Friday, June 29, 2007

The Tattooed Heart

Tom Verde (Hugh Jackman) stands next to the Tree, counting the hundreds of tattoo-rings around his arms that mark his life--one that shines and fades, three times, with the light of moon-phases shot through gold and milky sap--and each is shadowed with forgetfulness. He has lived through centuries of loss without reconciliation, and needs monumental urging to finish and be done.

Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain (2006) is easy to dismiss--J. Hoberman is particularly snarky-eloquent:

"Solemn, flashy, and flabbergasting, The Fountain--adapted by Darren Aronofsky from his own graphic novel--should really be called The Shpritz. The premise is lachrymose, the sets are clammy, and the metaphysics all wet. The screen is awash in spiraling nebulae and misty points of light, with the soundtrack supplying appropriately moist oohs and aahs."

This is his first paragraph. I suppose it's rhetorically proper for him to support these assertions, but the rest of the review simply continues to sneer; there's nothing, it seems, in either Aronofsky's movie or Hoberman's review that is necessary. Both, one could argue, simply make a lot of noise.

There is a moment--noticed, as I checked, by other internetters--lifted shot-by-shot from Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (1952). His morose bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) has just found out he has stomach cancer. He walks along a silent city street, past a construction site--a shower of sparks fly--and into the street, where he is almost run over by a truck--and at that moment the sounds of the world crash out, like a switch thrown. In The Fountain it is Tom walking from the hospital and his cancer-victim wife (Rachel Weisz), and the scene is repeated in every detail. Aronofsky, then, makes a film about immortality and necessary death that itself has a long life, stretching along the--yes, lachrymose--trail left by movies that share its concerns. And so comparisons with 2001: A Space Odyssey are inevitable--and in some ways unfortunate--but not entirely inaccurate nor off-putting. I have also recently watched once more Steven Soderbergh's 2002 remake of Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972), another movie that approaches both Aronofsky and Kubrick--which in turn hearken to any number of experimental, non-narrative films made in the decades before.

So for me the first step toward accepting The Fountain was in its own willingness to become a part of the long march through oft-repeated themes and visual tropes. Beyond that, however, are its graphic novel sensibilities, eager to cut from scene to scene, the sheer experience of sequence equaling "narrative": first we see this, then that, then the next--and we make connections, many of them visual. This film works for the viewer only if each scene does; and the scenes themselves make sense only in their relationship to the one that precedes and the one that follows. The particulars of character and plot fell away for me--I was satisfied with the mere repetition of certain lines ("Finish it," "Together we will live forever," and, most anticipatory, "Death is the road to awe") and images.

And it is mostly in the images that this film compels us to supply meaning, from the Tree itself, to the various incarnations of Jackman's character, to Rachel Weisz's face. And the road to the city, the interior of the nebula, the lights in houses and labs, all move in each major sequence (past, present, future) to imply an arc that moves very simply--from doubt to faith, from anger to acceptance. To step among such archetypal goings-on, one must abandon all malice. Admittedly, this is a supremely self-indulgent film; but, I confess, so are most of my favorites, from Nosferatu (1922) and Citizen Kane (1941) to Eraserhead (1977) and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), as well as the films of Guy Maddin and the Brothers Quay and Jan Svankmejer, and the silent collages of Joseph Cornell. Together such filmmakers play (to steal a Maddin title) the saddest music in the world--and also ask us to forgive each other--and the filmmakers, of course--for loving such self-indulgence, all of us guilty in our pleasures, but rewarded. Aronofsky made an ambitious collage, one fraught with the perils of its own extravagance, but in the end as beautiful as a starlit night--speaking of which, one more lengthy quotation, a curative to Hoberman, another bit of beautiful excess and sky-gazing reconciliation, this one from G. M. Hopkins:

"Look at the stars! look, look up at the skies!
O look at all the fire-folk sitting in the air!
The bright boroughs, the circle-citadels there!
Down in dim woods the diamond delves! the elves’-eyes!
The grey lawns cold where gold, where quickgold lies!
Wind-beat whitebeam! airy abeles set on a flare!
Flake-doves sent floating forth at a farmyard scare!"

If you can put up with that, The Fountain shouldn't be much of a problem. The trick is to let it be itself, not the poem or movie or whatever you wanted it to be.

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