experience, I also didn’t watch this film in the theatre but saw it on DVD months after its theatrical release. Again, a lot of my reasons for seeing the film was similar to Erik’s: I’ve been a fan of Aronofsky and was curious about his new project and Rachel Weisz. I remember not caring for it much, which might explain why, besides the broad overarching narrative, I remember very little of it ten years later. I’m sure this is not due to the capacity of my memory but by my absolute lack of interest in the film. Rachel Weisz might be the only reason I agreed to a review it. Erik and I also discussed, perhaps, reviewing a “funner” movie to balance our previous joint review, The Constant Gardener. I wouldn’t call The Fountain a “funner” movie after re-watching it, since similar colonial attitudes that informed my negative (to be highly reductive) reading of The Constant Gardener echoed throughout it.
EJ: Ok, here we go! Let’s get this multi-temporal romance sci fi adventure drama extravaganza on the road!
Oh, it’s Wolverine. And he looks angry. So clearly we’re watching X-Men. Jean Grey looks weird.
YN: [Referring to the opening epigram] Finally, we can now know that Wolverine is Adam from Genesis.
EJ: That was a very abrupt opening. Kind of cryptic. “Let’s finish it?” Finish what?
YN: So when you said you like the first narrative because it’s dark, you literally meant it’s dark, you can’t see shit?
EJ: Yes. Only in the darkness can one fully enjoy the sounds of the Central American jungle.
YN: Only in the darkness can one imagine another film.
EJ: Ok, this is very Wolverine-y. He needs to snarl more.
YN: I know I’m not supposed to mention colonization and stuff but…
EJ: You should be saying, “I know I’m not supposed to mention how love triumphing over colonization is utter bullshit, but here it is again!”
YN: Exactly! And here comes the…
EJ: …bald man floating in a bubble in space? Hugh Jackman is doing space yoga under his space tree in his space bubble.
YN: I was gonna say “savage native” with his “voodoo.” The colonization of the Americas occurred because one man was looking for the Tree of Life; the moral of the story.
EJ: Maybe it’s more opportunistic than that. Maybe he was like, well, this ship is sailing, I heard about this Tree of Life…besides, the moral of the story is clearly that love prevails, even in Spain. Or space.
YN: Oh, he’s bald in non-space too! I forgot about that.
Space tai chi. Oooh, prehistoric pen.
EJ: One who does space yoga would probably also do space tai chi.
YN: Look, he’s MacGyvering in space.
EJ: I’m trying real hard not to ask too many questions about this movie.
EJ: Because: how is that biosphere moving through space? Did someone flick it at some point and it’s now just floating along, or is he steering it and there’s an engine
Stephan [Yasi’s partner present in the room]: I don’t know space bubble physics.
EJ: You know what I do understand, however? Rachel Weisz’s eyebrows are beautifully sculpted.
YN: As always. She has splendid hair, too. Especially when in the flashback with the red dress, she recedes into the light.
EJ: I’m beginning to remember that one of the things which made me kind of indifferent to the film is that it doesn’t seem willing or able to do enough to make us care about how these stories fit together, repeat one another, or form some kind of meaningful whole. And you always have to wonder about these stories that tell themselves over and over.
YN: I think your point is related to the fact that this is paced like a graphic novel where the “reveal” of the connections comes in the last part.
[Ed Note. When Aronofsky couldn’t get the financing for his grander version of the film, he sent the screenplay to Vertigo Comics so he could at least salvage the story in some form.]
YN: It looks like they’re creating the link by merely having images of the past and future narrative appear as art hanging on their wall.
EJ: Okay, so she’s writing a book that begins in medieval Spain and ends in space. Their timeframe is the pivot between the past narrative and the future one?
YN: This is all a novel within a novel. AHHHHHHHH!
You know she’s free-spirited, she’s not wearing shoes.
EJ: Except, if memory serves, she can’t feel her feet because she has a brain tumor. Yup, there it is.
YN: But she has gained a new feeling inside.
EJ: She just gained a new Wolverine inside.
YN: He didn’t take off his pants!
Stephan: It’s hotter that way! Is the monkey cured?
EJ: Oh, the monkey seems to be doing better. Oh, they’re saluting the monkey.
YN: Planet of the Apes prequel!
EJ: In this one, surgically repaired baboons make us behave like pets and do cute tricks in the backyard.
YN: Rachel Weisz has it in her contract that there must be a shot of her sleeping while a man looks at her lovingly from a door frame.
EJ: No argument here. They should make it happen seven times a film. Maybe not all from a door frame.
