Toronto Preview! Moriarty Drinks Deep From Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN!!
Published at: Sept. 3, 2006, 9:39 p.m. CST by staff
Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
Acts of faith. Acts of devotion. Acts of love. In Darren Aronofsky's THE FOUNTAIN, these are all the same thing, the acts that connect his characters to something larger. The greatest miracle of this beautiful, human science-fiction story is that he's managed to make a film about infinity that pays full service to the subject while managing to only run 98 minutes. Not many films can blow your mind and break your heart at the same time, but this one will.
This one’s been a long time coming, it feels like, but that’s only because I’ve been covering it since so early in the film’s development. As a result, we’ve been able to follow along here on the site as the film geared up for production with Brad Pitt set to star and Warner Bros. ready to spend somewhere north of $70 million. We also followed along as the film fell apart when Pitt pulled out, and drama erupted behind-the-scenes. It was crushing to observe, and I would imagine that it was exponentially worse for the director, who passionately felt this material and who couldn’t just turn around and walk away from it. He eventually rewrote the script so it could be done for about half the price while still preserving all the ideas that made the project so appealing to him in the first place. Hard process, full of hard choices, but it’s a compromise I wish more filmmakers would be willing to make at times, especially when we’re seeing more and more films push past the $100 million mark for no discernible reason.
And if you’d like to go into the film without knowing a single thing about it... something I’d actually advise... then go ahead and skip the rest of this article until after you’ve seen the film. I won’t be offended.
Okay... now that they’re gone... here’s how it went down. I drove over to Warner Bros., I parked in some parking lot I’ve never used there before, I walked through some building I’ve never been in there before, and I saw it in some tiny (but nice) screening room by myself. Actually, it was me and a Warner Bros publicist, Tiffany. I asked them to crank it so I could really enjoy Clint Mansell’s score, and they certainly did.
Walking out of it afterwards, stepping out of this incredibly dark screening room and this 98 minutes of... magic... it seemed painfully bright. I wanted to run the film again. I didn’t want to step outside yet. I didn’t really want to talk to anyone afterwards, either. I just wanted some time to take it in.
It’s a lesson for me. A thrilling one. Because whatever I thought THE FOUNTAIN would be, it wasn’t. Whatever I’d read and seen, the movie that Aronofsky made is so much more.
My screen saver is THE FOUNTAIN right now, the third one of the group you’ll find under “downloads”. My desktop is THE FOUNTAIN right now, a really high-quality still of Jackman versus the Shaman with the sword of fire in the temple. The movie just sort of rattles around inside me, no matter what else I watch. I see an average of three movies a day right now, and this one ends up being the one I think about every night. And part of what I find so seductive about it is just how simple it is, but how complex it appears.
Stripped of everything else, THE FOUNTAIN is about a woman who is dying, and she's scared of dying, and she handles it by writing a book.
It's not just any book. It's a book for her husband. For her beloved. It's a book that she will give to him unfinished, a book he is supposed to write the ending for, a book that will transform him and his world completely.
The "three different time periods" thing that has always been part of any description of the film is a little misleading. It's a linear story. Sort of. Primarily, it's about this woman. And her book. And his search for the ending. And that's pretty much it. It's so simple. It's such a beautiful love story.
The Conquistador material is the book that she wrote. It's not real. It's fiction. It's them because she wrote it and obviously meant for the characters to be them. There are all sorts of clues about their “real” relationship in the fiction. In the book, Tomas is driven, heroic but ultimately Sisyphean in his attempts to push past the limits of the known world in order to save the woman he loves. In the real world, Tommy is a medical researcher, working on a cancer cure, determined to beat Izzy’s cancer to its conclusion, determined to stop it cold before it can take her. The more driven Tommy becomes, the more desperate the quest of Tomas becomes.
Yeah, but... what about the outer space stuff?
You look at the poster, and it’s just this beautiful surreal spacescape picture, and how does that play into anything else that I’ve described above? How can you incorporate that and have it make any sense?
It’s the most challenging material in the film. It is almost pure image, with very little dialogue during these scenes. Whatever Tommy calls himself at this point, he is alone, so he has no real need for any name. It’s just him, this strange and beautiful tree, and the big cold empty mere inches away on the outside of this bubble. If you expect to have this completely spoon-fed to you, you may leave the theater disappointed. I think all the answers are in the film, and I think it’s fairly simple to follow. If someone dismisses this film with a cursory “weird,” my guess is they weren’t even trying to pay attention. I think this is the most accessible, audience-friendly film that Aronofsky has made so far. By a long shot. I would recommend this to a fan of 2001 or THE MATRIX just as quickly as I would recommend it to a fan of THE NOTEBOOK, and I think both would have an equally rich experience with the movie. To me, all the space stuff is about sacrifice. It’s about keeping a promise. It’s about loving someone enough to never give up on them. Tommy’s haunted at this point, alive for so long and alone for so long that all he has to keep him company are ghosts from his life. Primarily Izzy. She’s constantly having the same conversation with him, trapped in this one moment that Tommy seems to recognize as a turning point, a decision he would take back if he could.
