Case File #65: The Fountain

Case File #65: The Fountain

Today was supposed to mark the second and final entry in "Marlon Brando Gone Crazy Week" as I revisited Brando's little-seen, little-loved 1998 direct-to-DVD vehicle Free Money. Instead it marks yet another installment in an ongoing saga I like to call "Aaaaargh! Nathan Rabin Can't Track Down The DVDs He Desperately Needs To Save His Life, Goddamned It To Hell, Fuck, Fuck, Fuck! Why Does God Hate Me?"

As you might imagine, I was unable to find a copy of Free Money despite it resting snugly at the top of my queue at both Netflix and Blockbuster Online for much of the week. I'd like to thank everyone who has suggested video stores in Chicago where I might find my elusive prey, but I'm afraid those referrals unfortunately didn't lead anywhere.

It would be easy for me abuse my position by spreading scurrilous rumors about Blockbuster and Netflix as revenge. But I am far too dignified to suggest that Blockbuster Online's distribution centers are staffed entirely by child slaves or that its profits are used to fund cockfighting rings throughout the greater Tijuana area. I similarly am not going to infer, even in jest, that Netflix slips Anthrax into every third red envelope as a way of keeping customers alert to the ever-looming threat of terrorist attacks.

So instead of writing about Free Money I'm going to be writing about a movie I've had an eye on for a while now: 2006's The Fountain. If this entry seems a little fuzzy, it's probably because The Fountain blew my mind and, like the Low-Fidelity All-Stars, I am now trying to figure out how to operate with a blown mind. I am so not kidding. This is one of those crazy films that does weird and sometimes wonderful things to your brain bone. It's a powerful mood-altering substance undetectable by even the most advanced drug test.

Darren Aronofsky's insanely ambitious, ambitiously insane follow-up to Requiem For A Dream (a stunning, singular, wildly audacious film I very much look forward to never seeing again) began production in 2002 with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett slated for the lead roles and a hefty budget of $70 million. In retrospect, it's hard to imagine Warner Brothers looking at a script this trippy and abstract and thinking, "This looks like a prudent way to spend $70 million." Maybe they figured they could fire Aronofsky right before shooting wrapped and give Hugh Jackman a wisecracking CGI anthropomorphic space monkey named Gleep Glop in post-production to lighten things up and make the film more commercial.

In any case, production was shut down, only to begin again several years later with a different cast and a much smaller budget. The first death of the project would have scared off most directors, but Aronofsky is clearly not one to shrink from a challenge. Aronofsky probably couldn't videotape a nephew's sixth birthday party without transforming it into a visually stunning, viscerally intense exploration of obsession and madness. Getting The Fountain made was clearly a Herculean undertaking, only slightly less ambitious than Jackman's central quest to find the key to eternal life.

An obsessive film about obsession, The Fountain casts Hugh Jackman, all raw nerves and brooding intensity, in a challenging triple role as a lovelorn searcher seeking immortality. The film takes place primarily in the present, as Hugh Jackman Science Guy desperately scrambles to find a cure for beloved wife Rachel Weisz's cancer by experimenting on Rhesus monkeys.

The film flashes elliptically between the present-day Jackman's race for a cure and flashbacks where Jackman's Wolverine The Conquistador searches for the tree of life in "New Spain" at the behest of Weisz's Queen Isabella during the heyday of the Spanish Inquisition (which, it should be noted, no one suspects). The third strand of the story takes place in the distant future, where Jackman–whose shaved head, liquid, graceful movements and unflattering yoga pajamas make him look disconcertingly like Moby in Space– travels on an "ecospheric spacecraft" toward a golden nebula accompanied by a large tree he strokes tenderly and whispers sweet nothings to.

During an early scene where Jackman practices Tai Chi in silhouette against a backdrop of luminous stars, I found myself thinking "Wow, I am way too sober to be watching a movie like this" The Fountain is actually trippier and much more surreal than my bare-bones description suggests. It's driven less by plot or suspense than by mood, ideas, and hypnotic visuals. Indeed, The Fountain could easily have been made into a silent film without losing much in translation.

It's a film suffused with vaginal and birth imagery, full of womb-like dark spaces and protective circles. It's a waking dream of a movie as painfully earnest and unashamedly romantic as a high school sophomore's love letters. As in his previous films, Aronofsky completely eschews protective irony: as far I could tell, there isn't a single joke in the entire film. There's something incredibly refreshing about the film's heroic earnestness. Aronofsky is a true romantic in an age ruled by cynicism and doubt.

Watching The Fountain, I was reminded of Steven Soderberg's similarly underrated remake of Solaris, another haunting sci-fi mood piece about a man willing to travel to the ends of time and space in order to recapture a primal, life-giving connection to the woman he loves. At times, The Fountain suggests both a highbrow, art-film take on the tear-jerking love-that-transcends-time-and-space subgenre that houses What Dreams May Come and Somewhere In Time, and the world's most expensive, pretentious cologne commercial: ("The Fountain. For Men. Only from Calvin Klein."). For all its sci-fi trappings, the film is queasily intimate and personal: I felt like I was somehow stumbling through Aronofsky's subconscious, possibly while wearing Yoga pajamas, while he dozed unaware.

The Fountain gains a strange cumulative power en route to a mind-bending climax I couldn't begin to describe, both because I don't want to ruin it for you and because I don't entirely understand it myself. It's less a film than a grief-choked state of mind, a dreamy meditation on love and loss and death and rebirth and the great grand circle of life. It's an immersive experience that left me feeling both drained and exhilarated.

Beyond sublime imagery and haunting themes, The Fountain is driven by a powerful sense of wonder and awe, two qualities in short supply in studio filmmaking these days. It's a glorious aberration that doesn't look or feel like anything that's come before, including Aronofsky's previous two features. Considering The Fountain's themes it seems poetically apt that the film died a quick death at the domestic box-office yet seems destined for cult immortality all the same.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success