YN: Rachel Weisz has it in her contract that she must have sex in a bathtub. Preferably with white dudes.
EJ: Okay, so she’s writing her Spanish conquistador novel by hand in the 21st century? That seems a bit unnecessary. But the script is pretty.
Aaaand cut to a man flagellating himself.
YN: And here is our villain. Erik is trying to make this historically relevant.
EJ: So, this guy is an inquisitor…who is against the Queen, who is searching for the Tree of Life, which promises immortality, and only God is supposed to do that. Got it.
YN: Or, immortality cannot be achieved on Earth, hence the flagellation.
EJ: It’s Cliff Curtis! That dude can play like fourteen different ethnicities.
YN: So he’s pan-ethnic.
EJ: He’s a unicorn wearing many different human masks.
YN: Oh I get it, she’s writing the novel in order to reveal her unconscious desire for immortality as she is dying of a tumor. Because she’s gotta be brave and live in the moment and then be tragic. There should be commas in the previous sentence.
EJ: So it’s the church, or a faction within Christendom, threatening the state, which seeks power beyond that of the church, and the state is asserting itself, chasing immortality on its own. I am taking this too seriously.
YN: The state/church thing being an analogy for Izzi’s body and her tumor?
EJ: Of course, and for ancient Hugh Jackman battling the ravages of space and time in his biosphere bubble.
So, here’s a proposition. I’m bored by this right now and I wonder whether that’s because I’m being ask to invest in one relationship spread out over six characters. Either that or they’re just boring characters.
YN: They’re replaying cliches. “Death as an act of creation.” Its philosophical elements are so Philosophy 101. My new kitties are far more entertaining at the moment than this film.
EJ: Look, she just made profound Rachel Weisz face, which is the same face she makes when translating Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in The Mummy.
Uh oh, you’re right—they’re creating a master race of intelligent apes.
YN: For sure, he cares more about the monkey than his wife. Maybe he’s engineering the monkey to be his wife.
EJ: That would make for a fun spin-off sequel. The Fountain of Apes.
YN: I would, I think, enjoy watching that more.
There must be some symbolic meaning in him forgetting his wedding ring. [I hope my facetious attitude is shining through.]
EJ: Yes, probably. He’s either preparing himself for life without her or trying to ignore the magnitude of what is happening. I feel bad, but…yawn.
YN: I was thinking more along the lines of she’s withering away/vanishing and the misplaced wedding ring stands in for her absence.
EJ: So, she seems aware of what he’s doing, ignoring her and her illness. Is she writing to help him cope?
YN: Giving him something to do while she’s away…um, dead.
Arabian Nights style. She’s Scheherazade starting an unending story to keep herself, metaphorically, alive.
EJ: He’s afraid. What’s he afraid of. Losing his hair? Space. He’s afraid of space.
YN: He’s being whiney and an asshat for somebody who has a dying wife.
EJ: He’s afraid of his own mortality.
YN: He’s still being an asshat.
[Referring to the tree] IT’S ALIVE! IT’S ALIIIIIIVVVVVVEEEEE!
EJ: “When that star explodes, you will be reborn, tree. In the meantime, I’m going to eat some more of you. That tai chi took it out of me.”
YN: All these close-up shots of her neck and hair right after the space tree hair. Too much.
My kitties are adorable.
EJ: That adorable kitty break brought to you by the Tree of Life©. Eat my sap and live forever.
This must be the rainy season. It’s always raining in the jungle. And dark. Always dark.
YN: It’s the “savage land” after all.
EJ: Did he just huff the tree? He totally just huffed the Tree of Life©.
That’s a long way to go just to have your Tree of Life© die on you. Stupid Tree (of Life)©.
YN: This movie is sooooooooooooo fraught with meaning. Ugh.
Of course she’s buried in snow in the middle of nowhere where she is the only grave.
EJ: Wait, they live in New York but they’re burying her in Minnesota?
YN: The Tree of Life, the Tree of Life. IT WILL GROW THERE. I bet the Mayans were once in Minnesota…
EJ: Totally. Boat across the Gulf of Mexico, canoe up the Mississippi, next stop, Minnesota.
Oh no, he spilled her ink and HE STILL ISN’T WEARING HIS WEDDING RING. Oh wait, he’s gonna TATTOO it on.
YN: And get Hepatitis C in the process.
EJ: Look at him, stabbing himself with a pen. Grief is a powerful anesthetic. Oh, poor Wolvy. It’s snowing and his 500-year-old wife is dead.
YN: I feel absolutely nothing. His tattoos are like tree rings. AH!
