Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Death is the Road to Awe

I watched Darren Aronofsky's film The Fountain this afternoon, as a storm rolled in, the winds blew around the house, and the temperature dropped forty degrees from where it had been this morning. From fog to ice in less than twelve hours.

There are quotes from Mayan mythology in the film, which moves across time in three interconnected stories. The film itself works for me because it is poetic and suggestive rather than simplistic and overly explained. Mystery remains. Some things are left open to interpretation. I get out of it a story about confronting death and immortality in various ways: the tree of life; the survival of the soul after death; the survival of the physical body. The film gives meaning via its images—there are so many compositions that echo across all three time periods of the film, in the arrangement of lighting, staircases, shapes, and movement along long corridors—and while the film has a narrative, as cinema seemingly must, the narrative is presented to us non-linearly, breaking across time. You can assemble an idea of memory and imagination by film's end for yourself, but it is not necessary to do so.

The film also discusses life and death across many scales—fractal philosophy?—from the death of the self, to the death of the beloved, to the death of stars. All lead to rebirth, resurrection, and completion: the supernovae of the ekstasis of union and transcendance. But it takes time to accept that death leads to life—that death is the road to awe—and the lead character lives a long, long life fighting against it, till in the end he accepts death, only to be reborn. The film uses repetition, recurrence, and circularity in dialogue and imagery alike to sound echoes across all the film's timeframes, to link them all together, and also to successfully create emotional resonance.

Gold is a color used throughout the film, to symbolize material wealth, and lust of wealth and power. But it is also the color of the alchemical transformation that surrounds the lifegiving of the tree of life, and also the forging of the elements withint the hearts of stars, especially the gold of the nebula that surrounds the dying star at the film's end, which goes nova, creating more new elements in its final moments, and seeding the galaxy with them. The elements that make up our bodies were seeded by exploding suns: we are all made of starstuff, we are all light. The film also goes from dark to light, as the lead character evolves from fear to rejection to acceptance. The final illumination is resplendent.

Most science fiction movie making has devolved into apocalyptic ray guns and martial arts, leaving The Fountain to stand almost alone, in recent SF filmmaking, as a film of ideas, dreams, and philosophy. We need more of these films: ray guns and fight scenes are the stuff of video games, in the end they leave us no wiser and no more richer in ourselves. They are prurient and topical and leave behind them only short-lived thrills. The best science fiction has always been about ideas rather than action: it is a literature of ideas, of speculation, and of action, yes, but action driven by ideas and conceptions rather than simplistic melodrama. We need more ideas in film, and in literature, and less action-movie plotting.

I come to this in the midst of many of my own contemplations about death, dying, life beyond death, and the eternal recurrence. So much resonates. I have my own deaths to talk about; and to rehearse; and to overcome. We go on.

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Blogger J-Chrome said...

I could really keep going on forever about this film and its analysis. But the one thing I wanted to mention was the religious pluralism of the film. In the scenes of the past, there is mainly the battle between polytheism and monotheism. These are battles over the tradition which understands the universe - and death - more accurately. The scenes of the present are only concerned with science, medicine... and perhaps a bit of new age spirituality (maybe Atheism). This is the attempt to overcome death. Then the final scene, which gives us his rebirth... or death, has definite eastern religious references. Hugh Jackman does Tai Chi in the beginning of the movie and then a form of meditation (perhaps Zazen?) right before his death...

I think I resonate more with the Buddhist understanding of death... which is that there is no substantive difference between life and death... which I think is the ultimate conclusion of the film... Everything gets complicated by human emotion and inquiry. I know that when my mother and father pass away an emotional tornado will rip through me... And whenever I see Rachel Weiss in this film I feel very emotional and empathetic... like whenever I listen to Bjork's "Possibly Maybe".

I don't think she does a stellar job as an actress, but not too bad. Hugh Jackman...pffff... he's terrible. I wish he would have been the one to die early and let his wife be the main character of the film.

Yea so I could go on forever and keep digressing but probably couldn't make it wrap all up together as nicely as arranovsky could/did.

i love this movie and i love arranovsky though. Glad that you feel the same way.

11:49 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Thanks for the comments.

I think this film is outside the normal paradigm, in many ways. I've run into a few film critics who seem to have no clue. That usually tells me that the film is in a class or genre of its own. It sometimes takes years for folks to catch up, especially film critics. At some point I want to write more about the film's soundtrack, which is minimalist and stunning, and lingers a long time in my memory.

I disagree with you about the acting, which I think was actually quite good within the paradigm established by the film, but I think the rest of your thoughts are quite insightful.

Thanks for sharing them here.

10:44 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing such a well-said analysis. I recently read an NY Times film critic's review and was disappointed; it seemed like he just didn't get it. The level at which you appreciated and understood the film and articulated its meaning is beautiful.

3:53 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your analysis of the film is meaning full. I will surely watch this film many times more to grasp the ideas .

3:31 AM  
Blogger Jose said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

7:03 PM  
Blogger Jose said...

I find this to be one of the best movies in our era. Every time I view it, I come away with another piece of information, a renewed or new message. The scene where the friar "finds" the temple is just an amazing sequence of flow and plot progression. "Tommy's" discovery of the "cure" when looking at the lamp above, which represents looking into shibulba, is awe inspireing and just right. The three "stories", with the central character (Hugh Jackson), is both mysterious and obvious. IS it the same guy...of course its the same guy...how can it be the same guy?...and amazing effect. His desire to be with his soul mate (the queen, the wife, the all-consuming memory (past-present-future) throughout all the story sequences, is unique (at least in my experience) in story telling. The space ship used in the scenes set in the future is SO amaazing, and so....I find it hard to find words to explain...it is almost as if the writer looks into the future..it combines the past(eastern mysticism), the present(a normal guy with normal wants/desires/needs), and the future all in a single circle that seems a manifestation of the "astronouts" will. The way the hero counts his years of existence with tatoo rings (like the rings in a trees trunk as with the "tree of life" he protects), is just perfect. Even Ellen Burstyn's words at Izzy's funeral are great. I watch this film at least once a month. By far, Hugh Jackson's greatest performance. Critics be damned, this is one HELL of a movie.

7:05 PM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Jose, thanks for the comments. I appreciate them because I think you've given some real insights here.

I agree that it's one of those movies that's like a poem or novel where you get more out of it each time you experience it again. And I think the way you describe how the layers of ideas and images (Xibalba, the tree rings, the lamp, the tattoos) all echo one another is right on target. That sort of "visual rhyme" is a very poetic technique that's perfect for this film, and rather rare in most cinema.

I think you're right that a lot of folks have misunderstood this film, and still do. It really is in a poetic form.

9:47 AM  
Anonymous Usman ur Rehman Ahmed said...

"and the lead character lives a long, long life fighting against it, till in the end he accepts death, only to be reborn."

"The film also goes from dark to light, as the lead character evolves from fear to rejection to acceptance. The final illumination is resplendent."

Sometime you want someone else to express what you are feeling and can't describe it. Thank you for putting this together.

1:02 PM  

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