I didn’t mind tossing a few bucks into “The Fountain” last weekend. It’s become something of a gamble to go to the movies these days – you’ve pretty much got to take out a second mortgage on your house to pony-up for the admission and the concession stand fare (because no movie, no matter how bad, is complete without popcorn), all on the off chance that the magic shadows on the screen might be entertaining and (gasp) possibly thought-provoking (without being pretentious) rather than the usual steaming piles of mass-produced, unimaginative goo. And there doesn’t seem to be a lot of middleground when it comes to critics’ opinions of Darren Aronofsky’s “The Fountain”. People either seem to love it or hate it.
Count me among the former.
It’s a quiet, smart little film (at times a bit of a tear-jerker) about the importance of accepting death as a part of life, and enjoying the life you’ve got, while you’ve got it.
The lives of Hugh Jackman’s characters (character?) also serve a warning: that trying to exceed the amount of life you’ve been allotted, that trying to grab an unnatural amount of life, comes with a terrible price – stagnation and isolation. The Conquistador’s foliage fate when he gluts himself on the sap ripped from the tree of life grants him immortality – of a sort, but one of vegetative sameness, with a lack of control and quite possibly consciousness. While becoming inextricably linked with the natural world, he’s also alone and unable to speak with any other human being who may enter the shrine. Tom’s journey through the stars, made possible by his measured, but nevertheless ages-long, feeding from the tree’s bark, is one of near-eternal sameness. His exercises, meditation, self-tattooing and harvesting his dose from the tree are all ultimately routine. We get the sense he’s been doing the same thing within the bubble for years at least, likely centuries or millennia. And, of course, there is no one else within his mobile terrarium (echoes of Bruce Dern’s “Silent Running”) except the memories of Izzi (Rachel Weisz) that haunt him periodically. It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the plague of memories is itself a regular part of Tom’s journey in an unchanging eternal life. It’s also interesting that stagnation results from the dependence on the use of a thing, like the tree, as an instrument to stimulate life in a man. In contrast, the people around Tom also stimulate his life – Izzi/Queen Isabel inflames his passions and prompts him to embark upon quests where he makes the fullest use of his vital energies in pursuing his goals and thus truly lives, and even his coworkers, be they soldiers he must kill to continue his mission or fellow researchers at the mercy of his moods, provoke reactions from Tom with their sympathy, enthusiasm or distress – but their stimulation always sends Tom in different directions that require thought, feeling and action – real living, as opposed to entropy.
The film is also interesting in the bounty of ways that it explores the metaphor of the fountain of life. The tree, of course, is the literal fountain of life, oozing sap or yielding chemicals or offering bark used by people to heal injuries and extend life. It gives life through inspiration, causing people, be they conquistadors, monks or researchers, to excel and make maximum use of their abilities and imaginations in the pursuit of the prize it offers.
The Conquistador becomes a fountain of foliage because of his greedy slurping. The protagonist (whether it’s Jackman as a questing conquistador, and obsessed researcher, or an interstellar wayfarer determined to reach a dying star) is a well of passion throughout the ages, living to the fullest as he goes to the ends of the world and beyond to try to save the woman he loves.
And the lady-love in question is herself a fountain. Izzi/Isabel gives life and purpose to Jackman’s men through her love. She is also a fountain of imagination through her writing and her recounting of the ancient myth of the world’s creation and the story of the man who became one with the world by having a tree planted over his grave. This imagination also gives new life to these old myths and stories that might otherwise have been forgotten. As the Queen she saves the life of the bishop conducting the Inquisition/insurrection by preventing the Conquistador from assassinating him. She tries to add to Tom’s life by attempting to give him comfort by telling him she isn’t afraid of dying and so he shouldn’t be afraid of losing her. Izzi creates life most profoundly by being a fountain of hope, envisioning (as the Queen) a future where the tree’s power can be used to free all people from pain and suffering, and later (as the memory/ghost of Izzi) offering the possibility of reunification with Tom when he reaches the star and ultimately when he finally dies. Ironically, Weisz’s character does not play into the metaphor of fountain of life in the obvious way that’s been used through the centuries – she is not a mother – she has not generated another life within her.
There are probably a multitude of other, smaller fountains of life in the film – maybe the monk with his faith, maybe Tom’s boss (played by Ellen Burstyn) constantly trying to offer comfort and support, maybe the other researchers with their enthusiasm for the new medical discoveries they’re making. What others am I missing?
The only thing I haven’t quite figured out about the story/stories is whether the three separate plot lines/time lines are directly related in terms of Tom literally being each of the three men: Tom being a reincarnation of the Conquistador and later Tom being the interstellar traveler because he somehow succeeded in perfecting a longevity treatment based on the tree and extended his own life far into the future. Or is the case that the “present day” Tom is the actual man while the Conquistador and space traveler are merely fictional characters in Izzi’s book. It should be noted that Izzi does tell Tom that her story begins with a Conquistador and ends “out there”, and that would seem to indicate those two sections of the movie are merely illustrations of this fiction within Tom’s imagination. You could then say that the space traveler’s memory of Izzi dying on the hospital bed and appearing as she does to “present day” Tom is just a plot device of Izzi the writer where she inserts herself into the story to make it that much more personal, especially to her most important audience – her husband. And you could back this up by pointing out that his Buddha moment at the end only involves a connection between the space traveler and the Conquistador, no the “present day” Tom. But I’m still not sure. It seems Tom is connected to the other two on a level so visceral (and to be fair, maybe it’s just his emotional instability amidst the death of his wife and a major scientific discovery) that they have to be real – more than just literary reflections of himself.
If you’ve seen the movie, what do you think?
At any rate, because it’s given me pause to consider in a way that many movies don’t, I have to say I’m glad I took a dip in “The Fountain”.