EJ: You guys, I totally get it now. This whole time in space he’s been thinking that she’s in the tree or is the tree because he hasn’t been able to heed her advice and understand that she is with him always. He doesn’t need to pretend that she’s actually in the tree. Silly space Jackman.
YN: So he’s eating himself?! Auto-cannibalism?
EJ: He is. He’s trying to beat death. Also, there is an actual political party called the ‘Post-Humanist Party’ that is dedicated to advancing science to the point that we can ‘beat death.’
YN: Are they all English grad students?
EJ: Every single one. Speaking of English majors, are we meant to see the nebula as a womb? Is he going back into the womb?
Stephan: You know, that nebula does look like a vulva.
YN: Past Izzi and future Tommy, together at last!
EJ: “Deliver Spain from bondage?” What are you talking about, crazy lady, and where did you get that costume?
YN: Flagellation, bondage, it’s an S&M movie!
EJ: That space orb is so about to fertilize the Vulva Nebula and create a whole new galaxy.
YN: New galaxy, alternative timeline, same love.
EJ: This is some intense yogi new age shit right here. Oh, now we’re back to the sun god.
So this whole movie is about him admitting that one day he is going to die. I feel like I could have watched Fight Club and had more fun.
YN: You’re dead, dude.
EJ: Don’t eat from the tree, dude. And definitely don’t stab the tree. Men. Always trying to stab everything with their knives.
YN: Become one with the tree.
EJ: Seriously, it’s like the ring of power. He can’t stop. He’s literally sucking the life out of the tree, which also happens to be the vulva nebula.
YN: He’s Jesus?!!!
EJ: I’m really happy I don’t have to, like, try and explicate this as a text. I’m not sure it’s…explicable.
YN: So now it’s a music video for some horrible ‘90s band?
EJ: Or possibly an ad for invigorating face cream. Tree of Life© brand face cream. Look like a yogi in minutes.
YN: So the only connection between the Genesis quote and this movie is that they both have a tree?
EJ: And God said: Let there be confusion and boredom and indifference. And he made The Fountain. And it was good.
Now, let’s take a second to reflect on where we find ourselves after rewatching the film.
Either I have no idea what I just watched, or I know exactly what I just watched and am incredibly underwhelmed by it. One might say that The Fountain tackles an ambitious artistic premise and simply fails to execute it very effectively. For example, I think there is some promise in the idea of using three narrative registers to explore a theme because approaching something from a few different angles would conceivably allow a filmmaker to add depth and shade. It’s clear from The Fountain’s central/contemporary narrative vein that the issue being explored is, to put it bluntly, death. Jackman’s Tommy Creo is terrified of death and of what it means—loss, suffering, the end of things. His refusal to confront his wife’s impending death clearly illustrates this and his tearful, relieved admission in the future narrative that ‘I’m going to die!’ drives home what the film is essentially ‘about.’ My issue is with the idea that we need three storylines to communicate this fairly simple conflict. Yes, you can make the search for the Tree of Life resonate on a grander level with the more personal struggle to face mortality, and yes, you can see someone adventuring into space after a mythical cure for death as expressing the same struggle. But do we need all of those narratives? What do they really add, besides a longer and more incoherent pathway to a personal realization that is, when it really comes down to it, pretty simple? At first I kept thinking that that Spanish/New World narrative, wherein Jackman is a conquistador searching for the tree of life to help the Spanish queen stave off threats from an emboldened Catholic church during the Inquisition, was totally unnecessary. Then, when thinking about it some more, it grew clear to me that the futuristic narrative was unnecessary, too. While the motifs and patterns diffused across the three parts certainly help bind them together visually, I couldn’t—and can’t—see a good enough reason for their existence. They lend the film a depth that is ironically quite superficial. So, being kind, I’d say that the film is about the same ten years later: an overly ambitious, if well-intentioned folly. But man, that Rachel Weisz…
I am so glad I, we, don’t have to actually write a logical and intelligible review of The Fountain because neither logic nor intelligibility can be attributed to it. Yes, there were visual cues that connected each narrative and facilitated transitions between the time frames but I’m not sure if the story necessitated the three narratives/time frames. Having the story diffused across these narratives not only felt superficial and unnecessary but also silly. I think the film relied too much on a graphic novel format and failed to realize its potential as a filmic product. This is a critique I have of many films that are adapted from or related to graphic novels, but The Fountain truly takes the cake. One last thing, as a student of philosophy (to say it broadly), my mind was fuming because of the irreconcilable metaphysics of the film. Something I could discuss further, but I have a fucking dissertation to write.