Many of the images that I find myself turning over and over as I think back on the film come from these space sequences. I’ve never heard Darren Aronofsky talk about Terrence McKenna, but it would not surprise me to find out that he’s read McKenna’s work. The way he establishes an actual relationship, even if it is played out on a chemical level, between Tommy and the tree on the ship, is pretty remarkable and brave. As pieces begin to fall together and the big picture of the movie is revealed, these space scenes became the most moving to me. Jackman’s physical transformation is startling, extreme, but it’s not just a stunt. It plays perfectly into the way Tommy’s been affected not only by Izzy’s death, but also by the task she left him, and everything he does is a response to that. One of the key parts of any intimate relationship is the way we are affected by gestures of love or devotion, large and small. In all three of the versions of the relationship between Izzy and Tommy that we see, the gestures add up, and the lack of them matters. When Izzy is dying, Tommy channels so much of himself into his work that there’s nothing left over for her. In his rush to make sure she has more time, he misses the time with her that he should be cherishing. The way Jackman plays that vicious circle, and the way he knows what he’s doing but he can’t stop himself from doing it... wrenching. Devastating. I make sure to spend a certain amount of time doing nothing but paying attention to my family because I know... that adds up. It matters. Jackman’s torn apart over the course of this film, and that’s hard enough to play, but then he’s also healed and made whole once again, in a way that I not only completely believe, but that also feels really personal. Aronofsky’s notion of redemption is beautiful and emotional, but never maudlin.
You know what really breaks my heart about this film? Knowing that he and Weisz just had a child, this film feels like Aronofsky is saying goodbye to his wife at the very start of what I assume (and hope) will be a long and happy life together. In a way, this is a gift. It’s the things you never get to say to someone or about someone until it’s too late, and now they’ve been said. Izzy is a remarkable woman, a lifeforce. And she struggles to make her peace with the idea of dying. The book is part of that. The way she reaches out to Tommy is part of that. And when she finally achieves peace, she’s luminous.
Both Jackman and Weisz are tested here as performers, asked to do things they’ve never done before. Jackman in particular shows us a range in his work that is revelatory. I honestly think this guy can play anything after seeing how he handles the tricky shifts of tone and attitude, and the way he throws his entire physical identity into the role. It’s completely egoless work. This isn’t a typical movie star performance. He doesn’t seem concerned with being “cool” in the film. Instead, even in the most outrageous moments of the film, he reaches for something grounded and real. I’m sure most of the conversations about this film will start with Jackman’s work. Great as it is, I think it would unfair if it overshadowed what the textured, mature work that Weisz does. This is a tricky role to play. It could be cloying. It could be gooey. Aronofsky’s sensibilities are such, though, that Izzy comes across as a real person, not a fading saint.
Cinematographer Matthew Libatique has been turning out some of the most consistently interesting work right now on movies like INSIDE MAN, EVERYTHING IS ILLUMINATED, and, of course, Aronofsky’s earlier films. He takes a lot of mainstream jobs in between the films where you can really see his artistry on display, but this one is a chance for him to really show what he’s capable of. Libatique’s an alchemist, turning light into gold, and his precise, beautiful work in this film elevates it across the board. It’s really hard to believe this film cost what it did, because Libatique gives it an epic feel even in the most intimate moments. Clint Mansell’s score would be a sensational piece of music even divorced from the imagery in the film, and I’m sure I’ll be playing that CD on endless loop as soon as it’s been released, but the way it works with the images is nothing short of perfect. Mansell underscores the emotional journey that Tommy takes without hammering the audience. He enhances, but never overwhelms. As much as I love the REQUIEM FOR A DREAM score, the way Mansell uses Mogwai and the Kronos Quartet to perform the score is inspired, and surprisingly moving.
In the end, that’s the thing that sticks with me about the film. We live in a cinematic age right now where dazzling visuals aren’t just commonplace, they’re expected. Special effects are used on even the most routine films to add some sort of eye candy. Anyone can buy a certain amount of “wow” for their film if they hire the right digital house.
But what Aronofsky gets right here is the humanity, the purpose behind those images. When we see the spacescapes as we travel towards the dying Xibalba nebula, they are dazzling, but there’s more to it. I thought it was just an interesting stylistic choice to use the microphotography of Peter Parks to represent the starfields, a chance to do something visually different. But I think it goes deeper than that. This film is ultimately about the big questions: what happens to us when we die? Where do we go? What do we become? Should we be afraid, or is this something to be embraced and even welcomed? By using actual photography of chemical processes so small they cannot be seen by the naked eye to represent an astrological phenomenon so large it can be seen from millions of light-years away, Aronofsky ties the universe together in a circle, just as Izzy’s death leads to another life, just as Tommy’s ultimate fate is no ending at all. There is such unspoken beauty in the final ten minutes of this film that I found myself twisted in two emotional directions at once: sorrow for the pain that Tommy deals with and joy at the release that he finally earns. It is a triumphant film, a film that has something on its mind and something in its heart, and a film that will exist and impress and inspire long after any silly awards season is over. Don’t get hung up on the little shit with this one. Don’t worry about awards or box-office in the short term. THE FOUNTAIN was built to last, and all that time it took to get here was worth the wait. Aronofsky has earned the right to go anywhere from here, and I for one will follow.
Gotta go finish this week’s DVD column now, and then work on a special DVD SHELF review of two of this week’s best discs, both from the same studio in the same year. Fun stuff, so until then...