Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

25 January, 2007

The Fountain

2007 has been a good year for me and the cinema. I haven't allowed myself into being conned into seeing a movie based on a comic book hero and that's always a good thing because those movies generally suck big-time. But that problem will rear its ugly head again come summer. Nothing I've watched so far has been uninteresting and made me leave the theatre feeling indifferent. And I have enjoyed everything until this point. My cinema going this month has really been an act of catching up with all those films from last year that take a while to reach Madison because we're not a large market.

The first was The Fountain. It is a tale of love & loss as well as one of bleak sci-fi psychology but it is trifurcated into three parallel stories. The story set in the present day concerns Tom Creo, a researcher who is attempted to cure a monkey of a brain tumor. This could be out of his desire as a scientist to discover new knowledge, but more likely it's because his wife Izzi also suffers from one. Their relationship and Tom's attempt to deal with the impending death of his wife are illuminated by the other two stories. One transforms Tommy into Tomas, a 16th century Spanish conquistador who sets out to kill a Mayan warrior for his queen who just happens to also be Izzi. This storyline comes from a book that Izzi has written and given to Tom. I appreciated that the film was ambiguous about whether these scenes were meant to be those from the book unaltered or whether, since Tom is reading the book, they are meant to be Izzi's story with Tom injecting his own elements into it. The last sees Tom recast as Tommy, an interstellar monk who is traveling towards a nebula that the Mayans called Xibalba. His chosen method of transportation is a giant bubble with a bucolic scene inside that includes a tree before which he meditates.

The three stories are connected by having some version of Tom and Izzi in each but also by things such as tree bark and gold rings. Having only seen the film once and three weeks ago at that, I can tell you that there's more to be had but I need a repeat viewing. Many reviewers have labeled the story as being ridiculous and characterize it as Faustian but I have to admit that I didn't see it that way. Izzi is "at one" with her fate – she has accepted it. But Tom cannot. Since the story is about Tom, it delves deeper into his psyche by splitting it in three parts. An advantage of this is that films have to convey interior mental states visually and I found that the split was effective. While I've never had a wife or girlfriend contract a terminal illness, I did see my father lose my stepmother. Besides her death, the two years prior and the three after forever changed the baggage, the preconceived notions that I bring into a movie theatre with me. Another thing I brought to the table were some ideas from King, Warrior, Magician, Lover by Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette. While I found a lot in the book to be this goofy pseudo-Jungian mumbo jumbo, I do find myself attracted to their general notions about those four elements and their relation to "mature" masculinity. This is why I think of The Fountain as being about gender in a small but significant way. I looked at the triumvirate of Tomas/Tom/Tommy in terms of king, warrior, lover, and magician. Tomas is the warrior who finds himself impotent against a superior power. Tom is the king and lover; the king attempts to order the world in a certain way but it resists while the lover part should be more obvious. Lastly, Tommy the monk is the magician. He is about transformation. Not only has Izzi been transformed into a tree in those scenes but they are also about Tommy being able to transform his life from one with Izzi to one without her.

As I watched Tom try to deal with loss, I immediately thought about my father. Not only did my stepmother die, I watched my father slowly unravel over the course of three years until he died. (If you've never experienced this, then what follows may make no sense so I apologize ahead of time.) His get-up-and-go attitude withered away until it got to the point where he rarely left the house, barely ate, and slept most of the time. He didn't mow the lawn for months at a time and I had to do it when I visited. I remember all the hate he had after my stepmom died. While no one would have accused him of being hyper-gregarious, he became incredibly spiteful of others. I also recall how his intellectual curiosity and his creatively just disappeared. So, when I think about The Fountain, I think of those storylines as representing these strands of Tom that are depleted and I see parallels between them and my dad. The various element's of Tom personality all try to deal with the same problem and they all run up against a wall. The key is Tommy, the bubble guy. He is the magician. If he prevails, this will allow our protagonist to mourn and grieve and then love again. But, if he fails, then it's over.

The ending of the film is quite ambiguous and no one is quite sure what it means. In my view, the magician was successful. If additional scenes in the present day were to be tagged on at the end, we'd see Tom mourn and then get back on the horse. Soon enough he'd be married to another Hollywood hottie. But maybe that's just me.

Unlike most film critics, I really liked The Fountain. It managed to do something to me that very few films do: make me forget. Most of the time when I'm in a theatre, my mind remains cognizant of that fact. No matter how I get into the story, there's still this something in the back of my head that reminds me that I'm in a particular room watching a movie. But with The Fountain, I managed to lose all sense of place for most of the time. My brain realized that it was enjoying a work of fiction but it got so caught up in the story and trying to understand it that it didn't bother to keep track of where it was located. It was one of those rare times when the lights go up and I find myself a bit disorientated. I got sucked in and found a lot to try and wrap my brain around.

I'd also like to say that the cinematography was great and I love the film's style with it's use of gold/amber hues. The soundtrack by Kronos Quartet and Mogwai was very effective as well. It provided great mood and it nudged, rather than forced, emotional cues.

Folks in Madison can still see The Fountain as Market Square on the west side.
|| Palmer, 11:35 AM


Nice review. I really enjoyed The Fountain and found myself thinking about it often in the days following my viewing. Since it's at the cheap theater now, I might as well see it a few more times.
Anonymous Anonymous, at 4:07 PM  

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